accessibility · body image · fitness · gender policing · inclusiveness · swimming

Being Naked in Public, pt 2: languages of instruction

Back in December I wrote a post about being naked in public, three ways: in new “universal” change rooms in pools in my city of Hamilton, Ontario; in the same kinds of spaces (with WAY more cubicles and tight corners) in London, England; and in a public spa and thermal bath complex in Konstanz, Germany (few cubicles; lots of comfy nudity).

My questions in that post revolved around etiquette, protocol, expectation, and the cultural labour these spaces appear to be doing towards supporting inclusive, body-positive community (whether or not they are actually doing that labour).

Today, for the first time in a while, I returned to one of the facilities here in Hamilton that have converted to M/F/U change spaces; I was overbooked and had to skip my usual Friday swim (which happens at an older facility not yet renovated to include a gender-neutral room).

To my surprise, when I swanned toward the universal change room entryway, I found this:

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(A sign, posted on a green cinder-block wall, that reads: “Change in dressing cubicle only; clothing or bathing suit myst be worn at all times outside dressing cubicle.” The images on the sign include a green circle around a woman’s body clad in a one-piece swim suit and a man’s body clad in swim shorts; and a red circle with a strike-through against the images of the same bodies, with one-piece and shorts off to the side. Note: I snapped this photo from the change-room threshold, which is barrier-free and opens onto the lobby. I made sure no bodies were nearby in order to respect the “no photography in change rooms” rule.)

I stopped for a minute, a bit gobsmacked. New sign; aggressive sign.

NO NUDITY! DO NOT EXIT THE CUBICLES NUDE! THIS IS A GENDER NEUTRAL SPACE!

OK, so that’s not exactly what the sign said. But it might as well have.

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I googled “gender-neutral change room etiquette” and this list of do’s and don’ts turned up. It is haranguing: be neat, tidy, and for god’s sake cover up your freaking horrific human of a body; don’t be lazy, slow, or glowery. Get the fuck out ASAP. Sounds familiar.)

I’m trained as a literature scholar and a scholar of theatre and performance; that means I read cultural texts for their nuances, for a living, and try to make sense of what they aim to accomplish amongst actual, human lives.

My pool’s universal change-room sign said the following to me.

The bright blue that backgrounds “Change in dressing cubicle ONLY” sets that text off in sharp relief. All-caps for ONLY is scolding typography, as though to say: DO NOT DARE LEAVE YOUR CUBICLE NAKED! It is fairly patronizing and deeply shaming.

The images are workmanlike and designed to be read across languages and cultural contexts (more or less; only North American Christianity could, if you ask me, dream up such a blatantly unsexy way to render human nudity). The communication is meant to cross language barriers because there are lots of immigrants in our community (I witnessed one Chinese-language speaker interacting with a lifeguard this afternoon, for example), and the sign is obviously in part, if not primarily, targeted at them.

So tick the xenophobia box too, please.

The sign makes no mention of the showers – my personal favourite part of locker-room-sanctioned nudity – but we can guess the implied protocol.

What to make of this?

Well, on a purely pragmatic level, I’ll tell you what I made of it in the split second it took me to decide what to do with my body upon encountering this sign.

I realized I could be my nude and joyous post-swimming self only in the women’s change room, so I went there.

And here’s the rub, the sad bit, the loss: I had to choose between body-positive feelings, and the gender-neutral change room.

Some neutrality; some body positivity!

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(Another image that popped up in my google search. It reads, in a plain, sans-serif font: “A gender-neutral restroom designation means this restroom is safe for transgender, gender non-conforming, genderqueer people, as well as people of all gender identities and expressions. If you choose to use this restroom, you are aware that it is a safe space. Please refrain from gender policing… If you are uncomfortable using a gender-neutral restroom, please use any of the other restrooms, as this is your privilege.” NOW THIS SIGN I CAN SUPER GET BEHIND.)

I thought a lot about the change-room sign incident after I left the pool. I thought, too, about the several FFI community members who fed back about my original post and noted they would not be super comfortable nude in mixed spaces.

I realized that my biggest problem with the sign wasn’t the message it was (sort of, maybe, clumsily?) trying to communicate.

The problem was with language, and its intention.

The sign is trying, I think, to say this: DO NOT GET NAKED IN FRONT OF PEOPLE WHO DO NOT WANT TO SEE YOU NAKED. ALSO: DO NOT GET NAKED AGGRESSIVELY.

This is, totally, a worthy goal.

