athletes · eating · Guest Post · racing · running · sports nutrition · training

Aimée crosses a line (Guest post)

by Aimée Morrison

My half-marathon is in two weeks. I hit peak training mileage and intensity and the onset of summer heat at the same time. Naturally, my hydration and fuel strategy fell apart, and I had to buy a fuel belt, which is something I swore I would never do, but here I am. I’m thinking about why this has me so freaked out. Because I’m pretty freaked out.

The precipitating incident was last Sunday’s long run. My training group ran 20km and it was remarkably hot, all of sudden. Now, I had pretty easily run the same 20km the week before, and all the other runs before that. What happened this past Sunday, though, was: I didn’t have enough water in my tiny handheld bottle to compensate for the all the extra sweating the heat entailed, never mind the extra distance as we kept adding kilometers week after week. I also lost all my hunger cues because that’s what heat does to me and so I forgot to keep nibbling on my carb-and-chocolate baked bites that are my go-to run fuel. I also lost the pockets where I stashed these little snacks because I was now running without a jacket, so I hadn’t brought enough of them in any case. I just completely failed to hydrate and fuel anywhere near enough. I bonked at 18.5 km, and I had to stagger-walk the last 1.5km.

Which is how I found myself at the Running Room the next day, staring at a wall of bottles and bags and belts and bladders and cringing. I bought gels and reconciled myself to paste-food instead of solids. I bought a belt. It’s got a zip pouch for my phone, a quick-grab strap system for gels, and two-quick draw holsters from which I can quickly extract either of two fluorescent yellow 10oz water bottles. It’s got a non-slip strap that doesn’t bounce around on my hips, and a spot I can stash Kleenexes. It’s a fancy and expensive fanny pack, basically. I hated it on sight.

Well. Guess what? I’ve worn it out for my last three runs, and now I love it. It turns out that a steady stream of water and gels does keep me feeling strong through my whole run, and prevents me from feeling like trash in the hours afterwards. But I still feel really cringe-y about other people seeing me in it.

The thing is, I think I look like a jackass, some cross between a soccer mom with a purse full of snacks, a norm-core 90s dad, and some kind of ridiculously self-important non-athlete with more money than muscle endurance. Yeah: full on imposter syndrome, rooted in some pretty judgey thinking about soccer moms and 90s dads, and probably some worries that I now look exactly like all those other middle-aged fanny-packed women runners out there in their tech gear chugging along the Sunday sidewalks in their groups. It’s great that 25 year old me used to roll my eyes at those women in their sun-visors but I should rethink this practice at 45, when I am now clearly also a middle-aged woman with a whole hat rack of sun visors (so practical!) chugging along the Sunday trails with my group. It would be best if I could not reflexively hate myself for occasionally looking like … what I am. Ah, internalized ageism.

At the same time, I am kind of amazed at myself. How did I get here? This person with electrolyte sports drink in the left holster and water in the right? With gels on my hip that I greedily squeeze down my throat when I’m stopped at lights? But then I doubt myself: I’m just keeping a 7min/km pace—with walk breaks!—for a couple of hours in the middle of the city, not racing across the Sahara. Who do I think I am?

Increasingly, I answer myself firmly: I am a runner, putting in 35-45 km per week, across five days a week, doing hills, doing sprints, running big distances over long hours, in groups, with my husband, by myself. On my bonk run, my FitBit indicated I had burned something like 1350 calories over those 20km. I am very much entitled to my Endurance Tap energy gels and my electrolyte drinks. I am a pale and scrawny middle-aged woman with strong looking legs and a weak looking chin. I wear a fuel belt. I am an athlete.

You need a gel? I’ve got some extra, here in my fanny pack.

Aimée Morrison is on sabbatical from professoring in new media studies in 2018 and trying to achieve some healthy ratio of words-written to miles-run. She’ll run her first half marathon in Ottawa on May 27. With the help of 4 Endurance Tap packs, one bottle of electrolyte replacement, and one bottle of water, she finished this week’s 20km run in record time and without bonking, not even a little.

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.

Guest Post

Competing with Kids (Guest Post)

Despite the fact that the Finnish coach who knits during competition is basically my soul brother, I am not a laid back and relaxed trainer. I love my athletes and try to make sure I know them well – what they are like, what the need most from me, and what keeps them enjoying themselves and feeling supported and cared about.

Since I’ve done taekwondo for the vast majority of my life, I know the impact that good coaches can have. The coaches I have been closest to, (even ones I haven’t seen in almost 30 years), are still people I hold in my heart.

