Like seemingly everyone else, I went to see Wonder Woman this past weekend, and I’ve got to say, it is one of my new problematic faves. For a couple of reasons that it’s problematic, see here and here and here. For a couple of reasons that it’s my fave, see here and here and, most importantly:
There are plenty of discussions to be had about this movie, ranging from the sharply critical to the “OH MY GOD THE AMAZONS THO.”
This post will be closer to the latter.
For the uninitiated, the Amazons are a group of women warriors. They are the inhabitants of Wonder Woman’s home, Themyscira, a hidden island where no men live (and is thus a queer culture). The first twenty-ish minutes of Wonder Woman are set in Themyscira, but I could have watched an entire movie set there. The society is peaceful and just. The scenery is beautiful and a complete departure from the gritty, bad-Instagram-filter bleakness we have come to expect from the DC cinematic universe. And we get to watch the Amazons fight a lot. The Amazons place a high value on training for combat; they are fierce and intense and their training is rigourous. I don’t know about you, but I’d be quite intimidated by the sight of a band of Amazons riding toward me at full speed. They are hardcore.
It is unusual and inspiring to see so many strong women depicted side by side in mainstream cinema. Muscular women are often characterized as being overly masculine and unattractive. Though it should be pointed out that most of the Amazons in the film are relatively slender, and it would have been cool to have more diverse body types portrayed, it’s nevertheless refreshing that their strength is glorified, not mocked. The performers are also genuinely strong; many of the Amazons were portrayed by professional athletes, making the group “look like the female version of 300.”
The Amazons (and indeed, the whole movie) made me go back to the gym. Obviously, I’m not a professional athlete. It often feels like an overstatement to call myself an athlete at all. I don’t really follow any fitness regimen to speak of, I tend to have more of a boom-and-bust cycle than anything regular, and I bounce from running to swimming to weightlifting to cycling to yoga and back again with no real structure or plan. This doesn’t really bother me—I just do what I like doing—and when I get bored, move on. Sometimes, I will get inspired to try something new or return to an old favourite (usually swimming, which is my one true love, but often weightlifting/strength training as well).
This time, what inspired me was the Amazons. I couldn’t believe how badly I wanted to hit the gym after seeing the film, and how truly excited I was to work out. I wanted to lift everything: myself, weights, tires. Heck, I would have lifted other people if they’d let me. Let me tell you, during this workout, I Wonder Woman’d HARD, including doubling my personal best for holding plank. (Yes, I’m bragging, and yes, I’m still sore.) Fitspiration, or “fitspo,” isn’t always a good thing, but in this case, Wonder Woman was the inspiration I needed. I wasn’t working out because I thought I deserved punishment, and I wasn’t working out because I wanted to look like an Amazon (although that would be cool). I was doing it because, even though I know the Amazons are fictional, I wanted to be one.
Now, if only I could figure out how to get to Themyscira…
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?)
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 isnotwork, 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.
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.
I have always been a sucker for headlines that read “5 Exercises That Every Woman Must Do,” or “Stealth Exercises for the Office or Airplane,” or “Strong Legs = Strong Brain.” Even before I began running in my late forties, I was drawn to such aspirational articles in pursuit of my own version of “higher, faster, stronger.” Over the last few years, however, I have found the advice offered by this type of internet and newspaper articles increasingly irritating and, as the kids used to say, “very demotivational.” I think it is less because they overpromise—though that is certainly the case. It is because I underperform.
There are a couple of obvious reasons why. Even during my fittest years—my fifties—I had to acknowledge that I possess a knack, not to say gift, for doing exercises intuitively wrong. Believe me, if there is a way to do a squat incorrectly, I can find that one, and several more besides. What I am unlikely ever to intuit is the correct way to perform the movements, the “form” which determines whether you will accomplish the goals of the exercise. Indeed the goals are not always clear to me either—quad strength? knee flexibility? Seriously, I am far from sure what a squat will do for me.
