The Pocket Problem: An Addendum

Last time I wrote about how women’s clothes generally come sans pocket and how that both reflects and reenforces gendered bullshit around subjecthood, emotional labour, and ease in the world.

Today I’m going to write just a quick follow-up about a particular way this has been impacting me lately. My work has just moved into a shiny new building that uses keycards for everything. Keycards! The wave of the future!

Keycards are great. If you have pockets. Continue reading “The Pocket Problem: An Addendum”


Getting Back to Our Animal Selves

panthere noire zoo de jurques 1012 1024x749I’ve had this pet theory, for a while, that capitalism only works if we silence and eschew the animal parts of us. Think about it, sitting at a desk for 8 or 10 hours a day is completely counter to our animal instincts to be in motion. Doing menial tasks (making widgets, if we want to get all Karl Marx up in here) that don’t directly relate to the care and feeding of ourselves or our loved ones makes no sense until we introduce the fear of poverty (and thus hunger, lack of shelter, etc) if we don’t comply.

But instincts are hard to suppress. They’re literally the most base reaction we have. In fact, they’re there whether we heed them or not. That’s how powerful they are. So how does a system that relies on quashing our animal selves counter something so powerful? With shame, perhaps the most powerful motivator there is.

I was recently interviewed by a university student writing a paper on a particular issue in my field and the topic of shame came up. This student asked if shame can ever be a force for good. Absolutely, I said. Shame is one of the ways that we moderate unacceptable and dangerous behaviour. Shame is based on losing in-group status. Humans are immensely social creatures who need acceptance and community to survive. So the threat of losing your connections and community due to hurting another, for example, is a very positive use of shame, teaching people not to hurt others until they can internalize that lesson.

But the power of shame is rarely used for the benefit of the collective in our neoliberal, late capitalistic clusterfuck. Rather, it is used to shut down all of the signals that tell us that what is going on is unacceptable. It is unacceptable that most of us do work that is not only spiritually unfulfilling but is actively harmful for the earth and for humanity. It is unacceptable that most of us live in some form of economic insecurity. It is unacceptable that many of us don’t have access to fresh, nourishing food and instead rely on hyper-palatable, low-nutrient play food for the majority of our nutrition. It is unacceptable that one in three women* and one in two trans people will experience sexualized violence in our life times.

But you can’t start with the big violations and hope they’ll stick. You have to start with the small pieces of animalia that you can tame. We wear clothes because we are shamed for our nudity (I mean, there are practical reasons for clothes as well, but if I strolled down the street naked tomorrow no one would be objecting on the grounds that I wasn’t protected from the elements). We wear deodorant and perfume because it is unacceptable to smell like the animals that we are (this, by the way, is very culturally specific). We hide our emotions at work because we aren’t supposed to “make a scene” by reacting honestly to rude customers or over-bearing bosses like the animals we are.

And when we routinely over-ride our instincts we stop trusting them. Introducing the element of doubt is an incredible tool for controlling someone. This is an issue that impacts everyone, certainly, but it is also exceptionally gendered. Think of all the ways women (and other people socialized female) are taught to ignore our instincts: we are taught to distrust our hunger, routinely. Whether that’s through extreme calorie restriction, or the mind-games so many of us play as we try to negotiate down our hunger (“Am I physically hungry or emotionally hungry? Maybe I can just have some celery and hope my stomach will stop growling. Maybe I could have some gum instead. Maybe I’m just thirsty!”).How many times have you been told that “we often mistake hunger for thirst”? Ten? A hundred? Coming up on a million? Have you ever stopped to consider how ridiculous of a statement that is? If you took it out of the context of women’s continued disavowal of hunger it makes literally no sense. You’d never tell someone that has to poop that they actually need to pee and have just mistaken the two. Or that someone who is complaining of being cold is actually dehydrated. If someone is hungry they’re hungry.

