Is there not just something incredible about watching elite women athletes blow everyone’s mind with their incredible athleticism? In case you missed it, the latest almost unbelievable achievement in sport goes to US gymnast Simone Biles, who completed (though not to her own satisfaction) a move that is reported to have revolutionized gymnastics. The move is called “the triple double: a double back somersault with three twists spread out over the two flips.”
According to Slate, it is “the single most spectacular skill that any female gymnast has ever attempted, on any apparatus, in the history of the sport. It’s got an “astronomical difficulty rating” and looks almost impossible (but for the fact that she is doing it!):
From the same competition, the US Gymnastics Championships in Kansas City, Biles completed a stunning and unprecedented dismount after a gripping routine on the balance beam. According to the article in Slate, Biles “destroyed a new balance beam dismount, the most difficult and daring in the history of the sport: a double-double, or a double somersault with a full twist in each flip. This is a skill that is usually reserved for the floor exercise—an apparatus that is 40 feet wide and outfitted with 11 centimeters of springs. Biles did it off the end of a lightly padded plank 4 inches wide and 4 feet off the ground, and she made it look easy.” And landed it perfectly:
This is really just an “in case you missed it post.” Simone Biles is not to be missed. Keep in mind too that she purportedly had an off-weekend, by her own lights it was not her best. She expressed disappointment over her floor routine because she didn’t complete the triple double to her own high standards. And it was all still enough to secure her first place.
She’s making me fall in love with gymnastics all over again. I really don’t even have a question to end on today, other than the rhetorical: “doesn’t watching Simone Biles do gymnastics make you want to watch more of Simone Biles doing gymnastics?”
Sometimes terrible things happen, and we have no idea how to comprehend them, much less respond to them, much much less combat them.
Something terrible happened in Paris Friday night—as of this blog writing, at least 125 (reports vary right now) people were killed in armed attacks while at a concert, a sports stadium, a restaurant and other popular spots in the city. The story is still unfolding, and will likely take some time to become clear.
I don’t know what to say here on this blog about the awful massacre. I don’t know what to say here on this blog about the violent world we live in. One thing I do know—when terrible things happen, it’s good to keep movement an important part of our lives. It helps center and calm us, and it is often done in the company of friends or family.
So let’s do some movement today.
To keep us company, here are some pictures of some female athletes, engrossed in the joy and concentration of sports or activity.
Alize’ Cornet—professional tennis player, beat Serena Williams 3 times in 2014, including at Wimbledon.
I haven’t really run since I became disabled at twenty-five. Not that I have missed it. But when I was a teenager, I was a star softball player.
I started playing league softball when I was nine. By the time I was twelve, I was a better batter than the seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds in the league. But it was my role at first base that really stood out.
I’m left-handed, so I caught with my right hand and had a terrific stretch off the bag. I never missed a throw, not even one way over my head.
I had one glove for all the years that I played. I loved that glove. That glove was my summer. Softball was my summer.
I can still remember how, when I first got my glove, I greased it and tied a ball in it for a couple of days to “work it in.” I remember the colour of my glove, how it looked on my hand, the subdued shine of the leather. I remember how it felt, especially how it felt when the ball snapped in it.
We had the strongest infield. Me and Cathy and Sue. We won the league championship a few years in a row. We were first-draft picks for our team. All three of us were on the all-star team for our league. I won best batter in the city-wide tournament one year.
Then Bill, our coach, started standing close to me and putting his arm around me, saying things to me. I didn’t want to play first base for him anymore. I asked to be traded to another team and then asked my new coach to put me in the outfield. I stopped playing after a couple more years.
I don’t know what became of my glove.
Shelley Tremain is a disabled feminist philosopher of disability and publishes on a variety of topics, including disability and philosophy, ableism in feminist philosophy, disability and bioethics, and Foucault. Shelley is the editor of Foucault and the Government of Disability (University of Michigan Press, 2005, 2015) and is completing a monograph entitled Foucault and (A) Feminist Philosophy of Disability (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming). She derives pleasure from writing, long walks, and doodling and blogs regularly at the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog: http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/disability_and_disadvanta/
Dan arrived the morning of the fight, which was a very good thing, as I wasn’t allowed to do any working out other than stretching that day and I was far too nervous and uncomfortable from dehydration to do anything else. We spent a few hours hanging out and catching up and trying to help me unwind. Finally, that afternoon, we headed over to Gleason’s for the big event.