So a lot of my athletes – mostly kids, but some teenagers and adults too – feel like family to me. And even though I don’t have kids of my own, I very much enjoy being “dojang mom” or “second mom” or “extra mom” to a lot of them. (Three cheers for alloparenting?)

Every spring, our sister school about two hours away, holds a tournament. It’s a small and not very intense affair, so we try to encourage as many of our students as possible to go and give it a try.

This time, I promised them that if at least 15 people signed up, I’d compete as well. Now, I haven’t fought in a long time, even though I still train quite a bit. Regardless, it wouldn’t have been especially convenient (or good for my mental focus) to be concerned about fighting while I’m also trying to coach my athletes, which usually keeps me busy most of the day.

a woman and boy, both in taekwondo uniforms, side by side in a front stance executing a hand technique
Pairs poomsae

So instead, I thought I would do something special for both me, and one of my students, who is just transitioning to black belt competition. We signed up together to do the pairs poomsae competition (poomsae are taekwondo forms, like kata in karate).

I didn’t expect how much more motivating it would be for me to compete representing both myself and one of my kids. In particular, Ben, who I competed with, is sometimes mistaken for my actual child. I think this is in part because he assists with many of the classes I teach, in part because of how we interact with each other, and probably also that we’re in a fairly white community and one of his parents is also of Chinese descent.

Two people in taekwondo uniforms do sidekicks at the same time.
Matching sidekicks!

So on Saturday, we joined a mother-daughter pair and a grandfather-grandson pair, to compete in the pairs division. Apparently it is just the right thing to pair up with your kid or grandkid! And I had more fun, and was more excited and motivated than I had been for a public event in quite a long time. It felt great. So here’s to competing with your kid, whoever they might be, and in whatever sense they are your kid.

Plus, we took gold!

A woman and a slightly shorter boy, both smiling, in taekwondo uniforms with black belts and gold medals around their necks. Other people's shoulders are visible in the picture.
Podium shot. Bets on how long before he outgrows me?
climbing · Guest Post

Climbing above Geneva (Guest Post)

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A year and a half ago (or more), Wendy Rogers, Stacy Carter, Bjørn Hofmann, and I applied to the Brocher Foundation in Geneva for a one month residency to work on conceptual and normative issues in overdiagnosis. Between application and acceptance and arriving in Geneva, I had become addicted to climbing.

Lots of time on google got me the info that the closest climbing gyms are an hour or more on public transit away from the Brocher Foundation site. I moaned a great deal about this, but my friends had no sympathy. A month in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, and I’m worried about finding a climbing gym?

I got excellent news just before setting out for the residency—Bjørn is an avid climber (an alpinist, even). Once at the Brocher, we found Jennifer Carr, a PhD student from Glasgow who already has a month at the Brocher under her belt. She has been climbing indoors for 6 months and was intrigued by the opportunity to climb outdoors for the first time.

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Bright and early on our first Saturday morning, we set out for the cliffs overlooking Geneva — La Salève. After a long approach through the woods starting from the base of the cable car, we found ourselves almost the first climbers out. We had some pleasant conversation and advice from the climbers ahead of us, some scratching of their crag dogs behind the ears, and a scary moment watching one of them take an odd kind of fall when he wasn’t expecting it. He went on his way and we settled in for our turn at La Corne du Coin.

This massive rock formation peels off the side of the main cliff of le Coin. It has a good assortment of short climbs (by Salève standards—20m), easy enough to let us get accustomed to the limestone, which is new for Bjørn and for me. Jen did fabulous on her first outdoor climb, I enjoyed my first limestone finger pockets and fossil-crimping, and Bjørn was a most excellent and patient coach for beginning climbers.

And the limestone really is this amazing mixture of blue and gold.

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athletes · cycling · fitness · Guest Post · inclusiveness · racing

Gender Diversity in Cycling: Small Victories (Guest Post)

Over the past two weeks, I’ve shared posts regarding my transition into cycling as a woman, as well as some of the day-to-day microaggressions I’ve experienced over the past 18 months. I know other cyclists have been in this sport far longer than I have, and I thank them for paving the way for women such as myself to join the ranks and to continue this important discussion on gender disparities.

Although the prevalence of women in cycling differs by country, the pattern is the same: we need a more diverse field, whether it pertains to commuting via bicycle or racing competitively. The percentage of cyclists registered with USA Cycling who identify as woman is only 15% as of March 2018. Triathlon fares a bit better, with 38% of members identifying as women based on USA Triathlon’s 2015 report. If we want to shift that dial to 50%, we have a lot of work ahead of us. I can only speak to my own experience as a white cisgender female, but I imagine women of color, gender diverse athletes, those with limited financial means, and those with other marginalized identities will continue to experience even more setbacks than I have over the past 18 months–and many of them may not be as subtle as what I’ve experienced.

