The Challenging Challenge of Challenges

person leaping off cliff into water below

Let me just say it: I hate challenges. 30-day challenges, 100-day challenges, Do X-number-of-such-and-such challenges, etc.– I hate them all.

And yet.

There’s something seductive, promising, even magical about the challenge. All I have to do is start with 2 pushups, and soon I’ll be doing 384 of them a day. Or all I have to do is eat only grapefruit for 30 days and I’ll fit into that outfit. Or all I have to do is roll out my yoga mat now, and soon I’ll be able to hold a plank for 170 minutes. Apart from the sheer pain of the thing, who has the time to hold a plank that long? I’m joking, of course, but there’s definitely an appeal to the idea that the challenge promises us a goal beyond what we could imagine doing in our real lives.

Now, before you get annoyed with my tarring all challenges with the same brush, I know that there are lots of other challenges that are about process, not product. They help establish supposedly modest behavior change through repetition.  One such recent challenge was the the Runner’s World Run Streak challenge.

Runner's World 39 days of Awesome challenge: Thanksgiving to New Year's run 1 mile a day, every day

A bunch of FFI bloggers and friends decided to take on this challenge.  I chimed in, saying that I would walk a mile a day (my knees don’t let me run).  I even volunteered to do a group post on the results.

Why did I do this?  I was nearing the busiest, most hectic part of my fall term, a term in which I was the most overburdened with work that I’d been in some time.  I say this with full awareness that I have a job and life filled with privileges, for which I am lucky and grateful.  Still, my experience of being me last fall was not fun.

And yet.

The siren song of the challenge was irresistible.  I wanted it to be true that somehow I would transform into a person who took better care of herself– who took the time to stop what she was doing, get outside, stretch her legs, clear the cobwebs, and do something good for her body every day.  And honestly, walking a mile only takes 15–20 minutes, plus a few (like 5?) minutes for getting ready.  So surely I could manage this.

Well, no. Of course not. Hoping against hope that somehow my life would become different, that I would become different just by saying “I’m in!” is not an effective technique for completing a task like this.  I had none of the tools I needed.

I was stressed out from overwork, from being behind on a bunch of work tasks, from swimming in a sea of ungraded papers and exams.

I was in a state of suppressed (and sometimes non-suppressed) panic about my lack of fitness and failure to activate myself into a person working on fitness.

I was dying to feel and be like the other people doing the challenge, who (from my perspective) were fitter and happily ensconced in comfortable  and rock-solid physical activity patterns.

I was ashamed of my failure to meet my own physical activity goals.

I was ashamed of my body: how it looked, how it performed, how it felt inhabiting it.

So I did the only thing I could.  I said “I’m in!” and hoped for the best.

What happened?  Well, I have no idea what happened with the rest of the bloggers.  I was in fact too ashamed even to contact anyone to see how things went and organize a group blog post.  As for me, I did some walking on some days.  I did some documenting of the walking I did.  I did not walk 39 days in a row.  And I felt bad about that.

Okay, lesson learned:  don’t sign up for a challenge when just getting through your work day is a challenge.  Got it.

And yet.

The notion of the challenge, as much as I hate it, is still calling me.  Last weekend I was cross country skiing with my friend Janet, and talking about my fitness goals:  be able to ride bikes with my friends, learn more kayak techniques and get increased stamina to be able to paddle with folks over the summer, lower my levels of anxiety about partaking in physical activity with others and also on my own, and develop a rhythm of regular and fun activity.

That’s a lot.  There are a bunch of challenges in those goals.  Meeting them requires commitment to regular bike training (on the trainer and outside when possible), kayak classes and training and trips, anxiety-reduction through self-care, meditation, yoga, etc. starting to go on group rides with folks, and developing trust within myself and with my friends as I work toward fitness for me in this stage of my life.

So this is what I am doing now to meet these challenges:

I’m documenting my food intake– every meal, every snack, every day.  I want to eat in a way that feels healthy-to-me, that supports my body and helps me feel good and strong.  Knowledge is power, so looking at how I’m actually eating is a big step toward making any changes that I decide I want for myself.

I created a somewhat aspirational but not entirely unrealistic activity weekly schedule.  It includes walking, riding the trainer (which I don’t love but know will help me with my riding goals) and Friday–Sunday longer outside activities.  I also added daily yoga– sometimes a class (my local studio, Artemis Yoga in Watertown, MA,  is fantastic and very near my house), and other times a 20-minute yoga DVD.  I have the DVD cued up and ready to go, and my mat and blocks are in the living room.  I want to at least play the DVD while doing something-or-other on my mat to help me de-stress, stretch my body and relax.