But the language also, therefore, assumes predation, assumes a lack of tact and generosity on the part of body-positive users; it assumes that all bodies in the space share a sense of nudity-as-shame, nudity-as-aggression. Which isn’t true.

So in the car on the way to my next gig, I started thinking about how I might phrase some similar caution in a more welcoming, dare I say body-positive-positive, way.

I came up with this:

This change room is a gender-neutral, body-positive space that welcomes people of all identifications.

Please use the space in a way that respects the privacy and comfort level of others around you.

Thank you!

(I’m not sure about imagery. I’d love suggestions!)

The language I’m proposing states what I hope are the deep intentions behind the creation of the space: it’s for everyone, care-fully. I think that’s the idea behind gender-neutral spaces in Hamilton-area pools; I’m not sure, though. (My sense from the sign I encountered today is that they might be souped-up “family” change rooms. Sigh.)

It also places the responsibility for fair use on a community of users, acting together in everyone’s best interests. (This is called democracy, btw. At least to me.)

Are you alone in the space? Go nuts! You do you! Get naked, sing ABBA. Rock on.

Is someone in the space with you who seems more modest, shy? Perhaps calibrate your ostentation to remember that they also share this space, and that your ostentation might be taking up more than its fair share of that space, for them.

Is someone in the space with you who might be nervous about your presence? That’s ok – they are here because they have trust and faith. Be you, but not aggressively. Instead, assert your good will toward that person.

Is someone in the space with you who might think you are unnerved by them? That’s ok – it’s part of the process of becoming a community. Be you, welcomingly.

This is just one shot – my shot – at a better way to say what needs to be made clear in gender-neutral spaces: some protocol for what to do once you’re inside, but not in a way that assumes a normative sense of embodiment, nor that assumes body-as-shame.

Do you have examples of, or suggestions for, gender-neutral change-room etiquette? I’d love to hear!

Yours swimmingly,

Kim

advertising · body image · diets · men · motivation

Men, don’t change much but women, you’re doing everything wrong!

We’ve all heard the message of small changes, Make small changes to improve your health and fitness

And for Canadian Men’s Health week that’s the message, Don’t Change Much.

I love the motto, “Half fries, half salad, once in awhile” in this radio spot,

 

There are lots of reasons to start small. Tracy, here on the blog, has been a big advocate of doing less.  I’ve written about aiming for a 2/3 vegan diet because a fully vegan diet seems too much and it’s better overall, if it’s sustainable, to just eat fewer animal products.

In general, lots of public health agencies push a moderate message because it’s more likely to be motivational.

But I worry it’s gendered. We send men the moderate message, while women strive for perfection. We tell men that the “dad bod” is hot but there’s no such equivalent as the “mom bod.”

I love this Southern Comfort ad but can’t imagine a women’s version.

Instead, the message I hear that’s aimed at women is “OMG women, eat less, move more, sleep more, spend more time with your families, advance your careers, GO GO GO!”

It’s hard to imagine the “don’t change much” campaign aimed at women. What might it look like?

 

 

body image · equality · fitness · inclusiveness · Martha's Musings · stereotypes · training · weight stigma

Weight bias and obesity interventions: no easy answers

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A person wearing a black swim dress and pink flip flops gets ready to swim.

By MarthaFitat55

A while ago I had reason to consult with an anaesthetist. We went through the risk assessment and had a chat. The clinic nurse had told me the team might have some questions because of my weight.

Fair enough. I could hardly fault them given what’s involved in going under, so to speak. But I was cautious because context is so often missing when numbers are thrown around, especially numbers relating to the Body Mass Index (BMI).

According to that scale, one originally developed by insurance companies, I am obese. Anaesthetists aren’t fond of having to deal with obese people. So we had a chat and it was actually quite good.

Here’s the thing: I eat reasonably well, with almost all the required fruits and veggies, high fibre foods, lower fat choices, more fish and legumes, and less red meat and alcohol, our health system deems the better diet to follow.

I’m also pretty active. At the time of the chat, I was weight training twice a week, swimming two to three times a week, taking a trail walk lasting more than an hour weekly, and looking to get my steps in on a daily basis.

The doctor asked me about the weight training, and I ran through the numbers: bench was around 48kg, deadlift was around 105kg, and squat was 97.5 kg. So those numbers tipped the deal. If I could do all that, then I wouldn’t have any trouble, they concluded.

It made me think though. For the past ten years, I have acted on the guideline about eating less junk and focusing more on whole foods while being more more mindful about how active I am.

Truth is, I’m not prepared to starve nor am I prepared to add any more hours of activity (in fact I am at or past the threshold for the recommended 150 to 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week already).

