cycling · fit at mid-life · fitness

Kim gets out of a rut by getting back into the saddle on a spontaneous solo bike holiday

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(A grey road bike with orange bar tape and white lettering reading ‘cervelo’ set against a backdrop of rolling countryside. This shot was taken in celebration at the top of Ditchling Beacon, the great stinking East Sussex hill in the blog post below.)

If you follow my posts on FFI, or follow me on my teaching blog, The Activist Classroom, you know I’ve been a bit low lately: not resting enough, feeling frustrated with work, unsure about my fitness commitments.

I’ve had some significant change in my life over the last handful of years, but now that I’m more settled, in a wonderful new community, I’m realizing that my emotional upset isn’t just keyed to all the changes: it’s also more.

I’m at midlife, so there’s that. I’m looking into the next 20 years of my career, and wondering what it is I really want to do. I’m in a new relationship, which is fantastic but also makes for the adjustment of well-loved (and relied-upon, and sanity-saving) routines. And… and… and…

It’s an emotional cul-de-sac. And I’m in it.

Usually, when I’m not in a great place, I’m cheered immensely by getting on my bicycle. There’s incredible freedom in just rolling, sometimes punching a hill and coasting down the backside, letting thoughts pass in and out, engaging in some supportive self-talk. It’s like meditation for me.

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(Another glam shot of my orange-and-grey road bike, this time set against a tree trunk in a forest setting. I put a filter on this shot to make it look a bit nostalgic; I miss my bike these days.)

Lately, though, jumping on my bike has not been as regularly possible as in the past. I’ve made a commitment to row quite frequently with the master’s squad at my new local club, and that’s eating a lot of free time. (More on my vexed relationship with rowing in a post later in the summer. I’m still working it out.)

With up to 10 hours per week at the rowing club – and practices scheduled directly against the group rides organized by my cycling club – I just can’t find the saddle time I’m used to. And I’m really quite bummed about that.

I had a chat with Cate about all this over breakfast a couple of Sundays ago. She said: you know what? You need to do what nourishes you.

Forget about the rowing club commitment for a bit; nobody is going to die if you say you can’t make it to practice. They’ll work around you. And you need to work for you for a while.

Very shortly after this breakfast chat I was packing for a work trip to London and Belgrade. I had 10 days in the UK ahead of the conference I was attending in Serbia. I was going to just spend it with friends.

Then I had a brilliant, spur-of-the-moment, idea.

Why not carve out a couple of days just for riding? Someplace wonderful! Someplace I know, but haven’t been in ages. Someplace restful, scenic, where I can be alone and at peace on the bike all I want.

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(A black-and-white photo of an iron sign that reads “Best Kept Large Village in East Sussex, presented by the Sussex rural community council”. That’s Ditchling, my cycling home for two days in early July. And what a fine little town it is!)

I always travel to England with my road bike; I first learned to cycle properly there, and I know the ins and outs of the home county roads well. So I was always going to have my bike with me already. (NB: traveling with a bike is easier than you think! You need a good bicycle box for airline travel, but otherwise it is not that complicated.)

The morning of my flight, I sat in my garden and arranged two days in Ditchling, East Sussex. It’s a short train journey from central London (about 50 minutes), but a world away, in the rolling South Downs just over the hills from Brighton.

I have cycled there twice before – riding the “Puncheur” cyclosportif (aka, a gran fondo ride), which happens every spring in the area – and I’ve stayed at the wonderful, picturesque Bull inn too.

The Bull team told me I could park my bike in their locked shed overnight, and accommodated all my cycling needs (ice water constantly on tap; friendly faces telling me about their own cycling adventures). I arrived on a sunny Monday afternoon, dropped everything, and headed into the hills, GPS maps for my bike computer downloaded from the Puncheur’s website.

Then, the next morning, I retraced the race route I’d last cycled in 2014.

(A group of four photos from my long ride in Ditchling. There are rolling hills with parched grassland – there was a drought going on – and copses of greenery dappled throughout. In one shot we see the roadside sign for The Crown freehouse in Turner’s Hill set against a bright blue sky. In another I’m smiling into the camera with my helmet and glasses on; I look pink but that’s the filter. My kit is actually green. Oh, and there’s a sheep chilling behind me. I’m in the Ashdown Forest.)

It’s a pretty tough ride, at 101.5km and almost 5000 feet (1560 metres) of climbing, including a brutal 3/4 mile category 4 climb (Ditchling Beacon) at the end.

But hey, I wasn’t actually doing the race! I reminded myself, when things started to get iffy, that this ride was just for me, and I was in charge of how it went: nobody was watching, and nobody was timing me. (OK, I was timing me. But that’s a little bit different.)

When I saw cows and sheep in the road, in the pretty Ashdown Forest, I stopped to photograph them. When I felt drained and like I probably couldn’t go on much longer, I stopped at a public footpath to eat my lemon drizzle cake, purchased from the sweet Green Welly cafe that morning, and take in the view.

And when I got to the bottom of the bloody Beacon, really drained from a long day on my own in the sun and wind, I said: you know you’ve got this. Just spin nice and slow; you’ll get there.

And I did.

At the top I snapped some photos of the view, cheered my achievement, and noted that I had beaten my 2014 route time by almost 20 minutes. That means that, even though back then I was 4 years younger and 15lb lighter, since then I’ve obviously grown stronger, and even more able.

The lesson for me? Although things feel a little bit crap at the moment, and I’m not quite sure what’s ahead, at the top of the beacon I knew: my bike and I have got this.

Ride on!

Kim

accessibility · body image · fitness · gender policing · inclusiveness · swimming

Being Naked in Public, pt 2: languages of instruction

Back in December I wrote a post about being naked in public, three ways: in new “universal” change rooms in pools in my city of Hamilton, Ontario; in the same kinds of spaces (with WAY more cubicles and tight corners) in London, England; and in a public spa and thermal bath complex in Konstanz, Germany (few cubicles; lots of comfy nudity).

My questions in that post revolved around etiquette, protocol, expectation, and the cultural labour these spaces appear to be doing towards supporting inclusive, body-positive community (whether or not they are actually doing that labour).

Today, for the first time in a while, I returned to one of the facilities here in Hamilton that have converted to M/F/U change spaces; I was overbooked and had to skip my usual Friday swim (which happens at an older facility not yet renovated to include a gender-neutral room).

