Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health
Author: Tracy I
Writer, feminist, vegan, runner, philosopher, yogi, knitter, co-founder of Fit Is a Feminist Issue, co-author of Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey (Greystone Books, 2018). Current project: a work-in-progress book on imperfect veganism.
I watched Cheer a couple of weeks ago before anyone was writing about it or even really talking about it. I had run out of new episodes of The Good Place and wanted something to watch while I waited a week. Cheer caught my attention among the many possibilities.
It’s a six episode documentary series on Netflix that focuses on the championship cheerleading team from Navarro College—a two-year junior college in the small town of Navarro in Texas. It’s a gripping account of the training leading up to the national competition in Daytona, Florida.
Before the end of the first fifteen minutes you can see that these are athletes if there ever were any. The young women who serve as the “flyers” or “top girls” are masters of aerial acrobatics, balance, strength, and endurance. The young men who serve at the base, hurl the women up into the air, balance them on their shoulders and even their up-stretched hands, and catch them before they hit the ground. Meanwhile, the young women and men who perform tumbling routines have the speed, grace, strength, skill, and endurance of the most gymnasts at the most competitive levels.
The physical toll on their bodies—of the top girls / flyers and the catchers and the tumblers—is sometimes hard to watch. Imagine repeatedly landing, even if it’s on the intertwined solid arms of two strong men, after falling from great heights. Imagine being the base team members who catch them. The documentary audio picks up the thud of the impact. Imagine balancing your team mate on your shoulders (both the men and the women do this). Imagine doing this while you yourself are balanced on someone else’s shoulders. The result, especially when they’ve practiced and practiced and hit the moves as intended, is a mesmerizing routine that has the viewer thinking “how do they do that?!” Cheer gives is some insight into the “how.”
Of course if you’re offering six episodes, you need some human interest and drama. So of the 40 athletes on the team, the filmmaker focuses on the stories of fewer than ten — all of whom have some sort of hard luck angle — as well as the coach, Monica, born and raised in Navarro, and as tough a coach as you can imagine. She is competitive and perfectionistic, because that is what is required in order to win in Daytona. You have 2 1/2 minutes to do the routine. Period. It has to be perfect. And difficult.
I give big points for the depiction of the level of athletic skill and fearlessness required of all of the members of the team. The coach is also impressive in her focus, demandingness, and ability to cultivate a relationship of trust that makes team members not just able to follow her orders to do extremely dangerous and daring stunts, but also able to come to her with “life stuff.”
I’m not going to give an in-depth critique and analysis, but the focus on the hard luck cases (particularly Jerry, La’Darius, Morgan, and Lexi, but also Gabi whose parents come across as taskmasters), while showing how people can overcome adversity at times felt exploitative. Both Jerry and La’Darius are young African American men. La’Darius had a difficult childhood where he was bullied and taunted and shamed for his sexuality (he is openly out as gay in the documentary). Jerry lost his mom to illness and is probably the single most likeable person on television right now because of his endlessly positive and accepting attitude. At one point it looks as if he’s going to be “on the mat” for Daytona but then he is taken off the next day and he surmises that his “chance” was really just to give a wake-up call to La’Darius, who needed to smarten up. Morgan was basically abandoned by her parents as a young teen. She looks up to Monica (the coach) so much you get the impression she would do anything that was asked of her (and she does when she is a top girl).
Though of course there is drama in the very story of training for a championship—will they be ready in time? Will they win? How will they overcome THIS injury (there are lots) or setback (there are lots)? — the momentum for a six episode series (as opposed to one feature length documentary) really comes from developing narratives around these five or six young people who are overcoming adversity and having a chance to shine.
The other thing worth noting is the despite there being a small number of African American men as catchers, spotters and tumblers, the women are almost all tiny, thin, and white—there is virtually no departure at all from the cheerleader stereotype among the women in the show, except perhaps Lexi who is a formidable tumbler who is able to pull off the same floor stunts as the men (which is apparently unusual).
And while they focus on the few whose lives have been difficult, there are another 30+ team members whose families had the financial wherewithal to enable them to be active in all-star cheerleading throughout their lives. Despite the narrative angle, therefore, it’s misleading to suggest that the Navarro team is a motley crew of kids from difficult life circumstances, saved from their terrible fates by Monica. This is not to trivialize the good she does do. Nor is it to minimize the manner in which these team members, despite adverse life circumstances, along with the rest of the team, are incredible athletes who accomplished something wonderful (regardless of the outcome—-and I will not reveal it here!).
Rather, it is to note that building drama around the handful of kids who had a tougher go doesn’t necessarily depict with accuracy what competitive cheerleading at that level is typically like. Like any sport, most of the team members are groomed from an early age and are able to compete because their families could afford their extracurricular activity.
That said, Cheer is worth watching. I watched one one-hour episode a night for six nights and each time I looked forward to it. I truly cared what was going to happen to the team. And I understand that a documentary can’t spotlight 40 people and be successful. There need to be stars, people in secondary roles, and the unnamed “rest of the team.”
