There is no such thing as fit-shaming (see also: reverse racism, misandry)

There are few things on the internet that I find more tiresome than privileged people “taking down” a movement for marginalized people because they haven’t been given enough deference.

We see it all the time. Black Lives Matter is bad because it doesn’t cater to white people’s fragility. Feminism is bad because it doesn’t centre men and give them cookies for being non-awful human beings. Queer liberation movements are mean because they don’t praise straight people for not being homophobes. And on and on ad infinitum. If these movements would just be nicer they would have allies galore!

Because, of course, your commitment to justice is predicated on how nicely you’re asked and whether your bullshit is called out or not.  Continue reading “There is no such thing as fit-shaming (see also: reverse racism, misandry)”

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Quick Book Review: Why Diets Make Us Fat

51vhzejjbl-_sx329_bo1204203200_Okay, I’m not super wild about the title–not because I think fatness is bad, but because I think it plays into our cultural view of fat as a pejorative–and the book could use a little more intersectionality (though there is some), but otherwise, I highly, highly recommend it. It’s thoroughly researched, rigorously cited, and presents mountains of evidence I was unfamiliar with that have completely convinced me that calories in/calories out is laughably simplistic, that long-term weight loss is like a unicorn, and that the best things we can do for ourselves is find movement we like, eat nourishing foods, and not restrict.

All things I knew and agreed with politically, but had lingering “but what about”s that would pop up and fuck with my brain. Continue reading “Quick Book Review: Why Diets Make Us Fat”

Learning Crow/Unlearning Culturally Imposed Limitations

Picture borrowed from here.

As I’ve talked about before, I spent much of my life unembodied, learning to distrust both my instincts and my abilities–an experience I think is very common especially (but not only) for women. Growing up both fat and female I internalized a lot of so-called truths about my body that I failed to question (hell, I didn’t know I could question them) and instead integrated them as my own truths. Truths such as women’s innate weakness*, body size as a stand-in for fitness** and worth*** and the idea that I was barred from certain joyful pursuits unless and until I achieved some mythical size that my has no hope of achieving.

Over the past year or so I have decided to test those culturally- (and self-) imposed limitations to see how many of them are actually real. Despite spending some time lifting and getting used to the idea of moving heavy things with merely my body, I still hung on to some ideas I just couldn’t shake. The idea that I’ll never do a full pushup, the idea that I am too weak and too heavy to do a handstand. This was grounded in two fundamental truths: women are inherently weaker when it comes to upper body strength and that I weigh too much to be able to hold my weight with just my arms.

Turns out these two fundamental truths are a load of limiting tripe. While it may be true that most women are inherently weaker than most men, who cares? (And, for a quick digression, how are we measuring this? One rep max? One rep max lifted after an equal number of years spent lifting, being taught good form and not having to fight years of socialization to pick up weights heavier than five pounds? Percentage of bodyweight lifted?**** Something, anything, that begins to attend to the profound cultural disadvantage women, as a group, have in building strength?) What matters is how strong my arms are and how much I trust them. Period. It doesn’t matter how strong they are compared to the dude in the squat rack curling away (seriously, stop that). Or how strong they are compared to the guy who’s never spent a day in the gym but hauls hay every day. Or even how strong they are compared to my yoga teacher with cut biceps and a six pack. What matters is how strong they are, how far I push them, and how I trust them.

Which brings me to my second limiting truth. I had this capital-t Truth that I was too weak and too heavy to do these amazing things I wanted to do: crow pose, handstands. But here’s the thing, forty pounds ago, when I was at a weight I feel more comfortable at, I was also too weak and too heavy to try. And probably, had I weighed forty pounds less (which some people do but my body sure as hell isn’t meant to) I would have still been too weak and too heavy to try. Not even to do, just to try. Because I bought into these myths wholeheartedly. Women are weak (why do we hear “most women are inherently weaker in upper body strength compared to most men” and rewrite it to “women are weak?”) and only teeny tiny women get to do the fun stuff.

So I just never tried. But in the past few months I’ve decided fuck that noise. I may be at a disadvantage compared to some people smaller and stronger than me. I may never achieve exactly what I want to do, but I sure won’t if I don’t try.

And so I’ve tried. And tried. And today I held crow for longer than I’ve ever held it (a record-breaking six seconds which, let me tell you, is a LONG time when you’re holding your entire weight on your hands). And yesterday I held a handstand for 7 seconds. A HANDSTAND. Something I thought was relegated to memories of childhood.

I am still heavier and larger than everyone you see in yoga magazines. I am still fighting the limitations that make these poses hard, but it turns out 95% of those limitations are mental. And if I trust my body to hold me and keep doing it a little more each day, I can do some amazing things. (I can also, as I learned going for 10 seconds in crow, land right on my face. Turns out learning how to get up after falling is a big part of learning how to do.)

