I started hating my arms when I was very young. They were much too big and too jiggly, and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out ways to hide my arms from anyone’s view (while spending a similar amount of time staring at them in the mirror).
Then, sometime during high school, I started lifting weights. At first I didn’t want to do upper body exercises because I thought it might make my arms bigger (perish the thought!). But eventually I got bored with lunges and gave it a try. I cranked out my first “real” pushup, and then five, and then ten, and something started to change. I started appreciating my arms. I even kinda liked them. I don’t think the size of my arms actually changed much. They didn’t look much different either. But they felt different. My experience of them changed. Instead of feeling like frustratingly flabby and unattractive appendages, my arms felt strong and capable of doing cool things. As a nice side benefit, I didn’t mind so much if people saw them, and I spent a lot less time poking at them in the mirror.
A few years later I came across this Jezebel post where blogger Erin Gloria Ryan describes the ways running improved her relationship with her body. The “contempt and animosity” she felt for her body faded as running took her from “worrying [that] a plate of spaghetti would go straight to [her] thighs” to “worrying that it wouldn’t.” Readers wrote to Ryan sharing similar experiences, explaining that “using their bodies in physically demanding ways has helped them appreciate themselves as more than pretty little knickknacks with attached boobs.”
This resonated with my own experiences and got me really excited about exercise, but not for the usual “this new regime is surely going to get me six pack abs in five weeks or less” kind of reason. I got excited (and am still excited) about the power of certain kinds of exercise to change the way we think about, feel, and experience our bodies.
I argued in my MA thesis that certain kinds of exercise can improve our relationships with our bodies when asserting “I love my body” over and over again fails. And cultivating positive bodily experiences through exercise can undercut the unwarranted shame many people—especially women and fat people—feel about their bodies. Since we live in a society where women and fat people are regularly shamed for “publicly flaunting” bodies that—gasp!—take up space, or for “daring” to wear shorts or a bathing suit while having cellulite or stretch marks, this is a huge deal. In fact, it’s the best feminist reason for exercise that I’ve come across.
So, shall we all go out and get pumped and rid ourselves of sexist fat phobic body shame once and for all?
I was pretty optimistic about this once. But now, not so much.
Here’s the thing: body shame is like a weed. It’s stubborn. No matter how agile, graceful, or strong you feel when dancing or running or lifting, it only takes some laughing kids, a snide remark or sideways glance, or bathing suit shopping for shame to return. I recently attended a yoga class where the instructor told us to do extra chaturangas in order to “burn off those chicken wings” as she jiggled her arms suggestively at us; I was so ashamed I contemplated hiding under my mat (would not recommend that class, if you were wondering).
If we think that exercise is good because it helps us get rid of body shame, the apparent response to stubborn shame is to work out more or better. But I don’t think stubborn body shame is a sign that we need to work out harder. I think it’s a sign of the limits of what exercise can do for us.
We aren’t just pretty (or not so pretty) knickknacks, and we aren’t isolated hermits either. (Do contemporary hermits have wifi?) We live in communities that consider women’s bodies and fat bodies disgusting and shameful. Even if we disagree with this (I certainly do), the fact remains that we belong to these communities. And most of us care about our moral standing in our communities; we want to be decent people and we want others to know we are decent. When people see us as shameful, we might feel ashamed because we care about what they think—even if we disagree with their evaluation of us.* In short, stubborn body shame might be a sign that we care about our moral community. And caring about our community is good, even when that community has reprehensibly sexist and fat phobic standards.
I’m still thinking through these things (and would love to hear your thoughts!) but here’s where I’m at today: we can do a lot to improve our own relationships with our bodies through physical activity and engagement in smallish supportive communities like at this blog. And this is marvelous! But our experiences of ourselves are also partly made up within our larger communities, communities that we care about and want to have good standing in, even though those communities have sexist, fat-phobic views about which bodies are shameful. If we really want to do away with unwarranted body shame, then, maybe we need to change our communities, not just our workouts.
Megan Dean is a PhD student in Philosophy at Georgetown University. She’s interested in thinking critically about the ways we understand and experience our bodies. She’s also interested in watching sci fi, doing whatever exercises make her back feel better, and keeping her balcony garden alive for as long as possible. Her research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Georgetown University. You can check out some of what this support enables her to do at https://georgetown.academia.edu/MeganDean