I knew, vaguely, that the event was a benefit for something that had sounded benefit-worthy, and also – very unusually – that all the boxers that night would be women. I did not understand that it would be a gala, with piles of fancy food and pass-around amuse-bouches and free foofy drinks. The event was a benefit for Save a Sato, which rescues street dogs in Puerto Rico. This was a group I was very happy to be supporting, but it was heavily gendered as well, as animal rescue organizations tend to be. So the gendering of the space was complex: there were a few of us boxers roaming around nearly-naked, getting ready to be as violent as we were able; there were ever-growing crowds of high-society women in evening gowns and expensive jewelry; there were a handful of fully-clothed down-to-earth dog-type women from the foundation itself; and finally there were a small minority of men, most of whom worked for the gym or were trainers or partners.
I felt acutely self-conscious as well as overwhelmed by the noise and the party atmosphere, not to mention very hungry and thirsty. I was desperate for the weigh-in and the medical exam to be over with so that I could eat and drink (though I’d be on Powerade and energy bars, not champagne and shrimp-and-coconut toasts with sprigs of fennel). Dan and I claimed a small corner of the back of the gym with a well-worn little ring and a single chair, where I tried to hide and wait for my trainer, Delvin Tyler, to arrive from DC. I needed his advice, his reassurance, his help warming up, and his paperwork, without which I could not fight.
We claimed the space successfully, but hiding was impossible. Every time I started to warm up, photographers swarmed me and popped flashes in my face, intensifying my self-consciousness and my impostor syndrome. At one point I was pulled over for a photo session with my opponent in front of a sign reading ‘No Ordinary Girls’ – the official name of the event. Debbie proved to be a fast-talking firecracker with a heavy New York accent who weighed in at 97.5 pounds and was completely adorable. Another thing I hadn’t realized was that Debbie was fighting for the ‘home team,’ representing the charity and wearing its shirt. She was also at her home gym. This was not good as far as crowd and judge sympathy went. I was desperate for Delvin to show up.
But when he did, the whole thing became a comedy of errors. Debbie had been presented to us as having one fight behind her, a loss, but we found out last-minute that her actual record was 2-2; this was not a fight that Delvin would even have let me accept if he had known. I had the wrong boxer’s passbook – I need a masters’ book (since I am over 35), not a regular one. One of the glitches I can’t even put in this blog post as it was patched up under a seal of secrecy. Delvin’s coaching papers were nowhere to be found and the computer listed his status as expired even though he had renewed it in person just for this purpose. I had non-regulation body jewelry that I had to remove, including one gauged tragus piercing that no one could get off: not the doctor, trying a variety of tools, not Delvin or Dan, neither of Delvin’s two other boxers who had showed up to watch and support us, and not even any of the random pierced partygoers who I approached for help. Each of these roadblocks seemed like it was about to keep me out of the ring altogether, and I was near tears. The staff was infuriated with me for all the glitches. A passbook for me was jammed together with a bunch of sticking tape last minute, as was my ear.
In a dramatic development, we found out that Delvin would not be allowed to officially coach me because of the paperwork snafu; instead I would be coached by Sonya ‘The Scholar’ Lamonakis, the 5’7”, 220-pound Harlem public school teacher who was the reigning Women’s Heavyweight Champion of the World. I shit you not. The new plan was for Delvin to sit behind her and pass messages to her that she could convey to me during the fight, but I wasn’t allowed to turn around and look at him or anyone else who wasn’t officially in my corner (who knew?). I thought that Sonya was just going to coach me as a mere formality, but as soon this arrangement was settled, she jumped in full-throttle. She grabbed the mitts and finished my warm-up with me, grudgingly telling Delvin through her irritation that I was ‘well trained’ (ha! score one Delvin and score one me). She also proved to be a dead-serious and deeply skilled advocate for me once I got in the ring. I am a little bit in love with her.
