Growing a human is hard work!

By MarthaFitat55

Individuals who have reproduced small humans know how hard pregnancy can be. If it’s your first there’s all kinds of things to worry about, and if it’s your second or more, there may be different things to think about.

Increasingly though, there’s been lots of public commentary about pregnancy being equal to fat and there is great pressure post birth to get rid of the baby weight as fast as possible. So on top of emotional pressures and shifts with pregnancy and childbirth, we have social pressures to look a certain way while pregnant and also to return to a one’s pre-pregnant state with a combination of diets and extremes in exercise.

I’m not saying we should become sloths when reproducing. There’s been a big shift in removing taboos about pregnancy (thank heaven’s the wearable pregnancy tent has disappeared from the pregnancy fashion closet), Lots of gestating people maintain their regular fitness regime and some even run marathons while pregnant.

All this to say I was happy to read about new research considering the impact pregnancy has on a body. The study measured the amount of energy a person can use consistently over time. The researchers concluded that:

“there is an upper limit to the amount of energy that human bodies can expend consistently over time. This limit is consistent with other work that has been done on endurance athletes who compete in shorter competitions, and nearly the same as those of people who are pregnant and lactating. Together, these two factors suggest that there’s a ceiling to the amount of energy humans can expend for a period of time—and pregnancy pushes these limits, too.”

What does this mean? In the same way athletes must take time to recover what they have expended be it endurance, strength, etc post training for an extreme competition, , pregnant women need recovery too. Doing too much, too soon post birth can impede recovery, leading to little energy available for looking after the newly minted tiny human.

It was funny to open the article with a question asking which is harder: doing the Tour de France or carrying a baby to term. The answer is both. One caveat though; the study had a small sample size. Still the conclusions are interesting and could spark greater research about the gestating body.

Image description: black and white photo of swaddled newborn baby. From Unsplash

Men playing against women in basketball strategic approach for improving women’s game

In the Good News Department, I came across a news post describing how many women’s basketball teams in the United States have practice teams composed of men for the sole purpose of making women’s teams better.

Even more wonderful is that getting on these teams is pretty competitive and the men look forward to trying out as it also improves their chances for coaching gigs and making a team elsewhere.

One of the players interviewed in the article says: “I’ll tell them, ‘Alright, you guys laugh, but one of these girls could come in here and beat every last one of you. (…) Any DI women’s player is extremely fundamentally sound, and that’s where you can get easy points and take advantage of people. You kind of have to humble yourself, put your pride aside and realize these are the most talented women basketball players in the world.”


End Game strikes some wrong notes for size acceptance

By MarthaFitat55

I’m a big fan of the Marvel Comic franchise and I eagerly awaited the final installment End Game, particularly as I have a few favorite characters, including Thor, the God of Thunder.

The author poses with a cardboard cutout of an early version of Thor.

I won’t go into any detail about the film itself in case there are still some readers out there who haven’t seen it. However it is safe to say the surviving heroes from Infinity Wars deal with grief in their own unique ways befitting their personalities and histories as we know them.

Hawkeye becomes a driven assassin; Captain America becomes a peer support leader; Black Widow is laser-focused on monitoring the world for potential threats; and Iron Man has retired to a peaceful rural life with Pepper Potts and their daughter.

Thor, on the other hand has retreated to beer, pizza, and a wastrel life of video games with his bros. The film offers grave tones suggesting a depressed, unhappy and sorrowful hero who cannot find his strength or motivation to lead.

Fair enough, many of us do use food or drink to manage our feelings, so no judgement from me on that. However, when we catch our first glimpse of Thor, he is seen as unkempt, schlumpy and fat.

In fact, there were lots of titters and guffaws at this unexpected manifestation of depression. I’ve read enough comments to see this was not an unusual response. While I appreciate Thor in the pantheon was funnier than the other heroes, it was hard to see him as a tool for mockery. And he is mocked by the people he calls his friends.

I suppose I should be grateful there was no miracle makeover, but the constant digs were unkind at best and cruel at their worst. That Thor himself feels he is a lost cause becomes apparent with his overwhelmingly relief when he learns he is still worthy enough to recall the Hammer.

