Selling Wellness

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Photo by Crew on Unsplash

If you’ve spent any time on the internet you’ve encountered “wellness.” You can probably list off the things that “wellness” is a euphemism for: whiteness, thinness, able-bodiedness, middle/upper classness, performative consumption.

Wellness, rather than the state of being well, is an ongoing project by which certain (mostly? exclusively?) women either signal their inclusion in an exclusive strata or strive to gain entry.

As the president of Saks Fifth Avenue said,

“The wellness thing is big”…”We’re calling it ‘the new luxury.’ It used to be about fur and leather. But people just want to feel better.”

Wellness, if you were to only examine it through the lens of Instagram and lifestyle bloggers, is about $12 cold-pressed juices, yoga poses that photograph well, $50 water bottles (no, I will never get over how expensive those god damn water bottles are), and something else. What is that other thing? Oh, yes, being young, thin, white, and conventionally attractive.  Continue reading “Selling Wellness”

How Do You Evaluate Health Claims?

pom_wonderful_ad_540It seems like every day there is a new health fad people are talking about on Facebook, mentioning in the office, or being made into a documentary of questionable truth value. Many, if not all, of these play on our deep wish to be in control of bodies that simply refuse to do as we say. And in a society that is deeply unjust, that is facing increasing anxiety about climate change, fears of nuclear war due to a certain orange monster, and unreasonable capitalistic expectations when it comes to labour and work/life boundaries (or lack there of) these fads gain traction quickly. We all want that magic bullet that will insulate us from disease, pain, and suffering. And most of us are not trained in evidence-based medicine. Very few of us, unfortunately, are given the tools to properly evaluate health claims. So I’m offering a crash course in evaluating health (or other scientific, but I’ll focus on health) claims. Continue reading “How Do You Evaluate Health Claims?”

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”

Stop Telling Me Not to Sit

458709_NINATUFTEDCHAIRFUSCHIA_3/4FRONTStudy after study and article after article (after article after article ad infinitum) tells us the dangers of being sedentary. Death is lurking around the corner of every office chair. We know this. Everyone even remotely interested in health and fitness know this at this point. Anyone who accidentally spent two minutes on Facebook in the past year knows this.

     What we don’t know is what to do about it. Because the fact is there are structures in place that keep certain people desk-bound and run others ragged off their feet. Those people in white collar jobs don’t actually have much say about the amount of time they spend sitting. Corporate culture dictates spending 8+ hours sitting at your desk, working on a computer. I work in the anti-violence movement (that is to say, far from corporate culture) and I still spend the vast majority of my day sitting, either at a desk on the computer or in session with clients.

     So being told, over and over, that sitting is going to kill me isn’t actually helpful. I know that sitting all day isn’t very good for me. I incorporate as much walking and movement as I can into my day. But the reality is that the expectations of my job involve a lot of sitting. So article after article after article framing sitting as the number one menace is nothing more than click bait-y fear mongering if there are no concrete systemic solutions presented.
     When you think about what a lot of white collar jobs look like, they certainly don’t need to be 8 (or 10 or 12) hour days, and, well, a lot of them could just not exist at all. Think about how many jobs involve trading imaginary money for imaginary stocks. Think about how many bureaucratic positions universities and corporations have, many of which seem to have as their prime directive the justification of their own positions. Think about how many jobs exist simply to keep the capitalism machine running, rather than adding actual value to society and meaning to individual lives. The problem with corporate culture goes far beyond death-sitting.
     Of course, if we take a step back, we can see a more troubling aspect to this obsession with deadly sitting: it excludes huge swaths of people working physically demanding low-pay jobs and is hugely ableist.
     There are many people who are, for a variety of reasons, reliant on wheelchairs or other mobility aids or who spend much of their time lying down or sitting due to chronic pain and/or disability. I can’t imagine seeing article after article decrying the dangers of sitting all day is all that helpful for a wheelchair user.
     And then there are the very many people who spend upwards of eight hours a day on their feet. These are the fast-food and retail workers who make minimum wage, who work through illness because sick days don’t exist for low-wage workers, who juggle two or more jobs at a time because, despite working full time, they still make less than a living wage.
     These folks are standing all day! Every day! So they should be set, right? No need for a treadmill desk when you stand at a fryer or an espresso machine all day! Fit as a fiddle, right?
     Well…not exactly. If you compare the sedentary office sitters to the constantly standing and walking factory, retail, and fast food workers, you’ll find, on a population level, that office sitters have significantly better health, despite their daily dance with death in the form of an office chair. Why? Because poverty is far more detrimental to almost every health measure than sitting at a desk all day.
     So, please, stop telling me not to sit. Instead, tell me how we can provide a living wage to everyone, regardless of the type of work that they do. Tell me how we can follow The Netherlands’ lead and work a four day work week while retaining benefits so we can have a better work-life balance. Tell me how we can shift from a car-culture to more sustainable options that give people who are able the chance to bike or walk to work. Tell me how we can shift from a consumer-driven culture to a community-driven culture. Tell me anything but the dangers of sitting.
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My apologies, WordPress has apparently decided to do away with paragraph breaks for this post only so the formatting is not especially readable.