In yet another narrative twist, I found out just before getting into the ring that I could not use the 10-ounce gloves I had picked and trained with. As a geriatric fighter, I had to use the gym’s giant 16-ounce gloves that were basically pillows the size of my head. I was not used to them at all, they slowed me down, and I had no ability to judge what counted as an opening with them on. This also did not bode well.
The evening wore on and fell increasingly behind schedule. Strange events I could hardly process occurred, such as a flaming jump rope demonstration, an auction, and some sort of synchronized boxing show involving women in matching outfits. I hid in my corner. At long last I was weighed, examined, wrapped, head-geared, mouth-guarded, giant-gloved, and it was time to fight. Mine was the first bout.
Frankly, during the fight I was in an altered state of consciousness and I hardly remember it. It was a three-round bout. Almost everyone was screaming for Debbie, though I could hear my little team calling my name. I came out slower than I would have liked, overwhelmed by the giant gloves and the noise, but by the end of the round I felt like I was controlling the ring and had Debbie on the run. She punched more than I did, but her punches glanced off me, and mine felt more precise. Looking at the video now I realize it was an aggressive round but I couldn’t tell that at the time. I also couldn’t tell at all whether I was leading or losing. During the break, Sonya told me to be more aggressive, that I was more powerful and shouldn’t let her out or back off. I heard Delvin and Dan and my boxing friend Shannon shouting the same from behind me, though I couldn’t look at them. I obliged and gave it all I had in round two, and I dominated the round, chasing Debbie to the ropes repeatedly and plunging through her punches and going for her body. When I made it back to my corner, Sonya told me I had won round two, that round one was up for grabs, and that I needed round three to win. Unfortunately by round three I was mentally exhausted and somehow tied myself in knots over the double knowledge that a win was both within reach and by no means a given. I started thinking too hard and slowed down just when I shouldn’t have. The round was still close, but Debbie definitely had the edge.
In the end they called the fight for Debbie, although it was as close to a tie as could be. I strode across the ring to congratulate her, and apparently I looked so intense that her coach thought I was coming over to beat someone up and rushed out to stop me. But honestly, I was (and am) delighted to have nearly tied and won one round solidly against a fighter with so much more ring experience, and given the crowd an enjoyable fight. And I certainly did that! I have to say, tiny and middle-aged and intensely aggressive, Debbie and I were big crowd-pleasers.
A lot of people from both sides seemed surprised that they had called the fight for Debbie; their sense was that I had won the first two rounds and lost the third. I am not sure if this is right. To me, the fight looks like a dead tie, and I really do understand that if it was a tie or even quite close, it made sense to call it for the person who represented the charity and the gym. Or maybe she won fair and square by a narrow margin. I am not sure and don’t care much; I held my own against a five-time fighter in a disorienting crowd after a chaotic day. I am intensely proud and happy with how I did. And she’s already asked for a rematch in November, and I intend to beat her unequivocally then!
I honestly don’t remember getting out of the ring or back to my corner, or who removed my gear. My son (who also boxes) called from Florida, where he’s spending his school vacation with his dad, to congratulate me and tell me what I’d done wrong – he’d watched on the live webcam. I felt fine and energized until about ten minutes after the fight ended, when I suddenly realized I was about to throw up and pass out. I lay down on the floor trying not to submit. Just then Debbie came over and we had a fantastic bond over how much fun we’d had and how close the match had been, and that pulled me back to consciousness.
My little team lingered at the gym until everything was shutting down, and then headed out for (more) celebratory drinks. Over the course of the evening, as we had more alcohol, Delvin’s take on the fight progressed from “I think it was close to a tie, but you maybe should have won,” to “WE GOT ROBBED!!!” shouted loudly and repeatedly in a bar under the Brooklyn Bridge. I don’t think anyone got robbed. But I am so grateful for Delvin’s enthusiastic and generous support, not to mention his incredibly skillful training, which got me within ten months to the point where I could get in the ring against a fighter with a decade of experience and make it through with pride.
On the train home the next morning at dawn, I noticed I had a small but dark bruise over my left eye. I don’t remember when I got it; I didn’t feel any of the punches that landed on me at all. I heal fast, and I was sad to notice that the bruise was gone three days later. It’s almost like none of it really happened.
Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, just won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon.
For the sixth time, actually.
That’s like, five times. And then again. For a total of six times.
Serena Williams is one of the great athletes of our time, and one of the greatest tennis players ever. But alongside the story of her win, what else does the New York Times– the paper of record—see fit to print? This story.
In this story ,“Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image with Ambition”, many of the world’s top women players interviewed said, in effect, that having the muscular world-class athletic bodies they have makes them feel “unfeminine”, as 14th-ranked Andrea Petkovic said.
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re so skinny, I always thought you were huge,’ ” she said. “And then I feel like there are 80 million people in Germany who think I’m a bodybuilder. Then, when they see me in person, they think I’m O.K.”
Okay, let’s deconstruct this statement to see what’s going on here. Here are some assumptions I found:
Being skinny is OK (read minimally acceptable).
Being “huge” is bad.
Being perceived as a bodybuilder is bad.
Let us remind ourselves that this is coming from a woman whose tennis acumen is ranked 14th ON PLANET EARTH. Despite my intense racket-sports envy of her accomplishment, I feel both sympathy and frustration at what such comments likely accurately reflect about the culture that she navigates. And this is the culture that we navigate, too.
Serena herself is affected by such assumptions. How can this be? I mean, glorious kick-ass-take-no-prisoners-forget-wearing-all-white-I-look-fabulous-in-orange-and-pink-on-center-court Serena? The woman who wore this at the French Open while firing a bullet serve?
Serena Williams is now in position to be the 4th woman in history to win the Grand Slam of tennis in singles this year (The Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open). By the way, there have only been three Grand Slam winners in men’s singles (two actually, as Rod Laver did it twice; also, my first tennis racket was a Rod Laver, but I digress…)
But this is what others are saying about her the very day she won Wimbledon:
Not all players have achieved Williams’s self-acceptance.
“That is really an important acceptance for some female athletes, that their best body type, their best performance build, is one that is not thin; it’s one of power,” said Pam Shriver, a former player and current tennis analyst.
Shriver, who cited Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki as similarly powerfully built, believes Williams’s physique and confidence should serve as an example to others.
“The way Serena wears her body type I think is perfect,” Shriver said. “I think it’s wonderful, her pride.”
(taking deep breath)
Okay, let’s look at this more carefully– what assumptions lie beneath these statements?
Serena Williams’ body is one that requires a conscious attitude of self-acceptance, which suggests that it would otherwise be reasonable to expect her to be unaccepting of it.
Power in a woman’s build is in opposition to thinness– if you’re powerful, you’re not thin, and vice versa.
In most contexts, thin is better than powerful for women.
Even in professional sports, women with powerful bodies must acknowledge, justify, and defend those bodies, as well as deal with lack of acceptance by others.
Serena’s body type requires cultivating pride in a way that’s out of the ordinary, not automatic, but praiseworthy (albeit in a grudging and condescending way).
Note that these claims are made about a woman who wore this dress to the Oscars this year:
I included this picture because this discourse about Serena’s body as being deviant, as
1) a woman’s body;
2) a professional athlete’s body;
3) an attractive woman’s body
is one of the many reasons why I’m glad this blog and this community exist. We can celebrate Serena’s accomplishments and beauty in power and motion. We can also celebrate ourselves in our own glorious athletic beauty, like this bunch of Kincardine tri- and duathletes. Congratulations, and I look forward to reading all about it!
A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education talked of a new peer initiative springing up on campuses. True, you can’t stop university students from drinking and you can’t stop them from having sex. But maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to make some inroads to protect intoxicated young women (who are most at risk) from sexual assault.
According to the article:
Hanging out, drinking, and hooking up are for many students just a part of life in college. They’re also a common backdrop for sexual assault. As many as four in five campus assaults involve drinking, studies have found. Plenty of those cases hinge on whether a woman was drunk or incapacitated, and therefore unable to give consent.
Messages about preventing sexual assault now come at students from many directions: campus and federal officials, the news media, their peers. And what students are hearing has started to influence their behavior. They’re paying more attention, and they’re looking out for one another.