Whatever you think of Cheer, you can’t deny that these are all underrated athletes worthy of recognition. What they do is an amazing feat, hard to watch at all, but impossible not to view with awe.
It’s that time of year where unsuspecting yogis or gym goers can be subjected to diet culture (not quite as bad as what’s to come in January, but still a risk) in class. It just slides into the running commentary that instructors need to maintain to keep the class moving along.
This happened to me the other day in yoga. I’ve been unable to run for a couple of months, so I’ve been going to hot yoga every day instead. It’s been a nice change (though I’m dying to get back to running). I’ve been a member at the same studio for at least a decade and I honestly have never experienced the normalization of diet culture there. But that commendable streak came to an end the other day when, in order to motivate a longer hold of a strenuous pose, the instructor said, “work off all that holiday baking!”
“Say what?” She lost me right then and there. I went back and forth in my head about whether I was overreacting. Despite that I don’t blog regularly here anymore, seven years as a feminist fitness blogger has given me a certain perspective and a keen awareness of nonsense that sucks the joy out of our workouts and replaces it with the suggestion that we need to whip our overindulgent selves into shape. I object!
I spent the rest of the class asking myself “do I say something or let it go?” On the side of letting it go: I know she meant it as a light-hearted comment. On the side of saying something: that’s how diet culture gets perpetuated; the yoga studio is the last place I expect to hear it; I’m probably not the only one who felt uncomfortable with the comment.
After my shower I approached the instructor. I had already decided to be nice about it. I love the studio and as I said it’s not a place I normally experience body shaming or anything other than body positivity. Definitely the comment was the exception not the rule.
Me: It was a good class but I have some feedback.
Me: I didn’t appreciate the comment about the holiday baking. I don’t come here to hear that sort of thing.
Instructor: I know! I’m sorry. The minute it came out of my mouth I knew I shouldn’t have said it. But I didn’t know how to take it back.
Me: That’s reassuring. Thanks for telling me that.
Instructor: Thanks for the feedback. I really appreciate it and I’m glad you felt able to express it.
I consider that a good news story. Instead of stewing in my juices, I opened up a dialogue. That yielded a shared understanding and also a willingness on the instructor’s part to do better in the future.
Using workouts to “deal with” holiday baking is a pretty normal message that is firmly entrenched in normalized diet culture. For most people it is just the way it is. But that’s not what we promote here. And it’s not what anyone who cares about body positivity and more self-nurturing motivations for our fitness pursuits should be promoting either.
I’m glad I said something. And I’m really relieved the instructor “got it” before I even opened my mouth.
You may have heard about the documentary called Gamechangers, streaming now on Netflix, about athletes who go against the received view that a meat-based diet is necessary, opting instead for a plant-based approach to sports nutrition. It’s produced by a group of big names in film and sport: James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan, Lewis Hamilton, Novak Djokovic, and Chris Paul. It features former UFC fighter and combatives trainer for the US military, James Wilks.
Wilks gets injured and while laid up for six months starts exploring dietary means of optimizing his recovery. He stumbles upon an astonishing research finding: the Gladiators of ancient Rome ate a mostly plant-based diet. The Gladiators! The manly men who fought to the death in the Colosseum. This blew Wilks’s mind. In his words: “This shocking discovery launched me on a five-year quest for the Truth in Nutrition, modeled after Bruce Lee’s Truth in Combat philosophy: ‘Research your own experience, absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.’ Beginning with this mindset, I put every preconception I had about nutrition to the test, traveling to four continents to meet with dozens of the world’s strongest, fastest, and toughest athletes, as well as leading experts on athletics, nutrition, and anthropology.”
The film follows his quest to obtain more information about the “shocking discovery” that you can be a strong and successful athlete while eating a plant-based diet. If you can get past the extremely masculine orientation of the types of athletes and the type of athleticism represented in the film, it’s got a positive message for those of us (including me) who think that the future is vegan.
But the machismo of the film is so very present. Two female athletes make an appearance: indoor Olympic track cyclist, multiple US gold medalist, and plant-powered athlete, Dotsie Bausch, who is the oldest athlete in her sport ever to win an Olympic gold medal; and Australian sprinter, Morgan Mitchell.
Much the film follows storylines and research that appeals more to stereotypically masculine interests. We follow Patrick Baboumian, and his training to secure the title of “strongest man in the world” and Scott Jurek, ultra-runner who is conquering the Appalachian Trail. There’s Olympic weight-lifter, Kendrick Farris. We also get to hear from Arnold Schwarzenegger (I liked that part because I have liked Arnold ever since Pumping Iron, though I much preferred Pumping Iron II: The Women). And the of course there is the man at the centre of the film, James Wilks, who is trying to get back into his game. An additional story line follows his father, who has some serious cardiac issues during the filming of the documentary and also decides to give a plant-based diet a try.
