It’s funny how sometimes you just know you’re ready for a change. Somewhere back in January I had a strong desire to do something different with my hair. When your hair is short like mine, the only thing you really can do is grow it. But it was also blond, and I was starting not to like the blond anymore. Apart from the three hour costly appointments at the salon, I just felt like the regular bleaching wasn’t worth the trouble anymore.
I told my stylist about my decision and she got positively excited. So, slowly over the past couple of haircuts, we’ve been cutting out the blond. And last Thursday was the end of it. No more blond:
I mostly like it. It has made me feel liberated from a beauty regime that has taken up hours of my life for the past 20 years. Instead of being in the salon for three hours, I now only need to be there for half an hour. And that is likely going to reduce further because now that the blond is all gone and I’m back to my natural colour, I’m going to grow it a big (I said I needed a change!).
It’s definitely going to take a bit of getting used to. Of the many friends I have who are my age, the vast majority colour their hair or bleach it. I only know a handful of women in their 50s who let their hair go natural. I do see this as something of a political issue, in the sense that if we are all thinking we need to keep ourselves from going grey we stigmatize grey hair.
On the other hand, apparently there are people who pay good money and go to great lengths to have grey hair. Young people, even, if this Glamour article is any indication of the demographic. And there is a much-followed Pinterest board called “women who rock grey hair.” And on that board, most of them are “of a certain age” and they look awesome with their grey hair.
I hope more women in my circle decide to go for it too so I have some company in this. But meanwhile, that’s where I’m at these days where my hair is concerned. I know that there are many reasons people colour their hair. For me, it was simply to fend off the grey. And that runs counter to my resolve not to worship at the alter of youth, but instead to accept that as I age, I can expect to see some physical changes, and the natural colour of my hair happens to be one of them.
Anyone else out there gone from colouring or bleaching to allowing their natural grey (if it is grey) to shine?
The big health and fitness headline this past week concerned the release of results of two studies of senior citizen cyclists. For those of us preaching the health benefits of exercise, it was amazing news.
The NYT piece begins by noting that our understanding of aging might be radically mistaken because so few older adults get any exercise at all.
“Exercise among middle-aged and older adults in the Western world is rare. By most estimates, only about 10 percent of people past the age of 65 work out regularly. So, our expectations about what is normal during aging are based on how growing older affects sedentary people.”
Again from the NYT story: “The two sets of scientists then dove into their data and both concluded that older cyclists are not like most of the rest of us. They are healthier. They are, biologically, younger. Their muscles generally retained their size, fiber composition and other markers of good health across the decades, with those riders who covered the most mileage each month displaying the healthiest muscles, whatever their age.”
I’ve had lots of thoughts about these studies and about the good health of these elderly riders.
My first thought was that I’m really happy that I love to ride my bike.
Second thought, should people who don’t like cycling take it up? Should I be urging friends and family whose health I care about to get on their bikes? That’s not so clear. These aren’t studies that took people and assigned them to one of two groups, those who ride a lot and those who sit at home. Instead, it’s a study of those older adults who choose to ride. They’re a special group who chose not to stop riding big distances. Did their good health make their riding possible or did their riding cause their good health? We don’t know which direction the causation goes–maybe it’s a bit of both, a kind of virtuous circle, where one supports the other– but the results are pretty remarkable regardless.
Third thought, this is so not a moderate message. These cyclists were averaging 100 miles a week. That’s a lot of riding. At my best I aim for 5000 km a year. They’re averaging 5200 miles! Further, the benefits depended on dose. The riders who covered the most mileage each month displayed the healthiest muscles. You see them setting out for a 5 1/2 hour ride in the video above. This isn’t like the health messaging that says to go for a walk everyday. These guys are working super hard for hours at a time. They’re riding big distances year round.
Aged just 64, Jim Woods, is a comparative youngster in the group. He averages 100 miles a week on his bike, with more during the summer. He said: “I cycle for a sense of wellbeing and to enjoy our wonderful countryside.”
