fitness

Women’s Bodies and Athletic Performace #LikeAGirl! #CSWIP

Sam and I on our morning walk from downtown to the University of Regina for CSWIP.
Sam and I on our morning walk from downtown to the University of Regina for CSWIP. Photo credit: Kate Norlock

One of the best things about being a feminist philosopher in Canada is getting to go to the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy conference.  We just got back from Regina, where the conference was held this year.  There were lots of great moments, and one of them was the panel Sam organized on women’s bodies and athletic performance.

Four out of four of the speakers have written for the blog: Sam, Audrey, Sylvia, and Moira.  As if that alone wasn’t awesome enough, Kate and Alice were in the room too! And those are just the feminist philosophers who have blogged for us. Besides them, we were surrounded by awesomeness all weekend!

Megan Dean, the PhD student from Georgetown who won the essay prize, presented her winning paper, “Fat Shame Is Not Moral Shame” (and yes, she will be guest blogging for us sometime very soon).

But back to the panel Sam organized. Here’s what they talked about.

Audrey took Iris Marion Young’s feminist analysis of feminine body comportment and “throwing like a girl” into the realm of the relational by extending it to the martial arts. Not all throwing is as individualized as what we think of when we think of what it means to “throw like a girl.” In martial arts training, girls and women often have to overcome a lot of “I cannot” self-talk before they can throw and hit and kick other people, even though throwing and hitting and kicking other people are exactly what they’re there to do.

She made the point that even when we have the skills training so that we can control our own body, that doesn’t always or necessarily translate into being able to act on another’s body.  This led to a fabulous comment from Alice, who said we need to turn our “fleshy embodiment” into “fleshy agential embodiment.”  (yes, we are indeed philosophers!)

Next up was Sylvia on femininity and athleticism. She introduced an interesting scale of sports that are associated with the feminine (like figure skating and synchronized swimming), sports that are kind of (but not really) gender neutral (running and cycling), and sports that are more masculine in their representation (like hockey and basketball). Then she (depressingly) pointed out how difficult it is for women to negotiate the double bind. If they’re participating in so-called feminine sports, then they’re not taken seriously or recognized for their athleticism. If they’re participating in the so-called masculine sports then their femininity is called into question. In neither case is it easy to get taken seriously.

She posed the interesting question of whether sports mirror or magnify what happens in other realms. In my view (mine was the first hand in the air for the Q and A), the whole thing is depressingly true to life. When pressed, Sylvia said that the situation in sports magnifies, not just mirrors, what happens all over the place. And while I agree to some degree, don’t we also think that sport has promising liberatory potential?  Of course it does. So we need to continue to find ways to navigate and challenge the norms of mandatory femininity through participation in sport.

Moira considered the way that a focus on the external goods of sport can be harmful. Instead, she said, we need to focus on internal goods. External goods are things like winning, pleasing others, looking good, earning money, getting prizes. Internal goods are the goods internal to the practice, particular pleasures and skills and meaningful experiences.

She applied her analysis to fitness as preparation for physically transformative life events like reproduction, ageing, disability, and even death and dying. Fitness ideology is usually about avoiding many of these things rather than being better prepared for them.  But the internal goods of sport–endurance, pain tolerance, courage, working through exhaustion–are actually transferable skills that we can bring to bear in these other areas of our lives.  Moira talked about childbirth, but at the break a couple of us talked about how sport has prepped us for menopause!

Finally, Sam presented about the tension between the norms of sport performance and “ladylike” values. She coined a phrase that I’d never heard before and love: “the play gap.” That’s the gap between boys and girls with respect to time devoted to physical activity. It starts young and just gets worse as we grow to adulthood. She reminded us of all the sad facts about women being socialized not to be athletic, to recoil from athletic clothing because of poor body image, to work out in sheds for fear of being seen, to hesitate to spit and shout and do all those things that sporty men do without the least bit of self-consciousness.

She also talked about the blog and I just felt so happy about the blog and the bloggers and the attendance at the talk (because we have not had great luck populating sessions on feminism and fitness, so this was a real turn to the good). It was really a fantastic session!

Here’s to CSWIP and to all the fabulous colleagues we have who are taking these issues seriously!

