Recently a woman who serves on our local board of public health received a letter from a stranger telling her that she did believed she “cannot fulfil that role because of your unhealthy status. It is unacceptable to be overweight by the 20 pounds you appear to be carrying”.
Other women serving as elected officials in my city have been harassed in ways that range from their choice of lipstick (“makes you look like a cheap whore”) to violent threats that required police intervention.
It is no-one else’s business what someone weighs. There is plenty of evidence that being fat does not equal being unhealthy. How we define fatness is very subjective anyway. And don’t forget, diversity is a good thing. Having a broad range of of people can only help make public policy better by bringing their experience to decision-making processes.
Want to learn more? Skim through this blog, Google “fat women politicians” for many articles about the issue, listen to the Maintenance Phase podcast, or read Aubrey Gordon’s book “You Just Need to Lose Weight” and 19 Other Myths About Fat People. I’m reading it now and it is very solidly based on science.
It is true that men in public life sometimes get mocked about their fatness or some other characteristic, but it is almost always in the context of some other policy-based criticism. And there is almost never criticism of men of a similar size/ shape to the women being bullied.
I couldn’t find any images of larger women politicians that weren’t accompanied by stories about the harassment they had faced, and sometimes why they felt forced out of the public sphere. It made me so angry I ended up settling for an older photo of local open-water swimmer and former politician Catherine McKenna.
But then I got mad again that I couldn’t find something suitable, so you get a few more images of smart, capable women.
And apparently, it’s been around since at least 2009! Mercifully, I’m to RBF as Sam was to “Camel Toe”— living in a bubble where, until a couple of weeks ago, it wasn’t part of my vocabulary or conceptual scheme.
It’s gained recent prominence again because Bennett’s article came out on August 1st. In it, she says:
For those who need a review, RBF is a face that, when at ease, is perceived as angry, irritated or simply … expressionless. It’s the kind a person may make when thinking hard about something — or perhaps when they’re not thinking at all.
It’s got its origins in a parody of a PSA that talks about “bitchy resting face.” If you want to catch up, here’s the PSA, posted on Youtube in May 2013. Just over 2 years later, it’s had close to 6,500,000 views:
It’s a thing that celebrities are especially vulnerable to scrutiny over, since they are often caught on film and live in the public eye, where the adoring public is always looking for something to criticize about them:
Other celebrities caught in serious repose: January Jones, whose “absolutely miserable” face made headlines this month at a ComicCon event; Tyra Banks, who has famously advised women to “smize” (smile with your eyes); Victoria Beckham; Kristen Stewart; and Anna Paquin, who has defined RBF as “you are kind of caught off guard and you’re not smiling, and it means you look really angry all the time, or like you want to kill people.” (Also, in the less-chronicled male RBF category: Kanye.)
One use for it is to keep people away. As Bennett says, it can serve as a kind of “protective armor.” So that’s on the pro side of the RBF. On the con side, it’s yet another thing that women get criticized for and it can actually work against them. Alarmingly, Bennett says that the NJBiz, a New Jersey business journal, wrote a report on the phenomenon. The journal called around to see what impact this could have in the workplace. They were thinking people would laugh them off the phone. But instead, here’s what they found:
“But, after calling around the state asking more than a dozen C-suite women in multiple industries to weigh in on the subject, we noticed one thing: No one ever scoffed or even asked, ‘Why would this matter?’ ”
It is, indeed, a serious thing. It’s so serious, that cosmetic surgeons are now offering to fix it. This report offers “hope.” Michigan-based cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Youn, says:
“Bitchy resting face is a definite phenomenon that plastic surgeons like myself have described, just never with that term,” he says. “Basically many of us have features that we inherit and/or develop with age that can make us look unpleasant, grumpy, or even, yes, bitchy.”
Youn says many plastic surgeons perform what he calls “expression surgeries,” procedures meant to improve resting facial expressions.
“One procedure I perform in the grin lift, used to turn a permanent frown upside down,” he says. “As we age, some of us – myself included – find that the corners of our mouths droop, giving us a grumpy look. This is usually present with a resting face.”
Aside from a downturned mouth, what makes a face look angry or bitchy?
Youn quickly points to the deep vertical lines between eyebrows (often referred to as 11s) as another culprit that can produce an angry or unhappy vibe. Droopy or overly arched eyebrows can also work to create a wrong impression.