To my surprise, when I swanned toward the universal change room entryway, I found this:

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(A sign, posted on a green cinder-block wall, that reads: “Change in dressing cubicle only; clothing or bathing suit myst be worn at all times outside dressing cubicle.” The images on the sign include a green circle around a woman’s body clad in a one-piece swim suit and a man’s body clad in swim shorts; and a red circle with a strike-through against the images of the same bodies, with one-piece and shorts off to the side. Note: I snapped this photo from the change-room threshold, which is barrier-free and opens onto the lobby. I made sure no bodies were nearby in order to respect the “no photography in change rooms” rule.)

I stopped for a minute, a bit gobsmacked. New sign; aggressive sign.

NO NUDITY! DO NOT EXIT THE CUBICLES NUDE! THIS IS A GENDER NEUTRAL SPACE!

OK, so that’s not exactly what the sign said. But it might as well have.

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I googled “gender-neutral change room etiquette” and this list of do’s and don’ts turned up. It is haranguing: be neat, tidy, and for god’s sake cover up your freaking horrific human of a body; don’t be lazy, slow, or glowery. Get the fuck out ASAP. Sounds familiar.)

I’m trained as a literature scholar and a scholar of theatre and performance; that means I read cultural texts for their nuances, for a living, and try to make sense of what they aim to accomplish amongst actual, human lives.

My pool’s universal change-room sign said the following to me.

The bright blue that backgrounds “Change in dressing cubicle ONLY” sets that text off in sharp relief. All-caps for ONLY is scolding typography, as though to say: DO NOT DARE LEAVE YOUR CUBICLE NAKED! It is fairly patronizing and deeply shaming.

The images are workmanlike and designed to be read across languages and cultural contexts (more or less; only North American Christianity could, if you ask me, dream up such a blatantly unsexy way to render human nudity). The communication is meant to cross language barriers because there are lots of immigrants in our community (I witnessed one Chinese-language speaker interacting with a lifeguard this afternoon, for example), and the sign is obviously in part, if not primarily, targeted at them.

So tick the xenophobia box too, please.

The sign makes no mention of the showers – my personal favourite part of locker-room-sanctioned nudity – but we can guess the implied protocol.

What to make of this?

Well, on a purely pragmatic level, I’ll tell you what I made of it in the split second it took me to decide what to do with my body upon encountering this sign.

I realized I could be my nude and joyous post-swimming self only in the women’s change room, so I went there.

And here’s the rub, the sad bit, the loss: I had to choose between body-positive feelings, and the gender-neutral change room.

Some neutrality; some body positivity!

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(Another image that popped up in my google search. It reads, in a plain, sans-serif font: “A gender-neutral restroom designation means this restroom is safe for transgender, gender non-conforming, genderqueer people, as well as people of all gender identities and expressions. If you choose to use this restroom, you are aware that it is a safe space. Please refrain from gender policing… If you are uncomfortable using a gender-neutral restroom, please use any of the other restrooms, as this is your privilege.” NOW THIS SIGN I CAN SUPER GET BEHIND.)

I thought a lot about the change-room sign incident after I left the pool. I thought, too, about the several FFI community members who fed back about my original post and noted they would not be super comfortable nude in mixed spaces.

I realized that my biggest problem with the sign wasn’t the message it was (sort of, maybe, clumsily?) trying to communicate.

The problem was with language, and its intention.

The sign is trying, I think, to say this: DO NOT GET NAKED IN FRONT OF PEOPLE WHO DO NOT WANT TO SEE YOU NAKED. ALSO: DO NOT GET NAKED AGGRESSIVELY.

This is, totally, a worthy goal.

But the language also, therefore, assumes predation, assumes a lack of tact and generosity on the part of body-positive users; it assumes that all bodies in the space share a sense of nudity-as-shame, nudity-as-aggression. Which isn’t true.

So in the car on the way to my next gig, I started thinking about how I might phrase some similar caution in a more welcoming, dare I say body-positive-positive, way.

I came up with this:

This change room is a gender-neutral, body-positive space that welcomes people of all identifications.

Please use the space in a way that respects the privacy and comfort level of others around you.

Thank you!

(I’m not sure about imagery. I’d love suggestions!)

The language I’m proposing states what I hope are the deep intentions behind the creation of the space: it’s for everyone, care-fully. I think that’s the idea behind gender-neutral spaces in Hamilton-area pools; I’m not sure, though. (My sense from the sign I encountered today is that they might be souped-up “family” change rooms. Sigh.)

It also places the responsibility for fair use on a community of users, acting together in everyone’s best interests. (This is called democracy, btw. At least to me.)

Are you alone in the space? Go nuts! You do you! Get naked, sing ABBA. Rock on.

Is someone in the space with you who seems more modest, shy? Perhaps calibrate your ostentation to remember that they also share this space, and that your ostentation might be taking up more than its fair share of that space, for them.

Is someone in the space with you who might be nervous about your presence? That’s ok – they are here because they have trust and faith. Be you, but not aggressively. Instead, assert your good will toward that person.

Is someone in the space with you who might think you are unnerved by them? That’s ok – it’s part of the process of becoming a community. Be you, welcomingly.

This is just one shot – my shot – at a better way to say what needs to be made clear in gender-neutral spaces: some protocol for what to do once you’re inside, but not in a way that assumes a normative sense of embodiment, nor that assumes body-as-shame.

Do you have examples of, or suggestions for, gender-neutral change-room etiquette? I’d love to hear!

Yours swimmingly,

Kim

fitness · health · rest · sleep

In praise of resting

I’ve been finished my teaching for the winter term for about a month now. Finals are over and marked; my campus office (which is moving this summer back across the lawn to my faculty’s newly – and beautifully – restored heritage building) is packed up. The book I was writing all autumn and winter is done, dusted, and in production.

So why am I still so tired all the time?

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(Peppermint Pattie, head on desk and looking glum, says: SO TIRED.)

I’m not one to give myself a break – I’m a high-functioning type-A kind of woman, and I am as productive and successful as I am professionally because of this.

But life isn’t work. And I am also 43 years old. I can’t pull all-nighters anymore. And TBH most evenings I am ready for bed by 10:30 (no more clubbing for me).

Now, sleep I get quite a lot of – and we are a blog that supports good, effective sleep habits as part of our human wellness. (Sam has written before about being a champion sleeper. I envy her ability to conk out on airplanes!)

But REST is more than only sleep. And for me rest is another matter.

I was at my friend Nat’s house for supper two weeks ago and we talked about parenting and sleep deprivation. Nat’s kids are still quite young and the 3am wake-ups are still happening. She feels insanely sleep-deprived right now, as does her partner.

We all talked about the idea that, if it’s a matter of choosing between exercise and sleeping, the sleep-deprived should hit snooze rather than clamber out of bed early to run 5 miles. (Read more here about the interrelationship of sleep and exercise.)