Moira on the internal goods of sport as preparation for transformative physical life events.
Moira on the internal goods of sport as preparation for transformative physical life events. Photo credit: Kate Norlock
Sylvia talks about femininity and athleticism.
Sylvia talks about femininity and athleticism. Photo credit: Kate Norlock.
Kate, Audrey, and Sam with the big Saskatchewan sky behind them. Photo credit: Tracy I
Kate, Audrey, and Sam with the big Saskatchewan sky behind them. Photo credit: Tracy I
Weekends with Womack

Supporting the sharks: Boston Sharkfest 2015

Last week I posted about what an unexpectedly excellent active summer I’ve had. Fall is hard upon our heels in the northern hemisphere (google says it starts Sept 23), but I’m wringing out the last drops of summer nectar, with the weather, friends, and opportunities fully cooperating.

Yesterday my friends Janet and Steph and I got up very very very early (5:45am, which for me is like the middle of the night), to head to downtown Boston to help provide kayak support for the Boston Sharkfest open harbor swim event. It’s a 1500-meter open water swim across Boston harbor, and hundreds of swimmers do this, some in wetsuits and some in bathing suits. The cool (and necessary thing) about this event is that the shipping channel is closed during the event, so you get this illicit and delicious feeling of being let loose somewhere you would not otherwise get to explore. Here’s the map of the swim route:

map

I think this is one of the coolest feelings ever. When they close Storrow Drive in Boston on July 4 and you can walk down the highway, or when they close the Verrazano bridge for the Five Boro Bike Ride in New York City, it is a thrilling feeling to be where you normally cannot. Here’s what I was able to see from my kayak:

boston

Holding big events like open water swims and the swim part of triathlons requires a lot of support help in order to keep swimmers on track and safe. We joined a group of kayakers, paddle boarders and one surfer lifeguard (who paddled with his hands back and forth, covering at least 4 miles) to station ourselves along the route to basically herd the swimmers along the course. We were also keeping a sharp eye out for anyone in distress who needed a breather or some encouragement, and also for anyone with a medical emergency.

Honestly, I would have been scared to death to be in that open water without the security of my boat and paddle. Here’s where they were:

swimmer in process

In fact we joked with the swimmers when they stopped or looked a little discouraged, telling them how awesome they were and how funny it was that we needed boats to cross the area that they were swimming.

There was a huge range of finishing times, and the cutoff was 50 minutes; they had to reopen the channel to boats, so were constrained. I was accompanying a few of the last swimmers, who were tiring but continuing on.

almost

We could see the finish line. They had to swim to the dock, touch the electronic pad to get their time, and then swim around to the ladder.

finish line

This swimmer I talked to later had not only successfully done this one-mile swim after having ankle surgery to fuse her ankle, but she had done a 4-mile swim event in Vermont. Brrrrr.

swim-surfer

I was happy to celebrate with what I thought of as my swimmers at the finish line. I never got your names, but hey y’all—you are awe-inspiring athletes!

happy swimmers

Next week I want to talk more about athletic identity; it’s strange that none of the swimmers I talked to thought of themselves as athletes. But of course they are. What’s that about? But for now, let’s all enjoy their triumph.

Weekends with Womack

Crossing a threshold in sports—one woman’s watery accomplishment

This summer I’ve been regaling blog readers with tales of my re-acquaintance with kayaking. One of the things that I love about kayaking is that it’s an activity you can do without much instruction, for whatever length of time you want, at whatever pace you want. It also gets you outside, on the water, moving along under your own power. Kayaking in any body of water at all makes me feel a little bit like I used to when I was 10 years old, riding my bike around my neighborhood; I felt liberated, autonomous, the open road (or water) wide open for my exploration.

All this is true.  BUT: when you start to do some sport, you quickly find out that in order to progress to the next level of activity, you have to pass some thresholds. Passing them may require special training, mastery of techniques, strength, speed, stamina, etc. And of course gear.

I talked a little about this in my blog post last week comparing cycling and kayaking. Both sports have a fairly low threshold for beginners—that is, you can do it without a lot of technical know-how. Basketball and tennis, on the other hand (at least in my experience), require some specific skills in order to play a game. I never learned how to do a lay-up so my basketball career never got off the ground…

We all know this—different sports have different-shaped learning curves, and the effort it takes to get to the next point on the curve (the next level of play or participation) varies a lot. As an athlete, being aware of 1) what the learning curve for your activity is, and 2) how much effort it’s going to take to meet your goals for that sport are both pretty important. I’ve learned, for example, that bike racing (road races and crits) for ME would require a level of training that’s just not feasible or desirable for me. However, fun road rides are both feasible and desirable. Competitive squash is also within my reach, given my available time and fitness and skill levels.