He estimates that he performs about 20 “grin lifts” in a year as well as 100 filler procedures to turn up the corners of the mouth. Botox injections to relax those vertical “11s” are much more prevalent. “I probably do 1,500 of those Botox procedures a year,” he says. “We do a lot. We’re very busy with that.”
Whether you call it “bitchy resting face” or “resting bitch face” makes no difference. What this whole thing says to me is that this is a recycled version of the imperative on women to smile all the time and be cheerful. Here’s something: I don’t have to smile all the time. Neither does Anna Kendrick or Anna Paquin or Kristen Stewart.
Lately, with Renald retiring to live on the boat, I’ve been spending more time walking downtown by myself. I have become aware in recent weeks that I’m on guard — not hyper-vigilant or anything, but always just a little suspicious whenever random men say anything to me, even if it’s as innocuous as asking for the time or commenting on the weather (it happens more than you would think).
In the end I try to be as polite as possible even if it’s mildly alarming that men I don’t know feel it’s okay to engage me in any sort of exchange or conversation of any sort while I’m walking alone, downtown, even after dark. What I would really prefer is to be left alone so I can make it safely and unhindered to my destination.
And this, I think, is where RBF could actually come in handy. Rather than thinking of it as a malady in need of repair, I much prefer the idea that it’s a protective cloak against being approached. And what, I ask, would be wrong with that? That a perfectly good defense mechanism has now been turned against women as a criticism is yet another example of the double bind that we so often find ourselves in. If you look too approachable, you set yourself up for harassment. If you look too unapproachable….you set yourself up for harassment.
Nat’s article two weeks ago about belly patrolling and how the simple act of dressing yourself comfortably on a hot summer day leaves a person vulnerable to all manner of unsolicited “input” (at best) and abuse (at worst) drives home the point that people seem to feel entitled to offer comments willy nilly to women who don’t conform to the expectations of appearance that we have of them.
To me, RBF is one of those things we can and should reclaim. I once heard of a lab on campus where the faculty member in charge was a woman. She posted a sign in the lab that said something along the lines of, “That’s ‘Dr. Bitch’ to you.”
Rather than seeking surgery or botox or some other sort of “corrective” for a resting face that isn’t welcoming or cheerful enough, I think a better stance would be: “Don’t like my RBF? Well f**k you!”
So I’ve touted my comfy no-bra summer styling and up until last week I had not gotten one piece of negative feedback.
I love this combo, cool in the August heat and delightfully free of the boob jail thing called a bra. So I’m standing at a busy intersection at night wearing something similar to above. It’s after midnight on a Tuesday spent laughing with dear friends at Rock’n’Roll Bingo and a car drives by. A man in his late teens or early twenties yells out “I just LOVE YOUR BELLY!”
The sarcasm was pretty clear. I wasn’t terribly upset but I was perplexed. Why on earth would he feel entitled to comment on my belly?
My partner was quick to pick up the point “Oh women must be, at all times, attractive to all men or suffer the wrath of being patrolled.” Of course! How silly of me to forget sexism.
The idea that I, a women in my 40s, should strive to be attractive to all men, including men my son’s age, is ridiculous.
What bothered me most was that moment when I wondered if there was something wrong with the way I looked. I quickly shook it off, reminding myself that my belly carried two babies and looks, well, matronly. Sure, I can hoist my breasts up and look more traditionally appealing, but why would I? It’s summer, it’s hot and bras are for work or vigorous exercise.
I have a loving partner of 20 years who adores me. I have lots of flirty moments in my life where I feel attractive and get validated that I am my own brand of awesome.
So young fella, as adored as me you may not be when forty you are. Oh and SUCK IT, cause ya, I’m tired of this crap and it can end with you thank you very much!
Recently I saw the everydayfeminism.com cartoon, How Society Polices Women’s Clothing (No Matter What We Wear), in which illustrated female figures engaging in various life activities (i.e. working-with-clipboard, relaxing-with-guitar, clubbing-with-clutch purse) are each critiqued for what clothing is worn. I had noticed, however, that none of the women were depicted wearing sports clothing.
This is not to say that women’s athletic apparel escapes cultural policing. For instance, women’s clothing for tennis and beach volleyball seem increasingly revealing and sexy, while already revealing women’s clothing has become athletic apparel, such as in the lingerie football league. In the 21st century, women athletes (particularly those who have achieved celebrity status) are tasked with demonstrating excellence in both athletic performance and sexual attractiveness.
