body image · covid19 · femalestrength · gender policing · normative bodies · self care

Own this moment for yourself

It’s week eight? nine? of lockdown. I’m running out of stuff to read, stuff to watch, and I’m really missing my partner, who is quarantined with his family in India. We’re not sure when he’ll be able to come home.

I’m also not sure when we will be able to go and visit my mom and dad properly again, as they are in their 80s and my father is a lung cancer survivor.

I’m alone, then, and feeling it really hard now. It’s been 71 days since another human being hugged me.

I found normalcy and solace riding my bicycle, for a while. I felt antsy about the possibility of an accident that would leave me stranded, but I was adamant I’d continue to ride nevertheless, for my own mental health. Then, a routine tune-up revealed a crack in my bike’s carbon fork, and we were benched for three weeks while waiting for the replacement part.

UGH.

Meanwhile, Spring began springing up around me. I took my mind off the bike thing by focusing as much as possible on my garden, staining the fence, repainting the porch railing. But then the wind shifted, the skies greyed, and snow (??!!) flew through the air yesterday morning.

I retreated inside, into my head.

Freddie, my road bike, with grey frame, orange bar tape, and orange accents, in happier times (last summer in Wales). Luckily, the cracked carbon fork was replaced under warranty!

Many of us are struggling with the lurching feelings of lockdown; Susan has written beautifully about that experience here. My own sense of balance has been challenged hard, and I’ve found it so important to continue, via Zoom, with my psychotherapy. I’ve made some important breakthroughs (apparently, therapy based in my own dining room REALLY works, who knew?), and I’ve been thinking about how a lack of control over some aspects of my life in the Time Before parallels my queasy feelings right now.

I’ve also realized, as a result, how important it is to find some ownership over my experience of lockdown.

This ownership isn’t the same as control – controlling this situation is impossible and it’s a fool’s errand to try. Rather, owning this experience – partially, provisionally, imperfectly – for me means crafting a lockdown story for myself that makes me feel again like the proud, strong and powerful woman I know I am.

How am I doing this? A few ways. I’m holding to a weekly schedule that helps me to differentiate work time, home time, and weekend time. (Basically, weekends are when I can have alcohol, and donuts.) I’m walking with my dog as much as I can. I’m working out on Zoom with The Amazing Alex, and doing my usual Iyengar yoga too.

Oh, and I cut my hair off – RIGHT THE FECK OFF.

 

I only goofed once! Luckily, the arms of my snappy sunglasses cover the error.

We all know how toxic the policing of women’s bodies (in terms of size and weight) is; for many of us, this policing also encompasses our hair.

My childhood was defined by body image anxiety, and that anxiety was as much about my hair as it was about my shape. I have many vivid memories of failing to “do” my hair right, to borrow an apt turn of phrase from the queer philosopher Judith Butler.

Although my hair was naturally curly, my mom kept getting me perms. (I don’t think my mom has ever not had a perm, in all the years I’ve known her. It seemed natural to me to want/need one too.) Every time we went to the hairdresser, I hoped against hope that this time I’d look good, correct, more or less like my friends (aka “normal” girls).

Every time, I emerged looking like a 12-year-old Betty White.

Betty White, laughing, rocks her ‘do. It looks great ON HER.

For years I clipped my fringe up with bobby pins, trying to create some kind of fashionable front curl; what happened instead was that the others (aka, the “normal” girls) made fun of the fussy bird’s nest that resulted.

Although I didn’t know WHAT to do to solve my hair trauma, I had a niggling sense that my hair didn’t actually look good long. But long hair made me a girl, right?

Which meant I actually sort of looked like Betty White with a mullet.


Like I said: hair is a trigger for me.

It’s been a long time now that I have worn my hair short; I went full pixie back in 2013. I get my hair cut every 5 weeks; I’ve been getting my hair cut every 5 weeks for 7 years.

I didn’t understand until now how important haircuts have become to me as I’ve adjusted my perspective on my body as an adult; far from the trauma of the perms of the past, they now represent me taking control of that old narrative, the one about not having a clue about my ‘do, and learning to love my woman’s body in a non-conventional way.

So, as we sailed past the 10-weeks-since-a-cut mark last Monday, I felt the weight of my hair in my hands in the shower and knew I had to chop it off myself.

I drove to my parents’ apartment building and we had a socially distanced visit in the lobby as I dropped off a Mother’s Day gift and grabbed my dad’s clippers. Back home, I watched a bunch of YouTube videos, read the instruction manual for the clippers online, and moved the kitchen table back from the mirror that sits above it.

I stood in front of the mirror, stared at my reflection, and held the tool in my right hand. I was terrified.

But then I suddenly knew that absolutely nothing I could do to my head would feel worse than the creeping reminder of my toxic past staring back at me in that moment.

I began at my right ear; it took about 15 minutes. Loads of people have complimented me on it. And I feel like an absolute badass!

Hands down, cutting off all my hair has been the most empowering thing I’ve ever done.

femalestrength · feminism · fitness

How My Father Raised a Fit Feminist … Without Intending To

Tomorrow is five years since my father died. Despite the worldwide pandemic in progress (and how irresistible and necessary it is to write about), I’m dedicating today’s words to the ways in which my father shaped my fitness and my feminism.