*Bollocks

**Fucking bollocks

***Toxic fucking bollocks

****When measured this way women are actually a hell of a lot stronger than we’ve been taught to believe ourselves.

Don’t Listen To Me, I’m Just Some Lady On The Internet

If you are someone who uses the internet to look at recipes, or workouts, or workout gear, or seek workout inspiration, or diet info, or pretty much anything targeted toward women you’ve seen them. Tonnes of them. Life coaches; holistic coaches; health coaches; health and wellness coaches; holistic health and wellness coaches; holistic health, wellness, and life coaches.

And if you’re anything like me, when you see that in their “about” section you think to yourself “hmmm. What the fuck does that actually mean??”

See, anyone can call themselves a coach. Watch this: I’m a feminist blogger coach. Boom! Now to do some social media marketing…

Now, I truly believe that all of these various coaches are well-meaning. They feel like they’ve figured something out and they want to share that with the world. Often, it seems, they have overcome (whether fully or partially) a disordered relationship with food and want to share that newfound freedom with others. That is commendable and lovely. It is also really, really worrying to me.

First, my observations about coaches: they are almost always middle-class white ladies who are dissatisfied with the jobs available to them and wanting to both help others and be their own bosses. I can dig that. I’m a white lady who is just about to squeak into the middle-class with the start of a new job (and I was raised culturally, if not always financially, middle-class). I am often dissatisfied with the jobs available to me and would be happy to be my own boss. I am also committed to helping people. I get it. (I also think this can be tied to the neoliberalization of health–in short, it eschews regulation, mandatory training, and any kind of job stability or benefits while putting the onus for health on the individual in very visible ways (health coaches are pretty much always thin, conventionally attractive white women)–but that’s a post for another day.)

But here’s where I have a huge concern with coaches. Anyone can be a coach. There is no legal restriction on who can be a coach. There is no regulatory body that ensures all coaches are certified. And then there’s that question…certified in what? There are lots of health coaching certifications. They seem to span from a weekend to months. But, to paraphrase some graphic novel I haven’t read, who certifies the certifiers (sorry)? What does it actually mean to be a certified health coach? Who are you capable of responsibly and ethically working with?

I’ve worked in the anti-violence movement for a long time. I have been a victim support worker. I have a masters degree that focused on the intersections of mental health, physical health, and policy. What I’m saying is, I know a lot about mental health, I know a lot about how to support people who have experienced horrifically traumatic events. I have a lot of training and even train others. But I am not a counsellor. I am not a psychologist. There is a whole lot of mental health stuff that I am not qualified to do and it would be unethical for me to do it.

And that’s what concerns me. I recently read an article by a health and wellness coach who specializes in treating eating disorders. Red flags started shooting up left and right for me. Trained and registered therapists (psychologists, clinical counsellors, clinical social workers) need years and years of specialized training in order to be able to work with people with eating disorders. They also have their own clinical supervision which ensures they are not only providing good, competent, ethical care, but they they themselves are mentally healthy enough to be working with clients. I have seen far too many health and wellness coaches who seem to have their own unresolved eating disorders putting that skewed information out into the ether (and, presumably, into their clients’ lives) and that is profoundly worrying to me.

Therapy is not one-size-fits all, and it’s certainly not a perfect field. But it is backed up by rigorous training, it’s well regulated, and it has a lot of academic literature to support the efficacy of many modalities. If I want to visit a clinical counsellor I can check with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors and ensure that she is registered with them, which means she has at least a Master’s degree in an approved field, has references which speak to her abilities as a counsellor, has completed a 100 hour practicum, has a broad base of skills and knowledge, and has pledged to follow a strict ethical code.

Whereas someone who lists themself as a life coach or health and wellness coach could have some kind of certification or none. And if they do have a certification it’s quite difficult to find out what that actually entails (I’ve tried). And, unlike with a registered clinical counsellor or psychologist, they have a lot of leeway in what they do. An RCC or psychologist has bounds they can’t step outside of–they can’t start giving you dietary advice or prescribing workouts, or any number of things–while a health coach can tell you pretty much anything they want to, regardless of the efficacy, safety, and sanity of their recommendations.

Now, this isn’t to slag off every “coach” out there. As I said, I think they are well-intentioned and truly want to help people. And sometimes having a facebook page or blog that focuses on movement that feels good and mostly whole foods is just what you need for motivation and inspiration. But I think it gets into dicier territory when money starts exchanging hands and recommendations are being given.

But don’t listen to me, I’m just some lady on the internet.

