body image · diets · eating disorders · fashion · fitness · Martha's Musings

We are more than a collection of parts

 

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Women being active and not worrying about thigh gap, or hip cleavage, or any other nonsense Photo by Kyle Pham on Unsplash

It’s tiring to be female in this world. I can only speak from a cis-perspective, of course, but it occurs to me, that howsoever you come to identify as a female, there is an endless list of things you must have or prevent if you are to present acceptably as female.

 

First it was thigh gap, that space between a woman’s thighs — the wider it is, the thinner and more desirable the women. Then it was the concave navel. Now we have a new one: hip cleavage, or what I knew as high cut underwear or swimsuit bottoms to show off the hip bones.

We are all familar with the term cleavage as associated with breasts. Plunging necklines in dresses are designed to show off cleavage. There are right ways and wrong ways to show off cleavage in the upper body.

Too much in the wrong way means you end up with sideboob reveals; too much in the right way means you may risk a wardrobe malfunction and subject unsuspecting bystanders to a glimpse of the “girls.” These days, the focus, and perhaps the parts in question, has shifted to the underboob (I can hardly wait to see if there is an upper boob!).

Regardless of the terminology, the prinicpal issue is that women continue to be divided into parts. Perhaps it’s the legs (although it and the toes had cleavage back in the day). Let’s not forget the butt or the breasts, with fashion dictating whether they were perky, ample, lean or sleek.

When I used to deliver media literacy sessions to high school students, we would talk about the techniques used to separate, disconnect, and isolate girls and women from their bodies. Instead of being seen as whole, unique individuals with our own kind of beauty, women and their bodies are broken into parts and given meaning and value by others.

The obsession with thinnness as a beauty standard has fueled anxieties and nurtured the development of eating disorders; sadly, girls and women continue to starve themselves to fit a largely artificial construct of “female” beauty.

In Canada, those of us who work in health promotion talk about the vitality message — eat well, be active, live smoke free, and support mental wellness. Being active offers tremendous health benefits and it makes me sad to see fitness being used negatively to coerce women into creating and maintaining a body shape that is not natural to them.

 

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Another picture of fabulous women not caring about articifial body constructs. Photo by Clarke Sanders on Unsplash

 

Focusing on hip cleavage is just another stick we use to bash away at ourselves. It’s a stick handed to us by the arbiters of fashion and trends (I keep meaning to ask, who died and made them the rulers of the universe?) and quite frankly, I’m tired of it all.

We need to rewrite the script and start talking positively, frequently, and loudly about all the good things we can with our bodies: how strong our legs are to drive our bikes and our feet on our runs; how powerful our arms are so we can lift, wheel, and strike; how big our chests can be to ensure we can take in the oxygen we need to keep going; how wide our hips can be to birth children or to cuddle them.

We are enough as we are. In fact, we always were. Let’s remember that.

— Martha is a writer and powerlifter in St. John’s.

 

 

addiction · advertising · alcohol · fitness · Martha's Musings

What’s wine got to do with it?

by MarthaFitat55

As someone who has been exploring different ways to be fit, healthy, and happy,  the question of alcohol comes up often.

Usually the question from the fitness point of view focuses on the calories in alcohol or avoiding overindulgence vis a vis athletic performance.  When it comes to health, the issue is more about consuming too much alcohol.

Two articles of late have been making the rounds on my news feeds. The first one surveys the literature on alcohol and its link to cancer. Mother Jones writer Stephanie Mencimer began looking at this link after her own diagnosis of breast cancer even though she didn’t fit the profile as someone at risk for cancer.

The article is extensive and covers a lot of ground,  but what leapt out at me was data on women’s drinking generally. As a rule, Mencimer reported, women don’t drink a lot. But that is changing, and rapidly, because of concerted marketing campaigns pitching drinking to women: “Ads and products now push alcohol as a salve for the highly stressed American woman. There are wines called Mother’s Little Helper, Happy Bitch, Mad Housewife, and Relax. Her Spirit vodka comes with swag emblazoned with girl-power slogans like “Drink responsibly. Dream recklessly.”