The initiative is a response to Obama’s “It’s on us” campaign, asking people to look out for people in risky situations. It’s taken an interesting form on campuses, and one reason it’s so interesting to me is that fraternities and athletes on school teams are two of the groups who are most active.
What are they doing to make a difference? At Union College, a campus initiative is training team members about how to intervene:
“I knew we had an opportunity with our hockey team,” says Jim McLaughlin, the athletic director. The team attended a half-day workshop in September on bystander intervention. Next in line are the women’s hockey team and the men’s and women’s basketball and swim teams.
“We are tough, bold women, and we would have the confidence to step into a bad situation,” says Christine Valente, captain of the women’s hockey team.
What’s great about this is that it’s opened up an important conversation about consent and also about masculinity:
Organizers are holding workshops with sports teams, fraternities, and sororities. But they don’t preach or try to give students all the answers. On a recent Thursday evening, the men’s lacrosse team packed into a dorm’s common area, where the group’s presenters, all women, tried to draw the athletes out. What does consent mean? How does sexual assault affect men? How do stereotypes of masculinity play into the problem?
“You should have consent before you go out and party and get drunk, instead of waking up the next day and regretting it,” one player said. “As a team, I want to win a national championship,” offered another. “I don’t want another player going out and touching a woman who doesn’t want to be touched and undermining our success.” Every time someone spoke up, the women tossed out packets of Sweet Tarts or Reese’s Pieces.
After such presentations, students sometimes approach members of the consent group, says Ms. Han, to say they’ve been applying its lessons. “I was having sex,” a student might report, “and I asked for consent!”
We’ve had our own conversation about consent here in Canada recently. I alluded to it briefly in my Mine all Mine post where I talked about how getting active gave me a new sense of being in my body. There, I called it confident ownership.
That’s another reason why I think athletes are in a good position to have some influence in this area. At Union, they’re involving not just the men’s teams, but also the women’s teams. As the captain of the women’s hockey team said, they’re “tough, bold women” with confidence.
As Caitlin from Fit and Feminist said earlier this week in her post on confidence, her athletic achievements (her awesomeness really does know no bounds — she’s unstoppable!) has translated into something she never had before: she believes in herself.
So women who are athletes can play an important role in changing the culture of risk. It’s a fine line, of course, between giving women tools that empower them, on the one hand, and blaming them when those tools fail them, on the other. It’s realistic, of course, to want to protect ourselves. At Union, the women
they do two things to keep themselves and their friends safe from sexual assault. They never walk alone after dark, and they go to parties in groups. Some also bring their own alcohol—keeping their drinks covered and close at hand. Campus safety officers taught three self-defense classes this fall, and the Theta Delta Chi fraternity offered to buy women a new kind of nail polish that is supposed to change colors to detect the presence of common date-rape drugs.
It’s fantastic that these campus initiatives don’t stop there. There’s a great “tipsheet” for preventing sexual assault that made the rounds a few years ago. It turns our usual suggestions about what women can do to keep themselves safe into suggestions for perpetrators instead. For example:
1. Don’t put drugs in people’s drinks in order to control their behavior.
2. When you see someone walking by themselves, leave them alone!
3. If you pull over to help someone with car problems, remember not to assault them!
4. NEVER open an unlocked door or window uninvited.
5. If you are in an elevator and someone else gets in, DON’T ASSAULT THEM!
What these campus initiatives are getting right is that they are involving everyone. That’s what’s required for a culture change. Traditionally, sport (particularly men’s varsity sports) has been (and is) a sexist domain with a bad track record for treating women respectfully. It’s encouraging to see an initiative the takes advantage of the leadership potential of athletes on campuses and redefines the values we have come to associate with sports teams.
I hope to see more of this, including on my own campus where issues of date rape and sexual assault among the students need to be high on our list of priorities, and conversations about consent and respect need to stay on our radar even though our radio host scandal has fallen out of the news.
How do you feel in your body? At home, absent, at war, at peace, comfortable, uncomfortable? I ask this because, since my fiftieth birthday back in September, I’ve discovered that apart from doing a whole bunch of stuff that I used to think impossible (see my post about that here), the most remarkable change over the past two years is internal.
