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.
Last year a few of us, myself included, discovered that the pandemic changed the shape of our workout life so much that we hit last year’s 220 workouts in 2020 by early summer. For me, working from home eliminated the everyday movement I had taken for granted before stay-at-home orders and lockdowns were a thing. The pandemic meant that most movement had to be deliberate or not happen at all. For me, anyway, that meant lots more deliberate workouts and a lot less incidental movement. And so by mid-June last year I’d hit 220 and I blogged, “220 in 2020: goal achieved, now what? Hint: Keep going.”
This year I got there about two weeks sooner. And I do plan to keep going with my workout routine. But I’m no longer tracking in the group. For those who aren’t sure what I’m talking about, workout tracking groups like “221 in 2021” are online groups where people share with the group when they’ve worked out, with the annual goal creeping a little upward each year. So in 2018 people aimed for 218 workouts and in 2019 it was 219, last year 220, this year 221. You get the idea. The groups are just the right combination of support and (for some perhaps) competition to motivate people to stick to their workout routines.
For me this change from last year’s attitude to this year’s attitude is really an example of needing different things at different times, and being mindful to consider why I am doing something. What did being a member of the group do for me last year that it’s not doing for me now?
When I posted about meeting the goal last year I said, “the goal of being able to record a new workout often did motivate me to get moving.” I also said that I would continue… “not to accumulate a higher number (though I will, if I keep reporting in the group), but because it’s now a thing I do that is a positive part of my life. And recognizing that, it makes no sense to stop.”
This year, I feel almost the same way, that is, I will continue. It is a positive part of my life.
But I won’t keep counting or posting about it. While posting my “number” helped motivate me last year, this year it just felt tiresome. I have solidly internalized the habit of working out in some way daily, at least once, often more than once. I really don’t do it for anyone but myself. Perhaps that is selfish, in that it’s possible that for some people, seeing others “counting another workout” inspires them to workout too. But I have long been of the view that my workout life is one area where I do it for me and me alone. I’ve also long been of the view that tracking and counting isn’t something I love. It’s fine for a while, but (for me) it’s no way to live.
This could also be part of my more general orientation of late away from social media (FB specifically), where the tracking group was one of the only things that kept me going to FB on a daily basis. Sometimes I ask myself with respect to a thing that has become a habit, “what value is this bringing to my life?” I did this check-in with respect to FB not too long ago and the answer was “not much.” The community feeling that FB has always given me was great when it was a supplement to a full life of regular in-person connection, but its existence in my life as a poor copy for real connection has become clear to me during the pandemic. My real relationships do not take place on Facebook. My real sense of community doesn’t come from clicking into a virtual community. The relationships that give my life meaning these days come from one-on-ones with people who reach out or to whom I reach out. I realize this thought might be more existential than a post about why I don’t want to track my workouts to an online group anymore needs to be, but I’m sure it has contributed.
The long and short of it is that my enthusiasm for counting my workouts and posting them to the group has fizzled. I don’t care if anyone knows what number workout I’m on. And I myself no longer know (or care) what workout number I’m on. And while it’s great to see others feeling good about their activities, I don’t really need to know what number they’re on either. In keeping with my word-of-the-year, mindfulness, I know what I’m doing today. And today I’m working out in some form or other because that’s what I do now.
I understand that being a part of this type of group actually can and does add value for some people at some point in their lives. It can be motivating and supportive. It did so for me for two and a half years. And I know that if I decide that’s what I need again, the group will still be there (I haven’t quit; I’ve just stopped visiting).
Are you a member of a workout counting/check-in group and if so, what does it do for you?
The AARP got in touch with us recently with an awesome video of Quill Kukla talking about the way powerlifting and boxing, both of which they took up in their mid-forties, transformed them. I had the pleasure of connecting with Quill recently to talk about the short video, called “Tiny Teacher Transforms into Badass Boxer.” Before I get to our chat, here’s the video:
Don’t you absolutely love it? Quill has blogged for us before about their boxing career, about discovering that they excel at powerlifting, and also their running. Over the years, their posts reveal a common theme of being amazed at what their body can do and of doing activities that they feel good about. And that’s just the sort of message about movement that we promote, endorse, and celebrate here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue.
Here’s the interview, more or less verbatim with streamlining (but no misrepresenting!):
TI: I know you had some reservations about watching the video. How did you feel when you watched the video and saw yourself doing these amazing things?
Quill: It’s complicated because the pandemic has been a really rough time. I’ve continued training in both boxing and lifting throughout the pandemic. But it’s not the same kind of training that I was able to do or the same level of intensity that I was able to do before the pandemic. And because my background life has become so much more sedentary, even aside from my training I feel as if I’m not in the same fighting shape or competitive shape as I was a year and a half ago, and it’s daunting to think about getting that back, so it’s a little bit bittersweet to see myself at my peak. But at the same time, they did a fantastic job editing it. So I really do look awesome!
TI: You said when you first went to the gym you were “undermotivated.” Why did you feel undermotivated?
