fitness · gender policing · stereotypes · weight lifting

Give Me Strength (Guest Post)

Some of my favourite images from sports photography can be found in Howard Schatz’s 2002 book, Athletes. In his provocative work, Schatz photographs Olympic athletes from various sports in black, form-fitting clothing. Arranging them side-by-side, Schatz reveals the various shapes of the athletic female body. There are many ways of reading these images—I am not here to claim they are unproblematic—but the aspect I choose to focus on is how all of these women, in their varying shapes and sizes, represent strength.

I think society has a terrible time accepting physically strong women—women whose musculature is visible and takes up space. (The recent events surrounding Venus Williams come to mind.) We have adjectives for these types of bodies: “broad,” “big-boned,” “stocky,” and “handsome,” for example. But none of these words is meant to be flattering. (Brianne of Tarth, anyone?) As a 6’0’’ woman myself, I struggled well into my thirties with the question of how to be present physically in a room. I knew I wasn’t petite, small, or particularly fragile. I took up space—a lot of it.

For me, everything came to a head when I turned 36 and gave birth to my third child via c-section no. 3. The doctors who prepped me for surgery marvelled at my enormous baby bump, as if it were something glorious and Amazonian. I’ll never forget their astonishment when my beloved Quinton arrived, weighing in at 11 pounds, 1 ounce. I had given birth to a toddler. As for me, postpartum I had never been so heavy nor so chronically in pain. So, I decided I should do what any 36-year-old classically-trained musician would logically do: I decided to take lessons. I hired myself a brief stint with a personal trainer.

I arrived at the gym assuming my trainer would put me on the treadmill—what I had previously been urged to do to “slim down”—and yell at me in an emotionally-uplifting and inspiring way. (Reality tv wouldn’t steer me wrong, right?) But after five minutes of warm up, my trainer turned off the dreaded machine and led me to the free weights. She walked me past the familiar, dainty weights I had compulsively selected in past group exercise classes, and instead handed me the heavy “barbells” from the middle of the rack. Incredulous, I lifted. After a few sessions, it felt great.

In the first weeks working with this trainer I gained fifteen pounds…of muscle. And I grew strong. She quickly learned that we shared an interest in facts and physics. Together, we talked about everything from nutrition, to metabolism, to body mechanics. Herself being 5’4’’ and a competitive body builder, she looked at me and saw a remarkable template. It turned out, the construction of my previously-loathed body meant that I could actually accomplish some pretty remarkable things. She helped me to understand that my metabolism prioritised muscle and would grow it and protect it prior to burning off fat. This celebration of my construction was surprisingly new. And the strength training was far more effective in slimming me down than anything else I had ever done.

My trainer changed my life. She taught me what strength looks like—male or female. So many bodies that I would have previously thought were “bulky” actually belonged to incredibly strong, powerful women. I was astonished—considering myself a fairly educated individual—at how little I understood about the female body. And as I eliminated my fear of weights and of growing bulky, I also began to enjoy being myself a lot more than I had before. Exercising gave me a hobby that helped me moderate anxiety, eliminate chronic pain, play with my children without fear of “putting my back out,” and embrace failure as something amazing. In fact, failure in the gym is key. It is the best way to make you stronger.

Three years later, I still lift, although this summer I began running again as a chance to tackle new challenges. I cannot imagine life without regular exercise, and I talk with my children about strength and being strong. I fear, as a society, that there are far too many instances to undermine women’s ideas of strength, which, as Schatz’s image reveals, can come in many forms. And make no mistake, one doesn’t need to lift the heavy stuff to be a power house; strength manifests itself in remarkably different ways. Improving how I celebrate strength has been essential to improving my outlook on life, making me all the more excited to drive toward that next failure.

Kimberly Francis is Acting Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at the University of Guelph, where she is also an Associate Professor of Music and a passionate feminist musicologist. She’s not ashamed to say that Taylor Swift, Guster, and many, many tracks from Big Shiny Tunes can all be found on her workout playlist.

body image · clothing · equality · femalestrength · gender policing

Is tennis trying to win a chauvinism/misogyny award?

 

First, the French Open decides one of Serena’s outfits back in June is cause to tighten up their dress code rules. I wrote about that only a few days ago in Let Women Wear What They Want. Yesterday, the U.S. Open penalized Alize Cornet for oh-so-briefly taking off her shirt during a match.

alize cornet shirt
Alize Cornet, French tennis player, taking off her shirt at the U.S. Open with her back turned, wearing a sturdy black sports bra

Have women’s bodies become so hyper-sexualized that we (okay, really men) can’t even see a woman’s sports bra without coming apart at the seams? Watch the video. Alize’s shirt is off for less than thirty seconds. On a break, she had changed out of a sweat-soaked dress. She accidentally put her fresh shirt on backwards. I’m in New York City. I can attest to just how blistering the heat is. Riding at 6 a.m. with a friend this morning, we felt like we needed amphibious bikes to wade through the stifling humidity. I start sweating just looking out my window at the sunshine.

We are super-saturated by media images of women in their scanties. Are you as tired of Victoria’s Secret billboard cleavages as I am? The more we sexualize women in the media, the less room there is for women to be comfortable in their bodies and in their strength.

Meanwhile, no surprise, the male tennis players are sitting around without their shirts on whenever they feel like it.

