body image · fitness

What’s going on when even the Europeans are starting to cover up? Poor body image crosses the pond

Image description: wooden sign on wooden post with
Image description: wooden sign on wooden post with “NAKED BEACH” handcarved into it, on a white sand beach, shrubbery, sand, surf, and blue sky with scattered clouds in background.

We’re long known to be all messed up about bodies and nudity here in North America. But even as a teen backpacking through Europe I grasped that sense of freedom and body positivity on the topless and nude beaches from France and Switzerland to the Greek Islands. Bodies of all shapes and sizes. Men and women in skimpy bikini bottoms or naked. It wasn’t “for adults only.” It wasn’t sexualized. It rarely (though not entirely never) involved leering and creepiness. It was just an accepted way to be at the beach or poolside or in the sauna.

Flash forward to 2018. More and more people are covering up. The Economnist article “Naked Europe Covers Up,” says: “In recent years, commentators across the continent have remarked on a new prudishness.”

And while some would blame it on immigration, there appear to deeper reasons than cultural difference in attitudes about nudity.  According to the article:

The rise of social media has made young people more body-conscious, reluctant to display anything less than perfect abs. Smartphones with cameras make risqué undress riskier. The #MeToo movement has forced a reassessment of even fully clothed interactions between the sexes, let alone naked ones. And the increasing ubiquity of online pornography is making it difficult to de-sexualise the naked body, a prerequisite for nudist beaches and unisex saunas.

People are worried about being captured naked and unawares on someone’s smartphone camera. Between that, #metoo, and the (purported) difficulty people are having separating nudity from sex make it difficult to regard a naked body in a sexually neutral way. This isn’t a huge shock to those of us in North America, who are so game to conflate nudity with sexuality that we can’t even deal with women breast-feeding infants in public spaces.

But it’s sad and true. Quite a few years ago I wrote about the way a week at a nude resort actually helped me break through a lifetime of issues with poor body image. I don’t love that post as much as I used to because it links to a radio documentary of that experience in which I made some judge-y body-shaming comments that I would not make today. But it is absolutely true that being surrounded by nakedness and people of all shapes and sizes, it took me mere days to gain a sense of comfort with my body that I had never had before.

And that’s why it’s a shame that the need to cover up is spilling over into Europe. The article contains an interesting discussion of mixed sex saunas and how it used to be thought inappropriate to wear a swimsuit because it indicated that you were sexualizing bodies.  Now, however, many Dutch saunas have introduced clothing optional hours and even swimsuit days to cater to a new sense of modesty among clientele.

I’m not sure if “modesty” is code for prudishness, poor body image, or the sexualization of nakedness, but if things continue to develop in this direction, next thing you know they’ll be hiding behind towels in European locker rooms the way they do at my hot yoga studio. (See “A Tale of Two Locker Rooms” for a years-old discussion of the difference between the young more modest vibe at hot yoga and the older, more body confident vibe in the locker room at the Y).

One thing I know for sure, when other people are covering up, it’s harder to feel comfortable naked. At least that’s been my experience.  Here in Ontario, for example, women are legally allowed to go topless. But hardly anyone ever does. And the more hardly anyone does, the less likely anyone is to do it. But when everyone is naked (or if most Ontario women went topless at the beach), it’s not such a big deal. It soon starts to feel ordinary and unremarkable. That’s why some naturist (not to be confused with naturalists) communities insist on nudity, not on “clothing optional.”

Have you ever been to a nude beach, resort, sauna, or any place where everyone was naked yet not sexualized? What did it feel like from a body image perspective?

accessibility · disability · fitness

Immigration museum and the fitness test: Sam wonders about failing

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Walking in Central Park (Sam) #fitisafeministissue

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So I was the fittest I’ve ever been in my life at 50 but I am still wondering about the various meanings of “fitness.” I’ve been thinking about it lots in light of arthritic knee, recent limits on my mobility, and my knee brace. (See snazzy knee brace photo above.) Am I really fit if I can’t run? What if I can’t walk very far at all? My body performs pretty well, given its limits, but sometimes I am not so sure how to think about those limits.

