Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health
Author: Tracy I
Writer, feminist, vegan, runner, sailor, philosopher, yogi, sometimes knitter, co-founder of Fit Is a Feminist Issue, co-author of Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey (launching in April 2018, published by Greystone Books)..
Hi everyone. We’re having a contest! Want to win a copy of Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey by Sam and Tracy? It’s officially coming out with Greystone Bookson April 14 (Canada) and April 17 (US) and we want to give three of our followers a chance to win an early “sneak peek” copy.
There are three ways to enter.
Facebook: Comment on this post on our Facebook page (Fit Is a Feminist Issue) by telling us your favourite fitness /pursuit activity (one word answers are just fine).
Instagram: Show us some Instagram love by liking the contest post on Instagram. [we had a photo issue so we posted a second time on Instagram, which is where this link goes. If you liked the first post, don’t worry, it’s still up and we will consider you eligible.]
We’ll randomly select three winners, one from the Facebook comments and one from our Twitter retweets and one from the Instagram likes.
The contest closes at 11:59 Eastern Time on March 31st and is open to North American residents only. We will get in touch with the winners for North American mailing address and our publisher will send them each a book.
Vegans can carry a lot of baggage. No, this is not a fitness brag. I am speaking of baggage of the metaphoric nature. In fact, I can already see the comments in the Facebook share of this post, calling vegans holier-than-thou, obsessive, pushy elitists and a bunch of other variations on this theme. I can predict it not because I’m psychic but because I have seen it play out so many times on social media and comment threads when the “v-word” emerges. Vegans are really not liked much by society at large. As a longtime vegan, I will admit that we have a bit of a PR problem.
I will also admit that we have had a hand in some of this bad PR.
Much of it is not our fault; it is the consequence of our mere presence in a world replete with carnism, which often elicits a knee-jerk defensive response, sometimes even before a vegan has said a word. It manifests as people saying “Mmm…bacon” even if it’s a bizarre non sequitur, which it usually is. It manifests as the many bad jokes we’ve heard a million times, like “Vegetarian is an old Native American word for ‘bad hunter.’” [I won’t even address the idea that there is a single Native American language but, yeah, we’re supposed to laugh unless we want to reinforce the stereotype that vegans are angry and humorless. Ha. Ha.] It manifests as people who expect us to defend PeTA even if we are most definitely not supporters. It manifests as people thinking we’re judging them simply by co-existing in the world as vegans.
Despite this, I wouldn’t change a thing about my decision to go vegan. I believe it is the best decision I ever made and I work hard to buck the stereotype while maintaining my commitment to its muscular ethical basis. I will say, though, that since my early days of standing outside of circuses with protest signs and outside of fast food chains with pamphlets, things have changed considerably in the animal advocacy world. Many of those changes have been really positive. With the Internet, people are so much more aware of the unjustifiable reality of what happens to other animals behind closed doors. Concurrent with that, there are also so many more options in grocery stores and restaurants as access and affordability to plant-based foods continues to increase. I remember racing through Oklahoma in 1995 with a car full of nutrition bars and a sincere hope that I didn’t starve to death with my dog-eared vegetarian restaurant guide book on my lap. Those days are behind us and things are just a lot easier.
What we do have today, though, is something I never observed as a young activist. In fact, I never saw it until social media started becoming widespread. In those nascent days of my veganism, my mentors were primarily older women in Keds sneakers – one of the few leather-free shoe brands back in the day – who would be out, rain or shine, doing outreach for the animals; they didn’t care about anyone else’s BMI, they cared about creating a more just and compassionate world. They didn’t inspire me with their impressive abs; they motivated me with their hearts, brains and spirits.
With social media, there is another breed of vegans: the body-shamers. Thankfully, they are not the norm, but they are loud and seem to be growing in number. These body-shame peddlers may be someone’s first exposure to a vegan and they leave a lasting impression. They condemn and attack vegans and non-vegans alike about weight and size. If the focus of their scorn is a vegan who is not slim enough in their estimation, they claim such individuals are doing a disservice to the animals by not providing a “good example” to the public, as if superficiality and self-absorption were inspiring traits. If those in their sights are not vegan, well, they are losers who deserve to suffer and die. You will hear shamers claim that such individuals are a drain on our health care and a plague on our society. The fact that shaming does not work as a motivator and that weight-stigma itself has proven negative health outcomes matters little: getting their digs in is what matters to them.