Fourth thought, we don’t know if this holds true for other forms of exercise. Maybe it’s riding bikes that’s magic and nothing else matters? Seems unlikely. It’s true though that cycling is something you can keep doing as you get older. Lots of older adults move from running to cycling at a certain point.
So lots of questions, but still, remarkable good news. The Fit is a Feminist Issue cyclists–hi Susan, Catherine, Cate, Kim, Nat!–should start planning riding trips for the big birthdays, 60, 70, 80, 90 etc. And maybe we should move somewhere warm for the winters. A fit feminist roving commune with lots and lots of bike riding. I’m in!
So I went there and was appalled and a little angry. Appalled as the article recommends not offering seniors a seat as standing is way better than sitting. Angry because the article makes no mention of the risk of falls from a lurching bus or tram.
The Reader’s Digest version is this: older people need encouragement to keep fit. Sedentary activity, including sitting on public transport, leads to negative health effects. Encourage them to be active, like taking the stairs or walking for ten minutes a day. In fact, the expert quoted in the article says we should “think twice before giving up your seat on the bus or train to an older person. Standing up is great exercise for them.”
For those of us under 60 with a reasonable amount of calcium in our diet, the risk posed by an unexpected lurch or stop on the bus is at most a possible wrench or at least a bark of our shins against someone’s briefcase or shopping bag.
“It is also important to be alert so that you do not accidentally get injured on public transportation. Busses and taxis are notorious for being rough rides, and during quick turns or stops you may jerk forward in your seat. If you are not paying attention, then you could fall out of your seat and injure yourself. Always hold onto the bottom of your seat or onto a railing in the bus or taxi to keep yourself secured.”
Falls are the leading cause of a move to skilled-care facilities, often long term.
20-30% of those who fall suffer moderate to severe physical injuries including breaks, cuts, and bruising.
Falls often result in long-term pain.
Falls involving a hip fracture lead to 10-15% reduction in life expectancy.
Older adults who fall are likely to worry about the future and loss of independence.
Loss of self-esteem and mobility leads to decreased activity and eventually inability to perform activities of daily living.
Because of decreased confidence and physical functioning, patients who fall are likely to fall again.
Elderly who fall are less likely to take part in beneficial activities like exercising or socializing because of a fear of getting hurt again and the embarrassment of a fall.
I don’t know about you, but if I were 65 or older, I would rather be seen as someone in need of a seat rather than someone in need of a hike. Mostly it’s simple courtesy as one should never assume that one is either fit or unfit. Maybe they’ve just come back from a rousing afternoon with the grand children; perhaps they’ve just spent time in a gym pushing weights around. Who knows? Sometimes, we just like to sit and watch the passing scene out the window.
Next time I see a senior, I’ll ask them if they want my seat and let them make the choice, not me.
— MarthaFitat55 has been working hard to build strong bones and muscles so she can keep standing for a long, long time.
This morning I heard a man from Cobourg, Ontario on the radio talking about an initiative to bring an adult fitness park into that community. Since we are big here on the topic of inclusive fitness, the interview really stood out for me. I’ve also been talking to my class this week about the way “old age” is pathologized and medicalized (that’s been interesting, too), about ageism, and about the oppressive social structures that prize and normalize youth and the capacities we associate with it (being in “our prime”). And my own parents, spry and active still, are very close to 80. They are remarkable role models for how I wish to age — I mean, they’re about to go to South Africa for four months and have planned a two-week tour of Namibia in February. Still and all, they have a realistic sense of their changing abilities and I am certain they would take advantage of a park such as this if one sprung up in their local community of Haliburton, Ontario.
The idea of initiatives that embrace evolving notions of fitness and create accessible environments for people entering later life stages appeals to me. The Cobourg group trying to garner support for this idea made a presentation to the town’s council the other night, making the case that the town’s Recreation Strategy and Implementation Plan should include an Outdoor Adult Fitness Park. You can read the report here.