We are taught to ignore our gut in favour of politeness. I tell my clients constantly, “your gut is smart. Trust it.” How often do we override that niggling feeling because we want to be “nice” (one of the most toxic words in the English language if you ask me)? On the bus, with that creepy guy who won’t get out of our space. Walking home with that dude who’s been behind us for too many blocks and turns. On a date with a cute guy or girl who keeps pushing minor boundaries? With the roommate situation we knew immediately wouldn’t work out?**

We are also taught to ignore our basic comfort, from the clothes that we wear (ever notice how many women change into sweats or pjs the second they walk in the door while their male partners are perfectly comfortable in their un-restrictive pants and shirts?), to the shoes we teeter in, to the absurd and painful lengths we go to remove the body hair that is our god-damn birthright as animals.

I’ve been doing a lot of personal work lately, including going back to therapy after almost a year break. And what I realized today is that almost all of the work I’ve been doing is allowing myself to get back to my animal self. It has been about trusting my gut, honouring my instincts, trusting my body, and seeking embodiment.

I recently had a dating situation where someone did a couple things that threw up yellow flags. Not red flags. They weren’t “DANGER WILL ROBINSON” infractions. They were “psst, hey, Will Robinson, maybe make a note of this, it’s a little hinky.” One yellow flag is something to mind but not a deal-breaker. But in quick succession there were three or four yellow flags on the field and I was suddenly flooded with anxiety. Not because I felt unsafe, but because I was at war with my gut. My gut was telling me “you know about boundaries. You literally teach workshops on boundaries. You tell your clients every day to trust their gut. You can’t talk the talk if you won’t walk the walk.”

I had a really clear signal from my gut that there were too many yellow flags on the pitch but I was fighting it because I didn’t want to “overreact” or “be rude.” Despite being in possession of the world’s best early alert system I was fighting something I champion because I’ve spent my life being subtly and overtly trained to ignore it for fear of shame–god forbid a woman “overreact” be “hysterical” or “a bitch” to a man who is over-reaching his bounds.

This personal work has also included embracing my hunger without questioning it or trying to barter it down, and listening to my body’s signals that it needs movement or rest.

Recognizing when we are safe or not, when we are hungry or not, and whether we are tired or not are literally our birthright as animals (ever seen a cat that’s feeling any of those? They don’t fuck around. They get their needs met whatever it takes), and yet we are taught from a very young age that all of those instincts are wrong (let Creepy Uncle Jerry kiss you, you don’t need seconds, go to bed even though you’re not tired). And so our work as adult humans is, in many ways, to get back to our animal selves.

*This is a contentious statistic for a whole lot of reasons I’m not going to go into here, related to disclosure, shame, measurement, etc. This statistic comes from Stats Can in 1993, the last time they did a Violence Against Women survey. The commonly cited American statistic comes from RAINN and is one in five. My instinct is that that is a low estimate.

**Oh do I have stories. And for every bad roommate story I have a matching story of ignoring my gut instinct.

Let’s Just Stop With the Food Wars, Okay?

Because this is the best/weirdest image that came up in my image search. Source: Jeff Neumann, The Denver Post.
Because this is the best/weirdest image that came up in my image search.
Source: Jeff Neumann, The Denver Post. Link here.

There’s something about the internet that brings out the basest parts of us. Can you imagine if people lived their day-to-day lives like they were on a Facebook thread (or, god forbid, in the Youtube comments section)?

I’m vegan (for political reasons) and gluten-free (for IBS reasons). Here’s what such an announcement would look like on the internet:

Commenter 1: I’m vegan too, but I don’t eat soy, corn, oil, sugar, grains, or joy. Anyone who does isn’t a real vegan!
Commenter 2: Fuck veganism. I’m paleo. Veganism is for [redacted misogynistic slur]!
Commenter 3: Gluten-free is such a fad! Stop being so pretentious! Fuck you!
Commenter 2: Fuck you! I’m gluten-free because Grok didn’t eat glutens! Do you even lift, bro?
Commenter 4: I can’t be vegan because as a man it will turn me gay and make me grow breasts.  STOP TRYING TO FEMINIZE ME YOU FEMINAZI!!!!
Commenter 5: I make $900 an hour working from home! Ask me how!

