How Exercise Empowered Carolyn Jessop

Think you have a good excuse to skip the gym? Carolyn Jessop was forbidden to go to the gym by her then-husband, Merril Jessop, one of the most powerful leaders of the extremist Mormon sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). Read on for her story:

It’s impossible to think of transforming your life and leaving your body behind. That sea of pastel dresses I waded through at the Salt Lake City court house reminded me of how alienated FLDS women are from their bodies, which are nothing but baby machines. The prairie-style clothing desexualized them and made them all look the same. Individuality is dangerous in a cultish world. That’s why when a small group of us started going to a Curves fitness center, we did it in total secrecy.

I never thought I’d want to add exercise to my to-do list. After Bryson was born, I was tired to the bone. My mother started to help me care for Harrison two days a week because she saw how worn out I was. Because Brycie was premature, I was breastfeeding him on demand while caring for Harrison and my six other children. My exhaustion was as overwhelming as it was unrelenting, but after a few months my two most vulnerable children were stabilizing.

One night when I went to pick up Harrison from my mother’s, my cousin Lucy bounded into the room in leggings and a Curves T-shirt. I was shocked. Lucy had been at least one hundred pounds overweight her entire life and had finally had gastric bypass surgery. I couldn’t believe she dared to dress so provocatively.

“Oh, I just got back from working out, and I haven’t changed my clothes yet,” she said.

“You wear that when you work out?” I asked.

“I have to. It’s impossible to use the machines wearing a skirt.”

Lucy’s attitude was contagious. She felt good about herself and was not at all embarrassed by the way she looked or dressed. Meanwhile I was so distressed and unhappy that I couldn’t imagine ever feeling or looking that carefree.

“Do you want to come with me to work out? Several of us are going regularly now,” Lucy said.

“I’ve never been to a gym before,” I said. “I don’t know how I’d like it. Don’t you get tired?” I couldn’t risk doing anything that might add to my exhaustion.

“No way!” Lucy said. “It’s just the opposite. It gives you more energy and helps you feel better. Besides, it’s a lot of fun. If you’re able to come three out of four times each week, you’d be getting the recommended workout.”

“Let me think about it,” I said.

I checked around and realized that I might be able to get enough help with Harrison’s care to go to Curves. Doing something forbidden appealed to me, but I could not afford to get caught. Merril would come down hard on me for such blatant rebellion. I started going three times a week. At first I didn’t say much to the other women who traveled in the van with me because I didn’t want anyone to know I was sneaking out without permission. But gradually, as we began to chat, bits of information slipped out, and I soon realized that several of the others didn’t have their husbands’ permission either.

Lucy was an anomaly in the FLDS; she genuinely loved her husband, whom she called her “lord and master.” Lucy had long-standing issues with obesity, which in the FLDS made her a less desirable wife to the more powerful men. Although he was born into generational polygamy, her husband didn’t come from a powerful family. We always thought this was why the FLDS let her marry him when she’d asked; her husband was a good worker, and the cult wanted to keep him. Not only was he handsome, but he was a very decent guy who gave Lucy permission to go to Curves for health reasons in the aftermath of her gastric bypass surgery. A few other women in our group also had the blessing of their more liberal husbands, who liked the idea that their wives wanted to look good.

Going to Curves was like going to a party three times a week. The nearly hour-long round trip gave us time to talk in the van. Such opportunities were rare; several of us had been so busy in the past ten years that we hardly even saw each other. But after a few trips to the gym, our conversation deepened, and we discussed areas in our lives that were not working. For most of us, the big concern was the way our husbands treated us. Few of us were happily married or felt our lives were working out. Lucy’s marital contentment was a novelty.

A few women believed the party line of the FLDS, that if a woman abides by the will of her husband, her happiness is guaranteed. But others among us were expressing frustrations. Even the women who had permission to go to Curves wanted it kept secret from the FLDS. If we were seen and reported, our husbands could be put in an uncomfortable position because they’d allowed us to engage in such utter nonsense. Those men could be interrogated about why their wives had encouraged other women to rebel against their husbands.

Curves was a symbol of just how cruel our world had become: in order to exercise for half an hour a few times a week, we had to act like secret agents.

But the men were onto something: exercise is dangerous. Once women start getting control over their bodies, they think about getting control over their lives. After a woman loses fifteen pounds and likes the way she looks, having that ninth or tenth child is less appealing. Getting in touch with her body puts her in touch with other areas of her life, like sexuality. Women who claimed sexual power were as threatening to the FLDS as women who claimed any other power. We weren’t supposed to have sexual needs; we were merely the breeding stock that kept the cult replenished.

Curves was in Hurricane, a small town outside the FLDS community. We were at high risk of being seen there because a lot of FLDS went there to shop, do business, and eat. So when we pulled up to the gym, we established a lookout. Before we left the van, the scout checked to make sure the coast was clear. We all wore leggings under our skirts, so in the parking lot we removed our skirts. This was an ungodly act. Once we had our skirts off, we waited until the lookout said “Run!” and raced to the door.

Safely inside the gym, we acted like everyone else. We talked, laughed, enjoyed the music—a plea sure forbidden in the FLDS—and worked out on the machines. No one would have thought we were risking anything. We were discovering the real power of women free to be themselves.

We talked mostly to each other and avoided people who were not from our insular world. After the workout was over, we got ready to leave and waited. This was a critical moment because there could only be one dash to the van. When the signal was given, we ran for our lives. In my nearly fifteen years of marriage to Merril, this was the most outrageous act I’d ever committed…

I had started exercising because it sounded like fun. I’d never worked out to music or on machines before. And before long I lived for the days when I could sneak out to go to Curves. Exercise was a healthy way to rebel; it gave me a physical outlet for my feelings. Before Curves I’d thought that nothing good could happen if I left my comfort zone. Now I saw that things might, in fact, get better. I felt stronger not only physically but also mentally. My view of the world was expanding, and so was my confidence. Unbelievably, a mere half hour of exercise, three times a week, was transforming my mood and boosting my energy. Eight babies in fifteen years had ravaged me. The idea of feeling powerful in my body was something I didn’t know existed.

As I lost a little weight, I liked the way I looked and began to care more about what I ate. Starting to feel in control of my body made me think I could be more assertive in other areas. The more in control I felt, the less I was willing to let myself be controlled. No wonder the men in the FLDS didn’t want their wives working out! I was breaking free in small steps. I no longer even cared if I was caught going to Curves. Much of my life continued to march along on the same path, day by endless day, but at least now I turned my eyes to the sky more often. I also began to see how I’d collaborated in digging my own rut. My reluctance to venture out of my comfort zone and experience something new had kept me firmly in my place.

Getting out of a rut can take a long time, but the beginning is simple: Do something you wouldn’t typically do. Take a risk. Expand your world in some small way. The FLDS put limits on every aspect of my life, but after I escaped I realized that I had been limiting myself with my need to stay safe, to avoid risks. Unless I challenged myself to do things that made me feel uncomfortable (at least initially), I’d never fit into my new, unfamiliar world. I needed to change.


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  1. […] How Exercise Empowered Carolyn Jessop | Books for Better LivingSep 3, 2011 … Books for Better Living: How Exercise Empowered Carolyn Jessop. […]

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