The Problem With (The Problem With) The Quantified Self Movement

For whatever reason, perhaps because it’s that time of the year and I know many fitness-minded people, I keep coming across articles about the Quantified Self Movement (briefly: the movement towards collecting your own health data whether it’s steps counted with your fitbit, calories and macronutrients eaten, quality and quantity of sleep with a phone app) and the problems with it.

But the problems I keep seeing people write about are not the problems I’m particularly interested in. Yes, the question of where does that data go and who is using it is important (though hard to get excited about knowing that everything from my Facebook to my debit purchases are tracked, sold, analyzed). As is the issue of how male-oriented a lot of health trackers are (half the population has periods and the things that go along with it!).

But the biggest problems, to my mind, are the ways that the Quantified Self Movement (or, if you’re not crazy about the title, the increasing ubiquity of health-trackers) reifies the neoliberal approach to health as a project of surveillance and self-governance with a complete elision of the structural factors that affect health much more deeply than the number of steps you take in a day.

While activity is important for health, and 10,000 steps is a good goal for those whose bodies are able to meet it, the more pressing matters for more and more people are living in a safe environment (does your pedometer matter when you have black mould in your damp apartment? When you can’t walk down the street for fear of violence from passersby and/or the police?), having access to enough reasonably healthful food (who cares about goji berries when the only food options within an hour’s walk are fast food?), and living above the poverty line (did you know poverty is one of the biggest risk factors for diabetes?).

So far, $1.4 billion has been invested in wearable technology and it’s estimated that revenue from wearable tech will hit $19 billion by 2018$19 billion. Nineteen billion dollars. Imagine what $19 billion dollars could do in terms of infrastructure. $2 billion could cover my entire city with streetcars, which would get more cars off the road, more people walking, and would stimulate local businesses. Imagine how many community gardens, culturally-relevant food sharing and cooking programs, safe green spaces in urban communities, grocery stores in food deserts, bike-sharing programs, low-cost/free health clinics, mental health programs, and domestic violence programs could be funded. Hell, imagine how much lobbying for fruit and vegetable subsidies we could do with $19 billion dollars.

Of course, it’s not as easy as that. It’s not like that $19 billion dollars, if not going to Fitbits and Misfits and other weirdly named trackers, would go into infrastructure and alleviating poverty. But the salient point here is that if these companies (and the middle class Whole Foods goers who buy them) are going to claim to care about improving health, we need to look beyond the individual. We need to look at what creates healthy societies and invest our time, money, and talents in that, rather than getting yet another gadget to sync with our phones.

(Full disclosure: I have a Withings Pulse and wear it daily. In hindsight, a $10 pedometer would have done the trick just as well.)

The Problem With “Do What You Love”

I love eating pasta, binge watching zombie shows, and swimming in the ocean. Sadly, none of those three activities are going to pay my rent and one of those is actively detrimental to my fitness (while the other would be if I ate as much pasta as I’d like to).

I can’t go a week without being exhorted to “Do what you love!” This is usually used in terms of career options but I’m seeing it used in regards to fitness as well.*

The reality for all but the upper-middle and upper-class is that “doing what we love” almost never pays the bills (and, let’s be honest, even in those hallowed halls most aren’t doing what they love–though some may love screwing over the poor, in which case, go fuck yourselves–they’re just doing what pays the bills, albeit much larger bills than you or I will ever have). Doing what we love, whether it’s making art or helping people or watching the undead gnaw on the living, is simply not a viable way to make a living. At best, we can have a day job that allows us to follow our passion at night and on weekends. Or maybe “what we love” has never been a consideration and instead we feel called to help people (a field with notoriously small margins), despite the fact that’s it’s stressful, pays poorly, and the organizations are often dysfunctional.

There is no shame in not paying rent with “what we love” but the ongoing exhortations from women’s magazines and Tumblr memes and Pinterest pins reveal a profound disconnect from most people’s realities, and a profound lack of understanding of the capitalist machine.

In the same vein, setting fitness/exercise/training up as an avenue to “finding/doing what you love” is misguided and ignorant of most people’s lives. Most people in North America don’t actually exercise at all. And for those people who are overworked, over-stressed, and overly sedentary, the idea that they will suddenly love exercise is laughable. And so when they start exercising at the behest of their doctors or their children or their aching joints and don’t immediately love it, it’s pretty easy to give up. “Maybe I’m just not the type of person who enjoys exercise.”

And the well-meaning exercise-lovers will swoop in: “No, no! Of course you are! You just have to find the right exercise! I ran for a straight year before I started to love it!”

But if you can’t even run to the end of the block without gasping, if you’ve spent a lifetime hating (and avoiding) exercise, how likely is it that you’re going to hear that and dedicate yourself to a year of running with the hope that you’ll stop hating it at the end?