I saw End Game just days before news broke that runners in the London marathon’s 7.5 hour pace group were mocked and called fat for their efforts. It was another reminder that if you don’t fit social expectations, you are not worthy. If you are interested in some other thoughts, here’s an interesting take at the Mary Sue.

What do you think? How might this story line be done more positively?

fitness · Martha's Musings · racism · sexism

Link Roundup: Caster Semenya and the IAAF decision

There’s been a lot of discussion at Fit is A Feminist Issue on the recent CAS decision concerning Caster Semenya. Following our blog post yesterday, we’ve heard from a number of commenters who have helpfully shared links to stories. I thought it would be useful to look at what else has been written about Caster Semenya. If you have any other articles, commentaries etc you think will add to our understanding of the issues this decision presents regarding women in sport and the construction of “female” in modern society, please share in the comments to this post.

First, let’s look at what testosterone is and isn’t. Much has been made of the fact that Semenya has higher levels of the so called “male hormone” than usual for women. The IAAF sees this as a disadvantage to other women and this was the foundation of their argument for establishing a discriminatory policy. The New York Times has an interesting opinion piece from two researchers on what they call the myth of testosterone. I thought this quote was illuminating:

“The problem with trying to flatten athleticism into a single dimension is illustrated especially well by a 2004 study published in The Journal of Sports Sciences. The study analyzed testosterone and different types of strength among men who were elite amateur weight lifters and cyclists or physically fit non-athletes. Weight lifters had higher testosterone than cyclists and showed more explosive strength. But the cyclists, who had lower testosterone than both other groups, scored much higher than the others on “maximal workload,” an endurance type of strength. Across the three groups, there was no relationship between testosterone and explosive strength, and a negative relationship between testosterone and maximal workload. Though small, that study isn’t an outlier: Similar complex patterns of mixed, positive and negative relationships with testosterone are found throughout the literature, involving a wide range of sports.” Bottom line: there are inconsistencies in how testosterone enhances or detracts from performance in different sports.

The CBC posted a great overview focusing on the challenges researchers face in trying to establish what the effect and advantage extra testosterone offers to athletes, especially women. There is a lot of disagreement about what the advantage means, and a key part of the legal argument put forward by Semenya’s legal team was the lack of rigour used by the IAAF in setting its standards. The CBC referenced a recent editorial in the British Medical Journal that cited several problems with the IAAF’s own methodology, and most damningly they said the IAAF’s results could not be reproduced:

“… the authors noted the criticisms of an analysis commissioned by the IAAF which found that women whose serum testosterone levels were in the top third performed significantly better than women with levels in the lowest third. Those results, Tannenbaum and Bekker claim, could not be independently reproduced, and the data does not reliably mirror the source track times of athletes from the 2011 and 2013 world championships.”

Other articles in the days following the CAS decision have focused on highlighting the human rights issues arising from the decision to require Semenya to reduce her natural testosterone levels with medication. Jacqueline Doorey writes: “But as self-identity and gender politics continue to evolve, finding the science to back that up is getting harder. And the repercussions of using testosterone levels to classify athletes can test arguments around inclusion and fair competition — as well as possibly infringe on basic human rights.”

We also need to consider the history of policing women in sport. Slate has an excellent overview of Semenya’s battle with the IAAF and offers additional analysis of the background to sex testing and performance for elite women athletes. One of things I liked about the Slate post was how it captured all that Semenya has endured: “Although Semenya is not the first athlete to have her identity as a woman challenged, she has endured this obsession over her eligibility in the women’s category longer than any athlete in history. All along, she has continued to compete and excel, earning five global 800-meter championships even as she was likely reducing her testosterone levels under the former hyperandrogenism rules.” Slate sums up what commenters generally have been saying: Semenya is a target because she is female, black and successful.

Trans athlete Rachel McKinnon explains the future implications for the decision in a concise and clear interview with Newsweek. McKinnon begins with the model of femininity as thin and white and the idea that women who do not meet that ideal are not feminine enough or are not women at all. She highlights the exceptional success of Usain Bolt and how he is celebrated for his exceptionality, yet women like Semenya who have equally exceptional success are suspect and deemed not women. She also takes on the idea stated by some athletes that these policies will protect women in sport, noting that Semenya is in no way protected by this even though she is a woman.