The powers-that-be blather on about respecting the sport as an excuse to sanction women. The women ARE respecting the sport. Now let’s give the women the respect they deserve!

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

Being Naked in Public, pt 2: languages of instruction

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

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

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

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

fullsizeoutput_1046

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

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

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

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

locker-room-etiquette-sign-s2-1269

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

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

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

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

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

So tick the xenophobia box too, please.

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

What to make of this?

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

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

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

Some neutrality; some body positivity!

gnr

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

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

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

The problem was with language, and its intention.

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

This is, totally, a worthy goal.

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

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

I came up with this:

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

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

Thank you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours swimmingly,

Kim

athletes · gender policing · Guest Post · Olympics · research · stereotypes

The Latest Nonsense from the Gender Police (Guest Post)

When the Court of Arbitration for Sports struck down the IAAF’s Rules on Hyperandrogenism, Sebastian Coe wasn’t amused. When Caster Semenya took the 800 meters gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Coe was downright unhappy, and he announced that the IAAF was working to deliver the evidence that the CAS had found missing in its 2015 ruling: evidence for the proposition that elevated testosterone levels in women athletes provided these athletes with an unfair competitive advantage.

In 2017, the IAAF presented what they took to be such evidence; and last week, they presented their new rules on gender eligibility. According to the new rules, in all races from 400 meters to the mile, women with elevated testosterone levels will be forced to either lower them – or to give up their sport.

These rules, to take effect in November, are no better than their predecessors. In fact, they might be worse.

There is, first, the glaring ethical issue of forcing athletes to accept an unnecessary medical intervention in order to be allowed to compete. (The Rules on Hyperandrogenism were used to justify castrations, vaginoplasties, and clitoroplasties on young women athletes, who may not have been in a position to give informed consent to these procedures.)

Second, there is the selectivity of the new rules. They only apply to four (Olympic) disciplines out of 21. The justification for this is a study commissioned by the IAAF, published last year. The authors of the study purport to show that the correlation between “free testosterone” levels and performance at the top level is significant in these disciplines. What the new rules do not reflect is that the authors also found a significant correlation in two other disciplines, the pole vault and the hammer throw. No other discipline showed a significant correlation.

The study was based on blood samples taken during the IAAF World Championships in Daegu 2011 and Moscow 2013. Every athlete who finished her competition and went through an anti-doping control was counted – even those whose high testosterone levels could be traced to doping. The study took the highest and the lowest tertile of testosterone levels and compared the athletes’ performances to the mean performance. Yet the testosterone levels in the highest tertile ranged from “somewhat elevated” to “extremely elevated” (or “in the normal male range”, in IAAF doctor speak). There is no way to tell from the study whether extremely elevated levels also lead to an extremely enhanced performance. Nor is there a way to tell what specific advantage testosterone is supposed to confer in the disciplines that showed a significant correlation; the authors speculate that it might be enhanced visuo-spatial coordination in the pole vault and increased lean body mass and aggressiveness in middle distance running – but the study itself doesn’t give any definite clues; and the question remains why, if testosterone can have such varied effects, they show up in less than 40% of all Olympic disciplines.

And even if the study constituted proof that testosterone conferred an unfair advantage, there’d be no reason whatsoever to exclude pole vault and hammer throw from the new rules. So as things stand, the new rules look completely arbitrary even on their very own terms – and it seems obvious that they primarily target Semenya. They affect her disciplines (the 400, 800, and 1500 meters) and Semenya is the most prominent and by far the most successful athlete to have come to the attention of the IAAF gender police. Bluntly put, it seems that the IAAF either wants to get rid of Semenya or force her to artificially lower her performance levels to a point where she’s no longer winning.

The IAAF has been trying to come up with definitive rules for eligibility in women’s competition for over half a century. (Access to men’s competitions was never regulated.) Their efforts have largely been unsuccessful. By now, they have largely given up on the specter of the “male impostor” (suggesting that men might pose as women for “easy” athletic success) which ruled the introduction of eligibility rules in the 1960s. But they still insist that not every woman should be allowed to compete. In other words: while they have accepted that Semenya is a woman, they still cannot accept that she ought to be allowed to compete as she is.

Third, the IAAF still hasn’t explained convincingly why they insist on regulating eligibility in (pseudo-)medical terms in the first place (other than the obvious and obviously poor reason that they don’t like the media attention for Semenya and the races she participates in). They claim that they want to ensure fair competition, but on the basis of the (pseudo-)medical terms they have introduced into women’s track and field, there can’t be fair competition.

The IAAF’s obsession with testosterone suggests that by leveling one anatomical factor, they can level the entire playing field for professional sport. But that’s obvious nonsense. Not only is the commissioned study unclear about what exactly the relevant advantage conferred by testosterone might be, there’s also no mention of other obvious anatomical factors that confer an advantage: for instance, height in high jumping. (If high jumping had a scoring system that was adjusted to the jumpers’ height, Stefan Holm, one of the smallest-ever high jumpers to compete at the top level, would have been literally unbeatable.)

So either a lot more anatomical factors would have to be regulated, and consequently, a number of height, weight, flexibility, etc. classes created – or the IAAF could simply accept that one’s social and legal identity as a woman is enough to be allowed to compete in women’s competitions.