I’m documenting all of my activity every day.  I printed out a calendar, tacked it to my bedroom door, placed a pen next to it, and am writing up what I’ve done each day.  In 4 weeks I’ll look at it and then devise another 4-week plan.  By then, the time will have changed (YAY!) so there will be more light later in the day to work with, opening up the possibility of rides after work.

This is my challenge: going on record with myself about what I want for my body.  Documenting what I am actually doing.  Reflecting on that information. Making adjustments.  And above all, being accepting, nay, kind to myself, remembering that challenges are, well, challenging.

 

Is *anything* having to do with the SI swimsuit issue a “breath of fresh air”?

Last week we talked about the way the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue included 63 year old Christie Brinkley. See “Because if Christie Brinkley can pull it off, so can anyone, right?”. That one generated a lot of intense feelings on both sides. But by far the most frequent response was a lament that the swimsuit issue is still a thing. One of the more striking comments, I thought, was a reader who said that “When I saw this on TV, I couldn’t help but to think that a 63-year-old mother ought to have weightier values to pass on to her daughters than posing in bikinis for a famous magazine.”

This sums it up for me too. Aren’t there other values we want to be passing on to the next generation? Well, the swimsuit issue has been back in the news in recent days on two fronts.

First, take “Hunter McGrady is a breath of fresh air in the in SI’s Swimsuit Edition.”

This color image shows swimsuit model Hunter McGrady, a white

Image dscription: This color image shows swimsuit model Hunter McGrady, a white “plus-sized” woman with long blond, wet hair, lying on her side on a white sandy beach, propped up on her right arm with her left arm in front for further support. She wears a colorful one-piece swimsuit that is painted onto her body, showing ample breasts, curvy hips, and glistening skin. the words “Sports Illustrated” appear in the lower right corner of the image. Photo Credit: Josephine Clough, Sports Illustrated

What’s the story here? Hunter McGrady is a gorgeous woman with curves. Her photo shoot for the issue has her posing on a beach in a body paint swimsuit. Yes, she looks stunning and sexy and comfortable in her skin. And yes she defies most of our expectations about who “deserves” (I use this word cautiously) to be featured in this edition of the magazine.

Like Brinkley who wanted to send a message to older women everywhere, McGrady has a larger public service in mind. She says: “My main goal is to get across to women that you are able to love your body at any size and that you’re sexy and beautiful at any size. Beauty is not a size and I’m really happy that the industry is accepting body diversity.”

Next is Serena Williams. She is by all accounts one of the most formidable female athletes of our time and the top tennis player of all-time (maybe Roger Federer is close).

In this colour picture tennis star Serene Wiliams, a black woman with long dark hair, poses on a beach in a one piece ocean blue swimsuit. She is standing with her head thrown back, muscular arms up over her chest, back slightly arched. There is white sand, calm surf, turquoise water, and blue sky with a few white clouds on this sunny day. Some greenery in the distance. The words

Image description: In this colour picture tennis star Serene Wiliams, a black woman with long dark hair, poses on a beach in a one piece ocean blue swimsuit. She is standing with her head thrown back, muscular arms up over her chest, back slightly arched. There is white sand, calm surf, turquoise water, and blue sky with a few white clouds on this sunny day. Some greenery in the distance. The words “Sports Illustrated” appear in the lower right corner of the image.

So while it’s heartening to read “Holy Moly, Serena Williams Is a Goddess in Sports Illustrated” in the sense that she defies type with her  athletic body and dark skin, I can’t say I was thrilled to see her reduced to a sex object.

On Facebook, my first reaction to the McGrady news was this:

I’m also torn about this. Similar to including Christie Brinkley at 63 (which we blogged about last week https://fitisafeministissue.com/…/because-if-christie…/) it’s tough to think of it anything having to do with the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition as a huge win for women. It’s so very heteronormative and objectifying. Yes, the depictions are beautiful, but in an extremely “male gaze-y” sort of way. It’s great to see diversity because it makes it clear that (perhaps) there are a range of sexy body types that straight men (mostly) will “accept.” But we are more than that. Having said that, I love the body paint and I love that she feels good in her body, and it’s okay to feel and be sexy. Hence: torn.