We are presented with research that is designed to prove that you can get strong eating plants. That’s a good message. There is a further attempt to make the case that you can get healthier in all sorts of ways. The New York Fire Department offers some of its members a guinea pigs for a short study (I think it was six weeks) where they had a raft of medical test, then followed a plant-based diet for a few weeks, and then had the same tests and their cholesterol had improved, their weight had dropped, and they felt better. Wilks father experiences improved cardiac health. Doctors such as Dr. Dean Ornish (founder and president of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute and featured in the film) and Dr. Neal Barnard (President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) not featured in the film) have maintained that a plant-based diet can reverse heart disease.
Three collegiate athletes allowed their erections to be monitored while sleeping. The night they ate a vegan burrito instead of a meat burrito they had dramatically more frequent and harder hard-ons. Their reactions to their test results make for a hilarious scene because the researcher is all business but everytime he says “penis” and “erection” the young men lose their shit and start blushing and giggling and trying to look serious.
A good portion of an NFL football team switches over to plant-based eating when one of the team members starts bringing vegan meals prepped for him by his chef wife, Charity Morgan. Soon a bunch of the guys are special ordering the same meals and she’s delivering them at lunch time.
The thing is, the film is an effective agent for change in its way. It offers a compelling narrative against a diet built around animal products, and that new narrative challenges strong contrary opinion. Since watching it, I know of at least three people, two of them men and one a woman triathlete, who have decided to give plant-based eating a try. And it’s been recommended to me multiple times by friends and acquaintances. I myself am strongly in favor of more plant-based eating, not just for health and performance reasons, but for environmental and animal cruelty and exploitation reasons. In fact, my latest project is focused entirely on veganism and making a case that you can be imperfect at it and still be considered vegan. So of course the message of the film is attractive to me.
It would have been great if there were less machismo at the core of the film because while it’s in the business of smashing stereotypes (about athletes and meat) it could’ve gone further and challenged more stereotypes about diverse forms of athleticism and also diverse athletes within male-dominated sports. For example, they could have included some women who are vegan bodybuilders like Jehina Malik. Or Australian boxer, Emily Jans. And they could have mentioned tennis superstars Venus Wiliams and Serena Williams who are both vegan. Or the surfer Tia Blanco.
They could also have done more to include evidence that the types of studies they were doing would have similar results for women. I remember learning about the way women’s health has been underrepresented in a lot of medical research because it was assumed, wrongly, that findings from research trials in which all the subjects were men would equally apply to women. This turned out not to be the case, and in some very significant areas, for example, with respect to risks for and symptoms of heart attack and stroke. So it does concern me that the “experiments” (in quotes because they weren’t full-blown studies) in the film only had men as subjects. I think we are right to wonder whether there are any relevant physical differences that yield different nutritional and performance results for different bodies.
This is not to say it’s a terrible film. I’ve seen it twice and it has its moments. But given the power and influence of the executive production team behind it, and the incredible reach Netflix enables, it would have been a great moment to change more than one game.
If you’re interested in trying plant-based eating or already do it but need new recipes, Dotsie Bausch’s website has some great recipes. You can find them here.
If you’ve watched Gamechangers I’d love to hear your impressions. I’m honestly the only person I know who had anything but a completely positive opinion of it.
For my latest birthday a friend gave me a coupon to try “float therapy.” I hadn’t heard of that before (even though as I just learned, Cate blogged about it over THREE years ago). It reminded me of the “tranquility tanks” from the eighties (I think it was the eighties). You may remember those sensory deprivation tanks where you would float for an hour in dark silence. Now it’s called “R.E.S.T. (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy),” because, you know, everything in these days of wellness is “therapy” of one kind or another.
It didn’t appeal to me then. And I wasn’t so sure it appealed to me now (claustrophobia!). But when I checked the website I saw that you could book either a room or a pod. They seemed aware of the possibility that people might have claustrophobia, so they suggested that first timers try the slightly more spacious room over the pod.
It’s supposed to be totally relaxing because you’re floating in a shallow pool where the water has over 1000 pounds of epsom salts in it (more salt density than the Dead Sea) and that means you effortlessly float. Once in your floating position you’re in a zero gravity state, and that’s supposed to relieve your muscles, central nervous system, and spine of their usual load, thus alleviating the effects of gravity on these systems. If you turn off the lights and sound and move as little as possible, you purportedly go into a state of deep relaxation. The website makes the bold claim that research has shown one hour of floating is like four hours of sleep. I guess that’s if you do it right for the whole hour instead of taking 40 minutes to settle into it.
I think the first time is almost a throw-away experience. I was a mixture of skeptical and worried. Even though the room was recommended for first timers, when the attendant showed me the room I felt claustrophobic at the mere sight of it. You enter into your own space where there is a shower and a place for undressing and leaving your clothes. The float room is adjacent to that. It resembles a very large shallow bathtub, perhaps 8 or 9 feet long and about 4 or 5 feet wide, with ample head room of at least 6 or 7 feet.
