Photo by Keith Ford
by Amanda Lynn Stubley
I didn’t want to write this guest entry. Not at all. The first time this blog appeared in my newsfeed, my thought was “that’s not for me.” As I kept seeing entries on the blog, I started to wonder at the questions they posed: What would it be like to feel strong? What are the feminist implications of fitness, especially women’s fitness?
To say my relationship with exercise has been difficult hardly begins to tell my story. I grew up in a family where working hard was a required survival skill, and ‘exercise’ as leisure activity didn’t exist. When my family’s material comforts improved and physical job demands eased, exercise didn’t get added to our lifestyle. When I was six we moved from northern BC to a rural BC coastal town. It was the 1970s West Coast, and fitness and “Particip-Action” were in.
I moved from a tiny Alaska Highway town of 800. In my new town, we did a “morning run” of a couple of kilometres starting in grade 1. To me, it might as well have been 1,000 miles. I had never moved like that, and I quickly found myself falling behind my classmates and gasping for air. No one helped me figure out how to handle these new activities, explained pacing or endurance. I concluded they were just not for me. By grade 4, I was regularly spraining an ankle on tree roots in our school’s woodchip trail. Frequent were my trips to the hospital for an x-ray, and equally frequent were eye-rolls and quiet looks from the doctors, physiotherapists and other adults. I was living out the lesson I quickly learned in grade 1 – I was not built for exercise.
My parents, bewildered themselves by this exercise craze, did their best to support me. To the doctor, then the hospital for an x-ray, and then physiotherapy we would go for my ankle. “You must be a ballerina, you’re so flexible!” the physiotherapists would remark, measuring the extreme flexibility of my ankles. “No,” I’d say, basking in at least this one kindly remark. In grade 6 a specialist in the city explained. I had an extra bone in my left foot. It was causing instability and tendon troubles in my ankle. Later that year I broke my right arm in a fall at a swimming pool. That too proved to be problematic, taking 4 days to successfully diagnose. The following year, I slipped while running and injured my ‘good’ ankle. Unlike my typical sprains, this was instantly, massively swollen. Back to the hospital, the x-ray was negative and they presumed torn ligaments. I was to stay off it for 6-8 weeks. Four months later it was still swollen so we went back to the city. It turned out it was a significant fracture, and although it had healed, the doctor was quite upset it hadn’t been casted.
Both of these fractures happened in early spring, and their net effect was that I was inactive for two springs and summers. By the following year I was in grade 8 and had gone through puberty. My body, already difficult to deploy for exercise, seemed entirely foreign to me. Thus ended my attempts at engagement in sports. I had played softball, but no longer could throw and hit a ball. I had swam in our little town’s synchronized swimming team, but the fees went up significantly so I stopped.
Like many folks, I suffered through highschool gym classes. I quit at the first available opportunity, grade 11. I actively avoided anything that might possibly be considered exercise for the rest of my teenage years and well into my 20s. Kids were cruel, and I didn’t need the humiliation. At some point my physical fitness, which looking back had been just fine, deteriorated and I started huffing and puffing up stairs and hills. It wasn’t all bad though. I went canoeing with a boyfriend and I LOVED it. When we broke up, I took a course, so I could steer the dang canoe without needing a man. And now I can stern a canoe like nobody’s business.
But my relationship with fitness and exercise is still a painful one for me. I struggle to face the most basic activity, and not because I’m out of shape. For me, just going for a walk can bring demons. Inner voices, imagined eye rolls, they all send the same message: ‘this is not for you, this is not who you are!’
In my 20s, I gave myself permission to not do stuff, but that solution is no longer the best one for me. I want to enjoy activities like hiking, biking, walking, without an impending sense of dread. And to the point of this blog, it is a feminist issue – women find power and agency in various ways, not the least of which through using our strong bodies. And as I solidly settle into middle age, it is becoming abundantly clear that if my body is going to remain strong, I need to maintain it.
I am a singer and I play guitar and banjo. After each performance, my exhaustion reminds me that playing and singing for 3 hours is rigorous. Yet, the ‘exercise demons’ don’t come out when I perform….
These days, much to my surprise, I’m feeling like walking. After years of fearing and avoiding “exercise,” my body is sending me a message that it wants some activity. I’m not very comfortable with this. I don’t always listen to the message, and I often refuse to take a walk. But sometimes I do actually walk. Last year I bought some yak-traks for my boots and walked in winter. As winter approaches, I’m wondering about starting a walking regime. It’s scary, but my inner compulsion to move is starting to compete with the demons telling me not to. It may be a simple act, but walking may be one of the most feminist things I can do this winter.
Amanda Lynn Stubley is a folklorist and radio DJ. She plays in the band , The Heartaches, and is the proud mom of two young boys.