Today, I hit 2 years straight in my daily meditation streak. When I started, I set myself the goal of 30 days. As time passed, I kept moving the goalposts. I feel good about my accomplishment (and I’ve written elsewhere about what I’ve learned). And yet, as soon as I sense those first inklings of pride, I hear the voice: “Well, you don’t have children, so it’s easy for you to meditate every day.” That’s the collective voice of women I’ve known, friends even. It’s also the voice of our society, which has insinuated itself into my psyche, passing itself off as my own judgments of myself. Every accomplishment I might celebrate is diminished by this subtext, “You don’t have children, so it’s easy for you to …” Write a book. Run an ultra-marathon. Start a new venture offering emotional intelligence workshops and one-on-one facilitations.
Not only do I not have children, I am one of the extreme few women who are childfree by choice. 6-10% by some estimates, but that number sounds high to me; especially given that the total percent of women without children is 15.4%, which includes women who tried without medical success or would have had children, if partnered. In other words, I neither tried, nor was I circumscribed by circumstance. Oh, and my decision is irreversible at this biological point in my life. That’s right, I’m also over fifty. What a disgrace! I’ve allowed myself to age and I did not contribute to society’s diktat of the highest and best use of my female body—having children. Not that our overburdened, beleaguered planet is in need of more carbon footprints. But it turns out that I’m the carbon footprint the world can do without. I am surplus. Not even worthy of pity, because I chose my condition.
How many times have I heard variations on the phrase, “you can do that because you don’t have children”? How many times have I watched a mother’s face cloud over when she asked me if I had children and I answered? How many times have I been told that children keep you young? How many times have I endured pronouncements and opinions prefaced with “as a mother”? How many times have I been told that one has to be unselfish to have children? How many times have I heard that a woman can only truly know love once she has children? How many times have I heard during COVID that it’s the grandparents who can’t see their grandchildren who are suffering most?
The subtexts of each of these statements are demeaning and hurtful.
How about this? –A friend once said that I could (and should) make the effort to buy a fuel-efficient car, but that she could not, because she had children. Not only is it my responsibility to pay school taxes (which I absolutely 100% want to do!), but apparently it would also be helpful if I reduced my consumption, to allow for more by people with children.
This is the moment when I make the disclaimer: No, I don’t hate children. In fact, there are children I love a whole lot. Same as most people, regardless of their procreative status. More, I enjoy cooking for people and engaging in other standard nurturing activities. And, it distresses me to have to have to clarify these points; in case people think I’m the Wicked Witch for not having children.
This is a caveat to my disclaimer: Children’s parents can be self-important and insensitive.
I was moved to write this after reading this interview with Jody Day, psychotherapist, author and founder of Gateway Women—I’m losing my shame. Day talks about the pernicious pronatalism of our society, which tells a woman without children, “You’ve failed, you’ve got nothing to offer, you don’t fit in.” This message crashes up against what Day points out is our all too “human desire to be generative.” After all, aren’t children the ultimate generativity? Of course, that standard only applies to women.
I have been struggling lately with feeling generative. Because Day is right. I want to contribute to our society. I want to have a positive impact during my time here on earth. My last book came out in July 2019. I don’t have another one underway … yet. Early this year I founded a new venture offering emotional intelligence workshops and individual facilitations. We launched right as COVID hit, so we’ve been pushing uphill against all those obstacles. I don’t have a regular pay cheque, so I suffer the psychic degradations of an uncertain income. On occasion, in desperate fallow-feeling moments, like now, I think, “If I’d had children, this would be okay; because I could point to them as my raison d’être.” My children would be my accomplishment, my meaning. Instead, I have to stand in my own shoes. Live my own purpose. Find my own meaning. Offer my own grace.
To do so, I need to overcome the explicit and implicit negative messaging that assaults me from all sides. Women should not be shamed or feel shame for choosing not to have children. One last quote from Day’s interview: “… [J]ust being a childless woman living shamelessly as you age is already radical enough.” Radical? I feel more generative already. I embrace that label. I don the cloak of radicality with insouciant pleasure. I slip it on over the cloak of invisibility assigned to me by society when I reached a certain age without children. My shoulders could feel crushed beneath the weight of the double cloaks. Instead, they feel lighter, looser and easier. The lens through which I’m looking at my life shifts. Free of society’s shoulds and musts, I feel the vitality of energies that want to flow. I remember that I made a conscious choice to be who I am. That choice was a generative act. A decision to share my energies beyond the borders of home and family.
Women without children are abundant; a radiant, radical power source. Let’s plug into our own energy shamelessly, so we can fulfill our highest and best purpose.