But what about Semenya’s obvious dominance? – one might ask. (After all, many of her opponents have complained about having to compete against her without standing a chance). If we look at Semenya’s 800 meter races in the most recent international events, she was dominant, but not beyond what “dominance” means in other disciplines. (In the 1500 meters and the 400 meters, she can compete for international medals, but she isn’t dominant at all).

Consider the pole vault and the hammer throw, the two discplines excluded from the new rules. For years, the pole vault was dominated by Yelena Isinbayeva – to such a degree that the only interesting question in a high-profile competition was whether Isinbayeva would set a new world record (she set 30 world records during her career; Semenya’s times haven’t come anywhere near a senior world record).

The hammer throw is currently dominated by Anita Włodarczyk. Włodarczyk has improved the world record seven times, became Olympic Champion in 2012 and 2016, World Champion in 2015 and 2017 (in 2013 losing only to Russian Tatiana Lysenko, a repeat doping offender, whose Olympic Gold from 2012 went to Włodarczyk) and European Champion in 2012, 2014, and 2016. If Włodarczyk is in shape and mentally sharp during the competition, her opponents typically don’t stand a chance. Yet if this is not an issue of fairness, why is Semenya’s performance? After all, we can assume that Włodarczyk, like Semenya, has an athletic predisposition that makes her exceptionally suited for her discipline – and that she trains extremely hard to stay on top of her game. Yet only in the case of Semenya is it assumed that somehow her predisposition is unfair (and thereby implied that she could be so successful even without training).

And what, finally, about the possibility that national sports federations could specifically seek out “intersexual” women with athletic talent? – This, too, is widely accepted practice, as long as it does not concern women who might have intersex traits. And it’s called “scouting for talent,” not scouting for intersex traits. Of course, physical features will play a role, but consider, for instance, the criteria any basketball scout would use to find promising young players. So in this case, it is not clear either why testosterone – or intersex traits more broadly speaking – should make a significant difference.

And so the supposed concern with ensuring fair competition still look like it’s really about policing gender presentation.

M.B. is currently a post-doc at the Institute for Christian Social Ethics at the University of Münster, Germany. She specializes in the ethics of sexuality and gender and the ontology of social groupings.

advertising · body image · eating disorders · fitness · gender policing · media · objectification · sex

Really, Walmart? Really?

I don’t love Walmart. I don’t love Cosmo Magazine. I really don’t love what Walmart has done with Cosmo Magazine in 5000 locations in the good ole’ USA. Sam brought this article to our attention on our contributor discussion page and said, “Blog fodder. Do feminists agree with conservatives on this one?” I swear sometimes she says stuff just to get me riled up enough to write a blog. . .oh. . .wait.

So in a nutshell, Cosmo will not be available at the checkout where all the precious minds of little girls might get polluted with its sordid sexual content. Dawn Hawkins of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (Formerly known as Morality in the Media) claimed it as a victory of her organization’s own making, referencing #metoo as the inspiration for this action. Walmart made a vague statement about it being a “business decision” in which it “consulted” with unnamed entities. Cosmo isn’t being banned. It’s just being moved.

Honestly, do I care? I hate Cosmo. I mostly hate it because it over promises on the sex tips. Here’s an example, “7 Best Sex Positions for Female Orgasm“. It says these tips will “guarantee to help you orgasm”. But you know what? That’s bullshit. I’ve tried every one of them. I want my guarantee! They get me every time and dash my hopes. But you know what else is in there? This gem about the fight to include women’s choice into Obamacare. There’s also this one about my current favourite teen that isn’t related to me, Emma Gonzales, and the photoshopped picture of her ripping up the bill of rights.

When Sam asked if feminists agreed with conservatives, I will confess to having a trauma trigger. It all goes back to a time in 1990. I was a young impressionable law student and I read Catharine MacKinnon. For those who are too young to remember, these were troubled times in the feminist movement (I mean, when aren’t there troubled times). There was a general agreement that pornography, as conceptualized by the patriarchy, was not great for women. It was not about our pleasure, it was not about our agency, it was not about our actual bodies. It was about our function and that function was to arouse and get off men. That’s objectifying. That’s an impoverished view of women and women’s sexuality. But in the hopes of doing something about it, feminists teamed up with the “moral majority” of conservative evangelical politics. They argued for an end to the scourge using legal tools and in the process, did a terrible disservice to a lot of women, including me. In this discourse, sexuality became even more of a source of shame and, as happens, marginalized sexuality took the brunt of it. Somehow the mainstream porn industry continued to thrive while it was harder for alternate voices to get in there and change any of these narratives. Things didn’t get better for women as a result of this unholy alliance because it got hijacked by the more powerful partner in the endeavour. (This is an admittedly uncomplicated summary).

Meanwhile I wasted 10 years of my life not doing fun sexy things that I wanted to do because I thought it would make me a bad feminist. Did those well meaning white lady anti-porn feminists mean for any of this to happen? Of course not. But you can be sure that the folks like Ms. Hawkins would be pretty pleased that I stayed away from all that perverted hanky panky I was trying not to think about.

So, back to beleaguered Cosmo. I wish it was not such a trashy mag. I wish it portrayed more real bodies. I wish the sex advice was better. But other than that, it’s not the worst. They have stopped putting diet advice on the cover. There is a lot in the magazine that speaks to women’s agency. That it reports on celebrity gossip is not a thing that should banish it to the back shelves. I’m curious if that trashiest of trash piles the National Enquirer can still be found eye level with the kidletts? Likely. The hypocrisy is beyond the pale.