And so on and so forth into perpetuity.

Here is what it looks like if I tell a room full of people that I am gluten-free and vegan.

Person 1: Huh. That sounds hard.
Person 2: I think the cafe around the corner has some stuff you can eat.

I think part of the problem is that the internet is, still, kind of like the Wild Wild West and people are trying to find their people. One way to do that is to make big, extreme statements, hoping that doing so will bring your kind of people out of the woodwork. If you eat in a restricted or unusual way, it can be hard to find people who get it and have tips and recipes and can commiserate. I’m sympathetic to that.

But, more than that, I think the internet lets us conveniently forget that every username and avatar belong to a real person with real feelings and so we say the nasty things we would never say out loud but feel emboldened to say on the internet.

Pair that with the fact that a lot of the extreme, exclusionary diet talk is based on a type of moralizing that sounds, frankly, bananas, when said out loud in mixed company, and you have a perfect storm.

A lot of the extremely restricted ways that people eat don’t actually make any sense, and so they can create a lot of cognitive dissonance. Do we know what Grok was eating 10,000 years ago? Kind of. It was varied. Climate and geography have a huge impact on what foods are available at a low energy and safety cost. It wast mostly vegetarian. With maybe some grubs thrown in. And, more importantly, if given the chance, Grok would shovel down pastries by the fistful because he lived in a time of scarcity. (Plus, you know, evolution didn’t just stop 10,000 years ago–as evidenced by the various levels of lactose tolerance around the world and so many other things.)

Really thinking about why you’re eating bacon on bacon on bacon with half a sweet potato might lead you to some uncomfortable places. Are you swept up in a fad? Are you deathly afraid of carbs? Are you tied to an outdated ideology that is less and less acceptable in nominally liberal spaces?

Durant constructs an image of the “natural” that is entirely ideological. The real appeal of hunter-gatherer life is what he imagines to be its strict partition of gender roles, where “Men were hunters, women were gatherers” and where “women rewarded great hunters” with sex. Paleo eating is here connected with an image of society which reproduces itself largely through masculine competition.

Or maybe you have embraced “healthy veganism” wherein you exclude all “processed foods” such as flour, oils, sugar, and perhaps grains. And let’s throw soy in there for good measure because of something The Food Babe said. And maybe you’re doing it based on the promise that you’ll feel better for it, yet wondering why you are so tired and cranky all the time. So maybe you start eliminating more foods. And maybe you’re starting to get really afraid of food. But you’ve been sold a bill of goods that eating the right way will extend your lifespan, cure all known diseases, and make you a good person.

You can’t exactly walk away from that, can you? So how do you silence those doubts? You double-down. Maybe you start a new blog about “clean eating” or start trolling your friends’ pics of pasta on instagram. Maybe you just remove everyone from your Facebook feed who isn’t also paleo or raw vegan or orthorexic.

Whatever the case, you begin to build your identity around your diet. And that is a dangerous place to be. Not only because there are so many cultural and economic factors behind who eats what (and, make no mistake, both Paleo and mainstream veganism are not financially available to most low-income people, and are culturally irrelevant to many people’s traditional foodways), but because there may well come a time when you can’t eat that way anymore. And what happens to your identity if its prevailing factor is no longer available to you? The vegan community has seen what happens when people stop being vegan and become militantly ex-vegan. It’s weird and ugly.