In direct contrast, my current rec league soccer team jersey is far from sexy, especially after I have totally soaked it in the heat of an outdoor summer game. My jersey has white accents, but is mostly Wizard-of-Oz-Emerald-City green. On the jersey is printed the league’s insignia and the number 12 (not even my favourite number). Its style is almost totally generic. Aside from my rainbow socks and matching headband, I’m sure I must blend in almost entirely with the grassy green soccer pitch.
But I have come to identify profoundly with my jersey. On Sunday nights, number 12 green is me. An hour before game time you will find me frantically looking for my jersey like it’s a (well-hidden) treasure. When I arrive at the field, my heart begins to race when I see my Emerald City green-wearing teammates already warming up on the sidelines. (There’s no place like home!)
My only other soccer jersey (purple, number 18) is equally un-sexy with me in it, but on this jersey our fun and slightly sexy team name is on the front of it: “Chicks with Kicks.” My green team name, by the way, is “Femmes of Fury.” So while as sports clothing my jerseys aren’t explicitly gendered or sexualized, the team names still manage to adhere to the formula of suggesting both (aggressive) athletic performance and (sexy, objectified) femininity.
In fact, there are websites dedicated to listing such team names for women. On one site, top-rated women’s team names include the “Pink Fluffy Monsters” and the “Mighty Morphin Flower Arrangers.” Cute, right? But the performance-attractiveness formula emerges again, suggesting that women must be rough-aggressive and passive-feminine. Of course, this is not the case for every women’s sports team. Samantha has reflected in another FIAFI post on soccer team names bearing gender neutrality in favour of referencing activities like drinking and middle-age onset.
I tend to regard my team names and sports apparel as emblematic of 21st century mainstream feminism: the “radical” feminist power of our all-women team uniform, a liberal “girls are as tough as boys” attitude, and 3rd wave “fierce-but-still-fashionable” accessorizing (i.e. the afore-mentioned colourful socks and headbands) that expresses our individuality amidst our uniform-ity.
It’s not that I dislike “Femmes of Fury” and “Chicks with Kicks,” per se. But do I wonder about how these team names risk re-inscribing feminine-otherness, even as they invoke girl-power assertiveness. Do men feel the need to ensure their sports team names follow such a similarly gendered formula?
My questions for FIAFI readers: What do your team jerseys look like, and your team names sound like, and what do they mean to you? Do these “fearless feminine” team names still suggest that feminine attractiveness still matters as much as athletic performance? How might such team names resonate (or not) with non-cisgender or gender-queer players?
Did you see the UK Huffington Post article earlier this week that said women are working out in sheds for fear of being judged? Sam and I were working on our book this morning. I’m on the part about the feminization of fitness, which led me to thinking about how form-fitting fitness clothing keep lots of women away from getting active.
We got chatting about that a bit (instead of writing) and then she reminded me about the shed story from the other day:
Women are steering clear of fitness for “fear of being judged”, a new Government report has revealed.
Another heartbreaking reality was that those who do want to keep fit are choosing to exercise in their sheds, hidden away, out of fear of being laughed at.
The report comes after Public Health England revealed that the number of women achieving recommended levels of physical activity was far lower than men – 31% of females engage in sport once a week compared to 40.1% of men.
The report, which has been collated by the Commons’ Health Select Committee, labels “fear of judgement” as a key factor when it comes to why women’s fitness levels are below par.
Kay Thomson from Sport England said: “Three quarters of women want to become more active but something is stopping them – fear of judgement.
“Judgement about appearance when exercising, ability to be active, confidence to turn up to a session, or feeling guilty about going to be physically active or doing something when you should have been spending more time with your family.”
It’s sad and alarming that fear of being judged about their appearance or their level of ability is keeping women from doing something that can, in fact, create confidence and an alternative body-narrative that isn’t so focused on looks. More than that, getting active is a matter of social equality. If women are so worried that they will be judged harshly that they are either not getting active at all or are putting their treadmills in the shed, that’s a disturbing comment on the way fitness media, fitness culture, and normative expectations of women’s bodies work to exclude, marginalize, and dis-empower women.
The exclusion is well-articulated in the words of this woman who participated in the survey:
She revealed: “When I looked online for information, there was lots about weight loss and running but nothing about running just as an overweight person, the psychological aspects of that and how tough it is when you are constantly shouted at, laughed at and clothes in fitness stores don’t fit you.
“It feels like the whole sport is not geared up for you.”
Fitness activities and physical exercise are not just for people who are already thin, not just for the young, not just for those with athletic builds or natural talent.