A brief perusal of the website of the NCOSE indicates that its main focus is on enforcing and strengthening obscenity law, educating young people about the dangers of overconsumption of porn, prohibiting the exchange of sex for money and somehow “stopping the demand for purchased sex”, I guess through the punishment of being caught (?). While their goals are around the protection of women and vulnerable young people, their tools involve repressing the material, not educating or empowering the victims in the ways I think are helpful. Their aims are also decidedly not sex or sex work positive. I guess that’s where we differ, me and Ms. Hawkins. Cosmo is imperfect, but it is somewhat educational. It reflects reality. NCOSE targeted Cosmo because it is a somewhat sex positive liberal trash mag. I will take that over a sex negative conservative mouth piece of a shameful president any day of the week.

So the answer, Sam, is NO!

nuh-uh-gif-3

nuh-uh-gif-3
A Gif of an older glamorous white woman in big sunglasses and a scarf wagging her finger and shaking her head, “Nuh uh, honey”.
family · gender policing · injury

Would you let this kid jump?: Gender, the play gap, and the protection paradox

This video came across my newsfeed recently. It’s a little girl  kid (I’m not sure if they’re a boy or a girl–see the reader’s comment below) attempting and failing a box jump. The ponytail made me think girl. Watch til the end!

 

What’s striking about it is that their dad doesn’t stop them. Instead, he encourages the child to keep trying? How about you? What would you have done? I confess I fretted a bit. “Don’t hurt yourself!” Does it make a difference to you if it’s a boy or a girl jumping?

And then I got thinking about it in terms of my work on the “play gap” between boys and girls and between men and women.

Canadian kids don’t move a lot. Very few get enough daily movement.

The grim facts are that Canada’s children just got a D- in physical fitness for the third year in a row. Just 9% of Canada’s children between the ages of 9 and 15 meet the recommended guideline of one hour of activity per day. Experts are blaming the dismal showing on the so-called “protection paradox.” Parents try to keep children safe by not allowing them to move freely between home and school, or engage in active, outdoor play, but as a result our children are leading increasingly sedentary lives. See here.

But of course it’s not just that kids don’t get enough movement. It’s also the case that girls move less than boys. More on that in another post. I promise!

If the protection paradox is indeed part of the story about kids’ increasingly sedentary lives, we might wonder if the protection offered is gendered.

Do we stop girls but not boys from risky physical behavior? I bet we do. I’m still thinking about this and welcome your thoughts and ideas.

 

 

 

cycling · fitness · fitness classes · gender policing · training

Why I Hate Spin*

*If you’ve not already done so, please have a look at Cate (Fieldpoppy) Creede’s wonderful and inspiring post about loving the gym (the YMCA in her neighbourhood), which went up on Wednesday. I know I feel about a thousand times better for having read it. And yes, I’m going to check out my (new) local Y this weekend!

Ok, so I don’t actually hate spin. I came to road racing through spin! I met brilliant, smart, funny female athletes through spin. I still “spin” every Tuesday evening in the basement of my friend Chris Helwig’s house, along with others he coaches, and with other friends. It’s a terrific, supportive, entertaining 90 minutes of pain.

But last night, I went to a class that reminded me of what, at its least positive and supportive, spin can be. This is a post about that experience, and I’m writing it to remind us all that we do not have to put up with this kind of crap when we are training, exercising, or just trying to have fun on a bike. We can avoid it; we can call it out; and we can resist it in many other, tiny ways.

5974fba52100001800fc845a

There’s more than one way spin can hurt you. This image features a cheeky drawing of a woman in traditional Victorian dress comforting a man, seated, with the words “I’m sorry you almost died in Spin Class today.”

There’s a large, independently owned bike shop near me, where I stop sometimes after a ride, and where I’ve bought quite a few accessories and had a couple of tune-ups. The team are friendly, and the shop is well stocked. I like it, as a shop.

Back in late autumn I learned that they host spin classes, so I tried one out. I had been told that, although I could not bring my home trainer (they have spin bikes, and only X number of bikes, to keep numbers in check), the class was geared for cyclists, so I’d feel at home and it would fit in with my training plan.

This was not my experience at the first class, though I had fun. It was taught by a funny woman with a good play list; everyone seemed to be enjoying their time on the bike (a plus!). I was clearly the only serious cyclist in the room, so I had to adapt her instructions to make them more sensible for me, but I know how to do that so it was fine. It didn’t affect my fun, or anyone else’s.

(What do I mean by adapting for my own training needs? For example, if we are going to go all out for 30 seconds, I need 30 seconds of actual recovery, about 20 beats per minute down or more from the 30-second max. Because when I go all out I am actually trying to hit my V02 max; there’s no point otherwise, from a training perspective. Many spin instructions are based on the assumption that students are not, actually, going all out when they are told to go all out – which is fair if you’re exercising but not training to a plan. I use a heart rate monitor to keep myself on track, and if I need to adapt a spin instruction to ensure my HR recovers properly, I do. It’s a safety thing as well as a training thing.)

I chalked the quirks in this first class up to the fact that it was super-early in the training season, and vowed to come back at some point to try again.