Others jumped in with similar comments. For example (quoting from our Facebook page comments):

“Wouldn’t it be nice to be valued for more than what we look like on the cover of a magazine that is known to objectify women? Is it great she’s outside of the acceptable size for this magazine? Sure, but the intent is still the same.”

“One can celebrate their body and not be reduced to an object.”

“Yes we can, but these photos are clearly meant to be sexual.”

“Equal opportunity objectification.”

“she’s gorgeous.”

As you can see, there is a range of opinion here. But the idea of “equal opportunity objectification” rings loudly to me.

Let’s be clear about one thing: there is nothing wrong with being sexy or sexual. It’s neither demeaning nor wrong. But the one-dimensional representation of amazing women for men’s visual pleasure seems awfully outdated to me, even if it’s in some sense heartening that a wider range of body types are “making the cut.”

Any feminist will tell you that hetero-normative femininity has been and continues to be used as a tool of oppression. The other day I talked about “letting yourself be” instead of “letting yourself go,” because the narrative of letting ourselves go implicitly suggests that we are only socially acceptable if we fit into the narrow mold that is expected of us. Some may choose not to conform, but others may not have a body type that can get there (if the expectation is slender, white, young, lean, etc.). That’s why diversity can seem like a good thing, even in the swimsuit issue.

But the larger question of “why in the heck is the swimsuit issue still a thing at all?” wants an answer too. And that answer is kind of depressing. There is nothing sporty about the swimsuit issue. There is no covert, progressive agenda. It’s still the same as it always was, designed to appeal to straight male sexual desire, presenting the women as sexual objects for men’s consumption.

I don’t want to sound grumpy about something that does have its positive side of promoting body positivity and sex positivity. But when I think of “sex positive,” I guess I think of something more progressive that involves bashing stereotypes more than galvanizing their social power.

What’s your reaction to these new efforts to make the swimsuit edition more inclusive?


Embracing my growing strength

Red and white printed blanket covering a personBy MarthaFitat55

I’m not a big fan of our winter season. The weather is often horrible, spring seems like it will never arrive, and the multiple layers required to survive the cold make going to the gym a chore.

When the sky is blue, and the snow is soft and fluffy, I can work up the enthusiasm to enjoy a walk or a snowshoe. When it is wet and miserable with sleety snow, I want to curl up under my quilt and not surface until May.

Part of my resistance to winter exercise comes from my fear of falling. I have actually fallen several times, with my first reliable memory being a fall at 14 that resulted in a wicked headache.

I have tumbled over icy stairs (that one within earshot of my mother who heard me use language suitable for blistering paint) and I have skidded across parking lots.

I have also fallen indoors, and while I have been fortunate enough not to experience lasting ill effects, as I grow older, my fear of falling has grown exponentially.

I often ask people if they remember the rubber boots many of us wore as kids, and if they specifically recall how stiff and unyielding the rubber would get as we walked to and from school in January and February. Over time the rubber would crack and the wet would seep in.

That’s how I feel my muscles go in the winter cold: hard, inflexible, and yet ready to shatter at the slightest pressure.

Last year, three of my friends and one of my relatives were laid up with broken bones, all women. Two experienced the breaks as a result of slips and falls on icy sidewalks, thus adding to my fear and resistance.

I shouldn’t be surprised: after all, women are four times more likely to have osteoporosis, and one in five is likely to experience a fracture after age 40. The fact is my fear of falling need not be limited to the winter season, given the data.

Since hiding under a quilt is not really an option I can indulge in, I have looked for ways to reduce my risk of falls. I make sure I have good shoes, grippy sneakers, and sturdy boots. I have learned to walk like a penguin, with my feet pointed out, when going up or down hills and across icy surfaces.

I found some really useful tips here on the BC’s government’s health website. One tip which really stood out for me was eating foods high in calcium and Vitamin D. I had found increasing my fish intake was helping with my arthritis, so I wasn’t too surprised that nutrition could help. I had also long known about the calcium connection for bone health, but was not aware of the importance Vitamin D brings to muscle strength.

Last month, I had reason to be grateful for working on my fitness and nutrition. I had noticed increasing tightness and soreness around the hip joint post training and my trainer had noticed some oddities in my form during a subsequent squat session.

