The Perfect Bikini Body: Can We All Really Have It? (Guest Post)

by Sara Protasi

As soon as the summer season approaches, the internet is inundated with articles and slideshows with such titles as: 37 Totally Perfect Bikini Bodies. Rule No.1: there are no rules or 9 Stunning Bodies That Shatter Society’s Stereotypes About the ‘Perfect’ Body and with memes that suggest that, in order to have a perfect bikini body, one just needs to have a body and wear a bikini, because “every body is beautiful.” These popular articles are grounded in the feminist imperative of dismantling sexist and oppressive aesthetic norms that harm women. But what kind of aesthetic ideal lies behind the slogan?

Bikini Beach Days

Image description: This is a black and white photo of a woman in a bikini. It’s a rear view shot and she’s standing at the edge of the beach. Licensed under creative commons. Bikini Beach Days by micadew.

Philosopher Sherri Irvin  has recently proposed a sophisticated articulation of this view (in a yet-to-be-published paper). Irvin proposes an original model of aesthetic practice that she calls aesthetic exploration. In short, aesthetic exploration involves a tendency to approach an object carefully seeking it out its aesthetic affordances with the specific intent of finding pleasure in them, and a tendency to do so with a sense of curiosity and adventure. Every body is beautiful because all human bodies are replete of features such as colors, textures, forms, possibilities of movement, and so forth. If one can’t see that, if one sees a human body as ugly, that means that one has not properly and carefully cultivated the right attitude.

Irvin’s view is very appealing, and it encourages us to engage in an enriching activity. But can it function as the feminist ideal of bodily beauty that we are looking for? I worry that the very strength of this view, its inclusivity, is also its major weakness: according to this view, nobody can fail short of the ideal, provided they are gazed at in the appropriate way. But I worry that this view isn’t as aspirational and empowering as the ideal we are looking for.

When everybody meets the standard of beauty, there is no need to appeal to it, because it does no work of weeding the non-beautiful from the beautiful. It is a psychological fact of human nature that we care about being beautiful because it sets us apart from others. If everybody were all equally beautiful, we would come to care a lot less about beauty.

So maybe when we say that every body is beautiful, we don’t mean it literally. What we mean is that there are many ways of being beautiful, many more than conventional standards of beauty allow for: fat women, muscly women, androgynous women, and so forth—all these women can be beautiful.

But once we start looking for more inclusive standards, another worry arises: where do we draw the line between the beautiful and the non-beautiful? Let me quickly consider two plausible candidates.

First, someone might argue that, while fat women are beautiful, very obese ones are not. But we have evidence showing that obese people are greatly harmed by conventional ideals of beauty that deem them as ‘disgusting’, and they are discriminated against in many other settings. Therefore, we have ethical reasons to resist the suggestion that obese people are ugly just in virtue of their obesity.

Another possibility would be “health”: healthy women are beautiful. This suggestion is, however problematic, according to a disability-positive perspective. Within this framework we find the idea that disabled, thus conventionally “unhealthy” and “dysfunctional” bodies, can be, and in fact have been throughout the history of art, sources of beauty, as illustrated in the work of Tobin Siebers, a recently-deceased disability studies scholar. The disability aesthetics perspective makes it impossible to draw a line by using any traditional standard of bodily beauty, such as proportionality of limbs, symmetry and so forth.

Interpreting the idea that “everybody is beautiful” in this way, then, fails at being sufficiently inclusive, and thus falls short on its ethical motivations. In order to find a satisfying ideal of bodily beauty, we have to look outside of the purely aesthetic domain.

We often talk of internal beauty, of being beautiful on the inside. This notion of beauty is metaphorical, but there is a non-metaphorical way in which what is “inside” a person—her spiritual, moral, and intellectual qualities—affect her “outside”: it affects the way people perceive her.

This is especially evident in loving relationships. Imagine someone slowly reciprocating the love of a person previously assessed as unsightly, won over by that person’s internal beauty. Moved by her attraction, she will discover valuable aesthetic features of the beloved, and at some point she will look at her or him, and see beauty. Her perceptions have changed, and, even if and when she falls out of love,  she will never look at that person as she used to look at them before loving them. Or think about how we see our children, siblings, parents: our affection makes us go beyond their aging, their physical flaws, their imperfections. Every loving parent sees their infant as the most perfect creature on earth, even when bystanders (secretly) beg to differ.

