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)..
We’re long known to be all messed up about bodies and nudity here in North America. But even as a teen backpacking through Europe I grasped that sense of freedom and body positivity on the topless and nude beaches from France and Switzerland to the Greek Islands. Bodies of all shapes and sizes. Men and women in skimpy bikini bottoms or naked. It wasn’t “for adults only.” It wasn’t sexualized. It rarely (though not entirely never) involved leering and creepiness. It was just an accepted way to be at the beach or poolside or in the sauna.
Flash forward to 2018. More and more people are covering up. The Economnist article “Naked Europe Covers Up,” says: “In recent years, commentators across the continent have remarked on a new prudishness.”
And while some would blame it on immigration, there appear to deeper reasons than cultural difference in attitudes about nudity. According to the article:
The rise of social media has made young people more body-conscious, reluctant to display anything less than perfect abs. Smartphones with cameras make risqué undress riskier. The #MeToo movement has forced a reassessment of even fully clothed interactions between the sexes, let alone naked ones. And the increasing ubiquity of online pornography is making it difficult to de-sexualise the naked body, a prerequisite for nudist beaches and unisex saunas.
People are worried about being captured naked and unawares on someone’s smartphone camera. Between that, #metoo, and the (purported) difficulty people are having separating nudity from sex make it difficult to regard a naked body in a sexually neutral way. This isn’t a huge shock to those of us in North America, who are so game to conflate nudity with sexuality that we can’t even deal with women breast-feeding infants in public spaces.
But it’s sad and true. Quite a few years ago I wrote about the way a week at a nude resort actually helped me break through a lifetime of issues with poor body image. I don’t love that post as much as I used to because it links to a radio documentary of that experience in which I made some judge-y body-shaming comments that I would not make today. But it is absolutely true that being surrounded by nakedness and people of all shapes and sizes, it took me mere days to gain a sense of comfort with my body that I had never had before.
And that’s why it’s a shame that the need to cover up is spilling over into Europe. The article contains an interesting discussion of mixed sex saunas and how it used to be thought inappropriate to wear a swimsuit because it indicated that you were sexualizing bodies. Now, however, many Dutch saunas have introduced clothing optional hours and even swimsuit days to cater to a new sense of modesty among clientele.
I’m not sure if “modesty” is code for prudishness, poor body image, or the sexualization of nakedness, but if things continue to develop in this direction, next thing you know they’ll be hiding behind towels in European locker rooms the way they do at my hot yoga studio. (See “A Tale of Two Locker Rooms” for a years-old discussion of the difference between the young more modest vibe at hot yoga and the older, more body confident vibe in the locker room at the Y).
One thing I know for sure, when other people are covering up, it’s harder to feel comfortable naked. At least that’s been my experience. Here in Ontario, for example, women are legally allowed to go topless. But hardly anyone ever does. And the more hardly anyone does, the less likely anyone is to do it. But when everyone is naked (or if most Ontario women went topless at the beach), it’s not such a big deal. It soon starts to feel ordinary and unremarkable. That’s why some naturist (not to be confused with naturalists) communities insist on nudity, not on “clothing optional.”
Have you ever been to a nude beach, resort, sauna, or any place where everyone was naked yet not sexualized? What did it feel like from a body image perspective?
In our Fit Feminist Challenge Group we have a thing every Tuesday called “Try This Tuesday.” It’s a way of encouraging people to try new things, using the “Try This” entries in Fit at Mid-Life as prompts.
This week when I posted I realized I haven’t actually tried anything new myself in ages. When Sam and I did our challenge in the run up to 50 a few years ago, one reason I got excited was that I discovered triathlon. It was new and a bit scary and super challenging. It involved a learning curve and pushed me in a different direction. And I haven’t felt that way about anything workout and training wise since.