What prompted it most recently was a trip to Germany to visit the University of Bremen, a university with which Guelph has an exchange program. I blogged about biking in Bremen here.

But it wasn’t all bike riding and meetings and dinners. We also had one day for group tourism and so took the train to Bremerhaven with an exchange student from Guelph to visit the German Emigration Center, a museum dedicated to the history of German emigration, especially to the United States. It is Europe’s largest theme museum about emigration.  Here is a NYT piece on Bremerhaven.

In the museum, visitors can experience the emigration process through interactive exhibits.  We walked through the docks and visited a ship and could see all the various classes of rooms. We then exited in New York. In New York immigrants were examined on Ellis Island. Part of the test included climbing a steep flight of steps. Potential immigrants were observed and given a score for “fitness.” I thought about that while visiting the museum and climbing the steps because my knee was particularly sore that day. I could barely put weight on it and stairs were a real challenge. There was an elevator but you had to leave the interactive tour to go find it. Instead, I took the steps slowly, one at a time, and thought about almost certainly failing the immigration fitness test. I’d be seen as a burden.

Of course, it’s not just history the link between disability and immigration. It was only this year that the Canadian government ended barriers to immigration for disabled immigrants.

From the article linked above: “After four decades, the federal government is getting rid of rules that turned away would-be immigrants with intellectual or physical disabilities, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said Monday.The government will no longer be allowed to reject permanent resident applications from those with serious health conditions or disabilities. Most of those impacted by the policy have been economic immigrants already working and creating jobs in Canada, but whose children or spouses may have a disability, Hussen said.”The current provisions on medical inadmissibility are over 40 years old and are clearly not in line with Canadian values or our government’s vision of inclusion.”

And lots of countries still have limits on immigration that rule out people with disabilities. It’s unlikely they use the “observe the person walking upstairs” test but it doesn’t matter. It’s still unjust.

 

Image result for immigration museum bremerhaven

fitness · health

A week in the life of metabolic research, or what a mouse should have for dinner…

One of the many demands on my inbox-reading time is the weekly newsletters I get about this, that and the other thing. In principle it’s a great idea to sort information into categories and aggregate information into weekly digests. In reality, I get backlogged and glutted with too much to read.

However, this Saturday, I decided to take some time to dip into one of these digests: Obesity and Energetics Offerings. Each week, Public Health researcher David Allison and lots of other folks collect the latest study releases and other relevant news items and send them directly to me.

One of my favorite things about this digest is that it is a snapshot of what kind of research work is ongoing about metabolism, nutrition, physical activity, etc. It’s not exhaustive, but if it were, I’d be exhausted well before finishing the reading for that week. Once again, less is more.

The digest is divided up into handy categories like “headline vs. study”, to alert us to misinformation coming out in the news, “contrary or null findings”, showing which hypotheses fell flat, and then a host of sub-categories, like “epidemiology”, “stigma”, “food and diet”, etc.

This week, my favorite study was about what male mice should have for dinner, partly because of this incredibly awesome graphic in the paper:

All you need to know here is this: "ad libitum" means "eat what you want, mousey", "meal fed" means they got one meal a day, and "CR" means "calorie-restricted diet". The calorie-restricted mouse had the best medical outcomes, but may not be the happiest of mice.
All you need to know here is this: “ad libitum” means “eat what you want, mousey”, “meal fed” means they got one meal a day, and “CR” means “calorie-restricted diet”. The calorie-restricted mouse had the best medical outcomes, but may not be the happiest of mice. However, the big take way was that it didn’t actually matter what they ate– high-carb, low, carb, etc. There was no difference in the outcomes based on diet composition.

