Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health
Author: Susan Tarshis
I am a full time Psychotherapist practicing in Milton, Ontario. From time to time, I post thoughts about my practice and the human condition to my own blog but mostly, I'm a regular contributor to my friends' blog (Fit is a Feminist Issue). . .because that's more fun.
You know that feeling when you buy a chocolate cupcake, a nice one from the gourmet shop on Mainstreet and you haven’t had your first bite? It’s just sitting there on the plate or napkin, perfect, fully cupcake.
That’s me and my new bike. It’s perfect, waiting, in my basement, un-ridden as my imagined cupcake is uneaten. I have had no moment when the time of day, whether and work has coalesced into a bike ride. I have had this bike for 1.5 weeks. My mouth is watering. Let this weekend show me mercy and May I ride my NEW BIIIIIIKEEEEEE!!!!
It’s been a heck of a day blog community. Not at all in a good way. Most of us over here on the contributor side have been glued to screens either watching or reading about the hearings in Washington.
Last week, I read an article in the Washington Post about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford that moved me to tears. The thing that is so wrenching about her story is how ordinary it is. You know what I mean. A thing happens at a party or on a date and we don’t know really what meaning to make of it, so we push it aside and try to move on then, eventually, it catches up. Perhaps not so dramatically as her story with not so much riding on it, but it catches up one way or another. In any scenario, public or private, we suffer.
This story moved me to the point that I wrote an email to one of the journalists in the by-line, Jessica Contrera. I hoped that it might get through to Christine if the journalist was the gatekeeper. Today, on this day of days, she wrote me back. It was a simple thank you. I like to hope that she showed it to Christine.
Why am I putting this up here? Well, we bloggers are interested in how fitness enriches our lives in feminist context. We are interested in strength and resilience. We address pain too, injury, trauma and ways we might adapt. It’s notable, perhaps, that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford ran to the edge of her country and immersed herself in surfing. I bet she could write a mean piece for us on surfing and resilience. I hope she does some day. What I’m saying is I feel very much that she is one of us and she is bleeding in public today because she felt she had no other moral choice. I wonder if I knew the guy who date raped me when I was 21 was up for some prominent position that could decide on bodily rights of women, would I be as brave as her? Not sure.
So, here is my email to her. It’s a frustrated wrenching rant of an email and I present it open letter style because what the hell else is there to do on a day like today, where you watch what we watched and hear what we heard and despair that it will make one whit of difference because we may just not matter enough.
I’m just some random Canadian with a WoPo subscription. I’m also a psychotherapist, for what that’s worth. I’m writing to you (after reading an article of yours and a few others) in the hopes you will forward this message to Christine Blasey.
Just tell her I care and I get it and I believe her. I can understand why she needed to blow up her life to tell her story. I understand why she couldn’t live in a country with him on the supreme court. I understand why she probably will have to move, why he will get confirmed anyway, why it still matters that she said something.
It’s so devastating and the world is a cruel place. Especially America is a cruel place. Tell her I don’t know her but I’m holding love in my heart for her. Tell her to come to Canada. Tell her to write a book. Tell her to get off twitter and stay away from email. Tell her to do the work she loves and love the people she loves and that there will be places and hearts in history that know. Tell her I’m sorry for the world.
Edit: There was a late week surge in interest regarding this topic so it has become a group post. My contribution is first.
Sam helpfully suggested someone blog about this article the headline of which reads:
Negative memories of gym class may last into adulthood
And to which I responded:
Gym class for me was a nightmare. I was a kid who had been driven to school for all my elementary years. The physical education program at that private school was, shall we say, minimal. I was not involved in sports of any sort. At the time, I don’t think my parents valued physical activity very much. They valued school and education and good behaviour. I was excellent at those things and I focussed on my strengths. So did they.
Consequently, and how could they know this at the time, I was set up to fail in middle school gym class. I was that kid who was picked last for the team, why wouldn’t I be? I was the kid who was afraid of the ball, who had poor coordination of my rapidly growing limbs, who thought she was ugly, who had boobs before everyone else. . .you name it.