So when we say that everybody is beautiful, I think that we mean that any body can be an appropriate object of a loving gaze. According to this view, the most beautiful individuals are the most lovable ones, independently of what they look like from the outside. Some not-so-lovable individuals will retain some degree of beauty, because they are still appropriate object of love from the perspective of some people (for instance, their mothers) but will not be very beautiful, even if they look good from the perspective of conventional standards. Finally, others may be so underserving of love that those who can look inside them will see them as utterly ugly, like Patrick Bateman.

This view of bodily beauty is inspirational, empowering and inclusive.

Of course, personal preferences may still be at play, as they are in our loving relationships. That everybody is beautiful does not mean that every particular individual will actually see everybody else as beautiful. This is a view about who can be objectively assessed as beautiful. And the answer is: (almost) anyone

This post is an abbreviated version of an academic paper that can be found here: https://philpapers.org/rec/SARTPB

I’m an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Puget Sound. My current research focuses on emotions, in particular love and envy. You can find more professional information here: http://saraprotasi.weebly.com/ I trained semi-professionally as a ballet dancer, and consider myself a dancer as much as a philosopher. I’m also a mother of daughters, and I hope they both grow up to kick ass and be compassionate human beings. My partner is a feminist and teaches philosophy as well.

 

 

 

Recovered? (Guest Post)

Image description: A tree with red leaves in the shape of a head. One third of the leaves blowing away.  Also, green grass and blue sky and white clouds.

Image description: A tree with red leaves in the shape of a head. One third of the leaves blowing away. Also, green grass and blue sky and white clouds.

By Meena Krishnamurthy

A couple of months ago someone asked me the question that I have dreaded being asked most. The question was a simple one: Are you fully recovered?

Let me back track a bit. Almost three years ago, I suffered from a severe concussion. I had cognitive and visual problems, endless dizziness, migraines, and neck pain. Together these symptoms left me in bed in a dark room for almost 7 months. I was able to brush my teeth and shower, but I wasn’t able to grocery shop or cook. I was able to see people, but only for short times. I was largely isolated from my husband and my, at the time, 6 year old daughter. The dog was really the only one I could tolerate for longer periods of time, but at times even she was too much to handle.

For the most part, through hard work and some good luck, I’ve managed to get back to the things that I love. In the fall of 2016, I started a new academic position and in the winter I returned to teaching. This year I returned to a full teaching load. I’ve also returned to travelling and giving talks on a very limited basis. Most importantly, I am able to spend time with my family and to do the simple things that I love like grocery shopping. Even though it didn’t quite stick, I even managed to start running again this summer. All things considered, things have been going very well for me. I am proud of the progress that I have made and continue to make.

Given all of this, one might wonder, why was THAT question so difficult to answer? In part, it is hard to answer because I had recently been asking myself the same question and I hadn’t come up with a good answer.

The question itself confuses me. It isn’t clear to me what being recovered looks like at this point. If the person (and myself) was asking whether I am back to being the same person that I was before my head injury, then the answer is no. And, what comes next is difficult to say out loud and to admit to myself: I am not the same person that I was before my head injury. Sometimes I have still have days (sometimes many days) where I can’t out of bed. Sometimes, I am still overwhelmed with migraines, nausea, and numbness for weeks at a time. Sometimes, I am still cognitively hazey (this is probably the hardest thing to admit as an academic). More fundamentally, I am aware of my vulnerability, sometimes overcome with (irrational) fear that I will return to that dark room and be unable to do the things I love most.

On the other hand, perhaps I have just changed. Perhaps this is all part of my new norm. I have great days and not so great days and somehow I push through. Perhaps, then, I have recovered as much as I can.

Another option (according to the medical experts that I am working with) is that I’m still a work in progress. According to my neurologist, it can take almost 6 years to fully recover from a brain injury. This isn’t often the answer that people want to hear. People prefer a quick and complete success story – one where the person goes from being stuck in a dark room to being back in front of the classroom and travelling around the world, as if the accident had never happened. Unfortunately, in many cases of brain injury, this is a far-fetched scenario.