I had a brief orientation where she showed me the room and told me to keep the salt water out of my eyes, mouth, and ears (they provide ear plugs). I would have seven minutes to shower before and some time to shower after as well. I would know my session was beginning because a woman’s voice (who sounds like “Mother” from the movie Alien) would come through the speakers to tell me it was starting. The attendant also repeatedly reminded me that the floor was very slippery, both in the anteroom with shower and the floor of the tub. This proved true and made me wonder how anyone with the least bit of balance or mobility issues could do this (I don’t think they could safely get in and out of the float room alone—I had to be very careful myself).
I found it alarming that there is no panic button inside the floating room. But the attendant made it seem as if I was the very first person ever to ask about that. She said if I was really panicking I could bang on the door (which turned out to be a useless piece of advice, as I will explain in a moment).
I undressed, showered with their super luxurious bath products, put in the recommended ear plugs and the head float thing (a flat buoyant circle of floaty stuff that fits around your head for extra support), and climbed in.
When you pull the large door shut, you’re in an insulated enclosure. The floating area (the tub) extends entirely to the sides, so there is no “edge” to speak of. Just four walls. Beside the door are two buttons to control lights and music. The water is not hot or cold — 93.5 degrees F, or the “skin-receptor neutral” temperature. The air within the enclosure is about the same. The air outside, in the shower and change area, is cooler, making it a bad idea to leave the door open.
Why might you want to open the door, you ask? Well, for my part, I found it difficult to breathe. The air is thick. And the enclosed nature of the thing, with no obvious ventilation system to circulate air into it besides the door, made me afraid to let go completely for fear that I would run out of air and suffocate. I kept thinking of things like refrigerators and container trucks where trapped people die from lack of air.
Once Mother told me my session was under way, I lost track of time, so what follows are estimates. I spent the first 15-20 minutes fiddling with the lights and music. At first, I had them both on. Then I remembered it was recommended as a sensory deprivation experience, so I turned off the music and tried to dim the lights. They were a lot like those hot tub lights that change colour every few seconds. If I could’ve steadied them on red and kept my eyes closed, I think that would have been fine. But I could see the changing brightness through my eye lids and I found it distracting. I messed around with it only to discover that there were just two settings. Completely off or cycling through the colours. I tried it with the lights off.
In this windowless enclosure, when the lights go off, it is capital “D” Dark. Like, can’t see your hand in front of your face Dark. I tried to settle into it, lying back in my floating position suspended in the salty water. But the level of Darkness just freaked me out even though I had my eyes closed. So I wanted to turn the light back on. But by then I had floated into a different position relative to the door and the light switches and I could find neither. And that’s when the panic began to rise and I thought for a few moments that I would lose my mind. And I absolutely couldn’t breathe and felt sure I would die right there. Which is why the instruction to bang on the door if I panicked did me no good at all because if I could find the door I wouldn’t be panicking.
I fumbled around and then remembered that basically it was just a room with four walls and if I traced a path along the wall with my hand I would find the door handle (it was like the bar you would find in the accessible shower stall). Beyond the door I found the light switch and turned the lights back on and then opened the door for about 30 seconds for some air.
At that point I started wondering how long I’d been there and how much longer and was I doing it right and I’m a seasoned meditator so why is this so hard? I didn’t do enough research into what you’re supposed to do, so I just tried to relax as much as possible and calm my mind. And breathe, which remained difficult. I settled into it enough after about half an hour to keep the lights off, but I opened the door for air at least four or five times. Finally, with I’d say 20 minutes to go, I settled in, confident that there was enough air in the room to last me to the end and that any sense that I couldn’t breathe was actually not accurate. I could breathe just fine, salt is supposed to be good for you, and in any case it’s almost done. I only had brief thoughts of abandoning the whole thing and had already decided this would be a one-off because…why am I here?
And that’s when I floated into a state of total, zero-gravity, sensory deprived R.E.S.T. I stopped thinking “when will this end?” and drifted off into floaty, relaxing, thought-free bliss. I’m guessing about 15 minutes passed before Mother’s gentle voice coaxed me out of my nothingness. If one hour of floating is equal to four hours of sleeping, my 15 minutes of mind-free floating must have been equal to an hour of sleep. And I did feel revived and recharged, disappointed that it was over.
Getting out was a careful process of trying to climb over the edge without slipping on the floor of the tub and then the floor of the shower and changing area (which is, to me, unnecessarily more slippery than it needs to be). I got a bit of the salty water in my mouth, and it tastes like something sour and disgusting and almost rotten. I showered with the luxurious bath products again, dressed, and went out to the vanity area to fix myself as best as I could for the outside world.