The truth is, there are conversations we should be having about food. They involve the scarcity of good quality, varied foods in food deserts; the inequitable ways food is grown and distributed around the world; the subsidies high calorie/low satiety/low nutrient food producers get and their obscene advertising budgets; the lack of time and access many people have to the knowledge and means to cook for themselves between multiple under-paying jobs; the exploitative practices of using temporary migrant food workers for food production in Canada and the US which often involve unsafe work and living conditions and criminally low pay; the abhorrent realities of CAFOs which damage land and water while torturing animals and traumatizing slaughterhouse workers.

These are the conversations we should be having. And these are the food issues we should be moralizing–these are all incredibly unjust, unethical practices allowed and propped up by systemic issues of class inequality, racism, colonization, neoliberalism, and undue corporate influence on government policies.

Focusing on anything less is navel-gazing, us-vs-them bullshit that hides the real ethical issues of food politics and I’m tired of it.

Stop Worrying About “10 Foods Healthier Than Kale”

I know, I know, it’s that time of year. The time the diet industry goes into overdrive, salivating over the guilt-ridden masses vowing to finally, finally make that change. Hire that trainer, start that diet. And, by the grace of god, be bikini-ready by May. (Here’s a secret: got a body? Like bikinis? Congrats! You’re bikini ready!)

So it’s no wonder that everywhere you turn you’re hearing about super foods, fallen super foods, new food trends, old food trends, food trends to watch out for. And, my favourite: 10 Leafy Greens Healthier Than Kale.

Kale is pretty darn healthy. It’s got boatloads of fibre, it’s got tons of nutrients, it’s got a surprising amount of protein per calorie, it’s got a high volume:low calorie ratio which helps fill you up if you’re seeking weight loss or maintenance. Yeah, maybe chicory’s got a few more per polyphenols (which do what, exactly?) than kale, but so what? Are you finding chicory in your grocery store? Would you know what to do with it?

Much like with exercise (the best one is the one you do), the best leafy green is the one you eat. Anything more than that is veering into nutritionism. 8% more calcium or twice as many polyphenols doesn’t mean anything if you don’t like it, can’t find it, can’t afford it, or just won’t eat it.

These types of articles that focus on the micro-micro-micro level (the micro level being individual behaviours and choices, the micro-micro being eating behaviours, and the micro-micro-micro being this particular plant for that particular nutrient) do us all a real disservice.

The reality is that most of what impacts our health is essentially beyond our control: poverty, infrastructure, agricultural subsidies, structural racism, pollution. And those things that are within our control (for those of us privileged enough to have such control)? They’re really simple. Dead simple. Embarrassingly simple (which is certainly not to conflate simple with easy): eat lots of plants, eat a diverse diet, don’t eat too much, move as much as your body and lifestyle allow, ditto sleep, don’t drink pop, don’t smoke, floss your teeth.

That’s about it. But how many articles can you write about that? How many diet pills does “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” sell? How many clicks does “move your body every day, lift heavy stuff sometimes” get versus “the 19 fat-burning secrets THEY don’t want you to know!!”?

And, moving beyond that, what advertiser is going to pay for “Poverty Larger Risk for Diabetes Than Diet” with their right hand when their left hand is in Washington lobbying against raises to the minimum wage?

Rather than worrying about the precise micronutrient makeup of our diets and which “superfood” is trending highest (for the record, goji berries taste like literal dirt), or wading into online-fights about CrossFit, why don’t we all try to hit those basics: fresh food, lots of plants, adequate sleep and movement, lowered stress, good oral hygiene, and then spend some of that time and energy working on ensuring that those are available for all (write your representative, get involved in elections, volunteer at the community garden, organize for a living wage, donate your garden’s excess to shelters and food banks, stop supporting magazines and TV shows that peddle harmful crap).

And a friendly reminder that a lot of food banks and shelters are hitting hard times this winter. If you can contribute food or personal goods (socks, hats, mitts, scarves, toiletries and menstrual products are always needed) or even better, money, that is one small, concrete thing you can do to help the health of someone else.

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.