I’ll start with this: my father was a pretty traditional man. Born in 1942 in Saskatchewan, he was raised in an observant Jewish home. My grandfather, a gentle soul, worked in the department store his father owned. My grandmother was the energetic current the rest of the family plugged into. An artist, mainly a painter, with a few sculptures thrown in for good measure, her métier never took precedence over family. Her studio was in the scary basement. Before she married, she got her Masters in Economics. She got a job at the Bank of Canada. This was the 1930s. When she decided to get married, she burned the sole copy of her Master’s thesis and turned her back economics. She was radical-Kondo long before that craze. She kept up her intellectual curiosity though, always taking my grandfather to classes in philosophy and other light (haha) disciplines.

With a mother like this, my father believed in the intelligence and capacity of women. At the same time, he never took women quite as seriously as men. An intelligent woman always risked sliding over the line into a ball breaker or shrew. He ruled over our household in lordly fashion. As a white man of privilege, he assumed his particularities were the way it should be. He dictated meal times and the precise manner in which we should fold towels, roused us early (even on weekends), doled out allowances to my mother, who held everything together on the home front, which was no small feat with three children (as many families confined together are finding out afresh these days).

Baby Mina (that’s me!) with my parents

While he never questioned my intelligence or right to a career, the only other member of our family whose intelligence he trusted was my youngest brother’s. Still, we take what we can get and my father gave me enough credit for my mind that one of the few things I don’t doubt about myself (in that this-is-how-I-was-raised-DNA-deep-way) is my capacity for thinking. I know that most men are absolutely not smarter than I am. As smart, of course. Smart in different ways, of course. But not smarter. This is one of the cornerstones of my feminism (there were also a lot of strong and smart women in my life—including my mother and my grandmothers). But this is about my father. A profound thank you, Dad.

As for fitness, my father loved to cycle (all geeked out with the dentist-like-mirror attached to his helmet and enough tools and bike bits to rebuild his bike and anyone else’s who happened along). Other people might put titanium screws in their bike to shave off some miniscule amount of weight. My father didn’t care how extravagantly large his bike bag got. He was a rolling bike shop. I rode with him then and still love biking. He recalled us running together, too. He claimed to even remember the day we went to Gibbons Park (in London, Ontario) and I outran him for the first time. Apparently, it was also the last time he ran with me. I wish I remembered that. But I’m happy to have the implanted memory of nascent speed.   

Yet, when I feel his presence now, it’s neither running nor biking, but when I’m cross-country skiing uphill. My family cross-country skied together, but certainly not regularly. The first time my father joined me on a solo ski was the winter after his death. I was climbing out of the Euer Valley (at TDXC in Truckee, CA), my heart punching against my chest like a prisoner in despair, I felt my lips contract into the shape of an O, heard the bubbly intake of saliva through my teeth in the exact way my father did, when he was pushing against a wall of effort (physical, mechanical or mental).  And in the same moment I became aware of thoughts that weren’t mine, that were his, “I can do this.  Hang on a second.  I almost have it.  If I can just …”  As if my brain had been temporarily appropriated by him, but I was aware of the theft and could bear witness to it.  From time to time, his signature intake of concentrated breath still finds me when I’m cross-country skiing.

At the end he chose not to pursue radiation, because it would have impinged on his quality of life more than any extra weeks were worth. The treatment was going to take away his sense of smell and taste (just as a start). He couldn’t bear the idea of losing the revel of his too-early-in-the-morning-for-anyone-else-in-the-house-trying-to-sleep-and-instead-waking-to-the-sound-of-milk-being-steamed cappuccinos. He lived longer than predicted, even if he’d had radiation, and he enjoyed his capps until the last couple of weeks.

Shortly after he died, I developed a passion for macchiattos, which are really just a miniaturized version of a cappucino. I’m not a coffee drinker and never had one of my father’s cappucinos. But once a week now I love the indulgence of that tiny shot of espresso with a dot of foamed milk on top. I have appropriated his pleasure for myself, an homage to his tradition. A pleasure I will savor with immeasurable gusto when I can next go to a coffee shop. Because the thing is, I can’t drink my macchiato takeout. It has to be in the adorable little cup. Ideally, it’s a super charge treat for end of day with my partner before going out with friends. I’m willing to wait for the full experience, on the great day when we are allowed to mingle again.

In the meantime, sending wishes to all for health and a safe physical (but not social) distance.

femalestrength · fitness · football · kids and exercise · soccer · team sports

Warren vs The Wolves: What To Tell Your Teenager Daughters About Sports, Power, and Taking Over the World

This week I’ve shared a post with my online teaching community, The Activist Classroom, about Sarah DeLappe’s amazing 2016 play, The Wolves. The play follows nine powerful young women, 16- and 17-year-olds, through their indoor soccer season; in it I find a different kind of future to the one that Elizabeth Warren imagines when she fears, in her primary concession speech on 5 March, that we might need to wait four more years for an American woman to come into real power.

If you’re wondering how to inspire your teenage daughter – OR your teenage son, or young people of all genders around you… and maybe yourself too! – this post is for you.

(Read the post on The Activist Classroom here.)

***

Last night, Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the 2020 Democratic primary race, leaving Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to duke it out for a shot at Agent Orange in November. She was the last of a remarkably diverse group of contenders, ground-breaking numbers of whom were women. I read, crestfallen, all the commentary on the “fall” of Warren last night and this morning, as it tried to remind me that, in the end, being smart, experienced, level-headed, and a powerfully galvanizing public speaker was not enough, is never enough, for a women to overcome the “electability” factor.