When Sam and I started the blog back in 2012, we were committed to offering feminist thoughts on fitness and to trying to incorporate our feminism into our fitness lifestyles as we approached our 50th birthdays. Now, as we approach our 56th birthdays in the next couple of months, we continue to reflect on the ways the fitness industry could be friendlier, more inclusive, and more approachable. We are both super pleased that we have managed to carve out and support a community of others who are seeking an alternative to the usual messaging.
I’ve been doing the virtual Superhero workouts with Alex (for more info, check out ABH Movement) a few times a week, and on Friday evening she had a team happy hour on Zoom. She sent around four questions for us to ponder before we met, with the plan to discuss them. We didn’t make it to all of them (because by the time we did a full round where we each talked about when we first started doing fitness classes, happy hour had already spilled into 90 fascinating minutes). But Kim and I thought the final question would make a great group blog post: What’s the top thing you would change about the fitness industry today?
So I did the thing we do: I asked the Superhero team and the blog regulars for their answer to this question. And here’s what people had to say.
Nicole: I would take away the nutrition advice that some gyms provide. I don’t think there is a good way to do it in that environment. Also, it should be illegal for the instructor to say “did you indulge a little last night? Hungover? It’s OK, that’s why you are here!” No, I’m not here for that at all. Ever.
Tracy I (me): If I could wave a magic wand I would banish “weight loss” as a fitness goal from the entire industry. I would replace it with learning to believe in yourself and to love (or at least neutrally accept and value) and trust your body and appreciate it for what it can do, whatever that may be. Also: to encourage other women along the way to do the same. No comparing (I wrote about comparing back in the day)! ❤️
Cate: So many things– I’m 100% with both Tracy and Nicole on this — but I’d add I’d strip out any admonishment or encouragement to focus on anything except form. I have been lucky enough to find some amazing coaches — like Alex — plus yoga teachers and spin instructors who really understand how to support people to work for the next dimension while also emphasizing form, safety, alignment and the specific strength, needs and possibilities of your own body. But occasionally I wander into a class — like at the Y, or with a spin substitute — whose whole coaching is “harder!”. I went to a “boot camp” class at the Y a few years ago where the (20 something) instructor mocked me for doing my lunges slowly and carefully. This is obviously damaging for individual bodies and psyches, but also, I think, one of the biggest things that turns newbies away from fitness.
Sam: Oh there’s so much I would change if I ran the zoo. (Sorry, I can never resist that line from Dr. Suess.) But the most important thing for me would be a much greater emphasis on inclusion and diversity. I want room in my fitness world for people of all races, and genders and ages and physical abilities. Along with inclusion and diversity, I want to end the assumptions about who does what. I want more women in the weight room and more men in the yoga studio.
Coach Alex: As a coach, I desperately want everyone to know that if you don’t enjoy something, you don’t need to do it to “get in shape”. There’s this notion that certain movements/ways of exercising are most effective or necessary for the progress you want to make, and that’s simply untrue.
So many people struggle with developing a consistent and healthy relationship with fitness because it’s either a chore they feel they “have” to do OR they are fearful of starting in the first place (fitness is scary and intimidating). The reality is the fitness industry promotes fad diets, exercise trends, and equipment that ultimately will keep you hopping on and off the bandwagon- but if you find movement you LOVE (whether it’s weightlifting, Zumba, a sport, cycling, etc…) then THAT’S what’s going to keep you coming back. If you do burpees because you think you have to (but you hate them), you’re going to dislike that workout and dread coming back. I wish more people knew that just the act of MOVING is enough to keep you healthy and make fitness gains, and once you find a form of movement that sparks joy for you, that’s where the fun really starts 😜❤️
Chippy (Virtual Superhero teammate): What id like to change is that women are allowed to have muscles and that doesn’t make you unattractive. Those muscles take a tremendous amount of work and are beautiful. Strong is beautiful and there needs to be a cultural shift that goes with that for women 😊
And we’d love to hear from you. If you could change one thing about today’s fitness industry, what would it be?
“Let’s say someone wants to squat 500 pounds. It’s a big goal, but not unachievable. Lots of people get to 500 pounds these days.” (1)
“If you keep your bodyfat percentage too low, you’re not going to build as much muscle. If someone is trying to stay around 8% bodyfat, your body is going to want to partition more of that energy towards fat storage.” (2)
I love lifting weights. I enjoy the exertion, the challenge, and the self-confidence that it brings. I’m not alone–women are a growing number of the competitive lifters around the world. Women participate in competitive physique, strong”man”, weightlifting and powerlifting. And this reflects a boom in interest amongst us non-competitive folks, too, likely at least in part fueled by the popularity and accessibility of crossfit in the last decade.
And yet, the mostly male-dominated media space has not caught up. When lifters are discussed, there is an overwhelming tendency to treat “lifters” as synonymous with “men.”
And to be perfectly frank, it’s starting to piss me off. Every time a guy says “someone” and what they really mean is “men,” I want to yell, “HEY, I’m SOMEONE, too!”