The most striking part of this article for me is this quote:
“The most surprising thing about our research was the vividness of [memories and the] emotional impact. This tells us these were transformative experiences,” senior author Panteleimon Ekkekakis of Iowa State University in Ames told Reuters Health by phone.
People’s gym-class memories “had some degree of influence on their self-perception and … the degree of their sedentariness,” said Ekkekakis.
Vividness. My memories are vivid and full of “can’t”.
I can’t run fast
I can’t do a hand stand
I can’t do a cartwheel
I can’t do the splits
I can’t catch a baseball
I can’t do a flexed arm hang
I can’t do a push up
I only got a Participation Badge in the Participaction program. Yup, I’m bitter.
There is, however, some hope as the article goes on to say:
“We’re not saying the experiences are deterministic and that one negative experience is going to determine a person’s physical activity level for the rest of their life,” he said.
And they are correct. I eventually found that I enjoyed single person sports (skiing, horseback riding, biking, and yes, slow running). More importantly, I found environments and people to do these things with that were supportive and not derisive. But I also had a supportive family and a secure socio-economic environment so I was insulated from this experience. I suspect that a less privileged kid might not fare as well. That didn’t seem to be parsed out, at least in the news article.
The article also talks about the shifts in physical education over the years. Certainly, my daughter and son’s experiences were not as negative as mine. There was way more choice in activities, cooperation, support and a lot less shame. You got marks for trying hard, not being good. My daughter even took gym in grade 10. . .ELECTIVELY. I was shocked and proud of her. She enjoyed being physical during the day. It was fun and an easy good mark. There was no shame involved in her experience and that isn’t because she is the volley ball star. Also, her out gay teacher brought in her kitten, which she received from her partner instead of an engagement ring. I mean. . .!!!!!!! If that was my gym class, my vivd memories would be of kittens and good times in yoga. I was jealous and happy for her.
I think that gym class is so impactful because it deals with the body at a time in life where the body is a source of about a bazillion complex things. It’s growing in all the places, it represents your coming adulthood and gym class exposes the body and it’s capacities. If you are worried at all about it (and seriously, who isn’t), then you are vulnerable. Kids are vulnerable. Gym class isn’t ever a neutral experience and we should be so very mindful of that.
I still cannot do any of the things in the list with any facility. I can do 5 push-ups and I haven’t tried the flexed arm hang lately. I can’t do any of the other things at all. However, I don’t feel bad about that any more because of all the other good stuff I can do.
So there, gym class. You didn’t break me. Keep smartening up.
Raise your hand if you sucked at gym!
My most vivid memory of gym class is this: When I was around 15, I got kicked out for wearing shorts and a t-shirt that didn’t match. Not wearing the gym uniform would have been forgivable, or so my gym teacher told me, as she escorted me from the gym. But apparently I had chosen to wear a t-shirt that clashed so appallingly — a bright red T worn with the purple uniform shorts—that my teacher couldn’t even tolerateme in class. At the time I was pretty proud of myself for that fashion criminality, because I didn’t like gym class and I took some pleasure in tweaking my teacher, who didn’t bother to hide the fact that she didn’t think much of my athletic abilities. Just for the record, I was fleet-ish as a kid, but would have required some encouragement.
I sometimes fantasize about an athletic competition with that gym teacher — me, at my current age and ability; and her, at her then-age and ability. I know that’s not the most generous thought. In fact, it might be one of my only revenge fantasies.
Early gym classes weren’t so bad. I loved my nun teachers and they taught me to jump rope and took us outside to play. I loved that they wore jeans and snowpants under their habits. I remember them laughing as we whooshed down the hill.
But serious gym class in late elementary school and beyond was awful. There were a lot of tears. The story was that I was clumsy and uncoordinated and not very good at sports. Stories are powerful. Other people started them but they became my stories.
I got a concussion running an obstacle course in grade 6 when I stood up too soon running through a metal tube. That resulted in a visit to hospital. I lost consciousness and threw up a lot. My parents carefully woke me up on the hour after I came home from hospital. That event fit the narrative and gym teachers stopped pushing after that.
