Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health
Author: Tracy I
Writer, feminist, vegan, runner, sailor, philosopher, yogi, sometimes knitter, co-founder of Fit Is a Feminist Issue, co-author of Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey (launching in April 2018, published by Greystone Books)..
During the media around the book, someone, somewhere described Sam and my Fittest by 50 Challenge as a “pact.” Maybe it was that time we were on TV. We’d never described it quite like that ourselves, but it was a pact. Our challenge was to be the fittest we’d ever been in our lives by the time we turned 50. We made the pact when we were 48.
Now, there were lots of factors that kept us going through the challenge — not the least of it was the public accountability of the blog. But looking back, I think one of the most important factors was that we made a pact with each other. The dictionary definition of a “pact” is a formal agreement. It involves a kind of mutual commitment to do something.
Having that commitment in place made it harder to back out. It didn’t exactly have the moral weight of a promise. But it still had some binding force or at least a sense of accountability. In other words, the pact became a motivating factor in our fittest by 50 challenge. It also provided a framework for mutual support and encouragement. And a sort of shorthand for what we were undertaking to do — i.e. “planning to be the fittest we’ve ever been in our lives by the time we turn 50.”
We weren’t doing it for each other, but we were doing it together.
I realize that I quite like pacts. I’ve got a meditation pact going with a friend right now. We’re both committed to getting back on track with meditation. I started out on my own, deciding that I would do 90 meditations in 90 days. I’m on day 15 now. I mentioned it to my friend last week and he liked the idea. So we made a pact. Now we check-in daily–usually by text–to say we’ve done our meditation. And we agreed to have an actual conversation at least once a week about what our experience of meditation was that week–what shifts we might have noticed; what challenges we might have faced; anything we want to share about the previous week of meditation.
The pact has helped me stay on track, and has also given me a nice way to connect with someone with a shared commitment.
That idea of connecting with at least one other person who is trying to do exactly the same thing, even if not in exactly the same way, has power. Samantha and I each did very different things for our fittest by 50 challenge — she dedicated herself to training for the Friends for Life Bike Rally. I dedicated myself to training for an Olympic distance triathlon. Similarly, my meditation friend and I haven’t given any ground rules for what style or length of meditation we need to do each day. We might do quite different things and experience it completely differently. But having the pact means that we are more likely to do it, to report to each other about it, and to feel a sense of camaraderie about it.
So pacts aren’t just about being accountable. They motivate more by fostering a sense of connection and common purpose. I love a good pact!
As I looked back on past July’s and landed back in 2016, I decided to reblog something in keeping with our body policing/body shaming themes that have emerged in the recent posts about swimwear and body hair. Also, it’s Wimbledon! I actually haven’t been following my favourite tennis tournament this year so I don’t know what the latest controversies are, but a couple of years ago people were upset about nipples. We’ve got them, but no one wants to see them “out of context.” Read more….
Let’s get one thing out of the way right from the get-go: women have nipples. Right? One of our most popular blog posts ever is about nipple phobia and padded sports bras. Sam wrote that over three years ago and it seems the nipple controversy has not abated.
Serena Williams drew commentary and criticism because, apparently, as she was busy leaving the other women in the dust on her way to her 22nd Grand Slam title and 7th Wimbledon championship (for the best record ever in professional tennis, period), her sports bra didn’t sufficiently cover her nipples.
Here are some of the comments:
‘I wouldn’t usually comment on another woman’s body, but could someone give Serena Williams something to cover her nipples…very distracting’, wrote one.
Another chimed in: ‘With all the money Serena Williams earns, why can’t she buy a decent sports bra which covers her nipples properly?’
Body hair, like make-up, is one of those issues where feminists often feel conflicted (based on my conversations with friends and my own experience as a feminist). On the one hand, we see the pressure for women to have smooth bodies as a dimension of normative femininity that makes us spend time on “the beauty project” instead of (arguably) more important things.
On the other hand, many of us (a) like smooth skin and/or (b) feel self-conscious when we’re not smooth even though we don’t really care and if we knew no one else did we wouldn’t bother and/or (c) consider shaving or other hair removal rituals as just part of our everyday habits of self-care or perhaps even pampering.