That some point was last night. It’s now February; the list of others signed up for the class online was long, and was largely male. Though that didn’t impress me, I took it as a sign that I would be riding with others training for cycling season. (Alas, men continue to outnumber women on the MAMIL circuit. It’s a gross reality – though my new local club is way more gender-diverse than my old local club. More on that in an upcoming post, once the season kicks off.)

When I arrived, I noticed I was not only the only woman in the class, but one of only two women in the entire space. (The other was working the cash and cleaning a bike in the shop.) The man in charge, moreover, was obviously someone for whom my presence was a bit of a surprise. He didn’t know me, and he definitely did not know how to read me.

But this, I should add, he should have done. After all, I arrived wearing my bib shorts from a race in 2016, a headband, with cycling shoes and a camelback water bottle. One look at those accessories, let alone my body, can tell you I’m in training: my leg muscles show the evidence. I set up my chosen bike with total confidence, knowing exactly how to fit it (right down to the seat-stem distance) to my frame.

What happened next? First, the instructor/dude in charge (DiC) asked me if I’d been to a class before. I told him I’d been once before at this shop. He asked if I had a card – that is, if I had bought multiple classes. I said no; I have a home trainer and prefer to train on it. He made a big deal of how much easier it is for them (the shop) if one buys multiple classes. I told him I would be more than happy to pay for the class in cash. I did not have a use for multiple classes at this time.

When we went down to the cash so I could pay, I had to sign a waiver; I hadn’t recalled doing that before, though I suspect I did (I mean, it’s a policy for anyone new in a gym/in a class, for safety reasons). While I was filling the form out, he said to me:

“when we get up there, I’m happy to help you set up your bike…”

Remember: I’d already done that. TO SPEC.

I told him: “don’t worry, I’m very experienced. But thank you very much.”

I did not look up from the waiver while I said this; I didn’t meet his eyes. I’m pretty sure I would have smirked at him, and I didn’t want to be rude. But I also wanted to be very clear: that’s a condescending question and I’m not taking time away from this task (filling out the form) to address it.

He reacted respectfully, but he did throw his hands up. Uh-huh.

Once I got onto the bike, things got worse. He made a point of coming up to me, not once but twice, before class started. First, he wanted me to set the “touch pads”: the point where the flywheel touches the pads to indicate you have resistance on the bike. I had already more than found it; I was already at this point warming up (a spin instructor can tell when you are warming up properly, by the way). In fact, my heart rate was up to a good 118bpm (my low zone 2).

As a result of his meddling, though, my HR dropped into zone 1. Thanks, DiC.

A minute later, he came up to me AGAIN. This time he asked me to stop the flywheel. (I suspect this was a test to see if I knew about the emergency stop mechanism – I’m pretty sure I was being “tested” the entire time, though probably he was not conscious of doing this, as most DiCs are not.) He asked me to put my pedals “at three and nine” and he looked me up and down from the side of the bike, sizing up my form. Super comfortable for me, btw.

“Perfect,” he declared. Then he said, “From the front, it looked like something was off.”

Nope, I repeated once more. I’M FINE. I know exactly what I’m doing. I know my own bicycle form.

39fd1dc7e80f10d3ec693e51cc23af84

Thanks for that super helpful mansplain! This Mad Men style graphic shows a man’s upper body, in a suit and tie, and part of his face, with his left hand up and mouth open, clearly explaining something to a woman in a green blazer. Her arms are folded and her head is turned away.

The class was OK; it was a hill repeats class and I adjusted instructions as usual to follow the indicators my HR gives me. The others in the class were mostly in cycling kit, but I was, once again, the only person with a heart rate monitor. (The fact that I arrived to the class with my Garmin Edge should also have told the DiC that I was an actual cyclist, with actual experience, but whatevs. Reading obvious cues hard when blindsided by strong woman, clearly.)

There was a lot of yelling; DiC kept shouting “HALF A TURN UP!!!!!!” really, really loudly. It’s the kind of loud that makes you think, I’d better do this! Mostly I did. Honestly, I just didn’t want to give him any reason to call me out or come over to my bike again. I wanted to be left alone to train as best I could under the circumstances.

When the class ended I did some of the stretches, again trying not to stand out as a dilettante. I was fed up by this point and wanted to go home, but I didn’t want to garner any snide or overly-patronizing, “supportive” comments at the end. Finally, as I left, he said: “thanks for coming” in what I can only describe as a very strained, kind of uncomfortable voice with a bit of an uptick at the end. I don’t think it was an angry voice; I think it belied his ultimate confusion over what to do with me.

Maybe not a lot of Lady Cyclists go to this shop’s spins. Or maybe I was new and confident and a girl, and that was weird for him. Or maybe he has no clue whatsoever that he behaves this way around strong women.

Maybe I just caught him on an off night. Though I doubt it.

Whatever. Not my problem.

I did what I could to have a good class. I stayed in zone 3 a good part of the time and jumped into zone 4 a reasonable amount, but not too much – I had done a concentrated anaerobic workout on my trainer the night before, while catching up on Master of None (TOTAL IRONY ALERT). I stood up for myself as best I could, and I tried to keep it comfortable for myself under the circumstances. For that reason I resisted engaging the guy in a private conversation afterward about his practice as an instructor (which, truly, seemed too fatiguing at the time, and perhaps would not have had any real point).

