Stop flossing right now? Or not…

I loved the list of 40 things you can stop doing right now. It included peeling vegetables before you cook them (duh) but also a bunch of personal health related things such as getting eight hours sleep all in a row (it’s okay to wake during the night and go back to sleep, in two stages), drinking eight glasses of water, and flossing. My favourite that is all on all of these “don’t bother” lists is stretching.

I loved the list because we all think there are so many things we all think we have to do when it comes to our own personal health. The health related personal demands on the individual are pretty high right now, whether it’s getting 10,000 steps, or eating 10-12 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Call this list of demands the health imperative. It’s a feature of the society in which we live. It’s about individual responsibility for maintaining a healthy body and it’s a lot of work.

We assume there is good evidence for disciplining our bodies in all these many ways, but what if the evidence for a practice just isn’t there?

In August, the British Dental Association’s scientific adviser declared flossing to be pointless, adding that all floss-based studies of the past 25 years have been of “very low quality”. If you’ve never flossed your teeth, you were right all along. Go out there today and flash the world that foul-smelling, grey-green smile of yours. You’ve earned this. (from the 40 things list)

Here’s the LA Times piece on flossing,

When the federal government issued its latest dietary guidelines this year, the flossing recommendation had been removed, without notice. In a letter to the AP, the government acknowledged the effectiveness of flossing had never been researched, as required.

The AP looked at the most rigorous research conducted over the last decade, focusing on 25 studies that generally compared the use of a toothbrush with the combination of toothbrushes and floss. The findings? The evidence for flossing is “weak, very unreliable,” of “very low” quality, and carries “a moderate to large potential for bias.”

What does this mean for you? Well, floss if you want to but don’t do it because you think you ought to. You get no credits in the self-care column when it comes to flossing. Maybe you just like the feeling of clean spaces between your teeth (I get that) but if you’ve been doing for reasons of dental health and hating it, now might be the time to stop.

Rebecca Kukla (who guest blogs here)  recently posted to Facebook about flossing when the dentist was busy advising her son to floss. She admitted she was tempted to give the dentist a lecture about evidence-based medicine and about patronizing science-free advice that impedes epistemic agency.

Frankly, I was surprised at the many defenders of flossing who cropped up. Not defenders of the practice (it’s okay, floss if you want to, see above) but defenders of the imperative, the claim that we ought to floss. After all the articles above don’t say that flossing doesn’t work, only that the studies that it set out to show that it benefits offered very little proof. It still might be the case that flossing is really important. (Of course, it might also be really important to hop on one foot and howl at the moon. We just don’t know. The evidence is weak but ti still might be true.)

The debate on Rebecca’s page went on, so many defenders of flossing, and I loved her response and I’m quoting it here with permission.

“People who are standing up for something like the “floss because it can’t hurt and maybe it will help even though science hasn’t managed to show it” line: If you like flossing (I do after corn or bbq!) then by all means enjoy it. But here is the problem. Medical and other institutions are constantly adding countless things that we ‘should’ do ‘just to be safe’ despite minimal or no evidence of benefit, and then these get weirdly moralized, so you’re an irresponsible person/parent (especially parent!) if you don’t do them. Each one may be small but we can’t POSSIBLY do all of them. We would have no life. They accumulate. So at some point you have to recognize that through sheer number they become micro-aggressions, in effect. If there is no evidence for something helping, the most you should say is “Well it seems unlikely to hurt [assuming that’s true; it isn’t always] but it’s really up to you.” This ‘It’s important that you do it just in case it helps’ bullshit has got to stop. And it is disproportionately directed at mothers of course.”

That’s what I like about the 40 things list. It urges us to relax, and to push back against the health imperative. And for good God, stop measuring all the things–drinking EIGHT glasses of water, sleeping EIGHT hours a night, eating TEN TO TWELVE servings of fruits and vegetables, walking TEN THOUSAND steps, flossing ONCE a day and so on and so on. Also, for God sake, stop with all the measuring! Enough! (Don’t get me started on weight, percent body fat. and BMI. See this a guest post from this weekend about all that.)

I had a roommate in grad school who every night confronted her own personal health imperative dilemma, sits ups or flossing? Every night we’d finish our work, work some TV, and then the debate would begin, which would she do, sit ups or flossing? She’d committed to one or the other each night. Luckily the standard issue sit up has also been debunked so now she can relax.

How do you feel about the very long list of health related things we all ought to do? Do you agree with Rebecca that the list of demands hits mothers worst? What, if anything, are you knocking off your list?





body image · fitness

Size acceptance fashion ally missing the mark

Even if you don’t prowl the fashion pages of the web, you probably saw the fracas over Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones’ difficulty in finding a designer to dress her for the film premiere.  If you were outside at the time, here is her tweet:

Leslie Jones' tweet about how no designers will help her with a dress for the Ghostbusters premiere.

The putative reason why designers were not stepping up is that Leslie Jones is not a size 2 or 4, and many designers have samples available only in those sizes.  However, this week on PBS News Hour (and last month in the Washington Post), fashion guru Tim Gunn called out the fashion industry for not serving most American women, which he says are on average between a size 16 and 18.  Why?  He fills us in below:

I’ve spoken to many designers and merchandisers about this. The overwhelming response is, “I’m not interested in her.” Why? “I don’t want her wearing my clothes.” Why? “She won’t look the way that I want her to look.” They say the plus-size woman is complicated, different and difficult, that no two size 16s are alike. Some haven’t bothered to hide their contempt. “No one wants to see curvy women” on the runway, Karl Lagerfeld, head designer of Chanel, said in 2009. Plenty of mass retailers are no more enlightened: Under the tenure of chief executive Mike Jeffries, Abercrombie & Fitch sold nothing larger than a size 10, with Jeffries explaining that “we go after the attractive, all-American kid.”

The fact that designers make clothing based on the ideal of a long, thin body (which doesn’t reflect the anatomy of almost any actual woman, including fashion models) is no news to anyone who has ever shopped.  And it’s certainly no news here on the blog.