I decided to get checked as I was worried that something new was about to be added to the injury roster. I was somewhat startled to learn that it was the same hip problem. When I asked why the symptoms were different, my physiotherapist said my muscle strength had improved significantly over the past year to compensate for my hip moving out of alignment.

When I thought about the other times my hip joint has shifted, I realized several things. First, the time between injury and the onset of discomfort and pain was usually quite short. This time, it was a little over three weeks before things got really sore. Second, the recovery time post alignment was often quite long, with the pain and stiffness taking as much as three to five weeks to disappear. This time, I was really only uncomfortable for about 48 to 72 hours.

So what has this got to do with my fear of falling? I’m still cautious, but now I have developed my core strength so I am strong enough to reduce the impact. I also know my improved nutrition has helped my muscles recover faster from training, and this is also helpful in dealing with stress and injury.

What this means long term, I am not sure yet. For now, I am happy to continue with the work I am doing with the knowledge that I have made a difference in reducing the effects of injury and speeding up recovery.

— Martha is a writer living in St. John’s documenting a continuing journey of making fitness and work-life balance part of her everyday lifestyle.

It’s not “letting yourself go,” it’s “letting yourself be”

This colour photo depicts close up a bold dark pink cactus flower against a bright blue sky. The single flower has pointed pink petals surrounding a yellow, pink, and white interior, and green leaves, with red flecks. The green leaves of other trees are visible in the background.

[Image description: This colour photo depicts close up a bold dark pink cactus flower against a bright blue sky. The single flower has pointed pink petals surrounding a yellow, pink, and white interior, and green leaves, with red flecks. The green leaves of other trees are visible in the background.

Yesterday I read “In Defense of Letting Yourself Go,” in the Huffington Post. Author Dayna Evans reminds us (without endorsing this line of thinking) that:

When a woman concedes to letting herself go, she rings the death knell of her valued contributions to society. Letting yourself go by putting on weight, not wearing makeup, eating buttered Pop Tarts, deciding to wear clothes that are fit for comfort instead of style, is the equivalent of saying the morally accepted standards of beauty and presentability do not apply to you. And this is unacceptable.

Last week when I wrote about Christie Brinkley appearing, at age 63, in the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated (I remain surprised that it’s still a thing!), I said something along the lines of “isn’t there an age where we can just stop worrying about whether we fit the normative ideals of feminine beauty that we’ve had imposed on us for all of our lives?”

I can relate to Dayna Evans’ statement that “Being a woman is a little like putting on a pair of tight shoes at birth and then not taking them off until you die.” So the desire to do what is interpreted as “letting yourself go” is as understandable as wanting to kick off those shoes. She associates the permission to let yourself go with giving yourself the permission to age.

Granted, since youth is a huge part of the oppressive feminine aesthetic, older women have an inescapable strike against them already. The beauty industry preys on our fear of aging — of “letting ourselves go” — by offering an overwhelming array of products meant to stave off aging.

But allowing ourselves to age is not “letting ourselves go.” And at any age, allowing ourselves to give up those figurative high heels for more comfortable shoes is not “letting ourselves go.” Why don’t we think instead of honoring ourselves enough to let us be who we are without having to stuff ourselves into an ill-fitting, uncomfortable mold.

I know it’s optimistic to think that we can just overthrow the pressures of normative femininity overnight. But if we each take little stands against it, defying the narrow range of “acceptable” in order to change it, we can make some progress towards broadening those ideals so that I wider range of “looks” that encompass diversity — of age, race, body size and type, hair colour and style, fashion, etc. — are considered acceptable.

I totally agree with Dayna Evans when she says:

Wouldn’t it be nice, instead of concerning ourselves every morning with the most flattering shirt to wear or putting aside extra cash to dye our hair, if we wore the shirt we wanted to and the one that felt good? And we put that extra cash toward a bowl of chili on a cold winter evening? And when we wanted to “be cozy,” we just were cozy. Or we didn’t put Spanx on under our bridesmaid dresses because the shape of our bodies is just that: the shape of our bodies. Why shouldn’t we?

What I disagree with is that we should think of that as “letting ourselves go.” I get that she’s embracing this and that in so doing, she’s performing an act of defiance. But giving in to dominant characterizations of this type of defiance as “letting ourselves go” doesn’t take it far enough. Let’s challenge the status quo and the narrative surrounding it by letting ourselves be.

Are there any areas of your life where you’ve made a conscious decision to let yourself be? We would love to hear from you about it!