It’s a fraught feminist issue because when a woman appears with underarm hair or leg hair, it’s a radical move that can even have professional implications. As Britni Dela Craz writes in Elle, about how much time she spent before an important professional moment considering the extent to which different clothing choices would show her thick black leg hair (she is a freelancer who usually works from home and doesn’t worry about it so much):
As I crowdsourced ideas and solutions and posted photos of myself in various professional outfits on Facebook, I wondered how many men had lost hours of prep time for their job worrying about their body hair. I wondered how many men had to balance their desire to look professional with the autonomy to allow their body to do what it naturally does — grow hair. I was enraged that, hours before a career-defining interview, I was worried about leg hair.
Lest you think this is a completely Western fixation, the website Feminism in India has also published about the severe pressure on women to rid themselves of body hair or be shamed for it. Maryam Monsoor writes:
Societal beauty standards are brutal. Perpetuated and reinforced through the media, they are almost always harmful for women. The stigma around body hair is one such beauty standard that has been extremely disadvantageous for women, who are expected to be hairless all the time.
This expectation leads to shaming and policing of women with body hair so much so that people are disgusted at the sight of hair on a woman’s body. It also results in women feeling uncomfortable wearing shorter sleeves if they have hair on their arms or underarms. Women end up shaming themselves for having body hair – going through the full body wax and other painful measures to free themselves of their hair. When it comes to facial hair, it has to go off! From the upper lip, to the eyebrows, to sideburns to the chin to the nose to the forehead.
She points out that men are free to have both facial and body hair. That’s true, although there is a growing trend among men also to shave or wax themselves smooth. There is more pressure on women. Men can definitely get away with having more body hair than women, and facial hair on men is completely acceptable whereas there is enormous stigma against facial hair on women.
The body hair issue extends to pubic hair, which goes in and out of fashion. I remember when we first started going to nude beaches I was kind of shocked at how many women and men were completely waxed or shaven down there. My preference has always been to have at least some pubic hair — I’m not a pre-adolescent after all. That said, sometimes for travel purposes I find it easier to get it all waxed off than to try hitting just the “right” amount. And for some reason, grey pubic hair had more of an impact on me than grey head hair. Normative femininity and its prizing of youth? Yes, that plays into it. Young. But not too young.
When all the talk of swimsuits and body comfort came up last week, and then carried into this week’s posts about different options and the way the swimsuit industry walks that line between body shaming and trying to design suits that we’ll actually wear, body hair came up for discussion among the blog’s author group.
Different ones of us had different issues. Without naming who’s who (because I didn’t get everyone’s permission), opinion ranged from someone not liking her own leg hair despite it going against her sensibilities (I’m right there with her), to someone not being able to shave because it irritates her skin, to someone being less hairy as she ages and hardly having to shave, to someone hating shaving so much she had her pits lasered and is now annoyed that it’s growing back.
For my part, I have less leg hair than I used to but I still shave it. I have an Intuition razor with the built in shaving lube thing that I use for regular touch ups in the summer. In the winter I am less inclined to give my legs regular attention. I have a different razor (with shaving gel) that I use for my arm pits, where the hair seems to grow faster and I hate even the slightest stubble. And I only deal with pubic hair when I’m expecting to see some action or spending a lot of time on the boat or at the beach wearing swim suits or skinny dipping.
What’s interesting to me is that though we are all feminists, no one took a strong stand against participating in this particular beauty practice. Sam condemned it, saying it feels required, not fun and occasional like make-up (though even make-up feels required for many). But as required, the social and even professional consequences of not conforming can be serious. And that’s precisely what makes it a feminist issue. And yet we acquiesce. Of course we are picking different battles in a world where we can’t pick all of them.
A friend reported that one summer she had had it. “I’m going to stop shaving my legs,” she said. “It’s nothing but a pain in the butt,” she said. A few weeks later I asked her to report back. The result: “I couldn’t handle standing in the ATM line-up, conscious of everyone staring at my hairy legs.” She went back to shaving.
Do you have a considered position on your body hair that you’d like to tell us about?