The body-shamers may be pushing a diet for any number of reasons. Maybe they have a financial interest in people feel bad enough about their bodies to join their program. Maybe they are “influencers” looking for followers on YouTube or Instagram. Maybe they are ride-or-die acolytes of a particular dietary plan and they “just want to help,” whether or not their help has been solicited. Or maybe they are simply unkind people who get a cheap little thrill out of making other people feel shitty.
Whatever their reasons, let me apologize on behalf of these vegans. The body-shamers do not represent us. Vegans, like omnivores, come in all shapes and sizes but the bottom line is veganism is based on core values of compassion, justice and equality and is not a platform for abusing people with stigmatizing attitudes. Veganism is a social justice movement and there is no room for cruelty or bigotry. If you are someone who has been demeaned by a vegan for your body size, please accept my apology by proxy. There are many deeply compelling reasons to go vegan but being considered an acceptable size by a body-shamer isn’t among them.
I am proud to be vegan, and these individuals do not reflect my beliefs or what I have dedicated my life to promoting. Please remember that diet culture has its tentacles wrapped around many of us and vegans swim in its murky depths as much as anyone else. Don’t be shy about calling out weight-stigmatizing attitudes when you see them but remember that we are all susceptible to its many displays of bigotry, vegans and non-vegans alike.
This morning I dug into March 2015 for today’s #tbt to see what we were blogging about three years ago. I had almost forgotten about the “feeling fat” emoji and how some great activism got Facebook to remove it swiftly after introducing it. We still use “fat” as a stand-in for all manner of horrors, and “feeling fat” taps into that on so many levels. It’s a problem, not just when it is used to turn back on ourselves but the very fact that its social meaning runs so deep that people can use it that way at all. Something to think about (some more).
This article quotes Catherine Weingarten, the author of the petition, as saying:
When Facebook users set their status to “feeling fat,” they are making fun of people who consider themselves to be overweight, which can include many people with eating disorders. That is not ok. Join me in asking Facebook to remove the “fat” emoji from their status options.
And when it decided to do the right thing, Facebook said:
“We’ve heard from our community that listing ‘feeling fat’ as an option for status updates could reinforce negative body image, particularly for people struggling with eating disorders,” Facebook (FB, Tech30) said in a statement.
I read an article in the Style section of The New York Times the other day called, “You Won’t Look Like Sharon Stone at 59.” Now, this is not news to me. I am not even disappointed. Because I have had many, many years — indeed decades — to adjust to this truth. I will never look like Sharon Stone and there was never a time in my life when that would’ve been a possible “look” for me. For starters, she’s taller than I am (though at 5’7″, not nearly as much taller as I thought she was). And she’s got short blond hair (well, okay, I’ve got short blond hair too). And she’s white and a model and an actress known for her beauty.
Sharon Stone is gorgeous and has been since the first day I laid eyes on her (I think it was when I saw Basic Instinct). We all know this about her. And I do not begrudge her her beauty one bit.
But I had to roll my eyes when the lengthy article that goes into painstaking detail about her beauty and fitness regime, naming specific products and where she gets them and so on, ended with this:
Also, for me, it’s more about real inner beauty. It’s important to have a philosophy or way of life or faith that keeps you balanced. For me, that has been Buddhism. It’s something that brings you back to center, and is really the key to serenity and beauty — an internal sense of form and elegance.
Now maybe she has this. I mean, I like the neutrality of Buddhism too and though I wouldn’t say I’m Buddhist, I’m naturally drawn to some of its tenets. But the simple fact is, whatever she would like it to be about, it’s a rare confluence of many forms of privilege that allows her to eschew the outer for the inner. I mean, would it be as easy to say, “I’m really all about inner beauty,” if she didn’t already have the conventional good looks of a blond, thin, white Hollywood celebrity?
Just to be clear, the article is as follows: Three detailed paragraphs about skin care are followed by an additional SEVEN about make-up (granted there was a two paragraph foray in to false eyelashes that she devoted several hours to learning to do herself). Then we get a couple of lines about fragrance (Chanel No. 5), three paragraphs on hair (she cuts her own but goes to a salon for color), and a little synopsis about “other services” (regular massage and a steamer in her shower). Finally, we get a paragraph on diet (no processed food, no caffeine, very little soda or alcohol, no gluten because celiac, meat and dark chocolate, a bit of sugar in her tea … and other than that “I just eat like a person — whatever I’m hungry for.”) And then there is that paragraph about how what really matters is inner beauty.