And it is astonishing how little clear direction and actual information most of these exercise lists and motivational videos offer. It’s all very well to say “burpees are the indispensable exercise for all women,” but for someone who’s never done a burpee or seen one done “live” for that matter, (that would be me), it’s like asking me to recite from memory a poem I’ve read once. I would leave out most of the important stuff and fluff the rest.
Moreover, aging and a few knock-out punches to my health over the last few years have made many of these “must do” exercises literally dangerous to me. So this introduces a second problem—even if I somehow learned brilliant form for the burpee, I would be foolish to try one. It may be possible to do or to ratchet up the intensity of certain exercises when you’re fit and healthy already, but for me now, as for many women, serious injury could be the consequence of certain exercises at a certain intensity. Remember when we all we “going for the burn?” Remember sit-ups? Jane Fonda and my high-school gym teachers were merely the Early Cretaceous predecessors to today’s motivational fitness gurus exhorting you to just “eliminate the jump” at the end of a burpee if you’re not quite up to the real thing. And do more and try harder, would you?
On the bright side, I have finally reached the stage of life that I know that I read these articles for amusement or distraction (and perhaps to practice being judgy, as my daughter used to say), not for information or motivation. I see a wonderful physiotherapist from time to time, and she has given me access to online demonstration videos done slowly and carefully and several-times-over, as well as instruction sheets with detailed instructions on form and on how and when to breathe, so that I can repeat at home the moves she teaches me in her lab. Since I am likely to forget key elements even after being shown in person, believe me, I need those detailed instructional materials. I do watch the videos a lot, since my body forgets a lot, and I’m pretty happy with my exercise life at the moment.
But I am not terrifically strong any more, which bothers me. And I will not be able to get much stronger now, let alone “return to baseline,” which for me was about age 55. I cannot run anymore, but I do walk every day. Yet I still read “fitness infotainment” even though it irritates me as much as it amuses me. I still cannot resist the appeal of bright happy promises of strength and constant improvement. It seems I still harbour the hope that I can move forward, if only I could find the right set of five exercises that this woman can do. And do more and try harder.
Retired professor of English and Women’s Studies (Fanshawe College); former 5 km/day runner and fitness video devotée; current 10,000 steps a day walker and practitioner of mindful workouts.
I meant to blog about this last week and then, well, I’m not sure how the week got away from me but it did. #CoverTheAthlete is an initiative that is supposed to draw attention to the disparity between men’s sports reporting and women’s sports reporting.
Remember when tennis star Eugenie Bouchard was asked to twirl in a post-game interview at the Australian Open after she smoked her Dutch opponent in straight sets? Later, after talking about her win, Bouchard addressed the twirl:
“It was very unexpected,” said Bouchard, who is known for a steely determination, drive and ambition that propelled her from relative obscurity to stardom last year. She reached the semifinals at last year’s Australian and French Opens and the final at Wimbledon, becoming the first Canadian to appear in a Grand Slam final.
“I don’t know, an old guy asking you to twirl. It was funny,” she said.
She was awfully gracious about it! Imagine asking Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic to twirl or show off their outfit.
The year before, an interviewer asked her who her ideal date would be.
The #CoverTheAthlete campaign has released a video that turns the tables. The YouTube video:
… splices together reaction shots from male athletes with questions that female athletes have actually been asked by interviewers.
The video kicks off with a clip showing Crosby answering media questions. A voiceover asks: “You’re getting a lot of fans here, a lot of them are female and they want to know: If you could date anyone in the world, who would you date?”
Sidney Crosby’s shocked expression says it all.
It’s a great video and an all-too-important message. It really is a good question: “Male sports coverage would never sound like this. How come female coverage does?”
Here’s the video:
It seems kind of obvious that the way women athletes are treated by news media is inappropriate and undermining of their athletic achievements. But the message hasn’t made its way into the heads of mainstream sports reporters.
Do you think a campaign like this can have a positive impact, or is the default approach to women in sports just a reflection of entrenched views about women more generally, not likely to change anytime soon? On a more cynical day, that’s what I think. But there is no question that #CoverTheAthlete is doing important work that needs to be done.