At the back of my mind, I always believe I should be able to do more, and yet I can’t. It bugs me when I hear facile comments repeated in every weight loss inspiration story shared by the media. We all make choices, but some times even the good choices don’t make that much difference.

When SamB shared an article about how such tag lines like “Eat less, move more” contribute to weight bias, I was intrigued.

And I felt vindicated. Despite all my efforts in the gym, in the kitchen and yes, in my own mind, when I ran up against health professionals, who looked at numbers like BMI as reliable indicators of health, I felt my work was not enough, nor good enough, to make the difference society expected in my body shape.

Nor am I the only one. Canadian Obesity Network researcher Ximena Ramos Salas looked at obesity prevention policies and messages. She tested the messages with people living with obesity and what she heard was illuminating.

The short form is those messages don’t work. They are neither helpful nor accurate.

“Saying obesity is simply an issue of diet and exercise trivializes the disease. It makes those living with obesity feel like it is a lifestyle or behavioural choice, and therefore their fault. This causes them to feel judged and shamed, and to internalize the stigma of weight bias.”

Ramos Salas also reported “People told me that the public health messages were not relevant to their experiences. They didn’t relate to the messaging, they felt it didn’t consider other factors that contribute to their obesity that are unique to them, like genetics, mental health, medications and so on. It did not reflect the challenges that they faced while trying to manage their weight on a daily basis.”

I think these are two useful insights that should get more attention. But the best message arising from the research Ramos Salas is engaged in is this: “Not everyone who is big has obesity. People come in different shapes and sizes, so the idea that we categorize people based on their size as ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ is not accurate.”

I was fortunate I met with a health professional who was open to hearing about my numbers intead of relying on a flawed indicator to make a decision about my health status. Too many people though do not and some actually close that door themselves because they are not confident they will get the care they need.

For me, my conversation with the anaesthetist helped validate my choices about the fitness path I am on even though assumptions about weight and health by others may have forced the issue. I may never meet the biased image for health and fitness such weight stigma imposes, but I know I am doing the best I can given my circumstances. To suggest otherwise is limiting and dismissive.

— Martha is a writer and powerlifter in St. John’s.

body image · fitness

Lizards loving their bellies, and you can love yours too

It’s summer, season of belly baring and angst about bodies. Lately I’ve been wondering about why we, and I’m including myself here, care so much about the way our middles look.

See Why do women strive for abdominal perfection?

I care about abdominal strength. I’ve taken up small boat sailing and doing some hiking. But visible abs? Why can’t we love our bellies as they are?

I’ve had three kids and it shows. I’d like to think about my belly the way I think about these lizard bellies. Cute!

See also:

Free the bellies

Middle age bellies, body acceptance and menopause

Belly patrolling

body image · feminism · fitness · health · philosophy

Body image: the blog’s most popular topic

Image description: Pic of Sam (left) and Tracy (right) both smiling (photo credit Ruth Kivilahti) with text "Episode 69 Body Image with Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs" and "PURPOSEFUL STRENGTH" and a quote "The difference is the treatment from etc external world. There are some kinds of oppression that larger people cace that smaller people don't but I think the internal stuff we all share." Borrowed from Sarah Polacco's Instagram.
Image description: Pic of Sam (left) and Tracy (right) both smiling (photo credit Ruth Kivilahti) with text “Episode 69 Body Image with Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs” and “PURPOSEFUL STRENGTH” and a quote “The difference is the treatment from etc external world. There are some kinds of oppression that larger people cace that smaller people don’t but I think the internal stuff we all share.” Borrowed from Sarah Polacco’s Instagram.

Body image continues to be the blog’s most popular topic among readers. It’s been like that since the beginning. Over three years ago Sam blogged about “Why a fitness blog cares so much about body image.”

For one thing, our readers care. But also, body image and fitness are inextricably tied together in many people’s minds. Especially as feminists, we are keenly aware of the way mainstream fitness narratives usually include thinness or at least weight loss narratives in central ways. It is highly unusual for someone to think of fitness independently of dropping pounds or getting leaner or needing to look a certain way (even if that way isn’t necessarily realistic or healthy — see “She May Look Healthy But…Why fitness models aren’t models of health”).

What’s interesting too is that Sam and I have very different personal body image stories, though we agree (as we frequently do) about the bigger picture of why it matters, why it’s a struggle for many women, and why we need to continue to give it attention on the blog.