Why I writing about this here and now, though, is because of what Gunn goes on to say, in service of size advocacy:

This is a design failure and not a customer issue. There is no reason larger women can’t look just as fabulous as all other women. The key is the harmonious balance of silhouette, proportion and fit, regardless of size or shape. Designs need to be reconceived, not just sized up; it’s a matter of adjusting proportions. The textile changes, every seam changes. Done right, our clothing can create an optical illusion that helps us look taller and slimmer. Done wrong, and we look worse than if we were naked.


Now did Gunn go wrong here?  Simply put, he’s not challenging the designer ideal at all.  He still signs on to the view that looking taller and slimmer is an appropriate goal for all women (including tall and slim women).  And he admits that this is an optical illusion– that none of us actually look the way that fashion dictates we should look.  With bad design, we are also in danger of looking “worse than if we were naked”.

Let me understand this. The look of the naked woman (all naked women? size 6 and up women?) is bad and to be avoided by appropriate fabric draping?


Woman grabbing her hair and yelling in frustration-- argh!

Okay, enough quoting and sniping here.  But seriously, Gunn is presenting himself as an ally for non-model-sized women.  And he is making good points (and getting good press) for calling out the fashion industry for ignoring the fashion and design needs of most women.

But to be a real ally for size acceptance, he needs to do something he probably doesn’t want to do:  let go of the tall, thin, and able body as an ideal for women’s appearance.  Saying that all of us should have access to this ideal via fashion designs that create an illusion of thinness is not serving goals of body positivity.  What I wish he had said was something like this:

Women (and men) come in all shapes, and there is beauty in their wondrous variety.  Designers should design for the diverse bodies we have, showing some imagination in emphasizing all sorts of silhouettes.  It will make fashion not only more accessible, but also more interesting.  I will end here with evidence for my claim, which is the group shot of the Ghostbusters stars.  Who looks the most fabulous here?  Honestly, my vote is for Melissa McCarthy, but there’s enough fabulousness out there for all of us.


The stars of Ghostbusters at the film premiere, in a variety of beautiful dresses.



accessibility · competition · disability · Guest Post · Rowing · SamanthaWalsh

Row Row Row Your Boat Out of Your Semi Existential Funk (Guest post)

by Samantha Walsh

I would like to thank Fit is a Feminist Issue and specifically Samantha (who shares my name) for the opportunity to write a guest blog post.  Over the past two years I have been looking for, and thus experimenting with, new sports and new challenges. The impetus for finding new fitness activities was a neck injury that changed the way I have to participate in sport and activity.


A little bit about me

To begin a little info about myself: I am 33, I am doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Toronto. I have held positions in both non-for-profit as well as post secondary institutions. I identify as a feminist and have an interest in social justice work.  I also have a condition called cerebral palsy which effects my coordination and ability to walk. I use a wheelchair to get around.   Much of my research and written work focuses on the social position of disability as it relates to class position and intersections of identity.  This blog post will venture in a new direct as a personal reflection on shifting your paradigm and identity.  I hurt my neck two years ago, and had to give up many of the activities I really liked, for a time.  I have been cleared to go back to most of them but, still really struggle to get back to the level of fitness I once had. It was the pursuit of new activities that brought me to rowing; and rowing which shifted the way I think about my own situation.

Row Row Row your Boat But, Wait There’s More

I took a “Learn to Row” from the Argonauts Rowing club in Toronto last year (2015). A “learn to row “is a beginner program where you literally learn to row; I was introduced to some of the rowing lexicon. I was taught how to row with the most efficient form.   During this time I had the opportunity to row a single.  I was also taught about the different adaptations that can be made to a boat to support a disabled rower. For example: A fixed seat so the rower is using their torso and arms, if they do not have coordination of their legs.  In competitive adapted rowing it is my understanding that rowers are classified based on their ability and then their times are compared.

It was also at this time, I learned the beloved childhood song “Row row row your boat”, is delightfully inaccurate, as it should likely include the phrase “Legs, back, arms” or “Oh my hamstrings”. Rowing was a full body workout and unexpectedly profoundly challenging.  I had befriended some varsity rowers during my undergraduate studies and had always thought the sport was neat.  I had wanted to try but, really struggled to find a rowing club that would accommodate the fact I have cerebral palsy and cannot walk. I had shelved the interest until a neck injury, mentioned above, made it difficult for me to participate in my usual fitness activities.  I was looking for something: that was a full body workout; that was social; not a team sport; could be done recreationally and able to be adapted.

Finding a New Sport Not So Easy When You Have a Disability

I started googling…An ongoing challenge I find as a disabled person whom is interested in their own fitness and recreation but, not interested in competition or team sports, is that I really struggle to find opportunities that provide: a challenging and comprehensive workout with a social component.  I find it is difficult for me to simply enroll in a sport ’n social league or other recreational things because, they often assume the participant will be able-bodied. The able body is almost compulsory for joining any sort of recreational sport.  For example: I have able bodied friends who are learning how to curl.  This seems like a great winter sport. It’s a fun game with the tradition of a beer after.  I know there is Wheelchair Curling. I have seen it on TV. However, I cannot find a league near me which supports wheelchair curling, so I do not curl.

I find often when I do find mainstream activities that welcome me and are reflexive to adaptation it is through a friend, a fitness instructor or coach who is excited to have different bodies in their class. I still find that the most common refrain for finding adapted sport is to rely on a team based program such as wheelchair basketball or a rehabilitation initiative. Moreover, adaptive sports equipment is often double or triple what an “able bodied” athlete would pay. For example: Running shoes versus the cost of a Racing Wheelchair. I long to be able to join beer leagues, workplace softball teams and drop in yoga classes. I am at a point in my life where my leisure time is limited. I am not interested in the lonely pursuits of excellene or segregated sports (these of course have their place). This is why, I was impressed to see the Argonauts advertised an adapted learn to row on their website. I was able to join for a fee and with very little self disclosure of my disability.  While rowing is a sport which typically favors those of higher socio-economic status it was a pleasant surprise to find out that the club had an open-door policy in regards to ability. However, I do recognize that it is my own privilege of being employed and having a disposable income that made my adventure in rowing possible.