I rode a bike. I loved ice skating and took figure skating lessons and swimming lessons. But I associated gym class with fitness tests and with team sports. Also with being chosen last. Over time I accepted the label of book worm and brainiac, since I was in the gifted class from grade 6 thru to grade 9. I signed myself out of gym class for “menstrual reasons” as much as possible.
Later after I came to love running, riding, weight lifting I even came to reconsider my loathing of team sports. It took awhile to get over gym class but I did it. I still get angry when I think about the childhood goods that I missed.
In school, my feelings about PE class varied considerably depending on what we were doing – I enjoyed basketball, I didn’t mind handball and football, and loathed athletics, dancing and volleyball. I loved swimming, because I swam in a club outside of school and was guaranteed to get good marks. But above all, it depended on the teacher. For years, I had one who loved all the things I hated, and made us play volleyball all the time. The pain on my forearms! And the misjudged distances that made me miss the ball because I have astigmatism and refused to wear glasses that might get smashed! In the summer, we’d have to run outside and she would stand in the shade, water bottle in hand, and shout “keep smiling!” as we shuffled along in the sun. I hated her, and I hated gym class with her. Luckily, I was able to practice sports outside of school that I actually enjoyed. I tried lots of things as a kid – gymnastics, badminton, you name it. Swimming stuck. But because I tried out so many things early in life, I’m still not scared of trying my hand at something new. I think if your only point of reference for what sports are like is gym class, it is very, very easy to be put off exercise for life. In that sense, where I grew up we were extremely lucky because there were lots of affordable outside options to do things that you weren’t necessarily taught at school, or taught badly.
Thanks to my fellow bloggers who contributed their feelings and experiences. What resonates most for me about these contributions is the need for fun and playfulness instead of a focus on skills acquisition. All our skill in sport has come from liking what we are doing and all the disincentives seem to be about critique and technical achievement minus the love. Hopefully the science is catching up and best practices will continue to include fun and kittens. But maybe not kitten yoga. . .
I’m presently sitting in the dooryard of the trailer in Carlton County writing this late blog post. I’ve been thinking all day about what I wanted to say. Actually, I’ve been thinking for the past two days, because I basically forgot to blog yesterday, distracted as I was by everything there is going on here at the Potato Festival on the 100th anniversary of Hartland, New Brunswick (home of the worlds longest covered bridge by the way).
I’ve had a surprisingly active summer, given my lack of training for anything in particular. This is what I was thinking about while walking along the boardwalk in Bouctouche, feeling the sea on my toes. I was thinking about the contrast between “inspiration” and “connection” and how that impacts my activity level.
Some things I do because of “inspiration”. It was watching Sam do the Bike Rally through Facebook that inspired me to sign up for the first year. But I wouldn’t have done it again without her connection and our friends who collected around us to support us. I was inspired by Tracey to run in the Niagra Women’s Half Marathon but it’s only connection to my friends and partner who runs that ever gets me in running shoes again.
This spring and summer I have biked in Quebec, biked in Prince Edward County, biked with my mom (who is almost 75), and canoed a little with my awesome friend and co-blogger Cate. None of these things would be possible without the base level of fitness that I have acquired over these last 15 years and none of it would have been desirable if there weren’t people to enjoy it with me.
It was really yesterday that this whole thought came together. I had been in the car a long time and we went to a museum that has lots of connection to the family history of my bestie. After the museum, I found myself desperate to move and I knew were were near a beautiful nature area (dunes on the east coast of New Brunswick). I literally *needed* to move.
In the time I spent wandering happily along the boardwalk and then back through the beach with my feet in the ocean, I was overwhelmed with gratefulness that I could walk along that boardwalk and put my feet in the sand. I thought about how I wanted to bike along the shore and maybe next year do a trip from campground to campground along the Acadian Peninsula. I can do it and that is real because of my connection with the others around me who also value movement and strength. We don’t have to be “athletes” or high achieving type A goof balls. We just need to be able to do the things we want to do. Bike around rural Ontario for an afternoon, canoe for a few hours in a little breeze on a small lake, walk along a gorgeous boardwalk. I know not every 50 year old has this privilege.