I do wonder if I should have called him on it. But I think I’d prefer just to share this story, remind us all that we are strong and mansplaining at the gym is ALWAYS out of order, and never, ever go to spin at that shop again.

/rant over.

Kim

fitness · gender policing · Guest Post · martial arts

The MMA Fighter and the Troll (Guest Post)

Once upon a time there was an Internet troll who thought that he had found some magical fairy dust called testosterone that would make him stronger, faster, and smarter than any woman in the world. So he thought he could just claim that he could beat any female MMA fighter out there who was in the same weight class as him. Luckily for us, some fine folks set up a match between him and Anna McCauley Dempster, an amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter out of Oregon, to take place on January 6th.

Anna McCauley Dempster, a young blonde athletic-looking woman, throwing a knee with an elbow guarding her face across her body.
Anna McCauley Dempster

Now, while it seems obvious that this particular troll is just asking to get knocked out, as he attempts to channel the ghost of Andy Kaufman, much less extreme versions of the claim he makes are pretty common. Lots of people do think male fighters in general have an advantage over female fighters, even correcting for things like relative size. Weirdo internet trolls aside, most people with any kind of experience doing fight training, in mixed gender contexts, will know that there are women who are better fighters than many men they train with. But that doesn’t mean the playing field is level.

On a personal level, I’m as committed to both feminism and martial arts as anyone I know, but hesitate at the thought of genderless divisions. I suppose I do agree with the view that male fighters have an advantage, but I hesitate to say that it’s just a simple physiological fact (e.g. more testosterone). I know, I know. Testosterone is advantageous, and that’s why it’s used as a performance-enhancing substance. Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) is banned by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).  But it can’t be the whole story. After all, “Bigfoot” Silva, who has acromegaly, naturally has testosterone levels that are well below average, but has had to fight for many years without TRT.

One thing I think we can’t rule out, though, to explain differences in ability, is the role of gender socialization. Spend some time hanging out with kids, especially when they’re doing physical stuff, and take note over time of how differently little boys and little girls are treated. A lot of what we supposedly know about hardwired differences between male and female brains can plausibly be chalked up to what Cordelia Fine has called neurosexism. Could something like that be going on with physical ability? Well before puberty and many of the more significant developmental differences, lots of people don’t seem to expect little girls to be as physically capable as little boys, much less encourage them to be physical in the same ways. It seems weird to think that kind of thing wouldn’t affect them as they get older, even if they’re active athletes.

But I think that if we want to encourage people to be athletic, and to take part in athletic competitions, we need, as a sporting society, to sort out just what we think the important differences are to make competition fair. Not everyone’s gender identity fits neatly into a binary, and many trans and intersex athletes have been subjected to a great deal of discrimination. It just doesn’t seem as though gender segregation along a binary is doing the trick these days, and maybe it’s time to consider whether there are any viable alternatives.

Still. In the meantime, while we figure out the deeper issues behind gender and sport, you can tide yourselves over by watching Anna McCauley Dempster beat up a troll.

accessibility · athletes · cycling · equality · feminism · fitness · gender policing · Guest Post · inclusiveness · stereotypes

Taking the Lane: Gender and Cycling in Toronto (A Panel Discussion)

On Thursday, June 15, I get to talk about my favourite topic in cycling. Something I like better than debating wheel size on mountain bikes, frame materials for road bikes, or what type of shifters to use on a touring bike. I’ll be chatting about gender and cycling with four excellent people of a diversity of backgrounds. Joining me at the Parkdale Library will be Katie Whitman, Community Cycling Champion and researcher; Lavinia Tanzim of Bad Girls Bike Club; and Sivia Vijenthira of Spacing Magazine, with moderation by Tammy Thorne of Dandyhorse Magazine.

For some of you, this will be an obvious topic of conversation. “Of course that’s still relevant!”, you’ll say, “Why would anyone disagree?”

But I know I get a lot of questions about why we can’t just talk about getting more butts on bikes generally. “Just shut up and ride your bike” is a comment we get all of the time in the advocacy world, whether it’s about centering conversations on women and gender nonconforming (GNC) people, or attempting to convince people not to ride trails when they’re wet.

Why do we need to have this conversation?  I have worked in retail bike spaces, as a ride leader and as a mechanic for the past decade.  And the overwhelming drone in the background has always been cis-male* voices.  If you make a bike event open to all genders, take a look around the room. The gender diversity is likely to be pretty limited, with the bulk of your attendees identifying as male. If you brand your event as women-only, you’re still very likely to end up with a cis-dude* or two attempting to gain access These interlopers will at times be very understanding, having missed the fine (or bold) print, and will at other times be dismissive, derisive, or downright aggressive. That’s cool, we can (and do) deal.

(*cis-gendered = someone whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were born with)

The Good

So why am I so excited about this panel and these spaces? What’s the difference at events intentionally directed at women and GNC people? For me, it’s all about the energy and a willingness to ask questions. As a mechanic, the most refreshing thing has always been a woman coming in with her bike and asking questions or talking about her experiences. Events or drop-in hours where women and GNC folks are the sole audience have a lot more chatting, laughing, whooping, and questions than all gender events. There are a lot of generalizations and assumptions about why this happens, and we’re going to unpack the heck out of that in the panel.