But it isn’t just ads selling specific types of alcohol. There’s a whole bunch of memes and cartoons online and on clothing doing this. Consider this popular image and concept. The image shows two women running. One woman tells the other her fitness tracker calculates how many glasses of wine they have earned  through exercising.

winetracker

The image equates exercise as a means to earn food or drink rewards. Run five miles you get a glass of wine; run ten miles and you get two.

That’s not how exercise works, and yet the message is seen as lighthearted and true. It doesn’t work if you think of two men running and saying it calculates how many beer you can have.

Then there’s this one:

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With this meme, readers who are watching their weight are advised to sublimate food cravings by drinking wine. It goes further to suggest that thirst can only be quenched by alcohol.

I find this one really bothersome because the idea of moderation is dismissed out of hand. Forget having a glass of wine, drink the whole bottle. As for seeing how you feel, I doubt anyone who has drunk a whole bottle by themselves has the capacity to engage in any deep thinking.

Then there’s the marketing push from stories like this one on farm fresh vodka (made with kale!) and the latest marathon fad which includes 23 stops for wine.

I think though the worst idea for drinking came from a fitness apparel line:

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We’ve come along way since Mick Jagger sang about Mother’s Little Helper (Where’s the sarcasm emojii when you need it?). There’s so much wrong with this I’m not sure where to start.

Perhaps it’s the idea that a strong woman needs help with parenting a strong girl. While parenting help is often undersold, are girl children that problematic that even a strong woman can’t cope? Or is it that the only way to cope is to indulge in strong drink (usually meaning hard liquor)?

I prefer my strength to come from lifting weights and from focusing on the ways I can cultivate resilience rather than on relying on drink to give me strength to face the challenges I have.

These memes are often shared because people find them funny but in fact, they normalize excessive drinking. Let’s take a look at what that is.

The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines heavy drinking as more than four drinks on any day or 14 per week for men and more than three drinks on any day or seven per week for women.

Health Canada defines low risk drinking as “no more than two drinks a day, 10 per week for women, and three drinks a day, 15 per week for men, with an extra drink allowed on special occasions.”

But limits aren’t that simple. The second article I read this week focused on the life-shortening effects of alcohol. The article reported on new research which found “people who drank the equivalent of about five to 10 drinks a week could shorten their lives by up to six months.” 

It gets worse: “The study of 600,000 drinkers estimated that having 10 to 15 alcoholic drinks every week could shorten a person’s life by between one and two years. And they warned that people who drink more than 18 drinks a week could lose four to five years of their lives.”

Contrary to those memes, the research supports a new limit for light drinking or for encouraging abstinence from alcohol completely if one wants to pursue a healthier and happier life.

— Martha Muzychka is a writer getting her fit on in St. Johns.

 

body image · diets · eating · fat · fitness · weight loss · weight stigma

The new health target of the century: kids

The news made the rounds of the health at every size (HAES) contacts I have in my social networks. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Weight Watchers was offering free six-week memberships to 13 year olds, and yet I was.

Shortly after that, I learned the makers of FitBit were launching a fitness tracker for children. According to TechCrunch, the makers of FitBit are targetting the eight- to 13-year-old market because as the Telegraph noted, we need to do something about getting “couch potato kids” off the couch and into the gym.

Because child obesity y’all. (Insert eye roll here.)

I’ll admit I’ve been on diets, and I also have used a FitBit (see this post for how I use mine). I went on my first diet with WW when I was 14 and I needed my mom to sign for me. I can’t say it was a success because despite an endless variety of diet plans, I have continued to be my own fun-sized self and not the one society said I should be.

I stopped dieting when I reached my 40s. I read the literature, I looked at the research, and I considered the methodology of the studies. These days I try to eat most of my fruits and veggies every day, be moderate about my meat consumption, and add more whole grains, beans, pulses, and fish to my plate.

I still eat chocolate, potato chips and ice cream treats on occasion, but I am more mindful about my daily choices. And when I really, really want the chocolate bar, I go for the good stuff and thoroughly enjoy it.

Diets are all about deprivation, regardless of how they are marketed. And they don’t work. The problem with marketing to teens, especially teen girls, is they already have a decade of misdirection on what a female body is supposed to look like behind them. All those messages have been accumulating and Weight Watchers is stepping up to take advantage of the anxiety-fertilized soil to grow their market.