I want to see myself in the programs put out there. I want trainers to give me potential solutions to the challenges I face in reaching my goals. I want to know that my needs and concerns have answers. I want realistic metrics to which I can compare myself and help with goal setting. In short, I want representation.
Instead, there’s an endless parade of articles and other media around men’s insecurities and challenges–how to get 6-pack abs! Build your squat to 3x bodyweight! How to get to 12% body fat and stay there!
The physiology of someone born with female parts is different than the physiologies of people born with male parts. We have more essential levels of fat–requiring higher body fat levels in order to function healthfully. Our hormone profile changes how we respond to lifting, with only 5-10% of the testosterone of a typical adult man making building muscle a potentially slower process. Our smaller joints and bone structures change the size of our muscular potentials. Estrogen is protective in many ways, making women and other people who produce more of it, more resilient to higher-rep lifting, possibly meaning we require shorter rest periods. Some research on Olympic level athletes suggests that our abilities to recover even changes throughout our menstrual cycles. And none of this gets into the nuances of lifting around pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, hysterectomies, mastectomies and so many other experiences shared by so many people with a uterus.
But I’m not asking that every article, interview, podcast and blog post dig into all of these caveats every time they want to offer me 5 new ways to do push-ups. No, I just want the language used to be inclusive. I want pictures of strong people of all genders doing the work. I want it to be clear that I am a potential member of the target audience. So many trainers complain about how women are afraid of lifting weights, that we’re afraid of the barbell, that we’re afraid of the results we might get. But if 90% of the images we see are men on gear working on showing off that 6-pack, why should we expect a majority of women would be drawn to that? (To be clear, I have no problem with lean, muscular women with six-pack abs, I just recognize that they are a subset of the population.) We need to be represented in order to imagine it as a real possibility.
So in absence of another solution, I propose a simple test to determine if women are being acknowledged as people who do serious strength training. Blog post, podcast, article or interview, let’s call it the Hundtoft-Bechdel Test (3) which asks that fitness experts:
one. Directly mention women and/or include them in images. two. And ensure that any goals and/or metrics referenced include those appropriate for women and other people born with a uterus.
So, back to the quotes at the top: “Let’s say someone wants to squat 500 pounds. It’s a big goal, but not unachievable. Lots of people get to 500 pounds these days.”
This may be true for men who lift seriously over time. It is not ever true for women. I just checked the current raw powerlifting records for women, and the drug-tested, open world record for squat for women is 502 pounds. So women are excluded by the speaker and he fails the Hundtoft-Bechdel Test.
“If you keep your bodyfat percentage too low, you’re not going to build as much muscle. If someone is trying to stay around 8% bodyfat, your body is going to want to partition more of that energy towards fat storage.”
The second speaker also fails the test, since an 8% bodyfat is nearly unattainable even by the most competitive female bodybuilders. It is certainly not a “walking around” level of leanness for most women, when it might be for an especially disciplined, genetically gifted, and/or possibly just highly neurotic man.
In comparison, a recent article on Nerd Fitness (on the Star Wars workout) passed the test easily. Images of women. No metrics of success that are gendered at all. Steve Kamb did a great job of using entirely neutral language so that any reader can see themselves in the article.
Another win goes out to a great podcast, Stronger by Science. In their recent discussion on gut health and training nutrition, they interviewed a female expert and used gender-neutral language throughout. When it was appropriate to specify male vs. female metrics, both were included.
A quick search of recent Bodybuilding.com training articles finds some sort-of wins and some straight up losses. For example, this article on shoulder exercises does a good job of using gender-neutral language, but fails due to exclusively using men in the images.
T-Nation fairs not even as well as that. There are many examples to pull from, but here’s a training article that even the title (“The V-Taper Workout and Diet Plan”) excludes women as a target. The “V-Taper” is a shape of shoulders and waist that is specifically identified as a desirable male attribute (think comic book Superman with his wide shoulders and impossibly narrow waist). Notably, the author never acknowledges that he’s writing for a male audience. Major fail.
Not surprisingly, women lifters and authors consistently do a better job including women. Some female trainers are directing their business at other women as their primary market, and so they explicitly include women in their media. However, there are also female trainers and bloggers who do a good job of inclusive, but not female-centric language. A standout example is Meghan Callaway.
Women lift weights. We like to track our progress and gauge our success against other lifters. We want to know reasonable goals for goal setting and to see ourselves represented in media aimed at folks who strength train. Representation matters, and it’s well-past time for fitness authors, podcast hosts, and trainers to make a more consistent effort to represent women equally in their spaces.
(1) Maybe not an exact quote, but definitely the gist from a recent interview with Dr. Mike Zourdos on the Iron Culture podcast, which incidentally, is an awesome podcast! But I know they can do better with representation.