If our community wants to address gender disparities in cycling, I think we need to have some difficult conversations and figure out what women and gender diverse athletes experience on a daily basis. Furthermore, we need to recognize that we are all susceptible to also engaging in some of these behaviors due to our own biases, assumptions, and cultural identities. Cycling is a very white and very binary sport with very little racial or gender diversity. We need to listen to each other and practice cultural humility in order to make room for others. Those of us who are truly passionate about diversity in the field can and will also make mistakes and will engage in microaggressions. And when we do, we need to own our actions, take responsibility for them, learn from them, and work to do better. In other words, our work is never over and it is essential for us to continue to learn from one another in order to create the shift that is needed. As Ayesha McGowan notes, “representation matters.”

In addition to the crappy experiences, we need to remember the good times. The good times have kept me here, and I have no intention of leaving this field anytime soon. Here are some of the wins I’ve seen, all of which mean more to me than any spot on the podium:

  • The feeling of teammates and other really strong cyclists supporting and mentoring me over the past 18 months has been irreplaceable.
  • We have announcers who give it their all by showing their enthusiasm for cyclists every weekend in season, and by remembering as many athlete names as possible. One of my favorite rivalries this year was with a Clydesdale* athlete of a similar ability to me, and listening to the announcer provide commentary as the two of us raced each other was one of the most fun and entertaining races I’ve had.
  • We have officials who respond to late night emails with questions as promptly as possible.
  • We have race teams and organizations that put on events specifically for trans*, femme, and women competitors.
  • We have events like Dirty Kanza that launch initiatives such as #200Women200Miles, and prioritize women entrants to increase field sizes.
  • Race registrations are beginning to appear with registration options other than “male” or “female.”
  • Just last week, I received an email from the president of our cycling federation asking for feedback on the timing and placement of the women’s Athena* division for next year’s cyclocross season. The email was so well thought out, and they expressed genuine interest and enthusiasm in recruiting more Athenas for races next season. As a result of the discussion, the federation will be providing an Athena division held in the same field as the beginner (category 4/5) women, allowing women a field to themselves.

*Athena/Clydesdale is a cycling category for women over 160 lbs and men over 200 lbs.

These are the experiences that keep me going, that show progress, that motivate me to be a stronger woman, role model, and cyclist. So thanks to all of you out there who support us. Despite these little victories, my greatest fear is that other women and/or gender diverse cyclists have experienced similar constraints that I have, have felt the same way, and have left the sport in an effort to find support, community, and inclusion elsewhere. And if that’s the case, I truly hope they’ve found it. But I want us to stay. We belong. And by staying, we can work fiercely to support one another and build each other up. Whether it be high fives or fist bumps, standing up for others who receive degrading or objectifying comments, sticking with each other during the most difficult of events, inviting one another to rides, hosting free community cycling clinics, or providing a simple “You’re not alone,” I think we can all make a difference to show another human they belong. The work’s not over. We’ve got plenty to do.

This month, I launched an international research project for women (cis and trans) and gender diverse cyclists (including but not limited to non-binary, gender queer, & two spirit folks) who have raced over the past 5 years. Through this research, I will be able to shine a light on the experiences of athletes who are typically underrepresented in competitive cycling. The survey asks about factors that have increased and decreased participation in competitive cycling, as well as motivations and experiences in daily living. I ask for stories of exclusion, harassment, and sexism—in addition to times cyclists have felt valued and included in their cycling communities. After recruiting 250 participants, I’ll donate $500 to a non-profit organization (Cycles for Change) that works toward gender equity and accessibility in cycling. Findings will be presented in the community and submitted as empirical journal articles. Ultimately, my goal is to better understand the gender gaps and increase retention of women and gender diverse cyclists throughout the world.

If you are a woman and/or a gender diverse cyclist who has raced bikes in the last 5 yrs, I’d love to hear your story. The link to the 20 minute survey is as follows: https://goo.gl/BV72e7

Erin is a professor, psychologist, researcher, feminist, wife, and cyclist. When she is not working, she trains for new cycling adventures, eats, laughs, and spends time with loved ones.

eating · fitness · Guest Post

When Herbivores Attack: Weight Stigma and the Vegan Movement (Guest post)

by Marla Rose

Image description: Marla, a dark-haired woman hand feeds a black goat with a white patch between its horns. Background of grass, a barn, trees in the distance and a blue sky.
Image description: Marla, a dark-haired woman hand feeds a black goat with a white patch between its horns. Background of grass, a barn, trees in the distance and a blue sky.