There are people who love exercise, love movement. My brother is one of those people. There are people who love certain types of movement–I am one of those people–dancing and biking are my jam. And there are a whole lot of people who have spent their entire lives hating movement. Maybe they have always been fat and have faced ridicule and discrimination for it. Maybe they have a physical disability that impacts their ability to move in pleasurable, non-painful ways. Maybe they are naturally book-readers and couch-potatoes and would happily sit on their couch surrounded by pillows and books 24 hours a day. Maybe they’ve just never found the right exercise, sure. But maybe there is no right exercise. Maybe there is no type of movement that will make their hearts sing and bodies come alive.

That’s okay too. But–and it’s a big but–movement is important. It is important for overall physical health, for immune health, for joint health, for cardiovascular health, for mental health. And it’s important for easing the burden of everyday responsibilities.

And I think that needs to be the tack that we take, as we try to bring our loved ones into the fold of regular movement. And I think that, along with improving accessibility, needs to be the tack we take on a policy level.

Not because it impacts our healthcare spending, but because it impacts our quality of life. Because weightlifting means carrying groceries and grandchildren and moving boxes is a lot easier. Because dancing lets us connect with our bodies and our friends. Because walking gets our blood moving and is easy on the joints. Because martial arts make us feel safer. Because swimming in the ocean washes away a week’s or a year’s worth of stress as you frolic like a seal. And because running will be imperative to your survival in the coming zombie apocalypse.**

So let’s move away from the privileged idea that we can all “do what we love,” in both jobs and exercise, and instead remember that there are a lot of things we do in life because we have to and they’re good for us. If we’re lucky and diligent a lot of us can do the things we need to be doing (moving our bodies, making a paycheque) in ways that we don’t hate. And maybe we can find some small aspect of it (our colleagues, our deadlift PRs) that we actually like.

*Hat tip to a conversation on Fit is a Feminist Issue’s Facebook page today.

**I’m like 95% kidding–but it’s also like 40% of why I run.***

***Judging by the art I found for today’s post, I’m not the only one.

Why I Don’t Leave It On The Field

There are two interesting and contradictory trends in fitness I keep seeing. The first is the “leave it on the field” (or workout ’til you vomit) trend and the latter is, seemingly, a backlash, mostly found in more feminist (whether explicitly or not), body-positive spaces that argues training and movement should be additive–they should positively benefit you and support your other activities rather than eclipsing them.

This post was inspired by (among other things) this post about a Spartan race in California that resulted in a dozen people being sent to the hospital, including broken bones and two heart attacks. It’s also inspired by the ongoing conversations about the sustainability of Crossfit as well as the influx of Tough Mudder, Spartan Run, and Mud Run pictures crowding my Facebook timeline. And it’s inspired by my own past all-or-nothing tendencies that saw me doing two hours of cardio a day, running myself ragged in pursuit of…something.

So I want to think about what that something is and why so many of us fall prey to the pursuit of it at the expense of our health, wallets, and time. And I want to think about how it’s probably related to the neoliberal conception of health and fitness. I’m going to be totally gauche and quote myself here:

Both Schee (2008) and Guthman and DuPuis (2006) borrow Foucault’s concept of governmentality to describe the ways that dominant forces shape a self-governing ethic that creates a “hypervigilance about control and deservingness” which then “creates divisions between active citizens, those who can manage their own risks, and ‘targeted populations’, those who require intervention in management of risks” (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006, p. 443). Colls and Evans (2009) argue that even those who are at a ‘normal’ weight are considered at “risk of becoming ‘overweight’ which in turn is a risk for becoming ‘obese’” (p.1013), thus all bodies are subject to that hypervigilance and surveillance. Those currently construed as active citizens are viewed as self-disciplined and rational, while those who fail to achieve the twin duties of eating and thinness are viewed as irrational and lacking discipline (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006). It is in this way that class (and its corollaries race and gender) is performed through the body (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006).

Because I think this idea may be at the root of the popularity of balls-to-the-wall fitness trends.

It is not enough, in our culture, to strive for moderation, something that is hard enough to attain in our current obesogenic environment (a not unproblematic term, certainly, but I haven’t found a better one that attends to the constant availability of hyperpalatable foods, the billions of dollars that go into advertising and lobbying, the agricultural conglomerates that receive subsidies for calorically dense crops while fresh fruits and vegetables are out of reach for many, and the car culture and other forces that encourage sedentary lifestyles). Rather, we divide ourselves between those seeking ritual self-flagellation, couch potatoes, and the growing number just trying to find sanity and health in their food and movement practices.