The Importance of Tradition

It was my birthday yesterday and though I’m not much of a birthday person I do have birthday traditions that I honour and observe each year and one I’ve introduced this year. They are, first, a delicious meal either by myself or with people I love at a restaurant I love or have wanted to try. Second, I make a birthday list, in this case, 28 things to do while I’m 28 (inspired by the awesome Rosie Molinary). And, new this year, I go through my “box of lessons learned” (more on that in a bit).

I am someone who likes ritual and routine. I find them grounding and meaningful. Ritual gives me a way to connect with myself and something outside myself, while routine grounds me in my day and my life. I’m not totally sure what the difference is between ritual and tradition, though I think they often overlap. Perhaps tradition is ritual given larger significance. It is a way to mark time, to note lessons learned, things tried, love given and lost. It is a way to give your life meaning and direction, and this is what I spend part of my birthday doing. I reflect on the previous year’s list, things checked off (got my Master’s degree, bought a DSLR, made gluten-free muffins), things left uncompleted (try salsa dancing, do 1000 burpees in a month) and things I still want to do badly enough to bring them forward into this new trip around the sun (learn to surf, get an academic article published).

It seems to me that with the increasing secularization and atomization of society and loss of community many of us have lost ritual and tradition in our lives. We have lost the importance of marking time and lessons. I don’t think this is a coincidence. When we have rituals that honour the earth we can’t help but protect it from the damages of capitalistic excess. When we spend the time to check in with ourselves and create goals that give our lives shape and meaning beyond making and spending money, producing and consuming, we are less distractable, less tractable, less willing to sign our rights and needs away to politicians and corporations who seek to exploit us for gain. So these are a few of the goals with which I give my life meaning and shape for the next year:

1. Take surf lessons
2. Try Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
3. Learn 4 songs on ukulele
4. Try one new recipe per week or 52 recipes in year
5. Run a 5k race
6. Hold crow pose for 15 seconds
7. Do Radical Self-Love Bible again
8.  Make vegan cheese from scratch
9. Dye hair blonde
10. Read 28 books

I don’t intend to hit all of them, nor will I beat myself up if I don’t. Rather, they give me something to shoot for, something to mark my time and see how my priorities and desires change. A way to check in and see what still matters, if I’m challenging myself enough, inviting enough fun in, spending time living. I invite you to try this exercise on your next birthday. This is my third year and I find it immensely rewarding each time.

My third (and new) tradition, my “box of lessons learned” started from a Facebook friend’s post. She had a jar in which she would collect all the lessons she learned for the year and read them on January 1. Because I already have my birthday list I thought this could be a nice addition. So I got a box and decoupaged some pretty paper on it and started writing. Sometimes they were hard-fought lessons. Other times they were words of wisdom I wanted to incorporate and live. Sometimes they were the small things in life that make a big difference. Here’s a few:

Clutter makes me lose my mind.

Potato chips have a low satisfaction:calorie ratio. I almost always regret them.

Interact with people like they’re already your friend.

Begin as you mean to go on.

When buying something (clothes, art, furniture) ask, “Will I love this a year from now? Five?”

Living somewhere walkable/bikeable is necessary for my physical and mental health.

A high protein breakfast and a hearty lunch with whole grains sets me up for the day.

So there you go. Goals for the next year and lessons from the previous. Traditions that give my life meaning and shape.

Needlessly Gendered Products: Laxatives

Something I am fascinated by is the products we buy that are needlessly gendered (and for which women almost always pay more). So I am going to start a semi-regular, ongoing series examining the marketing and reasoning behind needlessly gendered products as I come across them in daily life.