It’s not just internal in a psychological way. It’s more than that. Feminists talk a lot about our embodied experience. And lately, I feel that my triathlon training — all that running, swimming, and even the detestable biking (sorry — still not loving it) — have altered the way I feel in my body. For the very first time in my life, I have a sense of my physicality as belonging totally and 100% to me.
I own these activities–every endurance run, every early morning workout in the pool, every struggle on the bike. They’re mine. I do them for me. Not for you or for my parents or my partner or because someone else/society/my employer/Oprah thinks I should. Nope. None of that. No one would blink an eye if I never did any of this stuff again. And yet I do it anyway because they’re things I want to do.
How is that different from what I felt like before? If you’ve been a regular reader of the blog from the early days, you’ll know that despite my repeated attempts to let go of the need to look a certain way, I’ve experienced my share of challenges in the body image department.
I know it’s kind of big yawn for lots of people when small women with average sized bodies who can easily buy clothing off the rack at any store say they don’t like their bodies. But it happens and it’s painful and — anyway, I stopped blogging about it awhile back because I too find it tiresome.
A couple of weeks ago Canada had a shock when a well-respected and popular radio host from CBC radio was let go by the broadcaster because, in their words, they had learned something that made it impossible for them to continue their relationship with him.
And for the first time perhaps ever, Canadian news was dominated by discussions of sexual coercion and the importance of consent. We also had a national conversation about why sexual assault goes unreported so much (like this and this one, “I didn’t report because fuck you”). In every paper. On every television broadcast. On all the radio stations. On Facebook and twitter and in the hallways of workplaces, conversations over lunch, telephone calls with people who lived in different parts of the country.
So what does this have to do with a new way of being in my body? Well, you know, it just made me realize the extent to which it’s a rare thing indeed when a women feels confident ownership of her body — like she doesn’t owe anyone anything and she gets to say “no” and let it mean “no” (not “maybe” and not “let me talk you into it” and not “are you sure?” and not “maybe later” but “NO”).
And when we don’t feel that confident sense of ownership, it’s hard not to feel insecure about choices that may upset people or make them angry or, heaven forbid, disappoint someone or not meet their expectations. And hence the level of coercion and coaxing that lots of women endure (by the way, said radio host’s alleged actions were a lot more serious than coercion and coaxing).
And so to discover a domain where that shit doesn’t happen is like a small miracle, like finding an oasis in the desert or something like that.
And that’s what diving in with both feet into some athletic activity that I love has done for me. It’s like hello. Who’s been keeping this big secret from me?
Has discovering a physical activity you love changed the way you live in your body?
Last week, I walked from Benedictus Spinoza’s birthplace in Amsterdam to his grave in the Hague, a journey of (on the slightly indirect route I selected) some 75 or so kilometres (50ish miles). It took me two full days. By the time I finished the first day, my legs were wobbling and my feet were blistered. By the time I finished the second day, each step made me cry.
Why would someone undertake a walk like this? I did it because I love Spinoza’s thought, and I admire Spinoza the man. In a way, I wanted to seal my relationship with Spinoza with a kind of grand gesture. This isn’t the first time. I celebrated my 40th birthday by getting a Spinoza tattoo. Now, I’m 44 — the same age at which Spinoza died, as it happens — and living in the U.K. for a year, which makes it easier for me than it usually is to travel to continental Europe. It occurred to me to visit Holland’s various Spinoza sites. As soon as I realized that the whole geography of Spinoza’s life fit into a walkable distance, the idea of doing the walk became an idée fixe for me. The two things that particularly appealed to me about the idea were that such a walk would be both an embodied activity and a meditative activity, and that it would be difficult. Both of these themes are central to Spinoza’s thought.
In a way, it is surprising that Spinoza, the great 17th century rationalist philosopher, has anything to contribute to our ideas about embodiment. Some other prominent philosophers of the period — most notably Descartes — regarded the body as a mere vessel for the mind, and blamed the body for the errors of the mind. Our minds, on Descartes’s view, are (in some sense) infinite and transcendent. Perfection is at least in principle possible for them. Our bodies, on the other hand, are finite and corruptible. Worse, they can corrupt the minds to which they are intimately joined. For Descartes and his followers, carnality — embodiment — is to blame for our evil thoughts, our irrational thoughts, our errors, and our sins. One of his most influential followers — Malebranche — therefore argued that to be virtuous one must make oneself as much like a corpse as possible.