Vegans can carry a lot of baggage. No, this is not a fitness brag. I am speaking of baggage of the metaphoric nature. In fact, I can already see the comments in the Facebook share of this post, calling vegans holier-than-thou, obsessive, pushy elitists and a bunch of other variations on this theme. I can predict it not because I’m psychic but because I have seen it play out so many times on social media and comment threads when the “v-word” emerges. Vegans are really not liked much by society at large. As a longtime vegan, I will admit that we have a bit of a PR problem.

I will also admit that we have had a hand in some of this bad PR.

Much of it is not our fault; it is the consequence of our mere presence in a world replete with carnism, which often elicits a knee-jerk defensive response, sometimes even before a vegan has said a word. It manifests as people saying “Mmm…bacon” even if it’s a bizarre non sequitur, which it usually is. It manifests as the many bad jokes we’ve heard a million times, like “Vegetarian is an old Native American word for ‘bad hunter.’” [I won’t even address the idea that there is a single Native American language but, yeah, we’re supposed to laugh unless we want to reinforce the stereotype that vegans are angry and humorless. Ha. Ha.] It manifests as people who expect us to defend PeTA even if we are most definitely not supporters. It manifests as people thinking we’re judging them simply by co-existing in the world as vegans.

Despite this, I wouldn’t change a thing about my decision to go vegan. I believe it is the best decision I ever made and I work hard to buck the stereotype while maintaining my commitment to its muscular ethical basis. I will say, though, that since my early days of standing outside of circuses with protest signs and outside of fast food chains with pamphlets, things have changed considerably in the animal advocacy world. Many of those changes have been really positive. With the Internet, people are so much more aware of the unjustifiable reality of what happens to other animals behind closed doors. Concurrent with that, there are also so many more options in grocery stores and restaurants as access and affordability to plant-based foods continues to increase. I remember racing through Oklahoma in 1995 with a car full of nutrition bars and a sincere hope that I didn’t starve to death with my dog-eared vegetarian restaurant guide book on my lap. Those days are behind us and things are just a lot easier.

What we do have today, though, is something I never observed as a young activist. In fact, I never saw it until social media started becoming widespread. In those nascent days of my veganism, my mentors were primarily older women in Keds sneakers – one of the few leather-free shoe brands back in the day – who would be out, rain or shine, doing outreach for the animals; they didn’t care about anyone else’s BMI, they cared about creating a more just and compassionate world. They didn’t inspire me with their impressive abs; they motivated me with their hearts, brains and spirits.

With social media, there is another breed of vegans: the body-shamers. Thankfully, they are not the norm, but they are loud and seem to be growing in number. These body-shame peddlers may be someone’s first exposure to a vegan and they leave a lasting impression. They condemn and attack vegans and non-vegans alike about weight and size. If the focus of their scorn is a vegan who is not slim enough in their estimation, they claim such individuals are doing a disservice to the animals by not providing a “good example” to the public, as if superficiality and self-absorption were inspiring traits. If those in their sights are not vegan, well, they are losers who deserve to suffer and die. You will hear shamers claim that such individuals are a drain on our health care and a plague on our society. The fact that shaming does not work as a motivator and that weight-stigma itself has proven negative health outcomes matters little: getting their digs in is what matters to them.

The body-shamers may be pushing a diet for any number of reasons. Maybe they have a financial interest in people feel bad enough about their bodies to join their program. Maybe they are “influencers”  looking for followers on YouTube or Instagram. Maybe they are ride-or-die acolytes of a particular dietary plan and they “just want to help,” whether or not their help has been solicited. Or maybe they are simply unkind people who get a cheap little thrill out of making other people feel shitty.

Whatever their reasons, let me apologize on behalf of these vegans. The body-shamers do not represent us. Vegans, like omnivores, come in all shapes and sizes but the bottom line is veganism is based on core values of compassion, justice and equality and is not a platform for abusing people with stigmatizing attitudes. Veganism is a social justice movement and there is no room for cruelty or bigotry. If you are someone who has been demeaned by a vegan for your body size, please accept my apology by proxy. There are many deeply compelling reasons to go vegan but being considered an acceptable size by a body-shamer isn’t among them.

I am proud to be vegan, and these individuals do not reflect my beliefs or what I have dedicated my life to promoting. Please remember that diet culture has its tentacles wrapped around many of us and vegans swim in its murky depths as much as anyone else. Don’t be shy about calling out weight-stigmatizing attitudes when you see them but remember that we are all susceptible to its many displays of bigotry, vegans and non-vegans alike.