Ultimately, the only thing the plan will do is teach girls deprivation is the norm, their bodies at 13 are unacceptable, and it is on them to change their bodies rather than society change its expectations for the form expected for women.

At first blush, there shouldn’t really be an issue with creating a tool for kids. However, there are many people who see the number of steps reached as tacit permission to indulge. Weight Watchers for awhile had an exercise component that allowed users to collect food points through exercise and then spend them on either more, or fun type foods.

Many of these exercise tools track not only steps or other types of activities but also calories and weight. If you want off the diet train and onto the gym track, it can be very hard to find a gadget or tool that doesn’t link weight and fitness. In fact, it is one of the reasons I and my trainer make a point to track personal records that are strength based instead of scale based.

Whatever your size, age and body type, we are, at least in North America, a more sedentary society. Television, junk foods and in house gaming systems are factors in the higher weights we are seeing. But the problem with marketing fitness gadgets to kids is that after awhile the appeal is going to fade. While gamification of anything works effectively in the short term for setting goals, once kids and youth get where they want to be, there isn’t a point to doing it anymore and it stops being fun.

A co-blogger on this site shared with me some thoughts she and her sister had about the Fitbit and they echo mine: “My experience with fitbits with grown ups is they don’t understand the correlation between steps and food so it almost gives them more ‘permission’ to eat that piece of cake or whatever. I only know two people who use it in the way it was designed (make sure I get in my steps to stay fit) and they are both people who would be fit anyway. For kids, it’s a good awareness raiser and a ‘game’ but if it becomes the gadget it kind of loses its function.”

My co-blogger’s sister also made an important point that links to unpacking, resisting, or creating a new culture around fitness: “Fitness especially in kids comes from values, habits, home discussions, role modelling, fun activities, and doing things that don’t seem like fitness to the kid.”

Doing things that don’t seem like fitness are often more fun when you don’t have the “must” factor. Even I think it is more useful to say to myself: “It’s a gorgeous day out — let’s go for a walk!” instead of “I need to get 2500 more steps in to meet my time for today’s fitness.”

While I think the offer from WW for 13-year-olds is more problematic than FitBit’s plan to extend its market share by focusing on kids, I do believe we need to think carefully about how we look to change the behaviour of children when it comes to eating and moving.

Because in some respects is not how we change the behaviour, but why we feel it is necessary in the first place.

— Martha enjoys getting her fit on with powerlifting, swimming, and trail walking.

fitness · Martha's Musings · Metrics · weight lifting

Changing how I think one plate at a time

 

An athlete wears red sneakers with a kettle bell next to their feet

Two weeks ago, I had a day in the gym that was perfect. Every motion flowed like silk. After having a pause for the holidays, getting back in the groove felt great.

Last week, while my form was still on point, the flow was uneven. I finally understood what competition commenters mean when they say a lifter grinds out a set.

The amount of effort to move the plates was huge, at least for the first lift of the set. The speed picked up for each one after that first time, but still over the course of the session, my trainer and I could see that my brain and my legs were fighting each other on my first approach to the bar.

These weren’t lightweights, but neither were they really heavy ones either. And yet, they resisted movement. Each time I started a set, I dragged that bar over my shins, knees to finally come to rest at the hip.

My trainer made a couple of suggestions on modifying my approach. She showed me three different ways people set up at the bar. We split one approach into smaller steps, and I worked through each one to finally find the right stance for me.

I was so excited I wanted to try a whole new set, but alas, it was the end of the session, and I knew too well that my unrestrained enthusiasm could lead to a wrong move and that could lead to injury. As I had just reached one year without any complaint from the wonky hip, I had to concede. But at my next session, I promised myself, I would remember the tweaks and try them again.

That same day I received cartoon celebrating the knowledge we gain from failure. The cartoonist observed “Failure just means not yet.” It made me think a little more deeply about the reluctant bar.

Had I just kept on getting smooth as silk lifts with these lower weights, what would have happened once I aimed for the higher weights I want to try this year? Without learning some of the tricks and tips to adjust or modify my approach before trying again, I might have stayed stuck for a whole lot longer and experienced significant frustration at not moving forward (or upward as the case may be).

