cycling · winter

Winter Riding: what you do when the snow won’t come

This time last year, we were under several feet of snow here in Southern Ontario. I know, because Facebook told me. Here are some images from 29 December 2017 that Big Brother Zuckerberg shared with me as “memories” a few days ago.

A photo of a black collie mix (Emma the Dog) standing on a snow-covered rail bridge in the woods.
A snap of Kim, a white woman wearing large maroon-coloured sun glasses and a red and white toque, bundled in a black parka, smiling into the snowy wilderness.
Emma the Dog contemplates the waterfall to her left, on the snowy path in the woods.

This year, no such luck. Today, it’s 10 degrees Celsius and raining, and Emma the Dog is hiding in a mucky hidey-hole in the garden. (Cheers, Emma.)

Last year, with all the snow and my glamorous new snow shoes from Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), Emma and I got all kinds of exercise out on the rail trails around our home near Toronto. Walking in snow shoes is both incredibly fun and an amazing workout for the hamstrings and calves.

This year, I’ve been alternating taking Emma for extra-long no-snow walks in and around our many protected escarpment woodlands, riding my bicycle trainer while watching The Good Place on Netflix, and walking the escarpment stairs for a nice glute and quad (not to mention cardio) workout.

And then, of course, on dry days, when the temperature is zero or above, I go for that painful mixed blessing: The Winter Road Ride.

I know Sam has been enthusing on the blog recently about the joys of winter riding (in all its unexpected, stolen glory), as well as the pains of having to clean the darn bike when it’s over.

I share both her enthusiasm and the annoyance re the cleaning. But I also feel other things around winter riding, which I thought I’d share with you today in case anyone else in the community rides in winter and wants to commiserate.

1. Winter riding reminds you that just because it’s nice outside when you go to get the mail, doesn’t mean it’s nice outside for three hours/75km.

It seems like a great idea at the time. You walk the dog and it’s cool but not cold, cloudy but dry, only a bit breezy. You decide to suit up.

One of those cheeky cards, this one featuring a young woman in a parka holding ice skates, reads: “I’m over the cold already and it’s not even that cold yet.”

You climb the 150 or so metres out of the lake-side valley in which you live and are winded and cursing yourself when you finally get to the top of the escarpment and can finally start riding properly. In summer this climb is annoying but OK; today, though, you are already pretty cold and wondering what made you think this bike ride was a good idea.

You get onto “flat” land (all “flat” land to the north and west of me is a false flat, until it’s a swoopy downhill and all your cares are forgotten – roughly 35km in). You start to pick up speed. Then you wonder why “pick up speed” means you’re going 26.5kph, rather than your more usual 28kph…

2. You’re generally slower in winter for lots of invisible reasons. Because of this invisibility, you see your average speeds drop, feel demoralized, and then get even colder.

Yes, I know some people argue it’s a myth, but I’m firmly on the “big temperature drop = not insignificant speed drop” side of things. I’ve got years of riding to demonstrate this anecdotally, plus there’s a very good reason why club ride start times inch upward as the temperature drops. Cold weather riders experience drag from poor air density, rolling resistance, and extra layers of gear worn against the cold. Plus, it’s typical not to pump those tires up to max in winter, to ensure you’re in a better position to navigate winter obstacles and debris on the road.

(Want to know a bit more of the science? Here’s a pretty good article by the folks at FitWerx, a top-rated bike shop in the northeastern US.)

I typically roll at 27-30kph, wind and incline depending; my average solo speed is usually 27-28kph in summer, accounting for anywhere from 400 to 800 metres of climbing (and the attendant gleeful rolling back down again at top speed). In winter, my average speed drops to 25-26kph – partly for all the reasons noted above, but also because the wind feels sharper and colder (and thus less motivating to push through) in winter, and because, given the time of year, I’m not riding for all-out, Strava-busting goodness; I’m riding to build my base and stay in my tempo (mid-range aerobic) zone as much as possible.