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.

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 (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.)

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.

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.

On the Unfairness of it All

Kelly’s amazing post over at The Superbalanced Life has got me thinking today. It’s this sentence that was like a clanging claxon, speaking a truth I haven’t fully processed:

My big epiphany yesterday was that what I am most angry and sad about is the realization that I will have to be mindful about food for the rest of my life.

After a life time of being fat*–being a fat kid, an awkward fat teen, a fat young adult–all the pieces came together and I was at a great size/weight for myself, easily. I ate mostly what I wanted and exercised a ton because I’d just learned the joy of distance cycling and used my bike and my feet as my primary means of transportation.

And I stayed there for a good few years. Until I had a catastrophic year of everything you can imagine going wrong (two GI parasites, ibs, vertigo, a gallbladder that malfunctioned entirely and had to be removed, a devastating break-up, a high-stress, dysfunctional work environment) and I gained a bunch of weight. Twenty pounds after surgery that seemed about right after a year of not being able to eat (and losing too much weight quickly) due to GI shenanigans and being on bed-rest for two months. And then twenty more pounds that coincided/caused(?) the development of PCOS. Those second twenty pounds were thanks to a sedentary job and very slow recovery from surgery which left me very inactive, eating take-out because I was too beat to cook, and emotional eating because my work situation was slowly killing me.

As my weight stabilized and I got PCOS under control and I’ve slowly started to lose weight I’ve found myself faced with that anger: I’ll have to be mindful about food (and movement) for the rest of my life. But it’s so UNFAIR! *stomps feet*

Why do all my thin friends not have to worry about this? Why am I the only person that has to think about what I’m eating, how much I’m eating, how much I’m moving? Why do I have to course-correct when I get too busy for a week to be as active as I’d like or I go out for dinner too many times in a week? IT’S NOT FAIR!!

But hold on…I’ve been spending lots of time with a friend who is very slim. And you know what? She thinks a lot about what she’s eating and how much she’s eating and how much she’s moving. And though she eats the things she loves, she eats small amounts. And I had lunch with another lovely friend who is both slim and petite. And she ordered a huge wrap and fries. Why can my lovely petite friend order a huge wrap and fries and be slim like that? Oh, it’s because she ate all her fries and just a little of her wrap. And then there’s my other dear friend who regularly takes half of what she orders home.

So maybe…it’s not that they can eat whatever, whenever, and as much as they want. Maybe it’s that they eat the things they love but in just-enough quantities. Maybe it’s that they are well attuned to their bodies’ needs and can, at this point, self-regulate quite easily. Maybe there’s all this other stuff happening behind the scenes that we don’t normally see. Maybe they’re stressed and so they’re not eating enough. Maybe they are a lot more active than we think.

And so maybe it’s not actually all that unfair. Maybe I just have some more work to do on heeding my body’s signals and being active and eating in a way that supports my goals.

But I did title this the Unfairness of It All, right? So if we’ve figured out that there isn’t actually some karmic injustice in which slim people can eat anything and everything they want whenever they want without thinking about it, where’s the unfairness?

The unfairness is in how our society has taught us to think of slim people versus fat people. The unconscious associations we make about worth and goodness and intelligence. The messages that tell us that someone above a certain size isn’t fuckable, no matter how gorgeous their face, how luscious their body, how sexy their brain. The ways that we, especially (but not solely) women, have internalized this toxic bullshit, often regardless of size. I am as happy (most days) in my body now than I was 40 pounds ago because what I was seeing 40 pounds ago was skewed by society’s bullshit. This is the body I’ve got now. I might as well love it and create sustainable change rather than trying to hate myself thin.

And the unfairness is in the subsidies agriculture conglomerates get to market and produce highly-palatable, nutritionally devoid play food to poor people and people of colour. The unfairness is in the inner city food deserts and the single mom working three jobs who doesn’t have time to cook. The unfairness is in the astronomical price for Crossfit when millions of people don’t even have a park where it’s safe enough to go walk and play. The unfairness is in a society that teaches us to strive to be thin while enticing and inducing rampant consumption.

It is unfair, it is terribly unfair, that we now live in a world so overrun with corporate greed and malfeasance that we must be on guard against the advertising and marketing and laws that make it a lot easier to eat 1000 calories of Doritos than 100 calories of broccoli. And it is unpleasant (at first) that we must go so out of our way to undo the effects of the sedentary North American lifestyle. But there is no injustice in being responsible for your own energy balance and activity if you have the privilege of time, safety, and access to attend to it. That is the piece we are each responsible for as we fight the broader systems that wage war against food security.

*I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being fat. If that is what your lifestyle and genetics team up for and you’re happy there, you go on with your bad self. I didn’t feel happy or healthy above that size.