As part of their presentation, they said:
Providing free access to fitness equipment in public areas would be a logical addition to Cobourg’s already gorgeous beachfront, and would not only benefit the town’s citizen’s by improving the health of our community, but could also help with tourism and attracting retirees to our community.
Providing such fitness installations in Cobourg would also be a signal to this community (that) seniors matter and are an important part of the fabric of our town.
I love their reasoning: accessibility, maximizing the use of beautiful spaces in inclusive ways, promoting health and tourism, and sending a signal that Cobourg values seniors and considers them “an important part of the fabric of our town.”
I would like to see more of these types of facilities installed in cities and towns across Canada. And as we promote them, it would be great to think of where they go — not just into affluent communities, but into diverse communities. They look like fun and they cater to a segment of the population whose needs are too frequently not considered a high priority unless medicalized. Making exercise fun and accessible is an important social goal that can improve quality of life in a more inclusive way.
I loved Nanette’s post about strength training and the feminine ideal a couple of weeks ago, and I have to admit that it made me long for those days as a grad student in my twenties when I used to work out at the gym a lot and, like Nanette, I could literally see the results. If you didn’t see Nanette’s post, here she is and this is what it’s like to have a buff, young body that shows your effort:
I know we’re not all about looks here, and for all sorts of reasons. I’ve talked openly about the inspirational disvalue of fitspo. But oh how fabulous those back muscles look.
Lots of us aren’t in our twenties anymore. And lots of us have bodies that never really did show the fruits of our labor in quite that same dramatic way (if at all) in the first place. For women with aging bodies, much of the mental work goes into accepting that we may never look the way we think we should, should have (or wish we would or would have) or we may not be able to maintain the body we had in our twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, etc.
We need to let go of some of those more superficial dreams because hanging onto an appearance ideal is the biggest indicator of who is going struggle with aging. Check out Sam’s post about this topic here.
We don’t have to fight aging. Instead, we can age well. See what Sam has to say about that here.
I’ve been reflecting on all of this lately because, not suprisingly for a woman in her fifties, I have lots of friends in their fifties too. And we all have thoughts about aging. Lots of “battle” language in my conversations with friends these days as they continue to fight their bodies.
But I realize too that, true to the challenge Sam and I set for ourselves in 2012 when we started the blog, taking weight loss and body composition out of the equation, I am in fact the fittest I’ve ever been in my life. I feel pretty awesome. This week, another friend of mine, also in her fifties and also the fittest of her life, came with her partner to spend some time with us for a few days on our sailboat in the Bahamas.
We were super active, walking, hiking, swimming, kayaking, and even taking in a yoga class on the beach one day. We talked about how hard we work to stay strong and physically healthy these days, and also how energized and committed we feel to our respective routines. Being on vacation, it didn’t even cross our minds not to stay active. These things just evolved as part of each day.
Part of that “battle” language I talked about just now has to do with rejecting the aging body. We are told that at a certain age, our bodies become “unsightly.” I swear someone invented the tankini to shame older women into ditching their two piece bikinis so no one would have to look at our bellies. If, as Nanette says, the feminine ideal is for women to be soft and demure and weak, the older woman is supposed to be even softer, weaker, and more invisible.
Not too long ago, it wasn’t uncommon to encounter lists of things that that women “of a certain age” should not wear. According to this article:
Our bodies change and in many cases not for the better. Arms don’t have the muscle tone that they used to have and totally sleeveless tops show this is off so well. This will be equally true of thin woman as those who are overweight.
If these articles had their way, we would be walking that fine edge between being too frumpy and dressing in an age-appropriate way. And no one is spared–the fat and the thin are equally at risk of getting it all wrong. But that was before it became clear that those women were a force to be reckoned with, responding with a loud and resounding “f**k that!”