Similarly, I once had a cycling coach who reminded me that resting is as important as training – resting is a key part of training, in fact. And resting means resting: it doesn’t mean digging up the garden, staining the deck, cleaning all the windows upstairs, or even walking the dog for two hours in the forest.

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(Emma the Dog [a black and tan collie-shepherd-lab mix] on a path in Cootes Paradise, Hamilton, Ontario, surrounded by spring greenery and pink-flowering eastern redbud trees. She says: “Whaddaya mean rest doesn’t include walkies??”)

Rest actually means sitting or lying comfortably and allowing your body to replenish itself. It means sleeping if sleep is what is required. It means eating good, healthy food in good proportions, and/or eating specific foods required for your body’s replenishment before another day of training hard. These might include proteins, or carbs, or a variety of things.

Ice cream or cake too, if you’re looking for a cheery treat! I always go for the milkshake, personally.

I have realized over the last month of being on my summer schedule (which is not a vacation, at least not yet – summer is when academics write books and present research at conferences and travel to complete field research, as well as plan autumn classes) that I’m not resting enough. I’m exhausted all the time because my brain convinces me that I need always to be working – if not tapping on my computer then digging up the garden or cleaning the windows or walking the dog. I also train a lot – riding and rowing 2-3 times a week each, with one rest day somewhere in there – and the impetus to get in the boat, or on the bike for at least 90 minutes at a shot (and usually more like 3 hours at a shot) also often feels like “work” pressure for me.

So no wonder I’m tired. I’m running on empty a lot of the time!

I woke up yesterday morning realizing that, in fact, the world would not end if I did practically nothing that day. My boyfriend was visiting; we could spend the day together being pretty chill (including lying in bed far longer than usual) and hanging out and the sky would not explode. In fact: our rest would be blissfully productive for our well-being.

But when I looked at the clock and realized it was 10am I also felt a surge of guilt.

And here’s the rub. Yes, I need to recalibrate my relationship to rest, but it’s not just a matter of me making a series of individual choices – this isn’t all about me and it is not all about my free will.

It’s also related to the way our culture moralizes movement and rest – in the same way it moralizes food, something we talk about on the blog a lot. (See here, for example, about food being beyond “good” and “evil”.)

In the so-called “West” or “Global North” many of us live in cultures that believe rising late is “lazy,” while getting up early to head off to toil at our jobs is a virtue. But why?

Research suggests this belief is not supportable: teenagers, for example, actually need up to 10 hours of sleep per night, and their shifting body rhythms are at odds with the wake-up-early-rush-to-school pace our cultures usually enforce. No wonder they are all yawning in 8:30am Bio! (See here for more on teenage sleep needs.)

My own body clock, I’ve discovered thanks to the flexibility of my job, works like this: I want to go to bed between 10 and 11:30pm (it can vary depending on when I had my last cup of coffee in the day), and I want to wake up around 9am. 8:30am is also fine. But if my alarm is set for, say, 7am, I’m usually woken in the middle of a dream (REM sleep), and I’m instantly fuzzy. The day doesn’t improve from there.

I like to sleep late. I really do. This used to drive my mother CRAZY; it seemed, well, “bad” and “lazy”.

And yet: I’m still a high-functioning professional. I was an A student. And I’m a good cyclist. And a good friend and partner and daughter and doggie guardian… and human being.

So let’s all try, together, to work on our relationship to the concept of rest. Even if you feel rested – especially if you do! – ask yourself how and why. If you don’t, or if those you love don’t, ask why. Think about the outside pressures that bear on your rest – including but not limited to your sleep patterns – and think about what among those are changeable. Can you advocate for flex time at work? A later start time or an earlier finish time, as needed? Can you advocate at your kids’ school for more flex around teenage sleep patterns – maybe with classes starting later, or more spares in the first block of the day?

Above all, on your own rest days, remember to put your feet up, grab a book or the Netflix, and don’t forget the milkshake. Not because you “deserve it” – but because you are simply human.

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(A photo with two milkshakes in the foreground. On the left is a brown/chocolate one, with whipped cream and a cherry on top. On the right is a mint-coloured one with whipped cream and a mint leaf on top. In soft focus behind them and staggered to one side are two stainless steel mixing containers. I’d like the chocolate one, please!)

Be well-rested!

Kim

body image · bras · fitness · sex

Lingerie: the final frontier

It took me ages to be OK with my body.

I was 26 when I realized I was unhappy with how I looked, and always had been, and that my unhappiness had been normalized by me (and by some of those who love me). Things hit a tipping point one autumn day at the Gap: I realized I couldn’t fit into the maroon corduroys (a size up from my already-plus-size) I’d brought sheepishly into the change room with me. I decided that was it: I wanted to look – but especially to feel – differently about my body.

Fast forward 17 years, and I weigh only marginally less than I did that day. Though my body is now fitter, stronger, and – most importantly – makes me feel proud and strong and happy every day. I celebrate regularly by buying clothes that I think look amazing, no longer believing they are not “for me.” ALL the clothes are for me, and for my beautiful body, yo.

But lingerie. Man, oh man, lingerie. The final frontier.

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(An image of a thin white female torso and upper thighs, wearing low-rise panties with an image of Deadpool giving the thumbs-up and a word bubble that says “approved!” Basically all lingerie trauma in one handy meme.)

To be honest, I hadn’t much considered lingerie, ever. Once I’d become more fit and shifted my body image, I bought dresses of all kinds and enjoyed admiring myself in mirrors everywhere; I embraced versions of the feminine that fit me and that felt like me. But lingerie: well, it felt like a thing you buy so you can get sexy with someone you also find sexy, and I didn’t have that in my life. For a while I pretended that was totally fine, until I just couldn’t anymore.

Some of you may remember my adventures in online dating – a challenging place for a feminist to seek satisfaction. I’m pleased to report, though, that I met a really wonderful human on Tinder, of all places; I marvel every day at what it feels like to be treated with tender, supportive respect by someone who also really fancies your body and wants to see you in lingerie.

Wait… say what?

D told me early on that he was very keen on lingerie, if I was into it; I was flattered but also daunted by the prospect of purchasing the goods, so I let it drop for a while. Then, as our relationship progressed, and as we got more invested in one another, our sexual connection became more intense. I realized that, yes, I did really want to buy some lingerie: for him to celebrate and enjoy my body, but also for me to celebrate and enjoy it with him.

But lingerie shopping! Man oh man, the shopping.

Here’s what happened when I dove into the lacy capitalist fray.

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(A vintage, sepia-toned, “western”-style poster featuring a white woman sporting a cowboy hat, tassled black gloves, a gun in a holster, and a bra with seriously pointy boobs. She gives us a sly, full-on look as she reaches for her weapon. The poster reads: “I dreamed I was WANTED in my Maidenform bra.”)