We need a more inclusive approach that does not body-shame people and does not perpetuate the idea that only a certain demographic has a right to engage in physical activity. I’ve written before about this idea of inclusive fitness. We are far from that ideal and the UK study presents clear evidence that more needs to be done to deliver a different message:
“I have women who tell me they run on a treadmill in their shed because they just don’t want to be seen in public,” she said. “But that is part of the problem. Because we don’t see many overweight women exercising in public, other women don’t think that exercise is for them.”
“They think it is for all the slim people that they always see out in the parks.”
She added that larger women aren’t able to get hold of sports kits which fit them properly, which presents another barrier: “No woman wants to dress in men’s clothing to go out for a run when there is already the risk of being laughed at.”
In my post on inclusive fitness, I said:
I’m old school about one fairly simple staple in feminist discourse: people begin to believe they can achieve something if they see others like themselves represented doing the thing they want to achieve.
It’s not just in the media that we need wider representation, but also in everyday life. If larger women can’t even find workout gear that fits appropriately, then that sends the further message that such activity is not meant for them.
In the UK, there is a movement afoot to create a more attractive picture of physical activity to a wider group of women:
The Government now hopes to address these barriers and issues by releasing a programme on diet and physical activity which works to examine how women, those with disabilities and overweight people, can be encouraged and supported to be more active.
It’ll be interesting to watch how this all plays out, and whether the campaign will succeed in creating a truly welcoming and positive attitude towards diversity among those engaged in physical activity.
Meanwhile, I think we can all agree that sheds may be great places to store our gear, but no one should feel so judged that they choose the shed as the place to use their gear.
Tammy Wynette had it right: Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. Especially when it comes to domestic labor. Tons has been written about how women, after coming home from paid work outside the home, commence “the second shift” in which they cook, clean, do childcare, and manage household needs. And despite the fact that the women’s movement is easily more than 40 years old, this situation is still pervasive. In the New Republic, Jessica Grose tells her own rather typical story:
“When it comes to housecleaning, my basically modern, egalitarian marriage starts looking more like the backdrop to an Updike short story. My husband and I both work. We split midnight baby feedings. My husband would tell you that he does his fair share of the housework, but if pressed, he will admit that he’s never cleaned the bathroom, that I do the dishes nine times out of ten, and that he barely knows how the washer and dryer work in the apartment we’ve lived in for over eight months. Sure, he changes the light bulbs and assembles the Ikea furniture, but he’s never scrubbed a toilet in the six years we’ve lived together.”
This story illustrates how gendered domestic labor often is. The above-mentioned husband assembles Ikea furniture, which is a one-off enterprise. But doing dishes and laundry, both ongoing enterprises, fall to his wife. And the data show that this is a common phenomenon:
Fathers do slightly more lawn care than moms—11 percent of working dads are out mowing the lawn on an average day compared to 6.4 percent of working moms. So that means dads are out clipping the hedges on sunny Saturdays, while moms are the ones doing the drudgery of vacuuming day in and day out. And this isn’t solely an American phenomenon. Even in the famously gender-neutral Sweden, women do 45 minutes more housework a day than their male partners.
So what’s a pressed-for-time 21st century woman to do if she wants to:
Eschew vacuuming in favor of taking rugs outside to beat them; it will burn more calories.
Take multiple trips running up and down stairs to retrieve and put away laundry.
If you insist on using the vacuum cleaner, combine vacuuming with lunges.
Another site combines weight-loss and house cleaning advice:
Forget the gym! If women are really spending almost 2½ hours cleaning and tidying up every day, there’s plenty of opportunity to get a sufficient workout without even leaving home!
Housework is a great way to burn calories. But as is the case with any workout, the more effort you put in, the greater the benefit. In particular, polishing, dusting, mopping and sweeping are great for keeping arms shapely. Bending and stretching, for example, when you make the bed, wash windows or do the laundry are good for toning thighs and improving flexibility. And constantly running up and down the stairs as you tidy is a good aerobic workout.
It’s obvious that these websites are trading on gender and class stereotypes in domestic labor as well as pushing a weight-loss-is-always-good-always-necessary message that we all know is wrong-headed, bad for our health, and bad for our self-esteem. Not to mention ridiculously time-consuming, taking time away from pursuing real projects and goals for ourselves. So, launching into a long criticism of them would be like shooting fish in a barrel.