(2) Not going to link to this one, as the podcast I was trying out became so fat-phobic in a rant that I don’t want to encourage others to listen to it.
(3) Named in homage of and to give credit to the Bechdel Test which gives a simple way of identifying if women are present in film.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found reading about strength training, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.
There are lots of photos of Catherine McKenna–Mom. Swimmer. Climate advocate. Ottawa Centre MP/Députée. Minister of Infrastructure and Communities/Ministre de l’Infrastructure et des Collectivités–riding bikes. My fave are the Winter Bike to Work Day images. But this Bike to Work Day McKenna wore a dress (and a mask) and shared photos and the internet blew up with meanness like Twitter had never seen a woman riding a bike while wearing a dress.
Cute red bike and pink dress, right? That’s what I thought but I might be in the minority. There were lots of negative comments. I won’t share the meanest.
One Twitter user wrote, “So a short dress and a mask while riding a bike with a goofy basket wow. You look ridiculous.”
But feminist Twitter and women cyclists everywhere came to the rescue.
I added my “biking in a dress” photo.
Catherine McKenna responded with charm and good humour.
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).
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.
It’s that time of year where unsuspecting yogis or gym goers can be subjected to diet culture (not quite as bad as what’s to come in January, but still a risk) in class. It just slides into the running commentary that instructors need to maintain to keep the class moving along.
This happened to me the other day in yoga. I’ve been unable to run for a couple of months, so I’ve been going to hot yoga every day instead. It’s been a nice change (though I’m dying to get back to running). I’ve been a member at the same studio for at least a decade and I honestly have never experienced the normalization of diet culture there. But that commendable streak came to an end the other day when, in order to motivate a longer hold of a strenuous pose, the instructor said, “work off all that holiday baking!”
“Say what?” She lost me right then and there. I went back and forth in my head about whether I was overreacting. Despite that I don’t blog regularly here anymore, seven years as a feminist fitness blogger has given me a certain perspective and a keen awareness of nonsense that sucks the joy out of our workouts and replaces it with the suggestion that we need to whip our overindulgent selves into shape. I object!
I spent the rest of the class asking myself “do I say something or let it go?” On the side of letting it go: I know she meant it as a light-hearted comment. On the side of saying something: that’s how diet culture gets perpetuated; the yoga studio is the last place I expect to hear it; I’m probably not the only one who felt uncomfortable with the comment.
After my shower I approached the instructor. I had already decided to be nice about it. I love the studio and as I said it’s not a place I normally experience body shaming or anything other than body positivity. Definitely the comment was the exception not the rule.
Me: It was a good class but I have some feedback.
Me: I didn’t appreciate the comment about the holiday baking. I don’t come here to hear that sort of thing.
Instructor: I know! I’m sorry. The minute it came out of my mouth I knew I shouldn’t have said it. But I didn’t know how to take it back.
Me: That’s reassuring. Thanks for telling me that.
Instructor: Thanks for the feedback. I really appreciate it and I’m glad you felt able to express it.
I consider that a good news story. Instead of stewing in my juices, I opened up a dialogue. That yielded a shared understanding and also a willingness on the instructor’s part to do better in the future.
Using workouts to “deal with” holiday baking is a pretty normal message that is firmly entrenched in normalized diet culture. For most people it is just the way it is. But that’s not what we promote here. And it’s not what anyone who cares about body positivity and more self-nurturing motivations for our fitness pursuits should be promoting either.
I’m glad I said something. And I’m really relieved the instructor “got it” before I even opened my mouth.
Monday, November 4 – Dr. Samantha Brennan, Dean of the College of Arts, University of Guelph Bad Girls, Bikes, and the Women’s Liberation Movement It’s often said that women rode to freedom on the bicycle. Providing women with both a way to get around independently in the world and freeing them from restrictive garments that made movement close to impossible, cycling was pivotal in the early feminist movement. Avid cyclist and feminist Samantha Brennan will explore the historical connection between women, bicycles, and feminism.
This week I gave a talk in the ARCHAEOLOGY – HISTORY LECTURE SERIES held at the Upper Grand District School Board here in Guelph. We had a packed house and I got lots of great questions.
Here’s a slew of past posts on women, feminism, and bicycles that my talk drew on.
After a meditation workshop on December 2 last year, I set an intention to meditate for ten days straight. Ten became thirty became 150, which brings me to 300. Every day since 100 has been my longest meditation streak ever. I’ve described it before as the wild ride on which nothing much happens. That’s still true.
Have I made progress? Am I cured?
Progress from where to where? Cured of what? If the answers are supposed to be: Progress from too much stress, anxiety and disappointment-in-self to divine understanding and unassailable self-worth, not to mention cured of all doubt; nope.