Take one: the pressure cooker

I was having lunch at my favourite grungy diner with a good friend and his son, in an upscale shopping area in downtown Toronto. I trust P and know his queer sensibility jives with my feminist one, so I asked him about good places to buy fun, sexy, lingerie. He had lots of advice, but it was more involved than I’d hoped: it included a trip across town, some recon in the gay village, and perhaps more conversation about preferences with (admittedly amazing and sensitive) staffers than I imagined I’d want to have. (I felt like I was in a hurry, though maybe I was just scared.)

After we parted, I remembered a shop I’d been to in the neighbourhood with another friend, years before. She was practiced at the lingerie thing and it seemed to work for her, so I headed over on a bit of a whim.

This was my first mistake.

The shop had a kind of “foyer,” with stairs leading up to the main retail area; there were a number of older, well dressed, white women milling about, and I could tell quickly that they were staff – and that they outnumbered customers, most likely on purpose. I smiled but tried not to make eye contact with any of them; I was immediately and completely uncomfortable. I felt myself trying to make myself shrink a bit, sort of disappear. I should have run for the exit, but my feet felt like lead. I didn’t want to be rude.

Just as I began fingering a few lovely-looking slips, discovering to my horror how expensive they were, one of the well dressed women approached me.

Did I know the majority of their selection was in drawers? She asked. What was I looking for? How much time did I have?

Anxious, I mumbled maybe 20 minutes, half an hour. (A lie: I had, like T-minus-get-me-out-of-here.)

Oh, that’s plenty of time! my WDW cooed. She began locating more slip options for me. (I have no idea why I told her I was interested in slips. I wasn’t. I was interested in sexy, hot, amazingly bodacious shit. Yet telling her this seemed, somehow, both impossible and gross.) Before I knew it I was in a change room.

I put on the first slip – a beautiful sky-blue number that was, admittedly, elegant and fell prettily over my waist and hips. WDW asked if she could have a look; I opened my change room door awkwardly, just a bit. Oh, we’ve cracked it! she cried. It was made for you! (NB: this is WDW-speak for “spend $300 on this now.”)

Other WDWs then crowded around to look at me, up and down from head to toe, as my mortified soul left my body and slid between the floorboards.

Now you need panties, my WDW told me, and she was off; she returned moments later with a thong made of polyester with a funny little flower at the back, right at the top of the butt crack bit. It seemed SO TYRA BANKS, but without the RuPaul irony. I could not imagine myself in it. It was $95.

Try them on over your own, go ahead, she instructed. I did what I was told.

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(Another vintage magazine image: this is from a French publication circa 1950, and shows a white woman from behind. She is dressed in netted stockings and a corset, lacy panties and evening gloves. She has curly shoulder-length blond hair and a neutral expression. Though she appears to be posing with hands on hips for effect, the image is structured to suggest she is dressing, or being dressed, and has only just reached the part with all the trussing.)

Then, something odd happened.

I realized that I did not want to buy these two items – even though part of me actually kind of liked these two items – but that I was definitely about to buy these two items. I would purchase them for reasons I could not quite fathom in the moment, but which had a very clear and firm hold on me nevertheless.

The feeling was overwhelming. It was not rational. I thought a lot about it afterward, as I clutched my shopping bag sadly on the train ride home.

Reflecting on the whole episode a few days later, with Cate and with my friend Natalie, I tried to get to the bottom of why I seemed to have lost all of my agency in that funny bi-level store, among those well-dressed older white women.

I realized that the entire experience had reminded me of the shame I used to feel when shopping for what felt like my bad, wrong, ugly body.

Of how I would find it easier just to be swept along by the maternal figures throwing fabric at me. Of how my mom – bless my mom, and all her own tricky body issues, and her best of intentions –would begin every one of our visits to clothing stores when I was a teen by demanding of staffers, “do you have this in an extra large?”

That feeling of being judged – it cascaded over me, got into my pores and seams, began to crush me.

That feeling of being looked at, constantly looked at, but not being seen. Not being even remotely seen as the woman I want to be.

The WDW was not my mom, but she might as well have been; she might as well have been all of the well-meaning women in all of the stores that litter my ugly-body history. I realized I would have done anything, anything, both to please her and to get away from her, as quickly as I could.

Take two: the feminist local

Natalie said: that experience sounds horrible! Did you know, though, that R’s friend’s wife runs a great lingerie shop just up the road from here?

We were having coffee in her neighbourhood, and I put two and two together: the shop I’d passed on my way to meet her – the one with the hot mesh body suit in the window, the one that seemed so welcoming and warm from the street – was the shop she was talking about.

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(This is a photo of a sexy black mesh body suit on a mannequin in the window of Stole My Heart, an amazing west-Toronto feminist lingerie store. I took it through the glass storefront window on a cloudy afternoon, and we can see an apartment building, some trees, and sky reflected in the window, as well as some big red peonies. I have no idea where they came from, but they totally rock the shot.)

Let’s go together, Natalie said. And one Saturday afternoon in March we did. This time, the experience was remarkably different for me, in every way. For one thing, it felt safe. Natalie is loving and supportive and I knew she had my back. But also: the shop was small and all on one level; there were sexy, fun, come-what-may pieces on mannequins and hangers all over the place. Ashley was tending shop on her own, and greeted us right away as friends (and, I suspect, not just because she knows Natalie.) Instantly I felt at home. In fact, I felt protected.

The shop is called Stole My Heart; co-founders Amy Pearson and Ashley Holden opened it precisely in order to counteract the kinds of experiences I had with the WDW. They write:

Lingerie has the ability to make women feel confident, beautiful and unique, but those aren’t often the feelings we experience while shopping for underwear. Having braved many a lingerie store together, we’ve been pushed up and sucked in, all the while struggling to find flattering pieces that we could get excited about trying on. We decided that we all deserve better and Stole My Heart was born. (Click here for more.)

Amy and Ashley’s aim in building the space and curating its collection was to celebrate body diversity, to support women designers and sustainable brands, and (this is my favourite bit) to “speak to the many definitions of femininity” that women inhabit daily.

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(Stole My Heart from the back looking at the window: lingerie on hangers, a brown wicker light fixture, black and white furniture signalling laid-back Victoriana. The writing on the wall literally says: “take your own breath away.”)

I knew none of this going in, note: I had not looked online, not Googled a thing. I had Natalie’s word and a glance through a window to go on. And yet instantly I could feel how different this vibe was: I was ok to be myself, to be honest and to be awkward if I needed to be. It was all good.