At this point, I’m still not sure how to answer THAT question. All of these are live options. My guess is my answer will change with place and time.

Appearance vs. Reality (Guest Post)

In my high school English class, my teacher always told us to be on the lookout for clues that all was not what it seemed; to pay attention to characters whose inner thoughts were different from their actions, and to focus on the incongruity and what it might reveal about the characters, the story, or the world. I remember my teacher writing “Appearance vs. Reality” on the board over and over during the years I was lucky enough to be in her class. It has stuck with me, and I’m still attuned to it even when I’m watching movies or reading for pleasure.

Sometimes, I feel hypocritical even doing the occasional guest post on a fitness blog, because I feel like a total impostor; like the appearance I try to cultivate is hugely divergent from the reality. My relationship with exercise is on-again, off-again, I don’t excel at any sport (although I genuinely like a lot of them), and I’m not a nutrition expert. Some days, I feel like a total untouchable boss in the gym or in the pool, and others, I feel like an alien or a toddler who hasn’t quite gotten the hang of walking yet. I wish I could be someone who rode my bike everywhere (as it stands, I walk pretty much anywhere I can get in less than an hour and take the bus if I’m going any further). I’m a decent cook and like cooking healthy food, but have certainly been known to eat an entire pint of coconut ice cream* in a single sitting. I go through frequent cycles of “YAY I’M GOING TO EAT HEALTHY FOOD ALL THE TIME AND EXERCISE EVERY OTHER DAY” followed shortly by a crash where I eat takeout curry** every night for a week and forget what my running shoes look like.

received_10154772894064356

[Image description: A greeny-blue pint-sized carton of Mint Chocolate Chip coconut ice cream.] Seriously, you don’t understand how good this stuff is.

Conceptually, I know moderation is the key to avoiding these cycles, but I haven’t quite internalized that.

Because of this, I often feel like I have no business whatsoever in blogging—even guest blogging—for a fitness blog. It seems like the kind of thing that only people who really have their act together should do; people who have it all figured out and are here to impart some epic knowledge. Even though I’ve only done a handful of posts, I dread linking to them on my own Facebook page because I’m totally convinced that people who actually know me in real life will read them and go, “Pfft, what? Who is she to talk?” (I think this is my anxiety talking, but that doesn’t make the feeling any less real.) The impostor syndrome doesn’t end there; I’m convinced that someone will realize I’ve tricked my way into my PhD program, someone will notice that all the socks I knit are basically just variations on the same theme (so take no real talent to produce), someone will find out that I have no real competence in anything whatsoever. This is indeed a case where appearance does not align with reality, or so my brain tells me.

I try to manage my worries with an awful lot of private pep talks to myself (and a lot of support from family and friends). But there’s a Catch-22: I normally rely heavily on exercise to manage my anxiety and depression, but occasionally exercise turns into a source of anxiety. For the time being, I guess I’ll just keep rolling with the on-again, off-again cycle that I’ve come to know and love (?), but I sure wish I could shake the feeling that I’m not good enough and have managed to trick everyone else into thinking I’m something I’m not. Of course, things are further compounded by the fact that I do genuinely believe that it’s okay just to do things you like doing, regardless of whether you’re actually “good” at them. So then I worry that I’m being hypocritical, and I question why not being good enough is so troubling to me. If you truly believed that it was okay to do things you like doing, whether or not you’re good at them, the little voice says, you wouldn’t feel like such an impostor.

There isn’t any grand lesson or moral to be gained from this post. I just wanted to throw these ideas out there. How about you, readers? Does any of you ever feel like your appearance doesn’t match your reality?

 

*And let me tell you, this is one case where “vegan” is unequivocally not the same as “healthy.”

**Again, “vegan” ≠ “healthy.”

A letter to my bike (Guest post)

Dear Ernie,

Wow. That was awesome, so much fun and so easy. Just like I remember.

