Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health
Author: catherine w
I'm a feminist public health ethicist (yes, that's a thing). I'm interested in heath behavior change, particularly around eating and activity, and how things other than knowledge affect our health decisions.I'm also a cyclist (road, sort-of-off-road, commuter), regular yoga-doer, occasional swimmer and kayaker and leisurely social walker.
CW: talk about body sizes and descriptions and feelings about them.
This weekend, I came across a FB post from a triathlete who posted a picture of herself, asking the group how they would describe her body type. The company that sponsors her team had asked her (with good intentions, she said), as a way to get her input. She describes herself as a person who’s struggled with weight and is a back of the pack rider for her team.
Among the 110+ (and counting) comments she got were:
Strong (hands-down winner among commenters)
Healthy and active
Athena (triathlete category, minimum weight requirement of 165 lbs/75kg)
Adult woman size
Fit and Fabulous
Bad Ass Lady
There were also some suggestions that felt size-conscious or even a bit size-embarrassed (my term); feel free to scroll past these if you like:
Hourglass figure with extra hours
Athletic fit plus (but clarified to be plus healthy, real, etc.)
What do I mean by size-embarrassed? When I hear words like “curvy” and “voluptuous” and “Rubenesque” (outside of 17th-century art history), I always feel like the message is something like “this woman’s body is outside the ideal or norm for the context, and I’m trying to defer to that norm but also say something positive while at the same time acknowledging the tension with a joke”.
All of the commenters were trying to support the original poster and were very attentive to being body-positive and admiring of the poster’s athletic achievements, which are considerable. And yet.
Their respectful discussion reminded me of how hard it can be to talk descriptively about bodies. It also made me think about when and why we feel we need to talk descriptively about bodies. Yes, when we shop for clothing, there are some styles that favor different dimensions and ratios of hips and thighs and waists and breasts and legs, etc. And when we do physical activity, it’s important to note and attend to the variations among bodies that dictate modifications in training, gear, apparel, etc. And finally, at more intensely competitive levels of some activities and sports, detailed facts about the athletes’ bodies become more salient to performance.
Reading Sam’s posts, I’m feeling a little better about the fact that, 3 years after her most recent post, I don’t have a clear position about how to talk about bodies, bigger bodies, my body, your body. I know I don’t like the notion of body types, but am not sure what to do when I feel the need to describe myself or someone else. As Sam said, “it’s complicated”.
To be continued. but for now: do you use body-type language? When do you use it? How do you feel about it? I’d love to hear from you.
CW: talk about personal fears during the pandemic.
I love those lists of X things to do/buy/eat/read/make/etc. that will completely refashion our lives to make them perfectly balanced and full and grounded and happy. Yes, they’re either obvious or impossible or obviously impossible, but I read them all just the same.
These days I’m feeling extra in need of those to-do lists. I’m very lucky and grateful to still have a job that’s paying me my full salary. And I’m grateful for general health, home stability, community and family.
So what’s there to bellyache about? How about I just make a list:
I’m struggling with exercise of any sort after having been so sedentary for months;
I’m struggling with severe self-judgment about the above;
I’m floundering amidst the lack of external structure that usually helps me regulate my sleep, eating, activity, and social contacts;
I’m worrying about the future, both immediate and longer term;
I’m afraid of backsliding so far that I can’t catch up to resume a life that resembles what I had before March of this year;
insert whatever I can’t bring myself to say or even countenance, but which brushes up against me and causes strife.
Okay, you might be thinking: whoa, that’s pretty heavy (while backing slowly away from this post…)
Now that I’ve made my list, let’s start with the first item: struggling with exercise. What sorts of lists can I find to help with this?
be nice to yourself if you can’t stop keeping up with the news;
feel free to wear what you want;
be kind to yourself if your place seems messy to you;
be accepting of whatever sleep schedule you have;
give yourself plenty of time and space to do nothing.
I was looking for self-help lists for dealing with fear about the future, and accidentally came across this article, translated from French, in which several experts comment on my worst Armageddon-type coronavirus fears in great detail. Don’t read that article if you want to sleep tonight.
