Virtual Fitness, Science Fiction, and “Fat Lit”


My husband and I are writing a science fiction/adventure novel that explores personal relationships in a world where most of the characters have opted for cyborg implants. Some of the characters, however, have not. The story follows a married couple who wind up getting divorced over technological differences. He doesn’t see her as human and she feels confined by his attitudes about her cyborg implants. Since it is written as a science fiction/adventure story, there are explosions and virtual reality battles and so on. It’s been a real hoot to write.

We’ve sometimes amused ourselves by wondering what aliens would learn about humanity if they accessed our movies and books before actually observing life on earth. It is possible that they might conclude that women are not as healthy as men because very few of them live past 30. They might conclude that women are more genetically homogenous than men because they are usually attractive and thin. They might conclude that there is some kind of causal connection between someone’s weight and how funny they are.

We decided to make the cast of characters in our novel reflect the diversity of people we meet in real life. We don’t want to mislead the aliens. Women who are not mere love interests exist, women over 30 exist, LGBT people exist, people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds exist, nice people exist, bigots exist, and so on. Our reasons for doing so have more to do with realism than with politics, but I like it that it lines up with our politics as well. Up until recently, our readers have responded quite positively.

We just ran into a snag with the readers when we decided to make the protagonist, who is female, heavy. Very heavy. She isn’t particularly funny or someone’s sidekick. She finds love, though not with her husband. She is capable, smart, and efficient. She’s far from perfect, but the main issue that concerns her is her claustrophobia. She doesn’t spend that much time thinking about her weight, nor does it play a role in the story. It is simply one of many facts about her.

What fascinated and distressed me about the reader responses we received was that they worried that a large, female protagonist would alienate a mainstream audience and gear the novel to a niche market (“Fat lit”). It’s frustrating that they might be right about that. One reader reported feeling a disengagement with the protagonist at the very point in the story where the protagonist reveals her weight in conversation with a friend. This was the same reader who previously couldn’t bear the possibility of the protagonist dying at the end (we won’t say whether she does or doesn’t).

Another intriguing aspect of the reader responses to the protagonist is that there was no objection to making her addicted to cigarettes. So the concern isn’t about her health. There was also no objection to our initially making her passive and with very few skills, although we did change that for plot reasons simply because we hadn’t given her the skills to do anything to move the plot along. (It’s too long a story to explain why we initially made her without viable skills. Short version: we were trying to set up a David and Goliath scenario.)

Despite the fact that her weight plays no role in the story, it has become clear that her weight is unavoidably political. For one thing, we now have to give more thought to the part of the story where she becomes fit. We initially made this choice because we thought it would be interesting to show a futuristic tech-dependent society that is more active than our current one. Most stories about cyborgs and virtual realities involve characters with nearly unused physical bodies, much like Bruce Willis’s character in Surrogates, or Keanu Reeves’s character in The Matrix. But current trends in computerized fitness, as well as the Kinnect and the Oculus Rift made us interested in imagining a different cyborg future than the one envisioned in Surrogates. In the world of our novel, the best virtual reality games are played by using the body in harnesses, so gamers train physically in order to improve their scores (a future version of this idea).

But the responses of my readers has forced me to think on this a little more. I did a quick internet search and found this thread. The choice to make her become fit ties in to the “redemption through weight loss” theme. I’d like to avoid that. This thread is full of many things to avoid. I’ll quote a few.

From BuffPuff:

“You could publish it, film it or put it on the stage . . . just as long as the characters you were portraying were shown to be wretched, embittered, lonely and seething with self hatred, preferably enough to hang themselves in the final act.”

From Shieldmaiden1196:

“I guess I appreciate she has fat protagonists, but there is a certain condescension to those protagonists. I’m a fat woman. but I don’t identify as a fat woman every second of every day….there are actually whole hours that go by in which I’m not thinking about being fat.”

Or from here, the “Fat Girl” trope:

“A character who’s at least overweight and Always Female who is portrayed as being either insecure, unimportant or both.”