Can you believe it was almost a year that you sat gethering dust under the stairs? I guess you can hey? You were back within days after the crash, having had your check up at the bike shop and gotten the all clear (and a chain clean for good measure). I, on the other hand, was pretty busy with the surgery to fix my elbow, dental for the teeth, the rehab, the healing, then life got pretty hectic.

If I am honest though, I avoided you. Physically I probably could have ridden without too much discomfort about 4 months ago. Possibly even 6 months ago. But mentally, I just wasn’t sure I could get past the notion that we might go over again. Which at the same time feels a little silly as I don’t remember going over last time. So I just let you sit there, your tyres flat and dust accumulating on the freshly oiled chain. What if it wasn’t easy any more? What if my hand, elbow or shoulder hurt too much? The fitness we had going last summer was gone. We literally crashed back through square one.

Fortunately the square root of one, is one. So wherever we start, it’s the new beginning.

And what a perfect beginning.  A warm summers night, the crit track at Victoria Park just outside the city. A girls rugby team training in the middle, the smell of lush grass rising with the last of the day’s heat (with small children a dog and balls going every which way to keep up on our toes). Around and around we went, spinny drills, some  sprint drills and  a few tempo ‘efforts’. Acknowledgement that we really need to do more sprint drills and maybe find a hill or 5 million to climb. Your form was great, my legs were a bit light on. But the ease, it was there. After 3 laps of the circuit it was like it always was.

I missed  you Ernie. I missed our adventures. Blaney to Bathurst through the rolling countryside of central New South Wales. Fitz’s 105km out the back of Canberra and the slowest ascent in the history of cycling, no – I didn’t think it was possible to ride at under 8km per hour and not fall over either, but there we were.  Beach weekends to “race” in triathons. Early mornings in the dead of winter with the development squad girls cutting laps of Old Parliament House in the dark. Sunday rides with Linda and the Piglet.

We’re not in Canberra anymore, but there are plenty of adventures in Adelaide too. In fact, all your fancy rich cousins from all across the globe come around in January every year for the Tour Down Under. I’m sure they’d love to see you! We’re going to have to do quite a bit of  work on getting up the hills out of town to watch them. But there’s plenty of time.

In the meantime I’ve just signed us up for Criterion training again. You’ll love it. It’s with a group of beginners. Yes, I know you know about Crit racing mate, but I think it’s best we take this chance to get going slowly.  Get out confidence back and make some new friends too.

Well, I’ve got to go. I guess I just wanted to say thanks. Thanks for waiting for me. Thanks for not forgetting how we roll.


 

Do Things You Like Doing (Guest Post)

Recently, this blog shared a link on Facebook to an article about why pursuing joy is never a waste of time, and this line, near the very end, really stuck out to me:

“Remember to pursue more than success or accomplishment. Those are important, but so are the things that bring you meaning, connection, and engagement in your life.”

A few years ago, I realized that when I was using any kind of fitness equipment with a digital display (you know the kind: treadmills, ellipticals, rowing machines, stationary bikes, etc.), I became obsessed with the numbers on it. I was always pushing to burn a certain number of calories (are those even accurate, anyway?), go a certain distance, hit this or that resistance level. I stopped enjoying what I was doing and got lost in whether I was doing it well enough, whether I was worthy, whether others would approve of me.

Once I realized I didn’t actually owe achievement to anyone, it was like a light had dawned on me: I didn’t need the validation of the numbers to justify liking what I was doing, or tell me whether I had been successful. I didn’t need the end-of-workout stats to tell me whether I had gone far enough, hard enough, fast enough. I love swimming, for instance. It’s my favourite kind of exercise, no contest. I swam competitively for some years as a teenager, and while I’ve retained good technique, I’m not very fast in comparison to most former competitive swimmers. I’m probably slightly faster than your average lane swimmer, and can pass all the fitness requirements for lifeguarding certification without any trouble, but that’s about it. Once I stopped worrying about my times, though, I was able to reconnect with my love of swimming.

its-okay

Abandoning quantification has done a lot to liberate me from my own obsessions with being good enough (in an exercise context, at least). Pushing yourself can be a good thing, but for me, exercise is a way of escaping from all the other things that I feel I’m not doing well enough. So I started turning off the display, covering it with a magazine or towel, or entering wildly inaccurate numbers about my weight and age. Counting, tracking, and monitoring just took the joy out of it for me, because I was always worried about disappointing myself. So I stopped counting, and started enjoying.