Spinoza was different. He regarded the mind and the body as just two ways of thinking about the very same thing. For Spinoza, the body isn’t some flawed vehicle we’re stuck in — it actually is us, just as much as our mind is. Indeed, the body just is the mind, but thought of as part of a physical system rather than as part of a system of ideas. Like most philosophers, Spinoza offered instructions on how to become wiser. His advice was the opposite of Malebranche’s. Where Malebranche says “Make yourself like a corpse,” Spinoza says, “No! You’re an organism, a living, breathing, complex organism operating in a system that involves tons of other organisms. The path to wisdom is understanding those systems in all their complexity.”
Thus, we find Spinoza offering the following sensible tips:
…to make use of what comes in our way, and to enjoy it as much as possible (not to the point of satiety, for that would not be enjoyment) is the part of a wise woman.* I say it is the part of a wise woman to refresh and recreate herself with moderate and pleasant food and drink, and also with perfumes, with the soft beauty of growing plants, with dress, with music, with many sports, with theatres, and the like, such as every woman may make use of without injury to her neighbour. For the human body is composed of very numerous parts, of diverse nature, which continually stand in need of fresh and varied nourishment, so that the whole body may be equally capable of performing all the actions, which follow from the necessity of its own nature; and, consequently, so that the mind may also be equally capable of understanding many things simultaneously. This way of life, then, agrees best with our principles, and also with general practice… (Ethics IV.45 cor. 2)
* Ok, I admit it. Spinoza says “man” and “he/him”, here and throughout. But isn’t it better this way?
Many sports, not just sports but many sports.
We ought to play many sports (and eat and drink nice things in moderation and take time out for the theatre and listen to music and do a little gardening…) because our bodies are complex and benefit from a variety of types of nourishment, exercise and stimuli. Not just that — physical variety is important for our intellectual lives because our minds and bodies aren’t really different things at all. Understanding means understanding bodies.
Sometimes, when you’re sitting at a desk for hours, or whizzing around in a car or a plane, it’s easy to make the Cartesian mistake of thinking of the body as a vessel (like the desk, the car, or the plane). But any runner knows how rich that sequence of thoughts are that occur on a long run. They’re not just rich; they’re connected to our surroundings in a much more intimate way than they are when you’re stuck at a desk or on a plane. In those more contained environments, one tends to have controlled thoughts — the thoughts that one plans to have. Here I am at my desk thinking about this task that I have to perform. Here I am on the plane thinking about the article I’m reading. When we confine the body, it’s easy(ish) to confine the mind too.
You can do that to an extent during exercise. I’ve certainly taken runs or walks or bike rides in which I’ve intentionally focused on some problem or another. And, in some ways, we’re way better at solving such problems when we’re exercising. But I challenge you to actually go on a run or walk or ride and never once have your thoughts turn to your environment, on the one hand, and to the rich phenomenology of being in a real live body, on the other.
For me, on my long walk, this meant lots of thoughts about Dutch waterfowl and architecture, and the ubiquity of bicycles in the Netherlands, and the terrible toll of the Second World War on Dutch jewry, and the surprising similarities between rural Northern Dutch culture and the culture of rural Eastern Ontario. It also meant lots of noticing how feet and calves and knees and hips and iliosacral joints feel after one hour of walking, two hours, four hours, eight hours… It meant remembering that pain in itself isn’t dangerous and, so long as you genuinely aren’t in danger, can even be really interesting. When your feet really, really hurt, I learned, it is easier to keep walking than to resume walking after a rest. I relearned (because I first learned this when I was training for a half marathon a couple of years ago) that it is easier to approach a long physical challenge by thinking of it in terms of a collection of small challenges with small rewards. (Once you’ve passed that windmill, you can look at your watch. Once you’ve crossed that bridge, you can have a handful of nuts.)
If you asked me whether my big Spinoza walk depended on physical stamina or mental stamina, I would reject the question as unintelligible. In this instance, at least, physical and mental stamina are two sides of the same coin — a most Spinozist result.