Logically, then, I can expect to be slower in winter, and That Is Totally Fine. But we are not logical creatures, us humans. We are rational, yes, but also deeply affective: how we feel shapes how we behave so very, very often. (Need proof? Um, you know where to look…)

So when I’m out on a winter ride, I’m already cold. And then I see my speed and go, oh feck. “I’m so slow today! What’s wrong with me??? Obviously I need to train more/better/focus harder/get me off this thing…”

3. All that gear adds weight, discomfort, awkwardness. As in: I CANNOT WAIT TO GET HOME AND PULL IT ALL OFF ALREADY.

Yes, riding at any time of year is a pleasure. And yes, if given the opportunity, I would DEFINITELY rather be riding in a pair of shorts and a lightweight jersey, with just my helmet adding a bit of extra drag.

Instead, winter riding requires the following:

  • basic shorts, not too bulky (but still really well padded!)
  • at least two, if not three, under layers (hello, wind chill)
  • a pair of thermal tights
  • a really good, insulated if possible, long-sleeve winter jersey
  • winter gloves (think ski gloves with a bit more maneuverability)
  • a cycling balaclava (to keep your head warm and also provide chin and mouth coverage if the wind kicks up)
  • a neck “snood” or equivalent (basically, a cycling scarf – mine is the fantastically-named Castelli “head thingy”, which I bought for the name alone and which I absolutely adore)
  • two pairs of socks, and maybe some hot pockets to keep your toes alive
  • shoe covers (an absolute must: cycling shoes are breathable, after all, which means the cold air gets in immediately)
A female cyclist, dressed in black winter tights and jersey and standing through a corner, models the Castelli Head Thingy, worn here around her neck (as I often do). Note: this is NOT me. This woman looks like she’s moving pretty quickly, for winter. Lucky her.

All this stuff adds weight, bulk, and makes usually simple maneuvers fairly awkward. There’s also, again, that all-important feeling that things aren’t quite right; it’s supposed to be a free-wheeling sport, this, with equal parts “wheeee!!!!!” and zooming along in a tight, fast formation. Plus just feeling the wind on your face and not going, “fecking winter wind so cold ARGH! WHY AM I DOING THIS!!!”

***

So here’s the thing. As long as it’s not freezing cold and snowy outside I ride my bike. I try to remember that I’m base-building and it’s winter and I’m trussed up like a turkey and it’s cold, so it will be OK but not AMAZING. If it’s a good day out (especially if there’s sun!) there is NO WAY I am getting on my bike trainer, Jameela Jamil or no Jameela Jamil. So winter riding and me are here to stay.

But it’s not going to be ace from start to finish. A lot of it is going to kind of suck, TBH. And I am definitely going to miss my snowshoes.

Please tell me I am not alone!

But, having said that, readers, I’d love your winter riding stories/thoughts/feelings. Do you avoid it? Love it? Notice a performance drop and feel bad about it? Notice a performance drop and not care? Thanks for sharing!

Happy New Year,

Kim

competition · Fear · fitness · racing · Rowing

Maybe I’m not actually in it to win it

Have you ever believed a thing about yourself, just fervently believed and adamantly defended it, and then one day you’ve woken up and realized that perhaps what you’ve believed and defended has… changed? Or perhaps was never quite true – not in the way you had imagined, anyway – in the first place?

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An image of six boys running on a school track; it looks like nearly the end of the race. The boy in the foreground is racing to win; the image is in sepia tone. What does this have to do with my post? Read on.

This story begins back in spring, when I hopped back into the scull at Leander, my new boat club in Hamilton, Ontario, full of keen interest. My bum was not even on the slide yet when I realized that the women I was now training with were experienced, serious, committed, and out to win.

Not that they are not completely amazing humans, balanced and sane and gorgeous, and not that they are not fun, or out to have fun. They are all these things too. And, OF COURSE, not that there is anything whatsoever wrong with wanting to race to win. On the contrary: I love winning. I LOVE WINNING!