Sitting at lunch yesterday with a feminist friend and colleague from the states, we commiserated; “I don’t think we will see a female president in our lifetime,” she said.

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These are The Wolves; keep reading. (Photo from the Howland Company production at Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto, October 2018)

As she reached the final stages of this primary race, Warren stood unabashedly for every smart and capable woman who has ever been asked to stand down, implicitly or explicitly, because of her gender. She was a warrior on the stage, calling out privilege and hypocrisy. In one of my favourite moments from the primary race, she asked an Iowa debate crowd to look around them: “Collectively,” she said, the men on stage with her “have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in, are the women, Amy and me.”

True to this fighting form, Warren’s concession speech last night spoke directly to the pedagogical consequences of her departure. “One of the hardest parts of this,” she said as she conceded the competition, “is all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years.”

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Four more years? Or right f#$king now? The Wolves burst forth off Broadway in September 2016.

Given America’s penchant for supporting diversity in theory, and then choosing male, White supremacism in practice, I’m not sure four more years (as my friend and colleague noted) is going to do it. And the US is hardly alone here; Canada has had but one female prime minister, Kim Campbell, and she was the “fall guy” who took the political hit after the collapse of Brian Mulroney’s neoliberal Tories in the early 1990s. There are lots of other examples I could cite from the political landscapes of the so-called “developed West” (Julia Gillard, anyone?), but I’m getting tired just thinking about it.

(Thank heavens for, and long live the reign of, Jacinda Ardern, and shout out to the amazing women fighting for political justice in so many other countries around the world.)

So: let’s turn away from politics for a bit, and let’s think about that charge of four more, long years.

What can, and will, our young women learn in those four years about their strength and their power, as well as about the consequences of that old patriarchal saw, “likability”? How might we foreground – give space and light and air and time to – the former, and use them to challenge the misogynist perniciousness of the latter? What tools are already in place for us to share different kinds of lessons about our collective feminist capability, about young women’s overwhelming strength?

It so happens, this week of all weeks, that I spent part of Monday reading a terrific play, The Wolves, by Sarah DeLappe. The Wolves follows the eponymous team of indoor soccer players, nine 16- and 17-year old young women, through the winter bowels of their season. They warm up, play, and warm down again; get sick and get better; discuss the difficult material they are learning in school (the show opens with a volley about the ethical complexities of the Khmer Rouge!); talk frankly about both their bodies (pads or tampons?) and about their creepy coach (who once asked them to warm up in their sports bras… He never appears on stage; he’s plainly not a factor in their incredible on-field success.). Finally, they weather a terrible accident together.

Contrasting shots of the same moment, Still Life with Orange Slices: off Broadway, left, and at Streetcar Crowsnest, right.

Across five scenes we watch them be, variously, athletes, students of the world, and complex individuals, together; there are tougher girls and quieter girls, the brainy girl and the new girl, but nobody is a stereotype – no-one is just one thing. They are a group, finding their (incredible, near-unbeatable!) strength together, coordinating their play together, growing into their power together. They are vulnerable but they are also a team of winners – and they know it.

I’m currently writing about The Wolves for a collection of essays about sports and performance; I was invited to contribute by colleagues who know I have a side-line in feminist sports writing. (If you’re reading this on Fit is a Feminist Issueplease check out The Activist Classroom, my other online home!) I gamely said yes to this invitation because the topic interested me, but I didn’t suggest The Wolves as my focus; the editors handed it to me, and until this week I hadn’t realized what a remarkable piece of teaching – let alone what a great piece of drama – it is.

Lots of young women have poor memories of grade-school gym class, and conflicted, if not difficult, memories of playing on sports teams as adolescents or teenagers. My own memories of childhood softball and floor hockey, high school track (VERY briefly), and university rowing (ditto) are of a reproduction of failure: I was larger than the average girl, I felt awkward in my body, my hand-eye coordination was a bit crap, and I received the kind of feedback from coaches (as opposed to, say, actual coaching from coaches…) that reaffirmed my cementing view of myself (fat/uncoordinated/not a good enough girl on-field or off). Eventually, even when I think (now) I could have succeeded brilliantly (track; rowing), I gave up, because I couldn’t overcome that inner sense of failure – not just failure as an athlete, but failure as a woman.

(Side note: none of the coaches I worked with helped, not women nor men. Amazing how well we reproduce patriarchy on the sports field, when we aren’t thoughtful about our words and actions! I can empathize fully with the Wolves; I’d have left my coach in the stands too, if I could have.)

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Hard play means conflict; negotiation; team work is hard. But these sisters are doing it for themselves – no creepy male coach required.

The Wolves ends with the kind of plot twist you might expect in a lesser piece of work, but as in its handling of young women athletes, here it defies expectations. Nothing gets wrapped up. Fights are not resolved; they are just sidelined while the team holds space for one another, with imperfect generosity. The young women warm up, move their bodies together, and talk. Then, all of a sudden, one of the team’s moms appears.

She is the only “adult” in the show, and she’s onstage only for about five minutes. But this is long enough for her to interrupt this young women’s space, this circle of astroturf and passing games and honest, difficult girl talk. She seizes the space, not aware at all of how she’s usurped it. The teammates sit and listen, stunned but unfailingly kind. Eventually, she leaves, and they elect to chant their battle cry. Huddled together, faces away from us, their song builds, their bodies bounce, then jump, then fly: WE. ARE. THE. WOLVES. WE! ARE! THE! WOLVES!