Enter Stand-Up Paddle-boarding. As regular blog readers may know, among other things I’m a sailor. My partner lives on our boat, Guinevere, and I visit him from time to time (yes it’s a slightly unconventional arrangement and it works well for us!). I’m visiting at the moment and he surprised me with an SUP. This was a huge surprise because we have been talking about it for a few years.
I always say, “wow that looks like a good workout.” He always says “I can’t see why anyone would want to do that. And where in the heck will we store it?!” (Space on a boat is at a premium). But at the boat show in Annapolis this weekend (I wasn’t even here yet) he found a great deal and texted me that he got a SUP!
I couldn’t wait to try it. So this morning I took it out for a spin in Spa Creek, where we are at anchor. I worried that I might fall in (it’s lovely on the water but not as nice here in the water, which is briney and dark). I’ve seen people struggle. Often they start on their knees.
I read a “ten tips” primer on the internet and watched a short YouTube video about paddling style. You’re supposed to bend your knees, use your core, keep your paddle vertical and your bottom arm straight, and turn the contoured paddle to face the opposite of what you think it should (you don’t want to scoop the water).
So I started on my knees to get used to the paddle. Then after a couple of strokes I went for it and stood up. Luckily it was a flat day on the water, no waves at all. The board is solid and though I did lose my balance a couple of times I didn’t actually fall in.
I paddled around for about 20 minutes or so and even stayed upright without difficulty when a couple of people went by (slowly) in small boats that produced a bit of wake. I followed the directions from the video. It’s quite the workout. I need to work on technique still, but I did get into a good rhythm and I know I’m going to love using the SUP.
But it’s actually a lot more stable than I expected it to be. Loads of fun. I’m glad I got out yesterday because the edge of Michael is rolling our way and it’s probably my last chance until the Bahamas at Christmas time.
While Sam was in Mexico for the Canadian Thanksgiving long weekend, I was in New York. Anita joined me for the weekend. I was here for the New Jersey VegFest, an amazing event with lots of delicious vegan food served up by compassionate people who eat like they care. My talk, “Feminist Fitness Is for Everyone…Including Vegans,” was on the Saturday 1 p.m.
So we had loads of time to eat, chat with people, present, chat some more, eat some more, take the transit back to the Port Authority in midtown Manhattan, walk and walk and walk, attend a Broadway musical (School of Rock), people watch in Times Square, and make our way home to our friends’ place in Chelsea where we were staying, fall into bed at 1 a.m. And that was just Saturday. The talk went well. The play was entertaining and lively. Times Square was packed full, perfect for kicking back and watching the diverse crowd from all over the world.
Sunday morning we got up early, though a bit later than planned, to go running in Central Park. In Manhattan you absolutely need to find a place to run off-road because otherwise you’ll be stop and go. You also need enough space not to have to stuck in a back log of shuffling crowds. It can be frustrating just to walk sometimes.
We were staying way down at 20th Street. Our plan was to treat the trek up to Central Park as our “commute,” knowing that at certain points it would be busy or we would be stuck at stop lights. Once in the Park, we wanted to make our way to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, which was quite far in, all the way at 82nd Street. Our minimum distance was supposed to be 10K (we are prepping for the Toronto Scotiabank Waterfront Half Marathon in a couple of weeks).
Overcast skies kept us from seriously overheating on a humid day. When we finally got into Central Park it was just like in the movies (tons of runners, pedestrians, and cyclist). Outside of an event, I’ve honestly never seen so many people running and cycling on a Sunday morning. Anita and I got caught up in the energy and momentum, following the natural flow of people while stopping on occasion to see if we were anywhere near the Reservoir, which seemed like a great destination because we could make a loop.
I wasn’t especially well-prepared, with water but no food. That is not normally something I would do for such a long run, and I soon began to regret it. Luckily we were in Central Park, and unlike London, Ontario, there are vendors along the way. When we got to the part of the Park level with the Metropolitan Museum, I bought a salted pretzel, right combo of salt and carbs to hit the spot.
From there we found the Reservoir. It’s a body of water with a running path around it, bigger than it looks on the map.