Or so I thought.

Rowing with these women started to freak me out pretty much immediately. I was painfully aware that, while I’m strong as hell, my technique in a scull is not honed enough yet to be easy or natural; this is another way of saying that I kept yanking our boats off course because I’m strong enough physically, but still weak enough technically, to be something of a liability. I was hugely embarrassed about this from the get-go, because I knew these women needed an able and consistent teammate. I wanted to be that teammate. I did.

Or I thought I did.

I told myself: I’ll improve over the summer. It will come in time. There’s time! Training consistently will help! I will do the training required.

Then summer rose high, and I had (as usual) lots of work travel. (This is why I rowed much more casually back in London, Ontario, with my delightful and equally casual and fun teammate Jen. For us, the water was pure joy. PURE JOY. More on this later.)

So: despite my best self-talk, I got out to Leander’s regular masters practices much less over the summer months than I’d hoped. Or that I had told myself I had hoped, anyway.

I wasn’t in the boat enough to be improving, and I realized that; I chose not to sign up for regattas in the expectation that I would not be ready.

It all seemed sensible and logical enough in my head: just not quite ready, not yet.

After a while, and a chat with Cate, it dawned on me that something else might be going on – other than me being super busy.

My-Big-Duh

A large “Duh!”. Because, Kim, come on. DUH.

I realized I might be finding lots of excuses not to go to rowing practice, because actually I was scared of going to practice.

I was scared of letting my teammates down. The pressure to improve was destroying the pleasure, the pure joy, rowing held for me.

When I thought about it more, as the summer passed, I realized that I actually hadn’t been all that busy, not really. Actually, I had chosen not to go to many practices, or sign up for regattas, because the thought of racing was making me crazy nervous. The idea of getting to the race was making me nervous. The idea of spending a day at the race was making me nervous. The idea of driving back from the race was making me nervous.

Not because I didn’t want to win a race; don’t be silly. I LOVE TO WIN. But because … well, I didn’t actually want to race.

I realized: I. Did. Not. Want. To. Race. Not like this, anyway. Not now, anyway. Maybe not… ever.

Surprise, self. Surprise.

Autumn arrived, and then my teaching schedule and family commitments meant I could only reasonably commit to one practice a week. And then family health problems arose and made me so tired, so exhausted from the thought of even trying to row, that I just emailed my head coach and stopped. I should have done this long before, of course, but finally I had an excuse that was legit. Or that I thought was legit. “Family crisis!” sounds so much better than “Really just not enjoying it!”

But the truth is, crisis or none, after I emailed Greg I felt immeasurably better, lighter.

I want to be clear here that I’m not suggesting that racing is bad – hells no! If it is your cuppa, please head straight for the starting line! I also want to be clear that I’ve thought a lot about the mixed and complex feelings I was having around rowing practice over the last few months, and I’ve concluded that the cloud of expectation I felt around me about racing was really, powerfully, hampering both my love of the sport (which is real) and my desire to be better at it (which is real, too). I started out telling myself that of course I was going to race, and of course I was going to commit to all the things in order to make that happen. No excuses! But it turns out that hyper-motivator of a phrase was the opposite of motivating for me.

Early in the autumn, the head of the women’s crew and I found ourselves in calm water in the double one Sunday morning. She knew I was struggling but I doubt she knew the depth – almost certainly not, since I had only just begun to admit it to myself. We started talking about the club, its culture, and then I asked her about the Rec program: was it super loosey-goosey and frustratingly disorganized like Rec rowing often can be?

No! She told me. She sang the praises of the coaches and the structure and the fun of it. She told me it was how she had gotten interested in racing, inspired to leap up to masters. I suddenly realized that maybe I could grasp again the joy and fun of the learning that goes into rowing by dropping down to a low-pressure, no-stakes, but still structured and technically focused environment next season. Maybe I could actually develop a true, heart-felt, joy-filled desire to race one day.

