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?)

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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.

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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.

Kim

About Kim Solga

I am a university professor currently based in London, southwestern Ontario, half way between Toronto and Detroit. I teach theatre and performance studies at Western University; previously, I was Senior Lecturer in Drama at Queen Mary, University of London. I am a feminist, both intellectually and politically; I believe that my research makes its greatest impact in the classroom. On Wordpress, I'm also a regular contributor to the popular blog, Fit is a Feminist Issue.

4 thoughts on “Vacuuming as exercise, and other myths about women’s mobility

  1. I like how you brought that idea out.

    I DO NOT fit into almost any cookie cutter mold there is. While I generally present as feminine in the public domain, its not the same as everyone else in this region. I find the standards to be ridiculously oppressive of my mobility and freedom of expression in both the secular and religious spheres in which I move.

    My double edged sword is currently a lack of a personal vehicular device. I have begun walking more and taking the bus, however as it gets colder this becomes more physically threatening. I have found ways around this. And overall taking the walking/bus route has led to stronger legs and more self reliance even if it makes grocery shopping more difficult. Socially this also presents mobility issues, sadly, even if viewed in greener light.

    I tend toward housework as exercise, because it often is. On days I have heavy chores etc. I fade back on other forms of exercise because I tend toward an eastern philosophy of self care and my body needs its rest. My schedule is generally rather flexible and currently is dependent more upon my being able and desiring to do something other than anything else. Having lived in differing conditions mandated by others for some time, I have begun to take a route of doing more of what makes me feel good and whole as a woman.

    If I want to return to the normal work force of the office world I would be require to dress at minimum business casual and dig out office appropriate footwear. I would be forced again into conforming into what is considered the norm and most likely strictly so. I find that compared to men, being a professional woman requires more effort in appearance and we are judged harsher thusly.

    Being a larger woman I get a lot of flack. I eat healthy mostly. I do exercise. I do take care of myself. I do not smell bad. I do believe in being able to eat a piece of cake when you want and not being fat shamed into all hell and back for doing so. I believe my size is a mobility issue because of societal pressures. Although I generally just accept that its like that and continue on, since my size shouldn’t be a topic for other people. My skin color is often perceived as privilege, but reality is often different. Due to public perceptions, its often either fetishized in a negative way or glossed over do to religious apperances. Either way I find it to be much of a mobility hinderance due to public perceptions.

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    • Kim Solga says:

      Thank you for sharing! It’s so important to remember how valuable housework can be for some with serious mobility challenges in dominant work and exercise environments; I wish you much good luck in returning to the workforce on your own terms.

      Like

  2. I love this. Housework is work and I am in the privileged position of paying someone to do the things I don’t and other people won’t. I pay that person well and I give them respect. I have started to consiously name domestic labor as “unpaid work” when I talk with women in my therapy practice. I want to value it out loud as much as I can. Mobility is a separate issue. Also, love the Hillary picture.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Jean says:

    My immigrant mother who doesn’t still understand much English…after having 6 Canadian born children, doesn’t know that I cycle much at all. So I guess that’s the strongest expression of someone else’s fear imposed on me….that I just don’t feel like dealing with her worry and control. She is 82 yrs. and I’m 57 yrs.

    Yea, dumb. But really it’s just not worth more conflict. As long rest of my family know.

    She and I are the same: we don’t drive. Except I probably appreciate driver perception since I did learn (and didn’t) to drive in my late teens. She never did. At my age, she was highly active in housework, whereas I ‘m just a lazy slob housework, privileged to have no children and subsequent clutter.

    So I can be narrowly arrogant about my mother’s present limited mbiblity or lack of exercise. She had other priorities and made them priorities which I’m grateful.

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