You Are Only New Once…Or In The case of Rowing You Are New For Almost Two Years….

As mentioned above, I took a “learn to row” in 2015 and then returned for a second year of rowing in an adaptive program in 2016. I was really focused on rowing as a way to get a full body work out. I chose to row a single with a sliding seat that was comparable to an able bodied rower.  The single had pontoons on it as almost a training wheel system while, I learned to balance.  At the end of the 2015 season, I met another rower, Bill  (who was an single leg amputee) at an end of season party.  He offered to row a double with me.  In 2016, I practiced rowing both a double and a single.  While I had really enjoyed rowing a single; I liked the coaching I was receiving and really appreciated the solitude that rowing a single occasionally brought (other times it was a lot of trying not to row into things).  Rowing a double was a bit of a game changer for me.

 The Little Voice in the Back of your head, Or  If You Row the Person Speaking To the Back of Your Head

I had been very happy rowing a single.  The coaching style of the rowing club was one of positive feedback and constant things to build on. I felt like there was an assumed mutual respect. I was not in a subordinate position but, rather someone happy to learn from another person whom was happy to teach. This coaching style was in part why I looked forward to rowing, it was a happy add on to the beautiful scenery and comprehensive workout. Rowing a single though had not yielded me very many social opportunities. I did not know very many of the other rowers and often only spoke with my only my coach on the dock.  Additionally, early on I had told the club I was not interested in racing or competitive rowing. That I would be rowing just to get back into shape. Pleasantly, everyone seemed to respect this. To be fair though a novice rower does not usually compete.

The first night I rowed a double with Bill he made a point to introduce me to everyone he knew on the dock. Each person we encountered he would have a little story for. He would always introduce me with a little quip about losing a bet and having to row with him; or some interesting fact about me. I met a lot of different people very quickly.  In the boat Bill sat behind me doing a lot of the balancing and steering. He gave me feedback on my rowing.  He told me I was fast. He said I was always improving. Bill would go out in any kind of weather. Every time, I said the weather was bad, he would say something about the perfect day never comes. Often, I went with him on whatever adventure course he was set for.  He introduced me to more people. He talked to the coordinator and coaches about my progress.  He told me I should race. An interesting nuance or at least how I understood it.  The idea of racing was not to seize elite status but, to race for myself. Race as a challenge; a way to get more involved in the club; a way to meet more people. Everyone around me was receptive to this idea. I started to work on race starts, and being able to row racing distances.

Race Day

The regatta Bill and I enter was a recreational one hosted by our club. The water was awful that day.  It was windy and choppy.  At one point a coach remarked we would likely not be in the water but, it was a regatta.  But, remember, if you wait for the perfect day you will never go rowing. We rowed. It was too choppy to do a race start. The only goal was to make it to the end and not flip the boat. Just keep rowing!  We made it to the finish line. There was apparently an issue, our time was lost. I am pretty sure we lost. I was not really focusing on other boats just my boat and moving to the finish line.  When we got off the water there was a reception with social to follow.  I rowed a race, I met some new people and I left feeling better than I had in a long time.

Changing the Tide: Rowing as a metaphor for life

As someone who studies the workings of societies and social dynamics it is hard for me to believe that an individual’s success is not the collective sum of their social position and the resources they have access too.  I understand concepts of “positive thinking” or that individuals have total control over their destiny to be deeply flawed mired with classism and an erasure of systemic oppression. While I maintain these assertions to be true; acknowledging that even the opportunity to both try, and then continue rowing is made possible through a complex network of my own privilege and resources. I am forever, grateful that the opportunity to row and to race with Bill has reminded me: not to limit myself through my own expectations. Not to wait for the perfect day to try something and despite the choppy water and the ups and downs to keep rowing best you can; even if you are scared, even if you have to stop for a time. Rowing reminded me of my own resilience and ability to change courses even when the water is rough.  I am forever grateful to the great coaching staff and my doubles partner.



body image · fat · feminism · fitness · Guest Post · health

Unpacking the ACSM’s Body Composition Table (Guest Post)

In my Advanced Physiological Assessment class the other day, we conducted a body composition lab which measured body fat using a variety of clinical assessment tools including bioelectric impedance analysis (BIA), underwater weighing (UWW), and DEXA scanning. 

These tools use either electrical currents, x-ray scans, and Archimedes’ Principle to measure body density which is then converted to body fat. The conversion formula is then selected based on race, age, and gender, with many groups that are underrepresented. 

As a white, 21-year-old female, I was privileged in that there was a formula that was representative of my body. While the methodology is a little different, all of these tools rely on the principle that fat is less dense than water, muscle (which has a lot of water), and the other components of fat free mass, like bone and soft tissues. Some of these are pretty good assumptions, while others, like bone density can be highly variable.

On lab day, I was pretty excited. I am a 21-year-old competitive cyclist and triathlete, and as an exercise scientist, I am genuinely curious as to how my numbers compare to population norms and other athletes (to give you an idea, I voluntarily did a lactate threshold test which involves having your fingers repeatedly pricked during a graded exercise test just for funsies #nerd). I followed the protocol as best I could, holding my arms straight out and standing tall during the BIA, exhaling ALL of my air during two trials of underwater weighing, and laying perfectly still during the 7 minute DEXA scan. 