Our original plan was to run all the way around it but by then we’d been out for quite some time and it looked dauntingly far. So instead, we took a soft path a little further out from the Reservoir. If you have never been to Central Park, it’s massive. No doubt those who run there regularly have their favourite paths to follow and preferred training routes for runs of varied distances. It’s not flat terrain by any stretch. We went up and down and up and down a lot.
The later it got, the more bike traffic we had to contend with too. It’s a shared road, with bikes and runners, but with people going different speeds a lot of passing takes place. And if you need to cross the street, it can actually be quite treacherous passing in front of bike traffic, dealing with bikes being ridden by people with different levels of skill.
Anita would have kept going further up into the park but finally I looked at my watch and we’d been out for an hour already. The pretzel was all fine and well but it wasn’t exactly a meal. So we turned around and started making our way back to the lower edge of the park, where we called it a day and started our “commute” back, stopping at Rockefeller Plaza to have a satisfying brunch at a vegan chain called By Chloe (recommended to us the day before by someone we met on the bus on our way to the VegFest).
You can cover a lot of ground in New York City, but much of it is in stop and go people traffic. But Central Park is just like I imagined it would be for running, based on my past experiences of walking through the park and on what I’d seen before in the movies. It’s full of winding paths, varied terrain, and loads of people, The Reservoir looks like a fantastic place to include in your run, even though in the end Anita and I decided against because we really had run quite far already by the time we got there.
I have to say that the crowds did make me appreciate my familiar route in London, Ontario. But New York is an incredible city and now that I’ve had the experience of running in Central Park I’ll do it again (next time I’ll do the Reservoir).
Do you like running in Central Park (if you ever have?)?
Hey everyone! Exciting times. I’m going to be one of the speakers at the New Jersey VegFest at Meadowlands Expo Centre this weekend. My talk, “Feminist Fitness Is for Everyone, including Vegans,” is at 1 p.m. on Saturday, October 6th. I’ll talk about what feminist fitness is, how Sam and I took that approach for our Fittest by 50 Challenge, the blog, the book, and being a vegan athlete at mid-life. They’ll be selling copies of Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey (Greystone Books, 2018) and I’ll be sticking around after my talk to chat, sign books (whether you buy it there or bring it with you), and of course eat! [I might also talk a little bit about my next book project, which is about ethical veganism and the expectation of moral perfection that vegans and non-vegans alike seem to adopt]
Marisa Sweeney and Kendra Arnold are the two main organizers and ever since they asked me to do this I’ve been following the NJ VegFest scene with envy. It’s not limited to this event — there was an Atlantic City VegFest in the summer (with a 10K run) where Scott Jurek spoke. Marisa and Kendra do an outstanding job and I can’t wait to experience one of their events first hand and to meet them.
It looks as if it’s going to be an amazing time, quite apart from my talk. There are going to be chef demos, other speakers, and loads of vendors serving up delicious vegan food. If you want to get a preview, I suggest following @njvegfest on Instagram.
One of the things Sam and I love most about the blog is the community that has sprung up around us. If you do decide to come, please please please say “hi.” I would love that.
I also have a favour to ask of people who live in the Manhattan area. Anita and I will be looking for a good running route on Sunday morning to do about 15K. If you have any recommendations for where we might do that distance without encountering too many traffic lights we’d love to hear from you.
Yesterday was Monday. Usually a rest day for me. But since I was working a fairly tough gig in Toronto all weekend and my legs and feet were just so tired, I had to pass up my usual Sunday long run. Instead Anita and I made an unusual plan, and that was to run for two hours on Monday after work.
After work arrived (well, we kicked off a bit early to get the run in) and it was raining. And cold. And the wind started to pick up. These conditions could sometimes mess with me and make me start rationalizing my way to skipping the workout.