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Rehearsing for The Wolves in New York, 2016. 

I wonder, this morning, whether Elizabeth Warren is maybe that soccer mom at the end of the play. Whether she has perhaps underestimated the circle of women around her, misread the signs. Do we need to wait four more years to put a woman into “real” power, to overcome the ridiculous bullshit that is the “electability” factor? Maybe, but maybe not. Perhaps we need to look away from the old messaging, and perhaps we also need to look toward new spaces to locate the women’s power that we can’t yet fully see. In Sweden, Greta Thunberg started skipping school, sat down in front of a government building, and started a global movement. On their suburban astroturf in the dead of winter, The Wolves sounded their battle cry, and changed the shape of “girl plays” forever.

Let’s listen to these powerful young voices, honour them in the spaces they have adopted as their seats of power, and encourage them to re-conceive what power means – over the course of these next four years, and beyond.

Not planning on waiting,

Kim

 

athletes · equality · femalestrength · fitness · gender policing

Representing women in sports: we’re not there yet, but it might be getting better

As I temporarily merged with my parents’ couch over the holidays (save for the occasional jaunt outside for a run, to the pool, or to the table to eat all the festive food), I came across an article in The Guardian entitled “Powerful photographs perfectly illustrate the rise of women’s sport”. It’s an interesting article with loads of iconic pictures from the past year. If you need a fix of badass women doing badass things, I’d encourage you to head over there right now to read it. Megan Rapinoe, Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and others, they’re all there, performing incredible feats.

This is a new thing, according to the article: in the past, sports photography focused on making women look conventionally attractive and erasing certain aspects, sports, or people by not picturing them. Progress is, admittedly, slow, as the article also points out. There was the online abuse hurled at Australian footballer Tyla Harris after a photo showing her performing an awesome kick, but also depicting her crotch area, was published. The network that originally published it first withdrew it, then put it back up apologising for giving in to the trolls. Then there was the shit storm over Megan Rapinoe and the US women’s football team’s way of celebrating their World Cup victory, which Donald Trump got involved in, because Of Course He Did. And there were many more.

So things still aren’t great, but they’re getting a bit better, slowly. In part, the Guardian article noted, this is also due to more female sports photographers being around who portray women from a female viewpoint rather than a male gaze. But there aren’t enough of them – photography, for women, is apparently just as sucky a profession as many others, rife with discrimination and unfair disadvantages. And even where things are getting better… “Getty hired two women photographers on internships who are covering the women’s game around the country”, the Guardian piece notes.

Wait, what? They hired them on internships? Could they not be arsed to give them a real job? Unfortunately the article doesn’t go further into this, but it definitely gave me pause.

Le sigh. As we head into 2020, there seems to be cause for cautious optimism, but our work here, fit feminist friends, is not done.

femalestrength · habits · motivation · new year's resolutions · skiing · training

Just Trying—For A Zesty Start to 2020

A few years ago, my cross-country ski mate moved to Montana. We had developed a relaxed, yet ferocious, approach to our shared ski workouts—lots of hard work and lots of chat time. My perfect workout partner. After she left, I lost my mojo.

I almost didn’t notice. For the first couple of years I was dealing with the run up and the aftermath of surgery for a neuroma in my foot. Not that I had to take any significant time off; it was more that the pain prior to the surgery dampened my enthusiasm and then I didn’t quite trust the absence of pain. Even as I write this, I know that my diminished energy for skiing was more to do with losing my partner-in-energy-for-fierce-workouts than it was related to the surgery.

When the ski season started this year, I noticed for the first time how many moments I told myself that I wasn’t fit enough anymore to do a workout from years past. For example, I used to ski up certain gradual hills using V2 (the most powerful skate ski stroke; think of it like the hard gear in the big chain ring on a bike). Now, I was intimidated by the prospect. I told myself that I shouldn’t even try until I got in better shape. Now, that’s a vicious cycle.

Then, skiing on December 31st, I suddenly realized—what am I doing? Just try, I told myself. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? You can’t finish the effort you started? What does that even mean? I’m the one who decides when the effort is done. I’m the one who decides whether I made a good effort or a not. And, if I never make the effort, then I can definitely keep telling myself I can’t.

So, in the middle of my ski, I just tried. I alternated V2 with the moderate ski stroke I normally default to. The next day, January 1, as I was finishing my ski, I got inspired. First day of the year, more, first day of the new decade, try on a new attitude. Plus, I was buoyed by my effort the day before. As I approached the hill where I used to do V2 intervals, I decided to throw in one interval. Just one. Just try. The hill was SO hard. I almost coughed up a lung, as a friend used to say. I got to the top. My technique was a mess. I was done in. I felt that nice glow of accomplishment.

I’m starting to thread back in bits of workouts from the days with my ski pal. It feels good. Fresh. Exhilarating even, as I feel the fizz of enthusiasm returning. As always, the experience makes me question, where else in my life can I just try more? Just try feels forgiving. More about the intention than the outcome. I’m less daunted. I’m less likely to judge myself, when trying is the key to my pleasure, not accomplishing a certain speed.

On January 3, I did the whole interval workout I used to do. V2 up the gradual hill. Fast as I can around and down the other side. Double pole on the barely-discernible-uphill back to the start of the loop. Six times. Just enough energy left for some ski dancing in celebration.