I asked to see a pod before I left. One look at the pod and I knew I would not be signing up for that. But I do think I will try the room again. Now that I know what to expect I think I can settle into a good experience a lot more quickly. I liked the final feeling of weightless zero-gravity and temperature neutrality. It’s comforting and stress-free (if you can get there). I’m not sure if it’s any more or less “therapeutic” than any other thing that forces you to quiet yourself for an hour, suspending the demands of the world. But the added bonus of zero gravity and sensory deprivation invite relaxation a lot more easily than, say, an hour of Vipassana meditation.
It’s not cheap. When Cate went, she paid $39. I had a $55 gift card (because it was my 55th birthday present) and I paid a $29 top-up for my hour of floating. I’m keen to give it one more go, which is more than what I would’ve said 30 minutes into it. But the price makes it an indulgence.
Have you had a floating experience? And if so, what was it like for you?
I come from a family of long good-byes. We’re a family who walks you to the car. We say good-bye with hugs and kisses before you get in the car (very occasionally weeping but only if we know it will be a really long time before we see one another and mostly only when someone is leaving the country). To the very end, we play a game called “last look” and “last touch” where we drag it out even more, the winner being the person who gets in the last look or the last quick touch before snatching their hand away through the car window so no one else can touch. We’re laughing the whole while. And then, as you pull away, despite the “last look,” we stand in the driveway and wave. We watch you drive down the street pretty much until we can’t see the car anymore. Then we go in and have a cup of tea or something.
That helps to explain why this is taking me so long (my two week good-bye). I’ve learned to savour last moments. They can be so sweet. Like, this series has breathed some life into my blogging again, renewing my enthusiasm. But that’s not to say I’m staying on. It’s not that I think it’s too late to backtrack and change my mind (I once called off a wedding six weeks before). It’s more that I need to trust my gut on this decision, and it’s telling me to make space for new projects, some as-yet undetermined possibilities, and more generally just to have some breathing room. New space doesn’t need to be a vacuum that sucks something else into it right away.
This blog has given me a lot over the years. Sam and I have often talked about how we stumbled into it without thinking it would go anywhere — it was a temporary project to document our Fittest by Fifty Challenge, and it was meant to end five years ago when we each turned 50. Her energy and efforts have always kept it going. By comparison to Sam’s hard work on the coordinating and organizing and motivating fronts, I have really been little more than co-founder and regular contributor. So I see it as one of those things in life where what I’ve received is so much more than what I’ve given, and I’m grateful beyond what I can express in words. Here are a few of the things the blog gave me (not necessarily in order of importance):
A regular writing practice
I have blogged at least twice a week for seven years. I never did master the art of the short, quick post. As a writer, having a regular writing commitment twice a week (well, maybe once, since #tbt became a regular thing for me in recent years) with an audience to answer to has kept the ink flowing. There has been no time for writer’s block or perfectionism. Almost all of my posts are still in the “first draft” stage, where the content is mostly there but the writing itself needs more metaphor, more precision, more concrete details–the sorts of things that make it more interesting for a reader. I can live with that. I am infinitely more relaxed about my writing since starting the blog. Sharing “good enough” writing with people is no longer a worry. Actually, it’s been fun developing a more casual writing style. Even if it’s not my “best” writing, it’s my most enjoyable. And people read it!
This idea of community keeps coming back to me. The blog itself drew in a community of like-minded folks who wanted to participate in conversations about fitness from a more inclusive feminist perspective. When Sam and I started to realize people actually read and commented and engaged in discussion about our content, we were well and truly chuffed. Going into it we genuinely thought only friends and family would read the blog.
In addition to the large community of readers and commenters and followers of our Facebook page and Twitter account and Instagram that has energized us and encouraged us, I’ve also gained a closer community in the regular contributors. Last Thursday I reflected on some of the wonderful posts that the other regulars have written. The other blog regulars are a supportive, helpful, motivating group of incredible women I’m fortunate to know.
The blog has also given me a fitness community. As noted the other day, where I used to train alone, I now love to train in groups. Not only, but for sure regularly. My Sunday long runs, which I’ve been missing because of my Achilles issues, are among the highlights of my weekend because I love getting together with my peeps (Anita and Julie) and I feel something is missing from my life when I can’t or when sustained periods of time go by when our schedules don’t collide.
I don’t know about you, but a sense of belonging matters a lot to me. And as a philosopher who works on collective responsibility and collective agency, I’m aware of the possibilities offered when we do things together that we can’t do alone. Communities have great power. Becoming a part of these inspiring communities has been an amazing gift.
A regular and consistent fitness practice
If you want to kickstart your fitness routines, blog about them regularly and let that accountability to an audience start to motivate you. If we hadn’t blogged about our fitness challenge, I don’t know that we would have finished it (maybe I should speak only for myself here — I doubt I would have had the focus to keep at it for two years). But the blog gave me a place and a reason to develop a consistent fitness practice, a reason to try new things (like triathlon), and a place to reflect explicitly about what was working for me (like running, which surprised me because at the beginning I didn’t even like it).