One thing that strikes me about Crossfit and its ilk is that it may stand in for church in our increasingly secular culture. It is somewhere you go regularly, where you have community, and where you are promised some form of purity–whether that’s in the form of punishment for your sins (try doing a WOD hungover, I promise you’ll feel punished) or in doing something few others can (or want to) do. Of course there are those who just enjoy a CF workout and like hanging out with their friends while they sweat their buns off. And that’s fine. Do what makes you happy and healthy. But let’s not ignore the larger cultural forces at play to avoid stepping on toes.

From Crossfit to SoulCycle, the last few years have seen a rise in exercise-with-the-fervour-of-religion. Which, I think, dovetails nicely with the idea that the good citizen keeps themself under constant surveillance, making sure to both consume and sacrifice at the same time. Crossfit, SoulCycle, and obstacle races like Tough Mudder are populated by primarily middle (to upper) class white 20-40 year olds who are willing to spend boatloads of cash on fitness. They are able to consume (spending money on classes, races, gear, and swag) while remaining slim and self-disciplined. The neoliberal problem of inelastic demand (we can only eat so much, own so many houses, drive so many cars) paired with the failing health of a population that is overworked, overfed, over-stressed, and lacking the basic right to affordable health care (still an issue in the US despite the Affordable Care Act) is fixed by a culture that “returns improvement to the individual” (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006, p. 443).

Rather than looking at systemic issues like how to ensure quality nutrition for all, a healthy work-life balance, adequate and safe housing, safe outdoor spaces, and the systemic barriers facing marginalized people, these exercise cultures focus on the individual and the path to purity through pushing beyond your limits.

And these exercise cultures burn people out because bodies aren’t meant to go 100% 5 (or 6 or 7!) days a week. We aren’t meant to tax our immune systems and nervous systems every day at the gym, pushing harder, harder, harder, until we puke or faint or rupture something. And while some people can keep that intensity up for a surprisingly long time, eventually the body gives. And, in the meantime, we are sacrificing so much for this ritual purity. How many times have you given a workout your all and then found yourself lying on the couch the rest of the day because you were spent? How many times have you pushed too hard, too fast, too far, then limped for four days, cursing every time you sit down on the toilet because your legs are on fire?

That is not sustainable, it is not loving. It is self-flagellation. It is seeking punishment for sins defined by a dysfunctional culture.

Which isn’t to say never go hard. I fully believe a sustainable movement practice can (and, ideally, should!) incorporate hard days. I’ve been incorporating clean-and-presses into my practice lately and you have got to be all in to do them. Every part of your body focused, engaged, working hard. But that can’t be every day. Not just because your body can’t sustain it (ever tried running the day after a heavy deadlift? It’s hell on earth) but your mind and soul can’t either. It wears you down. It strips the joy from movement and thus life.

Movement should be additive. It should enable you to conquer the massive floating log at Wreck Beach with ease (SO MUCH FUN) and then walk up the one million stairs to get back to the road. It should enable you to help your friend move with ease (seriously, moving is so much easier when you deadlift!), it should shore up your resources for times of high stress. In short, it should let you do the hard work of living–it shouldn’t be  the hard work.

On the Ethics of Citing Your Work (and Reading Recommendations)

Academia is weird. On the one hand, you’re taught to cite every. single. thing. You are constantly citing the thinkers and theorists and researchers who went before you. You’re not really allowed to come up with an original thought of your own unless you can show how 18 different theorists influenced your work. Yet, at the same time, there is a premium put on expertise. On being the sole expert in this particular area. On using language that denotes your expertise and elevation from the huddled masses (e.g. the heterosexist subjugation of the Other can be understood by applying a Baktinian analysis in which the grotesque is understood as a matrix wherein the abject intersects and transcends the embodied plane. Note: this was essentially a MadLib of po-mo jargon but I bet you I could whip up a compelling paper to argue precisely this thesis).

And then when you get into feminist academe it’s even weirder. On the one hand, we talk about intersectionality and privilege and access. On the other, we use inaccessible language and carefully elide the role that privilege has played in getting us to where we are. And we play this weird game where we centre women’s voices and experiences but don’t make our research accessible to those women; we centre the voices of the marginalized but use language those without access to academia often don’t have; we use women’s experiences in pursuit of liberation but don’t stop to ask whose liberation we’re fighting for.

And then you look at the blogging world of feminists and you see a similar picture–the big names tend to be white, able-bodied women of considerable means. And they (we, though I’m not a big name, I am a white, able-bodied, middle-class woman) tend to suck on matters of intersectionality. We suck on race and trans issues and poverty and ability and citizenship/immigration issues. And we suck at citing those who have taught us how to think better, who have taught us to challenge ourselves and each other to do the work, to transcend our sites of privilege and access to work in solidarity with others. I have read too many pieces by women of colour pointing out yet another blog post by a white woman who is using their ideas, their words, without credit.