I feel an uptick of overall life optimism from my new and renewed attitude on skis; a zesty feeling I wish I could bottle for the less pleasant days. But life’s operating instructions are pretty clear: Best Enjoyed Now.

Will do.

What’s on your Just Try list?

body image · eating · femalestrength · fitness · food · sports nutrition

Dare *Not* To Compare

(CW: some mention of food regimens, food shame.)

Paul the trainer and I were gabbing in his kitchen post-workout, while I packed up my stuff and he warmed up his lunch. I was feeling invigorated by all the lifting, pulling, squatting and pressing and was looking forward to eating all the things at my fave café up the road.

I asked Paul what he was having.

“Chicken and rice; I have it every day!” was the reply.

I wondered aloud if he didn’t get bored of it; not a chance, he said. He told me he grills a batch of chicken each weekend and freezes it; he makes big piles of rice in his steamer and adds some to each chicken portion. Sometime he switches it up with meatballs, but that’s it.

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A pile of white rice with sliced, skinless chicken on a blue plate. Paul didn’t mention any avocado, though.

For me, even the same (delicious and filling) thing each day would quickly get annoying; I suddenly wondered if I was doing it wrong. I asked Paul what else he ate.

He told me: protein shake or similar for breakfast; the lunch above; a small snack in the late afternoon; a small portion of stew in the evening.

My animal brain kicked in – in this case, not the brain that says “eat something now!”, but the brain, well trained by its old handlers, to fear food and loathe oneself for eating it.

God, I thought. I eat way too much!!

“Ha!” I said aloud, joshing to cover the rising panic. “That’s the opposite of me. All I eat is donuts.”

Of course this is not true; I eat many things including donuts – once a week, my ritual Saturday breakfast treat. And clearly Paul knew this, because he is a kind and supportive and body-positive trainer.

He said: “Really? No!! I mean, not all the time.”

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Newman from Seinfeld: built for memes. “OH THE HUMANITY!” (NB: humanity needs many and varied foodstuffs to survive, including donuts.)

Let me translate. The above statement, said by Paul in that moment, meant: “No you do not only eat donuts! You enjoy your treats. You eat well and healthily for your body a lot of the time and your strength shows it.”

But in my head, filtered through my trained-animal-food-fearing brain, I heard:

“You indulgent slob!!”

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OH YA BABY! 20 epic, multi-coloured glazed donuts on a wire cooling rack. My amazing local, Donut Monster, is worth the trip to Hamilton if you’re in the Toronto area!

What makes us compare our food and exercise choices to others? The same thing, I wager, that makes us compare every inch of our bodies to others’ bodies so much of the time. It’s a lived experience of being taught to compare, with the ultimate goal of shaming yourself into adhering to the promoted cultural ideal, as closely as possible. (Which of course is impossible. It. Is. Designed. To. Be. Impossible. Read that again, slowly!)

I grew up learning to compare. Maybe you did, too. My mom (bless her) would draw my attention to those around us who looked out-of-order: too big, outfit not age-appropriate, plate too full. She would quietly whisper shaming things; I knew they were directed at herself. But I’d hear them directed at me. I knew what not to do: look/eat/choose like that. I knew to compare and be wise.

Comparison is painful; we are our own worst critics, so we always come up wanting. It is also anti-communal; comparing means drawing hierarchical lines between me and you, rather than seeing what we have in common and celebrating that. Comparison has, thus, a very conservative political tendency: it discourages bonds between citizens, and therefore discourages change, revolution.

Comparison is also often limited in its nuance. It can tell us in broad strokes where the same/other stuff lies, but it usually stops there, shamed or prideful.

If you dig deeper, you tend to get more similarities than differences.

Take my experience with Paul’s lunch as a case point. After I got to my car, I reminded myself that my food, exercise and health choices lead every day to a body I want to be in and a life I want to be living. I took some deep breaths. Then I thought more carefully.

Paul trains several times a week, but he does not have the endurance regimen I do; he’s not racking up the kilometres on the bike that I do. Those kilometres contribute to my much-increased need for calories; those calories are pleasurable and they also help make me strong.

Paul’s wellness goals include maintaining his trim physique; my wellness goals are not as centred on such things anymore. I like wearing my selectively-chosen and carefully-purchased outfits; I’m cautious with my clothes budget and only buy a few items a year. It’s important to me to fit my beloved outfits well. Beyond that, I don’t care about the numbers on the scale. (And, like Cate, if I have to buy a new size next time, that’s fine; if the look is swish I’m in!)

Paul is also a man, slightly younger than me. As a woman approaching peri-menopause, I’m aware that things are changing around my middle in particular, and THAT IS LIFE, PEEPS. If I become a peri-menopausal and then a menopausal and then an older woman who can also climb the stairs up the mountain brow and cycle to Guelph and Milton to visit Sam and Susan and still dead-lift a Great Dane, who cares?

My whole life I’ve feared weight gain. Why? Somebody once told somebody who mattered a great deal to my mom, and she told it to me; all the magazines reminded me every week at the Safeway; and don’t even get me started on the bullies.

Things all these things have in common: FAKE NEWS.

Forget blanket, superficial comparisons. Try not comparing at all. What’s working in your life, your exercise, your food choices? Hooray!! What needs some work? Make a list, then maybe a plan, if you want.

But above all else, remember: the more we compare, the less of a community we are.