The Bad

Note that I never said women and cycling, I said gender and cycling. How many of you jumped right to thinking this was a conversation about women and bikes? One of the aspects I find most difficult in organizing programs for not-cis-men, is making “women’s” events open and accepting of the trans* and GNC community. All of the events that I run are GNC-friendly. They have to be, because I identify as GNC. But I struggle constantly with the thought that my events are still exclusionary, as they’re often labeled as women’s events. If it’s a women-only event, does that mean our trans* and GNC friends aren’t allowed?  Women and GNC events often get read as queer events. Does that mean straight, cis women aren’t allowed?  There’s a barrier no matter what we do. My employers may not go for me labeling events as Women and Gender-Non-Conforming. It’s wordy, which is a hard pill to swallow when you’re trying to make a catchy and easily communicable event. If you write your event as Women and GNC, you may scare some women away who don’t know what that acronym means and feel this event isn’t for them. Throw an asterisk in there? People don’t read things. The complications and variations are endless.

So What’s the Question?

We know we need infrastructure changes and programs geared towards lower income people and newcomers to Canada, so that people have a safe and supportive way into bike commuting. But recreational riding, my main squeeze? How do we make these spaces accepting of all incomes, gender identities, and sexual orientations? Can we do it with one club, or do we need multiple clubs to make sure everyone has space?

 

What do you think, Toronto? Who wants to talk about this with me? See you on Thursday, June 15th at 6pm at the Parkdale Library!

 

If gender identity is not your most important question, never fear. We’re going to talk about loads of things, including how to make streets safer from an infrastructure level, the importance of programs for youth and newcomers to Toronto, how to tie the suburbs into this conversation, and what the research says about all of these things.

 

——–

 

Event Info:

 

https://www.facebook.com/events/643794175823092/?active_tab=about


Join us on June 15 for TAKING THE LANE: GENDER AND CYCLING IN TORONTO! Pop by the 
Parkdale Library from 6-7:30pm for an a-one panel. The event seeks to unpack our city’s cycling past, where we need to go, and who is missing from the conversation? But at the end of the day the question is: how do we get more women and girls cycling?

There is a serious lack of conversation and action around intersectionality and cycling in Toronto. This event aims to highlight that many women and GNC people in the city do not feel comfortable cycling due to unsafe streets (a lack of infrastructure) coupled with a lack of outreach.


Alex has been working in the Toronto cycling community for the last nine years. A certified CAN-Bike, Professional Mountain Bike Instructor Association, and bike repair instructor, Alex would be so happy to take you for a bike ride. In addition to their role with Charlie’s FreeWheels, a charity dedicated to teaching youth how to build and ride bikes in Regent Park, Alex coordinates group rides and clinics with Sweet Pete’s Bike Shop and leads women’s cycling programs as a rider for Trek’s Women’s Advocacy program. You can usually find them with a posse of rad women and non-binary folks in the Don Valley mountain bike trails.

Follow Alex @legslegum on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook

 

 

 

fitness · gender policing · health · inclusiveness · media

Vacuuming as exercise, and other myths about women’s mobility

For some time now women have been told that housework chores can count as exercise, but for reasons unknown I’ve only just cottoned on to this self-help trend. Vacuuming, gardening, washing the floor, hauling the laundry up and down stairs… is it exercise? Some say yes (click here for a representative, if slightly condescending, example); some say no (this example comes from Women’s Health, and is actually even more condescending than the Weight Watchers example.)

I have two replies to the question, personally.

Is housework exercise? HELL YA. Have you ever hauled three loads of laundry up the stairs in between pulling out dead perennials and cleaning up after the dog? It’s a lot of fecking hard work, and I sweat through it weekly.

Is housework exercise? HELL NO. Because it’s WORK, people! It’s unpaid labour for many women, and poorly paid labour for many others. Don’t condescend to us by equating it with self-care. That way madness lies – and nothing but patriarchal double standards.

 

So what to do with this information then? How to learn from the “housework as exercise” trend, and the arguments underpinning it?

In my job as a humanities scholar, I spend a lot of time with students parsing popular culture and the discourses that drive it. This isn’t just something we do to pass the time in class and prepare for essays that will eventually go in the bin, forgotten; parsing public language is an essential life skill, a citizenship skill. It teaches us to be skeptical of the messages we get everyday from the world around us.

(Think about it: if everyone had some basic message-parsing skills, would Donald Trump be the Republican candidate for president? Or would we be witnessing a proper, grown-up campaign for the most important political office in the world?)

article-1298543-0A974684000005DC-136_306x653.jpg
Is the campaign trail exercise, Hilary? Um, DUH. It’s also HARD WORK.

In the two short articles I link to above, my trained parsing brain reads the following embedded assumptions:

  • women should always be focused on weight loss; this is typically dressed up as “exercise” in the press to make it more modern and palatable;
  • “exercise” is something women need to make time for; if they don’t have time because of housework chores, they shouldn’t worry about it, but rather repurpose their housework as “exercise”, or even as “me time” (doing squats while waiting for the microwave! As if!);
  • housework is not work, because it’s “exercise” (aka “me time”);
  • women snack too much when they work hard! Stop snacking, ladies! Next time you grocery shop – because of course YOU grocery shop for your family, right? – be sure not to buy so many salty, fatty snacks that you enjoy!
  • women have no impulse control (see directly above), and therefore need to be reminded both to exercise and not to snack;
  • housework is a fact of life. Get over it, ladies.

