Keeping up with Michelle Obama
Catherine Meurisse

Catherine Mallette ’84 is the features editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.  

In early December, I watched President Obama’s news conference announcing his decision to send more troops into Afghanistan.  

I started thinking about how the year was going for our highest elected official, about his health-care reform ideas and such, and then my mind began to wander and I was thinking for the 214th time about how great Michelle Obama ’85 looked at the inauguration last January. I am talking, of course, about her arms — long, strong, sinewy, sexy things without even the slightest hint of “batwing.”  

God, I was jealous.  

I thought some more about our first lady, and the more I thought, the more I realized she and I have a lot in common:

She’s got two kids and a busy schedule. Hey, I’ve got two kids and a busy schedule! She lives in the White House, and I live in a white house! She wears gloves from J. Crew, and I have boots from J. Crew! She went to Princeton, and I went to Princeton!  

Really, the similarities were startling. We were practically the same person.  

But she did have one thing I didn’t have: a personal trainer. So while her husband was calling for increased troops, I de­cided to have my own call to arms. The next day, I contacted a trainer and enlisted her to help me take my biceps and triceps from Jell-O to Michelle O.  

The arms race was on. At 5:30 a.m. the next Tuesday, Shawna Gibson began drilling me. “How old are you?”  

“Forty-seven, but I’ll be 48 in a few weeks.”  

“You’re 48,” she said, jotting it down. So, it was going to be like that, eh?  

But then I decided she was doing me a favor. This might put me in an “easier” group. After all, the average 48-year-old is expected to be a notch less fit than the average 47-year-old because she’s statistically closer to death, right?  

Shawna interrupted my mental justifications. “Do you drink?” she asked.  

“I have wine every day.”  

“Not any more,” she said.  

My notes from that first meeting are sketchy. Here’s what I heard: You can have one glass of wine a few times a week. You must do 35 to 45 minutes of cardio four times a week. When you do cardio, you’ll interval-train with a heart-rate monitor. Work out with me once a week, and strength-train on your own twice a week. And: “Eat protein. I carry a jar of peanut butter in my car.”  

I began imagining how my co-workers would look at me if I kept a jar of Jif on my desk and dug into it during meetings, licking it from my finger, catlike.  

Then Shawna began attacking me with her calipers and declared: “You’re skinny-fat.” I’d never heard that term before, but it was like someone had fired a shot at me. I was ready to fight back.

On my second workout with Shawna, I was lying on a bench with 12-pound weights, trying to do punches. She had told me to grab three sets of free weights: 12, 10, and 8 pounds. I was to do 12 reps of chest presses with the heaviest weights, then 12 fly presses, then 12 punches. Then I’d have to start over and do the whole thing again. Twice.  

By the second round, I was seriously struggling. I thought to myself: “You are trapped in a manhole. Water is climbing up, and you will drown if you cannot reach up and punch that cover off.”  

I closed my eyes and put every ounce of energy into lifting my right arm. “You can do it,” I told myself. “You can do it.”  

I couldn’t do it. Shawna took the weight away while I drowned in my mythical manhole.  

And so it went for the first month of weekly workouts with Shawna. As much as I dreaded knowing that I was going to be chugging ibuprofen the next day, her workouts never were dull. Clearly, I was developing Stockholm syndrome. (I wondered: Would that be covered in a public health-care plan?)  

On the six days each week that I didn’t work out with Shawna, I lived in fear of not being prepared for her next class. I ratcheted up my cardio routine. In the past, I’d run twice a week for two and a half miles; now, I’d do even more.  

I didn’t have a heart monitor, so I devised a slightly less-sophisticated system. Basically, I’d run until I felt like my lungs were about to collapse, and then I’d walk until I didn’t feel like calling 911.  

On strength-training days without my trainer, I’d go to the YMCA and repeat the free-weight routine. On my birthday, two weeks and two days after struggling with the 12/10/8-pound weights, I made it through the same routine using 15/12.5/10s. It wasn’t like capturing Osama bin Laden, but it was a small victory, and it was all mine.  

In my third week of training, I found a book: Totally Toned Arms: Get Michelle Obama Arms in 21 Days by Rylan Duggan. One paragraph grabbed my attention: “‘Soft arms’ is a term I use to describe arms that, although not too big or very saggy, lack firmness, tone and definition. This is often referred to as the skinny-fat syndrome.”  

So skinny-fat was yet another syndrome. (Would that be covered in a public health-care plan?)  

As I write this, I’m halfway through my 12-week fat-to-fit insurgency program. I’ve never worked out harder in my life. I’ve lost a whopping two pounds. Yes, two.  

But there are enough signs of progress to keep hope alive. I’m running 14 miles a week. I’ve worked my way up to 20/15/12.5- pound weights on that blasted routine.  

True change, as we all know, takes time. It’s like raising polite kids. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a kid parrot “Yes, ma’am” to the cashier at Target and then mouth off to his mother on the way back to the parking lot, I would be a rich woman indeed.  

Or maybe not.  

Maybe I’d spend all that money on a full-time trainer. And, of course, ibuprofen.

A longer version of this article appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.