Quill: I think there are really two separate reasons. One is that very early in my life I was a serious ballet dancer. That was central to my identity. And when I quit dancing I really just quit the life of the body cold turkey. My way of separating myself from the dancing was just to say “okay, I’m not a person who does physical activity anymore.” I was never in bad shape. I always walked a lot and biked and walked my dog, so I had background fitness, but I wasn’t somebody who had structured exercise as part of my life. So it felt like a part of my identity that I had cut off from myself and put into my past.
But the more interesting reason is that when I first went to the gym I went because I felt like I had a responsibility to “get fit.” Fitness was just the goal. I wasn’t trying to learn any particular skill or get better at any particular activity or take anything as an artistic practice or techné. I was just trying to increase my fitness. And for me that’s a very boring goal. It was an amorphous goal that I resented and it didn’t have any shape for me. And so when I started lifting and boxing and not “trying to get fit” but trying to get good at lifting and good at boxing, then that was my motivation because I loved those activities and the fitness came along for free. Fitness in and of itself is not a good motivator for me. In fact I kind of find it depressing. When you find something that you inherently love. If you happen also to get fit, then fantastic. But you’re doing it because you love that thing.
Ti: You talk about the “empowering thrill” of boxing. Can you say a bit more about that?
Quill: Part of that is literally chemical or hormonal. There’s a jolt of hormones that goes through your body as you punch something full speed [here Quill punched their left fist into their right palm to demonstrate] or as you lift something really heavy and make that max effort. It’s invigorating and good for your brain to feel those hormones coursing through. But also, it does feel empowering. I don’t think of boxing as self-defence at all. If I ever ran into someone in a dark ally who wanted to hurt me and I were to say “okay, punch me between here and here” [gestures to forehead and torso] boxing is not a useful skill in that circumstance. Being able to run away is a much better skill than being able to box.
So it’s not empowering in the sense that I’m going to use it for self-defence. However, it is very empowering to know that my body can take a hit and be fine, and that my body can deliver force if necessary. There is something thrilling in that feeling that my body has force behind it; it is active, not passive. It can impact the world. And moreover, the world can impact me and I’ll be fine. Someone can hit me and I’ll be fine. My body is not fragile.
Plus it’s just really fun punching things [smiles, then laughs, and then tells me they’ll show me how to punch some day].
TI: In the video you express the intention of continuing with powerlifting and boxing for many years to come. How has the pandemic changed affected your training? How (if at all) has it affected how you think about yourself as a powerlifter and boxer?
Quill: At the beginning of the pandemic, when we were in lockdown I couldn’t lift at all for months when gyms were closed. Even at the worst of the pandemic, except for a couple of weeks I have continued my boxing training, meeting people outside. I am back to both now. But taking months off of my lifting at my age was a huge hit to my ability. I lost a lot and even though I have been back lifting for months I’m still not lifting as much as I was before the pandemic. And so part of me wonders if the pandemic just did me in in terms of competition. But I’ll still keep lifting because I like having a strong body.
With respect to boxing, I’m not in the same fighting shape as I was before the pandemic, even though I’ve been training. But that I feel I can get back more easily because I’ve kept my skills up. I do intend to go back to competing in boxing as soon as possible. But my plan is to have a fight in six months or so and to keep going for as long as I can. I’ve watched people fight in their eighties. In fact, I watched a fight between an 88 year-old man and a 91 year-old man — an actual sanctioned amateur fight — and they went through to the end and they were really doing it. And so I have no intention of stopping at any point really [laughs again].
TI: Both powerlifting and boxing are really intimidating prospects for lots of people. What advice would you give to someone who wants to give it a try later in life?
Quill: For lifting–the great thing is the frustrating thing: when you start doing it you make gains unbelievably fast. Your numbers will shoot up really fast in terms of how much you can lift and your body will change almost immediately. There’s almost nothing else you can do where you’ll see such quick changes. The sad part is that that plateaus out fairly quickly. When you start you think “wow I’m lifting 20 more pounds each time I go to the gym! In no time I’ll be lifting thousands of pounds!” Everybody has that feeling. If you can even go once or twice or three times that will be enough that you will see enormous gains. All the intimidation will be gone. So my advice for lifting is “just start.” And it’s one of the absolute best sports for older people to do. There’s nothing blocking older people from excelling at it and it’s also incredibly good for your joints and your bone density. It’s a gift to yourself to do it. Do it a few times and you’ll be amazed at how fast you start getting strong.
Boxing is not like that at all. When you start boxing you’re terrible and it takes a very long time to be anything other than terrible. But people are intimidated by it because their vision of boxing is being in the ring fighting. But there are so many stages between doing nothing and actually fighting. And you can get off and stop at any stage you want.
There’s going to the gym and learning how to punch properly, and punching the bags, working on the bags to get a good workout. Some people just do that forever and that’s what boxing is for them. Past that, you can start doing partner work and partner drills, where you’re not actually fighting with anybody but you’re working with a partner and trading punches. That’s a little more intense than working on the bags, but only one step. So you can do that and stop there. Then some people go from there to sparring, and that’s where you’re actually in real time trying to land punches on a person and avoid getting punched. That’s a whole other level of intense than partner drills, but most of the people who spar never actually fight. And then there’s fighting. So you don’t have to have a vision of yourself as on a trajectory from nothing to fighting. At each stage you can decide if it’s enough for you. That makes it feel less intimidating.