What we can and cannot write without making a political statement says a great deal about our society. I was already aware that making the protagonist female was a political choice. I hadn’t given much thought to how much her weight mattered until now.

Rhonda Martens is a philosopher who lives in Winnipeg with her husband and cat. She loves dancing and refuses to stop wearing mini skirts.

aging · athletes · fitness · Guest Post · injury · weight lifting

Pink Weights? (Guest Post)

pigeonsI’m fit, feminist, and almost 50, so naturally I’ve been following Samantha and Tracy with avid interest since this blog began. I’ve always been active, but became more fiercely fit in my 40s. I survived Zuzana’s burpee torture (100 burpees!), I was working up to full chin-ups and benching over 100 pounds. 50 didn’t scare me. OK, it did a little bit, but feeling strong really helped with that.

About a year and a half ago I started experiencing back pain that interfered with pretty much all activities. A visit to the doctor confirmed that the problem wasn’t skeletal, so off to the physiotherapist I went. She put me on a core-strengthening program that quickly made things a lot worse. I lucked out with the second physiotherapist because she happened to also specialize in pelvic floor dysfunction. Her hunch was confirmed by a specialist: I have a mild uterine prolapse, which is like a mild hernia with less reliable surgical options. This condition is quite common, but not talked about very much, perhaps because it involves female bits, or perhaps because it isn’t life threatening. It certainly was news to me. Now that I have it, I am to avoid impact, most core exercises including planks, and weights heavier than 3 pounds. The good news is that this may be temporary and I might be able to reverse it by exercising with care.

It turns out that despite my level of fitness, I hadn’t been exercising properly. I did not know what “activate your core before lifting” actually meant. I thought it meant bracing your abdominal and back muscles. But that’s not enough, and bracing could actually be doing more harm than good. If your waist expands when you brace, you might be doing it wrong. Safely lifting heavy means knowing (feeling) that your pelvic floor is actively supporting your organs the entire time you are lifting. Even if your arms or legs are strong enough, your pelvic floor might not be. I used to laugh at my Mom when she tried to stop me from lifting heavy weights: “That’s for boys, you’ll throw your womb out!” The 70s feminist in me found this weird and objectionable (I am woman!). As I’ve learned, lifting isn’t just for males, but people with uteri do need to take certain precautions (men can also develop prolapse, but it is considerably less common).

Once I learned this, the big challenge for me was to figure out how to regain my fitness level, and to do so in a way that I loved. I love sweating. I love exerting myself. Physio was great for relieving my back pain, but not enough for fitness. It’s quite difficult to exercise with care while exercising intensely. I initially tried doing my old workouts while modifying them. It turns out that the advice to modify and work your way up was spectacularly unhelpful in my case. Bicep curls with 3-pound weights are pretty useless if you are strong (fatigue takes forever!). Jump squats got modified to bodyweight squats, clean and presses became bodyweight squats, burpees became bodyweight squats, etc. Sigh. Well, you get the idea. I was starting to get a bit depressed. It didn’t help that we were having a terrible winter that made walking difficult, and I’ve never been a fan of cardio machines.

I started swimming, which was a joy, but I needed variety and home workouts as well. I also wasn’t sure what to do with the 3-pound pink weights I had purchased (the very ones I used to sneer at). Naturally I googled “3 pound weights exercises” and came across the various “bulk is unappealing” fitness gurus (Tracy Anderson and Ellen Barrett, I’m looking at you!). I tried the workouts anyways and found them surprisingly satisfying. They were different enough from what I usually did that I found them challenging, and they were designed to make the most out of light weights. I’m used to squats with heavy weights, and now I lift my leg in various ballet directions while maintaining my balance, holding my arms in an “elegant” position, and looking graceful. I even sweat. My posture has improved. My muscle tone is returning, which is great news after months of near inactivity. I do wish, however, that these workouts came without the marketing and comments about the ideal female physique.