Soon, we spotted a heron on the shore and stopped hard for a look. We commiserated about the heat building and the sweat beginning to ripple on our arms. Greg came by in the coach boat to chat about his new super-wicking shorts; we had a laugh and took away a pro sartorial tip. And I remembered the pleasures I take from the boat, when the pressure to perform eases off.

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A young woman half-sit in her single scull along a lakeshore, looking into a cloud-filled, orange sunrise. She is wearing a white sport top, blue sport shorts, and looks to have her hair in a braid across her right shoulder. This is not me! But maybe, next season, it might be.

See you next season,

Kim*

*This will be my last regularly post for a while. That family health crisis I speak about above is actually, really, a crisis, and I’ll be turning my attention there for now. I hope to write again before too long, though. Thanks for reading.

fitness · holidays · traveling

Give me a break already

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(A sandwich board reads: “high tides and salty vibes.” This post is about how I spent my summer vacation.)

Last month, I posted from the UK, where I was traveling for work. In that post I talked about how a spontaneous two-day cycling break in Sussex raised my spirit and helped me get through an emotionally tough patch.

That was a terrific little holiday, to be sure, but it wasn’t enough: it was only two days, out of a three-week trip that was full of work-work, alongside the emotional labour associated with seeing friends and family and visiting a life I used to live. Cycling through the Sussex countryside was fab, but when I returned to Canada I still felt drained, exhausted, and unsure where I was going to find the energy to finish the rest of my summer work roster before heading back into the classroom this fall.

While I was away, I was also planning another holiday: a trip to Newfoundland with my boyfriend, D. Neither of us had been, and we both wanted to go. But D’s a fairly new immigrant to Canada and wasn’t sure where to look for the best accommodation, or what the most effective way for us to get there would be (we had the dog along for part of our trip). So the bulk of the planning fell to me. More work, more drainage.

Between my return to Canada from the UK and the trip to Newfoundland I was at sixes and sevens getting all kinds of deadline-heavy work done, and because I returned from abroad tired I never really got my bearings back. Near to our departure for Newfoundland I broke down while in the car with D; he’s a loving and patient man and wanted me to try to explain what was going on. I told him I was overwhelmed and exhausted and had no idea how all the things were going to get finished. My therapist always says, there is no such thing as an academic emergency, Kim!, but at that moment all the undone work seemed like an emergency to me.

D listened with genuine kindness, and then asked me: do you want to cancel the holiday?

I realized in that moment that I absolutely did not want to cancel. I realized I needed that holiday! Even though my brain had no idea how I was going to get through the handful of work days left before we departed, my body was adamant.

And I have learned it’s always a good idea to listen to my body.

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(A blue-washed photo of an Atlantic headland with rocky cliffs, water and sky, wildflowers in the foreground. Taken on the Bonavista peninula, at Trinity Bay. This is one of the many gorgeous places my brain did not yet know it needed, but was going to get. Oh ya baby.)

I needed the trip, but I also needed to cope with the state of catastrophe I had let myself fold into, so that I could enjoy the trip and also get the most out of it. So here’s what I did.

First, I worked out what needed doing before we left and what could wait. I made a priority plan for the stuff that would be waiting so I knew what I’d work on after we got back, in what order, and for what amount of time. I was pretty sure everything would get done by 4 September and I’d be ok, ultimately, if I more or less stuck to that plan. Then I put the plan away.

Second, I decided I would leave my computer behind.

Right now, I realize that some of you are probably going, DUH! Why would you take your computer on holiday?? I know. But academics tend to live their work; our passions intertwine with our labours. For a while I thought, I’ll bring it and write for an hour each morning, write for pleasure, free-write, see what emerges. D said, bring it for watching movies; I’ll make sure you don’t check your email. But then I realized the free-write promise was not worth the risk I’d check the email – it’s only a tantalizing click away and I am so freaking type-A I knew I would succumb to the click. Decision made.