But (!), I’m not stopping. Because despite the fact that the heavens have not opened and granted me a supernova of universal insight and salvation, I feel moments of profound peace, joy, love, connection, daring, courage, vulnerability, gratitude and strength, which I can only credit to my commitment to the cushion. I feel both as if my nerves are rawer, my emotions closer to the surface, and that I am less subject to the vagaries of those nerves and emotions. I can notice, even accept, without allowing them to dictate the terms of my day. Not every day. But a lot more days than before.
When I meditate right before a workout, I give more to the effort. But, when my run (or other activity) is first thing in the morning, slotting something in before first thing robs me of sleep. Both sleep and being active improve my mood and energy throughout the day. If I’m not training for something in particular, I will generally choose the benefits of sleep over the benefits of the meditation enhanced workout. Weighing the benefits of sleep vs. workout effort is part of my ongoing dance with balance.
Music is another of my dances with balance. I like meditation music, especially The Bahktas, who create electronic remixes of Sanskrit texts. Some days, the music makes the meditation seem too easy. Other days, the music agitates me and I resist the meditation. Then again, the same can be true with a meditation in silence. Depends on the day. The experiment is the result.
As some of you know, I also experiment with meditations on fear. Turns out that once you open the conversation with fear, fear keepsthe conversation going. Even when I’m not specifically meditating on fear, she always has a lot to say. A few recent examples include:
My upper arms are too old and baggy (despite my strength) to wear sleeveless tops anymore. Plus, this might be the last summer I’ll wear shorts.
My needs take up too much space and are unreasonable. Plus, I am indulgent with my needs.
My anxiety is a weakness. And then, the act of judging my anxiety is a failure of personal mastery. (Wow. I can’t win coming or going.)
Here’s another confounding logic loop: Overly positive meditations have the opposite effect. Here’s an experience I had recently. I chose a new meditation on opening up space in our minds. Within the first minutes of the 10-minute meditation, the guide asked me to imagine I was floating in space. Then she immediately told me that I had left all my preoccupations behind. I was now happy, according to the guide. The thing is—I had most certainly not left all my preoccupations behind. My mind was awash with thoughts vying for my attention. I was trying to let the thoughts pass through and away, like clouds; they were not. Also, I wasn’t instantly happier than before I sat down on my cushion to meditate. In fact, I felt frustrated, because I had not achieved what the overly optimistic meditation guide told me I should have. Sigh.
Meditation gets super tricky around this idea of optimism. Our task is to truly sit without judgment or expectation. To be curious for its own sake; not in pursuit of some optimistic result, such as perfect inner peace and bliss. Sooner or later, curiosity yields insight. Maybe not the insight we want or expect. If we allow it to work on us, meditation delivers what we need. As I write that, I wonder if I am blinded by my faith in meditation; if the effects I observe are caused by the observation; if curiosity is its own reward; if patience and practice create their own self-nourishing cycle. And, if so, are these cyclical effects the whole point or distracting churn? My head starts to spin. I think about Tara Brach’s RAIN—recognize, allow, investigate, nurture. The next day I sit back down on the cushion and let it rain.
p.s. Since this is a feminist blog, you may be wondering, “what does meditation have to do with feminism?” The answer is—the act of women taking time for ourselves is feminist. The act of pausing to gather together the threads of our strength is feminist. The desire to live fully, to unbind ourselves from societal pressures and simultaneously nurture our individuality and our connection to community is feminist. Taking time to meditate is saying, “I am worth this period of self-reflection.”
Over the last couple months, I have returned to the gym after nearly 2 months away. I have been healing from a hysterectomy, and it is time to get back into my pre-surgical routines. In addition to being “newly back,” I am also trying out a new gym. I had problems with the culture of my last gym, and we moved a couple weeks prior to my hysterectomy, so I had an easy excuse to break things off and try some place new.
The new gym is mostly unmonitored, so the ownership uses a board to communicate policies, recent equipment repairs and such. And, somewhat surprisingly to me, the members seem to feel free to add their own two cents.
The board recently stated the reminder from the male gym owner, “Fellow Men, Please be aware of the energetic physical space we take up. For example, grunts are for homes, not gyms.”
What followed were comments from the community, including, “PATRIARCHY = men get to take up more space than other genders. . . stop ignoring power dynamics,” alongside requests that someone stop erasing the word “men” and changing it to “human,” and a note from the gym owner that “if you dislike the word ‘man’ you are likely the reason it was written in the first place.”
And all this back and forth leaves me wondering, IS grunting contributing to the patriarchy?
There are definitely guys who take up more “energetic physical space” than I would like them to do. These men grunt, growl or yelp with every repetition, from the first set to the last. Often, they are also whipping from one exercise to the next in a manner that feels frenetic to me. My totally judgmental opinion of these guys is that they are deeply insecure, and they are making up for their lack of confidence as a lifter by supplementing their strength with vocalizations and momentum (swinging a dumbbell up rather than doing a strict lift, for example).