I think we need to start citing our work. It can be hard, since so much of our educations come from late night conversations with friends over wine that are challenging and funny and hard; and reading the comments (good and bad) on feminist blogs; and chatting while painting signs before a march; and blogs and books and podcasts and songs. But we need to be accountable to ourselves and to each other. To our communities and the communities with which we hope to work in solidarity. We need to lift each other up, point out the brilliant and hard work our movement kin are doing, and sing their praises. This can’t be a game about ego or clicks or page views. It needs to be about the work.

I can’t always tell you how I came to a certain idea or theory. Sometimes it’s an amalgamation of 15 different ideas and articles and books. Sometimes it’s something that is just a felt truth to me. Sometimes it is a long winding thread that started in undergrad and has continued through work and activism and grad school and writing and reading and thinking and who can I possibly cite then? But I can tell you who helped me to think about things in the way that I do. Who helped shape my politics and challenged me and pushed me. So I will. Here is a not-at-all complete list of the big works for me.

bell hooks on Postmodern Blackness:

Postmodernist discourses are often exclusionary even when, having been accused of lacking concrete relevance, they call attention to and appropriate the experience of “difference” and “otherness” in order to provide themselves with oppositional political meaning, legitimacy, and immediacy. Very few African-American intellectuals have talked or written about postmodernism. Recently at a dinner party, I talked about trying to grapple with the significance of postmodernism for contemporary black experience. It was one of those social gatherings where only one other black person was present. The setting quickly became a field of contestation. I was told by the other black person that I was wasting my time, that “this stuff does not relate in any way to what’s happening with black people.” Speaking in the presence of a group of white onlookers, staring at us as though this encounter was staged for their benefit, we engaged in a passionate discussion about black experience. Apparently, no one sympathized with my insistence that racism is perpetuated when blackness is associated solely with concrete gut level experience conceived either as opposing or having no connection to abstract thinking and the production of critical theory. The idea that there is no meaningful connection between black experience and critical thinking about aesthetics or culture must be continually interrogated.

When I think of pieces that shaped how I think and how I do politics this is top of the list. It is a relatively short essay and has taught me so much. And continues to teach me so much. The concept of “yearning” was fundamental to my understanding of the sense of oppression and bleakness even the most privileged in our society feel and how it can be a point of mutual understanding and a place from which to build empathy. The danger of postmodern critique around essentialism and identity politics to those who have had to forge their own identities in the face of hundreds of years of racism telling them who they are and how they are challenged me and continues to challenge me to do better, to think better in the face of my own white privilege. If you read one thing from this list, I hope it’s this.

Colonize This: Young Women of Colour on Today’s Feminism
I had the immense privilege and luck to have a mentor, J, who taught me more about doing the work and living in a good way than I could have ever learned in my degree. She used curiosity and humour to challenge me and teach me as I was a budding feminist thinker. And she gave me truly excellent books to read. This is one of them.

Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity
This was the other. It really opened up my world and expanded how I can be and understand and perform my gender.

all about love–bell hooks

All too often women believe it is a sign of commitment, an expression of love, to endure unkindness or cruelty, to forgive and forget. In actuality, when we love rightly we know that the healthy, loving response to cruelty and abuse is putting ourselves out of harm’s way.

Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous on the dangerous complacency of the “ally”

The Frailty Myth: Redefining the Physical Potential of Women and Girls–Colette Dowling
This is not a perfect book. It has major omissions around the impacts of class and race on women’s embodiment. But it was fundamental in starting my thinking about trauma and embodiment and gender.

Fit and Feminist
Caitlin is a beacon in the fog of bullshit that is fitness on the internet. She writes intelligently and honestly about gender and fitness and was a big inspiration for my own foray into blogging.

And then I am lucky and honoured to have a whole host of people in my life–friends, family, teachers, mentors–who challenge and support and teach me. Who listen to me muddle through complex ideas in halting, meandering, repetitive words. Who push me to think harder and better, to not forget the importance of laughter and joy, to think outside of myself.

These are just a few in hundreds or thousands of citations I could list. I am going to try to be more mindful in my writing of naming and honouring those whose words and work inspire my own.

Progress Goals

For most of my life I hewed to the traditional narrative of women’s fitness: cardio yourself thin, lift teeny tiny pink weights, and, above all else, motivate yourself through self-hatred. Cause if there’s one thing that experience (and science!) has shown, it’s that you can hate yourself thin. Oh, wait, no, it’s that fat-shaming is toxic as hell and not only does psychological harm but actually leads to emotional eating episodes that likely contribute to a positive energy balance (which is to say, weight gain).