Emboldened, I said to Ashley: I want something sexy, for me and my partner to play in. But I’d like it to be comfortable, something I can wear and enjoy anytime.

Nat and I grabbed change rooms, and Ashley brought us all manner of things: stuff I’d picked out with her on a go-round the shop, stuff she’d remembered she had in a drawer, stuff from up high and down low. (The body suit, natch.) She thought I should start with mediums, but instantly I knew those were too small. I called out: could I have the mesh body suit in large? from behind the curtain; Yup! she hollered cheerfully back. And try this one, too!

She measured me and confirmed my bra size, then presented me with an array of gorgeous options I’d never have looked at myself. The one I least expected to want stole my heart.

I bought it for me, and I bought the body suit for me and D. (Bonus: it’s made of recycled fabric! It’s eco-lingerie!) Nat bought herself her first-ever proper nightgown, to celebrate an amazing new job.

As we paid (no sales counter – just an iPad along the wall, next to a comfy sofa and a table laden with chocolates, to which I helped myself, OF COURSE), we chatted about the experience I’d had with the WDW. Ashley commiserated. I mentioned what an utter delight this experience had been, the polar opposite – enough of a pleasure to make me want to come back, again and again, kind of just to hang out, actually.

Neither Nat nor I wanted boxes for our purchases; instead, Ashley wrapped them beautifully in tissue paper, and then put them into bespoke cloth bags, with “Stole My Heart” on one side, and a strong-ass bitch in a body suit on the other. (I like it almost as much as I like the new bra.)

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(Best. Tote. Ever. This image is of my Stole My Heart cloth tote bag, which is black and features a white drawing of an ordinary-sized female body with long hair. She is flexing a bicep and looking at it admiringly.)

The take-away

Shopping is hard, my friends; we know this. But it’s not hard because there’s anything wrong with our bodies, or anything wrong with being firmly, proudly, openly sexual – even in public. It’s hard because of the structures that shape our consumption. As women, we’ve long been coached to hide our bodies, demure about things sexual, even despise ourselves for spending money on ourselves. Lingerie shops often reproduce this vibe – because they are usually heteronormative spaces that institutionalize a particular kind of femininity-under-patriarchy, but also because they know that shame sells. Once caught in the net, I’d spend anything to be free.

So let’s seek out spaces that resist this vibe, that challenge our received body norms by making structural changes to curate a different kind of shopping feeling. Not shame but joy. Not fear but pride. Not the long, judging look of the matriarch, but the supportive and generous vision of the friend, the peer, the equal.

The look you give yourself, when you take your own breath away.

Thanks, Ashley!

Kim

cycling · fitness · fitness classes · gender policing · training

Why I Hate Spin*

*If you’ve not already done so, please have a look at Cate (Fieldpoppy) Creede’s wonderful and inspiring post about loving the gym (the YMCA in her neighbourhood), which went up on Wednesday. I know I feel about a thousand times better for having read it. And yes, I’m going to check out my (new) local Y this weekend!

Ok, so I don’t actually hate spin. I came to road racing through spin! I met brilliant, smart, funny female athletes through spin. I still “spin” every Tuesday evening in the basement of my friend Chris Helwig’s house, along with others he coaches, and with other friends. It’s a terrific, supportive, entertaining 90 minutes of pain.

But last night, I went to a class that reminded me of what, at its least positive and supportive, spin can be. This is a post about that experience, and I’m writing it to remind us all that we do not have to put up with this kind of crap when we are training, exercising, or just trying to have fun on a bike. We can avoid it; we can call it out; and we can resist it in many other, tiny ways.

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There’s more than one way spin can hurt you. This image features a cheeky drawing of a woman in traditional Victorian dress comforting a man, seated, with the words “I’m sorry you almost died in Spin Class today.”

There’s a large, independently owned bike shop near me, where I stop sometimes after a ride, and where I’ve bought quite a few accessories and had a couple of tune-ups. The team are friendly, and the shop is well stocked. I like it, as a shop.

Back in late autumn I learned that they host spin classes, so I tried one out. I had been told that, although I could not bring my home trainer (they have spin bikes, and only X number of bikes, to keep numbers in check), the class was geared for cyclists, so I’d feel at home and it would fit in with my training plan.

This was not my experience at the first class, though I had fun. It was taught by a funny woman with a good play list; everyone seemed to be enjoying their time on the bike (a plus!). I was clearly the only serious cyclist in the room, so I had to adapt her instructions to make them more sensible for me, but I know how to do that so it was fine. It didn’t affect my fun, or anyone else’s.

(What do I mean by adapting for my own training needs? For example, if we are going to go all out for 30 seconds, I need 30 seconds of actual recovery, about 20 beats per minute down or more from the 30-second max. Because when I go all out I am actually trying to hit my V02 max; there’s no point otherwise, from a training perspective. Many spin instructions are based on the assumption that students are not, actually, going all out when they are told to go all out – which is fair if you’re exercising but not training to a plan. I use a heart rate monitor to keep myself on track, and if I need to adapt a spin instruction to ensure my HR recovers properly, I do. It’s a safety thing as well as a training thing.)

I chalked the quirks in this first class up to the fact that it was super-early in the training season, and vowed to come back at some point to try again.

That some point was last night. It’s now February; the list of others signed up for the class online was long, and was largely male. Though that didn’t impress me, I took it as a sign that I would be riding with others training for cycling season. (Alas, men continue to outnumber women on the MAMIL circuit. It’s a gross reality – though my new local club is way more gender-diverse than my old local club. More on that in an upcoming post, once the season kicks off.)

When I arrived, I noticed I was not only the only woman in the class, but one of only two women in the entire space. (The other was working the cash and cleaning a bike in the shop.) The man in charge, moreover, was obviously someone for whom my presence was a bit of a surprise. He didn’t know me, and he definitely did not know how to read me.

But this, I should add, he should have done. After all, I arrived wearing my bib shorts from a race in 2016, a headband, with cycling shoes and a camelback water bottle. One look at those accessories, let alone my body, can tell you I’m in training: my leg muscles show the evidence. I set up my chosen bike with total confidence, knowing exactly how to fit it (right down to the seat-stem distance) to my frame.

What happened next? First, the instructor/dude in charge (DiC) asked me if I’d been to a class before. I told him I’d been once before at this shop. He asked if I had a card – that is, if I had bought multiple classes. I said no; I have a home trainer and prefer to train on it. He made a big deal of how much easier it is for them (the shop) if one buys multiple classes. I told him I would be more than happy to pay for the class in cash. I did not have a use for multiple classes at this time.