Do you tend to compare, positively or negatively? Does it work for you or cause you stress? Let us know!

cycling · femalestrength · racing

Sports heroines: Fiona Kolbinger

I know promised a post on my newfound love of cycling last time, and a post on this you will get, eventually. But first, I want to talk about an amazing female athlete, a cyclist in fact, whom I find incredibly inspiring. I’m talking about Fiona Kolbinger, the 24-year old woman who just won the Transcontinental Race, a self-supported 4,000 kilometre bike race from Burgas (Bulgaria) to Brest (France). Please bear with me as I fangirl a little.

Fiona was the first woman to win the race, which was in its seventh edition this year. The race website describes the event as follows:

The Transcontinental is a single stage race in which the clock never stops. Riders plan, research and navigate their own course and choose when and where to rest. They will take only what they can carry and consume only what they can find. Four mandatory control points guide their route and ensure a healthy amount of climbing to reach some of cycling’s most beautiful and historic monuments. Each year our riders cover around 4000km to reach the finish line.

About the Transcontinental Race

Doesn’t that sound so amazing? And so hard? Fiona did it in 10 days, 2 hours and 28 minutes. She slept for about four hours a night. What a champ! (Personally, I couldn’t sleep for hours a night for 10 days without being in a 4,000km cycling race. I would be curled up in a corner snoring on day 2.)

Of course, Fiona being a woman, this is a big deal. Out of the 265 starters in the race, 39 were women. And one of them won! This is actually not all that surprising: women have shown again and again that they are amazing endurance athletes. In ultra-long distance events such as ultra-marathons, or ultra-long distance swimming, women have been managing to close in on the gap over the past decades. If you look at the record-holders for the longest recorded swim distances, there are a lot of women (note that this doesn’t necessarily have to mean they are faster than men, although there is a study saying that too, at least for swimming. But it seems they can often go for longer). [Update 11 Aug 19: The BBC just published a piece about women and endurance sports following Fiona’s win. It’s very interesting, a lot of this is apparently also down to how women manage these events emotionally and mentally.] Nevertheless, given that there were a lot fewer female than male participants in the Transcontinental, and given all the crap female athletes constantly have to put up with, and the fact that society makes it so difficult for women to excel in sports, this is a huge deal.

But back to why I find her so inspiring: Fiona is not just a badass athlete, she is also a cancer researcher! She’s an MD student at the German Cancer Research Centre‘s paediatric oncology unit. This woman is studying how to cure children from cancer. And in passing, she wins a 4,000km bike race. I can’t even.

In an interesting turn of events, the research centre she works at is actually in my home town. It is, shall we say, not one of the world’s worst research institutions. And she is not the only one around here. Just recently, I was doing laps at my local outdoor pool when a woman turned up only to literally lap everyone swimming in the fast lane, at what to her seemed like a casual speed . It was beautiful to watch, I had never seen anyone swim so efficiently in real life. She was wearing a cap with her name on it, so I couldn’t help but look her up afterwards. She turned out to be a former member of the German Olympic swimming relay. And, as per the next link that came up, she’s a physician at the local university hospital. There are so many inspiring female athletes who are also doing amazing other things.

Just why is it so hard to find them? Why doesn’t everyone know who they are? Yes, often they are unassuming. But also, they don’t get the coverage. This really needs to change. Fiona has received plenty of coverage this week, but I still want to bet that if you ask a random person on the street if they know who she is, you’re going to draw a blank.

Meanwhile, Fiona? When she’s not busy beating more than 200 men at cycling a very, very long way or curing kids’ cancer, she plays the piano, while still wearing her cycling kit. I rest my case.

body image · femalestrength · training · weight lifting

Tracy’s first day at a body-positive gym

Image description: Block letters on dark background that say: “BODY-POSITIVE FITNESS & PERSONAL TRAINING GYM” (from the BPM website: http://bpmfitness.ca

I’ve just started in on one of the most wonderful privileges of an academic year: sabbatical and admin/study leave. This time around, I have accumulated 8 months of administrative leave (from my four years as Associate Dean Academic) and another 6 months of sabbatical leave that I postponed from four years ago when I took up that admin position. That means I have the next 14 months to focus on my research.

It also means I will rarely be going to campus. I’ll set myself up mostly to work at home. This is a long way around to saying why I decided to join a gym again. I have been doing personal training for my weight training workouts for almost four years now. It’s been great and I’ve definitely gotten stronger. But as much as I enjoy spending time with my trainer, Paul, I feel that on my leave I would prefer to have some community. I already have a bit of that with yoga and running. But yoga is only once a week (maybe I will increase it during my leave) and other than my Sunday mornings, I usually run by myself.

My friend Tara has had a great experience at a small gym that does personal training and group fitness. BPM claims itself as a body-positive gym. Tara started going to classes there in January and she has really committed to regular training since then. So it made sense for me to consider BPM, based on her recommendation and also that I already know (and really like) one of the owners, Chelsea. Added bonus, I can walk there from home in under ten minutes.

Yesterday was my first class, day one of my two week free trial. They have at least six classes a day, starting at 6 a.m. Then 7, 9:30. 12:15, 4:30, 5:30 and some days also 6:30. They are 45 minute workouts where you do a series of timed sets of various exercises. Each set is 35 seconds with a 10 second rest before moving on to the next exercise for 35 seconds, then the next and the next. After three rounds of those, you switch to another group of exercises that you work through the same way — timed sets for three sets.