But having made a plan (one of my best winning strategies is to make a plan with someone to meet for a workout) and also wanting to catch up (Anita was out of town for awhile and we hadn’t really chatted in over a week) secured my commitment. Deciding in advance that we would run at an easy, chatty pace made the two hour commitment more approachable.
We decided on our route and off we went. Anita said at the beginning that the time would fly. And it actually did. And so did we. Both of us ran strong and felt amazing. We have been agonizing a bit over our upcoming half marathon. We’ve been training differently and have slightly different goals (Anita wants to do 10-1 intervals and I want to try running continuous but we both would like to cross the finish line at 2:25.
But today we both had an amazing run, despite the cold and the wet and the wind. In some ways, it was just perfect running weather. The rain stopped by the time we had changed into our gear, and it never resumed. The wind was cold, but not so terrible that we wished for more clothing than we’d chosen (capris and long sleeved t-shirts).
We ended up out for 2 hours and 11 minutes and we came in the last stretch at a tempo pace (the whole run was not at a tempo pace, but it feels good to lay it out at the end). We checked in with each other regularly about how we felt and we both kept remarking, almost not quite believing, just how fabulous the run felt.
The only tough part came right near the end. There is a gradual yet brutal hill out of the park heading back to Anita’s place. It looks almost like nothing. But it goes on FOREVER. Since we were already over our two hours, we agreed we would run to the end of that tough bit and then take a short walk break, then run the rest of the way home.
I’ve entitled this post “have you ever regretted having done a workout?” I like this question because my answer to it is an unequivocal, “no I have not.” And sometimes this one certainty is enough to get me doing a workout that I don’t want to do. The other morning I was messaging Cate and Christine about wanting to stay in bed. We are all quite supportive of whatever decisions each of us makes, recognizing too that rest is an essential part of a balanced workout strategy and not something we’re great at. But then when I said maybe I’ll go for a short one, Cate reminded me quite rightly that I would feel better.
Out the door I went. I was in Toronto and it’s especially refreshing to go running somewhere that’s not my usual turf. And guess what, within minutes of feeling the pavement under my feet, I did feel better. And by the time I got back to my hotel room, I felt positively amazing. I mean, the run was energizing for sure. So I felt literally better. But like I said, I never regret having completed a workout. I’m always happier for it.
Under the usual conditions (that is, assuming I don’t get injured because of the workout), there is no downside to getting that workout done. And often, it’s not just about having done it. As today’s run with Anita attests, there are those times when its awesomeness presents itself while it’s happening. The end isn’t always the best part of it!
The imposter syndrome many women suffer pops up in the news occasionally, when a successful CEO describes her fears of being exposed as a fraud, ill-qualified for her job and not good enough to stay at the board room table. It’s a sad story, since the women who seem to suffer most seem the least likely to qualify as real frauds, with stellar records of achievement to back up their stories. They are not products of spin, but victims of a culture that tells them, over and over again, that they’re not good enough. And they suffer, I’m guessing, sleepless nights and acute bouts of anxiety.
I should know, since my own needle is stuck permanently in the red zone on the fraud metre. Occasionally I forget to look at it, but whenever I check, there’s the needle–in the red. It doesn’t come back down to yellow for a while. It’s always red, all the time, and neither the metre nor the needle pays any mind to promotions, raises, or what have you. I try to ignore both, but that needle is always poking me in the side, reminding me that the next publication needs to go to press, the next class syllabus must be better than the last. I find praise embarrassing.
Which is why taking up running was such a good idea, three years ago. Because running you can’t fake. There’s a clock that times each race and that time is real. Or is it? It was a strange experience, this spring, to run my first marathon and finish with a Boston qualifying time. Exhilarating, of course! But also unnerving. Because it turns out a Boston qualifying time is not a Boston qualifying time. So many people want to run Boston that you must run faster than the qualifying time. In my case, I had a buffer of over four minutes. Surely that had to be enough?