Don’t you wish all scientific research papers had such explanatory and colorful graphs and tables?  Usually, they look much more hairy and complicated, like this one (which truthfully is entitled “The Hairy Graph”):

A hairy graph, titled "The Hairy Graph", with a jagged up-and-down curve and wispy hairy tendrils shooting up from various parts of te curve.  It's about the relationship between markets and LIBOR (a bank loan rate index, I think).
A hairy graph, titled “The Hairy Graph”, with a jagged up-and-down curve and wispy hairy tendrils shooting up from various parts of the curve. It’s about the relationship between markets and LIBOR (a bank loan rate index, I think).

But I digress. Back to the topic at hand…

Seriously, on any given week in metabolic (I don’t use the term obesity for a bunch of reasons; I blogged about it here a while back) research, we can see people hard at work on questions like the following:

  • Does BMI >30 affects recovery from ankle sprains? Not much, maybe a little, but it’s complicated.
  • Is a person’s gut microbiome affected by their ethnicity and their geography? Yes, it would seem.
  • Do community programs and policies aimed at reducing body weight in children work? So far not really. (me: although they have all kinds of other positive health effects, and maybe we should care more about those than we currently do).
  • Does increased body weight influence medical outcomes (like complications or death) following gun shot or stab wounds?  No. (me: seriously, this was a real study; heavier adults who went to the hospital after being shot or stabbed weren’t at higher risk for bad medical outcomes because of their weight.)
  • Is there good evidence linking consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs)  in children and higher BMI? No. Is there good evidence that reducing availability of SSBs in schools reduce consumption? No.

There are also lots of more technical biochemistry studies, which are beyond my ken.

Most of the time, we get our science and health news from, well, the news. By the time it reaches us, sometimes it seems it’s been through several rounds of the telephone game. Anyone remember playing this? You start out with a word or phrase or sentence, and whisper it to the person next to you.  It goes down the line, through however many people you have, and by the time it reaches the last person, it’s generally been transformed completely and humorously. Like so:

 

Screen Shot 2018-10-14 at 1.14.17 PM
Kids playing the telephone game, where a word goes from peas to bees to knees to cheese to fleas.

As fun as that game is, we don’t want science and health news to be like that. So what can we do?  I rely on friends (FB and others) and reliable sources (like blogs, newsletters, social media feeds of people whose work I trust) to help me access and digest and put in context the newest results. I also like to go directly to the original research, but I still have to rely on expert sources to help me interpret it.

So readers, where do you go and who do you trust for the latest in health news and information?

 

 

 

 

 

accessibility · fitness

Not many steps but lots of movement

I’ve been moving away from tracking steps since how much I walk is no longer completely in my control. Some days it hurts and even with my knee brace and it’s best if I don’t walk that far on those days. I don’t external prodding to walk when I shouldn’t be.

So I gave away my Garmin watch and have started using Google Fit instead.

One of my favorite things is that it tracks active, moving minutes. Yes, steps are there but they’re not the main measure. On a day like the one below I do pretty well with biking to work and my swimming lessons after work. Add some walking around campus, and I’ve more than met my daily movement goal.

So while walking might be the best exercise there is and I’m walking on the beach rather than running, I’m also trying to branch out and get lots of movement without necessarily getting lots of steps. See below. It can be done.

Is your walking limited? What do you do instead?

feminism · fitness

Fitness and Activism in this Political Climate

The other day I woke up late (it was a bank holiday) and idly scrolled through the news while still in bed.  The first three news items I happened upon were the following: Donald Trump had mocked Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. The US was going to start to denying visa to the same-sex partners of UN diplomats unless they were married (but some can’t get married and would face prosecution in their home countries if they did). And the Nobel prize winner in Physics, Donna Strickland, first woman to win it in 55 years, had been denied a Wikipedia entry last May because she hadn’t been considered famous enough. I just wanted to roll over and stay in bed all day. And the bad news just keep coming, from all parts of the world. We live in darkening times.