Blogging here helped me think ahead about strategies for working out while traveling, and made me feel more accountable to implement those strategies. As Sam likes to say about all sorts of things: “blog about it!” I honestly would never have even tried triathlon, let alone fallen in (temporary) love with it and made it the focus on my Fittest by 50 Challenge, unless Sam had said: “Hey let’s sign up for the Kincardine Women’s Triathlon. It’ll give us something to blog about.” It sure did. And it galvanized my training goals for the next two years.
Blogging has helped me get back on track when I’ve fallen out of routine. It has become clear to me that it’s as important to share openly and honestly about setbacks as about successes. I had setbacks shortly into the blog and I have had setbacks more recently. And many along the way. Everyone has both–that’s the way life is. We are not robots. It’s been motivating to me to take that seriously and to use the blog as a way of thinking through how to get back on track and then writing about my progress. I’ve gained advice from others by asking for help here. That’s how I ended up trying an osteopath.
Fitness activities are positive and self-nurturing part of my life, whether my routine is in an ebb or a flow. That’s from blogging. Putting it all in print has let me see that there is a constant flow of change: I hit my stride for awhile and glide along seemingly without effort, then a shift happens and it’s a bit harder (or even sometimes impossible), then I regroup and scale down to get back on track, and soon I’m skipping along again to my latest favourite playlist. That is my larger rhythm and it repeats. And repeats. And repeats.
Not to say I came to the blog without a voice. But the casual nature of blog posts let me develop my own conversational style and a way of expressing myself that feels true and honest. I used to think that my “voice” (such as it is) was kind of boring. And maybe to some it is. That’s fine. But that’s me — lowkey, to the point, a comfortable (for me) balance between self-disclosure and reserve, the occasional unleashing of anger about the world, a mild sense of humour, and feminist.
Regular blogging about fitness from a feminist perspective has done more to cement my own sense of what it means for me to be a feminist than anything else. My years of teaching feminist philosophy and women’s studies; a stint as chair of the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research; writing academic papers about feminism; taking part in countless Take back the Night events…none of that has shaped my feminist voice or allowed me to express it and more importantly develop it as much as blogging at Fit Is a Feminist Issue.
Back when I was an undergrad and I worked a summer job at Doubleday Publishing in Toronto, they had weekly sales for staff where books that had been returned were spread out on a table in the warehouse and we could buy them for super cheap. That’s where I picked up my copy of Hard Bodies by Gladys Portugues, my first foray into the world of women’s weight training. In it, she told a story of a woman at her gym who started a consistent routine of weight training and stuck with it. Over the course of that first year, the woman, once shy and reserved and even a bit fragile seeming, developed more and more confidence and strength. As it turned out, she had been going through a divorce throughout that time and the workouts transformed her from a broken woman trying to put her life back together into a confident role model for newer members. Or something like that.
Of all the information I read in that book, about split routines and super sets and how to do pec flies and squats and calf raises (all brand new to me at the time), the story of the woman who survived her divorce by going to the gym had the biggest impact. It suggested that developing physical strength, a comfort with my body, and a routine that made space for that could spill confidence into the rest of my life. And it could get me through the hard bits. And it has.
But blogging consistently about my fitness life and about feminist issues in fitness and sport has itself increased my confidence. I’m no authority on anything about fitness. But like millions of other women who have ventured into gyms, onto soccer fields, into swimming pools and yoga studios, who have climbed walls and boulders, ridden their bikes, run trails or sidewalks or tracks or multi-use pathways beside the river, pounded out timed sets at CrossFit, boxed and wrestled and done aerial silk routines, power walked or leisure walked, worked out with resistance bands or done body weight training in their hotel rooms, thrown axes, cross country skied, snowshoed, ice skated, snowboarded or skied downhill through moguls, roller skated, roller derbied, perfected parkour or played women’s rugby, learned karate, aikido, judo, tai chi, mixed martial arts….I have my experience. And it has built character. And this blog kept me getting back to it not to compete with others or boast about my achievements, but because it made me feel good and there was nothing at stake beyond doing something for me.
As I said in a post (I don’t know which post–it was awhile back), if I never lifted another weight or ran another kilometre or did another warrior pose, no one would care. But I would. And like that woman who hit the gym full force during her divorce, that sort of commitment to myself has built the sort of confidence that comes through tapping into an internal sense of self-worth. It’s interesting to me, if no one else, that it came to me so late in life. We were already 48, Sam and I, when we started this blog. I had a career and my health and good friends and family already. But I (again like so many others, even accomplished others) also had all sorts of insecurities — some of which I worked out through activities like running, triathlon, yoga, and weight training and then blogging about them. It was always a huge confidence boost, for example, when I was able to report progress — my speed workouts actually made me faster! I went from needing to use the gravitron machine for pull-ups to being able to do three sets of 13 without the machine or even elastic bands to take some of the weight. All. By. Myself! I got faster in the pool. Woo hoo!
The blog gave me confidence in fitness, in my feminism, and in life.