Is it just me, or are a lot of people feeling beleaguered and stretched to their limits lately? Between the political times, the heat, daily pressures, and unexpected life events that you can’t plan for (I don’t have any of these right now but I know people who do), it just feels like a lot. Which brings me to the topic of resilience — and guess what? I posted about it around this time four years ago. Obviously I needed it then. And for different reasons I can use the reminder today (on a side note: the Kincardine swim did NOT get cancelled that year and in the end I had an amazing time at the event).
1. The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
2. The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
I’ve been thinking about resiliency lately because I’m going through one of those times where it feels as if life is constantly challenging me. I won’t get into the life stuff much here, but I also need to call up my resilience when it comes to my athletic pursuits lately.
The most recent setback was more emotional than anything else. I was all stoked (and still am!) for the Kincardine Women’s Triathlon. There were a whole bunch of us making the trip.
Then various realities got in other people’s way. Natalie can’t exert herself right now. Sam has had to take a time out from running. Her sister-in-law…
I went camping on the weekend. It was Canada’s birthday weekend and though it is almost always hot on the July 1 long weekend, it isn’t always quite THIS hot. Saturday was in the 30s Celsius with a Humidex (“feels like”) reading of 45C. That’s pretty much unheard of around here in Southwestern Ontario.
With temperatures like that you would expect people to wear as little clothing as they can get away with. Swimsuits maybe? We were camping after all. Shortly into the hellish heat of Saturday, I observed that many more men than women were dressed in ways that expressed body acceptance, and that the children were the most comfortable in their skins than most of the adults.
What criteria did I use to draw my conclusion? Firstly, let’s talk about the kids. Swimsuits, sometimes only the bottoms, and sheer joy in the splash pad or in the lake or on the slip and slide thing or in the wading pool or running through the sprinkler. The kids had zero self-consciousness about their bodies.
Second, the men. I hate to generalize along gender lines because there are always exceptions. But many men felt perfectly at ease with their shirts off in the heat of the day. And that was appropriate to the temperature, even if you were in the shade.
Finally, the women. It’s a very common sight at beaches and swimming pools to see women with big towels wrapped around themselves until the moment they get into the water and back around them the moment they get out. It was no different at the campground. That is, if they wore a swimsuit at all. Few women wore two piece swimsuits that weren’t tankinis.
I understand feeling body conscious. I felt it myself, debating long and hard whether to wear a regular bikini top or a tankini (I went for the bikini top).
I don’t begrudge men their comfort with their bodies. But it has always been a mild source of resentment for me that there is a larger range of body types with which men can be comfortable as opposed to the range of body types for women. Now, of course, it’s always up to anyone to say “screw the normative standards of what constitutes ‘acceptable appearance.'” But even if you disagree, for many it’s still a lot of work to challenge those standards. And so we end up with men baring their chests on a really hot day while women stay covered up, either with clothing, tankinis and one-piece swimsuits, or towels.
There is something unfair about that, and it really became clear to me on the weekend.
Something more recent blog readers may not know is that before we turned 50, Sam and I each took at turn at the Precision Nutrition Lean Eating Program. We both came away with mixed feelings. Some of the info was helpful and the focus on “healthy habits” matched a lot of what we already thought. But we both absolutely despise the photo contest. And since we are former clients, we each get an email encouraging us to vote on the best “transformation” every six months (every six months they have a new group commit to a year of coaching). That happened this week. And we started venting to each other all over again. Now we are going to vent about it to whoever wants to read on…
What I hate most about the Precision Nutrition photo competition is the dishonesty.
In the very early 1980s my very best friend wanted to be in our town’s beauty pageant but she didn’t want to take part in the bathing suit competition. They tried to reassure her that it wasn’t about looking good in a bikini. Instead, it was about showing that you took good care of your body and that you had confidence in a bathing suit. She argued back. We were both budding feminists. Isn’t it easier to have confidence if you look great in a bikini? How do you know who is taking care of their body? All you see is them in a bikini? But they were having none of it. She took part and refused to wear a bathing suit. She lost gracefully in a beautiful beach caftan. I miss you Leeanne!