TI: What about just the idea of going into a boxing gym as, in my case, a 56 year-old woman?
Quill: You do have to find the right gym. There are a lot of inclusive wonderful gyms. There are also a lot of toxic crappy gyms. Trial and error could be traumatic, but using word of mouth to find out which gyms are supportive and inclusive is important. But you’d be surprised at how many boxing gyms really are super inclusive and supportive environments.
Boxing tends to be a very intellectual sport that requires a lot of critical thinking, so people who are boxers tend to be very thoughtful. They sort of have to be. Compared to a lot of other sports I find that boxing gyms tend to be very thoughtful spaces. In 2021 most of them have had to think at some point about what it means to welcome older people into the gym, to welcome queer people into the gym, to welcome non-binary people into the gym.
We all learned about boxing gym culture from watching Rocky but the reality of boxing gym culture tends to be pretty different from that. Again, it varies. There are certainly gyms that are nothing but young, toxicly masculine men, but there is a lot of variety, including a lot that have a minority of men as members. It’s a popular sport among women, so most gyms have a lot of women.
Just in the years that I’ve been doing it it’s gone from a male-dominated sport to a not-at-all male-dominated sport. I’ve been boxing with eight women and five men, and I think that’s typical for boxing gyms.
TI: That’s encouraging!Anything else you’d like to add?
Quill: I’m a high-energy, high-emotion, high-intensity person and the difference that boxing made for me in terms of my ability to productively channel and regulate all of that energy and those emotions was absolutely transformative. I’m a calmer person. A lot of people might not realize the mental health benefits as well as the physical health benefits that you can get from doing a sport like this. That might not be true for everyone, but I think it’s not just me.
TI: That’s so great. Thank you!
I’m sure we will hear from Quill again, especially when they get back into the ring. Meanwhile, thanks, Quill! Congratulations on an amazing video. You absolutely do look awesome and fierce. Thanks for the chat and best wishes getting back into fighting form!
[I should probably start with a disclaimer: I have no stake in Apple at all, and I don’t even want to convince people to get an Apple Watch (which I myself hesitated over for years). I’m just saying how I’m using it and it’s helped me.]
Yesterday Cate wrote about slumps, and a few of us had something to say about them because it’s a thing these days. Towards the end she alluded to my new Apple watch. I’ll get to that in a minute.
I was in a serious slump. Usually I can pull myself out of them with a blog post in which I remind myself of all the things that usually work for me: keep it simple; start small; do less. But I wasn’t there. Looking back to a couple weeks ago, I don’t even think I was ready to be talked out of (or to talk myself out of) my slump. Everything besides sleep and the gentlest of gentle yoga seemed like SO. MUCH. EFFORT.
And then our covid case numbers started rising again. And this pandemic felt like it would never end (it still does). And we were on the eve of another stay-at-home order. A few months I had been asking around about fitness trackers and running watches and the like. My Garmin forerunner is a dinosaur and not the sort of thing you would wear any other time besides running. It’s been unreliable in booting up. People kept recommending the Apple Watch and the Garmin Vivo-something (I forget what exactly). So I bought nothing at first.
Then I decided to look into the Garmin and it turned out to be the same price range as the Apple Watch. And then they announced the lockdown. And I went into a spiral of: “I used to travel!” “I used to go out for dinner with friends.” “I used to go to a yoga studio and pay for passes.” “I used to DO THINGS.” Waaaa! Waaaa! And somehow by the end of that I had made an appointment to go the Apple Store the last day I could go (before everything went to curbside pick-up only), which happened to be the next day, to talk to a “Specialist” (lol) about a new watch.
The watch does lots of different things. But the best thing it does is the fitness “closing your rings” thing. I’m not a big fan of fitness tracking and step counting (as my experience with my workplace’s step-counting team competition has proven not once, but twice). But this ring thing! My friend Vicki invited me to be her “activity friend” on the watch, which means I can see when she’s made progress on closing her daily rings and she can see when I’ve made progress on mine. (I wouldn’t suggest becoming activity friends with anyone other than your good friends)
The outer (red) ring measures your movement (in terms of calories burned). You can set it to low, medium, high or custom, and it depends on things like height, age, weight. I chose medium and that seems about right for me. It’s manageable but not overbearing. The middle ring, sort of neon green, is the workout ring. The default is 30 minutes but I changed my daily target to 45 minutes since that seems pretty easy for me when I consider yoga, walking, running, and my superhero workouts. The inner ring (blue) is for standing, for at least one minute in 12 different hours in the day. You can change the number of hours in which you have a minute of standing to fewer than 12 but not more than 12. I kept mine at 12 and that seems reasonable but challenging on days when I am at my desk for hours in zoom meetings because it seems weird to get up and move around if I have to have my camera on. When you close all three rings you get a graphic on your watch that is sort of like the rings version of fireworks.