I’m trying to document some of these insights, along with the PRs and the key anniversaries (yay one year without a recurrence!) so that I can see all the ways I am moving forward even when it feels by only one metric like I’m not. What are other ways we can measure progress or changes in our fitness that are meaningful and realistic?

— MarthaFitat55 enjoys powerlifting even when the bar fights her command.

equality · fitness · Martha's Musings · swimming · weight lifting

On making and taking space

Female figure alone in an infinity pool looks towards the ocean in the distance
Female figure alone in an infinity pool looks towards the ocean in the distance

By MarthaFitat55

I started swimming because I wanted to do something different that would complement my current fitness routine (weight training twice a week and trail walking once a week) along with walking and stairclimbing through the day.

I quickly found swimming served as a form of meditation. I like doing laps even though I am not an especially fast or strong swimmer. Since August, I have been going at least twice a week, and sometimes I have managed even three or four times.

In many respects, swimming is my reset button.

The last swim of 2017 was interesting. The pool’s fast lane had been taken over by a swim team, leaving the triathalon trainees no choice but to take over the leisure swim area. We all (athletes and leisure swimmers alike) ended up staggering our departures from the shallow end, although it quickly became apparent why I am a leisure swimmer and not a tri candidate.

My first clue came from the waves generated by so many swimmers in one place. I haven’t seen waves like that since the last time I went pond swimming close to 30 years ago. My second clue was realizing they were lapping me easily. They were like Energizer bunnies, one after the other after the other, cleaving the pool with their arms and legs pumping rapidly like pistons.

By the time I started my third lap, I was feeling more frazzled instead of my usually relaxed state. In fact, I rather felt like a cat whose owner was rubbing its fur the wrong way.

As I made my way through the waves, I thought about leaving the leisure side and going to the therapy pool. I was feeling overwhelmed by the volume and the quality of swimmers, and more than a little uncomfortable, but I stayed and completed my usual set of laps. It wasn’t my best time and I was not in my usual state of zen post swim, but I did it.

I stayed because I knew I had the same right to access as anyone else. I might have been the slowest person in the pool, and I definitely had the weakest form, but I had made a promise to myself to go swimming and I wanted to keep it. So I made space for myself, and like the wonderful Dory from Finding Nemo, I just kept swimming.

I didn’t always think this way. I was one of those people who would join a gym in January and slink away in February or March. As I mix up right and left on a regular basis, aerobics classes (later replaced by zumba) were usually mortifying experiences requiring multiple apologies to participants for bumping into them. As a result, I was pretty self conscious about anything I did in a gym where there were other people.

After four years of weight training, I have not only built muscles, I have also increased my confidence. Weight training is all about competing with yourself as opposed to others. It’s also about recognizing everyone has a place in the gym and you learn to accomodate and respect where people are.

While I may be slow in the pool, just as I am on the running trail, it is good to remember I am always steady and persistent. Rather than get stressed out by what others are doing, or trying to guess what they are thinking about me in that shared space, I know that what really matters is setting and meeting my own pace every time I hit the gym or the pool. It didn’t feel like it initially, but on reflection, it was a good way to kick off the new year.

 

— Martha is looking forward to 2018 and making good on her big goals.

 

Fear · fitness · Martha's Musings · weight lifting

Embracing the fear

A couple of months ago, my trainer bought a Halloween skeleton as a joke. She posed it in different machines with appropriate captions. One of the pictures featuredfilippo-ruffini-427590 the skeleton on the Jacob’s ladder, a climbing machine that can go at different speeds.

I don’t like the machine; in fact, I avoid it at all costs. When I learned it was not working, I expressed an immoderate amount of happiness. My trainer, who is as perceptive as she is focused, asked what the issue was. I told her I despised the jake and furthermore I was afraid of it. Her response: If you genuinely hate it, we can leave it out. If it’s fear, then when we face it is your call.”

That comment stopped me in my tracks. While I might not like a particular exercise (go away Bulgarian split squats),  I usually complete them and do the best job I can. It never occurred to me to think about why I was afraid of that machine and why I hid the fear behind the more innocuous phrasing of “dislike” or the even stronger word “despise.”

My dictionary defines fear as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” I’m not afraid of many things, but two I know for sure: heights and small spaces. The first is a consequence of mid-life hearing loss but the latter I have always had as did one of my parents. My claustrophobia is not limited to small spaces, but also includes masks which cover my face.