But it wasn’t. This year, the actual qualifying time for all age groups was 4 minutes and 56 seconds faster than the posted BQ times. So I’m not going to run Boston next April. Boston is sorry. It has changed its 2020 qualifying times to reflect the new realities of runners and their speed.
Enter the imposter syndrome. I ran my first marathon on a perfect day and on a perfect course. The temperature was lovely, the course was flat but not too flat, and I came to the race well-trained and with no nagging injuries. So, of course, I ran the race I should have run. It was no great victory, just a solid run with every advantage on my side.
Not getting into Boston means I now must prove that I am a real runner. That is, put myself through another grueling winter of training, run another race in conditions that may not so ideal, face down the challenge of running a faster time at an older age. A real runner, I’ve decided, is one who mentally can face what each race presents to her: the threat of failure.
What keeps me from quitting is the faith that my running friends keep for me, even when I can’t keep it for myself. They will be there for whatever transpires next spring, when I make a second attempt to run a BQ. They know that racing is not about faking it but about showing up, whether the time you post places you among the top-ranked runners in your age group, or not.
This is why taking up running has proven the best decision I could have made, at 50: because runners support each other, through thick and thin. They pull the needle out of the fraud meter and look at the road under their feet, instead. They recognize a solid effort when they see one, and they acknowledge it with their words of encouragement and their commitment to showing up for the next effort. And the next.
We here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue like to talk about our “big tent feminism” and how we try to make space for everyone. That’s a lofty goal, I know. One of my favourite questions in feminism is “is an inclusive feminism possible?” I use it as a thematic frame for most of my teaching in feminist philosophy and women’s studies, as a way of pushing people in my classes to think about inclusivity and intersectionality not just as theoretical ideas, but in their actual material practices.
It’s hard. We struggle. People get defensive. There are misunderstandings. Hurt feelings. Anger. Difficult conversations. People are called on their privilege and need to look at that. People are afraid to speak for fear of offending, excluding, saying the wrong thing on a multitude of other levels, sounding closed when in fact they are open, hurting others’ feelings, having people be upset with them. Sometimes we find ourselves at an impasse. We have to agree to disagree or be stuck. This is all in the context of feminism, where the majority of students are already there with respect to the broad strokes of it.
And though I do my best to manage the discussion, to push it forward or in a different direction if any of the above takes place, I can’t promise a totally “safe space” where no one will ever feel shitty, be offended, say the wrong thing.
Because guess what? Feminists disagree amongst themselves sometimes.
Oh, you might say, feminist disagreement isn’t necessarily “unsafe.” Well, that would be right. It isn’t necessarily unsafe. But as Cate said a couple of days ago and as Sam experienced this week, offense can turn to anger and vitriol pretty quickly. And when it does, it’s hard to know who will be in the line of fire. Or, if you feel some responsibility for the space, what to do about it. And sometimes our own content can be the instigator. We post a lot, there are many of us, we don’t spend a ton of time on each post — many risk factors at play.
We often go to what seems like the commonsense solution when things get ugly: tell people to engage respectfully with each other, not to be mean about it, etc. But guess what? That seemingly sensible suggestion is mega-triggering for some. One woman’s “be nice” is another woman’s “tone policing.” There is no feminist on this planet who hasn’t been told at some time or another that her anger is misplaced, that she should “be nice,” that she “shouldn’t” feel that way. It is a dismissive tactic used to undermine legitimate social justice complaints.
If a safe space is a place where you’re insulated from all possible hurtful, harmful, or offensive comments, then even on a feminist page we can’t promise that. It’s not so much the misogynists who take us down — we can deal with them by deleting and blocking. But it’s much harder to take that same approach to other feminists. I mean, we’re all on common ground when it comes to feeling sick to our stomachs about what Christine Blasey Ford is about to endure today, right?
I very much like Cate’s questions that press us to think about what we are making:
In our facebook interactions what are we making? Community? Uncrossable boundaries? Winners and losers? Are we making invitations to respond, or are we making hurt creatures who are going to slink off to their own corners and reload?