The Economist has weighed in as well, chronicling the start of the IAAF’s campaign against women like Semenya. The Economist looks beyond the immediate concerns of Semenya to consider how the IOC will use this ruling to include not only intersex athletes but trans ones as well:

“Only a few runners will have to make immediate career choices after the court’s decision. But the precedent set by the IAAF’s ruling could affect female athletes in every sport. It is by far the most prominent and detailed ruling that the court has delivered regarding biological sex, and it is a potentially far-reaching one. From now on, the CAS will almost certainly use testosterone levels to determine who should be allowed to compete in women’s events. These tests will apply not only to intersex athletes, but also to trans women, who were born male but identify as women. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had already introduced a testosterone limit of 10 nmol/L for trans women in all sports in 2016, replacing its previous requirement for athletes to have undergone genital-reconstruction surgery. It is now considering reducing the limit to 5 nmol/L. This rule change has not been tested at the court, but after Wednesday’s precedent it looks likely to stand.”

The Economist also highlighted an aspect not covered in some of the other posts I read: that the decision now sets a sliding scale on determining femaleness, adding an extra layer of murkiness to the whole issue. As a side note, it is worth registering to read this article as it also covers significant cases and the challenges in research related to impacts of elevated levels of hormone levels on performance including intersex and trans athletes.

It was also heartening to see that negative or limiting opinions and beliefs could be changed. The Guardian published Madeline Pape’s commentary on how she used to think high testosterone was the issue but how now, with information and consideration, she came to a different point of view. Pape was herself an internationally ranked track athlete until injury sidelined her sports career. She says:

“As a sociologist, I have now spent several years immersed in this issue, interviewing elite track-and-field stakeholders from around the world including athletes, coaches, officials, managers, team staff and media personnel. In their accounts I have seen so many echoes of my own experience in Berlin: an astounding lack of information, an absence of alternative viewpoints, a fear of the unknown, weak leadership from national and international governing bodies, and a stubborn refusal to dig a little deeper and reflect critically on where their views come from and what biases might be underlying them. The path of least resistance is to turn away from information and perspectives that might undermine one’s investment in the simplistic notion that sex is binary and testosterone is unfair (at least in women).”

The Nation contributed a stinging rebuttal of the CAS’s decision. It’s a fabulous piece of writing, and includes this gem from Katrina Karkazis, senior visiting fellow at the Global Health Justice Partnership at Yale University and one of the co-authors of the NYT piece referenced earlier: ” [This decision] endorses discrimination against women in sport and allows sports governing bodies to require medically unnecessary interventions for continued eligibility, violating women’s bodily autonomy and integrity. This neither protects nor benefits women’s sport. (…) my fear is that [the CAS decision] will foster the already circulating erroneous representations about the science of sex biology, intersex, and the relationship between testosterone and athleticism.”

These are the key articles I had time to follow up on, read and analyze this weekend. If you have others you think can add to the discussion and amplify the issues I’ve highlighted, it would be great if you would highlight them in the comments! Also helpful might be any themes you think I’ve overlooked and might be worth exploring in future posts.

athletes · body image · fitness · gender policing · inclusiveness · Martha's Musings · Olympics · racism · sexism · stereotypes

Women, sport and sex tests: Why Caster Semenya matters a great deal

Many years ago I had the good fortune to work with a board full of fabulous women representing a wide diversity of interests, experiences and backgrounds. One of the women had competed in the Montreal Olympics. She described for us one day what it was like to be subjected to a sex test. Her emotions were palpable, especially the anger.

In fact, we should all be angry, for the women athletes in the past whose physical embodiment was questioned and for the women athletes of today and in the future. The policing of women’s bodies, from what they wear to how they are portrayed, is widespread in all aspects of society, not just sport. However, women who excel in sport and wish to compete at the highest levels are subject to scrutiny that goes above and beyond the sort leveled at all athletes when it concerns drug enhancements. This kind of scrutiny has now been enshrined with this week’s decision from the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland in which they ruled against middle distance runner Caster Semenya’s appeal of the IAAF’s move to enforce new regulations regarding athletes differences of sexual development (DDS). In particular, the IAAF says female athletes who have higher than usual levels of testosterone must take drugs to reduce those levels to even the playing field.