Today’s entry is Duculax. I saw an ad that advertised Dulcolax and, now introducing, Dulcolax for Women with the always charming implication that regular (default, normal) Dulcolax is for men (who are, similarly, regular, default, normal) while us delicate flowers need our own Dulcolax. It even comes in a pink box!

product_image product_laxative_tablets_for_women_lg_new

                                                                         And I was so curious. What is it about our delicate constitutions that requires a specially formulated laxative? Is that our insides only like pink things? (That’s probably it.) So I did a very small amount of googling and found this informative blurb from the makers of Dulcolax:

Constipation affects women more often than men1. That’s why the makers of Dulcolax® have brought you Dulcolax® Pink Laxative Tablets for women.

Huh. Okay. So constipation affects more women than men. That’s in line with the overall greater preponderance of GI issues in women than in men. But is our constipation inherently different? Is that why we need a special formulation? So I looked at the ingredients lists. Huh. Same active ingredient, same amount. So I guess our constipation isn’t really that different. Wanting to know what they said about it, I looked at the FAQs and found this gem:

What is the difference between Dulcolax® Pink Laxative Tablets and Dulcolax® Laxative Tablets?

Dulcolax® Pink Laxative Tablets is formulated differently than Dulcolax® Laxative Tablets to the extent that their inactive ingredients are different. Dulcolax® Pink Laxative Tablets still contains the same efficacious, active ingredient bisacodyl, at the same strength as Dulcolax® Laxative Tablets.
Which made me laugh for about two straight minutes. Let’s break this down, Dulcolax Pink is formulated differently than Dulcolax–well, I’d hope so. Otherwise this is a weird, pandering, moneymaking scheme based in gender essentialist bullshit–to the extent that their inactive ingredients are different–oooh. Okay. So…this is a weird, pandering, moneymaking scheme based in gender essentialist bullshit. Because the active ingredient (bisacodyl) is the same. It’s the inactive ingredients, which account for bulk and colour, that are different. Basically, Dulcolax is gonna make you poop either way, but us sensitive ladies now have the option of pooping in style!

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 Freedom as a Buyable Commodity

The other day, as I was waiting for Guardians of the Galaxy to start (fun, but a bit too pow pow! sci-fi action adventure! for me) an ad came on playing Cream’s “I Feel Free.” It took me a minute to figure out what it was selling. Freedom, certainly. And connection–it had dads videocalling in to tuck their kids in at night, a young couple recording the night sky, young surfers somehow involving their phones in what they were doing.

Turns out it was an ad for Bell Mobility, a Canadian cell phone company known for the same draconian multi-year deals as the rest, known for lobbying against regulation of the cell industry, and known, among friends, for its shit service.

If there’s one thing I think of when I think of my phone it’s sure as hell not “freedom”. It’s a multi-year contract that is disgustingly expensive, a fear of roaming and overage charges, and a count-down to when my contract ends (January 2015, for the record).

We see this appeal to freedom in the beauty industry as well:



I should note that Lupita is absolutely beautiful and the inclusion of a darker-skinned black woman in a mainstream beauty campaign is its own victory. However, the use of “freedom” by one of the largest beauty conglomerates in the world makes me feel queasy. Lancome (and its parent company, L’Oreal) only survive in the face of women’s lack of freedom to do and wear and look how they please. Without the social pressure to colour our hair, hide our greys, sculpt our brows, hide our “imperfections”, highlight our eyes, bring a “natural flush” to our cheeks, stain our lips, paint our nails, sheer off all body hair below the eyelashes, bodywash and coif ourselves into nigh unrecognizability, these companies don’t exist. This entire, multi-billion dollar industry doesn’t exist.

In the neoliberal condition rights are given up for choices. But these choices aren’t the big important choices (like what we get to do with our own bodies) they’re the choice between 75 different types of cereal, 30 different bars of soap which are essentially the same, 40 types of toothpaste. We assert our individuality through consumption. We get to make all the choices we could ever want, so long as they are about which to buy and not whether we buy.

So I am suspicious when advertisers use that which we have given up (freedom) to sell that which constrains us.