What’s common among all these assumptions? Basic gender divisions: it’s not men doing the housework in the images in these articles; it’s fit, able-bodied, white, pretty ladies. There’s no notion here that you might, um, ask your partner to help with chores, or simply let the dirt accumulate a bit so you can do something else you enjoy, move your body in some other way. Instead, there’s a blanket assumption that you have to do the chores (it’s natural! It’s the way life is for us gals!), and you obviously have to exercise (keep young and beautiful, if you want to be loved!), so what else to do? (Just don’t eat any crisps while you’re at it, because then you’ll get fat and your husband won’t want you anymore…)

What’s the alternative to this coercive set of barely-spoken assumptions? I want to propose a totally different way of talking about the issue of how housework impacts women’s lives, and what that has to do not with exercise, but with mobility.

I’d like to suggest instead that, as women, whether single or partnered, disabled or non-disabled, in traditional relationships or in non-traditional ones, we all spend some time this week not squatting in front of the microwave, but rather thinking critically about how we move each day, how and why our movements are circumscribed, and how we might find ways – with the help of partners, family, friends, employers, or others – of becoming more mobile, on our own terms.

2779ff88adad47d89e14b7b9ce579289_18

Here, I want to stress that it is not our job alone to become more mobile, or to overcome socially-driven mobility constraints; we live in a world in which institutional constraints actively work to limit women’s mobility, especially non-white, disabled women’s mobility; those institutions must change in order for mobility to become more broadly equitable for everyone. Mobility is a societal responsibility, not an individual one.

But part of that work needs to be activist on our part, needs to be about us making noise; it needs to start with all of us recognising and deconstructing where and how we are, and are not, freely mobile, and to complain, loudly, when our mobility is unfairly limited – whether because of wheelchair access barriers, or because of media messages that tell us to keep doing that laundry, it’s good for us!

I challenged myself to keep tabs, for a week, on my own daily mobility, to see where I’m free to move in ways that I wish, and where I’m not so free. Here are my findings from last week, generalised a bit to a normal term-time week:

  • I usually wake up between 8am and 9am; I’m lucky to have a job that works with my circadian rhythms, so I recognise here I’m very privileged to get up without an alarm clock at least 4 times per week. That means I’m better rested and more energised.
  • next, I walk the dog; she insists, but it’s not like she’s the boss. I could say no! But I enjoy my three walks a day with her, again because I’m privileged to have a flexible schedule.
  • on teaching days I cycle to my campus office around 11am; I live in a walkable, ridable city (more privilege). I teach between two and four hours a day twice a week; I’m on my feet for half of these, sitting down for the other half. No choice there. Often I’ll wear high heels for teaching, though this is largely my choice; nevertheless, I feel compelled to present as broadly feminine in the public sphere, so it’s not all my choice. The heels can produce standing discomfort and occasional hip pain.
  • a good portion of the rest of my weekly labour (teaching prep; administration; research – profs work a lot, and teaching is just part of it…) is at a computer, sitting; I’m lucky to have good chairs and the freedom to get up and move around a lot during this work (see dog walking, above).
  • late afternoons / evenings I usually cycle or row for up to two hours at a time. This represents remarkable freedom of movement, as I have no partner or children demanding access to my time or body at home.
  • evenings I often work at my computer at home, catching up on things dropped in the day. I can stand up and move around during this work but often I don’t. Because I have no partner or children pressing on my time or mobility, I often forget to get up and stretch. This is a mixed blessing.
  • weekends include housework, cleaning, gardening, marketing. These are my choice, but I feel social pressure to keep a neat house and garden, so they are not all my choice. Even more because I have no nuclear family (IE: I’m not “heteronormative” in my living conditions), I want to appear “normal” to my neighbours, and so maintain the outward appearance of a middle-class professional woman in all of my “front stage areas” (this term comes from the ethnographer Erving Goffman).
  • on Sundays I often see my parents, who are elderly, and support my mom, who is in a wheelchair. Because her mobility is so limited I become a surrogate body for her while I’m helping out. This is the closest I come in my daily life to understanding what so many women who are caregivers for children, parents, or partners go through all the time. Taking orders from mom, and moving her around the world using my body, are a lot of work; I compromise my control over my own mobility in order to give her a bit more freedom. I am so lucky to be fit and strong, because the physical demands on me in this labour are tremendous.

It’s obvious from the above that I’m very, very lucky with my mobility in general: it is largely my own to determine. Kids don’t demand I be here or there at this or that time, or that I give over my bodily movement to their needs; ditto with a partner. I have a flexible job and can do what I want when. But socially, I’m still constrained as a middle-aged woman who lives under the glare of heteronormativity. Weekend chores mean less time overall for relaxing – which impacts my health a bit. And, as a result of not having a partner (partly due to the fact, I’m afraid, that I’m in my 40s and have an advanced degree and a professional, intellectual job… intimidating for a lot of guys), I also don’t get regular sex; that’s a key way in which I do not move that I wish I could move more often.

How about you? In what ways is your mobility constrained, and in what ways are you free to chart your daily and weekly course? Try the tracking exercise and share your findings; I’m keen to hear about others’ experiences.

Finally, let me stress once more: this is not about changing ourselves; it’s about charting how institutional and other pressures in our lives keep us from moving freely – and how that impacts, among other things, our ability to exercise and to rest our bodies how we want, when we want.

Kim