So why the long account of the ins and outs of the outer routine? It’s just not convincing. And I like Sharon Stone (I remember the time she wore something from The Gap to the Oscars — no “who are you wearing?” for her that night! The Gap!).
But don’t go into all that detail about your beauty routine and then end by saying you’re all about inner beauty. You’re not. You’re gorgeous, have always been gorgeous, spend a bit of time and money maintaining your goregous-ness (which is fine), and wouldn’t have the life you have today if you didn’t look like that. I need more proof that Sharon Stone actually believes it’s all about inner beauty.
Yesterday Sam posted that giving free Weight Watchers memberships to kids, though possibly well-intentioned (at least in the optics, but perhaps not if you closely examine the WW longterm stats), is a bad idea. Why is it a bad idea? Because it gets kids thinking way too early about their weight. As she puts it, here’s what we know (from actual research!):
We know diets don’t work. We know body shaming doesn’t work. It turns out that even naming the problem makes it worse. Children who are told they are fat by friends, family, doctors are more likely to gain weight.
I repeat: that is what we know. And yet, as Sam said to me, “Do people not read research? Not believe it?” My take on it is that a lot of people don’t read research as such. But who needs to read the research to know that diets don’t work? Almost everyone who lives in a part of the world where dieting for weight loss is a thing is no more than one degree of separation from more than one person who has dieted, lost weight, and gained most, all or more of it back.
The facts about children are so sad and disturbing that we need to pay attention. Shaming them does not work. Telling them they are fat and need to do something about it does not make them lose weight. And there is no more in your face way of telling a person they’re fat and need to do something about it than dragging them to Weight Watchers. The entire point of it is to watch your weight and keep it within two pounds of your “goal weight.” That often means living your life on a perpetual diet (though they will tell you differently).
We ignore the overwhelming evidence, believing this time it will be different, because diets draw us into a kind of magical thinking. The messages about obesity, the equation of fitness with weight loss and thinness, the cultural aesthetic towards a lean and thin body ideal, the social pressure to conform — all of these and more make us kind of desperate to “get it right.” A new diet or program holds so much promise. “This time! This is the time that what has worked in the past will finally work.”
Magical thinking is what makes everyone cover their ears and go “la la la” when they hear the facts about dieting, weight loss. The long term ramifications of shaming children, being preoccupied with their weight, and putting them on diets are documented and grim.
Still and all, there are things we can do. As Sam pointed out, where the kids are concerned, get them focused on activity and decouple that from weight loss goals. It’s a good thing to get away from screens and spend time moving for those who are able. It has all sorts of mental and physical health benefits. Also, teach kids to cook.
But we can do these things for ourselves, too. Sam and I sound like broken records, but our number one piece of advice for anyone is to find activities that you enjoy. Do those, not the stuff you hate but supposedly has better fat-burning potential. Cook, at least sometimes. I understand there are people who despise cooking. Personally, I love it and find it a relaxing stress-reliever when I’ve got time for it. Being in charge of what goes into the things you make is a huge advantage of cooking over eating out.
None of that requires magical thinking. Diets are not a magic solution to anything. More often than not, they set us up to fail. And then we blame ourselves when actually the formula is broken. On a cynical day, I think the main reason Weight Watchers wants to work with children is to secure them early, as clients for life. For most people at a WW meeting, it’s not their first rodeo. If you read the fine print on every WW “Success Story,” you will see “results not typical.”
We all hope our kids won’t have to make the same mistakes we did. Starting them early on the magical thinking track of dieting and equating fitness with weight loss will set them up to make exactly the same mistakes we did. This time it will not be different.
Do you have a different explanation than magical thinking to explain why people seem so resistant to the research where dieting for weight loss is concerned?
March 8 is International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is #PressforProgress. Progress on what, you say? Gender parity, that’s what.
There’s a lot of great information on the IWD, including a short questionnaire that provides different ways of pressing for progress on gender parity, including some specific actions you can take under these broader themes:
I will challenge stereotypes and bias
I will forge positive visibility of women
I will celebrate women’s achievements.
You can also download “selfie cards” that say these things on them and include the “#PressforProgress” hashtag. Hold them up for a selfie and post on social media.