But, I’d like to suggest that there’s a more subtle form of this cleaning-as-women’s-primary-activity at work in hipper and more modern women’s media. Apartment therapy, a home decorating/improvement/DIY website, features the January Cure, a month of cleaning, organizing and home improvement tasks. They are motivational and upbeat:
Do you want 2015 to be your best year yet? We believe that when your home is under control, fresh, clean and organized, good things happen throughout your life. If you are ready to get your place back in shape, the very best way is one manageable step at a time, during our once-a-year-only January Cure. By the end of the month, you’ll be sitting pretty in a clean, fresh, organized home. We can do this – together!
Every few days they publish another home-organization task. One of them—a better kitchen by Sunday evening—involves this as a weekend project:
clean cabinets, inside and out
inspect all contents of cabinets and get rid of stained, chipped, extra, unused items
clean all surfaces (using earth-friendly cleaners, of course)
This is really impressive, but just reading this list makes me want to retire to the couch for the day.
Now, of course it’s nice to have a lovely clean house, complete with sparkling fridge, uncluttered cabinets, and maybe even a groovy new wire laundry hamper on wheels. But it’s worth noting that women are the ones targeted for these sorts of tasks. And what’s worse, we are at risk of reducing or eliminating physical activity from our daily routines because of the pressures to be responsible for creating an ideal domestic environment.
One recent study, analyzing factors influencing amount of regular exercise in middle-aged women, cited “disruptions in daily structure, competing demands, and self-sacrifice” as barriers to regular exercise. Two factors that were NOT listed as barriers were lack of time and menopausal symptoms. This is good news; despite changes in our bodies and time-crunched lives, women still want to exercise to feel good and be active with others. But we still have to deal with competing demands and self-sacrifice, and these pressures arrive at our doorstep in many forms.
So I say: step away from the vacuum cleaner, march past the cluttered desk, and avert your eyes while passing the laundry room—at least for long enough to get out there for a walk, run, swim, ride, yoga class, unicycle lesson, game of catch with your dog. The mess will keep until you get back home.
For the most part I love the body I’ve got and while I aspire to being leaner, more fit, faster, more powerful, that will all be a bonus. Really, even my ‘get leaner’ goals are cast in terms of being kinder to the body I have now.
I feel like it deserves better treatment.
When I express the view that I love my body–it’s me after all, not a home improvement project–many people are surprised. They think it’s remarkable you can be overweight (fat, big, whatever) and still love the body you have.
Often what I think is truly remarkable about this is that it’s my attitude that stands out as noteworthy. I’m always shocked at the number of people–almost all of them women, almost all of them lots smaller than me–who are ashamed of their bodies. And I mean really ashamed, unhappy to the point of tears, and to the point of not doing things they might want to do but can’t do because they think they aren’t thin enough. Only thin people deserve nice things and exciting experiences, according to this world view.
But here’s another anecdote. It will be sadly familiar to almost every woman reading, I think.
After a hot sweaty summertime soccer game, one of my teammates offered us all a field trip to her backyard pool. Swimming pool, snacks, and fruity drinks, post game. Count me in. Yes.
I drove to her house, ripped off sweaty soccer duds and threw on a bikini and ran to the backyard and jumped in the pool. (Yes, I wear a bikini. Started once I realized the plan I had as a twenty year old–I’ll wear a bikini when I get skinny–was based on a vitally flawed assumption. Also, I have a long torso, regular bathing suits don’t fit, and it’s pain to get them off to pee. And yes, I know the trick. But I like bikinis. Not tankinis either. I like unreconstructed belly baring two piece bathing suits. So there.)
But lots of my soccer friends hid behind towels, put clothes on over their bathing suits which they didn’t take off til the edge of the pool, and almost everyone had to make some self-deprecating comment about how bad they looked in a bathing suit. (I was tempted to mention Tracy’s solution but I’m not that brave so I didn’t.)
So I didn’t have the full blown body positive evangelical conversation with my soccer team that night. We chatted a bit and then moved on. But when I do feel drawn into these conversations–usually when it’s my turn to make a self deprecating remark and I refuse–here are a few of things I say, context depending:
1. My body, our bodies, are amazing things. I love what my body can do. This body thrived in pregnancy and childbirth, can bike 100s of kms, can lift a lot of weight, etc etc and so focusing on what it looks like, as judged by mainstream standards of beauty that I reject, seems to look past the most important stuff, the truly miraculous bits about our bodies. (Read more about this here.)
2. Being thin doesn’t seem to help with body shame either. Often it’s my thin friends who are the worst, especially as we age. It’s like they’ve never had to think about these things, to worry about how they look, until now. And I’ve been thinner too and I haven’t felt less anxious or less self conscious at a smaller size. In a weird way it’s worse. In the game of looks, I’m then ‘in.’ and it matters more. Better to be outside of those beauty norms all the way maybe.