On the other hand, I, too, sometimes grunt during a difficult session! Especially now, as I’m taking extra care to ensure that I’m not holding my breath while I’m lifting (and thus increasing the internal downward pressure in my abdomen and pelvic floor), I intentionally expel air during the toughest part of the movement. Sometimes, that just means I make a “puf” sound. But sometimes it’s more!
When I’m lifting heavily, there can be something wonderful and freeing about pushing out a breath during a hard lift. Think about the incredible, strong and powerful movements of Bruce Lee and all his accompanying vocalizations! The man’s movements were a work of art, and he used his breathing to help power them. Now, I’m no Bruce Lee, but I feel like I tap into something powerful nonetheless when I let out an involuntary “whoff” as I stand strong in a lift. It makes the lift less arduous. I feel stronger and more capable. I feel more prepared to do it again for another rep.
Am I buying into patriarchy by making these noises? Am I somehow collaborating or contributing to the oppression of others by “conforming” to men’s norms in this way? No, I don’t think so.
Grunting and other vocalizations while lifting is, technically, something I can control, but only as much as we can control how we sneeze. Yes, I can hold in my breath, cover my nose, and try to make a “cute” sneeze that seems more feminine. Or, I can relax, exhale, and let it out loud and proud. Either way, I’m going to sneeze. Likewise, to some extent, grunting is unavoidable. I have some control over the volume and nature of it, but sometimes, as I’m straining all the way up, tension riding up into my neck and shoulders, I’m releasing air through tightened vocal cords to fuel that final contraction, and “UGHHH.” The noise is part of the effort.
The possibly insecure men whose noises annoy me are grunting because they are often lifting too much for them to control properly. They can control their vocalizations most readily by being realistic about their current fitness level and starting with more appropriate weights for their present strength. I don’t think they’re being patriarchal, they’re just being human. My advice to them isn’t “never grunt at the gym,” it’s to be mindful of how your lifting impacts others (and maybe get a trainer to help you set realistic goals).
I don’t deny that there is more pressure for women to be quiet, out of the way, and more conscientious of how their behaviors may impact others. I feel that pressure, too, as I set up my lifts off to one side, out of the line of sight of folks who might need the mirror, the dumbbell rack or some mat space. And as such, men likely give less thought to how their noises may make some people uncomfortable, or may intrude upon their gym experiences. I have no problem with reminding people to be thoughtful of others’ needs and to remember that those needs are diverse and varied. But I can’t help but wonder, if there were more women who lifted, would there be more understanding of the occasional need to grunt?
Feel free to leave me a comment below and let me know what YOU think!
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found occasionally grunting, and often picking up heavy things, and putting them back down again in Portland, OR.
I come from a family of long good-byes. We’re a family who walks you to the car. We say good-bye with hugs and kisses before you get in the car (very occasionally weeping but only if we know it will be a really long time before we see one another and mostly only when someone is leaving the country). To the very end, we play a game called “last look” and “last touch” where we drag it out even more, the winner being the person who gets in the last look or the last quick touch before snatching their hand away through the car window so no one else can touch. We’re laughing the whole while. And then, as you pull away, despite the “last look,” we stand in the driveway and wave. We watch you drive down the street pretty much until we can’t see the car anymore. Then we go in and have a cup of tea or something.
That helps to explain why this is taking me so long (my two week good-bye). I’ve learned to savour last moments. They can be so sweet. Like, this series has breathed some life into my blogging again, renewing my enthusiasm. But that’s not to say I’m staying on. It’s not that I think it’s too late to backtrack and change my mind (I once called off a wedding six weeks before). It’s more that I need to trust my gut on this decision, and it’s telling me to make space for new projects, some as-yet undetermined possibilities, and more generally just to have some breathing room. New space doesn’t need to be a vacuum that sucks something else into it right away.
This blog has given me a lot over the years. Sam and I have often talked about how we stumbled into it without thinking it would go anywhere — it was a temporary project to document our Fittest by Fifty Challenge, and it was meant to end five years ago when we each turned 50. Her energy and efforts have always kept it going. By comparison to Sam’s hard work on the coordinating and organizing and motivating fronts, I have really been little more than co-founder and regular contributor. So I see it as one of those things in life where what I’ve received is so much more than what I’ve given, and I’m grateful beyond what I can express in words. Here are a few of the things the blog gave me (not necessarily in order of importance):
A regular writing practice
I have blogged at least twice a week for seven years. I never did master the art of the short, quick post. As a writer, having a regular writing commitment twice a week (well, maybe once, since #tbt became a regular thing for me in recent years) with an audience to answer to has kept the ink flowing. There has been no time for writer’s block or perfectionism. Almost all of my posts are still in the “first draft” stage, where the content is mostly there but the writing itself needs more metaphor, more precision, more concrete details–the sorts of things that make it more interesting for a reader. I can live with that. I am infinitely more relaxed about my writing since starting the blog. Sharing “good enough” writing with people is no longer a worry. Actually, it’s been fun developing a more casual writing style. Even if it’s not my “best” writing, it’s my most enjoyable. And people read it!