I will note that I was not able to follow all of the BIA protocol which includes no eating or drinking four hours prior. After running the numbers, I was completely astounded as to what the ACSM, the American College of Sports Medicine, that is, classified my body fat % to be. Turns out, depending on the method used, I’m either “good,” “fair,” “poor,” or “very poor.” Here’s a brief breakdown of the results:

Height: 170 cm

Weight: 64 kg

BMI: 22.2 = normal

Hand-Held B.I.A. Body Fat % -regular: 22.3% (Fair, 42nd percentile)

Hand-Held B.I.A. Body Fat %- athlete: 22.2% (Fair, 42nd percentile)

Scale B.I.A. Body Fat % -regular: 28.9% (Very Poor, 15th percentile)

Scale B.I.A. Body Fat % -athlete: 24.3% (Poor, 31st percentile)

D.E.X.A Body Fat %: 24.7% (Poor, 30th percentile)

D.E.X.A. Bone Mineral Density: 1.103 g/cm^3 (Normal)

Underwater Weighing Body Fat %: 19.2% (Good, 62nd percentile)

The rest of the classifications are “very lean”and “excellent.” There are so many problems with this that I hardly know where to begin.

First, the 2010 ACSM Body Composition Table for Women developed these norms based on patients from the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, Texas. As my professor pointed out in class, people who have their body composition measured tend to be rather self-selecting- athletes looking to “cut weight” for sports or individuals on weight loss programs to see how much fat loss is appropriate. 

The Cooper Clinic is a medical center that specializes in “comprehensive preventive exams.” By looking at this chart, I can only assume that they have a “very lean” patient base if the 50th percentile for a female between the ages of 20-29 is 21.0%. In fact, my most accurate number, which I will assume is from the DEXA scan, wouldn’t be exactly average until I was 40. Anecdotally, most of my female college of health sciences peers have body fat percentages around 25%, which is likely lower than campus as a whole. One would think that surely, this is the result of a small sampling base, but no, the listed sample size for my age group, 1360, with a total sample size of 12,116 for all females. If the average female wears a size 14-16, and I wear a size 4, it would make sense that I would be more towards the left side of the bell curve. The American Council on Exercise classifies obesity for women as having a body fat of 32% or higher. The ACSM chart stops at 38.9% for 20-29 year old females and 40.5% for 70-79 year old females as being the top (fattest) 1%. If 64% of American women are supposedly overweight or obese, these “norms” are clearly NOT representative of the United States female population.

The second problem with this chart is the very narrow classification ranges. I completed all four tests within 30 minutes of each other and got a wide range of results. On the 2010 ACSM chart, a difference of 2.6% moves you from the midpoint of “poor” to the midpoint of “fair.” I had a 2% difference between the scale and handheld BIA when they were both on the “athlete” setting. With such varied results, how can healthcare professionals make recommendations using this chart in good conscience?

Finally, the classification terminology is demoralizing and clinically meaningless. I would like to point out that essential fat, the fat that is necessary for normal healthy functioning for females is around 12-14%. Without it, your organs, central nervous system, muscles, and brain would not function. On this chart, values lower than that is not called “anorexia,” but “very lean”. Which, if you’ve listened to the health/fitness/diet industry lately, “very lean” is what we should all be striving for, right? I will concede that there is an asterisk next to the “very lean” classification that does state that body fat percentage less than 10-13% is not recommended for females. I will argue that “not recommended” doesn’t even touch the gravity of that lethal situation. That should be a call for medical attention. 

Unfortunately, “very lean” is the only descriptive term used on this chart. “Excellent,” “Good,” “Fair,”  “Poor,” “Very Poor” are completely subjective terms that have no clinical significance whatsoever. They are fat-phobic and encourage the orthorexic ideal that a lean body is the only kind of good body. I’d like to emphasize that this is the chart for the American College of Sports Medicine, the most respected medical organization that writes health and fitness recommendations for the general public. These are doctors, researchers, rehab professionals, professors, and trainers that rely on their information to make well-informed decisions regarding patient care every day.

There are other normative charts available, like the one mentioned above from the American Council on Exercise, although their terms, “essential, athletes, fitness, average, obese” aren’t much better. I’ve seen a similar chart where “average” is replaced with “acceptable.” I know many athletes who have body fat percentages much higher than mine. They are no less, perhaps even better, athletes because of it. I think that statement gets to the heart of the problem. What exactly is an acceptable body? Is it one that is healthy and functions as it needs to? Or is it just a thin body? If we rely on size as a quick indicator of good health, we’re not even measuring what is actually indicative of cardiovascular health- how the heart, lungs, and muscles work together. I know that my “poor” body fat percentage doesn’t mean I’m unhealthy- my other physiological markers such as blood pressure, lactate threshold, cholesterol and VO2 max all show that I have excellent cardiorespiratory fitness. My behaviors (which are perhaps even more indicative of long-term outcomes) like engaging in regular aerobic and strength training exercise, eating a healthy balanced diet (I like something similar to 80/20), taking time for self-care, not smoking, and getting enough sleep agree with that.

Fortunately, the ACSM has updated many of their exercise prescription recommendations as of 2015. Some updates are expected in 2017, but I am not sure if the body composition norms will be included. For now, I’m taking these results with a grain of salt. I know that despite what the ACSM has to say, my body is good, acceptable, perhaps even above average no matter how much fat I have.  

The author carrying her bike up a hill at a cx race
Charging my way up the run up at the Boone Town Throwdown CX race!
fitness · gender policing · health · inclusiveness · media

Vacuuming as exercise, and other myths about women’s mobility

For some time now women have been told that housework chores can count as exercise, but for reasons unknown I’ve only just cottoned on to this self-help trend. Vacuuming, gardening, washing the floor, hauling the laundry up and down stairs… is it exercise? Some say yes (click here for a representative, if slightly condescending, example); some say no (this example comes from Women’s Health, and is actually even more condescending than the Weight Watchers example.)

I have two replies to the question, personally.

Is housework exercise? HELL YA. Have you ever hauled three loads of laundry up the stairs in between pulling out dead perennials and cleaning up after the dog? It’s a lot of fecking hard work, and I sweat through it weekly.