In those days my goals were all about “less”: weigh less, take up less space, hate my body less (ironic, no?), eat less. The only “more” goals were in pursuit of that “less”: do more cardio, restrict more. Uh, that’s about it, I guess. It’s a pretty depressing state of affairs, no? And I thought about it all. the. time. Constantly thinking about my last scale weight; if I can afford to eat that second mini mandarin orange (seriously); if my 8 pound tricep kickbacks would finally get rid of my floopy arms/”bat wings” (let’s be straight for a minute, bats are awesome. We should all be so lucky to have bat wings. And bio sonar!). And I consumed unethical, bullshitty media to get my dose of self-hatred and woo-filled tips: Self, Women’s Health, Fitness, Glamour, Cosmo, Dr. Oz (I KNOW!).

And then I found feminism. And those shitty magazines were suddenly a lot less appealing. And as I cut them out of my life I started to see just how much self-hatred they had been inculcating. And while my exercise was still rooted in self-hatred I had flashes of embodiment. Moments where it felt right. Where I felt, for the first time in my life, like maybe I too could be some form of athlete. 

And then I met the love of my life: a pretty green road bike that introduced me to movement for the sake of movement; to that sense that all is right with the world so long as I’m on my bike; to the knowledge that my body could be instrumental rather than decorative. I was easily riding 60-100k a week for the pure joy of feeling my body do what it was meant to do. And as my body became something I cared for (if not yet loved) the food piece started to come together too. I found intuitive eating and realized that I needed to eat mostly body-nourishing things (which, for my body, tend to be mostly whole foods, with a focus on lean protein and lots of produce) to fuel my rides, and a few times a week soul-nourishing foods (in one word: chocolate). And I no longer really cared about being “less”. 

And then my health went to hell (as I’ve mentioned previously) and I gained forty pounds in a short time. And all of my old “less” stuff started coming up again. Weigh less, eat less, take up less space, and please, for the love of god, hate my body less. But this time I knew these messages were bullshit. I knew this was crazybrain responding to change and anxiety and loss of control. And this time I had powerlifting.

And the thing about powerlifting is that you can’t have even an inkling of “less” going on. You can’t be trying to shrink into yourself because your quads are in the process of becoming quadzillas. You can’t be focused on smaller and smaller numbers because lifting is all about more. More weight, more power, more capacity. You can’t be eating less and less because you won’t have the power to deadlift.

And so, slowly, subtly, my crazybrain shut up. Less became more. Exercise became movement–a joyful practice of trying and building and failing and flowing and dancing and lifting. And my goals became process goals rather than outcome goals. I am much more motivated by the prospect of doing a full ROM push-up than wearing an arbitrary clothing size. I seek the empowerment and embodiment of pushing my own weight off the floor rather than hitting some “ideal” weight. And, ironically enough, I’m now able to focus on (slow, sustainable, sane) weight loss without triggering ol’ CrazyBrain McGee because I’m motivated by the fact that push-ups are easier if you’re lifting less mass, that crow is more easily attained without these extra 40 pounds.

Just thinking about how much willpower was required to get me into the gym or to eat the salad I didn’t actually want in the bad old days is exhausting. Considering how much valuable mental time and space was taken up by negotiations and calculations and recriminations is heartbreaking. Thinking of the things I’ve been able to do the last few years, I have no doubt I couldn’t have done them with so much processing power given over to things that just don’t matter. Thinking of how many women (and, increasingly, men) are similarly giving so much of their time and energy to self-hatred and the pursuit of “less” makes me want to cry. We have so much work to do in this world, big stuff like ending systemic racism and small stuff like perfecting roasted potatoes, and none of that can be done if we are spending all of our time on the hamster wheel of self-hatred.

 

 

Gender, Embodiment, and Weight Lifting

[Content note: sexualized violence and objectification of women]

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I want to talk about embodiment and how it differs by gender. Embodiment is a bit of a nebulous concept, but basically it means a deep knowing of your body and its capabilities, and a feeling of groundedness rather than disassociation. It’s that knowing that tells my brother when he looks at a rock five feet away that he can do a two-foot jump and make it safely. It’s that trust that allows baseball players to dive for a ball and trust their body knows how to land. It’s that feeling that lets you throw a punch and know how it’s going to land.If you’ve ever been on a rocky beach, a beach strewn with boulders to get down to the water, and seen young men stride confidently, maybe even jump from one to the next, while their female companions tentatively step, test, then shift their full weight, maybe taking the hand of their boyfriend or friend, that’s the gendered difference in embodiment. Of course, not all men are embodied and not all women are disembodied. But research shows that a lot more men are embodied than women, and that men and women talk about their bodies in very different ways. This is likely because we live in a culture that prizes men as the subjects and relegates women to object status. How do you find embodiment as an object? It is likely because boys are taught from a young age that being boisterously in their bodies is their birthright, while girls are taught to lock it down. To be sweet and quiet. To play with dolls and tea sets while their brothers run around with toy guns and throw balls and frisbees. It is likely because boys are taught to throw while girls are assumed to…throw like a girl. It is likely because the worst epithets aimed at men are those that compare them to women.