Over time, we all readjust our sports and activity goals, often because of time limitations and changing physical constraints, but also because we want to have new or different experiences. One thing I’ve noticed is an increasing desire to experience nature—in the woods or on the water—whenever possible.   Hence the renewed interest in sea kayaking.

This summer, after a long hiatus from it, I’ve been out on rivers and lakes and even saltwater estuaries in recreational and sea kayaks, and it’s been sublime. But one big goal has remained: kayaking in the ocean. That’s where the sports threshold issue reemerges.

In order to kayak safely in the ocean, with waves, currents, tides and changing weather, you need a bunch of skills. Some of them are technical—you need to be able to read, understand, interpret and plan trips based on tide charts, information about currents and the coastal geography of the area and weather forecasts. You also need some paddling skills for maneuvering the boat, like bracing and edging.

And of course you need to be able to get back in the boat if you happen to turn over in deep waters.

rescueThere are two kinds of rescues you learn in sea kayaking—the assisted rescue and the self rescue. The assisted one is where you get back in your boat (from deep water) with some help from a person in another boat. Turns out this isn’t very hard—with good instruction, everyone can do this using one or other of the many techniques available. But the self rescue seems more daunting—you have to get yourself back in the cockpit of your boat while treading water in the ocean, maybe in high seas.

Again, there are a couple of different techniques for self rescue, and I’d done one of them a long time ago. But I had been avoiding trying it again, out of sheer fear of failure. After all, the last time I did this was 15 years ago, and I’m older and feel less confident of my strength and abilities.

But if I want to kayak in the ocean (and do cool kayak trips with my friend Janet), I HAVE TO DO THIS.

So last Wednesday, Janet and I headed to Rockport, Massachusetts, to kayak in the ocean. This place looks exactly the way you might imagine new England coastal towns might look. That is, like this:

rockportThe outfitters wouldn’t let us take out ocean kayaks without demonstrating experience in rescues, but since Janet can do a self rescue in no time flat, and I can do an assisted one, they let us head out to sea. So off we went, picnic lunches stowed in dry bags and bilge pump and paddle float strapped to the decks.

There was some hazy fog along the rocky coast, so we stayed reasonably close to shore, avoiding the many outcroppings of rocks. The lobster fishermen were also trolling in the shallower waters, checking and resetting their lines, so we had to be vigilant. Actually, I’m pretty sure they’re used to kayakers and are adept at not colliding into them, but better to give them wide berth. After all, they’re working.

It was exhilarating and also a bit scary paddling in waves and deep water along a hazy, foggy, rocky coastline. I knew the chances of turning over were slim, and I knew I could get back in the boat with Janet’s assistance. Still, that vague uneasiness lurked in the background. Sigh.

We pulled into a beach for lunch, and some women obliged us with a photo.

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 11.04.07 AMAt that point I decided to face my fear and do what I had been avoiding for weeks: time to practice the self rescue.

I told Janet I wanted to try the scramble self rescue (also called the cowboy rescue, but Janet prefers the former name). It looks like this.

Yeah, right.

Having no other excuses for delays (all the lunch had been eaten and beach pictures taken), we took the boats out into the bay, where the water was deep enough but the waters were calmer. Janet did her self rescue first—nothin’ to it. Here she is, smiling astride her kayak.

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 11.06.13 AMNow it was my turn. The moment of truth. ACK. Well, the only way through it is to do it. Here I go—over into the water.

solo1We cheated a little—Janet actually emptied the water from my boat and turned it over. This prepped me for hauling myself back in. I tried getting on from the back, which didn’t work at all. But then I approached the boat from the side, and then centered my chest over the back of the boat. Like so.

solo2Then I had to inch (and I do mean inch) myself onto the back deck, pulling myself, kicking my legs, all the time keeping low and making sure my legs stayed in the water. Janet was coaching me from her boat the whole time, which was a huge help. She also documented it for posterity. Here I am, posing for a photo and pondering how to get myself back in the cockpit, which at the moment, seems very very far away.

solo3Then comes another hard part—sitting up without tipping the boat over. Again, you have to keep your legs in the water to act as stabilizers. Here I am, so close to the cockpit, but with a final challenge before me—move butt over seat back and into cockpit.

solo4

Well, who knows how this happened, but it did. Here I am, marveling at my inexplicable but undeniable return to the cockpit of my boat, celebrating with a swig of water.

solo5And then a funny thing happened. When we set back out into deeper ocean to explore the nearby south coast, I felt… great. More confident, more at ease, more able to enjoy the waves, the open water. Oh boy. I had crossed a threshold.