There’s certainly a theme to these lists. All of them remind us that we are not alone, that for many of us, movement helps us feel better, and that being stern with ourselves is not a good idea (right now, or maybe ever).
None of these is the perfect list. But I’ve found it! I was inspired by listening to the podcast In the Dark’s series on Coronavirus in the Delta, episode 2– inside Parchman Prison in Mississippi. You can read about it and get the link to listen here.
Here’s the perfect self-help list:
breathe slowly in;
breathe slowly out;
breathe slowly in;
breathe slowly out;
breathe slowly in;
breathe slowly out;
I think that’s it for right now. I can do this. You can do this. Let’s keep doing this.
What are you doing to deal with what’s causing you struggle these days? I’d love your tips, lists, or any comments you’d like to share.
What I like best about Fit is a Feminist Issue is how body-affirming and movement-positive it is. I love reading and writing about new and familiar ways to reward, challenge or nurture myself through taking good care of my body, whatever that means to me, in whatever ways are open to me.
walking was out (sprained ankle and physical therapy)
the gym was in
weight training, too
and of course cycling
Now it’s officially mid-2020 and mid/early-mid/late-early coronavirus pandemic. Staying home starting in mid-March, I slowed down in almost every way: less productive, moving less, sleeping less and less well, feeling less peppy, thinking less clearly.
Now in mid-summer (and what a strange summer it is), my goal is to identify what helps me feel good IN my body. Thoughts ABOUT my body are secondary these days; they will have to wait their turn. Right now, it’s all about getting some physical sensations of pleasure, well-being, security, accomplishment in movement, stillness, nourishment, rest, routine.
So here’s my list of 6 things that make me feel good in my body during this pandemic:
1.Sleep. Hands-down winner. I’ve struggled the past few months with insomnia. I don’t even realize how bad it is until the morning after a night I get 8.5–9 hours of sleep, and I feel like Wonder Woman. Wow. So this is what rested feels like. I want more of this.
2.Yoga. No matter how I feel– tired, agitated, creaky from sitting in too many zoom meetings, or just blah, there’s some yoga for me. Even rolling around on my mat, or swinging my arms from side to side and raising them over my head feels good to me and good for me and good in me. Yay yoga!
3.Nature. There’s a reservoir near my house and a lovely walking route around it, with some woodsy paths, too. It’s great just to see trees, pine straw and low-growing plants. Even people’s yards and gardens cheer and hearten me. And my back porch is on the second floor of the 3-family house I live in, and it feels a bit like a tree house.
4.Walking. After so much inactivity, walking feels like doing something. And wearing a mask makes me more aware of my breathing. All of this puts me in touch with the functioning of my body– it’s doing its thing, in a simple and miraculous feat of engineering. Yeah, walking rocks.
5.Cycling. Yes, I can still do that, too. My legs still know how to turn the cranks, and my hands do the shifting without asking my permission. The instincts are all there, and the scenery–even the most mundane scenery is a treat.
6.Water. This is an aspirational item, as I haven’t been swimming yet this summer. But I’ve got plans for lake swimming this week and some ocean swimming this month and next month. My body in water does miraculous things: it floats. And moves and glides and splashes.
Readers: what is making you feel good in your bodies these days? Have any of those things changed since the pandemic? I’d love to hear from you.
HI readers– remember when we all had the bandwidth to worry about things like what sorts of impressions we made if we ran or cycled or hiked in sports bras (instead of fully shirted)? Ah, those were the days.
In honor of Throwback Thursday, here’s a great summer 2015 post by Natalie about the aforementioned issue. And in case you’re really busy today, here’s the TL:DR version, in her own inimitable words:
Run in a bra, don’t wear a bra at all, you get to decide. Not only are you the boss of your own pants. YOU ARE THE BOSS OF YOUR BOOBIES.
Well of course it is! Actually I live in Ontario and you can run topless if you want to here, perfectly legal. I wouldn’t, but not for modesty’s sake, my breasts are long, wide and floppy so topless anything isn’t terribly comfortable. it’s the flapping and slapping.