It is likely because women live under the threat of intimate violence every damn day of their lives. Because we are taught to walk in pairs. Because we are taught that the wrong skirt means we are culpable for our own violation. Because god-damned skinny jeans mean we were “asking for it”. Because some men will not back off until another man claims ownership of us. Because we are told that taking up space puts us in danger. And so we shrink into ourselves. We shrink away from the gaze and the words and the threats and the violence. We disassemble that mind-body connection in pursuit of enough peace to get through the day.

And even in the pursuits that should embody us, like exercise (more on this later) we are taught to keep ourselves small. We are told that women lift 8-15 pounds. We are told that women can’t do pull-ups and can only do push-ups from our knees and never taught how to graduate to full push-ups because why would a woman need to be strong enough to push a person off of her? We are taught to do “the “partial pushup” because it only requires a partial amount of effort, and consequently imparts a partial amount of strength development.” (Follow the link for source material.) We are told that we should spend our time doing cardio or pilates, not throwing around iron and sandbags. We are told that strong women get bulky and that bulky women are unfeminine (both points being grade-A bullshit). We are shown fitspo that purports to be about female strength but is really just another way to highlight tits and ass and extreme leanness.

And so we learn how to cardio ourselves into oblivion, but don’t see the results we’re told we should see. We lift and lift and lift but don’t get any stronger because stalling out at 15 pounds means you’re lifting less than some people’s backpacks. And because we aren’t taught to lift heavy, we don’t actually know what working hard in the weight room feels like.

I started lifting heavy about a year and a half ago and it was a revelation. I got under the bar, faced my fears, and started to trust my body. It is empowering to squat 115 pounds after doing bodyweight squats all your life. It is empowering as hell to deadlift 135 pounds (and it makes moving a fuck of a lot easier!). And it requires a hell of a lot of trust and connection with your body to do it right. How do you activate your posterior chain if you’ve never truly felt your body before? My graduate research (forthcoming) showed that women survivors of intimate partner violence who engage in empowerment-oriented exercise (defined, for my study, as strength-training, martial arts, and yoga) had higher levels of embodiment than those who engage in aerobic-based exercise (running, walking, zumba, etc). Which makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. You can easily throw on a podcast or bumpin’ playlist, head out and suddenly realize you’ve run three kilometres without being all that present to it. But there’s no way in hell you can clean a 40 pound sandbag off the floor without being connected to your body, without being grounded in your body, without trusting your body to do what it needs to do every step of the way. There’s no way you can spar and not be in your body. There’s no way you can “find the edge” in dancer pose and not be aware of your body.

Which isn’t to denigrate cardio-based exercise. It’s great. It’s good for your heart and clears your mind and if it makes you feel good, do it. But I think we should question why women are taught to do hours of cardio and lift light and long rather than lifting heavy and increasing their capacity. I think we should also look at how much time it takes to do an hour of cardio plus three sets of 20 reps of a million stupid isolated movements (how many different tricep exercises can we do in order to combat the “batwings” every magazine shames us for?). I used to spend easily an hour and a half at the gym. Sometimes two hours. Now I’m in and out in forty minutes and I’ve worked a hell of a lot harder. Because I simply couldn’t sustain that level of intensity for two hours. Of those forty minutes I’m probably only actively lifting for about 15, because working hard needs recovery.

And I can feel the difference. I can feel it in how I walk, with confidence and ease. I can feel it in how my shoulders naturally settle back and down. I can feel it in how I no longer cower when strange men yell at me, I gut-check and then proceed in the safest way, with the confidence in my body to step-to if needed (though, like many women, I’ve never been taught how to fight or take a punch properly, though I do know how to throw a punch after taking a boxing class). I don’t think I could win in a fight at this point (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is in my future), but I trust my body to make it hard as hell for the other person to win. I trust that just having an embodied presence makes predators less likely to target me.

And I want to be clear: I am not stating that women who are less embodied, who don’t or can’t lift weights, are in any way responsible for being victimized or being vulnerable. Rather, I am calling to account a society that depends on female weakness, that valourizes it, that fetishizes it. And I am suggesting that while we do the big, society-level work, we can also do the individual, personal-level work. We can empower and embody ourselves by throwing away Self Magazine and getting under the bar.

 

P.S. Doing a Creative Commons search for “barbell” garners you more Prince Alberts than you’ll know what to do with. Learned that one the hard way.