Finally, we ended on a brutal set where we built from one, then two, then three, up to a sequence of eight different exercises, then pyramided down again until we were back to where we started. We followed that with a cool down.

At personal training I’m used to taking a bit more rest between sets and also lifting heavier. But the endurance and strength required for today’s workout really surprised me. I don’t know why it surprised me as much as it did — maybe because I consider myself to be strong. But the repetitions with little rest in between forced me to push hard to keep up. Sometimes I couldn’t keep up at all and needed to take a time out for a few seconds before resuming.

It was a humbling experience and I felt kind of weak, actually, In personal training I’ve been doing 3×13 pull-ups. Today we did something similar (she called them chin-ups) and I could hardly even do 6, with a band for support. I think it’s because of coming in the second part, after I’d already done three taxing sets that involved push-ups and burpees, among other things (lunges and some shoulder presses). Anyway, it was tough. I worked up a sweat and I am sure that I will be feeling it.

There were only 8-10 people in the class, all women. It’s not the kind of gym I’ve ever attended before. It’s very basic. You turn left at the top of the stairs and boom: you’re in the studio.

Besides being a tough workout, which I like, the body positive message felt good. Honestly, it’s been awhile since I’ve been to a gym class, but my memory is that there is a lot of talk about losing weight and “getting in shape” and looking good. This class wasn’t like that at all. It was focused entirely on doing the exercises at your own pace and strength. I felt encouraged and challengged the entire time.

I’ve already signed up for three more classes this week, as well as one dedicated strength training session for next week. The strength training classes are smaller than the “fitness bootcamp” that I attended. Strength sessions max out at eight people and I couldn’t find one with space in it until next Tuesday.

It feels good to work out with a group again. And it’s nice to be going to a gym where I can sometimes go workout with Tara. I’m attracted to working out with my peeps — I’ve got my running crew, my yoga crew, and may potentially get a little gym crew going. In any case, I appreciate the free two-week trial — that seems a rare thing these days, but it’s a great way to get to know a new gym. And knowing that all the classes I do over the next couple of weeks are free, I feel motivated to do as many as I can. I’m excited and hopeful that this is a going to be a nice element of routine in my leave, helping me add a bit of structure along with the benefits of a fitness community.

Are gyms with an explicit body-positive message showing up in your area these days? Have you tried one?

beauty · femalestrength · feminism · soccer · stereotypes

Sweat First, Glow Later

I was talking to a woman the other day about that wonderful feeling of working up a good sweat on a run, when she interrupted me to say, “You mean glow, not sweat.” Aack. I remember the expression from growing up. Horses sweat.Men perspire. But women merely glow. And no, I absolutely did not mean glow when I said sweat. I didn’t even mean perspire. 

Woman’s face illuminated in glowing sparkles.
H Heyerlein on Unsplash

In fact, I really, really meant sweat. The idea that women should only glow obstructs our progress, keeps us docile, fragile and dependent, and interferes with our strength. Can you tell I hate that expression? Even if it’s used as a euphemism, I don’t like what it implies. 

Back in the days when I practiced law, I would often go to the gym at lunch (in the same building as my office, because they liked to keep us close). I didn’t have a lot of time, so I’d make the most of the Stairmaster (my fave workout then) and arrive back at the office still red in the face. My office mate was perplexed. Why did I want to get so overheated? Answer—I loved the feeling. Secondary answer—I was working in a shark tank and needed an outlet for the pressure. Fast forward more than twenty-five years, I still love to sweat, even though I’ve bailed out of the shark tank. I love giving everything I’ve got, leaving it all on the road. To reach for an ambitious goal, to try as hard as we can, to go for it; that kind of effort requires sweat, metaphorical for sure and very possibly actual salty drops on our skin. The notion that women should only glow (which we know was meant not just actually, but also metaphorically) is offensive. The fact that science says women sweat less than men is a biological fact, not a matter of Victorian etiquette.

What happens if we try so hard that we break a sweat? What are the purveyors of that expression scared of? Our potential? Our strength? That expression (I will not repeat it) contains an implicit criticism of female effort as unladylike (you can imagine how much I love that word, too). The expression says to women, “You should not have ambition, or if you do, you must go about achieving your dream in a seemingly effortless fashion.” Ambition is not effortless. Why would we even want it to be? Then we wouldn’t have the satisfaction of achievement; the desire to spread our arms in a glorious moment of woohoo. 

Megan Rapinoe with arms outspread in the World Cup stadium

Speaking of which, I’ve noticed multiple pictures of US soccer star Megan Rapinoewith arms outspread in a defiantly powerful pose. I realized that I was judging her as a little arrogant with that pose and even though you didn’t know that until I told you just now, I’m going to take back that thought. Women don’t get as physically expressive about their personal victories as their male counterparts. Look at how Brandi Chastain was pilloried in 1999 for taking her shirt off in a moment of exultation when she scored the penalty kick to win the World Cup. She’s framed that sports bra and hung it on her wall. As I write this, the US team has won their semi-final game and is slated to play in the final the day after this piece publishes. Rapinoe didn’t play the game, because of a hamstring injury. I hope she plays on Sunday and that she has cause to spread her arms wide with triumph.

Let’s all spread our arms just a little more often, even and especially if we’re wearing a sweaty sports bra. Chances are we will be glowing for the rest of the day!

body image · clothing · femalestrength · fitness

Making peace with our changing bodies

“When you get thin again, can I have your bigger clothes?”