The mental work of overcoming internalized and externally imposed expectations about how we are supposed to look has a huge impact on our ability to feel good in the bodies we have, no matter how the passing of time may affect how we look. I’ve heard lots of people say, and I believe it to be true, that body confidence is a lot more attractive, sexy even (and yes, we get to keep being sexy and get to — gasp — keep having sex), than even the most objectively perfect-looking body of an insecure person (remember: the more wedded we are to our looks, the tougher it is to age).
Anyway, if there’s one thing Cindi and I rocked this week it was body confidence. Why? Because both of us feel strong and healthy and energized by what we’re doing. We may not have tons of it, but both of us have some muscle that we didn’t have a few years ago and we feel it. Here’s Cindi, rocking her new found pipes on the beach.
And here we are after a bit of a hike to see “the monument” at the top of the ridge, down to the beach on the other side, and then back over again, on our way to the long and deserted beach that ranks as my favourite place to go swimming in the entire world. Smooth white sand, soft surf (on the calmer days), and clear turquoise colored water.
If Sam is right that aging is a lifestyle choice, it’s a lifestyle choice we’re not choosing to make right now, at least not in that way. If you’re an older woman whose body isn’t quite the lean machine it once was, or maybe never was, then maybe it’s time to make the choice to love what you have and work it to its best potential.
I’m a bit squishier than my younger self, with the muscle I have hiding under a less lean physique, but I’m feeling strong and vibrant. And life is good. I can still do yoga. I can do squats, lunges, bench presses, dips, and am coming close to being able to complete a full pull-up for the first time in my life (stay tuned for a progress report when that day finally comes). Not to mention (but I will) the triathlons, half marathons, marathons…
We may be getting older, but we are not ready for those tankinis yet, unless that’s what we want, because as the Huff Post rebuttle to the ridiculous idea that people get to police our clothing choices says:
You are over 50 for fuck’s sake. Wear whatever you want. If you’ve made it to 50 and still need to consult articles on how to dress appropriately then you are so missing out on one of the best things about being over 50. One of the best things about getting older is realizing that we don’t have to spend our energy worrying what other people think and we get to be comfortable in our own skin…
It’s winter and you want to hole up inside and hibernate until the thaw comes, right? There are all sorts of things we can do inside — curl up with a good book, play Scrabble with the family, cook up some thick soup and bake bread, catch up on the seasons of Mad Men you missed when things got too busy two years ago.
But if you’re looking for an indoor activity that, researchers say, is really good for your health, try knitting. Yes! You heard that right: knitting is good for you!
I’m a knitter. I do it because it lowers my stress level the way repetitive activities are known to do. I go into a sort of meditative state when I knit. But lately, I’ve been worried about my left hand and a strange, new-to-me pain that shoots up to my elbow. There are lots of reasons to worry about mobility in the hands, but the first thing that I feared was that I might need to give up knitting.
And that would just completely change my happy vision for my life when I’m a very old woman. I have always pictured that time of my life as revolving around books and yarn, tea and cake. You see, I don’t have lots of time for these things at the moment (well, maybe for the tea and cake), so the luxury of time to knit and read is something I feel I’ll have earned by the time I’m in my eighties. So that pain lurking around in the left lower arm and hand threatened my very future.
How relieved I was to read this article about “The Health Benefits of Knitting.” The author, Jane Brody, is a knitter herself, and yes, she covers the usual ground of stress relief from repetitive action:
Once you get beyond the initial learning curve, knitting and crocheting can lower heart rate and blood pressure and reduce harmful blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
And you produce a tangible product as a bonus — socks, sweaters, afghans, hats, mittens, scarves, shawls — the seasoned knitter has knit them all. That, the author says, can boost self-esteem (“look what I made!”).
Those benefits have prompted the Craft Yarn Council to launch a “Stitch away Stress” campaign to go along with National Stress Awareness Month. But those benefits aren’t all.
Brody points out that knitting can help people quit smoking by giving them something else to do with their hands. And trust me, if you’re spending time knitting something, you don’t want it to smell like smoke, either. Keeping the hands busy can also stop people from mindless snacking. From personal experience, I can attest too that I’m less likely to reach for potato chips when I’m knitting not just because my hands are busy but also because I don’t want to touch my handiwork with greasy fingers.