A Chronicle of Events
I don’t mean just my fitness event history, but there is that: I can look back and see my fitness history over the past seven years, from my very first 5K and my very first triathlon, through to my Olympic distance triathlons, my weight training successes, my first and subsequent half marathons, my one and only full marathon, Around the Bay 30K x2, various traveling adventures and how I stayed active along the way, bouts of injury and illness, the communities I became a part of, friendships developed. The blog really has offered something of a “web-log” for the past seven years.
But we have also been able to put a time stamp on certain moments, like #me-too and various iterations of the Summer and Winter Olympics, the evolution of Barbie (even if you might wonder, as I did here, whether she can actually be redeemed), the coming and going of various diets (Keto wasn’t even a thing when we started blogging), the repetitive annual cycle of media about “making it” through the holidays and then about new year’s diets and fitness regimes. The excitement about “power posing” and then the subsequent discrediting of the findings. The sway of public opinion about fruit (evil! good!). Daylight savings time, “beach body” season, gearing up for winter training. Even the moments when new team members came aboard, as the blog’s roster of regulars grew and grew. So much captured over these years.
A commitment and routine
My scheduled posting time has been Tuesday and Thursday, 6 a.m., for years. Every Monday and every Wednesday before bed I make sure I have something lined up to post automatically at 6 a.m. the next morning. It has felt good to have this commitment and routine, like a touchstone in my week, every week. Some weeks it’s harder than others to find the time, to find the material, to find the energy and inspiration (I don’t wait for inspiration!). But it’s a commitment, so mostly, except for a few occasions when I had to call in the team for help, I’ve been able to keep the commitment. It, and the workouts I stuck with to have something to say (or, when not posting about my own workouts, the credibility to say whatever I was saying about working and training), kept me going through some tough times.
This past year has been full of tumult and personal upheaval of the hardest kind. It’s quite easily been the most difficult year of my life. I hope I’m on the other side of the worst of it. Having the blog as part of my weekly rhythm, month in and month out, kept me grounded in something positive and affirming while not being at the same time overwhelming (like my job — it’s positive and affirming but also sometimes leaves me feeling drained and overextended). Despite that, the time feels right to step back. I’m sure I’ll visit from time to time, but I declined Sam’s offer for a regular once a month spot because I feel incapable of making any sort of commitment to anything right now.
Extra big shout-out and enormous (though inadequate) thanks to Sam.
[insert weeping here]
Last look! Last touch!
[standing in the driveway waving]
Now — a cup of tea and some T-time (my step-daughter, Ashley calls me “T,” so in my world “me-time” is “T-time”).
Women often complain about how they have to move out of the way for people walking on the street. Beth Breslaw did an experiment showing that this is exactly the case. She walked down the street while consciously not moving out of the way for people. People started slamming into her, specifically men. She began to call this ‘man-slamming’. I wanted to find out if this was true for kids, and women of color – members of other underrepresented groups – but I wanted things to be less confrontational. So, I decided to do my own experiment.
I gathered a group of four people: one white man, one white woman, one woman of color, and one kid (which happened to be me). We all took turns walking down one street, and counted how many times we each had to move out of the way of other people. We did our experiment two times.
The white man would have to move out of the way the least. The white woman next, and then the kid. The woman of color would have to move out of the way the most.
A busy street and people willing to participate in your test (one white man, one white woman, one woman of color, and one kid. You could always add more.)
As the graphs show, PM has to move out of the way less than MF. MF has to move out of the way less than MK. MF and MK have to move out of the way less than SKM. PM has to move out of the way less than MF, MK, and SKM. This disproves my hypothesis that women of color had to move out of the way more than kids.
My experiment shows that women, no matter their age or race, have
to move out of the way much more than men. But when you add race to gender, it
turns out women of color have to move out of the way more than white women. If
you add age, white (passing) kids that are girls have to move out of the way
more than white women and women of color. Extra labor is placed on the
shoulders of women, kids, and people of color.
Why would extra labour be placed on these individuals and
especially on kids? They are the most underrepresented and their social status
is the least. This is why they carry the biggest burden.
Although I have drawn a few conclusions on race and gender through
my experiment, I still have many unanswered questions. What would my results be
if I were a boy? What if I were less polite and didn’t care if I bumped into
someone? What if a black man or a black woman participated in my experiment?
What if a senior citizen did?
I wanted to learn about the unobvious inequalities. This is my first step of what I hope will be many.
Sage McEneany is in grade six. She enjoys reading fantasy, science fiction and graphic novels. She intends to publish her own book when she is older, and to continue to work on the issues of race and other inequalities. She likes to play soccer and would like to do track this year.
Last week I reflected on some of the posts the other blog authors have written that had a lasting impact on me. Today, because I’ve written a lot here over the past seven years and I feel good about at least some of it, I’m going to talk about some of my own posts. I hope this doesn’t come off as overly self-indulgent but over these years some themes have emerged in my posts and a look back has helped me get perspective on what matters to me.