Okay. I know this seems somehow too simple to be motivating. But I have hit my targets all but one day since I got my watch a couple of weeks ago. Now keep in mind that though it counts steps, I do not have a step target and I don’t do 10,000 steps every day. In my pre-pandemic life steps were easy. But some days it’s all I can do to get myself out the door for a walk around the block.
Remember too that my watch was meant to replace my running watch. So in order to do it right, I did a little research and invested in a running app for the watch called Intervals Pro. It was costly for an app — $11.99 (CDN) — but it is so simple to set up custom interval workouts, with time or distance intervals, at set paces if you want, and it keeps a record of your training runs. And that too has added to my joy because my Garmin, ancient as it was, had exactly the kind of functionality for custom running intervals that I needed. I don’t know why I worried that something released almost ten years later wouldn’t be able to do at least as much. To be fair, without the app the Apple Watch wouldn’t have been able to do at least as much. But the app is a game changer for anyone who likes to pre-program custom run intervals.
Finally, and I am aware that this might make me sound superficial and self-indulgent, I have discovered a whole world of third party Apple Watch straps that you can order online for super cheap in all sorts of styles and colours. It is very easy to change the strap, and I do that several days a week. I also bought a protector thing that snaps on over it and affects nothing about how it looks and how it works, but will protect it from getting banged up and scratched.
Long story short: the watch has motivated me to run again, to get out for walks at lunch time or at the end of a work day, to stand up from my desk and stretch my legs more than I used to, and to include at least 45 hours of scheduled workouts in my day.
I’m now activity friends with two people (Vicky and my friend, Diane, who I actually convinced to get a watch so that we could be activity friends). And I like seeing their progress through the day. It motivates me without making me feel competitive. It’s more in an inspirational way.
As I write this the night before I’m scheduled to post, my watch just reminded me (ever so gently, not at all in a “you should be standing!” way) that I can still get a “stand” in, bringing my daily total to 11/12 with just one more to go before bed. That’s all I need to do to close my rings today. So I’m doing it.
Last week Sam shared a story about GOOP with a few of us and it made my blood boil. The latest thing that’s happening at Gwyneth’s “health” empire? She’s established a press that sells health books. I’m not sure about you, but I found this bit of news to be alarming. In the article Sam circulated, entitled, “Goop She Did It Again: The Dangerous Obsession with Intuitive Fasting,” She’s pictured holding a book about intermittent fasting called Intuitive Fasting.
Now, despite that the the pandemic sometimes makes me feel as if I’m living in a cave, I have not in fact been living in a cave. So I understand a few things. I understand, for example, that some people like intermittent fasting and there is even some research that it is effective even if “really no more effective than any other diet”(according to this article on the Harvard Medical School blog). I understand that there is cultural pressure to be thin (like Gwyneth, for example) and lose weight. The Harvard Med School blog article tried to make itself relevant by noting that there is some surprising news about intermittent fasting (besides that fasting is “hard”): timing is key to its effectiveness.
But I’m not here to talk about its effectiveness. I’m here to remind everyone of a terribly disappointing fact that there is a lot of social/cultural pressure to deny: in the long run diets are ineffective. So if intermittent (or “intuitive”) fasting as “as effective as any other diet” it’s not particularly effective at helping anyone lose weight and keep it off.
Maybe that is the more realistic message that should be out there, getting support from celebrities with influence. If you’re not familiar with GOOP, it’s a leading purveyor of products and messaging to promote the “wellness” of rich white women with money to spend on pseudo-health trends and fads that cost a lot. Gwyneth is not a medical or health expert. She’s a peddlar who profits from women’s insecurities about their bodies, about aging, about being “misunderstood” by the medical practioners. She promotes things like cleansing and detoxing and all that stuff that is based on no facts at all. (I’ve written about “clean eating” a few times, including here). And we know that “clean eating” is linked to eating disorders. See “Experts: Clean Eating Fuels Anorexia.”
I get that “different people like different things” and that people get to make their own choices. But when a woman of influence gets people to make not just stupid but literally dangerous health decisions because they want to buy an image that she is selling, I want to throw up my hands and scream at the heavens.
So when I saw that she is hawking books about “intuitive” fasting, trading on the well-researched and anti-diet approach to food called “intuitive eating” (of which I myself am a big fan), it made me feel really demoralized about the sort of information that gains traction in our world today. Wrong information. Dangerous information. Harmful information that gets presented as liberating — as the Bitch Media article says: “We should all be alarmed by Paltrow’s power to repackage deeply harmful ideas under a glossy veneer of girl-boss feminism.”
The “wellness” industry has a lot of that. I recently started reading a novel called Self-Care by Leigh Stein. It is a parody of the wellness industry and even as a parody I simply couldn’t stand reading about it. It is the only “Did Not Finish” on my goodreads bookshelf. I just could not. But even though my response to this sort of harmful bullshit is visceral, it’s not ONLY visceral. I am a philosopher and a citizen of the world. I do not think that all ideas have equal merit. And as much as I believe that for the most part we should “live and let live” and that adults get to make their own choices, I do find the choices many adults are making to be alarming because they are not just uninformed, but they have dangerous propaganda as their main driver. You can dress it up as “self-care,” put it in a fancy bottle or an elegant cover, and frame it as “taking your life back” and “doing it your way” but come ON.