A study at the University of British Columbia found that knitting helped with the treatment of anorexia nervosa:
38 women with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa … were taught to knit found that learning the craft led to significant improvements. Seventy-four percent of the women said the activity lessened their fears and kept them from ruminating about their problem.
Not only that, the focus that knitting involves has been found to help people manage chronic pain. And people with depression found that it helped with their mental anguish. According to the study, “the brain can process just so much at once, and that activities like knitting and crocheting make it harder for the brain to register pain signals.” Read more about this research on the therapeutic value of knitting at the Stitchlinks website.
And finally, to my great relief, Brody reports that:
I’ve found that my handiwork with yarn has helped my arthritic fingers remain more dexterous as I age. A woman encouraged to try knitting and crocheting after developing an autoimmune disease that caused a lot of hand pain reported on the Craft Yarn Council site that her hands are now less stiff and painful.
I don’t know if that niggling pain is the beginning of arthritis, but it’s good news that knitting can help with dexterity. Fingers crossed that I my future self will still be able to use those needles! And there’s some suggestion that knitting, like Sudoku, can help keep the mind sharp into the later years of life. Also good news!
Of course, it’s not quite the same as getting off the couch and going for a run or taking a yoga class, but the health benefits of knitting are such that, if you’re going to stay on the couch, it’s a pretty good option.
Maybe this winter I’ll finish that second sock I’ve been working on since 2014.
“You know Ashtanga was designed for teenage boys?” my friend said. I hadn’t heard that but I wasn’t surprised because it had struck me as designed for men, given all the upper body strength it requires. Arm support and abdominal strength help one jump back and forth (or walk lightly) for the sun salutations at the beginning, and in the vinyasas
I’ve always enjoyed ashtanga, since I first spent a couple of months learning it at a shala in Palo Alto. I hadn’t heard any of the other myths about it. I was originally attracted by its aerobic challenge, but found the benefits of improving upper body and core strength keep me going back. Few other activities have been so empowering for me, except perhaps one summer job planting trees that also gave me good upper body strength (such that I ended up actually knocking down other women in my self-defense class – oops!). I can’t (yet) “float,”
but Ashtanga does make me feel lighter and move with greater ease. My posture improved, my chiropractor remarked.
When my local yoga studio began to increase their Ashtanga offerings recently, I was excited. To get back into it I took part in a study of the effects of Ashtanga practice held at Downtown Yoga and run by yoga community leader Gina Wasserlein and University of Windsor psychologist Josee Jarry. As many of the participants in the nine-week study were undergraduate psychology students (as is the case for most psychology studies) the class tended to be tuned to the needs and abilities of young women — one teacher to my irritation remarked on all the “skinny girls”. I also find the whole first series and the pressure to practice six days a week a bit daunting. But it was exciting to be part of the research and among so many keen energetic people and I can gain different inspiration from the Jessamy Stanley who defy assumptions about yoga bodies.
My biggest complaints have been that I simply can’t twist like others can. The binds seem unreasonable given my belly. The jump through and floating seem absurd with my hips and butt. When I try to do plough – which used to be a favourite pose – my now substantial middle-aged boobs are squashed to my face and I seem to have some trouble breathing.
One class I had to hold back tears – it had been a bad day generally. I also injured my back pretty badly and it really hurt for a few weeks. Though I had never heard the myth that ashtanga is gymnastics, the tradition may well have been influenced by gymnastics, and it did strike me as yoga calisthenics. That misunderstanding is the reason why I hurt myself. (Remember, I was originally attracted by the aerobic aspect.) I was not focusing on my breath and my bhandas, the keys to strength in yoga;and my teachers (including Tammy Blaze) helped me through that. They also allowed me to see that my perceived breathing troubles may be more about claustrophobia (being trapped by my boobs) than anything else.