But far be it from me to fall into the all-or-nothing camp. Sometimes quantifying things is necessary or useful. If you’re training for a long-distance race, for instance, you need to know how far you’ve gone so you can build up to the final distance in time for the race. And other people certainly seem to benefit from quantifying either to beat a personal best or compete with friends. If you’re one of them, good for you! I do go through tracking phases occasionally, but on the whole, it’s just not for me. I prefer to turn up the music and do some ugly, mindless lip-syncing while I do my thing, although I still keep track of how long I’ve been exercising, and I track my progress when it comes to strength training. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t push myself on the elliptical! But letting go of my obsession with some numbers has helped me let go of my obsession with all of them. It’s reframed my relationship to the numbers, allowed me to retain a healthy relationship to some numbers without assigning huge value to them, or hinging my self-worth on what they say. It doesn’t take stats to tell me whether I’ve had a successful workout. I already know the answer to that without the numbers. The joy is the success.


Valuing ourselves to make a difference (Guest post)

by Shawna Clausen

When I was 10 years old, my parents moved me and my siblings from the city of Omaha, Nebraska to a farm outside of Salem, Oregon.  It was nothing short of culture shock for me.  I had to rely on myself for entertainment and thankfully, my parents allowed me to get a St. Bernard puppy from the farmer down the street as my tag-along buddy. We would traipse around the countryside, exploring the forest down the road, or choosing which orchard we wanted to hang out in each day. I was surrounded by acres and acres of orchards, and I could choose between peaches or pears or cherries or apples, or fields of green beans or strawberries.  It really was quite bucolic.

However, there was great sadness and abuse in my life starting well before I arrived in Salem. This was perpetrated by the family pedophile, and also, sadly, from my own anger-ridden father. I was “just Shawna” for a good portion of my childhood and into some of my adulthood, and this recognition of myself within myself didn’t help me value myself or my body.

In 2012, I lost my beloved mother to lung cancer. In 2014, I lost my father to lung cancer.  Even though in their cases, lung cancer was preventable (they collectively smoked tobacco for 100 years total), life was very rocky and extremely dark during the years after they died. I gained 80 pounds, rising to an unhealthy weight of 265 lbs at my heaviest. All of my joints hurt, my back hurt, my feet and knees ached all the time, and I was so unhappy with myself, with the soon-to-be ending relationship, with my job … pretty much my entire life felt like it was one black hole.

A former partner of mine (who also happens to be a former Marine) helped me get started.  In early 2014, he started sending me dally calisthenics, with an exact # of push-ups to do, miles to walk or run, jumping jacks, burpees, V-ups, butterfly kicks. You name it, he had me do them. There was also a military play class taught at KinkFest that year that he invited me to “participate” in, so of course, I had to get into somewhat of better shape if I was going to “perform” in front of 35+ people.

In the beginning, I hated every minute of it.  It was all I could do to not come up with some colorful excuse on why I could run or walk today, what other things I needed to be doing instead of taking care of my body.

Then I remembered the bad physical shape my mother was in at my age, and I realized that in order to deal with the cards I was given, and not wait until I was 60-65 to make any physical changes, I had to do something then. That was 3 years ago.

Each time I force myself to get outside makes the next time easier.
Each step I take, one in front of the other, makes the next one easier.
Each stair I climb makes the next one that much shorter.

I breathe and breathe some more. I hear my heart pumping my blood back and forth within my veins and arteries, pushing it where it needs to go and away from where it should be, and then back again.

When I run, I listen to the staccato of my steps, one in front of the other, along with the beat of the fast-rhythm music I have on my playlist. I don’t run without music; it’s one thing having Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” in my ears to keep me running up the hills.

During my workouts, I tell myself “Shawna, you can do this. You ran 13.1 miles THREE TIMES! This is nothing!!”