Is housework exercise? HELL NO. Because it’s WORK, people! It’s unpaid labour for many women, and poorly paid labour for many others. Don’t condescend to us by equating it with self-care. That way madness lies – and nothing but patriarchal double standards.


So what to do with this information then? How to learn from the “housework as exercise” trend, and the arguments underpinning it?

In my job as a humanities scholar, I spend a lot of time with students parsing popular culture and the discourses that drive it. This isn’t just something we do to pass the time in class and prepare for essays that will eventually go in the bin, forgotten; parsing public language is an essential life skill, a citizenship skill. It teaches us to be skeptical of the messages we get everyday from the world around us.

(Think about it: if everyone had some basic message-parsing skills, would Donald Trump be the Republican candidate for president? Or would we be witnessing a proper, grown-up campaign for the most important political office in the world?)

Is the campaign trail exercise, Hilary? Um, DUH. It’s also HARD WORK.

In the two short articles I link to above, my trained parsing brain reads the following embedded assumptions:

  • women should always be focused on weight loss; this is typically dressed up as “exercise” in the press to make it more modern and palatable;
  • “exercise” is something women need to make time for; if they don’t have time because of housework chores, they shouldn’t worry about it, but rather repurpose their housework as “exercise”, or even as “me time” (doing squats while waiting for the microwave! As if!);
  • housework is not work, because it’s “exercise” (aka “me time”);
  • women snack too much when they work hard! Stop snacking, ladies! Next time you grocery shop – because of course YOU grocery shop for your family, right? – be sure not to buy so many salty, fatty snacks that you enjoy!
  • women have no impulse control (see directly above), and therefore need to be reminded both to exercise and not to snack;
  • housework is a fact of life. Get over it, ladies.

What’s common among all these assumptions? Basic gender divisions: it’s not men doing the housework in the images in these articles; it’s fit, able-bodied, white, pretty ladies. There’s no notion here that you might, um, ask your partner to help with chores, or simply let the dirt accumulate a bit so you can do something else you enjoy, move your body in some other way. Instead, there’s a blanket assumption that you have to do the chores (it’s natural! It’s the way life is for us gals!), and you obviously have to exercise (keep young and beautiful, if you want to be loved!), so what else to do? (Just don’t eat any crisps while you’re at it, because then you’ll get fat and your husband won’t want you anymore…)

What’s the alternative to this coercive set of barely-spoken assumptions? I want to propose a totally different way of talking about the issue of how housework impacts women’s lives, and what that has to do not with exercise, but with mobility.

I’d like to suggest instead that, as women, whether single or partnered, disabled or non-disabled, in traditional relationships or in non-traditional ones, we all spend some time this week not squatting in front of the microwave, but rather thinking critically about how we move each day, how and why our movements are circumscribed, and how we might find ways – with the help of partners, family, friends, employers, or others – of becoming more mobile, on our own terms.


Here, I want to stress that it is not our job alone to become more mobile, or to overcome socially-driven mobility constraints; we live in a world in which institutional constraints actively work to limit women’s mobility, especially non-white, disabled women’s mobility; those institutions must change in order for mobility to become more broadly equitable for everyone. Mobility is a societal responsibility, not an individual one.

But part of that work needs to be activist on our part, needs to be about us making noise; it needs to start with all of us recognising and deconstructing where and how we are, and are not, freely mobile, and to complain, loudly, when our mobility is unfairly limited – whether because of wheelchair access barriers, or because of media messages that tell us to keep doing that laundry, it’s good for us!

I challenged myself to keep tabs, for a week, on my own daily mobility, to see where I’m free to move in ways that I wish, and where I’m not so free. Here are my findings from last week, generalised a bit to a normal term-time week:

  • I usually wake up between 8am and 9am; I’m lucky to have a job that works with my circadian rhythms, so I recognise here I’m very privileged to get up without an alarm clock at least 4 times per week. That means I’m better rested and more energised.
  • next, I walk the dog; she insists, but it’s not like she’s the boss. I could say no! But I enjoy my three walks a day with her, again because I’m privileged to have a flexible schedule.
  • on teaching days I cycle to my campus office around 11am; I live in a walkable, ridable city (more privilege). I teach between two and four hours a day twice a week; I’m on my feet for half of these, sitting down for the other half. No choice there. Often I’ll wear high heels for teaching, though this is largely my choice; nevertheless, I feel compelled to present as broadly feminine in the public sphere, so it’s not all my choice. The heels can produce standing discomfort and occasional hip pain.
  • a good portion of the rest of my weekly labour (teaching prep; administration; research – profs work a lot, and teaching is just part of it…) is at a computer, sitting; I’m lucky to have good chairs and the freedom to get up and move around a lot during this work (see dog walking, above).
  • late afternoons / evenings I usually cycle or row for up to two hours at a time. This represents remarkable freedom of movement, as I have no partner or children demanding access to my time or body at home.
  • evenings I often work at my computer at home, catching up on things dropped in the day. I can stand up and move around during this work but often I don’t. Because I have no partner or children pressing on my time or mobility, I often forget to get up and stretch. This is a mixed blessing.
  • weekends include housework, cleaning, gardening, marketing. These are my choice, but I feel social pressure to keep a neat house and garden, so they are not all my choice. Even more because I have no nuclear family (IE: I’m not “heteronormative” in my living conditions), I want to appear “normal” to my neighbours, and so maintain the outward appearance of a middle-class professional woman in all of my “front stage areas” (this term comes from the ethnographer Erving Goffman).
  • on Sundays I often see my parents, who are elderly, and support my mom, who is in a wheelchair. Because her mobility is so limited I become a surrogate body for her while I’m helping out. This is the closest I come in my daily life to understanding what so many women who are caregivers for children, parents, or partners go through all the time. Taking orders from mom, and moving her around the world using my body, are a lot of work; I compromise my control over my own mobility in order to give her a bit more freedom. I am so lucky to be fit and strong, because the physical demands on me in this labour are tremendous.