This came up recently at the Kincardine Women’s Triathlon where, in recent years, they’ve actively discouraged women from racing in their bras. the race rules state “Shirts or tanks must always be worn” (note the bold).
I thought that was really weird. The announcers framed it as a wanting to keep it a family friendly event. (As though families don’t have people in their bras.) What really blew my mind was at the pre-race briefing the night…
Hi readers– sometimes when I sit down to write a blog post, the words just flow effortlessly. Inspiration strikes, and I’m off to the races. The perfect photo or metaphor or theme appears, and voila! Blog mission accomplished.
Sad to say, not today.
Just so you know I have tried, here are some topics I thought about writing on for Sunday, but rejected:
a compendium of bad stock photos depicting women playing sports (yeah, that didn’t go anywhere). I was inspired by the twitter hashtag #badstockphotosofmyjob, which is actually at least 2 years old, but hey, I just made it to the party…
2. A compendium of inspiring stock photos of women playing sports, reminding us 1) there was such a thing as women’s sports that spectators could watch, in person even; and 2) sports playing is something we might consider doing, too, albeit safely. I admit I’m sorely in need of motivation to leave my house more often. Inertia’s a tough one…
3. A review of one of the many feminist/sports/activity/self-care books on or near my bedside table, just waiting to be read and summarized by me, for you.
4. Another installment of “cockamamie and likely non-functional exercise devices sold over the internet.” I never tire of looking at them. My current fave (which I haven’t ordered yet) is shoe covers that fit over sneakers, facilitating dancing either on hard floors or carpet. This model purports to make pivots and turns much smoother. I’m sold.
5. A commentary on this article revealing how T. Rex wasn’t (as conventional paleontology would have it) a fast sprinting lone hunter. No. T. Rex was all about the energy conservation, so ambled along at a more leisurely pace. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for us all. Or not. Which I why I didn’t pursue the topic further.
Instead of any of the above, I’m offering you a chance to do some passive cross training with gymnasts and parkour instructors. I have to say I enjoyed these. They are two YouTube videos in which male athletes in one field try to teach female athletes in another field, and the women kick ass. Then, when the tables are turned, the male athletes don’t do as well. Turns out, in this pair of videos everyone is incredibly talented and also pretty chill and good-natured. Okay, I might as well insert them here.
See you all next week, when I expect to be chock-full of inspiration and humor and fluency and sincerity. In writing, as in all things–
Hey readers– are you doing or reading or hearing or eating or seeing anything that’s got you excited or inspired or fired-up or out of the house or off the couch or out of bed before noon? I’d love to hear about it… 🙂
Owners of gyms and yoga studios and general athletic facilities, which have been closed for a few months now, are starting to make plans for how to reopen safely. The biggest problem is how to restrict the transmission of virus droplets that occurs when a lot of people are breathing in the same enclosed space. If you missed our super-popular and informative post about this by engineers Sarah and Cara, you can read it here.
The problem of reconfiguring building systems and infrastructure to mitigate virus risk is ongoing, and experts are hard at work formulating plans.
And then some other people came up with this idea:
So many questions come to mind here. The first one for me is “WHERE’S THE DOOR?”
Don’t worry– it’s right here.
They probably left the door open to avoid heat stroke– it’s got to be pretty toasty inside. Yes, there are fans, but I’m guessing they’re not going to help a lot. the instructor apparently gave up on their pod and taught from the open air.
The activity-within-pod idea isn’t actually new. For about 10 years now, novelty marketers have been advertising clear plastic watertight balls for playing on water.
For about the same amount of time, consumer and governmental safety agencies have warned against using these things, as they increase risk of suffocation or drowning. Of course, you could cut your risk of death in half by using it only on land:
I have to say, even if my risks of 1) drowning and 2) suffocating were eliminated, I don’t think I’d enjoy exercising inside a pod. Frankly, I’d feel too much like this:
It occurs to me that maybe it’s the dome-shape that’s got me bugging. A gym in LA has come up with plastic-sheet cubicles for its early-adopter clients. They can do classes and weight work inside, surrounded by clear plastic.