It’s important to note that kayakers have to practice these rescue and other techniques in a variety of conditions (say, in rougher seas and in open water) to be really confident and adept. But with this accomplishment I was on my way.

So readers, what sorts of sports and activity thresholds have you crossed? What thresholds are you looking at now? I’d love to hear more about your experiences.

fitness · Guest Post

What’s in a (Women’s Team) Name?

image

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?

body image · diets · fitness

50,000 Hits and Counting: Why Is “She May Look Healthy But” So Popular?

suits-fitness-figure

A couple of years ago, just before I left for a sailing trip in the British Virgin Islands, I whipped up a quick post questioning the health of fitness models. A few days later, when I managed to find a wifi connection on shore (at Foxy’s Beach Bar), the stats blew my mind. The post was racking up hits as if we’d hit the jackpot on a slot machine. Never before had we posted anything that attracted readers to the blog by the thousands.

“She May Look Heathy But.. Why Fitness Models Aren’t Models of Health” is still sailing strong, by far our most read post. Surpassing 50,000 hits over the weekend, it’s had more than double the exposure of the other two old stand-bys, “The Shape of an Athlete” and “Why the Thigh Gap Makes Me Sad,” each standing now at around 24,000. Close behind them: “Crotch Shots, Upskirts, Sports Reporting, and the Objectification of Female Athletes” and “Padded Sports Bras and Nipple Phobia.”

Some weeks, these and a few other of our stalwart reliables get more traffic than any of the new content. But “She May Look Healthy But..” takes first prize. And we’re kind of baffled as to why.

It’s not the tags. We have lots of posts tagged or categorized with some combination of “body image, diets, fitness, health.”

And it’s not as if it’s one of the most indepth or well-written posts on our blog. I cribbed most of it (with credit to the original, of course) from this interview with a fitness instructor who decided to prep for a women’s figure competition. And I got the rest from our friend, colleague, and figure competitor, Shay Welch.

My post made a point that I think is worth repeating: that the healthy and fit look so many aspire to, the well-defined and sculpted body we see in magazines and competitions, is attained usually through not-so-healthy, temporary routines. The routines’ primary purpose is to produce a body that looks like that, not to promote health or fitness. And the look is not sustainable even for the people who achieve it.  It’s how you appear on game day, but not on most other days.

The disconnect between looking fit and healthy, on the one hand, and being fit and healthy, on the other hand, shines through like bright sunlight on a clear day when we read her story and also the experience of Shay, fellow-philosopher, friend, and fitness figure competitor, who told me this:

I usually am at 1200-1400 calories during off season just to maintain (which is about 25 lbs over what I should be on stage) and then at about 800 calories in the final stretch, working out twice a day for around 4 hours.  everyday.  I do a lot of crying and very little sleeping.  Off season is relatively healthy but your body will change weight super easy because the metabolism crashes to nothing.  But the final stretch is super duper uper unhealthy.  But I can’t do any other sports and I love being athletically competitive so I deal.  Most people I know who do this cannot maintain a real job.  They are almost always fitness trainers because they’re the only ones who can really endure this.  I’ve known more than a few people who had to quit their regular job because they became obsessed with dieting and being on stage.  I throw all my trophies away because I am always trying to remember that this is just a hobby.  And no one maintains except professional fitness people and they get paid to starve year round.

The post generated tons of comments. Lots of people agreed with the key idea.

But we also heard from competitors who said that the tone of my post was unduly discouraging.  They defended these competitions and the possibility of prepping in a way that isn’t as difficult, or at least isn’t any more demanding than prepping for any other physically demanding undertaking.

Competitors expressed gratitude for the support of friends and family, talking about how rewarding an experience it’s been for them. Trainers took issue with some of the claims about how restrictive the plans were.

The fact is, you’re not going to convince me that the central point is wrong. Fitness figure competitors, like any other competitors, train for specific competitions. In their case, the goal is to look a certain way for their events, or, if they’re models, for their photo shoots.

They’re the first to admit that they don’t look this way all the time. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not ready to run a marathon all the time either. No one, not wrestlers or power-lifters or rowers, “makes weight” every day.

Where things go wrong is that in the popular imaginary, we have come to associate the way the fitness models and figure competitors look with what it means to be/look healthy and fit.