This idea of community keeps coming back to me. The blog itself drew in a community of like-minded folks who wanted to participate in conversations about fitness from a more inclusive feminist perspective. When Sam and I started to realize people actually read and commented and engaged in discussion about our content, we were well and truly chuffed. Going into it we genuinely thought only friends and family would read the blog.
In addition to the large community of readers and commenters and followers of our Facebook page and Twitter account and Instagram that has energized us and encouraged us, I’ve also gained a closer community in the regular contributors. Last Thursday I reflected on some of the wonderful posts that the other regulars have written. The other blog regulars are a supportive, helpful, motivating group of incredible women I’m fortunate to know.
The blog has also given me a fitness community. As noted the other day, where I used to train alone, I now love to train in groups. Not only, but for sure regularly. My Sunday long runs, which I’ve been missing because of my Achilles issues, are among the highlights of my weekend because I love getting together with my peeps (Anita and Julie) and I feel something is missing from my life when I can’t or when sustained periods of time go by when our schedules don’t collide.
I don’t know about you, but a sense of belonging matters a lot to me. And as a philosopher who works on collective responsibility and collective agency, I’m aware of the possibilities offered when we do things together that we can’t do alone. Communities have great power. Becoming a part of these inspiring communities has been an amazing gift.
A regular and consistent fitness practice
If you want to kickstart your fitness routines, blog about them regularly and let that accountability to an audience start to motivate you. If we hadn’t blogged about our fitness challenge, I don’t know that we would have finished it (maybe I should speak only for myself here — I doubt I would have had the focus to keep at it for two years). But the blog gave me a place and a reason to develop a consistent fitness practice, a reason to try new things (like triathlon), and a place to reflect explicitly about what was working for me (like running, which surprised me because at the beginning I didn’t even like it).
Blogging here helped me think ahead about strategies for working out while traveling, and made me feel more accountable to implement those strategies. As Sam likes to say about all sorts of things: “blog about it!” I honestly would never have even tried triathlon, let alone fallen in (temporary) love with it and made it the focus on my Fittest by 50 Challenge, unless Sam had said: “Hey let’s sign up for the Kincardine Women’s Triathlon. It’ll give us something to blog about.” It sure did. And it galvanized my training goals for the next two years.
Blogging has helped me get back on track when I’ve fallen out of routine. It has become clear to me that it’s as important to share openly and honestly about setbacks as about successes. I had setbacks shortly into the blog and I have had setbacks more recently. And many along the way. Everyone has both–that’s the way life is. We are not robots. It’s been motivating to me to take that seriously and to use the blog as a way of thinking through how to get back on track and then writing about my progress. I’ve gained advice from others by asking for help here. That’s how I ended up trying an osteopath.
Fitness activities are positive and self-nurturing part of my life, whether my routine is in an ebb or a flow. That’s from blogging. Putting it all in print has let me see that there is a constant flow of change: I hit my stride for awhile and glide along seemingly without effort, then a shift happens and it’s a bit harder (or even sometimes impossible), then I regroup and scale down to get back on track, and soon I’m skipping along again to my latest favourite playlist. That is my larger rhythm and it repeats. And repeats. And repeats.
Not to say I came to the blog without a voice. But the casual nature of blog posts let me develop my own conversational style and a way of expressing myself that feels true and honest. I used to think that my “voice” (such as it is) was kind of boring. And maybe to some it is. That’s fine. But that’s me — lowkey, to the point, a comfortable (for me) balance between self-disclosure and reserve, the occasional unleashing of anger about the world, a mild sense of humour, and feminist.
Regular blogging about fitness from a feminist perspective has done more to cement my own sense of what it means for me to be a feminist than anything else. My years of teaching feminist philosophy and women’s studies; a stint as chair of the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research; writing academic papers about feminism; taking part in countless Take back the Night events…none of that has shaped my feminist voice or allowed me to express it and more importantly develop it as much as blogging at Fit Is a Feminist Issue.
Back when I was an undergrad and I worked a summer job at Doubleday Publishing in Toronto, they had weekly sales for staff where books that had been returned were spread out on a table in the warehouse and we could buy them for super cheap. That’s where I picked up my copy of Hard Bodies by Gladys Portugues, my first foray into the world of women’s weight training. In it, she told a story of a woman at her gym who started a consistent routine of weight training and stuck with it. Over the course of that first year, the woman, once shy and reserved and even a bit fragile seeming, developed more and more confidence and strength. As it turned out, she had been going through a divorce throughout that time and the workouts transformed her from a broken woman trying to put her life back together into a confident role model for newer members. Or something like that.