Yesterday Sam blogged about death — why she thinks it’s a good thing to think about your mortality every day. Maybe it works for some people (whatever “works” means in this context). But I’m not big on the idea, even though I get the “life is short; every moment is precious” concept. Dwelling on that doesn’t suit my world view, which is more focused on being present to what presents itself and not being preoccupied with what might come down the pipe, including death. Yes, I or my loved ones could die any time. But I’m not about to spend my days focusing on potential loss. I realize that this memento mori thing is not supposed to lead to morbid reflection, but rather an appreciation of the time we’re here. But the “life is short” motive for action just doesn’t quite capture how I regard life.
In the circles I move, there’s a saying we have: “life on life’s terms.” What that means, roughly, is that ultimately we have to accept the reality of the situation, whatever the situation may be. Acceptance, they say, is the answer to my problems today. Only from acceptance can I take effective action. Mortality is part of that reality, yes. That’s the sort of big picture. Everyone dies. But to me that makes it sort of mundane. Maybe we make too much of death? I don’t know. That’s not really what I want to discuss right now. What I want to talk about is taking life as it comes, even when it doesn’t deliver itself the way we want it to. I am much happier when I am able to “roll with it” or “go with the flow” than when I rail against the heavens because things aren’t going according to (my little, limited) plan.
The Universe is a lot bigger than my little plans. And despite how difficult it is for me to accept this fact sometimes, it doesn’t organize itself to suit my needs and interests and desires. And that’s nothing personal. There are seven billion of us on this planet, and this planet is just one teeny tiny corner of the cosmos, so it’s ridiculous for me to expect that I can lord over even my little piece of it. Things will happen.
What got me thinking of this is that lately I feel as if I’m in a constant state of having my routine thrown off. As anyone who knows me knows of me, I crave and appreciate routine. I always have. As far as training goes, since even before Christmas, my plans have just gone to shit. Mostly it’s not for reasons that will inspire sympathy, and that’s not what I’m trying to get. I mean, three weeks in the Bahamas interrupted my running schedule. Boo hoo! And then I was home for a bit and…winter! And then India, where I couldn’t run because it was too hot and the sidewalks were too dangerous (but it was an awesome dream come true nonetheless, so this is not a complaint).
When I get back from these long absences I’m usually raring to go. And this time, the weather totally cooperated. It’s been beautiful. And so you’d think I would be back on task with my running schedule. But no! The Universe had other plans and has taken me down with something that is not pneumonia or the flu or bronchitis but is a horrible and relentless cough that makes it impossible for me to contemplate exerting myself. I can hardly even get through a work day and have even had to take a few days off.
And on those days off I’ve sort of attempted to rest, which is always a challenge for me. It’s like I need to be really down for the count before I will rest. Though in Vancouver the day I arrived there from India I did have the best sleep of my entire life for fifteen hours. Since then I’ve not been so lucky. Then the cough kicked in.
That’s life though. Life on life’s terms. I can handle it. My doc told me today that the cough could hang on for SIX WEEKS. This is bad news for me because despite all the rest and so forth I haven’t felt a smidge better for an entire week. But she also said I could do whatever level of activity I think I can handle, and suggested a bunch of stuff for symptomatic relief. I have not skipped out on the personal training, even with the cough. So since I know I don’t have pneumonia, I’m going to ease myself back into short easy runs and see how that goes. If it doesn’t go well, then I will need to pull back and wait until I recover a bit more.
Routine is great, but we have to adjust accordingly. All sorts of things can throw me off my game. The question is, how do I get back on it? This is not about finding motivation, at least not anymore. I am keen to get back on track because I love being on track. Running restores me. It’s just that it doesn’t always fit into the circumstances in which I find myself. That’s reality. Not much I can do about that. A little acceptance can go a long way though. Which brings me back to my approach of dealing with what presents itself. Like, for example, I wasn’t going to spend the entire time in India lamenting that I couldn’t run there. That would have been a waste of time. But it wasn’t necessary for me to dwell on my ultimate death to be present to the rich experience that India offered me.
So rather than “memento mori,” I prefer “life on life’s terms.” It somehow feels more immediate and practical to me. These aren’t ideas that need to compete with each other. If being reminded throughout the day of your death keeps you in a state of contentment, that’s awesome. I’m more inclined to focus on what’s in front of me and be as present to it as possible. That keeps me peaceful and grounded.