I had not biked at all this year but I was determined to have an active holiday with my partner. Sam recommended this delightful route and boy-howdy was it worth it.
The route is a reclaimed rail line that has a combo of asphalt and crushed stone surface. Since it was used by a train, it’s not too hilly and it goes from Mount Laurier to St. Jerome, delightful little towns north of Montreal. The route is about 200km and so serves almost every biking need.
There are multitudes of Bed and Breakfasts along the way, camp grounds and amazing restaurants. I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad restaurant in Quebec people. That province understands food.
I had a lot of favourite things about this trip and it was very different from substantial bike riding I had done in the past. My partner is an occasional biker and he is not a road biker so we took hybrid bikes on this trip. His was a pretty fancy aluminum frame with a famous name. I had a steel frame that has served me since I bought it second hand in 1990. I also had the pannier holders. Because the grade never exceeded 3% none of this was an issue. We scheduled the trip to take 4 days and none of them were farther than 60k. We also had a shuttle service that took out stuff from place to place so we weren’t weighted down with kit. I would totally do this ride in a self sufficient way though, now that I know where all the camp sites are.
Biking is so delightful for so many reasons. It can be a solitary pursuit of meditative aloneness or it can be social in ways that running never matches for me. When you bike, there is always a choice to go hard or not. I don’t have that kind of option when I run, it’s always hard, so I’m always more focussed on my discomfort than being social. Biking equalizes me and my partner too. I’m experienced and he isn’t so I get to revel in that and he is very gracious to let me take the lead in all things bike. As we peddled along the forested route that first day, smelling the pine needles and enjoying perfect weather, I was astounded that I forgot how much I love it. Last year was a year of running, a half marathon and a fast 10k. Now I’m content to leave that behind. I’ll run again but I’m only running so I can bike better. I just don’t like running much, it’s a fact.
I may have hooked my partner on biking. He is wondering about doing a longer trip, elsewhere, maybe Newfoundland? I so want to do this trip.
I will end this rather jaggedly written post with two stories of the trip, one poignant and then weird and one hilarious.
The story of Jannette (name has been changed):
One of the B&B’s we stayed at had a magical feel. There were endless gardens and exceptional buildings, obviously built with love and care. Our host, I’ll call him Mark, was, well, a bit dour. The place was so meticulous and perfect and he obviously worked all the time. He was also particular about the schedule, the times for check-in, for driving us to town for dinner, for breakfast. The place was for sale and my partner was trying to create some conversation with the man in the car on the way to dinner. He told us that he wanted to get back out in the world and hike. He had been a very accomplished adventurer. I noticed he only used a singular pronoun.
When we got back that night, we were looking at the things in the common room, the photo books and the art on the wall. Jannette was mentioned everywhere. The notes were signed “Jannette and Mark”. She was in all the pictures. She was in the oil painting with Mark in their beautiful and sacred garden. I suddenly felt as if I knew what happened, that Jannette had died, probably of breast cancer and Mark was grieving. He was selling the place and keeping it up so meticulously to honour her but once he found a suitable buyer, her was going to walk to the end of the earth until he died of a broken heart. I know, I was a dramatic story, but it fit. I felt more compassion for his demeanour, poor grieving Mark.
The net day we arrived for breakfast in the main house. I was weird to have Mark preparing us breakfast in the kitchen he and Jannette shared. I felt her spirit everywhere, in every perfect detail of the place that Mark had not changed, and would not change, until he walked away into some wilderness forever.
Near the end of the meal, my partner looks up and says, “Oh, thank god, there’s Jannette”.
And there she was.
She whirled in, said hi, ran upstairs, came back down, had a conversation with Mark in French that we didn’t understand because they talked so fast and then she left again. Very alive was that Jannette.