We shared our latest thoughts on body image with Sarah Polacco for her amazing podcast, Purposeful Strength. You can find her podcast on iTunes, and if you’re interested in hearing our discussion of body image, check out Episode 69, out just this week. Here’s the iTunes link, but you can also find it on Soundcloud and no doubt other platforms.

body image · weight loss

Why make it all about weight? Can’t it just be a good hair day?

Saturday night I went to a concert.

I looked good, if I do say so. A snazzy new pink dress. Pink lipstick. Blonde wild curls.

It had been a humid day, the best kind for making perfect curls.

Here’s a serious selfie and a smiling selfie complete with photobombed bunny ears.

No big deal, right? Except after the concert I met up with a friend who was seated on the floor of the church. I’d been in the balcony. We met over coffee and cake in the church parlor.

And then it began.

“How much weight have you lost? You’ve lost weight, right? You’re practically slipping away into nothing. I couldn’t recognize you you’ve lost so much weight. How much weight have you lost anyway?”

Now to be clear, I haven’t lost much weight. Maybe five pounds since the whole talk of knee replacement surgery began back in November. That’s less than one pound a month, if I quickly do the math.

Here’s the post where I talk about the knee surgeon’s recommendation that I lose weight to help avoid surgery.

I weigh more than 200 lbs. Even if I’d lost more weight, I’m hardly slipping away into nothing. I’m pretty solidly, largely here.

Like Tracy, I hate the you’ve lost weight, you look great talk.

I think that night I did look great but I don’t think it was about weight at all. Nice dress, good hair, pink lipstick and toenails! But if you look good, it must be that you’d lost weight, right? Sigh.

And what’s with this “slipping away into nothing” talk. Why is that a good thing? Can’t women, shouldn’t women, proudly take up space?

I’m curious friends, followers, and readers, how to you handle weird, well meaning weight loss comments? What do you say?

body image · diets · eating disorders · fashion · fitness · Martha's Musings

We are more than a collection of parts

 

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Women being active and not worrying about thigh gap, or hip cleavage, or any other nonsense Photo by Kyle Pham on Unsplash

It’s tiring to be female in this world. I can only speak from a cis-perspective, of course, but it occurs to me, that howsoever you come to identify as a female, there is an endless list of things you must have or prevent if you are to present acceptably as female.

 

First it was thigh gap, that space between a woman’s thighs — the wider it is, the thinner and more desirable the women. Then it was the concave navel. Now we have a new one: hip cleavage, or what I knew as high cut underwear or swimsuit bottoms to show off the hip bones.

We are all familar with the term cleavage as associated with breasts. Plunging necklines in dresses are designed to show off cleavage. There are right ways and wrong ways to show off cleavage in the upper body.

Too much in the wrong way means you end up with sideboob reveals; too much in the right way means you may risk a wardrobe malfunction and subject unsuspecting bystanders to a glimpse of the “girls.” These days, the focus, and perhaps the parts in question, has shifted to the underboob (I can hardly wait to see if there is an upper boob!).

Regardless of the terminology, the prinicpal issue is that women continue to be divided into parts. Perhaps it’s the legs (although it and the toes had cleavage back in the day). Let’s not forget the butt or the breasts, with fashion dictating whether they were perky, ample, lean or sleek.

When I used to deliver media literacy sessions to high school students, we would talk about the techniques used to separate, disconnect, and isolate girls and women from their bodies. Instead of being seen as whole, unique individuals with our own kind of beauty, women and their bodies are broken into parts and given meaning and value by others.

The obsession with thinnness as a beauty standard has fueled anxieties and nurtured the development of eating disorders; sadly, girls and women continue to starve themselves to fit a largely artificial construct of “female” beauty.

In Canada, those of us who work in health promotion talk about the vitality message — eat well, be active, live smoke free, and support mental wellness. Being active offers tremendous health benefits and it makes me sad to see fitness being used negatively to coerce women into creating and maintaining a body shape that is not natural to them.

 

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Another picture of fabulous women not caring about articifial body constructs. Photo by Clarke Sanders on Unsplash

 

Focusing on hip cleavage is just another stick we use to bash away at ourselves. It’s a stick handed to us by the arbiters of fashion and trends (I keep meaning to ask, who died and made them the rulers of the universe?) and quite frankly, I’m tired of it all.

We need to rewrite the script and start talking positively, frequently, and loudly about all the good things we can with our bodies: how strong our legs are to drive our bikes and our feet on our runs; how powerful our arms are so we can lift, wheel, and strike; how big our chests can be to ensure we can take in the oxygen we need to keep going; how wide our hips can be to birth children or to cuddle them.

We are enough as we are. In fact, we always were. Let’s remember that.

— Martha is a writer and powerlifter in St. John’s.