It’s no different from snake oil and miracle cures. And it ought to be resisted.
Usually when people associate guilt with working out it’s guilt over NOT working out. I don’t agree with guilting ourselves over that but that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, there is a new kind of guilt creeping into my awareness since I started being a part of a group that tracks workouts. This year it’s 221 in 2021. The fact of counting our workouts generates no end of hand-wringing, especially among people who are new.
I get it. When I first started I wanted to know what people “count.” But it’s only since COVID that I’ve noticed people expressing guilt that maybe they are counting too much. I mean if I count a Sunday 10K run as one workout, does a 20-minute walk at lunch count equally? If I counted a vigorous hour at the yoga studio back in the days before COVID, does one of Adriene’s 10 or 15 or 20 minute practices count?
Some people have an idea that it has to be at least 20 minutes to count. Many, including me, work with the idea of deliberate movement. But even then, I often will combine a short walk with yoga of whatever length as one, even if they were both deliberate and at different times. I do this because now that I am working home, almost every time I move it is deliberate. Sometimes I make myself do a short yoga session or go twice around the block or do a short run with hill repeats at lunch just to move. I don’t use a fitness tracker, but I bet I’m not reaching 2000 steps some days. That is not how I used to live pre-COVID. I used to walk a lot. The workouts I counted were at least 45 minutes because I didn’t really do other kinds of workouts back then.
I think there is a worry lurking behind some of the stress people are experiencing over counting too much is that they are somehow cheating. But cheating whom, I ask? There is no prize. There is no “system” to “game” here. All we are doing is tracking workouts. And to me, if someone deliberately works out, then yay! That’s a win.
It’s hilarious actually because lately I’m doing Superhero workouts 4-6 times a week, yoga pretty much daily, and a run or a walk every day. In January I counted them as three separate things most days. Now I’m more likely to count the superhero workout as one, and the yoga and walk or run as one.
It’s the end of February and I just hit 110 workouts. That seems somehow impossible, almost halfway to my annual goal. In fact, I’m bored of counting my workouts. If the point of it was ever to get a habit going, then I’ve achieved the goal already. And now it just feels embarrassing or something to be racking up so many workouts.
I wondered whether this was a “woman-thing” where we deny our achievements and want to downplay them. Kind of took me back to when people were all impressed when I signed up for the Kincardine Women’s Triathlon and I would say “it’s just a little triathlon, not an Ironman or anything.” Why do we do that to ourselves? It was a big thing to me, never having done one before! I was terrified and I did it. Yay me. No need to downplay it. Is that what’s going on now with the guilt of counting deliberate movement as workouts during COVID?
We are living through a global pandemic. We are housebound, sometimes in an actual lockdown. We are doing our best to show up for hour upon hour of virtual meetings for work (well, this is my reality) and stay upbeat even when the idea of one more hour on zoom is soul-crushing. We haven’t been able to sit down to dinner with friends since the patios closed last fall. We didn’t see our families for Christmas. We wear masks to the grocery store. We’ve lost family members and friends and not been able to mourn them together in person because of COVID restrictions on travel and gathering and touching one another. We have been unable to make solid plans. We don’t know what life will look like post-COVID.
We have cobbled together home workout spaces over time, tucking our yoga mats and dumbbells in the corner when we’re not using them to make space for our (albeit truncated) daily lives at home. We are actually using that equipment (remember back in the day when we bought stuff to workout at home and it just gathered dust? Remember?).
Given all that, it’s pretty darn awesome if we do something active on purpose. Maybe we’re on track to 650-700 workouts this year and without COVID we wouldn’t be. Silver linings and all. Go us! Let’s check the guilt at the door.
The blog has been going for over eight years now and on Sam’s prompt, we are reblogging some favourite posts. I don’t have one favourite post among the more than 700 of mine that I have to choose from. But I chose to reblog this one because even though it’s a bit “meta,” and not about fitness, it’s a meaningful (to me) reflection on what we are trying to do here and the limits of what we can control. It was also a real turning point for me because it required an awareness and admission of my own bad behaviour, calling myself out for having conducted myself in a way that was decidedly NOT conducive to “what we are trying to achieve.” Thanks for your continued support of the blog! Tracy
Image description: Colourful drawing of five women in silhouette, suggestive of diverse ethnicities/races.
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…
The other day Anita posted one of those memories we get these days on our social media. It was from two years ago, the two of us smiling, in the diner we used to go to for breakfast after our Sunday runs. Its 2019 caption said: “The epic runs begin for the Round the Bay race. 20k, easy peasy!” And its 2021 caption said: “I can’t even imagine easy peasy 20km now. Tracy?” My reply: “No, I cannot. I am impressed with those two!”