One thing that has fascinated me about the Tracy Anderson phenomenon is just how angry the fitness world is at her. I agree completely when this anger is directed at her marketing strategies (offensive), her diet (extreme and unhealthy!), and her claim that women should only work out her way (ridiculous). But some people are also surprisingly furious at the very existence of workouts that only use 3 pound weights. They insist that the only way to get fit is to lift heavy. I, on the other hand, am grateful that these light weight workouts exist and are widely available on YouTube. Thankfully I did not accept the insistence on the necessity of heavy weights. That would have been demoralizing given my situation.

There doesn’t seem to be that much of a difference between the marketing of lifting light and lifting heavy. During my googling into using light weights I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across a site that starts with something like a picture of a sprinter and a marathoner, complete with a discussion of how unappealing the body of the marathoner is (here,  here, and here). They then conclude that their way of exercising, which usually involves heavy weights rather than actually sprinting, is the only way. The philosopher in me is fascinated by how they seem to be creating facts through repetition, and by how little evidence is actually offered other than cherry-picked photos. The feminist in me is deeply bothered by how shaming is used to generate a market.

What about a comparison on quality and safety? I think you already know that I think the advice to activate your core (common advice given by strength trainers) is insufficiently informative and can have potentially devastating consequences. Ellen Barrett, on the other hand, gives very good instruction and her programs are very safe. My only complaint about her is that I have to listen to her comments on the female physique while I’m working out. Tracy Anderson rarely says anything, which is a mixed blessing. She gives very few notes on form and expects you to play follow the leader and just get what she is doing. I have a background in various dance forms, so for the most part I can do that. Her routines have some creativity in them and have some use for me, especially since I don’t take her seriously when she claims that you must do her complete program and nothing but. But her routines range from useless to dangerous for those who don’t have a dance background. For example, in the unweighted arms section, the fact that I’ve taken flamenco dance helps a lot. I took flamenco after several years of cabaret and tribal belly dance, and was struck by how even though the arm patterns were very similar, the way the arms were held gave the moves a completely different look and feel. You put a lot of power and energy into your arms when you dance flamenco. My arms would burn and exhaust during flamenco arm drills in a way they never did during belly dance. So when Tracy talks about using your arms with a lot of power I know exactly what she means. I have done drills for this. They’d be pretty pointless otherwise and I can see why personal trainers find her arm routine baffling. But for me, the idea of using dance arm drills hadn’t occurred to me and was a revelation. It was something I could safely do to use my arms when I wasn’t in the pool. For another example, her standing abs routine contains a series of staccato belly dance moves. This is something you work up to in belly dance. You’d never start with these moves in a beginner class because the students would lack the control to execute the moves safely (if at all). I can do them, but I warm up first with the smoother belly dance moves.


My takeaway lessons from this experience are these. 1) We need a variety of permissible fitness philosophies. Fitness activities that would have been silly or pointless for one stage of life might be very beneficial for another. 2) Uniform fitness recommendations open the door for people like Tracy Anderson. She spotted a gap and marched through. But she isn’t a good fitness instructor. I’m guessing that if there were more competition and creativity in the light weights arena, Tracy wouldn’t be as popular as she is. 3) I found it depressing and boring to do modified versions of my usual workouts. Injuries can hold you back, or they can be an opportunity to focus on a different area and excel there. I’ve been working on perfecting my form rather than increasing my speed in the pool and on the ski trails. I’ve also been working on moving smoothly and with grace, rather than with explosive power.

I now feel quite good, and have learned to be active and fit again. I’m even a little grateful for this experience because I have learned enough from my physiotherapist to know how to exercise in a way that nurtures my body, and will probably age better for it. I was inspired to write this post in the hopes that some women will be able to avoid following in my footsteps. And if you are already, feel free to email me at wesleypresley1@live.com and I’ll tell you what has and hasn’t worked for me. It is also important that more fitness experts become aware of this common condition so that they can offer the appropriate cautions. A good resource on this topic can be found here.


Rhonda Martens is a philosopher who lives in Winnipeg with her husband and cat. She loves dancing and refuses to stop wearing mini skirts.