I still don’t know what was up with Mark, maybe it was divorce, maybe this is his nature, who knows. Anyway, I was glad she wasn’t dead. The place is totally worth going to even with the slightly dour host. If you are interested, pm me somehow, I have a Facebook Page, and I’ll tell you. I feel bad naming him as dour in this post, but the story was too good not to tell.
Second story. . the derailleur:
Oh, people who are cyclists already know there is a bit of a poop-show coming.
We were on our last day and it was raining. We were coming into St. Jerome and there was a lot of stopping and starting. During one start, I heard a terrible sound behind me, the sound of skidding and clanking. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“I’m good but I think I have a technical problem. Oh yes, definitely a bad technical problem.”
The derailleur was shorn off and the chain was destroyed. One big man crank too many I guess. Anyway, the good news was were were only 3 k out and it was mostly down hill. So, we scootered in the last bit, a fitting end to a glorious adventure.
Interested in the trail? Here is a link to start you off.
Two happy people in bike helmets and sunglasses. Seriously happy people.
Rivière Du Nord in the background and a birch tree with a smiling bicyclist wearing a maple leaf shirt in the foreground.
“Yoga And” has been blogged about a bunch on this blog lately, most comprehensively by Cate here.
I live in a plain and ordinary place. There is no goat yoga, kitten yoga or beer yoga on the program (although I heard a rumour that beer yoga was in the planning stages and thankfully the yoga instructor said something to the effect of “WTF NO!”) One of the disadvantages of it being so plain and ordinary is there is not a lot of choice around going to a yoga class. You can go way to early in the morning, 10am or way too late (I can’t do it at 8pm, I’m toast). The early afternoon, when I am most available is the time all the other people who go to these studios are either at work or home for naps with their toddlers. So I’m out of luck.
My daughter suggested I check out YouTube for yoga videos and I scoffed. But you know what? I actually like them.
First of all, I can peruse them to find an instructor that I like. I prefer my yoga without too much nattering by 22 year old instructors. That may sound harsh to the young folks but that’s how I feel. My life is messy and I’m not always happy. I don’t strive to attain happiness anymore, I just want to be. The older instructors understand this better.
Once I find the person, I commence the yoga. That’s where the kitten comes in.
Actually, he is a cat, a soft, smart, arrogant little black cat. He is up in my business from the beginning to the end of the 40 minutes on the mat. He is used to the iPad being his toy (Check out apps for cats, it’s a real thing) and he occasionally pauses the video for me. While I am in downward dog, his tail is up my nose. While I am in bridge, he is hitting my head with his paw. If I am asked to step a right foot back, I need to make sure he isn’t laying there where I can step on him. Basically, he’s a pain.
The dog, on the other hand, stays out of my way.
I love it.
I really didn’t think I’d be that person who does yoga in her front hall with a person named Adrienne talking to her on a YouTube channel. These days, I take my activity where I find it. Dog walking, hall yoga with a cat and random inconsistent runs are what I’ve got on the menu. It’s all I have in me right now. That’s okay.
My 50th year has not been my fittest. So far, I’d say I peaked at about 48 and a half. This is not to say I will not peak again, just not right this second.
The fun thing is I went for a wee run on Monday. It was about 3.5k. Now those of you who have ever stoped running and then done 3.5k a few months later may wonder, “How could that ever be FUN?”
It was fun because I ran with my kid.
My almost 19 year old son has not, thus far in his life, been much of an athlete. He’s a pretty good downhill skier and an excellent amateur stage actor. He’s a bright funny young man. I heard a rumor that he ran 5k one night while trying not to study for finals. So I asked him, “Hey, wanna run with me tomorrow?” and he said YES.
I remember when I was about 20 and my mom wanted me to learn tennis. She paid for some lessons and was so thrilled to have me on the court with her while she whupped me. I don’t think I quite understood her thrill until that run.
The run itself was unremarkable, but the joy of me being active with my adult kid was pretty special. It’s is now officially one of the numerous documented perks of being fit at midlife.
(Did you like how I did that? Book promo. BANG)
And for those of you who think you raised a couch potato, this is also an example of how you just never know what will happen in the young adult mind.