Marla Rose is an author, journalist, co-founder of VeganStreet.com and co-founder of Chicago VeganMania. She lives in the Chicago area. 

body image · fitness · Guest Post · stereotypes · swimming

Learning to Swim and Loving My Body in the Process (Guest Post)

Although I never learned to swim, my whole life I’ve had dreams in which I can swim and I love those dreams and the feeling they give me. Recently, I met a new friend, about my age, and when she asked me if I wanted to go to the spa, and the whirlpool, and the pool, I found myself saying yes. Because I did want to go. I’d wanted to go for decades and had only ever gone to a spa one other time, just after I turned 50.

There’s something about your 50s – it’s like you start over. You look at all the baggage you’ve been hauling around since your 20s and ask yourself what it’s for. As it turns out, most of it doesn’t even belong to you, and a lot of it is stuff nobody needs.

Among my baggage was the idea that I needed to avoid pools because I have an unruly body that doesn’t look ‘good’ in a bathing suit. I knew this to be true because I’d had constant reminders that my body was somehow inappropriate.

In all fairness, had JLo or the Kardashians been the beauty standard during my teens, I might have received more positive attention for what became, by 13 or so, my big hips and big butt and small waist, but among my age group I was merely an aberration.

I could hear snickers when I got up to write at the blackboard in class. I lived in mortal fear of gym and of any social activities that might involve sports or a pool because I would have to expose my body in shorts or, my greatest horror, in a bathing suit.

Although by my early 20s I’d developed a way of dressing to pretty much camouflage what I suspected was my aberrant body, there’s nowhere to hide anything in a bathing suit. The very thought of wearing one filled me with anxiety and humiliation.

As I got older, I became the classic example of the woman to whom people would ‘you would be beautiful IF ONLY you lost x number of pounds.” The amounts varied, since my weight varied and, of course, ‘thin’ ideals were changeable. Sometimes it was 20, sometimes 40, sometimes 60 pounds.

I hope the world has changed and that young women don’t go through this anymore and Irealize I should have told every single person who felt free to comment to go fly a kite, and sometimes I did. My aunts said it, even my mom said it. There was me, and then there was beautiful/acceptable and, to get there, I would basically have to alter my body type.

As I struggled to articulate all of this to my new spa friend, she said ‘if you want a bikini body then just put your body in a bikini.’ This sounded suspiciously wise to me – I was certain I was missing something. I put on my bathing suit.

I loved the whirlpool. When I balked a bit at the pool and said I couldn’t swim, she just shrugged and said it didn’t matter – I didn’t have to swim to go in the pool. I’d never thought of it that way. I gave myself permission to go in the pool. After all, I was already in bathing suit, and what could be harder than that?

And then she said maybe I should try to float, still hanging onto the side of course. I immediately said I couldn’t float and that I had scientific proof of this from my many failed childhood attempts. In my particular case, I said emphatically, it was impossible. Sometimes we believe things for so long that we don’t realize they’re ridiculous and sometimes the way you can tell is the way your friend looks at you when you say them.

She said that instead of thinking about the water as something threatening, maybe I could think of it as something that was there to support me. The water would help me – the water wanted me to float. I didn’t really have to do anything. That was interesting to me. It would be particularly helpful, she added, if I didn’t think about it too much. That made me laugh since I’d had a psychiatrist in my 20s who spent a lot of time teaching me that thinking is different from feeling.

The sensation I felt, the first time I full-body floated, still holding onto the side of the pool, is still hard to describe. It was very emotional – suddenly, the body that I felt had betrayed me on so many occasions, the body I spent a lot of my life exasperated with and pointedly ignoring, was both weightless and present. I could feel the water surrounding me and holding me up. I became aware of my arms and legs and hips as wonderful, positive things, floating there in the water. Maybe even beautiful. I had the feeling that I had in my dreams. It was not a thinking feeling, but just feeling. So, for the last month or so, I’ve been working in the water to learn to actually swim – I feel I’m almost there but I’m not in any hurry.

The sensations that come with moving my body in the water are new, and exhilarating, and have started to feel natural. I love every minute of finding my balance, letting go of the ledge, working out how to propel myself, bobbing along in my very elementary way, perfectly quiet and peaceful. Well, not perfectly quiet. Sometimes I giggle. Out loud. I move my arms and my legs and the water responds to me. For perhaps the first time in my life, I feel my body is perfect.

Sally is an art historian, professor, department chair, Italophile, film buff, heavy metal AND country music enthusiast, and fitness newbie.