The PN photo competition is the same. I asked about it when I was enrolled in the program. I said it didn’t seem to match all of their material on health and wellness. Why the focus on appearance? Like the beauty pageant, they said it was really about confidence and well-being. You could tell from the contestant’s posture that they were happier. You could tell from the glow of their skin that they were healthier. It’s an inner transformation contest!
Except what we are judging is the exterior. And this idea that you read things off a person’s body is pernicious. Like people who think they can tell you’re lazy by looking at your weight. Or worse, in children’s stories, that we can tell that you’re evil because you’re ugly. Or in the worst of children’s stories that your soul is deformed because your body is disabled.
So if you’re judging bodies, judge bodies. That’s not my thing. But be honest about it. Don’t say you’re judging health, wellness, or confidence.
I don’t love dishonesty either. The whole idea of judging someone’s “transformation,” whether inner or outer, makes me really uncomfortable. And like Sam says, if you’re only going by the before and after photo, then it’s totally based on the body transformation.
If you wanted to judge something more, then how about asking them to write an essay? Or do a Q&A?
I look at the photos and I just feel really sad for the women in them. A year of working on healthy habits and it comes down to this? A photo to put beside your “before” photo so we can see and judge how you’ve changed. It’s excruciating to look at grown women posing in swimsuits or workout gear, under a headline that tells you for each how many inches and pounds she lost, so they can be scored in a contest.
It feels demeaning in all the ways a beauty pageant is demeaning. Surely we are more than our bodies? And surely we ought not be judged for our bodies, on the basis of whether someone finds them pleasing or approves of our physical transformation?
When I did it they spent an entire month trying to get us to have a professional photo shoot. Of course they would. The photo contest is probably one of their biggest ways to bring in new clients, and the better the pictures the better the (free) advertising. I quite resented that part too–the many arguments they gave to encourage everyone (when we are already paying a lot) to get professional “swimsuit” pics so they can use them in their advertising. For sure no matter who you are the amateur selfie smartphone “before” picture will not be as good as a professional “after” shot taken in a studio by an actual photographer with an actual camera. That would be true even if the “before” was taken just minutes before the “after”!
I hated the photo contest when I did PN, and I still think it’s the worst part of the entire year.
On Friday morning I had a dilemma. I was in Chicago, which is a great running city. But it was raining, and not just a little bit. I considered my three options: 1. skip it; 2. run on the treadmill; 3. go out in the rain anyway.
I had no intention of skipping my run. After a day in the car on Thursday, my body wanted to move. So option #1 was off the table. Treadmills are for the worst winter weather and it’s not winter. So that ruled out option #2. Besides that, I’m feeling really motivated with the 10K training these days and I didn’t want to miss my tempo run or slog it out on the treadmill. So I head out.
At the beginning, it wasn’t raining all that hard. Just a little misty drizzle, really. It was kind of cool, which felt so good. I usually associate summer running in Chicago with heat and humidity. It was a pleasant change, actually, to run in the cooler wet weather.
But at about the half way point the gentle drizzle turned a bit harder. There were very few people out even before that. As I turned onto the lake shore pathway, it started to pour. But I was determined to do my tempo run and maintain the pace as best as I could despite the rain. When I turned around at the halfway point, I discovered I had been running in a tail wind. Conditions got a bit more unpleasant at that stage, but there wasn’t a lot I could do about it.
By then I was soaked right through. But I felt really good because it was pretty temperate, and the rain kept me from over heating. On my way back up Michigan Avenue towards the hotel, I stopped in at Starbucks to get a soy latte. That’s when it became really clear that I was totally wet from head to toes. I stood in line dripping in my running gear while everyone else was all dressed for work, picking up their coffee on the way.
When I got my latte, it was still raining really hard, but by then it didn’t matter anymore. So I just took a few sips so I wouldn’t lose any on the way back, headed outside, and ran back to the hotel (the Omni). Both times I went running on the weekend, I was offered a cold bottle of water when I walked in the front door. And on the rainy day, I was also handed a nice fresh towel so I could dry myself off.
I’m really glad I decided to go for it and not skip my run or do the treadmill. It’s a good reminder that when the temperatures are reasonable and it’s not an electrical storm, running in the rain is kind of pleasant.