It’s obvious from the above that I’m very, very lucky with my mobility in general: it is largely my own to determine. Kids don’t demand I be here or there at this or that time, or that I give over my bodily movement to their needs; ditto with a partner. I have a flexible job and can do what I want when. But socially, I’m still constrained as a middle-aged woman who lives under the glare of heteronormativity. Weekend chores mean less time overall for relaxing – which impacts my health a bit. And, as a result of not having a partner (partly due to the fact, I’m afraid, that I’m in my 40s and have an advanced degree and a professional, intellectual job… intimidating for a lot of guys), I also don’t get regular sex; that’s a key way in which I do not move that I wish I could move more often.

How about you? In what ways is your mobility constrained, and in what ways are you free to chart your daily and weekly course? Try the tracking exercise and share your findings; I’m keen to hear about others’ experiences.

Finally, let me stress once more: this is not about changing ourselves; it’s about charting how institutional and other pressures in our lives keep us from moving freely – and how that impacts, among other things, our ability to exercise and to rest our bodies how we want, when we want.



Can a women’s event be “too pink”?

teaparty-2I love women’s events. The Kincardine Women’s Triathlon is my favourite triathlon. And, so far anyway, the Niagara Falls Women’s Half Marathon is my favourite half marathon.

And in general I think there are all sorts of good reasons to have women’s events. I’ve blogged about why they’re not sexist and are good for women.

But they walk a fine line sometimes, hitting the right note to appeal to women and create a positive space where more women might be willing to take risks, while at the same time avoiding stereotyping women by being presumptuous about what appeals to them.

Kincardine, in my view, gets this exactly right. We don’t get swag bags full of make-up. No, you get useful stuff like water bottles and, this year, a really excellent red racer back tank in technical fabric. It’s become a staple part of my summer active wear.  Kincardine is a race for women, but it isn’t preoccupied with normative femininity.

Niagara teeters a bit closer to the edge. Women like wine, right? So not only does every race kit include a bottle of wine (and lots of make-up), but the start and finish lines are called the start and finish “wine.” And then there are the fire fighters. As a straight woman, I’m happy enough to have a fire fighter hang my finisher’s medal around my neck. But the assumption that this is everyone’s preference assumes a connection between women and heteronormative femininity.

Still and all, I do like Niagara and it’s not overdone.

But tonight I heard about an event on Toronto Island next summer that would have appealed to me if not for the fact that it is just a bit too pink for my taste. The Divas Half Marathon sounds amazing for all sorts of reasons. It’s on the island. You get a ferry ticket. It’s for women. I know some friends who are doing it. It would be a new experience, and we’re always looking for new events to try. It even looks like fun.

But, but, but. Among other things, every participant gets a pink tutu (I get the impression you’re supposed to wear it on race day), a cool medal (I’m okay with that even though it will just hang on the back of my closet door), a boa and tiara on the course, and “shirtless hunks.” I don’t know what the shirtless hunks do or at what point they make their appearance, but between them, the pink tutus, the feather boas and the tiaras, it’s just a little more normative femininity than I’m willing to pay money for.

I’ve blogged about the social meaning of pink (see “What’s So Bad about Pink Anyway”):

what’s the social meaning of pink? It’s all about feminine—girlish, dependent, a little bit silly, a little bit soft, a little bit fickle, cute, and just generally weak.  I don’t mean that girls and women are actually this way. I mean that femininity as a cultural ideal likes to represent us this way.  Add a bit of zip to the pink, going for neon instead of pastel, and you’ve got sexy too.

hh-pre-race-editTo me, and I realize not everyone will agree, these qualities are not my preoccupation when I’m trying to complete a half marathon. Some might say that I’m just no fun — what could be more light-hearted than a pink tutu? Hey look, I’ve run a 10K dressed as a witch before (a personal best, no less!), so it’s not that I’m against playing dress-up for an event.

Sam has written about cupcake rides and heels on wheels. Do they help or hinder the cause of women’s cycling? She says…

So if Cupcake Rides and Heels on Wheels rides work, more power to them, I guess. I’ll swallow my queasiness and rejoice at the sight of more women on bikes. I’ll be the woman not in heels, not eating cupcakes, heading out on my bike for coffee…I’d love for you to join me.

I guess I feel similarly about the type of women’s running event that promises to be a celebration of pink. If it gets more women out, okay, good good. Maybe even if there was some choice — like instead of a tiara, can we opt for witches’ hats? That cobweb stuff instead of feather boas?  What about capes instead of pink tutus? Like, can we have a nasty woman option?

What about you? Do you think that women’s events can be too “pink”?



Fear of falling and its bad effects

There’s been snow in Alberta for awhile now. So far those of us in southern Ontario and Quebec have been spared. That might end this week. There’s a chance of snow in the forecast for parts of Ontario. Tracy sounds positively happy about winter running. Me, I’ll commute by bike in the snow but serious snow and ice means, no matter what the temperature, I’ll put my road bike away.

Time to get out the trainer. Soon. But not yet.


But I’ve also got friends who are older, and less active. They’re nervous about walking. More accurately, they’re nervous about falling.

See Ice, Age, and Fear of Falling.

Falling can be bad. I know that. It’s why I want to bundle up all the older people I know and bring them along to Aikido so they can learn to relax when falling.

But worse than falling almost are the effects that fear of falling can bring about. Fear of falling keeps many people inside and less mobile and sadly more likely to fall when they do encounter ice. Indeed, fear of falling in seniors leads to a downward spiral of more inactivity, immobility, and more falls.

A Saint Louis University School of Nursing faculty member named Helen Lach, Ph.D kicked off the first day of “fall” with a simple initiative and timely message to senior adults: “Don’t let fear of falling stand in the way of being active and engaged with the world around you.”

I took a snapshot yesterday of a person balancing on a rock at the end of a jetty. He was taking a picture of the sunset on the first day of Autumn…as this photo illustrates, having a sense of balance is key for being able to get out and explore the world. “While falls can cause problems, we want people to be both cautious and still maintain an active quality of life,” Lach said. “You can’t get rid of all of the risk in your life. But older adults need to maintain their strength, function and activity to the level they are able.”