Do you notice the difference in the way sports reporters engage with the women as opposed to the men? Is it worse in some sports than in others? Do you call this stuff out when you see it?
I believe that any woman who refuses to accept society’s preconceived notions of who or what they can be is a feminist. I believe any woman who is willing to struggle, strive — and if necessary learn karate — to make their mark in the world is a feminist. And, yes, I believe that any woman, who cares about her appearance, her star billing and most especially her percentage of the gross, is a feminist.
This article quotes Catherine Weingarten, the author of the petition, as saying:
When Facebook users set their status to “feeling fat,” they are making fun of people who consider themselves to be overweight, which can include many people with eating disorders. That is not ok. Join me in asking Facebook to remove the “fat” emoji from their status options.
And when it decided to do the right thing, Facebook said:
“We’ve heard from our community that listing ‘feeling fat’ as an option for status updates could reinforce negative body image, particularly for people struggling with eating disorders,” Facebook (FB, Tech30) said in a statement.
But media is just about sound bytes (as I myself discovered in a TV interview that I’ll post below), and neither of these get to the full picture.
First of all, it’s not just about people with eating disorders and it’s not just about making fun of people. No doubt, Catherine Weingarten said a lot more than that. I’m almost certain of that because the Endangered Bodies offers a more nuanced set of reasons for what the problem is. The petition talks about fat-shaming, body hatred, and Facebook’s influence and reach as a significant social media platform:
Fat is a substance that every body has and needs. Fat is also an adjective – a descriptive word about a physical attribute. Just like tall, short, black or white, it should not be misused to shame oneself or others. However, the fashion, beauty and diet industries have an interest in making us feel insecure about our own bodies and over time “fat” has become a negative word, not a simple statement of size. There is nothing neutral about it. The stigma and criticism of fat and the elevation of thin make them stand-ins for other kinds of words, feelings and moods.
Endangered Bodies sees this fear of fat and idealisation of thinness throughout society as a form of weight stigma, which can have a serious impact on the millions of people dealing with negative body image. Body-shaming and weight stigma are associated with lower self-esteem and disordered eating, an issue that Facebook – being a social platform – needs to take seriously.
I myself blogged about “feeling fat” a long time ago, when the blog was just a month old. There, I talked about the difference between feeling fit and feeling fat. Most especially, we need to be aware that feeling fat has nothing to do with body weight. It has to do with the assumption that fat is bad. When we feel bad about ourselves, that self-loathing can express itself in feeling fat:
It’s a strange and complicated thing, feeling fat is. It can settle in overnight, or even through the course of a day. Clothes that fit just fine when I put them on in the morning might by lunch time start to feel like they’re pinching and snug, especially if I had a bad morning. Even the red silk scarf, not a body-hugging item, might not look right when just yesterday it accessorized perfectly. And a general feeling of unworthiness accompanies feeling fat. It’s astonishing and sad that internalized cultural stigma against weight and body type can feed so powerfully into these negative attitudes about oneself.
Remember, feeling fat is amazingly unconnected to actual body size and even percentage of fat. But it is also, for many women I know, the “go-to” feeling when they are unhappy with themselves about something…about anything. This says a lot about the hold that our culture’s attitudes about weight and body size has on us. Even those of us who are explicitly and consciously attentive to the irrational and unfair social stigma, even working to challenge it, latch onto fatness (real or imagined) as a personal deficiency. It then spirals into an energy-sucking, self-defeating stick that might make a person feel motivated to get active (but for all the wrong reasons) or thoroughly hopeless about exercise because it doesn’t “work” (as if its only purpose is to lose or control one’s weight).
When we can use feeling fat to articulate low self-esteem, as a stick to beat ourselves with, then it’s not funny. It’s sad. One thing I believe is that when we feel fat it’s a good sign that something else is going on with us. And that’s probably not the time to invoke a glib emoticon that announces to the world: “I hate myself right now.”