The walk, though, wasn’t just an opportunity to explore firsthand and without distraction the inseparability of embodiment and intellection. It was also a challenge — a chance to undertake a difficult task. I won’t say too much about this. If you didn’t understand the appeal of difficulty, you wouldn’t be reading a blog about fitness and feminism. Part of what makes fitness fun is pushing oneself to achieve a difficult result. Feminism, of course, means undertaking a whole other set of difficulties, more difficult ones usually than are required by our fitness efforts, and alas not always fun.
While it might be surprising at first to learn that Spinoza has useful things to say about embodiment, it should be entirely unsurprising that he understood difficulty. After all, his parents and grandparents were forced from Spain to Portugal to France to Holland by a succession of anti-semitic laws sweeping Europe between the 15th and 17th centuries. Spinoza himself was forced out of the Amsterdam Jewish community, and then wrote one of the most notoriously difficult works in western philosophy despite poverty, ill health and a day job grinding lenses.
Spinoza’s final words in that work remind us why we try to do difficult things. He writes, “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” That is, if something is desirable and yet uncommon, it must be hard to get or to do. The difficulty doesn’t make such goals less excellent, though. On the contrary, your willingness to undertake a difficult and rare achievement is evidence of just how excellent it is. Think of it: “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” If that isn’t the right motto to repeat as you push yourself to finish a ridiculously long walk, or to shave 1/10 of a second off your race time, or to add a triple axel to your routine, or to score a goal against the toughest defence you’ve ever encountered, then I don’t know what is.
Shannon Dea is an associate professor of philosophy at University of Waterloo. Her hobbies include hiking, doing yoga, missing the swell bike that’s waiting for her back in Canada, and sticking to cockamamie plans once she’s gotten them stuck in her head.
These photos by Howard Schatz, from his 2002 book, Athlete, have been making the rounds lately. Sam gave a shout-out to Schatz’s photos in her popular post, “Fit, Fat, and What’s Wrong with BMI?”
People–myself included–can’t stop looking at them. They are all pictures of professional athletes ready for game day, that is, they’re in peak physical condition.
What’s so absorbing about them is the range of body sizes and shapes depicted? The human body is for sure a thing of fascination and beauty. And there’s something awe-inspiring about a body that can perform the way the bodies of professional athletes can. So that’s one reason these images catch our attention.
Their real power, I think, is in the impact of the group shot. We know there’s diversity among human bodies–different shapes, sizes, proportions, colors and abilities. But though it’s obvious that a gymnast will, for obvious reasons, have a different body from a speed skater, and that a boxer needs a different body than a long-distance runner, it’s somehow not something we think about much.
Most of us default to a standard stereotype of “the female athlete.” But what that mental picture usually amounts to is an image of a fitness model–slender with visible muscles and a six-pack.
The range of bodies depicted in the series is a great reminder of the range of types even among professional athletes. There’s no one shape that is “athletic.” Schatz doesn’t just photograph women, either. We see an amazing range and contrast when men and women are pictured side-by-side.
Another point worth noting is that the fascinating bodies of these athletes are by-products of athletic achievement, not the goal in-itself (except perhaps for the body-builders). Olympic swimmers, for example, don’t get into swimming because they want the body of a swimmer. Intense focus on what the body can do ultimately yields a body that does those things.
You don’t have to be an Olympian to benefit from that message. As we’ve said before on the blog, a focus on what the body can do, on athletic rather than aesthetic values, and on things that you enjoy rather than things that will help you look a certain way will make for an all around more satisfying experience of activity that is likely to improve your quality of life on many levels.
The only criticism I have of the series (and I confess that I have not seen the whole book, so maybe it’s just a criticism of what has been reprinted on the internet) is that there are no disabled athletes included. Athletes who compete in the para-Olympics are amazing examples of outstanding physical achievement as well. Many of them can easily outperform most nondisabled people in their sport. Including their bodies alongside these other athletes would have given us a more accurate glimpse at a fuller range of elite athleticism.
Though Schatz represents an amazing range and that carries a powerful message, there is room for still more diversity in our representation of athleticism and the athletic body.