I ran my first 13.1 race, the Seattle Half Marathon, on November 29, 2015.  I ran my 2nd half marathon “The Blerch” (organized by the creator of the Oatmeal comic, Matthew Inman) on September 27, 2016, and my third marathon, the Seattle Half Marathon, on November 27, 2016.

marathom

Photo credit: Wendell Joost

At this time, I plan on running four half marathons this year. The first one is the Mother’s Day Run in Seattle (in memory of my mother.) I am also contemplating completing the Tough Mudder in June, the Portland Half Marathon in October, and the Seattle Half Marathon in November.

I try to encourage my friends and those that I meet that whatever they choose to do, whether that is running their own races, losing weight, learning how to belly dance or the fox trot or playing a musical instrument or knitting … whatever that choice is, they can do it.  One breath at a time.  Each second builds to a minute which builds to an hour which builds to a day. Then a week. Then a month.

I’m not implying in the least that everyone needs to rush out and lose 80 pounds.  If someone is genuinely happy with how they look and where they are in their life, that is all that matters.  I wasn’t happy with anything about me. I was heading for a shit-storm of a disaster in the form of diabetes, congestive heart failure and high blood pressure (all landing within my family medical history). The odds were against me that I would live past 60 years of age.

During the summer of 2016 while I was walking around the First Hill area of Seattle, I met a little girl named Alice, who thought I was Wonder Woman in disguise, as I was wearing a scarf with the Wonder Woman logo on it, and my phone cover has the Wonder Woman logo and emblem on it.  In talking with her mother, it became quite apparent that Wonder Woman was Alice’s hero.  My friend, Jamie, who is a crochet artist, created a Wonder Woman doll for me, and as a surprise for Alice, a wee tiny Wonder Woman doll for her very own (as of today’s date, I’ve not seen Alice due to the holidays, but I am hopeful that I will see her again). (FB post: https://www.facebook.com/shawna.clausen.5/posts/10208379160177646?hc_location=ufi)

ww

Wonder Woman has always been my hero, from when I was that young child. I believed in her when I didn’t believe in myself nor did many people show belief in me.  Now though, I believe in me and I value me and what I have to offer the world from my small space.  We all have value, we simply have to find it.

BIO

I am Shawna Clausen, a 48 year old feminist who happens to run marathons in my spare time.  In the other small bit of time I am allotted, my two cats, Elvis The Pelvis and Neville, run the rest of my life. 

Folsom Fair 2014

Folsom Fair 2014

I’m also Ms. Oregon State Leather 2014, having won the title in August 2014 and stepped down a year later.  My sash husband is Steven Steinbock, Mr. Oregon State Leather 2014.  He was a huge part of my support network during my tumultuous title year, and continues to be a steadfast supporter of every one of the crazy hair-brained ideas that I seem to come up with. He rolls his eyes and carries on, and still loves and respects me at the end of the day.  I can only wish that every title holder has a sash husband such as I had in Steven.

Photo credit: Leland Carina

Photo credit: Leland Carina

I am now living in Seattle (WA) working in the healthcare industry, and immersing myself in the rope bondage kink scene, in addition to the gaming piece in this city, which is relatively easy considering Seattle is now one of the up and coming tech areas in the nation. I enjoy experiencing different foods, along with watching bad horror movies with Michael, one of my partners (I am polyamorous). I travel often to Portland to attend leather, kink and drag events. I have discovered the modeling world, at least here in Seattle, having dabbled as a model for a few well-known Seattle-area photographers (in both erotic and non-erotic settings).

Seattle Pride. Photo Credit: Malixe Photography, Charles Daniels

Seattle Pride. Photo Credit: Malixe Photography

What Tabletop Gaming Taught Me About Feminist Fitness, Inclusiveness, and Body Image (Guest Post)

by Kimberly Brumble

grey sleeveless workout tank

Personally I’d just settle for being to walk all day long

 

This time of year, when a lot of people are re-committing themselves to various fitness goals, the tabletop gaming community is also abuzz with discussions comparing fitness trackers, sneaker purchases, couch to 5k plans, and the elusive 10,000 steps.  However, unlike a lot of January fitness adopters, the tabletop gamers are training to play a long game with goals cumulating out in mid summer and even early September.  Why?  That’s convention season, and suddenly thousands of people who are passionate about a hobby that involves sitting around a table for 4-6 hours at a stretch will need to also be able to walk 10,000 to 20,000 plus steps in a single day, probably also lugging bags full of games and gaming materials with them, for 12 to even 20-hour stretches at a time.  These are folks, like me, who take their sedentary hobby so seriously they will begin training 6 and even 9 months out to get the most out of the Best Four Days in Gaming.