Helen Lach published an article titled “Impact of Fear of Falling in Long Term Care” that appeared in the August 2013 issue of JAMDA (Journal of the American Medical Directors Association). The review showed that a fear of falling is a significant problem in nursing homes. The cerebellum (down brain) is responsible for balance, rhythm, proprioception … and needs to be engaged throughout a lifetime to maintain a sound mind in a sound body.

Read the rest here.



Experts: “clean eating fuels anorexia”

clean-eatingI’ve long felt suspicious about the “clean eating” kick. I’ve blogged before about how it’s a crock. And every time I say that, I get some push-back from devotees of that diet strategy.

What’s wrong with eating healthy foods? People ask. Don’t you agree that whole foods are good for you? The clean eaters will say.

But I’ve always noticed a moralizing approach to clean eating, where I’ve literally seen clean eating friends publicly shame themselves on social media for eating something “unclean,” like a slice of pizza.

And that smacks of disordered eating. And now there’s a report that the experts agree. It makes sense, because clean eaters like to cut stuff out. Sugar — not clean. Other white stuff, like white flour, white bread, white pasta, and white rice — not clean.

According to the report:

Many experts who work with eating disorder patients claim the clean-eating trend fuels conditions such as anorexia.


Renee McGregor, a dietitian who works with the charity Anorexia and Bulimia Care, says she has patients who feel that “the world will collapse” if they eat foods that are not “clean”, because they have seen a celebrity blogger saying that these foods are bad.

The rhetoric of clean eating is pretty much always associated with weight loss. Lately, I’ve started “unfollowing” some friends on Facebook (that’s where you stay friends but you no longer see their posts) because they consistently post about clean eating and weight loss. Frankly, I just don’t need to see that stuff.

As someone who has in the past lived with an eating disorder, I always find it triggering. And the research on the association between eating disorders and clean eating helps to explain why that type of talk can trigger people.

Why does this matter? Well, it matters because when people cavalierly toss around the rhetoric of clean eating, there’s a good chance they’re displaying, or at the every least promoting in others, disordered eating as a virtue. Clean and pure instead of dirty and toxic.

If the nonsensical nature of the concept “clean” as applied to eating isn’t enough to convince people to ditch that kind of talk, maybe knowing that it’s fueling an increase in eating disorders will.


disability · Guest Post · health

Undeniable? Undeniable. (Guest Post)


Georgia and Nancy, in the car. Georgia, leaning against her mom, is wearing a turquoise toque with ear flaps and chin strings. Nancy is wearing a black wool hat and orange stripey scarf.

I’ll be honest – I didn’t want to like the new ad for SickKids. I’m surprised that I do, given that, for the most part, I don’t support the use of language in illness that refers to “fighting battles” or “losing a valiant fight against cancer”. (See Cate’s post about this worry here.) This kind of language permeates health and illness care (“attacking germs!”or “wiping out cancer cells!”). Many adult patients find this language challenging, and tiring, as it suggests retaliation and active engagement in fighting is the only feasible option. And for those whose illness may worsen, the feeling that they have failed in some way is almost inevitable.

Some people simply object to words that refer to violence to describe their day-to-day existence and prefer a more compassionate approach with less confrontational language. Others may find the idea of fighting a battle with illness to be empowering, energizing, or inspirational. But there’s no consensus out there that there is one way to talk about disease or illness, and that’s something that I think this ad highlighted for me, in part.

This is not the way many want to think about illness – battles, stuff blowing apart, superhero moves, and kick drops – but maybe it’s more important to recognize that we all have different ways of thinking about all of this. And there’s no one right or wrong way.

Having worked as a nurse with kids who are sick, and having a daughter with a disability, my experience is that we often tend to treat children with illnesses or disabilities, quite literally, “with kid gloves”. We don’t talk with the same kind of confrontational language about childhood illness. We tend to talk more about fairness, the vulnerability of children and the loss of childhood. We see vulnerability first, and then the child.

So often we see the illness, the wheelchair, the central lines, the equipment, the walker, and only then, after, do we see the child. We protect, we comfort, and we soften the world around these children – with all good intentions – but the result is that we, so often, see illness, disease, and disability first before we actually see children.

Then here comes this ad, this jarring, powerful, in-your-face ad, with these tough, wonderfully, resilient kids. Kids missing limbs. Kids on operating room tables. Kids being defibrillated. Kids who have an illness, or a disability, and this ad manages to ensure that the illness or the disability – or the defibrillator – is for once, not the first thing you see. I understand the objections many have to the imagery of battle, the violence of taking a baseball bat to a dialysis machine, or the idea of including a reference to fighting back against autism, but the reality was, for me, watching this felt empowering, compelling and refreshing. It felt relieving in a way, as if someone had read a few of my thoughts some days – the thoughts that I wouldn’t necessarily voice to others, as a mother of a kid with a disability.

After watching the ad a few times, I tried to figure out what it was that I liked about this ad. There are a few things:

First, there are the images. There’s not an image here that hasn’t been thought through carefully, I’m sure. And it shows. The battle scenes show kids in the front line, adults behind. When intermingled with operating room imagery, it forces you to remember that, in the operating room, the kid on that table really is the one on the front line. Not the rest of us, in there, who can put on gloves and masks, do our jobs, and go home at the end of a 12-hour shift. We’re the supporting warriors, with little to lose. The image of a girl on top of a pile of wheelchairs draws you to really see the child, not the mess of metal beneath her. The same with the girl with the lucha libre mask – I see her, not the hospital room around her. The little girl pulling her walker behind her, in this ad, forces us to acknowledge her incredible strength and determination, the hours of painful and grueling physiotherapy that it took to just get to where she is. She looks strong, powerful and invulnerable.

