Athlete Turned Farmer: A Grounded Body Image


Laurie and Debbie say:

AC Shilton was a journalist and competitive triathlete. Now she’s a farmer. In her essay for Outside, “How Farming Saved My Body Image,” she tells a moving and honest story of how her body image has changed:

I spent years in a deep embrace with endurance sports. First I ran. Then I did triathlon. Then I raced bikes. Then back to triathlon again. Along the way, I developed a serious eating disorder. I’m nearly six feet tall and had ducked under 100 pounds when, at 20, my father staged an intervention. I got treatment. I got better.

In a sane world, endurance sports would encourage their participants to be strong, muscular, and healthy, but apparently that isn’t what happened to Shilton and her cohort. “Running, cycling, and triathlon are sports that celebrate the knife-edge between fitness and thinness—doing the most you can with the very least.”

Farming, she says, is another story:

…producing my own food is the hardest endurance sport I’ve ever done. No level of training compares to the day-after-day-after-day grind of wrestling food from the earth.

Today I don’t care so much how my body looks as long as it performs as the tool I need it to be. Brute strength is the thing I crave most. Maybe it helps that I’m not wearing spandex every day. Maybe it helps that I’m no longer playing the who-can-throw-away-most-of-their-dinner game that plagued many cycling-team camps that I attended. Maybe it helps that I fought bean beetles and powdery mildew to produce most of the calories on my plate. Or maybe I’m just too tired to care about sucking in my belly as I build a fence.

Shilton does not acknowledge all the levels of privilege that go into her story. Not only did she and her husband have the means to buy the farm she works, she also clearly has an athlete’s genes and extraordinary health. At 34, she isn’t just privileged over disabled people and old people, she’s also privileged over people with perfectly functional bodies, because most people simply don’t have the combination of genetic and personality traits, let alone the passion, it takes to push yourself to the limits she loves. Her story would be richer if she took her luck into account.

What sets her essay apart from so many is the clear way she connects her completely real and grounded physical work to her body image. While competitive running, bicycling, and triathlons are constructed activities, designed to push bodies to the limit for the purpose of pushing bodies to the limit, the kind of farming she does (and millions of people around the world do) is a necessary activity that by its nature pushes bodies to the limit for the purpose of feeding people.

The most astonishing thing about life on a farm is that I’ve stopped thinking about calories altogether. This is quite possibly because I’m too busy to think about them. I’m up at 5 A.M. to exercise the horses. Then I feed our various critters—cats, dogs, aforementioned horses, and soon chickens and goats. I clean stalls, move manure to our compost pile, and, if I’m lucky, sneak a cup of coffee in somewhere. I sit for a few hours of freelance-writing work and then head back outside. Afternoons and evenings are spent rebuilding barns or pulling dumped concrete blocks out of the stream. Some days I get in a run before it’s time to feed the animals again. And this is just my winter routine. In summer, we also pull weeds, pick bugs off plants, and harvest whatever has come into season.

Once she committed herself to the farm, the rest is not voluntary, it’s essential. Her body is deeply engaged, with her mind and her heart, in creating something. She doesn’t have to compare herself to other athletes at the end of a race: instead, she can look at the food on the table and her whole self knows “I made that happen.” When you have the opportunity,  the ability, and the desire to live that way, body image obsession fades in relation to “we grow food for people to eat?”