When we went down to the cash so I could pay, I had to sign a waiver; I hadn’t recalled doing that before, though I suspect I did (I mean, it’s a policy for anyone new in a gym/in a class, for safety reasons). While I was filling the form out, he said to me:

“when we get up there, I’m happy to help you set up your bike…”

Remember: I’d already done that. TO SPEC.

I told him: “don’t worry, I’m very experienced. But thank you very much.”

I did not look up from the waiver while I said this; I didn’t meet his eyes. I’m pretty sure I would have smirked at him, and I didn’t want to be rude. But I also wanted to be very clear: that’s a condescending question and I’m not taking time away from this task (filling out the form) to address it.

He reacted respectfully, but he did throw his hands up. Uh-huh.

Once I got onto the bike, things got worse. He made a point of coming up to me, not once but twice, before class started. First, he wanted me to set the “touch pads”: the point where the flywheel touches the pads to indicate you have resistance on the bike. I had already more than found it; I was already at this point warming up (a spin instructor can tell when you are warming up properly, by the way). In fact, my heart rate was up to a good 118bpm (my low zone 2).

As a result of his meddling, though, my HR dropped into zone 1. Thanks, DiC.

A minute later, he came up to me AGAIN. This time he asked me to stop the flywheel. (I suspect this was a test to see if I knew about the emergency stop mechanism – I’m pretty sure I was being “tested” the entire time, though probably he was not conscious of doing this, as most DiCs are not.) He asked me to put my pedals “at three and nine” and he looked me up and down from the side of the bike, sizing up my form. Super comfortable for me, btw.

“Perfect,” he declared. Then he said, “From the front, it looked like something was off.”

Nope, I repeated once more. I’M FINE. I know exactly what I’m doing. I know my own bicycle form.

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Thanks for that super helpful mansplain! This Mad Men style graphic shows a man’s upper body, in a suit and tie, and part of his face, with his left hand up and mouth open, clearly explaining something to a woman in a green blazer. Her arms are folded and her head is turned away.

The class was OK; it was a hill repeats class and I adjusted instructions as usual to follow the indicators my HR gives me. The others in the class were mostly in cycling kit, but I was, once again, the only person with a heart rate monitor. (The fact that I arrived to the class with my Garmin Edge should also have told the DiC that I was an actual cyclist, with actual experience, but whatevs. Reading obvious cues hard when blindsided by strong woman, clearly.)

There was a lot of yelling; DiC kept shouting “HALF A TURN UP!!!!!!” really, really loudly. It’s the kind of loud that makes you think, I’d better do this! Mostly I did. Honestly, I just didn’t want to give him any reason to call me out or come over to my bike again. I wanted to be left alone to train as best I could under the circumstances.

When the class ended I did some of the stretches, again trying not to stand out as a dilettante. I was fed up by this point and wanted to go home, but I didn’t want to garner any snide or overly-patronizing, “supportive” comments at the end. Finally, as I left, he said: “thanks for coming” in what I can only describe as a very strained, kind of uncomfortable voice with a bit of an uptick at the end. I don’t think it was an angry voice; I think it belied his ultimate confusion over what to do with me.

Maybe not a lot of Lady Cyclists go to this shop’s spins. Or maybe I was new and confident and a girl, and that was weird for him. Or maybe he has no clue whatsoever that he behaves this way around strong women.

Maybe I just caught him on an off night. Though I doubt it.

Whatever. Not my problem.

I did what I could to have a good class. I stayed in zone 3 a good part of the time and jumped into zone 4 a reasonable amount, but not too much – I had done a concentrated anaerobic workout on my trainer the night before, while catching up on Master of None (TOTAL IRONY ALERT). I stood up for myself as best I could, and I tried to keep it comfortable for myself under the circumstances. For that reason I resisted engaging the guy in a private conversation afterward about his practice as an instructor (which, truly, seemed too fatiguing at the time, and perhaps would not have had any real point).

I do wonder if I should have called him on it. But I think I’d prefer just to share this story, remind us all that we are strong and mansplaining at the gym is ALWAYS out of order, and never, ever go to spin at that shop again.

/rant over.

Kim

alcohol · fitness

Recalibrating my relationship with alcohol

I never used to drink.

When I was a teenager in Edmonton, I drank not at all. I lived in the far northern suburbs (well, far north at the time), and my high school was mid-town, my university south of the river. I was the designated driver a heck of a lot of the time. My friends drank copious amounts of beer and multi-hued liquids in which I had no interest. You could find me, at parties, by the crackers and cheese.

I went abroad in the summer after my third year of university; a friend and I moved to London, England to get jobs and discover life beyond the Canadian prairie. He worked for a lawyer who took him out each afternoon for pints; I worked for a lawyer who was an utter, abusive jackass and, I think, a recovering alcoholic. Anyway, no pints for me – and that was absolutely fine. I was too poor to keep up with the rounds, anyway.

Then, late in the summer, my friend and I took the hovercraft from Dover to Calais. (Before the Chunnel! I mean, I know, right? So last century.) We had lunch in a cheap and cheerful cafe. He said: you’ve got no excuse! You don’t have to drive. We are in France – the wine is good. And cheap.

So I had a glass. It was delicious!

And so I was no longer a teetotaller.

I drank a bit but not a lot as a graduate student. My friend Clarissa and I had a regular Saturday night date to watch Sex and the City while drinking girly martinis; that was always a weekly highlight, a chance to relax and destress. I had a drink or two on Friday nights while reading Toronto Life or other books and magazines for fun; that too was a regular pleasure.

I got drunk – and I mean totally fucked up –- for the first time in my life when I was 29 years old. It was the night of the day I defended my PhD. First, the committee took me out for celebratory drinks. Then, after drinking too much too quickly out of excitement, and running only on adrenalin, I made the mistake of drinking more, and eating nothing.

Around 9pm, I started throwing up; the next two days were awful.

I didn’t drink again for a while.

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There are a lot of alcohol memes on the internet. Oh my, yes there are. Always better to post a picture of a cat. (In this image, a tabby bumps its head against the corner of a white and yellow wall. Almost like it’s hungover!)

But gradually, over time, my relationship with alcohol changed. It was no longer sporadic and moderate; it became increasingly regular, and increasingly I drank too much – though never so much that I couldn’t work the next day. (Typically, I only really overindulged on the weekend, anyway.)

I had a good job but a tonne of work to do, and no partner or child to look after; I discovered that alcohol was a good short-cut to relaxation, and a helpful way to forget that I was lonely, and kind of sad. I had enough money to buy good wine and better gin. The blend of all these factors meant that, by the time I became a tenured professor, I was probably drinking two, even three, bottles of wine a week.