And I am. They seem like different people, all excited to be winter running for 20K, in preparation for a late March 30K. Smiling even after the 20K. Able to go out for breakfast after. Two people from different households leaning in for an unmasked selfie. With other people in the background. Was that really just two scant years ago?
My experience, my very quiet experience, this winter has been of streaks and inertia. Both have their own quality of momentum in my life. The more I do (or do not do), the easier it is to do the same (or continue to not do) the next day.
I look outside this afternoon. The sun shines. It’s cold, but not as cold as it has been of late. I started January with a commitment to get outside for a run or a walk every day. That was one of my streaks that I hoped to keep going through the winter. But the runs soon turned to shorter runs. Then shorter runs turned to longer walks. Then longer walks became walks around the block. The streak ended before January did. And on the weekend I cancelled both a walk and a run with others (and heaven knows I could benefit from the company of others) because it was just too cold and I couldn’t face the windchill. My toes froze just thinking about it.
The Tracy who did the easy peasy 20K two years ago would be incredulous. But the less one runs 20K, the less likely it is that one will run 20K. That’s the inertia of ramping down. As I said to Cate, inertia and streaks are equally strong in their respective energies.
I am considering going out before the sun goes down today. It is in fact a little bit warmer, only -11C with the windchill, and I am after all a Canadian who has trained through many a winter. But I am also considering a nap. All of this rages on as an internal debate. I know how even just a little bit in the other direction can take me out of inertia (I have blogged about this SO MUCH, how scaling back can get me back on track, how small starts are all we [I] need). But I don’t feel like doing a short run or walk. I feel like staying inside. And in the end no one else does (or even should) care.
Counterbalancing the inertia are some divinely satisfying streaks! I have been on a meditation streak since September, meditating at least a little bit almost every day. I started the Insight Timer January Mindful Mornings challenge on January 1st, and I didn’t miss a day until yesterday, which got me thinking about streaks and how much they motivate me to do the same again. The Insight Timer app tells you after your meditation how many consecutive days you meditated. And there is something about that total that pulls me to my cushion the next day (it’s probably counter to the very idea of meditation to call it a “challenge” or a “streak,” so fixated the meditation teachers always are on just “being” in the “present moment” etc.). Still, I once had a daily meditation streak that lasted unbroken for years (I forget how many; it was a while back). I might have missed yesterday, resetting my “consecutive days” to a sad “one consecutive day” this morning. But I think I can jump right back into that because a streak’s momentum is not undermined (for me, anyway) with one little miss.
Added to my meditation streak is my yoga streak. I started 2021 with Yoga with Adriene’s Breath practice, the 30-day sequence. I didn’t miss a day, and some of those days the ONLY reason I didn’t miss a day was that I had not missed a day. Having not missed a day, it became harder to let that happen. This, to me, is the simple and elegant beauty of a streak.
And when January ended, I wanted to keep going. Why? Because I hadn’t missed a day of yoga in 2021, of course.
My other streak-ish sort of thing are my virtual Superhero workouts. I started out with the once-a-week membership. Then I increased to the three-times-a-week membership. And then I went to the unlimited membership, which gives me the option of six workouts a week. You can pretty much count on me for five a week. The idea originally was to do four a week and run on the off days, walk on the “on” days, and do yoga everyday (whatever Adriene was offering, without asking too many questions [not that there is anyone to ask]).
My COVID winter is basically me bouncing between streaks and inertia, with maybe a bit more mindful awareness of what is going on (my WOY is “mindfulness”). I’m working my way out of being totally stalled in my running. And when I am ready to bust out of it, I’ll take tiny steps in the other direction. Who knows? Maybe by the end of this winter I will have a running streak to report, letting the momentum carry me back to 10K.
Diet culture. It’s not something I’ve thought about much lately. Indeed, it’s not something most of us think about much unless and until someone draws our attention to it (and even then, that drawing attention isn’t always welcome). It’s like that story about fish and water, memorably told by the brilliant, now deceased, writer David Foster Wallace in a 2005 commencement address entitled “This is water”:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
What’s the moral of this little story? When you are immersed in something, when it’s all around you, you might not even be aware of it. But that’s the only respect in which water is to fish as diet culture is to us. Because unlike water, which is life-sustaining to fish, diet culture is harmful to us.
When I first saw the article in Good Housekeeping, “The Unbearable Weight of Diet Culture,” I was set to rant. I wanted to rant about diet culture itself. How normalized and oppressive it is. How it individualizes our weight loss failures when in fact “98% of diets fail.” Think on that: 98%! How it promotes the idea that there is something wrong with a body that is not thin or lean. How it demonizes certain foods and moralizes ways of eating (like, desserts are “sinful” and we give into temptation when we eat them). How it stigmatizes people on the basis of body size.