Semenya’s career in track has been dogged by constant allegations that her achievements in the sport are unfairly won. Curiously, US swimmer Michael Phelps, whose body produces less lactic acid, is deemed to be exceptionally fortunate to be born with this genetic advantage.

And yet, no one is suggesting Phelps should take drugs to enable his body to produce more lactic acid so his competitors have a more equal opportunity.

We cannot forget that along with the sexism this decision against Semenya perpetuates, it is also supporting a racist assumption on how black bodies perform compared to white ones. Acclaimed tennis champion Serena Williams has been constantly challenged on her accomplishments and her body size, shape and presentation. This CNN article gives a great overview about the biases against Williams, including the assumption that her excellence erases her female identity.

The belief that Williams and Semenya are so good at what they do, they cannot possibly be women is one that has long been used to attack women who excel in sport. But it seems particularly pervasive in its use against black women. Semenya’s body naturally produces more testosterone than is usually found in women. Yet the research is unclear how natural testosterone affects performance compared to artificial hormones used to enhance performance:

“What’s clear is that there is solid evidence that men who take excessive doses of testosterone … do get a competitive advantage clearly in sports related to strength,” said Bradley Anawalt, a hormone specialist and University of Washington Medical Center’s chief of medicine.The problem, said Anawalt, is that attempts to try to quantify that competitive advantage in naturally occurring levels of the hormone are “fraught with difficulty in interpretation.”

The CAS decision was meant to clarify and instead muddied the waters even further. They upheld the IAAF decision but said they should take more time to implement. They agreed with the concept of the rule DDS athletes should reduce their testosterone, but were concerned about the effects on athlete’s bodies. They said it was fine for the IAAF to apply this rule to athletes racing under 1000 metres but athletes running longer distances were fine.

The Semenya case has implications that are far-reaching. We know women have been over-medicated, often to their detriment. We know that chemical castration has been used to manage pedophiles. But Semenya is neither depressed nor a criminal. She is an athlete performing her best with the tools she was born with.

That the IAAF and its head Sebastian Coe have created an environment in which Semenya can be neither her best or herself is untenable. I am glad Canada’s Minister for Sport has called out this decision. We need to have conversations about sexism, racism, and transphobia in sport; more importantly we need action. Follow #HandsOffCaster or #LetHerRun, among others, on Twitter; sign this petition; become informed; and make your views known and heard.


Getting my workout gear on the go

By MarthaFitat55

I have written previously about the lamentable lack of attractive, fashionable workout gear for plus size fitfemmes. When I first started learning how to strength train, I was content with my not-quite-ancient yoga pants and one of my four classic grey tees for a very long while.

I graduated to plain black leggings and the odd coloured tee eventually when I realized I was in this powerlifting zone for the long haul. I realized I missed fun and bright amidst all the black and grey weights and machines.

I should say I missed fun and bright for me. We get awfully grey winters here on the east coast of Newfoundland, usually presaged by somewhat gloomy falls and followed by an equally dispirited spring. Pops of colour are a great way to beat the blahs, especially for someone like me who believes in basic fire engine red for pretty much any item of clothing.

Sadly, fun and colourful are not readily available in my size in the stores near to me. So when a friend posted pictures of her new leggings, I was intrigued. She connected me with her friend who sold these wonderful objects, and I bought two pairs: one a gorgeous floral and one in navy (can’t let go of some old ideas quite yet). I have since acquired a bunch more of these fun leggings including holiday-themed, Nordic influenced, and my latest is multi coloured polka dots.

I wear these leggings to the gym, I wear them to the grocery store, and I wear them when I want to stay home and chill with my book and latte. I wear them because they are fun and they give me a great boost. I wear them because lots of times I am tired of wearing my business clothes even though many of the items I own for that purpose are plenty colourful.

As a size 18, I know I am not going to be invisible in the gym regardless of what I wear. Also, when I want to be especially effective in a training session, I find dressing in something that pops gives me the mental kick in the pants I need to embrace the bar and the weight with extra energy.

I also like knowing I have clothing that has been created for active people. I like the security of knowing I have good gear that won’t fail at a crucial moment, or become see through when I execute certain exercises.