Obviously we don’t want to be making something shitty where people feel awful. I felt awful the other day and engaged in a way that was unhelpful, more emotionally charged than I’d have preferred it to be, and ultimately left me feeling emotionally drained and hungover. That was no one’s fault but my own, because I was angry and defensive and instead of going off and breathing for a bit, I shot back comments seeking to be understood.
The irony of acting exactly like the way I perceived the people who were pissing me off to be acting was not lost on me in the least. That I wanted them to feel compassion for Samantha when I was exhibiting none for them indicates the type of logical block that takes hold. I could feel it happening while not being able to stop. There is a certain adrenaline that gets pumping in these things. Tempers rise. Everything escalates. It’s hard to think clearly. These are times when (for me anyway) silence is a better option.
And when that’s happening, the thing we least want to hear is “whatever whatever but do you mind being nicer?” As one of the angry people said (I’m paraphrasing), “how about trying to understand why we’re angry?” By then lines had been drawn in the sand (this is how it happens) and there was not going to be a lot of understanding.
I get it. Even as I argued and swore (yes, I swore at a reader in the comments on our Facebook page) I could see that this wasn’t a productive way to engage. That people were getting more angry. More hurt. More frustrated. We reached the impasse. More frustrating still because it is among feminists.
Feminist solidarity all the time would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? That kind of sisterhood where we all get one other. But it isn’t like that all the time. The history of feminism, the non-intersectional feminism of privileged, nondisabled white women, claimed to be that — to apply universally to the experience of women. And then feminists of color said, “hang on, your feminism doesn’t include me.” And disabled feminists said, “wait a minute, your feminism doesn’t include me.” And feminists who lived in poverty said, “you’re not speaking to my experience.” And feminists who didn’t live in “The West” said, “the material realities of our lives aren’t represented by your feminism.”
The women in positions of privilege wanted a big tent, and they said it was open so anyone could wander in. But the tent didn’t feel so inclusive to the women who struggled in ways that the big tent kind of neutralized and didn’t seem to make space for. And so the space didn’t feel safe because they had things to say that couldn’t be said without making the more privileged women feel defensive or attacked or just not quite as comfortable in the tent as they wanted to be and aspired to be.
The road to an inclusive feminism that accurately represents differences among women instead of assuming a homogeneous sameness has been long and winding and difficult, sometimes even divisive, hurtful, harmful, and dangerous to women. No one is trying to make it this way. We aren’t dealing with malicious motives. But invisible privilege — the privilege of asking others to be nice perhaps — yields a type of denial. It’s not intentional, but it makes uptake of different experiences more difficult.
Does this mean that I don’t believe in our “big tent”? Not at all. I believe in it very much. But I am also aware that as big as the tent may be from my/our perspective, it doesn’t feel totally open to everyone all the time. And yes, I would like all the people who enter — whether through the blog or the Facebook page or the Twitter discussion — to be kind and respectful to each other. Why? Because truly, we are all feminists even if all feminists don’t have exactly the same set of beliefs. But we can’t promise harmonious non-hurtful interactions all the time.
I can say that I myself will attempt to do better. And I know that as a collective we do actually grow through these stormy times. We’re not perfect (yet!). There is always going to be room to improve, to modify our practices, to do things differently. It never feels good to be attacked, so we can hope that over time, we build up enough good faith that when we misstep and someone wants to let us know, they’ll be kind and not mean about it. But upon reflection, I do think that sometimes even that might be too much to ask.
When people get angry (including when I get angry), that vitriol usually lands on someone. And ouch. No one likes to be on the receiving end of fury. Sometimes it’s directed at one of the blog authors. Other times it’s a member of our community who has ventured to post a comment. But that we can post things that anger and upset people, and that people’s anger can land on us and others are both reasons for saying that as much as we would love to keep it all nice and kind and civil and harmonious, we can’t promise to do that.