Of all the information I read in that book, about split routines and super sets and how to do pec flies and squats and calf raises (all brand new to me at the time), the story of the woman who survived her divorce by going to the gym had the biggest impact. It suggested that developing physical strength, a comfort with my body, and a routine that made space for that could spill confidence into the rest of my life. And it could get me through the hard bits. And it has.
But blogging consistently about my fitness life and about feminist issues in fitness and sport has itself increased my confidence. I’m no authority on anything about fitness. But like millions of other women who have ventured into gyms, onto soccer fields, into swimming pools and yoga studios, who have climbed walls and boulders, ridden their bikes, run trails or sidewalks or tracks or multi-use pathways beside the river, pounded out timed sets at CrossFit, boxed and wrestled and done aerial silk routines, power walked or leisure walked, worked out with resistance bands or done body weight training in their hotel rooms, thrown axes, cross country skied, snowshoed, ice skated, snowboarded or skied downhill through moguls, roller skated, roller derbied, perfected parkour or played women’s rugby, learned karate, aikido, judo, tai chi, mixed martial arts….I have my experience. And it has built character. And this blog kept me getting back to it not to compete with others or boast about my achievements, but because it made me feel good and there was nothing at stake beyond doing something for me.
As I said in a post (I don’t know which post–it was awhile back), if I never lifted another weight or ran another kilometre or did another warrior pose, no one would care. But I would. And like that woman who hit the gym full force during her divorce, that sort of commitment to myself has built the sort of confidence that comes through tapping into an internal sense of self-worth. It’s interesting to me, if no one else, that it came to me so late in life. We were already 48, Sam and I, when we started this blog. I had a career and my health and good friends and family already. But I (again like so many others, even accomplished others) also had all sorts of insecurities — some of which I worked out through activities like running, triathlon, yoga, and weight training and then blogging about them. It was always a huge confidence boost, for example, when I was able to report progress — my speed workouts actually made me faster! I went from needing to use the gravitron machine for pull-ups to being able to do three sets of 13 without the machine or even elastic bands to take some of the weight. All. By. Myself! I got faster in the pool. Woo hoo!
The blog gave me confidence in fitness, in my feminism, and in life.
A Chronicle of Events
I don’t mean just my fitness event history, but there is that: I can look back and see my fitness history over the past seven years, from my very first 5K and my very first triathlon, through to my Olympic distance triathlons, my weight training successes, my first and subsequent half marathons, my one and only full marathon, Around the Bay 30K x2, various traveling adventures and how I stayed active along the way, bouts of injury and illness, the communities I became a part of, friendships developed. The blog really has offered something of a “web-log” for the past seven years.
But we have also been able to put a time stamp on certain moments, like #me-too and various iterations of the Summer and Winter Olympics, the evolution of Barbie (even if you might wonder, as I did here, whether she can actually be redeemed), the coming and going of various diets (Keto wasn’t even a thing when we started blogging), the repetitive annual cycle of media about “making it” through the holidays and then about new year’s diets and fitness regimes. The excitement about “power posing” and then the subsequent discrediting of the findings. The sway of public opinion about fruit (evil! good!). Daylight savings time, “beach body” season, gearing up for winter training. Even the moments when new team members came aboard, as the blog’s roster of regulars grew and grew. So much captured over these years.
A commitment and routine
My scheduled posting time has been Tuesday and Thursday, 6 a.m., for years. Every Monday and every Wednesday before bed I make sure I have something lined up to post automatically at 6 a.m. the next morning. It has felt good to have this commitment and routine, like a touchstone in my week, every week. Some weeks it’s harder than others to find the time, to find the material, to find the energy and inspiration (I don’t wait for inspiration!). But it’s a commitment, so mostly, except for a few occasions when I had to call in the team for help, I’ve been able to keep the commitment. It, and the workouts I stuck with to have something to say (or, when not posting about my own workouts, the credibility to say whatever I was saying about working and training), kept me going through some tough times.
This past year has been full of tumult and personal upheaval of the hardest kind. It’s quite easily been the most difficult year of my life. I hope I’m on the other side of the worst of it. Having the blog as part of my weekly rhythm, month in and month out, kept me grounded in something positive and affirming while not being at the same time overwhelming (like my job — it’s positive and affirming but also sometimes leaves me feeling drained and overextended). Despite that, the time feels right to step back. I’m sure I’ll visit from time to time, but I declined Sam’s offer for a regular once a month spot because I feel incapable of making any sort of commitment to anything right now.
Extra big shout-out and enormous (though inadequate) thanks to Sam.
[insert weeping here]
Last look! Last touch!
[standing in the driveway waving]
Now — a cup of tea and some T-time (my step-daughter, Ashley calls me “T,” so in my world “me-time” is “T-time”).