Patience and persistence provides part of the mental discipline of yoga. I’ve been glad I can now switch to a Mysore style practice where I follow the sequence of poses on my own, stop where I need to, and push myself where I can.
I’m also learning to trust the practice. Sure I need to adjust and mind my own physical peculiarities. I use a block for some asanas (poses). I’m not sure if I’ll ever get the binds that allow people to move into to the second-half of the first Ashtanga series. However, I’m noticing that the difficulty is less my boobs, belly, and butt than I thought. As my abdominal strength improves, as I work those twists, I can do a lot more on the mat — and everywhere else!
I’m sick…. ill, and I’m really happy about it! I’m relieved to know that I have sleep apnea, and especially that it’s severe. Although my treatment hasn’t started, good treatment is available. Also, there is a definite physical reason behind some of the problems I’ve had in recent years, even though it’s an extremely serious condition. The regular interruption of breathing that defines apnea can cause serious strain on the heart in addition to some of the other symptoms that are more easily observed and that have troubled me. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is common, often arising in middle age (I’m 48), though less in women than men. Mine may be encouraged by allergies, sinus problems, a small jaw, and body weight. (Non-obstructive or central sleep apnea (CSA) is due to problems with how the brain controls sleep.)
In recent years I’ve known something was wrong with me. I seem always tired, lethargic, and have trouble concentrating. I can nap pretty much any time of the day. I may be more irritable too. I thought I was being lazy, not trying hard enough, failing to manage my time. It was hard not to beat myself up. Or perhaps this was related to my migraines or tension headaches. Maybe I was depressed?
I worked on my organization, I got more exercise, set multiple alarms for the morning, put inspirational notes next to the bed to help me get up, and treated my headaches more seriously. They all helped, but I’m still tired most of the time, and the stress of the situation actually did make me depressed. Another problem seemed to be my recent dramatic snoring. Sometimes the dog even left the bed! I live alone and so have little idea how I sleep, but when there was occasion, others observed not just the horrific noise but that I seemed to have trouble breathing.
I tried sleeping on my side, which helps my snoring but also aggravates my shoulder and hip problems. It turns out that I have mild apnea on my side, and severe (stopping breathing about once a minute) on my back where I prefer to sleep mostly. That was the diagnosis from the sleep study, in which the patient gets all hooked up with electrodes of various sorts (including glue in the hair,) a snoring microphone (!), and a breath monitor. (In a private room like a tiny institutional hotel with a shared bathroom.)
Now I have the choice of the very effective CPAP machine (standing for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) which would normally be the obvious choice since I have adequate health coverage. Many of my friends find the machine has changed their lives — yeah, they say that, almost all of them.
Sure, some complain that it’s embarrassing to have to wear the mask to bed, making one an unattractive bed partner, like Darth Vader. But it must be better than the snoring, to be sure; and if that’s a deal breaker, it’s not much of a “deal.” Also, some people find the mask uncomfortable, and while they’ve made big improvements in design in recent years nobody wants to wear an apparatus on their head if they don’t have to; so sometimes people refuse to use it or don’t use it regularly. My problem is that I have a rare genetic vascular condition (HHT) that manifests in ways that mean that I can’t scuba dive, of all the odd things, because of the forced air; I suspect the positive air pressure of the CPAP may pose a similar problem. I’m waiting for advice from my specialist, but it may be best for me to try the alternative dental appliance; it’s not typically best for severe sleep apnea, but it may be best for me.
One downside of this diagnosis is the complication to my body image: weight loss can eliminate sleep apnea. I would certainly love to lose some weight. Yet of course, as the sleep specialist understood, I’d have done that already if I could.
On the other hand, people do lose weight sometimes as a result of addressing their sleep apnea. More energy makes them more active, I suspect, and less inclined to seek energy in food; though an improvement in mood might help too. Anticipating this reminds me of the perverse pleasure so many of us have when an illness makes us lose weight: “because of the flu last month I can get into my old jeans!” Although if I should lose weight from treating my sleep apnea, it would be due to improved health. I just need to resist letting that possibility fuel weight loss fantasies that take up time I could be spending actually enjoying my life.