It’s not just ironic. It’s downright harmful. So no. You are not going to convince me that equating health and fitness with looking like a fitness model ready for competition is a good thing. It’s not a fair or accurate representation of fitness or health.

If that’s the main message people pick up from reading our post, then I couldn’t be happier that so many read it every week. We have a good range of views represented in the comments on the original post, which is why they’re now closed.

We haven’t solved the mystery of why the spotlight lands on that post every day. But we’re grateful that it attracts a steady audience, and we hope that at least some of those readers click through to the other good content on the blog.

Thanks for reading!

body image · diets · eating · fat · fitness · motivation · sports nutrition

“Nutrition is the foundation of health and fitness. You simply cannot out train a poor diet.”

The quotation above is from Greg Glassman, the founder of Crossfit. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between nutrition and fitness and thinking about where there’s room for improvement in my efforts to be the ‘fittest by fifty.’

Unlike my co-blogger Tracy who has decided that sports nutrition counseling isn’t for her and who has stepped away from the scale, I’m continuing with habit based nutrition counseling. I’m a numbers geek, I like tracking, and I’m looking forward to getting leaner in the year ahead.

It’s not about hating the body I’m got, I’m quite fond of it thanks, and it can do amazing things, but I need reminders to give it the love and attention it deserves. With three kids and a busy career, I sometimes struggle to take care of myself. I’m not quite the opposite of the food obsessed dieter but it’s true that for me, more often than not, convenience and the needs of others, take precedence over my own food choices.

Whether it’s a banana and a protein bar before Crossfit, a drive thru coffee and bagel on the way to rowing, a pizza slice post Aikido or instant oatmeal as a warm bedtime snack, some of my food choices aren’t the best. And given the demands I place on my body, I need to do better.

For some reason, for me, physical activity is easy. I love it, can’t get enough of it, but nutrition is another matter. And yet, eating well supports everything else I do. And I do a lot so I need to eat very well. So I’m setting out to work on the foundation this year, to try to pay as much attention to nutrition as I do to other aspects of sports performance. I’m trying to think of eating as part of sports training. Nutrition counseling helps serve as a reminder that this matters.

I’ve blogged here about my reasons for wanting to be leaner but I need to balance that goal with making sure I eat enough to support my physical activity.

I just did another check in at the Bod Pod this week and I’m happy with my progress so far. I’ve lost another 4 lbs overall but more importantly, as part of that overall, I’ve also gained 2 lbs of muscle since my last check in, and so my per cent body fat is down 2%. Yay Crossfit! Yippee new muscles! I’ve joined Tracy in the merely “excess fat” category, heading towards “moderately lean.”

I’m also now following the Lean Eating program at Precision Nutrition.

You’ve probably read a few wonderful rants I’ve linked to by Krista Scott Dixon. Here’s my faves:

In addition to having put together the best women’s weight lifting site on the web, and having a PhD in Women’s Studies she’s also the Coaching Program Director for Precision Nutrition.  I’m actually working with another Precision Nutrition Krista though. Krista Chaus is another woman with a pretty impressive bio.

“Since beginning her competitive career as a strength athlete 10 year ago, Krista has become one of the Canadian Powerlifting Union’s Top 20 Female Powerlifters. She is also a National champion, provincial record holder and two times Commonwealth Championship medalist.

Recently, Krista has turned her competitive attention to the physique side of the industry, capturing 7 overall finishes in bodybuilding in 2008 and placing 5th at the 2009 Arnolds Amateur Bodybuilding Championships.  She’s currently working towards a National bench press record with the Canadian Powerlifting Association.” from her PN bio

It’s not a diet, in terms of short term change. Instead, I’m trying new habits on for size and trying to make them part of my life. The first big change for me is that one will sound familiar to those who’ve been following the blog: slow mindful eating.

There’ll be no vibrating forks for me though. I’m hoping to pay more attention to my food and less attention to electronic gadgets at the dinner table.

Anyway, wish me luck.

body image

Athletic versus Aesthetic Values in the Pursuit of Fitness

As anyone who’s been reading this blog knows as part of our “fittest by fifty” campaign both Tracy and I are looking for ways to track improvements in fitness that aren’t about the way we look. No “firmer thighs, visible abs” goals for me. I care much more about being fit (how fast I ride, or how much I can lift) than I do about looking fit.