We’re doing it all wrong, the escalator version

Also, Cate and Sam, both fast walkers who like to zoom by people standing on the right on escalators start to think more about disability and escalator etiquette.

Image of an escalator, grey, with the word "walk" on the left side in green and "stand" on the right side in orange.

Act 1: The story begins
It all started with friends are sharing this story on Facebook, Why the escalator etiquette of ‘stand right, walk left’ is wrong.

As with zipper merge our intuitions about fairness are getting in the way of doing what’s most efficient. You know the zipper merge issue, right? We’d do best, use up the most space on the road, and merge in the most efficient way possible if we merged at the last moment. But at least in Canada, we’re very polite. It feels wrong to zoom in the the lane that will end and merge at the last moment. And because they’re convinced it’s unfair, people don’t let you in. Other drivers enforce the norm of fairness. Of course you wouldn’t be zooming in an empty lane if everyone did it. That’s the problem. And the other problem is that the politeness point, the point at which merging is thought to be fair, gets moved further and further back, and you have lots of one lane unused.

See How Canadian Politeness is Killing Efficiency.

So it’s a case where our well developed norms of fairness get it wrong. We’d be better off zipper merging at the last possible minute.

But that’s not our concern here. Today it’s the escalator and a different politeness norm, that of “walk left, stand right.” As someone who zooms up escalators past all the standing people, I like that rule. And on days when I want to stand I like standing right, knowing that I’m not in anyone’s way. What’s the issue? Well, the problem is that many more people stand right than walk left and elevators wear out unevenly. Owners of escalators want us to abandon our norm of stand right, walk left.

The London Underground took down their “walk left, stand right” signs after deciding it is more efficient for everyone to stand. The Nanjing Metro did the same.  And so did the TTC here in Toronto. But removing the signs isn’t enough. Most people still think that “stand right and walk left” is the etiquette rule for escalators.

So how do you do away with a norm that’s strongly grounded in deeply held beliefs about fairness? It’s tricky.

 

Poster that says "keep in mind that the right portion of the escalator is for standing while the left is for walking." There are three people on the right standing and one on the left walking.

 

Act 2: Sam and Cate sound all judgey about standing

Also, you might ask, Cate and I did anyway, why do more people stand right than walk left? We asked on Facebook, why aren’t more people walking? We sounded pretty judgey about it. WALK PEOPLE!

Admittedly maybe we should have thought first before issuing commandments about walking but luckily our friends are good at correcting us. I like that about my friends.

You see at first I speculated that it’s the good side/bad side of universal design and the idea of “build it and they’ll come.” What do I mean? Well, mobility aids like escalators and moving sidewalks are terrific for reasons of accessibility.

In the case of the escalators I encounter most often, the ones on the TTC, they serve to make public transit, access to the subway, more accessible. And the universal design aspect is cool. You build them for people with disabilities but it turns out that lots of people–tired people, people who are unstable on their feet, people carrying babies, groceries etc prefer them.

But, here’s the bad side. In a society where there is a rise in extreme sedentary behavior, where there are people for whom making a meal is a workout, who drive to work, sit at a desk and watch TV all night, escalators are part of the problem. I worried about this in my post about home elevators.

So one thing, escalators, can be part of one solution–making transit and more places accessible–and part of another problem, increasing rates of extreme sedentary behavior.

Act 3: Sam and Cate get schooled (rightly) about disability

As one person pointed out on our Facebook discussion of this page, “Just stop it. I can’t walk up the escalators and you can’t tell who is disabled by looking.”

Agreed. Agreed.

Another friend wrote, “Apart from the ableism concern (which is important), it’s worth noting that there’s a difference between a short escalator at a mall and long, steep ones to/from subways (what the column opens with). Even for folks with no mobility issues, not all escalators equally walkable.”

Agreed.

More friends chimed in. “I’m young and a runner, hiker, cyclist and as part of training have run stairs.But a few years ago I developed fascia constriction in my calves (part genetics, part a result of being super active and using the crap out of my jacked calves). I do physical therapy for it, but it is chronic. On many days I can run and walk miles but I cannot take even a short set of stairs without experiencing profound pain- enough to drop me to the ground and make me cry.Feel free Sam to use my story in your post.”

I went off and read some more things about movements to get people to climb stairs and the anti-ableist critique of the campaigns.

See Elevator Shaming and Why Pro Stairs Health Campaigns Kind of Suck and Elevator Shaming.