Third, I decided that it would be ok for me to eat and drink whatever I wanted while on holiday. Usually I’m careful about not eating much junk food and I have been working on drinking modestly, especially because I have a tendency to use alcohol as a quick route to relaxation after a long work day. My holiday plan, instead, was this: enjoy any and all food that looks enticing. Enjoy days filled with a good amount of relaxing so that a drink at the end of those days is for the pleasure of the lovely drink, not for relaxing itself.

To my surprise, this worked. I enjoyed loads of terrific fresh fish and yummy chips (French fries served with fried fish), among lots of other things, stopped eating when full, and experienced no hangovers or headaches of any kind during our two weeks away. I felt great each morning and went to bed feeling happy and sated each evening.

(These photos were taken at the Port Rexton Brewing Company taproom in Trinity, Newfoundland. A photo of a sandwich board that says “No wifi; drink beer and talk to each other” alongside a close-up of two sample-size glasses of beer. There were gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and more delicious chips to go with the beer; this was a mid-hike break, and SO SO worth it!)

Part of that feeling great also came from choice number four: to move in enjoyable ways each day, not worrying too much about being away from my regular fitness routine and my bike, and not connecting energy expended to calories ingested, even in my imagination.

Believe it or not this is a big problem for me: I’m super type A and a bit of an endorphin junky, so usually when I take a trip I look for ways to exercise, and I mean REALLY exercise, every other day at least. If I can’t do that I begin to get anxious about the foods I’m eating. Part of this is a learned fear of gaining weight, I think, but it’s also connected to the fact that exercise makes me pleasurably hungry, while I also feel I’ve “earned” the treat. I know this is not the healthiest attitude in the world, but it’s also my lived reality; the point I’m making here is that I worked actively against this attitude while on holiday and discovered real value in abandoning it, at least for a while.

Newfoundland is a terrific place for hiking, and D and I enjoyed parts of the East Coast Trail, the famous Skerwink Trail on the Bonavista peninsula, as well as a fairly steep but oh-so-beautiful climb up Signal Hill in the middle of St John’s. I also got the chance to bounce around in the ocean a couple of times, and to have a proper, delicious swim in a fantastic and almost-empty swimming pool one Saturday morning. Otherwise, exercise was limited to walking out to headlands to look at puffins, and holding on for dear life in a Zodiac while getting farted on by whales. Which is not something I get on a regular road ride, and was pretty special TBH.

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(A photo of me, wearing sunglasses and a blue shirt with white pineapples on it, arms out as though flying. I’m standing in front of the puffin colony at Elliston, Newfoundland, a rocky headland jutting into the sea, making like a funny little orange-beaked bird. And feeling great.)

Reading this post over, I realize it sounds like I Took A Holiday And It Was Good. News at 11! But what is striking for me is that I don’t do this often, or really ever; it actually IS newsworthy for me. And I bet I’m not alone.

How many of us don’t really take a break when we take a break? How many of us work over our holidays as a matter of course, even if it’s “just” checking the email? We’re living the 24/7 life, the one that says if you’re not working you’re slacking, and I am as guilty a party to this pervasive neoliberal reality as the next middle class professional.

But when I got home from Newfoundland I realized something urgent: I felt 100% better. Like, SO MUCH BETTER it was literally unreal to me. NONE of the work waiting for me seemed like the emergency it had appeared in my pre-holiday imagination. On my first morning back I settled into the job of catching up and calmly got shit done. I ate some salads and some delicious soups from my freezer, drank some home-made iced tea, and it all tasted the sweeter and more delicious for having been preceded by fourteen days of utterly guilt-free indulgence, pure relaxing pleasure.

Best of all, I had way fewer emails waiting for me than I expected. And the cherry tomatoes had all ripened on the vine.

Bring on the fall!

Kim

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.

milkshakes

(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