There is space for ranting about all these things and more. I even wanted to rant about how Good Housekeeping, a mainstream women’s magazine, gives us this informative and insightful article about diet culture, while also having a whole section of their website, called “Diet and Nutrition,” devoted to endorsing diet culture with articles like: “The Best Diets of 2021,” “How to Find the Best Diet for You,” “Why Can’t I Lose Weight?” and “What J-Lo Eats in a Day to Look So Good.” [I’m not linking to that content but it’s easy enough to find}
Instead of faulting them for the contradiction, I actually want to applaud them for including any sort of counternarrative at all. The editors are well aware that they are walking tightrope. The diet culture article starts with the following qualifying statement:
“Throughout 2021, Good Housekeeping will be exploring how we think about weight, the way we eat, and how we try to control or change our bodies in our quest to be happier and healthier. While GH also publishes weight loss content and endeavors to do so in a responsible, science-backed way, we think it’s important to present a broad perspective that allows for a fuller understanding of the complex thinking about health and body weight. Our goal here is not to tell you how to think, eat, or live — nor is to to pass judgment on how you choose to nourish your body — but rather to start a conversation about diet culture, its impact, and how we might challenge the messages we are given about what makes us attractive, successful, and healthy.“
Where better to start a conversation about diet culture than in the very magazines that women flock to when they are seeking “solutions” to their “struggles” with weight? And the first question someone might ask, like the fish swimming in water, is “what is diet culture?” The article opens with rough account: “it’s a set of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it with health and moral virtue, according to anti-diet dietitian, Christy Harrison, M.P.H., R.D., C.D.N., author of Anti-Dietand host of the Food Psych podcast.” It is, says the article, “the lens through which most of us in this country view beauty, health, and our own bodies.” As such, it colours our judgments about ourselves and others, moralizing some food choices as more virtuous than others, causing people to praise others’ weight loss or adherence to restrictive diet regimes, and giving credence to such scientifically vacuous notions as “detoxing” and “clean eating.”
It’s also generated a billions of dollars industry where people seek a miracle. Why is it a miracle? Because, back to that alarming statistic: 98% of diets fail over time.
Here on the blog we have been critical of diet culture since the very start, while also being aware that we are immersed in it. We are critical of it because it is harmful, built on fat-phobia and self-loathing. From the GH article, here are some of the ways that it’s harmful (some already mentioned above):
It promotes discrimination by normalizing fat phobia and promoting as normal the attitude that being overweight (or weight gain at all) is a sign of failure.
It fuels a business designed to take your money.
It’s a set-up for feeling like a failure.
It distracts from larger social issues like walkable cities, wide availability of good quality foods, and other social inequities.
It normalizes disordered eating.
I would add a few of my own here:
It makes way for people to use restrictive food plans to “virtue signal” by posting about their strict adherence to the latest food fad (e.g. no carbs, no sugar, keto, paleo, “cleanses” and “detoxes,” blood type diet, mediterranean diet and all the diets from the 80s and 90s named after doctors — Scarsdale, Atkins — or fruits — banana, grapefruit — and then of course the diets promoted by celebrities like Suzanne Sommers, Oprah, Adele…). It is amazing how much applause is dished out when someone posts a photo of their brown rice and steamed kale bowl.
It infantalizes adults by encouraging the view that, left to our own devices, we will always make poor choices.
It saps the joy out of health and fitness activities because if those are your only goals, and if the healthy choices don’t lead to weight loss, they’re not worth doing. But they are worth doing. We can get fitter and healthier without getting thinner and lighter.
It creates obsession around food. Ever since the Minnesota starvation studies after World War II we have known that food deprivation generates food obsession.
It also makes it almost impossible to have a pure, mindful eating experience that is unmediated by thoughts of “is this a ‘good’ choice?” “Should I be eating this?” “Is this on my plan?”
The article offers a couple of ways to work your way out of diet culture. One of their suggestions is to consider intuitive eating, which is an approach designed to combat diet culture, challenge the food police, and let your hunger be your guide. I like that approach myself, but it doesn’t work for everyone. We have had some discussions of it over the years on the blog, as champions and detractors.
It also suggests becoming informed about Health at Every Size (HAES), “a movement that recognizes “that health outcomes are primarily driven by social, economic, and environmental factors,” not weight, to encourage the pursuit of health without a focus on weight loss.”
I’ll add to this my own suggestion, which is not to applaud people for their diets and weight loss, and not to talk to people about their weight or weight loss efforts. I know that a lot of people are very public about their desire to lose weight (that’s diet culture for you! Making it normal to talk about something that really is no one’s business and, if you think about it, most people don’t care much what you’re up to in that department unless they’re judging you). I’ve often heard people say that they only compliment or comment when they know that’s what their friend is actively attempting. That’s endorsing diet culture, and diet culture is harmful. So I don’t do it even if my friend would like me to notice and compliment their weight loss. I like and love my friends regardless of their size or their food choices.
That said, I also try my best not to “get into it” with people who don’t want to hear it. I don’t always succeed in this. I have friends lately who are all in the “sugar is evil” trend. I have been through that one myself, and it caused an uproar that resulted in talking me off that particular ledge (not in the most pleasant way, but I still feel grateful as I look back), so I know how easy it is to rationalize this or that plan to dump sugar. All this to say that I dipped my toe in the water of asking questions, which I thought were gentle questions, about a friend’s quest to stop eating sugar, and it turns out that I had to learn the “it’s none of my business” lesson again. I’m public about being an anti-diet feminist fitness blogger. Friends know where to find me if they want that perspective. I need to learn to leave it at that and put my thoughts into a blog post once in awhile. Hence this!