“I’m typically not bothered much by traditional standards of beauty and whether or not I match them. Life’s too short. We all die in the end. The people who care about mainstream beauty don’t much interest me much anyway so why should I be concerned with what they think?
“We all die in the end anyway” might strike you as a gloomy thing to think or say. But really once you adjust to that big piece of bad news everything is small potatoes. It’s quite liberating. The joys of philosophy.”
4. And I usually thank the people in my life with whom I’m closest and I say thanks to to the queer community of which I’m a small part. Why that last one? Why the queer community?
To be clear it’s not the ‘hippie hairy herbal tea drinking love your body 70s lesbian feminists’ I’m thinking of, though knowing some of them in my teen years probably didn’t hurt. It’s the ‘queer deliberately outside mainstream beauty norms but still someone’s cup of tea sex positive queer community’ I’m thinking about.
Think ‘kink inclusive, trans inclusive, gender deviants welcome queer community’. And no, it’s not a perfect world. Still lots of work to be done especially on race and on disability. I know.
But the queer community is mostly where I’ve enjoyed learning about the specificity and details of our desires and attractions.
Tracy and I were amused recently to see that someone found our blog searching for “women with big tits wearing neon green bras.” I posted that one on Facebook and one friend commented “neon green?” and another just “bras?”
How is this connected to body positivity and loving the body you’ve got?
Think about it this way, it doesn’t make any sense to think about being attractive simpliciter. What exactly would that mean? There’s only attractive to particular people.
Whatever you look like I can assure you there’s someone out there who thinks that thing that you have is THE thing to which they’re attracted. In the world of the internet there’s probably even a group for women with big breasts who like to wear neon green bras and the men and women who love them.
So when friends say. I don’t look attractive when I’m this size, my first response is to wonder to whose standards they’re appealing. Who is the person who would like them but doesn’t because they’re too fat?
Mostly when straight women say they just want to look attractive they mean to look attractive to men. But still I wonder, which men?
The desires of men who like women are far more diverse than the world of men’s magazines would ever have you believe. Men whose desires don’t fit-maybe they like hairy legs, or women with crooked teeth, or they’ve got a thing for women with glasses or women in their fifties on motorbikes –are hurt by gender role stereotyping and hetero conformity too. Don’t believe me about the diversity of heterosexual male desire, read John DeVore‘s The Types Of Women That Really Turn Us On over at The Frisky.
There are men who like fat women, men who like muscles, women who like bald men, men who like men who are really hairy, women who think men wearing socks with sandals are the hottest (okay, maybe not that one) etc. My point is that it’s a wild weird world out there in terms of attraction.
Once you start thinking this way you realize that men who like skinny 18 year old blondes just have a particularly boring, mainstream fetish*. You can kind of accept it, yawn, and move on. Oh, right, youth. Hmm. He likes thin women. That. That’s his thing. Ho hum.
You can even work up to thinking, in an amended version of a common phrase, your thing is not my thing but your thing is okay, and move on.
And if that’s all he likes, you might even feel sorry for him for leading such a narrow, limited life in a world rich with possibility.
And yes, I know this is isn’t the whole story about body image and insecurity. Often it’s our own standards we don’t live up to. And queer people can struggle with body image as well. But to the extent that it’s about worrying that someone will find you attractive, I urge you to put that worry on the shelf, close the door, and say goodbye.
What’s the connection between loving the body you’ve got and fitness? That’s the subject of a future post.
*A footnote, in a blog post, sorry. I debated whether or not to use the word “fetish” here but I decided to stick with it. We typically use “fetish” to mean a sexual taste or predilection outside the mainstream. He has a foot fetish. She has a fetish for popping balloons. Whatever. But the fetishization of youth and thinness is so mainstream as to disappear from our view. It’s what’s normal against which other tastes are judged. I think it’s time for that to end. Let’s, non-judgmentally, call the preference for youth and for thinness what it is.
That was the actual piece of advertising copy on a sports bra I almost tried on. Hot pink and very pretty. I wasn’t put off by the slogan, the hot pink, or by the pretty. I passed on it because it was padded and I’m no fan of padded sports bras. But I am curious about the role looking good while working out plays in the lives of girls and women.