Second, there’s the idea of fighting. Against cystic fibrosis. Against kidney disease. Against cancer. Against autism. This is imagery many might not wish to embrace. And I also get that many object to adding autism onto a list that includes illnesses like cancer or kidney disease. There’s a lot of childhood disease, illnesses and disability out there that those who developed this ad could have chosen from, to highlight. Autism is an interesting and clearly controversial one. But you know what? Some days I’m really sick of autism. When I see my kid struggling with the tiniest thing that has thrown a wrench into her entire day I too just want to put on a lucha libre mask and deliver a flying thrust kick to autism. I want to run across a battlefield yelling if I thought it would do any good. I don’t feel like that every day. But when I do, I usually swallow that feeling and hold it somewhere inside. I don’t share it with others or ask others to understand, because I know many won’t and, well, that’s okay. It’s a tough thing to want to fight back against that which, in many ways for others, defines who my child is, defines the opportunities others will provide and defines how others both view and treat her. For me, she isn’t my “autistic child”, but rather, “my child who has autism”. Autism isn’t all she is, and it isn’t her sole defining feature, but it is here and it needs to be reckoned with. Some days we both are just tired and some days we’re angry and frustrated. What I don’t want is someone to tell me how to feel about those days. This ad acknowledges something that hasn’t been acknowledged, for me, almost ever. When I see that image of fighting back, it resonates – and puts something out there, out loud and in your face, that many parents of kids – and kids themselves – might well feel, but don’t have a place to express.

Finally, there’s the notion of undeniability. Watch the ad a few times, and you walk away with the word echoing in your head: Undeniable. These kids are undeniable. Their inherent strength, their fight, it’s undeniable. These illnesses are undeniably rotten sometimes. It sucks to be sick. It sucks, some days, for some kids, to have autism. It’s undeniable. And cancer, well, you can’t pretend it’s not there. It’s undeniably present and pervasive. Cystic fibrosis means intensive lifelong therapy, a shortened life span and frequent hospitalizations. I’ve watched a very good friend struggle, yes struggle, with cystic fibrosis, while it is true that he also flourished and was strong and wonderfully alive. But he struggled; it’s undeniable. He really did lose his fight against this undeniable disease. I can’t imagine any other words to use for him and for the deep loss those around him feel after his death. Many felt a great battle had been lost. We simply couldn’t unfeel that. This ad, I think, in some ways, says that, hey it’s okay to feel that.

And autism? Well, it’s undeniably constant. It permeates so much of what we do, and feel, and experience, for my daughter and for those around my daughter. But she’s also undeniable. You cannot see the autism without first seeing her. I see Georgia everywhere in this ad. She’s the kid standing on top of the wheelchairs and walkers that I was told would never walk, she’s the kid marching in the superhero cape that I was told I should institutionalize, and she’s the kid playing lucha libre that I was told would never have an imagination. She’s the kid dragging her walker behind her, after years of physiotherapy, just to prove everyone wrong. And it is not without fighting and battling some days that she still moves through her world. Undeniable. I’m glad someone finally said it.

Nancy Walton is an Associate Professor in the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing at Ryerson University in Toronto. One of her areas of research examines the experience of parenting children with special needs and acting in the role of therapist. She is Georgia’s mother and writes a blog about parenting at








When you hit the wall

Recently on the blog we’ve had some very thought-provoking posts about confronting one’s limitations in a sport.  Sam posted here about the possibility that she would not progress to the next belt level in Aikido.  And our guest blogger Michelle followed up here, talking about about being okay with what is her learning trajectory in Aikido.

(Parenthetical remark:  all this talk of Aikido is making me very curious about it.  Do I have time to start another sport?  Hmmm…. )

What really resonated with me in these posts was that we all face challenges as we continue to practice a sport or physical activity.  We talk about these challenges a lot here, sharing our own experiences with moving through loss, stress, injury, illness, job demands, aging, etc.  Reading and blogging about how we respond to life through movement is a source of support in my own activities.

Sam and Michelle’s posts show us that there are lots of ways to respond when we hit our limitations in a sport.  Sam is doing more weapons training and enjoying learning a lot more about it.  Michelle is focusing on practices that will not result in re-injuring herself, getting to know a new dojo, and continuing to learn.  Go Sam!  Go Michelle!

For me, I’m dealing with some injuries, lowered fitness and added weight– all of which result in making my sports of choice more difficult and less fun.  I’d been avoiding group riding this year because I had gotten very slow and less fit for long distances.  Also, I have had intermittent knee problems, making training painful.  I traveled a lot this year, both for work and to see family, which interrupted my regular routines.  Of course, all of this is happening in a life that is very privileged.  I have a secure job with flexibility, and am very lucky to be in this position.  Knowing that I do have many more choices than many others, I have been really unhappy about how I let those opportunities slip by, not making the most of time and control and opportunities.

I really felt like I had hit a wall.  I didn’t know what to do.

Then, I finally went on a group ride.  My friend Janet talked me into riding with her on the Columbus Day holiday, and my friend Pata decided to join us.  Before I knew it, other friends (Rachel and Steph) decided to come along.  I hardly had time to panic, and there was clearly no way to pull out of this.  And Pata promised me that we would ride together if the others flew down the road, out of sight.  So I went.

And it was lovely.  And a little hard (but not too hard).  And worth doing, even though I’m much less fit than I used to be.  It turns out that I still know how to turn the cranks.  I was very touched that my friends got together for what amounted to a group-riding intervention, and it worked.

Pata and I went for a ride that Friday– it was fun (when we were not dodging cars that were breaking all sorts of traffic laws).  I’ve been riding a bit more around town.

And I signed up for the Orchard Cross costume cyclocross race (not really a race, rather a slightly faster version of a parade on an off-road course) for Sunday Oct. 30.  Stay tuned for a not-race report and lots of pictures.

What does this mean for me in terms of dealing with my limitations?   Having hit the wall, I finally figured out something:  bikes can turn both left and right.  So I’m doing that, and seeing where we go from there.