Someone at a party asked one of my friends that last week.  If I squint really hard and ignore toxic body shaming culture, I might be able to imagine that this person thought she was giving my friend a compliment.  “That’s a great outfit!  You’re such a fit person you’ll lose that baby weight just like that!  You’re so pretty in that — I wish I looked like you!”  I guess?

My friend is a fitness instructor, a former body builder, and someone who has fought disordered eating, body shaming and body obsession for a long time.  Her mission is to support women to love their bodies for what they can do, whatever shape or ability that is, to help them build emotional and physical strength.  She’s absolutely beautiful, luminous and kind, inside and out.

She had a baby six weeks ago.  She worked out throughout her pregnancy in a careful way, had a healthy birth and gorgeous wee baby, and has worked hard to love and be at peace with her larger body.  She went to that party feeling like she looked great.

And this one comment completely knocked the breath out of her, shredded the colourful, silken threads of self love she’d spun, painstakingly, one at a time.

***

HM The Queen Attends Trooping The ColourBody shaming and body policing are so much a part of our culture that a lot of the time, we don’t even notice them, unless they are shockingly overt — like this gym in Connecticut that sent out an email telling its customers to grab their excess flesh and imagine what that would look like in summer photos — “god forbid, a side pic sitting down!” — or the dank pockets of the celebrity internet that define women only through their bodies and competition.  I won’t link to these places, but one of this week’s headlines speaks for them all:  With the spotlight strong, can Duchess Meghan outdo Kate Middleton’s success in restoring her pre-baby body?

Most of these moments are so woven into our day to day lives that they’re noteworthy only when they hit us right in the most tender parts of our souls.  But whether or not we notice them, they twist how we experience ourselves.  And even when we have huge feminist reflexivity about this, we still get entangled.

***

Over the past few months, I’ve been committing some of those body shaming microaggressions on myself.  I’m 54.  I’m not quite menopausal, but Things are Definitely Changing in my body.  I’m fit and active — I’ve worked out 148 times so far this year, and am well on my way to hitting 300 or more again for the year.  I’m loving feminist crossfit, and training on a sweet new bike for this trip I’m doing with Susan, Sam, Sarah and others in Newfoundland in two weeks. 

But I’ve also gained weight this year.  Even though several people have commented on how “buff” I look from the crossfit, have said I look fit — even hot — all I see is a heavier, thicker middle.  My clothes don’t fit — not my favourite jeans, or a lot of my work clothes.  I’ve become that middle aged woman wearing crossfit shoes, leggings, a flowy top and an Interesting Scarf to everything.  It’s disheartening to have to shove piece after piece of clothing back into the closet.  And I’ve taken to making comments about myself that chastise myself for the weight gain.  Out loud.  To others.  You know the ones.

I know in my head that I’m fit and strong.  I have a lot of joy from moving my body.  I know that some of my weight gain is muscle, and some of it is being 54 and endlessly menstruating.  Because I’m still having mostly regular periods at this advanced age, I seem to be always experiencing the PMS-y hormones that make me bloated.  I also have some gut issues that contribute to bloatiness.  (And god knows, I probably sleep with the light on).

And at the same time, I’m in the “menopausal transition,” which includes, as this study puts it, “unfavorable alterations in body composition, which abruptly worsen at the onset of the menopausal transition and then abate in postmenopause.”  Those “unfavorable alterations” are basically an increase in fat mass in the average woman that doubles every year for the key time of menopause (about three years), and a loss of lean mass.

Our bodies change when we’re 12 or so, and it’s unnerving then. Pregnancy is a hormonal carnival.  A few people’s bodies seem to experience birth and breastfeeding without any noticeable lingering effect, but most are changed in some way forever.  The waxing and waning of hormones affects our mental health, our energy, our appetites, our sleep, our metabolism, our immune systems.   Peri-menopause is another unpredictable extravaganza, and then there is all of the older life stuff.  There is no “set point.”  It’s dynamic, always.

That is life, and this is what my body is at this stage of my life.  Just like my post-partum friend’s body is what it is.  There is no “back to normal” — there is only forward, aging, changing bodies, and the challenge of loving ourselves as we are, finding our fierce warrior selves.

The force of all of this shows up in so many ways. My friend said this morning “I don’t mind my bigger body but I hate that none of my clothes look good, and I can’t afford to buy new clothes right now.”

Not fitting into my clothes is a big trigger for me, too.  After she said that, I had a warrior moment.  (Well, a warrior moment with a credit card.  I’m privileged in that I can afford this, right now).  I  went on a mission to my favourite store that features affordable Canadian designers.  I decided I was going to leave with a wardrobe of work and dressy casual clothes that made me feel good in my body, felt good on my body, inspired me.  I realized I hadn’t actually bought new warm weather work clothes in about three years, always waiting for that moment when my other clothes would fit me again.

I bought five dresses, two pairs of leggings and two tops.  They fit me well.  They flare and cling in the right places.  I feel strong and pretty in them.  I feel grown up, not middle aged.  (This is Emmylou, checking them out).

IMG_8469.jpeg

They’re a departure from what I’ve been wearing.  And trying them on, having a good shopping experience, finding things that work for my body as it is — I tilted back up into liking myself again.

I think I’ll go get an ice cream cone.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works in Toronto. She blogs here two or three times a month.