Why Capitalism Relies on You Feeling Shitty About Your Body

Hi folks, I’m afraid my posting has been a little sparse lately, due to the time (and more importantly, intellectual) requirements of taking a condensed seminar and finishing my thesis, but I’m going to try for at least one post a week.

Today I want to talk about the myriad ways we are told–both implicitly and explicitly–that we are not good enough as we are and the systems that benefit (and propagate) these messages.

The other day I was watching a new (occasionally funny but by no means unmissable) show called Friends With Better Lives, and the recurring theme in this episode was how disgusting women’s pubic hair is. Seriously. That was the running gag. The heavily pregnant Andi is told by her two closest female friends that having pubic hair is DISGUSTING, and that going to the beach with her is TRAUMATIZING. They weave the disgustingness of pubes into the entire 30- (well, 22-) minute episode. There is also a brief bit about how a pretty face doesn’t necessarily equal a “pretty vagina”–with the unfortunate term “flapjack” used to refer to a “hot” woman with an “ugly” vagina.

Now, I could rant for days, DAYS, about the symbolism of popular culture erasing entirely the vulva (home of that wonder of wonders the clitoris which is responsible for not just external orgasms but, it would appear, even so-called g-spot orgasms thanks to its wonderfully complex and expansive nature) in favour of the vagina which is literally Latin for “sheath” and, though admittedly wonderful, is culturally bound up with baby-making rather than pleasure. Especially in a show about two gynecologists! But I’m more interested, for today at least, in the messages we constantly receive about our bodies and how they are supposed to be arranged.

Now, I don’t want to rehash the pubes-wars that are trotted out every couple months for click-bait on nominally feminist websites (Jezebel and XoJane I’m looking at you!) because, frankly, I’m bored of it. And while I have firm political thoughts on the trend of shaving/waxing/what-have-you, personally? I don’t give a fuck. Whatever works for you and makes you happy to get down with yourself and/or others, do it! But what I do have a problem with is the messaging that the natural state of women’s bodies is disgusting. And that every woman is removing her pubic hair and that men (because I don’t think I’ve ever seen this conversation happen in a non-heteronormative frame) are liable to kick her out of bed for–gasp–having hair on her mons. As well as the idea that the only “pretty” vulvas are the small-inner-lips, single-crease type seen in porn–which has profoundly harmful effects on young women and, one would think, young men–after all, if your first exposure to sex and women’s bodies features only one (fairly unusual) type of vulva, coming face to, uh, vulva with nature’s variety may be a jarring experience–which the lady attached to said vulva will surely pick up on. In fact, I have heard from at least one woman who has the (relatively common though rarely talked about) groovy kind of vulva with inner lips that extend beyond the labia majora who spent much of her adolescence and early-twenties feeling ugly and ashamed because her vulva didn’t look like what she saw in porn. (For a very NSFW tour through the wide variety of vulvas check this gallery out.)

So we feel bad about our vulvas and our bush, right? Okay, good. What else can we feel bad about? Well, our leg and arm hair is an easy one.  But how about the things we aren’t explicitly told are wrong with us?

Let’s think about what bodies are commonly represented in the media. They are thin (with even women like Beyonce who are celebrated for being *CURVY* and shattering beauty ideals clocking in at a massive size 2/4), they are overwhelmingly white (and those who aren’t are often whitewashed to appear lighter-skinned), they are able-bodied, and they are photoshopped sometimes literally beyond recognition.

Now, the less critical among us will often cry out that the media just gives us what we want–we clamour for unattainable bodies so they give them to us, but the truth is that culture is both liminal and iterative–it is both reflected and shaped by media in an ongoing and somewhat cyclical nature. Interestingly, in the age of globalization and 24-hour news cycles the ideal body cycles have also sped up, though they seem to be doing so in an inwardly spiralling nature rather than a circular one–though (some) women’s bodies are increasingly being allowed to show (slight) muscle definition and have some curves, the expectation remains that these muscular and/or curvy bodies will be much thinner than most women can attain through sane, healthy habits.