In 2012 I moved to England with my dog, Emma, and my then-husband. The transition was hard, as all emigration is, but alcohol played a large role in it, because, well, to be honest, British culture is saturated with drink, and drinking to excess is not nearly as stigmatized there as it is in Puritan-rooted North America. In fact, it’s normal.

Not long after arriving in the UK, I broke my toe and had to have surgery to reset the bone; I ended up on heavy medication. I recall a work event I attended while still on the mend; our (wonderful) department secretary, Bev, met me at the door with two bottles in hand. “Red or white, love?” she asked me. I said, sorry, I can’t, heavy antibiotics. She was having none of it; I had a glass and a half.

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White writing overlaid on a glass of red wine reads: “Keep calm and have a glass of wine.”

In England, there was typically at least a case of wine in our house, and at least a bottle of gin. There was usually a case or two of wine in the photocopy room at work. (Really.) Drinking each night, at home or at the pub with friends, was normal; I insisted on not drinking on “school nights”, but for me that was perhaps two or at most three days a week. Sometimes I broke that rule. I was probably drinking 10-15 glasses of wine a week at this point, plus gin martinis on the weekend.

I knew this was too much, and unhealthy; still, as I was typically not hungover in the morning, and not gaining weight, I ignored the problem. After all, most of my friends and peers drank at least two glasses of wine at parties or work events, if not more; there was literally no tangible incentive to make the change.

After I returned to Canada, the sheer force of the cultural shift meant I reduced my alcohol consumption a fair bit. Immediately I lost 5 pounds. (Alcohol is sugar, sugar, sugar.) But slowly, old habits crept back; by late last year, after a semester on sabbatical (no school nights), I was drinking 5 nights a week, and getting through at least three bottles of wine a week. It was getting expensive, I was feeling exhausted in the mornings, and I was up, well, about 5 pounds – 5 pounds I definitely did not need if I wanted to be properly ready for spring cycling season.

In early January, the man I’ve been seeing told me he wanted to cut alcohol out for the month and make some dietary changes; he was feeling as though he’d lost fitness over half a year of working too much, and he was eating too many fatty snacks mindlessly.

I decided this was an ideal opportunity for me to make some healthy changes, too.

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This image shoes a heartbeat pattern with glasses of alcohol interspersed on a black background with blue graph lines. It is from an article in Everyday Health that talks about the benefits of moderate consumption, and the risks of excessive consumption.

I wanted, however, to make sustainable changes, to start doing things I knew I could keep doing for more than a month. So, instead of cutting alcohol out for 30 days and then celebrating the “milestone” on the 31st, I pledged to myself that I would cut back my drink consumption to reasonable, manageable levels, period. I would have a drink only on weekends, and I would aim to consume no more than a bottle of wine over the course of a week. I’d do this for January, and then keep doing it once it was habit.

I also pledged, along with my boyfriend, to nibble less mindlessly, and to get back on track with my weight training, which had fallen aside during my sabbatical, and during my adjustment to living in a new city. (I moved in August, to an amazing new town with outstanding open-air fitness options. Read my post on that here.)

I should emphasize here that I know I am not an alcoholic; I’ve investigated the symptoms of alcoholism, and I know that it is not necessary for me to give up alcohol completely in order to be, and to remain, healthy. I am very aware that I have, at times in my adult life, experienced a dependence on alcohol to relieve stress and dull emotional strain; but I also love nice wine and nice cocktails, and I’d like to be able to enjoy them in the future – while also feeling good, well rested, and strong the next day.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

accessibility · body image · fitness

On Being Naked In Public, #FridayThoughts #FeministFitness

This is a post about changing rooms. We’ve had occasion to reflect on them before here at FFI (for example, here and here), and I’d like to add my voice, and my questions, to the mix.

There’s a lot to say, in this moment of cracking and (I hope) crumbling gender binaries, about how we adapt our body images, and our images of others’ bodies, to a changing sex/gender paradigm. Getting comfortable with ourselves in our totally imperfect and non-binary bodies is only part of the challenge ahead; the other part is getting comfortable with the many different kinds of bodies around us, bodies whose hard-won privileges cannot any longer be denied.

A few weeks ago I found myself in Cate’s flat, asking her about gender-neutral change room etiquette. My question was prompted by my recent experiences in the changing rooms of the swimming pools I frequent.

My amazing new home town of Hamilton, Ontario has been renovating its swimming and recreation centres, and as part of that work has been installing gender-neutral change rooms. I do not identify as fluid, but I do identify as an LGBTQ ally, so I cheer this decision; I want to use the change rooms in order to show my support for their construction, and in order to show my support for non-binary folks using the space. Thus, when I went to a new pool in the suburb of Ancaster in early November, I bounced right on in through the middle door, without a second thought.

It was only when I was getting out of the pool and ready to shower that I started thinking twice about some of the complexities of getting naked, showering, and then re-dressing in this mixed space.

 

Two images of gender-neutral toilet and change spaces. The image on the left shows three brown doors with blue signs, one for “men”, one for “women”, and one in the middle showing figures of a man and a woman side by side. The image on the right (from the YMCA in Calgary, Alberta) shows the entrance to a clean-lined, white and blue locker space, with white figures and writing on a brown wall. The figures are of a woman, a man, and a wheelchair user, and the writing says “Universal Locker Room”. 

Now, let me be clear. I am very comfortable being naked in women’s change rooms, and I’m very comfortable with the idea of other women, including trans women, being naked around me. I’m also fine with men (and trans-men) being naked around me in settings where it is clear that we are in a non-sexual space and that the protocol is one of mutual respect along those lines (see below for more of what I mean here).

But as I was preparing to shower (and I LOVE my post-swim shower, in the warm water, joyfully naked after having pulled my tight swimsuit off) I realized that, maybe, not everyone in the gender-neutral change room in Ancaster would feel the same way as I do about public nudity. What if there was a man in the room who was comfortable with non-binary identifications but not comfortable with my nudity as a woman in a mixed space? What if there were parents with pubescent children of mixed ages who saw this space as also for them, but were similarly not comfortable? This is, after all, North America we’re talking about, and Ancaster ain’t exactly The Castro.

I posed the question to Cate: is it cool to get naked in a gender-neutral change room? Her response was measured but confident: anyone in that space is either fluid or an ally, and therefore should be comfortable with mixed bodies. Plus, it’s a change room: change rooms by definition are places you are allowed to be naked in public.

Are they, though?

It turns out this changing-room-nudity thing is a pretty culturally-determined truth. Cate and I feel a certain way, as do a host of my friends and colleagues, but we’re a particular demographic (fit academic feminists, for the most part, and many of us are white). Others clearly do not feel as we do. A town in the province of Quebec recently banned nudity in change rooms of all kinds in its public recreation centres; this is QUEBEC, people, aka the France of North America. And I’d be lying if I said I was usually joined in the women’s change room of various pools and fitness centres in my unabashed nudity; normally it’s all swimsuits, towels covering breasts, furtive scurrying, and ducking into changing cubicles.