Time and energy are the real promise of treatment. In my homemade efforts to fight the energy loss from sleep apnea I got more active; now — with treatment — I should be able to perform and recover better (running-walking with my dog and yoga, recently the quite ambitious ashtanga style), and I’ll have the time to exercise more. I’ll keep repeating that to myself, and let the weight fall where it may.
Michael Rowe shared this on Facebook with the following comment: “I can’t help but wonder what it would look like if a male author who had sold 30 million copies of one book (in this case, THE THORN BIRDS, which was made into the second-highest rated miniseries of all time) was eulogized as being “plain of feature and certainly overweight,” especially in the first paragraph of his obituary. I’m still wondering, because I just can’t picture it happening. (Photo by @vanbadham, via Twitter.)”
I just got back from guest lecturing in a Women’s Studies class called “The Body,” taught by our friend and colleague, Wendy Pearson. Here’s the course description:
How we understand the body, whether through scientific investigation or through its representation in media, literature or art, has material effects on how people’s lives and experiences are shaped. We will examine social and scientific constructions of the body, including concepts of beauty, health, fitness, sexuality, and questions of representation.
The course will also consider how our relationship – both personal and cultural — to our bodies shapes our sense of self and both prescribes and proscribes certain possibilities for how we may live our lives. We will look, for example, at the way in which only certain very fit bodies qualify as athletic or at the ways in which the relationship between musculature and class identity has changed since the early 20th century. We will examine particular social problems, such as our society’s difficulty with understanding the disabled body as sexual, the current cultural obsession with children’s body size, and the psychiatric and medical response to people who feel that their bodily sex does not match their gender. We will consider changing definitions of beauty and how that affects the ways in which different people understand themselves. We may also look at questions of representation, the various ways in which bodies and body parts are represented in the media and the issue of why some forms of representation of the nude body count as art while others are considered pornographic.
Sam and I shared the three-hour class tonight. She took the first half to talk about “Obesity Panics” and the trouble with framing obesity as an illness and its prevalence as an “epidemic.”
When I arrived shortly before the break, the packed room of 180 keen students was challenging her claim that there is something wrong with obesity being considered a disease. I got there just in time to hear Sam say that unlike cancer, obesity isn’t something you “get.” It’s something that the charts say you “are.”
After the break, it way my turn. My topic: “Fitness and Normative Bodies.” By the time Sam was done with them, they were afraid to say that there was a relationship between fitness and fatness. So hesitant were they to draw any connection that when I asked them about what measures or indicators they might use to judge whether they were physically fit or whether they’d made any progress, not a single person said anything about body weight or even about body composition.
We had a lively discussion about the impact of subtle forms of exclusion in fitness media and representations of fitness culture, in which only a narrow demographic of youthful, lean, toned, nondisabled, people, mostly men and mostly white are depicted. When women do appear in fitness media, there is a very narrow range of acceptable body types that pass muster.
I saw heads nodding (not nodding off!) when I said that engaging in physical activities that challenge us can be a real source of confidence and empowerment.
It took some convincing, but after hearing both of us I think the majority of the class was at least willing to entertain the idea that there is a pernicious form of exclusion going on in fitness culture. Though sometimes subtle, it makes it very difficult for people who do not fit the normative ideal body type to feel as if they belong.
This then becomes an equality issue, given that health, well-being, confidence, and a sense of your own power are all desirable social goods that can benefit everyone.
I ended by talking a bit about Olga Kotelko, who took up track and field at the age of 77 and had over 750 gold medals to her name by the time she turned 95 (at which age she died).
The upshot: a more inclusive fitness culture that doesn’t preoccupy itself with the narrow demographic who occupies “the normative body” would have enormous social and political benefits that extend way beyond physical fitness.
Thanks, Wendy, for an opportunity to talk to your class. What a fabulous idea for a course and what fun it was to be there!