But why? On a very basic level, pushing unattainable, toxic ideals about beauty seems like madness, does it not? If we’re all just trying to live our lives and love our people and, ideally, leave the world a tiny bit better than we found it, why would we accept and promote white supremacist (meaning idealizing and normalizing whiteness, not wearing robes and listening to David Duke), unattainably thin, ableist (where disabled bodies are undervalued and treated as abnormal), and unattainably perfect norms and expectations? Doesn’t that seem like a perfect recipe for misery?

Well, bad news: it is! See, late-stage capitalism requires near-constant consumption. And since there are pretty natural limits on the number of houses and cars we can reasonably own (and I’ve spoken elsewhere about the problem of inelastic demand with regards to food), we had to move beyond the basics. Shaving legs and armpits became a norm in North America when shaving companies (specifically Gillette) saw an untapped market and created a new need by demonizing what had, until then, been seen as a normal part of women’s bodies. Interestingly, like with many trends, it started as a symbol of status among upper class white women and slowly trickled down to the rest of society. And whereas soap used to just be soap, we can only use so much soap. But body wash and face wash (because our faces…aren’t part of our bodies?) and clarifying shampoo and normal conditioner as well as deep conditioning conditioner and moisturizer and primer and foundation and concealer and powder and blush and bronzer and highlighter and moroccan oil and cellulite-cream and body wraps and self-tanner and skin-lightening cream and wax and razors and depilatory cream? Well, that’s a $400 BILLION+ industry.

But it’s not just the beauty industry (and, more broadly, capitalism) that benefits from the almost incalculable hours, dollars, and energy that goes into changing how we look. Cause all those hours and dollars and energy could be going into far better things. Things like equal pay campaigns; the labour and union movements; reproductive justice; ending corporate personhood; lobbying for policies that make residential and retail redlining illegal; protesting racist immigration policies; ending factory farming; getting national affordable child care; art; dancing; laughing; cooking; anything but feeling shitty about ourselves and propping up the industries and systems that exploit vulnerabilities for profit. Systems like the patriarchy which relies on women being preoccupied with shit that just doesn’t matter rather than organizing our considerable numbers and talent for true equality; globalization which exploits primarily women of colour in developing nations while simultaneously extracting and poisoning their natural resources; and white supremacy which relies on the continued oppression and marginalization of people of colour to prop up the invisibilized economic and social privilege of whiteness.

So where does this leave us? We’ve got fucked up industries and systems that make us feel bad in order to distract us and exploit us. And though it sounds like a nice idea to just opt out, it isn’t that simple. Because the rest of the world isn’t going to opt out with us over night–so we will still be judged unprofessional for not wearing make-up, we may be judged as lazy for being fat, not good enough for any and every way we choose not to buy into this broken system.

Well, I think the first step is really understanding the scope of the issue and understanding how our choices are shaped by cultural norms. Once we have done that, we can start to decide which pieces we’re going to hold on to (for now) and which pieces we’re throwing onto the compost heap out back. Me? I like make-up. I find it fun, so I wear it sometimes and on days I don’t feel like it I remind myself that expectations of a made-up face are bullshit. I’m going to continue working on loving my body as it is and remembering that my worth is entirely unrelated to the size and shape of my body. I’m going to engage critically with the messages that tell me I must buy! buy! buy! and ask myself 1) Do I legitimately benefit from this or am I harmed explicitly or implicitly by buying this? 2) Why do I think I need this? and 3) Who benefits from my dollars and energy going into this product and/or idea?

But more than that, I’m not going to give away my time, energy, and dollars to bullshit. I’m going to spend time working for the things that matter to me through my academic work, through my professional work, through writing, and volunteering. I’m going to vote for progressive parties committed to abortion and labour rights, I’m going to support progressive independent media, and I’m going to surround myself by awesome, critical, body-positive people.