Hello, I’m Kimberly Brumble.  I’m a philosopher of science.  In my free time I hike, cycle, run, and lift heavy things.  But also once a week for 5 hours I’m a dwarven fighter trying to save Golarion one axe swing at a time.  Yep.  And I live for it. And sitting around a table pretending to be a super-human elite who can do all sorts of things I can’t has changed how I experience fitness.  Our journey begins…

Let me backtrack and give a little background on me and my hobby.  Tabletop gaming centers around playing games on, you guessed it, a table rather than a screen.  These games range from complex board games like the wildly popular Settlers of Catan and Arkham Horror to role playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) or Vampire the Masquerade.  Also popular are miniatures games like War Hammer, deck-building card games like Magic the Gathering, party card games like Werewolf, and so on.  Basically, if you can play it on a table, it probably has a following which attends conventions like GenCon.

If you had caught me 2 years ago, I would have told you that my dalliances with board games began and ended with an ex-boyfriend trying to explain Catan to me, which I experienced much like this.  And then at his suggestion observing his friends play the game, which went much like this.  When the guys finally did let me play I was so bored I sabotaged my own budding civilization in the first hour so I could go do something else at the party.  Much of my experience of board gaming was at first shaped by 1. the weird gendered dynamics involved with learning mechanics-heavy games and 2. playing the wrong games for me.

RPGs and card games and I didn’t fair much better. As a queer geek gal growing up in a yet-to-be-hip Portland, Oregon, of the 80’s and 90’s, I could never get invited to play DnD or Magic the Gathering for two reasons: 1. I was a girl and 2. I didn’t “look” geeky enough to seem “safe” to invite.  A common trope in 90’s geek culture.  Apparently it was scary enough to invite Cool Guys, let alone sporty girls.  I mean I was also plenty geeky (I’ve read the Silmarillion…multiple times…which is something even among Tolkien dorks), but I was also sporty and artsy, and geek culture had yet to  become so mainstream that people who looked like me got invited to the game table.

Fast forward to two years ago when a bunch of grad students in my philosophy department decided to start a game night.  Our goal was two-fold: 1. have a good time in small-town Indiana without spending money and 2. try to build a better, cooperative climate in our hyper-competitive, socially-challenged cohort.  A weekly gaming night morphed into a 2+ year DnD campaign–which I am still skyping into thousands of miles and two countries away–and passion for tabletop gaming.

DnD will change your life.  There has been a lot written about the social and even professional benefits of RPGs in terms of team-building skills, empathy and community building, and even writing, but for this post I’m going to focus on how it changed my experience of fitness.  That’s right: if you are still reading this, my fellow jocks, DnD changed how I experience fitness.  Here’s how:

First the bad: Tabletop gaming lives up to some of the stereotypes.  Committing to a long-running DnD campaign (Pathfinder, actually, for my fellow RPGers reading) meant committing to sit at a table for 4-6 hours a week, during my free time.  That’s time that I used to spend hiking, cycling, and running.  I now spend it sitting.  That doesn’t mean I don’t still do those things, but I don’t do them on Saturday afternoons (when we currently game).  It’s not more time spent sitting gaming than many people spend in a week watching TV, but there it is.  Also, there are snacks.  Lots of snacks.  Which is great.  And not.