The social meaning of feeling fat ensures that it’s not simply self-abusive. Not at all. A purely individualistic explanation of why it’s harmful to include it among “impatient, amused, better, discouraged” doesn’t capture the social harm. It’s fat-phobic and fat-shaming. Even if lots of the people who feel fat don’t appear to others to be fat, they’ve internalized the message that fat is loathsome to such a degree that it’s what they latch onto when they want to express how much they despise themselves in that moment (because, and this is one thing it has in common with actual feelings, it can pass as quickly as it set in). That’s a pretty awful thing for people who others actually do think of as fat.
We live in a fat-phobic, fat-shaming world. In providing that emoticon, Facebook is perpetuating an oppressive social attitude. The local news came to see me about this today. I said a lot of stuff that was more interesting than what they chose, but if you’re interested, here’s a link to the clip. They will make you watch an ad first and for that I apologize.
And from the Endangered Bodies’ Fat Is Not a Feeling campaign:
With social influence, power, and reach comes social responsibility. It’s good to see that Facebook can respond appropriately at least some of the time even if they don’t have a very nuanced public presentation of their reasons.
It’s not, as the other person interviewed in my clip said, that they can’t afford not to be “politically correct.” Why do people always talk about “political correctness” as if there is something wrong with simply choosing a socially responsible course of action? That charge that mega-corporations are always having to bow to political correctness is a simplistic and dismissive response to genuine concern about real social harms.
And to those who think that in removing this choice FB has somehow done us a disservice, it’s not some God-given right that everything we experience needs to be expressible in a canned status with a matching emoticon. I’m glad they took it down and I will be happier still when we stop using “feeling fat” as a form of self-abuse and a socially acceptable way of body-shaming in a fat-phobic culture.
To the question, who cares, one commentator on reddit replied,
“They did the same thing to Annie last year. This isn’t ‘retouching’. Retouching is removing a blemish or shadow, straightening a line on clothes, or removing stray hairs. THIS is removing body parts.
“Who the hell cares?” Well. For Camille, she’s a strong, athletic woman. That should be celebrated, and it isn’t. Even in the magazine that dedicates itself to crossfitters she’s too strong, too muscled, and too developed. She isn’t sexy or soft enough, so she gets whittled down. Why WOULDN’T we as a community care about that?”
A reader pointed out there’s also a great discussion over on Camille’s Facebook page where she shared the photo of the cover. Lots of other people in the comment thread (worth reading, for a change, thanks SK for the heads up) shared pretty muscly looking pictures of Camille and most readers of her Facebook page seem outraged that they’ve photoshopped out her abs.
The world’s newest “Fittest Woman on Earth” is a 25-year-old chemical engineering student from Richelieu, Que. Camille Leblanc-Bazinet placed first at the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games in Carson, Calif., in the women’s individual competition Sunday. Ms. Leblanc-Bazinet, who is 5-foot-2 and weighs 130 pounds, is a student at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec and started CrossFit training five years ago. The sport involves a combination of weightlifting, gymnastics and high intensity interval training.
I enjoyed reading an interview with her in Shape magazine on body image issues,
If you watched 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games winner Camille Leblanc-Bazinet snag the title of “fittest woman on Earth” last month, you may be surprised that the sculpted athlete once struggled with body image. “I used to run because I wanted to be skinny, and then I’d eat like crap,” the former gymnast explained about her pre-CrossFit days. “I would always feel miserable about myself, like ‘You’re not pretty enough.’ It was self-destructive.”
……. Now that Leblanc-Bazinet is a pro in the weight room, she holds her head just as high. “If I gain two pounds but I can lift 100 more pounds on my bar, I’m like, ‘Hell yeah,'” she says. “I only want to be fitter, stronger, faster, and healthier, and that’s given me tons of confidence.”
So I don’t think she’ll be too bent out of shape about the cover but the rest of us? I’m with the reddit commentator quoted above. We should celebrate strong, athletic women for their strength. No more Photoshop.