For now, I think I’ll keep doing my group physical activity either inside through zoom or outside in small groups at a safe distance. And the only thing I think we should use those clear plastic balls for is making an impression on the runway, as Shangela did on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3.
So, dear readers– would pods of either the domed or cubicle variety get you back to the gym or keen to join group classes? We’d love to hear from you.
(Michele A is a fitness and nature enthusiast. She likes dirt, most things with fur and feathers, and tasty plant-based food. In her free time, you’d most likely find her playing outside or in her kitchen. This is her debut blog post for Fit is a Feminist Issue. Let her know what you think about her love story about a cyclist and some goats.)
It’s never lost on me how fortunate I am to have my own pack. They consist of a group of women ranging from their early 30s to mid-60s who are almost always willing to partake in local adventures. I can send a group text or email asking if anyone wants to join me for a particular activity that following weekend and am almost always met with a positive response. 50-mile road ride followed by mocha lattes? “Sure!” 65-mile gravel ride in the hills of northern New England? “I’m there!” Nighttime trails on a chilly autumn evening under a full moon with post-ride ice-cream? “Absolutely!” Snowshoe trek on a single digit day in February? “Wouldn’t miss it!” Some version of this happens at least a couple of times during an average week, and I’m always in great company. These women have as much appreciation as I do for getting outdoors on bikes, and occasionally by foot. It may mean something a bit different for each of our minds, bodies and spirits, but I don’t think there’s one of us who could go long without being out there.
Being out there often affords us with other, sometimes unexpected, soul-lifting experiences. One example is meeting a local herd of Nigerian Dwarf Goats. I first interacted with them a few years ago while riding trails in a nearby town. Over time, I learned more about my ruminant friends. They live in the backyard of a house in the center of town, but get out for walks most days year round, so they too, can get some exercise, and also have access to a variety of grass, moss, bark and other vegetation to supplement their basic diet.
Each time I see them, I feel a twinge of excitement, and stop to say “hello”. As it turns out, I found another reason to be grateful for my riding partners because they are just as happy to stop for a visit with the ladies. The herd is also made up of all women, now spanning five generations with their most recent births.
In these last few months, the goats have taken on larger significance. These days, I’m doing only solo rides until it’s safe to ride in groups again, which may be a while. I’m sticking close to home and staying on terrain I’m familiar with. When I happen upon the goats, I linger for longer than usual. I live alone and have had very little in-person interaction with other humans. The goats used to be a fun sighting during a ride, an adorable pit stop in the midst of a multi-hour social excursion. Now, they are a meaningful source of comfort and joy. They are the main event, not just the popcorn while watching the feature film. They don’t know it, but they made quarantining and social distancing more tolerable for me.
When I see them, I stop and have various kinds of interactions:
Sit and pet: Sometimes I find a cozy spot to sit in the tall grass or along a rock wall. The goats do things on their terms. If one wants some attention, she will come over and plant herself sturdily next to me, and then I will rub her ears and stroke her head and sides. This is most often Mei Mei. She is the most equanimous of the bunch. Usually once she has gotten my full attention for several minutes, either Eia or Luna will follow and try to intervene. I often end up petting two goats at once, which is like brushing your hair and your teeth at the same time. It takes coordination, and I am getting better at it!
Foraging: Other times, I search for things they like to eat. I have learned what they deem as the perfect acorn and how to prepare it for them, by cracking off their shells and removing the meat. I find a large flat rock to spread out the acorns, and another hand-sized rock to crack them. Sometimes I have an audience while I do this. I often feed these to Lycian. She is the great-great-grandmother and is now in her 80s in people years. Getting the acorns out of the shell on her own has become difficult for her.
Cuddling: In the last month, my heart has been completely taken by Lydia. She is one of the two kids born to Lyra. When she is in the mood, I can pick her up or she’ll come sit in my lap. She will settle in and enjoy the attention. Sometimes she nibbles my shoulder, shirt, pants or wrist with her tiny mouth, mimicking the eating of the adult goats while she is still mostly drinking her mother’s milk. From her tiny mouth also comes the littlest bleats when she is chasing after the herd, reminding them of her presence. When she plays, she hops erratically about and returns head butts to her sister, Lyla.