Plus, I do get looks – sometimes.

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Are locker rooms safe spaces to be naked in public? The image shows a woman, with long hair in a pony tail, dressed in a pink striped sports top and loose black running shorts, hiding in part behind a locker door.

I don’t mean to belittle the activity of covering up – not at all. As a woman who grew up with horrifically bad body-image problems, I understand very well why hiding and scurrying and ducking happens.

But what if we thought of changing rooms as places where we can be, kindly and respectfully, and above all safely, exposed to a variety of uncovered bodies of different sizes, shapes, genders, and racial backgrounds – helping to make that bodily difference normative, and even comfortable?

This might (might…) be one hope behind the increase in gender-neutral change spaces more broadly. In pools around London, UK, where I also spend a lot of time swimming, I’ve noticed this trend taking shape. Twice this year I’ve been at facilities (run by Better, a not-for-profit organization) where large communal change spaces have been installed post-renovation (one of these, I’ll note, is in the Olympic swimming centre that became a public facility after the 2012 games). The demographic in both of the spaces I’ve swum (the other is in Chelsea, the posh West London community) has been very mixed; as these are effectively public recreation centres (as opposed to private clubs), visitors run the gamut of colours and languages, as well as ages and social classes.

These gender-neutral spaces are fairly big, to accommodate all users, but they are not really all that spacious; this is because they are populated largely by banks of lockers and changing stalls, lined up in neat rows. The idea is that you choose a locker near a free stall, and shut yourself in to get into and out of your swimming costume. There are also shower/change cubicles, so you are able to shower fully, removing your suit, and then change before opening the door to the world. Implicitly, I take from the presence of these larger cubicles, you’re not meant to get naked in the open shower area. Certainly, I’ve noticed no nudity whatsoever in these mixed spaces on the many occasions I’ve now visited them.

I get what these kinds of “gender-neutral” spaces are about, I think: saving space overall, breaking down gender division (an identified social goal in the UK right now), and sharing space more equitably between men’s and women’s zones are all worthy goals. Yet I cannot help but notice, in each of these “neutral” spaces, the lack of true neutrality. Because these spaces continue to encourage the hiding of our sexed and gendered flesh in the change cubicles, they do not invite us to break down the hierarchies of shaming and valorization that attend to, for example, fit vs unfit bodies, white bodies vs black or brown bodies, and men’s bodies vs women’s bodies.

Nothing about our bodies or their place in our world is shifted by this kind of flesh-policing “neutrality”; really, we’re just being herded into a more efficient, multi-use spatial system.

Would I prefer the female/male/neutral triad of choices now available to me in Hamilton to the enforced neutrality in all-comers gender-neutral spaces? Yes indeed, if only because the choice, in the first case, is provocative: it requires me to do some thinking about where I want to locate my body, and why.

(It’s also essential, I think, for those transitioning to feel safe in a changing space. One that is clearly marked as non-binary, alongside other, more “traditional” gendered space options, is by definition such a space. Click here, for example, for an article on the logic behind UC Berkeley’s decision to build a non-binary change room in its campus gym.)

Being herded into a large mixed change space, with its pressure to get dressed and undressed privately, does little except make me both physically and intellectually uncomfortable. I’d argue that it diminishes thoughtfulness around what “neutrality” really means, suppresses rather than invites important questions about gender.

It leads directly to the twin expectations that a) we all must share public space equally (a seemingly good thing), but that b) we also all must necessarily occupy that public space individually, keeping our bodies (and the shame they still too often carry) to ourselves (in no way a good thing).

This strikes me as separate-but-equal logic, which I cannot get behind.

I’d like your thoughts on this, very much; I’m still mulling and stewing. But before I close, I want to present a third example.

In early December I gave a workshop in the German lakeside town of Konstanz, on the Swiss border. Konstanz has a gorgeous local thermal spa facility, which includes a large and extremely well designed and maintained sauna section. (Entry to the thermal baths and outdoor pools alone is, like the Olympic swimming centre in London, less than $10 – this is a public facility. To use the sauna [also publicly maintained] costs a fair bit more, though substantially less than comparable but much less nice places in Canada, such as Toronto’s Body Blitz chain. To say the Konstanz spa-sauna is good value for money is an absolute understatement.)

On my last day in the town, my colleague Julia and I spent the morning at the sauna, moving between steam room, plunge pool, saunas of three temperatures, and a wonderful “calm room” for relaxing with a view of the Alps in the distance.

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An image of the 60-degree-heat sauna at Konstanz’s thermal spa facility; the picture is of a dark brown room with rectangular windows opening onto greenery, and the room is populated with curling light wood benches stacked in a rake for sauna users. The people in the space are covered in towels; in reality, these folks would be sitting on their towels naked, not wearing them. The spa’s website includes no nudity, although nudity is normative at the spa.

Julia advised me ahead of time that I needed no swim suit in the sauna area of the spa; it is considered inappropriate and unhygienic to wear one. Everyone changes into a robe or towel in the communal change room, then attends each of the saunas and plunge pools nude. This is traditional, and ingrained in German culture; the space of the spa is one where all bodies are welcome, and where nobody is to be leered at or commented upon inappropriately.

Of course this is not body nirvana: as Julia remarked, culture in this part of Germany is very homogenous, and all the bodies I saw were white and appeared to be non-trans (though I was not, in keeping with protocol, looking closely). How I’d feel as the lone person of colour, or lone non-binary body, in this space is a matter for another post entirely (or for a comment – if you have had such an experience, please let me know!).

What I can say, though, is that as a middle-aged woman with residual body image issues, I’ve never felt quite so at ease with my own body as I did in the sauna space. Young and old, male and female, fat and thin and in between; all seemed at ease in their bodies and fully accepting of the bodies around them. I found the resulting sense of ease permeated the space, generating a calming and welcoming affect that made the experience truly satisfying for me.

I found myself wishing we could infuse both Hamilton’s new gender-neutral change rooms, and the mixed/neutral change rooms of my London pools, with some of this embodied ease.

I’ll do my part, by continuing to use the new change rooms back home, and by being as naked as ever in them. I’ll welcome other naked bodies in turn, either with quick eye contact and a smile, or by not remarking on anything unusual – whatever works in the moment.

How about you? What’s your experience of gender-neutral changing spaces? If you’ve been at a public spa where nudity is common or expected, what was your embodied experience like?