What room is there, in such a world, for me to worry about exercising? Instead of spending my free time in the pool or out running, shouldn’t I be more of a political activist? Or at least, like Natalie, combine the two? Yes, we need self care in these rough times, and exercise definitely helps me disconnect and recharge. It gives me the strength to deal, including with the political situation. But how much of it is really necessary? I swim two nights a week and try to go bouldering and running at least once. That’s quite a lot of my spare time that I could theoretically expend on more “worthwhile” things. Joining, and being active in, a political party. Joining the local LGBTQ+ community. Going to protests… you name it.

running-unsplash.jpg
Is getting out there to run ever a political act? Picture of a woman in running gear on a park path, green grass in the fore- and background (Photo by Arek Adeoye on Unsplash).

I try to tell myself that in itself, practising sports as a woman (and thinking and writing about it here) is at least somewhat political, as long as women are harassed, followed, and killed while running, a strong reaction from a female tennis player to an umpire’s decisions causes an international outcry (shortly after her choice of clothing on the court was the subject of international discussion too), and so on. But I’m not going to lie, it feels much less valid than the options outlined above. Also because, even as a woman practising sports, as a cis-gendered, White woman from a developed country, who has the resources and the time to do all that exercise, I’m aware that I hold a massive amount of privilege, and doing these things is just not a huge deal.

I also try to tell myself that I actually do things in other parts of my life. I work for an organisation promoting scientific endeavour and international exchange, two things that are important right now. I volunteer for United World Colleges, an educational organisation that runs schools around the world to promote international understanding. I vote. But I often feel like that’s not enough, and I should be doing more. Yet doing more of one thing (activism), for me, would have to mean doing less of another (sports) – less of a thing that I enjoy immensely, that keeps me strong mentally and physically, and during which I do some of my best thinking about politics and feminism, if I do say so myself (especially while running).

This isn’t going to be a very conclusive, satisfying post, I’m afraid, because I haven’t reached any conclusion at all. So I wanted to put that question out to you, dear community: do you struggle with this dilemma? Have you resolved it? How?

 

aging · athletes · meditation · running · soccer

I Had A Midlife Crisis and Didn’t Realize It At The Time

Extreme Athleticism is The New Mid-Life Crisis provoked me to wonder if a series of ultra-running events I did when was 44-45 were motivated by fear of aging.

At the time they felt organic. Not like I was trying to outrun my aging or shore myself up for the years to come, as the article suggests. More like I had been trail running for some years, enjoying increasingly longer distances and then thought, “Could I run one of those ultra distances?”

To be clear—I’ve never run more than a 50k, though the trails add challenge to that distance. The longest event, time-wise, was in Cape Town, South Africa. Three Peaks Challenge runs up and down the three smallish mountains that push that city toward the sea: Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. That 50k run took me 9 hours.

mina 2
Mina running down rocky steps on Table Mountain in Cape Town

I went into the longer distances as someone who had run marathons, done half-ironman triathlons and even the Canadian Ski Marathon a couple of times (a two-day, 100-mile cross-country ski). I wasn’t a stranger to the borderline extreme.

Yet, before I did any ultra-runs, I thought that anyone who undertook such an endeavor was trying to avoid something they didn’t want to think about (not just aging). Even when I did the ultras, I felt like the extremes I participated in were just the right length. Anything longer had a whiff of desperation. Yes, that was highly subjective, probably wildly inaccurate and judgmental. I was thinking like that old joke about the driver who thinks everyone driving slower is an old grandpa and everyone driving faster is a danger-on-wheels. (A side note: Who decides what’s extreme? One person’s extreme may be another’s daily dose in these times of ever more punishing activities.)

If you’re getting the feeling that I’m avoiding the question I opened with. You’re right. Until I wrote this, I didn’t want to think that I had a mid-life crisis (more judgment). Looking back now (at a distance of seven years), I see that maybe I was. I had published two books and still felt like a struggling writer. My marriage was not in the best period. I was looking for some way to feel special and strong. When I finished ultras, I felt invincible.

My foray into ultra-running was sidelined by Morton’s neuroma, a nerve inflammation that feels how I imagine an electric cattle prod applied to the ball of my foot would feel. I finally had surgery to remove the neuroma about 18 months ago.

