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?)
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.