Think about my yoga pants post. A number of people responded to my criticisms of Lululemon’s 100 dollar yoga pants by noting how good they looked wearing them and how looking good inspired them to work harder. To be fair, they also noted that they were extremely durable and worked well. As if “they make your ass look great!” is a knock down argument. (Okay, maybe it is.)
“Exercise can be a chore. Like laundry, it’s another thing on the to-do list that we’d rather not do, but we kinda have to. In an effort to make working out a little less painful (on the eyes, at least), we searched for the cutest workout clothes out there.”
So looking good clearly matters to all sorts of different people, with different definitions of good.
I’m not immune to this. I have hot pink running shoes, and I could have bought black. I smile when I put the pink shoes on and I actually like the way I look in work out gear, especially my cycling clothes. I have a serious soft spot for fun cycling clothes. I don’t own the bike jerseys pictured here but I’ve admired them from afar. It’s easy for me to workout without make up since that’s my usual state of affairs, except for lipstick which comes with me everywhere, even on very long bike rides.
In the comments on an earlier post, a reader asked why can’t girls and women have fun with our femininity?
And I agree. Playing with gender can be a lot of fun. Playing with one’s appearance can be a lot of fun. But for it to be fun, for me, it has to be optional.
Have fun with your appearance, sure. But it’s a bit of a double edged sword because looking good while working out raises the bar. Maybe this time it’s for fun but next time you’ll think you can’t go to the gym if your favourite outfit is in the wash or if you’re having a bad hair day.
What’s fun today too quickly becomes tomorrow’s necessary condition. If it’s obligatory, in my books, it’s rarely fun.
I started colouring my hair in the 80s, the era of cotton candy punk. I had pink, blue, purple streaks in my bleached blonde hair. And it was a blast. Until it became a chore and then I stopped.
I’d also like some spaces, some times and places, in my life, where I don’t have to worry about what I look like. A mirror free zone. Camping has long been that for me in an extended way but I like little mini-bursts of that throughout my week. And physical activity has been one of those places of refuge.
So if it’s fun and motivational, great. But if turns into one more place where you feel there’s a bar you need to meet before getting out the door is acceptable, then maybe it’s time to pay attention to athletic values rather than aesthetic ones.
So dress cute if that’s your thing. Me, I’m doing my bit to keep the bar low. I’ll be be bringing standards down in my grey tank and whatever capris or shorts were on the top of the clean pile. I don’t wear make up or jewelry to the gym.You can thank me later!
It’s a big tent and there’s room for all of us.
And hey, here’s Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. Doesn’t look like she’s wearing make up or stylish athletic fashion either!
There are quite a few advantages to having grown up with a body outside the norm and to having lots of comfort with the size and shape one is.
One of the times it really hits me is when considering some sporting activity that requires tight fitting, shape revealing clothing.
“But it makes me look so fat,” shrieks the thin to normal size woman on seeing herself in a fitted bike jersey and cycling shorts. (Don’t get me started on the reaction of said person to a skinsuit worn in time trials in both road and track cycling.)
“I’m not wearing a unisuit until I absolutely have to,” said one of the women I do Masters’ indoor rowing with. No one looks good in those things, she went on to explain. Another rower, former university athlete, said the unisuits explained the lack of sexual tension/romantic attraction between rowers. I laughed.
When I joined a Masters’ swim team and went to order a team swimming suit for racing, the coach automatically ordered a size down. It’s your race suit, she said. They’re supposed to be very tight. You don’t want any excess fabric. It will slow you down.
The worst of all might be the bikini tri suit, a two piece affair you’re supposed to swim, bike, and run in. I’ve never worn one of those but not for modesty or body shame, more worries about thigh rubbing and discomfort. Okay, and the belly jiggling while running might be distracting! 🙂
But I don’t really worry about being seen as fat in sports specific clothing because lots of people think I’m fat no matter what I wear. If you’ve been seen as fat in regular clothing, sports clothing is less worrisome, more life as usual.
I wasn’t aware of what a barrier fear of ridicule and feeling fat is to women’s participation in sports and outdoor activities until I read the results of a study on the reasons why women choose not to exercise. The whole story is quoted below but here’s the one number that got me and that counts against both cycling and rowing: “67% of women say they wear baggy clothing when exercising in order to hide their figure.”
If that’s right then unisuits and cycling shorts (tight fitted, worn alone, no underwear underneath them) might rule out rowing and cycling.
Mountain bike shorts and baggy bike jerseys have their place, I think, and that place is a nice stretch of single track, when riding a mountain bike.
On a road bike it’s much more aerodynamic not having excess fabric flapping in the breeze.