But here is the good (and maybe surprising):  plenty of us gamers are still really active people during the rest of our lives.  What’s more, I have found that gaming and gaming culture has some nice benefits for people, and particularly femme-type people, who are also into fitness.  First of all, DnD campaigns in general involve a lot of action. Even if the players are sitting, they are imagining fighting, swimming, climbing, and doing so, so, so much walking.  Ever read or watched Lord of the Rings? Yeah, it’s like that.  And actually, you can just walk into Mordor.  It’s pretty much the only way to do it (eagles aside).  So even if you play a very squishy (that’s DnD speak for non-athletic and easy to hurt) wizard, your character is probably pretty fit and occasionally making climb, swim, acrobatics, and wilderness survival checks and, generally…hopefully…dice permitting, passing most of them.  On top of that you can choose to play a character who uses physical abilities rather than magic primarily to get shit done.  In our game I play a fighter–and I don’t use magic, just a lot of strength and agility and stamina.  Which is nice, actually, because it kind of motivates me to think about and maintain those physical abilities IRL as well.  Characters “level up” and improve their abilities, which makes them better at doing more stuff, and I have gone from thinking about fitness as maintenance, or beauty, or a duty, to “leveling up” with regard to my IRL physical stats.  Charisma (charm, social skills, beauty) after all, is its own stat.  Strength, agility, and constitution have nothing to do with how you look in the world of DnD, and that’s kind of liberating, especially I think for women and femme-type folks.

Speaking of gender and stats, in DnD the gender of a character does not determine their base stats or how stats progress. Men, women, and every other gender imaginable start with the same base stats available to them.  That means your average human in DnD has a strength of 10, dexterity 10, and constitution (hardiness) of 10.  It’s up to you to change those scores as you build your character and play the game.  For me, a gender-fluid woman who has struggled my whole life with gendered norms and expectations about fitness, that was a revelation.  If I didn’t have to go into DnD with gendered expectations about my own abilities, maybe I didn’t need to bring those to the gym/mountains/cycle track either.  And what I can imagine has a big impact on what I find myself able to do and be.

Finally, I want to say something about the world of DnD and gender with regards to the DnD races.  If you have consumed any high fantasy media you are probably aware that much high fantasy post-Tolkien comes stocked with some standard-issue (and often less standard-issue) fantasy “races.”  It’s important to note that these “humanoid” races do not and probably should not track real-world human concepts of race: we are talking elves, humans, dwarves, gnomes, haflings, orcs, and the like.  While they do come preloaded as tropes with their own set of representational problems, others have also argued that thinking about these issues in fantasy can also open dialogue about issues in media representation of real racism, cis-sexism, hetero-sexism, and ableism.  One thing which fantasy races have done for fans of the genre is to provide us with a multitude of alternate images of different genders as strong, agile, and beautiful people.  In my own experience as a stocky, muscular woman standing 5’2’’, I have found myself drawn to characters with similar builds; thick legs and powerful arms can be beautiful too.  Or not.  Because beauty is not compulsory for effectiveness.  Not even for bards.  Body diversity matters.  Even in fiction.  And especially in a genre in which men and women have so often been made to look like this:

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It’s powerful to see them depicted in a range of bodies.  Like this:

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Behold the “Rat Queens” from the eponymous, amazing DnD comic by Kurtis J. Wiebe. Source:https://www.facebook.com/RatQueens/photos/a.145825672257123.1073741828.145821855590838/217050488467974/?type=3&theater

And the same has been true increasingly for men as well:

 

Feels good to go post-human, yeah?

So to sum up, tabletop gaming has brought new perspectives on fitness for me as it has slowly taken over my non-academic life: I think about my fitness in terms of being able to do things I want to do (like walk around a convention all day lugging heavy gaming manuals, something my DnD fighter would consider par for the course), or improving my ability scores (rather than punishing myself or maintaining or striving for some abstract appearance-related goal).  What’s more, it’s expanded how I and many gamers imagine strong, capable, competent, optionally beautiful, and powerful bodies- both ours and those we inhabit in our dream-lives saving imaginary worlds, one Saturday afternoon at a time.

 

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Kimberly “Berly” Brumble is a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary. Her research focuses on how uncertainty in climate modeling effects decision-making and how decision-making under “deep uncertainty” involves both scientists and policy-makers in the environmental sciences and geophysics. She enjoys hiking, camping, cycling, cycle camping, running, canoeing and kayaking, lifting heavy things, and pretending that the Canadian Rockies are the Misty Mountains on weekends. She is also pretty serious about illustrating and painting. She has recently discovered playing in, writing, and running rpgs. Catch her next year at GenCon on her recurring panel “Philosophers Play Pathfinder.”