Anti-diet then, anti-diet now. When we first started blogging, I was really clear that I wanted to present an anti-diet message. To me, the most basic feature of a feminist approach is that we encourage body positivity and discourage punishing diet regimes, the sole purpose of which is to lose weight. One reason for that is that I myself had a history of chronic dieting and it usually resulted in misery, food obsession, body hatred, and all manner of bad feelings about myself. Within the first week of the blog, I wrote a post called “Tracking and the Panopticon,” in which I expressed my dislike of tracking because it feels like a tool of internalized oppression (to me)–where we self-regulate and monitor ourselves in order to keep ourselves under control. I still feel that way, though not quite as strongly as I did then. I can see how, if used for information, it can be a good way to collect data. But it does strike me as a type of food policing, where we appoint ourselves as our own police. I’ve also articulated why I never talk about weight or food choices (mine or others) and why “you’ve lost weight, you look great!” isn’t a compliment.
Do less and start small. Another favourite theme of mine that emerged early on was the theme of doing less. My first post about that, “On doing less,” explained how in my fitness activities and in my life more generally, I can get overwhelmed with big goals. But then I can make them manageable and I can motivate myself to get into a rhythm of consistent effort if I scale back. Instead of an hour of yoga a day, how about 20 minutes (or, as Christine is doing, seven minutes)? Just something to say I showed up and did it, whatever it may be. Doing a little bit consistently is better than establishing overly ambitious goals and then abandoning them altogether.
Sleep and rest. This is a thing I’ve come to value over the years. I have never been very good at permission to get the rest I need. I adore sleep and naps, but I don’t always get them. I’m a big fan of The Nap Ministry, promoting naps as political — a form of resistance (against capitalism, racism, “the grind”). I wrote about the Nap Ministry more than once this year, sending myself if no one else a clear message that burnout was on the horizon.
Community. Seven years ago when we were just starting out, I didn’t do fitness activities with people. I mean, I went to yoga classes and felt a sense of community around the studio, but I ran alone, more or less weight trained alone or with my partner, and swam alone if at all. Part of that was because I didn’t think I was athlete enough to be a part of any fitness community. I worried that I was the slowest runner in the world and I would never find my people. Well, that turned out to be false! Over the past seven years, I’ve ridden bikes with people (I hated that lol, but I liked the social parts), trained in the pool with a group (loved it), and discovered that there are others — wonderful wonderful others — who run at my pace. I talk about that shift from solo traveler to lover of community in “In praise of community.” Others can be great company and also motivating points of accountability. I loved it when the media people last year talked about the “pact” Sam and I made to be our fittest at 50. I had never thought of it as a pact, but that is exactly what it was. I blogged about that in “the power of the pact.”
The book. Last year in the spring and summer Sam and I were basking in the warm feelings of the book. It felt so good to see the book that we’d worked on together in actual print, getting attention from real people, and media not just in Canada but also in the US, the UK, and Australia. At the beginning of what would be an exciting time of interviews and podcasts and book launches and readings, I wrote about “Soaking up our 15 minutes.“
Blogging about the blog. We try to keep it open and welcoming here, but things aren’t always happy. We blog about difficult issues and on occasion we say things that hit the wrong note with some people. We aim to be inclusive, but not everyone always feels included. There have been times that I or others wrote posts that made readers angry. One such time was when I proposed that I might dump sugar. Oh wow. That didn’t go over well at all. But the response caused me to reflect and back track. And as I re-read my “dumping the sugar dump: critical follow-up” post, I could see that (1) I was still stinging, but also that (2) I was doing my very best to work through and take seriously why it was probably not a good idea for me to voice that thought on this blog.
It’s funny (not really funny, but odd) how much it hurts when we get attacked by our readers. It happened again a few months ago on the FB page (this time Sam was under fire, on the receiving end of vitriol) and when we tried to intervene to bring it back to a civil discussion, we were then accused of “tone policing.” In the end, it prompted me (and Cate in her beautiful post, “What are we making together?”) to reflect once again on the blog and the community around it and what we can and cannot promise. In the end, I realized that we cannot promise a safe space, and I reflected on why that is the case in “Why we can’t promise a feminist space will be a safe space.” It might be one of my favourite posts of my own because it is a layered reflection on feminism as I see it playing out in my life, on the blog, in the world.
This reflection on my own posts is kind of random and on a different day might be different. I haven’t mentioned the one that’s gotten the most hits of all, “She may look healthy but…why fitness models aren’t models of health.” That and “The Shape of an Athlete” are two of my posts from the early days that challenge our assumptions of what it means to “look fit.” That has been a major theme on the blog since the very beginning, not developed just in my posts but in the posts of the others as well. Posts on bodies and body image are consistently the most read content on the blog, and gave us early evidence that this blog contributed a welcome perspective on fitness.
I’m adding “being a part of this incredible blog” to my list of things I never could have imagined doing in my life.