I guess there are two very different responses one could have to this clash between women’s body self consciousness and sporting attire.
But the other response, and I admit I’m not that comfortable with it is to see what we might do to make performance oriented athletic clothing more attractive on a wider range of women’s bodies.
Looking good isn’t the prime purpose of sports performance wear and that is likely much more of an issue for women than for men. I think gender and the need to look good while working out is a topic for a later post. Happily, for me I actually like the way I look in cycling clothes. I feel most like me and that makes me smile.
Of course, if you do suffer from extreme body anxiety or you are modest for religious and/or cultural reasons, let me recommend Aikido! We wear very baggy white pajamas that cover skin from ankle to wrist and reveal next to no details of our shape.
Low self-esteem among barriers to getting active as charity highlights benefits of walking, cycling and other pursuits
The charity Mind says that lack of self-confidence and low self-esteem causes nine in ten women aged over 30 to avoid taking part in outdoor physical exercise such as cycling, and has launched a campaign to encourage females to overcome barriers that are potentially harmful to both their spiritual and mental wellbeing.The study, based on a survey of 1,450 women, was carried out as part of the ‘Feel better outside, feel better inside’ campaign from the £7.5 million Ecomind initiative, run by the mental health charity on behalf of the Big Lottery Fund.
While initiatives such as the Cycletta series of sportives, endorsed by Victoria Pendleton, and British Cycling’s £1 million National Women’s Cycling Network, launched last year, both aim to get more females on two wheels, the findings of Mind’s research suggest that for the vast majority of women there are huge barriers to doing any kind of outdoor physical activity, let alone cycling.
According to the survey, nearly all respondents – 98 per cent – were aware of messages telling them that getting involved in exercise would help their mental and physical health, however Mind said that low confidence in their bodies, low self-esteem and other barriers to exercise prevented many from getting active.
Its research found that eating comfort food or finding a way to be alone, both at 71 per cent, going to bed, at 66 per cent, or spending time social networking with a response level of 57 per cent, all ranked higher than taking part in physical exercise.
The charity highlighted some of the specific barriers that prevented women from taking part in exercise:
2 out of 3 feel conscious about their body shape when they exercise in public
Many doubt their own ability compared to others; 65% think it’s unlikely they’ll be able to keep up in an exercise group and almost a half feel they will look silly in front of others as a result of being uncoordinated
60% are nervous about how their body reacts to exercise – their wobbly bits, sweating, passing wind or going red
2/3 feel that if they joined an exercise group, other women would be unwelcoming and cliquey, with only 6% feeling they would be very likely to make new friends.
It also highlighted some of the ways in which women who did participate in exercise sought to overcome what it described as “the risk of embarrassment”:
Over 50% said they exercised very early in the morning or late at night solely to avoid being seen by others
Almost 2/3 of women choose to exercise in a location where they’re unlikely to bump into anyone they know
Over 50% don’t leave the home when exercising, so as not to be seen in public – even though exercising outside is more effective for lifting mood then inside
67% wear baggy clothing when exercising in order to hide their figure.
Beth Murphy, head of information at Mind, commented: “We all know that walking, cycling, even gardening are good for our mental health, however for many of us exercising in the great outdoors can be incredibly daunting, especially if already feeling low and self-confidence is at rock bottom.
“At these times you can feel like the only person in the world experiencing this, but Mind’s research highlights that far from being alone, 90% of women are in exactly the same boat,” she continued.
“It’s time we start talking about how exercise makes us feel. We urge women to take the first step, invite a friend on a nature date and begin to support each other in taking care of our mental wellbeing.”
Mind cited the positive impact that taking up outdoor exercise had brought to the life of one 37-year-old woman, who said: “I have been taking anti-depressants since last February, but honestly feel that exercise has a more noticeable effect than the drugs.
“I can’t believe I am saying this, but discovering outdoor exercise changed everything. I was petrified, I knew I would sweat, go red, have trouble keeping up and that everyone else in the group would be super fit. I was so incredibly scared and thought I’d be humiliated.
“However – the other people in the group were all normal – all different shapes and sizes – and no one cared what you looked like or did.
It was the most liberating experience ever. My initial reason for exercising was to lose some weight, but from that first session I realised just how good it could be for my state of mind. From there my confidence grew,” she concluded.
The Ecominds section of the Mind website contains a variety of hints, tips and online tools aimed at encouraging women to become active by helping the overcome some of the issues discouraging them from taking part in outdoor exercise.