These are all-absorbing and satisfying activities which allow me to forget life beyond the pasture. For the time that I am with them, I am immersed in their world and focused on their needs and behaviors. There is nothing but the goats.
Whether or not you have your own pack or flock or covey of companions that you’re missing terribly, it’s likely that your activities and routines today are different than they used to be, and you’re feeling unsettled or yearning for aspects of your former life at times. Comfort and joy can come in many forms. It doesn’t have to be goats. Finding your own special Red Beech tree to sit under its canopy, leaning on its enormous, smooth trunk can be grounding. Perching on a bridge overlooking a creek where you can toss in sticks and watch them float downstream can feel serene. Walking the same path regularly to watch it change throughout the weeks can remind you that life is going on all around you. Identifying the birds outside your window and watching them go about their eating and gathering can be calming. I’d love to hear examples of how the outdoor world has brought you peace.
It is officially summer now. The solstice was yesterday, Saturday June 20. We’re having a hot spell in the Northeast, which means I just installed my bedroom air conditioner unit more than a week ahead of my usual schedule (I always shoot for July 1 for no particular reason).
Today, I was taking a break from an online bioethics conference (which involves sitting at my computer looking at an endless– if very interesting– list of powerpoint presentations with audio). The break was the perfect antidote to sitting: hauling plastic chairs and stools downstairs to the driveway to soap, scrub and hose them off, in preparation for spruce-up spray painting.
As I said, it’s hot hot hot outside. I had a garden hose in my hand, multiple spray settings at the ready. It didn’t take long to put two and two together. Dual results: clean plastic outdoor furniture and a soaking wet, refreshed, happy Catherine.
This reminded me of how much fun I had as a child in my yard with garden hoses, sprinklers, kiddie pools, and a Slip ‘n Slide. I think my original one looked a bit like this:
Apparently they’re not designed for adults. Bummer. Look here for ominous tales about Slip ‘n’ Slide hazards.
When I got back inside, dried off, changed clothes, and sat down at my computer, I took a minor detour from bioethics talks, and searched for water-delivery-system fun toys or contraptions for local summer fun. It turns out there’s little to nothing for grownups. Here are some of the things I checked out.
Backyard inflatable splash/spray pads:
Novelty backyard sprinklers for kids:
Kiddie wading pools, of which there are many variations:
Note: I searched and looked at a lot of pool-related products, and not one of them had pictures with black kids or black families. Not one. Perhaps such photos are out there, but they are not used for advertising any of the hundreds of products I perused.
If you have a bigger space or grander wet and wild ambitions, here’s something for you:
This baby weighs 375 lbs (170kg) costs $USD 275/day to rent. It also requires a large area for maximum frolicking fun, either wet or dry.
Sadly, none of these options were what I had in mind. I live in a three-family house that’s been condo-ized, and I’m the second floor owner. We share a backyard, but in reality I never use it. I do use my back porch a lot, but even a small wading pool seems like a very bad idea.
Here’s a promising idea: maybe I could have something like this for refreshing water dunking from time to time.
But what if it’s just me, in need of outside cool-water immersion? Yes, I could hang a solar camp shower bag on my porch and get a cool water shower outside (you can tell I’ve really been avoiding those conference presentations today), but where’s the wild and giddy fun in that? Sigh.
So readers, you heard it here, maybe first: I think there’s a marketing opportunity here: fun water toys for 1) adults; and 2) anyone who lives with minimal outside space, like a porch, deck or balcony. Any thoughts? Product ideas? Recommendations for items I’ve missed? I’d love to hear from you.
CW: some talk about body weight, fatness and feelings that anti-fat micoaggressions can provoke.
N E V E R.
Context: many/most/all of us have found ourselves in the gym, on a bike, running, or doing some kind of physical activity (or any activity, for that matter, but I digress), when we get told by some stranger, “great job! You keep it up! You go, girl! You got this!” or some such infuriating fit-splaining-ness.
