fitness · Weekends with Womack

On inspiration and irritation: some thoughts inspired by Sat with Nat

Reading Natalie’s post on Saturday about the negative side of “being an inspiration” gave me pause. I have to admit, I’m very impressionable when it comes to finding others inspiring, especially when they a) do things I’m scared to do or don’t feel competent to do; or b) do things I would like to do, and from a standpoint that in some way feels similar to mine (e.g. perception of similar age, fitness level, economic position, body type, etc.). The former makes me think, “wow, here’s another human doing this scary thing! Maybe I can do it too.” The latter makes me think, “oh—this person is like me (in some way or other), so maybe I can do that thing too”. I’m always on the lookout for inspiration-pumps, as I know that I work better in the world with external encouragements or influences.

One other important way that other people inspire me: they open up for my consideration activities that I might not have found interesting or worthwhile. Tracy, for instance, has inspired me to try running, which I’ve always thought I hated. Actually, I never really put in any real effort at it, but reading about her training processes and progress, I thought, “hey—maybe I could do this too and like it”. And Natalie’s posts about running and liking it also make me think, “Huh– here’s yet another human who seems to like running. Maybe this is a thing…”

But I get what Natalie’s saying—there’s a way in which “being an inspiration” can have the following subtext: X is an inspiration because X did this thing that no one would ever believe that X, or people like X, could do.

And that definitely seems condescending and irritating.

The Fit Fatties facebook group has loads of posts in which members relate stories about being in the middle of running (or jumping, yoga-ing, cycling, triathlon-ing, dancing, paddling, walking, throwing, or any number of physical activities), only to have someone (usually a stranger) interrupt their fun to blurt out accolades of how inspiring said Fit Fatty is. It’s usually followed by gushing encouragement or praise—“you go girl!” “Good for you—keep it up!” At which point the aforementioned Fit Fatty in question reports feeling angry, frustrated, sad, offended, and upset. This has certainly happened to me (on a bike, in a kayak, on skis, while tap dancing), and it’s very annoying at best and undermining at worst.

As someone who teaches and loves philosophy, I hope to inspire some of my students to read, write, think, calculate and question more in their own lives. I even get subversive pleasure (the best kind!) from being someone with a lot of knowledge of logic and mathematics while at the same time being female. And yes, this fact is surprising to some students. I know some of them are thinking, “how can she know how to do that and be a girl at the same time?” Just stand back and watch me prove that theorem, kiddos…

But the upshot is that it’s okay with me to stand as a role model, an inspiration, a success story to them if it helps them shift their notion of what an intellectual/philosopher/logician is so to include folks who look like me.

But in the physical arena, I don’t always feel as confident or sanguine about my identity as an athlete to be able to tolerate fitspo cheering, praise, encouragement, etc. Being an athlete is a part of my identity and has been my whole life from early in my childhood. However, for a lot of reasons, that identity feels more vulnerable than say, my identity as an intellectual. Talking about vulnerability in identity feels, well, uncomfortable. No duh.

However, I think it’s worth noting this potential distinction—which aspects of our identity we are more comfortable with under conditions of being cited as “an inspiration”, and which aspects provoke us. Let me be clear– I’m not saying that this lets everyone else off the hook with respect to condescending “you can do it!” kibitzing comments. It’s flat-out annoying, and people should learn to be more sensitive or put a sock in it.  Especially if they’re not sure what (if any) comments some occasion calls for– this is probably good advice in general, by the way.

It’s probably useful to know where we are tender and where we are tougher. And we have some choices – we can protect the tender parts, or we can try to toughen up those parts. We have the right to do either or both. In the meantime, I’m going to think more on this, as Natalie has inspired me… J


5 thoughts on “On inspiration and irritation: some thoughts inspired by Sat with Nat

  1. All of this is so tricky. I hate it when people find me inspiring in the “if you can do it, clearly anyone can do it” sense. Look a fat girl on a bike! But more often than not, that’s about me, not them. More often than not, it’s the package they find inspiring. Big job, kids, big life, etc. And still I find time to ride my bike. Or these days they’re often inspired, not by my size, but by my willingness to put myself out there, to maintain a body positive attitude in face of strong cultural norms that tell me I ought to be ashamed of how I look. Or they might be inspired by my willingness to take on risk. I might be last. So what? There’s lots of different things people might be inspired by and I try to assume the best and not the worst.

  2. I love your perspective Catherine. I agree there are ways in which I feel vulnerable doing activities. I fall prey to having unrealistic expectations. when I don’t meet those expectations and folks say I’m inspiring I think “are you fucking kidding me?”
    Also my Facebook feed was filled with accolades and loving feedback to my post.
    All to say I really enjoy your thoughtful response 🙂

  3. I never thought of it that way, and tend not to do that, at least not while the people are in earshot, but it does tend to be condescending doesn’t it? As if you are pointing out all the reasons why they can’t or shouldn’t be doing that whilst still throwing all the praise you have at them. Definitely something to think about!

  4. This really made me think! I feel like when I have said you’re an inspiration to people, I have always meant it as a compliment. A way to share what a profound impact they have had on me. That being said, the idea that it could be condescending has me rethinking ways I could share their value in my life.

  5. Methinks it depends who is making the compliment.

    It can be condescending if the person is already a high achieving sports oriented person and doesn’t know you. Or if the person knew you really well and knew how difficult it has been to get there… then it may be a compliment.

    In most cases the compliment can be phrased differently so it doesn’t sound condescending: ie. “That’s great. Hope you keep on enjoying it (the sport) and the good buzz”.

    “Inspire” might be an over-used adjective in some cases. I would tend to think more the person meant, “it got me thinking to try it too…”

    Come to think of it, the triathlete nun, Madonna Buder from Spokane, Washington (now in her 80’s) must have constantly gotten inspiration- oriented compliments. I’m sure she accepts every single one of them with graciousness and thankfulness.

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