Staying clear of caring about looks is a challenge in our culture, whether it’s looking fit or looking fashionable. For me I find refuge from our culture’s hyper emphasis on looks  in the values of athleticism.

What’s different about athletes? Athletes care about competing and about winning, not about what you look like. It’s a very different world than mainstream culture in which looks play such an enormous role. Generally speaking, among people who view themselves as athletes, people respect you for what you can do. (Of course, athletes do run up against mainstream cultural values. Consider the case of advertising dollars and who gets them, the best athlete or the most conventionally feminine one?)

In environments where there are a lot of athletes no one seems surprised at what I do in terms of physical activity. This is different from fitness clubs and other environments where it’s assumed that non-thin people are just starting out.

The Fowler Kennedy Clinic at Western, for example, sees a lot of older athletes and their standard list of questions asks what physical activities or sports you usually do in the run of a week. No one blinks as a I rhyme off my list. They don’t assume from that you can make any conclusions about how active someone is from what they look like.  The physiotherapists and I chat and bond over recent sporting news and I’m not a weirdo to them. “Fit and overweight, how can that be?” is a question that never occurs to them. They see a lot of athletes and there I’m just part of the mosaic.

For what it’s worth, I love their honesty. They never ever mention weight so occasionally I ask. Would my knees be happier if I lost a few kilos? Maybe. We don’t know. Try it and see how it feels.

Yes, exactly so. Thank you.

Focusing on what your body can do can be tremendously liberating. I loved being pregnant and even took a great deal of satisfaction in giving birth. Yes, it was hard work but my body was doing this amazing thing and doing it so well. Wow. All of sudden, the shape of my body made sense to me. Ah, that’s what these hips are good for? Yes.

I recognize this isn’t true for everyone. There are limits to what our bodies can do that those limits are different for different people. That’s true in both childbirth and in sports. We start with different raw material. Able bodied and disabled persons both face limits in terms of performance in sports. But I find that’s not a distinction that is so meaningful when it comes to sports.  Certainly, some of the best athletes I’ve known have been disabled but with adaptive gear have been able to compete at high levels. And thinking about sports you soon realize that everyone uses specialized equipment. It’s just different specialized equipment.

Here’s two other examples that help make my point.

In the rowing room there are very large mirrors besides the erg machines. And it is true that when I first started I immediately looked and noticed my chubby tummy and my messy hair. But after a few training sessions of working on form, I lost all self-consciousness about my shape and instead paid attention to whether my arms were moving quickly on the return and on whether I was bending from the hips in that way I’d been taught. I was still evaluating, yes, but what I was evaluating was something that actually matters for the sport.

Many sports feature clothing that’s designed for speed, not looks. Time trial cyclists in the velodrome wear a skin suit to help minimize wind resistance. Few women I know like the way they look in a skin suit. But once you realize you’re there to win, you get over worrying about how you look in a skin suit. Likewise, rowers compete in something called a unisuit. You can see some pics here.

Almost all the athletes I’ve met have a relationship to their bodies that’s healthier than that of the average gym goer. Certainly there’s no mincing about behind towels in the changing room. We’re all pretty comfortable with the flesh we’ve got. Ditto with healthier attitudes towards eating. Food is fuel for performance. The women cyclists I know all joke about how cycling has influenced our shapes. But it’s not weight or leanness that we talk about. It’s the important stuff, like finding jeans and boots that go over our calves.

So identifying as an athlete helps me avoid the focus on “looking fit” that’s so pervasive in our culture. But identifying as an athlete or as an athletic person isn’t something I was always comfortable doing. After all, I’m not a professional athlete and I wasn’t even a college level athlete.  If I’m joking I sometimes say “adult onset athlete” or weekend warrior. More seriously, I tend to describe myself as a recreational athlete or club-level athlete or masters swimmer/cyclist/rower etc but that’s enough of an ‘in/ for me to feel I can learn from and share in the values of athleticism.

An interesting question is how much of these values–caring about bodily competence not looks–we can transport back into the everyday world.

And yes, not all is rosy in the land of athletic values. It’s not a perfect world. Consider what’s happening as the competitiveness of  professional competition sneaks into amateur athletics. See Wider Testing Reveals Doping Among Amateur Cyclists, Too.

But in terms of providing alternative values to those that rule in the land of looks and beauty, the world of athletics has something to offer women. Let’s sing the praises of our bodies for what they can do, not the way they look. In my own pursuit of fitness. I’ll take athletics over aesthetics any day.