Summer 2017 was my first back running in the mountains. I was cautious (and elated just to be running at all without extraordinary pain). This past summer, I did quite a few 3 to 4 hour runs, including the Sierra Crest 30k I wrote about in this post: Compare and Despair. As I was training, I kept asking myself, “Do I want to be doing more of these longer runs? Do I want to aim for another 50k or even something longer?” Right now, the answer is no.

Unless I live quite a long time, I’m probably past mid-life. Is that why I don’t feel a zeal for the extreme? According to the Medium article I mentioned at the top prime time for the uptick in extreme athletics is 40-49. I hate the thought that I’m not doing the extreme runs anymore because I’m too old or I can’t. Anyhow, I know that’s not true.

Have I accepted my mortality? I’d like to think that I have after much meditation (plus silent retreats, plus a vision quest), but I’m also sure that I have not achieved such equanimity.

What I do have are other challenges on my plate—finishing my book, my first ensemble play being produced at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in March 2019. I don’t feel like I need the extra scare of an ultra run on the horizon, too. I’m enjoying my sleep and time to read novels on the couch on the weekend with my partner.

I’m happy. I don’t feel like I need to prove to myself that I’m strong. I am.

But … I also love running for long stretches of time in the mountains or forest. Another ultra-run is not out of the question. So, if I’m not in midlife anymore, then maybe I wasn’t running far because of a crisis in the first place.

What about you? Have you had or are you in the midst of a mid-life crisis? What does that look like for you?

boats · fitness · motivation

Tried anything new lately? I vote for SUP

In our Fit Feminist Challenge Group we have a thing every Tuesday called “Try This Tuesday.” It’s a way of encouraging people to try new things, using the “Try This” entries in Fit at Mid-Life as prompts.

This week when I posted I realized I haven’t actually tried anything new myself in ages. When Sam and I did our challenge in the run up to 50 a few years ago, one reason I got excited was that I discovered triathlon. It was new and a bit scary and super challenging. It involved a learning curve and pushed me in a different direction. And I haven’t felt that way about anything workout and training wise since.

Enter Stand-Up Paddle-boarding. As regular blog readers may know, among other things I’m a sailor. My partner lives on our boat, Guinevere, and I visit him from time to time (yes it’s a slightly unconventional arrangement and it works well for us!). I’m visiting at the moment and he surprised me with an SUP. This was a huge surprise because we have been talking about it for a few years.

I always say, “wow that looks like a good workout.” He always says “I can’t see why anyone would want to do that. And where in the heck will we store it?!” (Space on a boat is at a premium). But at the boat show in Annapolis this weekend (I wasn’t even here yet) he found a great deal and texted me that he got a SUP!

I couldn’t wait to try it. So this morning I took it out for a spin in Spa Creek, where we are at anchor. I worried that I might fall in (it’s lovely on the water but not as nice here in the water, which is briney and dark). I’ve seen people struggle. Often they start on their knees.

I read a “ten tips” primer on the internet and watched a short YouTube video about paddling style. You’re supposed to bend your knees, use your core, keep your paddle vertical and your bottom arm straight, and turn the contoured paddle to face the opposite of what you think it should (you don’t want to scoop the water).

So I started on my knees to get used to the paddle. Then after a couple of strokes I went for it and stood up. Luckily it was a flat day on the water, no waves at all. The board is solid and though I did lose my balance a couple of times I didn’t actually fall in.

I paddled around for about 20 minutes or so and even stayed upright without difficulty when a couple of people went by (slowly) in small boats that produced a bit of wake. I followed the directions from the video. It’s quite the workout. I need to work on technique still, but I did get into a good rhythm and I know I’m going to love using the SUP.

But it’s actually a lot more stable than I expected it to be. Loads of fun. I’m glad I got out yesterday because the edge of Michael is rolling our way and it’s probably my last chance until the Bahamas at Christmas time.

So that’s my new thing. What’s yours?