I wondered how can we nudge people to walk more while at the same time not making those who can’t feel nudged and guilty? Is there a nudge we can make that’s not ablest?

Here is a bad kind of nudge. Imagine if you get in an elevator on the ground floor and pressed 2 and a recorded voice says. “Do you know that’s only a single flight of stairs? Do you need to use the elevator? If so press 2 again.” That’s pretty awful for the person in the wheelchair. Worse for the person with a less visible disability who may feel pressured to explain to others in the elevator. This idea is discussed here.

I remember that I used to feel funny using the elevator when I had a stress fracture. I couldn’t walk, certainly not upstairs, but I was allowed to ride my bike to work.

Act 4: Other solutions

Why are walkers on the escalators anyway? Maybe we are the ones who should change our behavior and take the stairs. Now as Tracy pointed out having more stairs available is great. I love that at Pearson airport in Toronto. When I get off a flight I charge up the stairs while there is a wait to get on the escalator.It’s the joy of travelling with a backpack rather than a wheelie suitcase.

Seems we’re all chiming in here. Sarah says the real issue is car culture and driving and that things like escalators are a drop in the inactivity bucket. Don’t you dare blame universal design here, she says. It’s all about driving and cars.

And then my good friend Sally said maybe no one cares about efficiency. Let the treads on escalators wear out unevenly. How bad is that? If the stand right/walk left norm allows standers to stand comfortably and speedsters to zoom by without worrying, maybe it’s a good rule to have even if it comes at a price?

Why should we care about efficiency at all costs? You know what? I think maybe that’s right. Me, I’m going to continue to walk left, zoom left most of the time, and when I’m tired, stand right.

How about you? What do you think?

Why I won’t be running a marathon anytime soon (guest post)

by Alison Conway

alison

Image description: this color photo shows Alison Conway, a tall blond woman dressed in running tights and long sleeves with neon pink shoes and race bib number 3519, coming through the finishing arch (a red inflated archway that says “Running Room” and “Start/Finish” at the end of the Sarnia Half Marathon. She is flanked by two other runners, also in black tights and long sleeves. On the pavement in front of them is painted the blue and white symbol for wheelchair accessible parking. It’s a grey cloudy day and people look cold.

I took up running after a hiatus of almost thirty years when I turned 50 in 2015. In my early twenties I suffered bad knees and the physio who treated them directed me to the pool. Three decades later I thought I’d try a 5 km running clinic and see how the knees held up. Two years later, I’m logging and loving the miles.

Since Nov. 8th, running has taken on a different significance. Now I start my runs full of rage and despair over what’s happening in America, full of fear that the same will happen here if either Kevin O’Leary or Kellie Leitch (two of the top three Conservative Party leadership contenders, according to the National Post 2/3/17) gains ascendency in Canadian politics. Guilt plagues me. I am running when I should be volunteering or protesting. I spend money on race registrations that would be better spent on larger monthly contributions to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Clearly I have been living with my head in the sand since I didn’t see Trump coming. Now I must atone.

But self-laceration is too easy and familiar. I couId spend the next four years in my head, spinning. Instead, I must sit down and make some hard choices. And one of my choices is to set a limit to how much time I spend running. I’ve been encouraged by friends to take on a marathon. I admire those in my running group who have overcome serious obstacles in their lives to achieve this goal, as well as those who use marathons to raise money for charity. I admire our coach, who is an advocate for at-risk youth and mental health services. But at this moment, whatever benefits I could list under “self care” when thinking about a marathon take a back seat to those I list under “other care.”

The challenge we face now is that each day asks us to make decisions about how much news we will consume, what contribution we will make, what action we will take. The marathon we are all running is the one that involves making these choices deliberately and mindfully, day in, day out, week in, week out, for the foreseeable future. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, panicked, frozen. We all have to pace ourselves.  It seems like a good time to ask hard questions of “self care,” to see how far it extends itself to helping those more at risk than ourselves.

We can be more deliberate about yoking our fitness goals to our political commitments.  I volunteer for Start2Finish, a reading and running group for at-risk children, and I practice the power pose with little girls every week. “Sweat is great!” is a common refrain; “Just keep running!” is another.  There are other programs aimed directly at fostering confidence in girls through running and we can all help to nurture young women by giving them our full attention as volunteers.