While I haven’t figured out what is at the root of my fear of the Jacob’s ladder, I know it is more than dislike. It is also not a function of mechanics. Once I am shown how to do something, I am usually pretty good at managing the parts involved in executing the action.

I know I am not ready to train on the bar by myself without a spotter, and that’s a safety issue. My arthritis sometimes makes my grip weak; with the greater weights I’m using now, I am not confident I can hang on to them, especially when I get tired.

Fear is a pretty complex emotion. It can stop you from trying new things or maintaining others. While I am not ready to tackle the Jacob’s ladder, I do have other cardio-intensive activities I can choose to replace it.

Since I have started thinking more about the difference between disliking something and being afraid of it, I wonder what role fear plays in women choosing certain forms of activity compared to others. Last month in my column for our daily newspaper, I looked at how our fear of assault and harassment can limit our activities:

“…  how we live our lives as women is very different from how men live their lives. Dr Fiona Vera-Gray, Durham University (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-41614720) has spent the last five years looking at the choices women make to manage their fear of sexual harassment and assault. Her work is echoed by another piece of research in which more than half of the 42,000 women surveyed reported limiting their activities out of fear.

Another researcher, Liz Kelly, talks about this as “safety work”, the conscious and unconscious strategy development we do every day to make sure we don’t put ourselves at risk. As Ver-Gray puts it, “Despite how common it is, or perhaps because of it, we rarely even think about the routine choices and changes we make to maintain a sense of safety.””

But I’m also thinking about my trainer’s comment that when I am ready to tackle the ladder, we will do it on my terms. That the decision is in my hands makes the fear more manageable. I can approach it when and where I choose. Having that element of control matters hugely, even if it also seems contradictory. After all, I go to a gym and work with a trainer precisely because I want someone to tell me what to do and when.

I’ve concluded the best thing I take away from incorporating fitness in my daily routine and gaining strength through powerlifting is how I maintain my own sense of power and agency. It also means learning how to face your fears and embrace them for the teachings they offer.

— MarthaFitat55 lives and works in St. John’s.

 

 

 

 

aging · body image · fitness · Martha's Musings · meditation · swimming

Getting our fit on at all ages

Readers may remember I got back in the pool in late August. I’ve really been enjoying it. After three months, I’ve gotten to know the regulars and it’s been very interesting to see the range of ages and abilities.

There’s me of course, doggedly putting in my laps of the breast stroke and frog kick. I’m more about the meditative aspect of swimming than the speed but since my trainer and physiotherapist have seen the difference swimming makes to my mobility, I’ll keep on keeping on.

I haven’t seen the group since September but it is possible they are going at a different time. The group consisted of four or five women who hung out in the deep end chatting and doing their exercises. It got crowded from time to time but it was good to see friends work out together.

There are a couple of other women I see from times to time. One does laps like me; we nod politely as we pass. She likes to keep her head in the water whereas I don’t. I don’t see well without my glasses and filling my ears with water when I go under doesn’t help.

The other woman is probably 20 years older than I am and she is totally focused on her routine. Each day, she gathers her gear and arranges it at one end of the pool. She works through a series of strokes as she does her laps, some with her swimming tools and some without. She can go quite quickly and as I go through my laps, I sometimes think about how I can add speed to my swim.

But it doesn’t really matter how fast I go, or how slow, as the leisure/lane swim can accommodate my skill level just as it accommodated those of the other swimmers.

During the week, it’s adults in the pool in the early morning but on the weekend, there’s lots of small children, some taking lessons and some just getting comfortable in the water with their parents. I like the fact the kids will see all kinds of shapes, sizes, skills, and ages in the pool, especially women.

I’ve been thinking about taking lessons to vary my strokes so I can work different muscles and different parts of my body. For now though, it’s enough to show up. It is getting colder in the mornings and it’s not the brightest at 7 am but still we show up. We nod and smile; sometimes we chat idly about the weather. Almost always, we say “see you next time.” And we will, because we have found a place where we can get our fit on, without any judgement. If you want to just do it, our pool is the place to make that happen.

— Martha Muzychka is a writer and consultant who uses swimming to bring calm and powerlifting to build strength.