Even if Good Housekeeping is sending contradictory messages when they write articles about diet culture and its harms, on the one hand, and provide ample information to those who wish to partake in it, on the other hand, I like their 2021 commitment to raising awareness. If no one points it out, we’ll never know we’re swimming in it.
Contributing to the blog over the past 8 years has been a way for me to notice changes in my fitness routines, habits, and attitudes. When I first started blogging I felt that walking and yoga, which were the mainstays (really the “only”-stays) of my fitness life weren’t helping me develop the strength I felt I needed to take me into my fifties.
I added weight training and running. Within less than a year, developing an interest in triathlon, I added swimming and cycling. Soon, as I set a goal to do an Olympic distance triathlon by my 50th birthday, I let go of yoga because otherwise I couldn’t fit in all the training sessions required to develop strength and confidence in the swim-bike-run. I could only do so much in a week, and yoga went to the back-burner. But I missed it.
And so after I met my triathlon goals and then realized I really hated the bike and gave it up, I inadvertently made space in my week for yoga again. And I’m glad I did.
Last year when I was recovering from an injury and not running much at all, I really rolled things back. For many months, in fact, I was right back to yoga and walking. And yet the years of weight training and running in between added a quality of strength to both. I kept up the yoga with a daily practice that continued right through to June — a consistent home practice, the actual goal of the Iyengar yoga training that was the foundation of my yoga practice for more than a decade. I reintroduced running in the late spring 2020, having made a commitment to run or walk every day just to get outside for something allowable during the pandemic.
And now, with a new stay-at-home order, no desire to get back to the yoga studio any time soon (and it’s closed in any case), and a resistance to running that has snuck up on me over the past few weeks, I’m back to basics: yoga, weight training, and either a walk or run almost every day (but mostly a walk because as I said, I’m not feeling it when it comes to running).
The simplicity of this routine, regular, daily, achievable (well, I confess that I don’t always achieve my daily commitment to getting outside for a walk or a run) makes it work for me. I think one reason it’s working so well right now is that where I used to be outcome-oriented (I wanted to get faster, or leaner, or stronger, or more flexible), now I’m way more process-oriented. I have the things I plan to do, and if I do them I consider it a win. Simple. There is no super-charged intensity around this plan. It’s just a daily checklist of things that give my pandemic life a bit of structure. For me, that’s a comfort.
I have other things that punctuate my days: morning meditation, check-ins with friends, a daily gratitude list that I write to keep me aware of the glass half full (or even more than half full), kitten-related tasks and joys. And of course I have work, and my weekly movie nights with a friend who lives elsewhere (this is a major highlight!), and a bookclub with that same friend, where we read the same book at the same time, talk about it when we’re done, registrer each of our ratings of it, and move on to the next one on an ever-growing list (which you can find on goodreads if you’re interested).
It all feels very basic and grounding. In the past I’ve blogged about the motivating dimension of goals (see “The Thrill of Signing up for Scary Goals”). But I’ve really come to grasp that, for me, different times call for different measures. And I’m appreciating the lack of intensity and absence of “outcome” goals. Right, simplicity and predictability in my fitness life feels exactly right.
I think it’s interesting to consider what motivates people to choose their words of the year and even whether they choose a noun (as most do) or a verb (as Anne did in 2020, and also, if you read her post, in 2018 and 2019, with “believe” and “bloom”).
My word for 2021 is “mindfulness.” Sometimes it happens that words that seem trendy or like platitudes take on new and profound meaning. Such is the case with me and the word “mindfulness” right now. I’ve seized onto it this year because I have found myself doing all sorts of distracted things since the pandemic started. Distracted eating. Distracted doom scrolling. Distracted television watching. Multi-tasking (I hate multi-tasking). It never feels good when I do things that I don’t feel present for — that’s how I think of mindlessness. And mindfulness, or being present to what’s in front of me, is the best way for me to reverse that habit of distraction.
My commitment to mindfulness grew out of the September meditation challenge using Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness. Catherine gathered a bunch of us to commit to it as a blog book group. Daily meditation is a great way to be mindful, at least for 10-20 minutes or however long you’re on your meditation cushion. When I’m not doing anything else it’s easy for me to be immersed in the task at hand (even if that task is just to sit quietly).
Since I’ve adopted “mindfulness” as my word of the year (two weeks ago!) I can’t say I have been practicing it consistently. Indeed, this week has flown by in a blur so fast I can’t believe it’s already Friday. When that happens, it usually means I haven’t been paying attention.
We have just begun a new stay-at-home order here in Ontario. I do not want to come up for air at the end of this 28 days (is it a 28-day thing? I don’t even know) and wonder what happened, having spent a month in a distracted state of auto-pilot. So I’m committing to being mindful, paying attention, appreciating the details, tasting my food, showing up for my meditation, my yoga, my workouts, my walks and runs, and focusing on one thing at a time.