Women have different friends for different parts of our lives. We have 'mom friends' for advice and comfort about parenting; we have what I call 'ancient friends,' whom we've known forever; we have 'work friends' and we have friends we only see as couples; there are trusted BFFs who hold our deepest secrets, and 'everyday friends' for the proverbial cups of sugar. There's also a category of friendships for women you see only for specific activities, like theater or volunteer work, Girl Scouts or, in my case, running.

Exercise and Friendship

My friend and I are like synchronized swimmers. Our pace, our breathing, our arm swings, all align as if we choreographed it. This is why we're perfect together. She says she doesn't even like me that much! But we move in perfect sync and we motivate each other to do this thing we don't want to do, together.

We don't speak much at first. We don't speak at all when we jog. No small talk. Nothing about the weather. We meet. We nod. We move our bodies for one full hour. We're done.

Women on the Move

We are practical, busy, overwhelmed midlife working, mothering women who, for whatever reason, are a perfect match for this one part of our lives. We depend on each other. We never cancel. We don't make excuses. We don't judge. We don't compete. It's not a moral issue, this moving our bodies. It's practical. As women of a certain age, our bodies are already moving in upsetting directions against our will. This is our best option for averting complete disaster. Or at least holding it at bay for a while.

Three days a week we run together. The rest of the week I run alone, and she either runs or does Zumba. I cannot abide Zumba. I cannot abide anything when I exercise. No people. No flailing arms. No human interaction. Except my partner. Together we do our thing: Silent. Steady. Slow.

So it was a surprise on a recent morning when she announced she will no longer exercise alone, that either we had to add another day or two, or she'd have to go to Zumba more often.

Why? I asked.

"Because people constantly comment on me while I'm running and I'm sick of it," she said.

What do they say?

"Well, yesterday I was jogging along the lake and this tubby guy pushing a stroller, walking with his wife, passed me and yelled really loud: 'It gets easier!! Keep going!!' And I was like, dude, you're so much fatter than I am - why do YOU feel the need to encourage ME to exercise? He was like the before guy on The Biggest Loser and he's looking at ME thinking I'm so fat I need HIS encouragement?"

"That's totally annoying and rude," I said.

She continued: "Last week, I was jogging again and this totally super-fit guy who looked like a personal trainer-kind of person was walking his golden retriever by me on the sidewalk. He looks me right in the eye and says: 'You're doing GREAT. Keep at it!' And again, I'm like, why do you think I need your support?? Do I look so miserable? Does the sight of me moving forward defy all rules of physics somehow that people feel compelled to say something?"

She asked if people say anything to me when I jog alone and I had to admit, no, not a word.

Encouragement or Insult?

We considered our appearance. We are both midlife women of a certain age, with bodies that have dutifully served us well in childbearing and all its attendant vagaries, pulled brutally downward by gravity. We're both pretty. She's a little older with shorter hair and a heroic bust. We both wear black yoga-ish outfits that hide the full extent of our, um, outer selves.

I wondered if it was because we look so different when we run: She lifts her head high, keeps her eyes wide, her face loose and open, juts out her considerable chest and seems to embrace the world with a soft expression. With her stride, she lands hard on her heels, pushing outward toward the world.

'I run like a troll'

I run like a troll. I keep my head down, my face scrunched in a tight, squinty, pinched scowl, shoulders pitched forward. I lurch and push off from the top, front part of my foot, rather than the heel. Add to this incredibly attractive portrait, that I run clutching two old-school metal 3-pound dumbbells.

I suggested that her running look is open, welcoming, eager for support, while mine is, well, menacing and clearly not looking for any human interaction at all.

She thought that might be the case. But still, the sideline well-wishers have broken her spirit, she said.

Leave Us Alone!

This makes me incredibly sad. A gal of a certain age and body and mind should be free to exercise in public without inspiring public comment. So, public, on behalf of all the midlife women just trying to keep body and soul together, if you see us exercising out there, running, jogging, walking, strolling - and you truly want to support us: Just silently smile as we pass by.

About the Author

Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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