Now that you’re done reading her post, here are some modified examples commiserating on “good job!” unsolicited comments (I mean, there’s always unsolicited):
I was heading down from a hike and some people were like, oh don’t turn around, you’re almost there. I’m like, wtf, I had already been to the top… and now I’m heading back down.
I have done a lot of run/walking… Sometimes when a run interval is over and I go to a walk people yell “don’t stop keep going”. Like, leave me alone…
I once had a woman stop me to ask me if my heart was okay to run. Sigh…
I used get this hiking… “You’ll make it!” “Keep it up”. I wanted to pick them up and throw them off the mountain. Was hiking summits 3x/week. I take my time because I care less about speed and more about enjoying the hike.
We were walking around a small lake in a park, and a slim woman and her daughter stepped aside to let us pass. She asked if we were ‘walking around the lake’ and we said ‘yes’. She looked us up and down and said- oh, Good For YOU! We kept walking, looked at each other and realized we’d just been – I dunno, fat congratulated on our walk.
Someone told me I was “really good” at yoga. And then added, Especially for someone my size… she could’ve left that part out and also, yoga isn’t a competitive sport so I’m not looking for feedback, thank you very much.
I’ve been told, “Keep coming back!” at the gym. Yeah, I’ve been coming here regularly for years…
It’s hard to know how to respond in such situations.
WHAT AM I SAYING?! Of course it’s not hard to know how to respond. Here are my top 4 suggestions:
Sorry/not sorry for the potty-mouthed list.
Seriously, it’s hard to know what to do in the moment because 1) you’re actually in the middle of climbing or cycling or paddling or running or lifting something very heavy, and you’re trying to concentrate; 2) these digs just show up out of nowhere, apropos of nothing, so take you by surprise; 3) they can provoke feelings of inadequacy, shame, fury, sadness, loss of energy– all sorts of things can come out.
Ignoring it is one tactic. Coming up with a snappy reply is another, but can be hard to produce in the heat of the moment. There’s my list, but it is rude and could provoke an unsafe reaction in the fit-splainer.
There is this:
So, readers, what do or would you do in a situation like this? If you feel like telling us about a similar encounter and/or what you did, I’d love to hear about it.
(CW: Very silly and irreverent photos and descriptions and gifs of people in T-rex costumes doing physical activities. I hope this makes people smile a little.)
It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere, and we’re all yearning to get outside and explore nature in all its forms. However, COVID-19 will be with us for a long time to come. Vaccine development is still in early stages, and our knowledge and resources for treatment are limited. So we’re left with what we can do: prevention. To reduce transmission, we’re social distancing. I blogged about sports and risk recently here. That means limiting or avoiding activities with a high risk of transmission, especially avoiding any sports or activities that involve contact with other people.
T. rex likes non-motorized boating as well, and enjoys launching from the dock:
Sometimes, though, we just want to hang out by a river and enjoy the quiet pleasure of fishing. T. rex is no different.
Most people are understandably apprehensive about returning to gym workouts. Not T-rex! Their workouts go on as usual.
Sometimes T. rex just needs to create some aerobic heat, and the rowing/erg machine is a classic way to do just that.
Of course, running is a classic outdoor activity, which T-rex enjoys. It even provides a motivator for other runners to up their own performance:
On the other hand, many of us are screaming out for novelty these days; what better way to change up your exercise routine than by combining two favorite pastimes in novel ways?
Back to reality: I hope you found some silly respite in these images. For me, a smattering of jokes fits nicely into my schedule of ranting, gnashing of teeth, hiding, crying, donating, letter/email writing, self-reflection and learning.
Finally, the inspiration for the T. rex post is from my favorite T. rex in real life: here’s my friend Steph and me before the Orchard Cross costume race a few years ago. I’m her second banana. Looking forward to costume cross races, picnics, swimming outings with friends’ kids, beach trips on hot holiday weekends, and all the other lovely things we all do together.
So readers, how are you getting out there this summer? Any plans? Any interesting protection ideas? Feel free to share what you’re up to; I’d love to hear from you.