In our exercise communities, we can find ways to build relationships and trust with those who do not belong to our particular constituency—in my case, academia—in the hopes of enabling dialogue when so much divisiveness characterizes public speech. I talk too much, but lately I’ve been trying to listen better, to choose my words more carefully when I respond to ideas I consider ill-informed. I am finding out about the community work others are involved in, their sense of local politics and what’s at stake in mapping the future of the city we live in.  Now it’s time to take what I’ve learned to city hall, to become an engaged citizen rather than a passive observer. The old chestnut, “Act local, think global,” has taken on new, concrete significance since I decided to focus my attention on doing the next right thing.

What I can’t do is try to run away from the whole sorry mess we’re in, or turn my back on those who need my help and support right now. We need to run toward resistance, not away from it.  Maybe one day, for me, resistance will involve training for a marathon. But right now I have more urgent tasks requiring my attention.

Alison Conway is an English professor at Western University.  Her favorite workout is running the roads and trails of London, ON.

Undiagnosed eating disorders: another danger of our false assumptions about fit, fat, and food

eating-disorders-l-pea

Image description: This is a color photo of a round white dinner plate with one green pea in the very centre of it. There is a silver fork to the left of the plate and a silver knife to the right. The background is plain off-white.

If you’re like most people, when you think of eating disorders images of extremely thin, maybe even skeletal, young (and probably white) women come to mind. Recently there’s been more attention paid to other demographics that might not be as easy to spot. We’ve talked about eating disorders among older women and men.

But there is another group among whom eating disorders go unnoticed: people who are viewed as overweight or fat. This oversight is not only a result of our default mental images connected with eating disorders. More pernicious than that, it stems from our cultural preoccupation with thinness and the idea that it’s normal — even recommended — for “fat” people to be dieting.

According to Alexis Conason’s article, “The Hidden Faces of Eating Disorders: Why People at Higher Weights Go Undiagnosed,”

A recent study (Lipson & Sonneville, 2017) examined 9713 students from 12 different colleges and found that body weight was the most consistent predictor of eating disorder symptoms. Students with a BMI in the “overweight” or “obese” range were at the highest risk and students with a BMI in the “underweight” range were surprisingly at the lowest risk. A history of elevated body weight is common in patients seeking eating disorder treatment. A 2015 study by Lebow et al. examined patients seeking treatment for restrictive eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, and found that over 36 percent of patients had a history of BMI above the 85th percentile. And disturbingly, symptoms in these patients are often not diagnosed until later and more severe stages of the illness. A 2013 article by Sim et al. that I wrote about in an earlier post found that eating disorder symptoms in adolescents with a weight history in the “overweight” or “obese” range not only were under-diagnosed, but symptoms were actually encouraged by medical professionals who congratulated these patients for losing weight.

Even medical professionals don’t think of overweight people who are severely restricting their food intake as having an eating disorder. We are so culturally obsessed with the idea of thinness as a body ideal that food restriction and extreme dieting are considered praiseworthy, enviable skills to be mastered. People are not recognized to be in peril unless they are dangerously thin.

When people are rewarded and admired for not eating, particularly when they’re viewed as “needing to lose a few,” no one (themselves included) will think they’re suffering from an eating disorder. I was diagnosed with anorexia by two different professionals when I was a graduate student and I didn’t believe them because I didn’t think I was thin enough to “qualify.” If someone doesn’t recognize themselves as fitting the mold, then it’s difficult for them to take in messages about dangers and prevention.

Eating disorder prevention and intervention efforts are often targeted at people in the “underweight” range while people categorized as “overweight” or “obese” are targeted for weight loss interventions. Fat people are told to diet, even though dieting is one of the strongest predictors for both development of eating disorders and weight gain. Isn’t it time we stopped prescribing behaviors to people at higher weights that are diagnosed as eating disorder symptoms in people at lower weights? Food restriction, purging food (either through laxative use, self-induced vomiting, or exercising to compensate for calories consumed), viewing foods as “good” or “bad,” and defining our self-worth based on the numbers on the scale are unhealthy at any weight. We need to recognize these symptoms as what they are—signs of an eating disorder—even when the person who is engaging in them lives in a fat body.

So if you didn’t think there were enough ways in which our assumptions about food and fat and fitness can be harmful to people who are perceived to be carrying extra pounds, here’s another to add to the list. Fat-shaming and the idea that fat people are supposed to be doing things to lose eight, and that dieting is one of those things, is a harmful camouflage that allows disordered eating to go undetected.