Since the advent of these fabulous leggings, I have tackled the swimsuit situation. I love my swim suit but after two years of fairly regular use, it was time to replace it. Sadly cherry red is not a colour they make available in any size, but I did find polka dots. Who knows? Perhaps in two years’ time when I need a new one, a cherry red suit will have found its way to the pool for me.

— MarthaFitat55 lives in Newfoundland.


Can we have game misconducts for sexism?

Earlier this week 7AFL took down a post of AFLW Tayla Harris which featured a photograph of her completing a spectacular football* kick. The member of the Australian women’s football league received high praise but then the trolls arrived and it all went down hill from there.

Here’s the photo:

Photo shows Tayla Harris, Australian soccer player in mid jump with her right leg up high after completing a spectacular goal kick.

The AFLW was criticized for not responding more quickly to requests for moderation of the negative, crude posts. The organization’s Facebook page faced more criticism for removing the photo. Kaysey Symons writing for The Guardian said:

“While the messaging from the AFL’s official broadcast partner was somewhat admirable in that they acknowledged the harmful nature of the comments, their course of action to erase it, in effect, was even more damaging. Deleting the image, and Harris, from a digital discourse does not silence the haters and the trolls. It silences her. It silences the athletes. It silences everyone whose identity was vilified in those comments.”

Followers of the group responded to the photo’s removal by inserting it in subsequent posts regardless of the content. Finally, the administrators reposted the photo.

Perhaps we should be grateful the AFLW made this misstep because it has become an opportunity to look at the imagery we see of women excelling in sport.

We’ve all seen the fitspo posters in gyms featuring women in skimpy clothing posed provocatively. And when we do see it in media — newspapers, television, and social — it’s almost impossible to see the physicality of women in sport without people imposing a filter with sexual overtones.

The fact is, this is not the first time we’ve seen photos of women in sports which do not meet social expectations for docility and gentility. Nor is it the first time they have been critiqued.

Kaetlyn Osmond, Olympic figure skater faced controversy in 2013 when the Globe and Mail published a photograph on its front page which many readers felt was too revealing and inappropriate.

The Globe and Mail’s public editor Sylvia Stead weighed in on the controversy saying the photo should not have been used. Stead said: The readers and I both thought the photo could be embarrassing to anyone, although Kaetlyn, who is a good sport and a great skater, responded on Twitter that she was happy to be on the front page and said “I really like that picture.”

Stead went on to say that readers “want photos to show our athletes in the best possible light and not to (potentially) embarrass them. And while the news imperative is to show action photos of athletes, there were many other photos of Kaetlyn (such as the one included with this blog post) and the other victorious Canadian skaters that could have shown their strength and grace.”

But let’s go all the way back to the end of the 20th century when the web was still new and burgeoning with potential and concepts like virality and doxing were unknown but flaming on news groups and listservs was still a thing.

Back in 1999, US soccer player Brandi Chastain was captured in celebratory glee taking off her shirt after making the penalty kick which won the team the Women’s World Cup gold medal game. The horror: a woman’s bra was shown on a sports field!

In a BBC story, Chastain recalls the moment: “I whipped off that shirt and I kind of whipped it around in the air over my head and dropped to my knees as a ‘Yes!’ moment that we had done what we set out to do. I had no idea that would be my reaction – it was truly genuine and it was insane and it was a relief and it was joy and it was gratitude all wrapped into one.”

While many male athletes are presented taking off their jerseys, Chastain’s action was seen as abnormal. However, she said “There’s something primal about sport that doesn’t exist anywhere else – when you have a moment like scoring a winning goal in the World Cup championship, you are allowed to release this feeling, this emotion, this response that is not elicited anywhere else.”

I like seeing pictures of women doing their sport well. When I was growing up, the only women we saw sportsing were usually figure skaters or tennis players. Let’s focus on the fact that women are excelling in sport and they are doing physical things which are not in themselves sexual. And if the trolls can’t handle that, then administrators need to step up and moderate comments or not allow them if the result is going to be bigotry and sexism.

*Thanks to one of our commenters below, I have learned that Australian football is not like soccer. It is a high contact sport that shares many similarities with Gaelic football, which is also not like European football/soccer.

— MarthaFitAt55 lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.