fitness · swimming

Meet our newest Fit is Feminist Issue regular blogger, Bettina!

Following my first post, I’m excited to return on a monthly regular schedule! Sam asked me to make this post an introductory one, so here goes.

My name is Bettina, I’m 33 and from Germany. I live in Heidelberg, a university town south of Frankfurt, with my scientist husband, who is originally from the Basque Country. I always joke that we’re here because of him, not because of me, and it’s true – I would’ve happily stayed abroad after finishing university. As it turned out, I ended up earning my PhD in Political Science back in Germany, having spent the last two years of high school and most of my undergraduate years in the UK, plus a year in Spain.

While working towards my PhD, I realised I didn’t want to pursue a traditional academic career. Slowly but surely, I moved into research management. Three jobs later, I am Senior Project Coordinator at a European research funding and enabling organization in a field that has nothing to do with my own – the life sciences – and loving it.

Fitness has always been a part of my life, but not to the degree it is now. When I was in primary school, my mother got worried about my bad posture and put me in the local swimming club. With short interruptions, I’ve been swimming regularly ever since. It’s my meditation, my favourite way of clearing my head after a long day. I love doing laps in the pool. Lots of people find it boring, I find my zen in the back-and-forth.

I’ve tried lots of other sports, many of them water-related. I love surfing and kayaking, but since there are no large enough bodies of water close to home, these are currently not often on the sports menu (sigh). Being outside is always good, so hiking is another favourite. I’ve done lots of yoga, which nowadays happens mostly at home, right after getting up in the morning, with Youtube tutorials.

Fitness has taken on another dimension for me over the past year though: a year ago to the day, I was diagnosed with Auto-Immune Haemolytic Anemia (AIHA), a condition where your immune system breaks down your red blood cells. Many things can trigger AIHA; in my case it was probably the flu. It’s pretty serious but treatable, and I’m in remission now.

But while I was in treatment, exercise became a way of feeling like I had some control over what was happening to me, full of all sorts of medicine and shocked as I was by this experience that was entirely outside both my control and my comfort zone. Incidentally, exercise is also a pretty good barometer for a relapse, which can happen at any time (or not – there’s a large suspense factor with this condition): one of the first things to go is your stamina, which was also how I started noticing I was sick in the first place when I could no longer keep up with my swim mates.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve started running much more regularly in addition to swimming twice a week if I can. Having been a rather reluctant and irregular runner before, I’ve done a 10k and an 8k since last September. I’ve also taken up a new sport, bouldering, which is different from anything I’d ever done, and which I love for its community spirit (Lynette recently wrote about it here and here). And it’s so empowering when you’ve figured out a tough route!

Empowerment is also where fitness and feminism intersect for me. Both are, in a way, about feeling strong and being entitled to that, no matter who you are or what gender you identify as.

There’s still a lot to fight for in terms of feminist fitness. Athletes who are not straight males continue to be on the receiving end of everything ranging from condescending advice to discrimination and hatred. We’re overlooked, spoken over, not taken seriously, judged for our looks rather than our athletic achievements, objectified, and ridiculed.

Feminism in fitness, to me, is about considering how a feminist lens can change our thinking about fitness and what a “fit woman” looks like. It’s about what the needs of women practicing sports are and how they’re different from those of male athletes. It’s about what we can do to make women of all ages, shapes, and abilities feel welcome in the world of sports and encourage them to discover it.

Bettina, looking distinctly wet but happy, in hiking gear at the summit of Skiddaw in the Lake District, UK
Bettina, looking distinctly wet but happy, in hiking gear at the summit of Skiddaw in the Lake District, UK
fitness · Guest Post · running

Competitive streak (Guest post)

I work on the campus of a research institute with lots of scientists working round the clock to get out their next, hopefully highly-cited, paper, knowing full well that their career hinges on being faster, better, more hard-working than the person next door.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of these people aren’t just competitive in research, but in all aspects of their lives, including fitness. One colleague of mine referred to it as a “cesspool of incredibly fit people”. Personally, I’ve left research in favour of a career in research management. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a competitive streak of my own.

I exercise quite a lot, swimming, running, and bouldering mostly. I love hiking, kayaking, and surfing, although I don’t do much of the latter two these days, mostly for want of a large enough body of water nearby. I enjoy all of it immensely most of the time.

The problem is: I’m not good at any of it, or at least not what people generally define as “good”. I’m not strong, or fast, or well-coordinated. And I constantly compare myself to others.

The reason I mentioned my workplace before is that I sometimes go running with a group of colleagues at lunchtime. Our campus is located outside the city on a hill in the forest, which is perfect for that. Most of them are faster than me, in fact I’m frequently the slowest member of the group by some distance.

I boulder with a group of people a couple of times a week. Most of them can do harder routes than me, even the ones who have started bouldering later.

And in the pool, I compare myself to the people who are faster, not those who are slower. Every so often, I come home from exercising feeling frustrated and bitterly complain to my husband.

Why can’t I be better at sports? What’s the point of doing it if I won’t ever be any “good”? I like the social element of exercising in a group, but I can’t seem to stop comparing myself to others. And so my competitiveness sometimes gets in the way of my enjoyment.

I sometimes wonder if this is related to the way society expects women to give 150% in order to be considered “successful” (or even adequate). Or is it just my own personality? Am I intrinsically competitive, or have I been socialised to be that way, through the environment I grew up in and the academic training I’ve received?

As usual, the answer is probably “a bit of everything”. The thing is, in sports I don’t owe anyone anything. As long as I enjoy doing it, it shouldn’t matter if I’m any “good” at it. And yet.

So I’m interested: how do others cope with their own competitiveness? Does it affect your enjoyment of exercise if you work out with people who are better than you?

Bettina is a political scientist-turned-science-manager and feminist from Germany, where she now lives after stints in the UK and Spain. She enjoys sports, reading, food, and travelling.

Picture of Bettina in a green running shirt after completing an 8k race on New Year’s Eve 2017, during which she couldn’t stop comparing herself to other runners, but had fun nevertheless.