body image · fitness

More progress on the body image front: weight loss is *not* an “upside” of food poisoning

Grey cartoon figure standing and holding stomach in first image, then kneeling in front of the toilet vomiting in the second. Sweat emanates (indicated as blue drops) from brow in both frames.
Grey cartoon figure standing and holding stomach in first image, then kneeling in front of the toilet vomiting in the second. Sweat emanates (indicated as blue drops) from brow in both frames.

OMG I have been so incredibly ill for the past 36 hours, ever since I ate something that I had qualms about even as I ate it (the body knows these things). I had to leave work early yesterday, and by the evening I was throwing up (I hate throwing up). That continued into the early hours. And oh did I feel sick. Groan out loud sick. It’s food poisoning or the norovirus or some equally brutal thing that has moved into my system to take me down.

Needless to say, not only did I lose my lunch and even the water I’d sipped on, but I truly couldn’t even consider eating anything. When I did start to feel like an attempt at something might be in order around 24 hours after the last meal I’d eaten, I tried a banana, a few dry crackers, and some clear tea.

Back in the day I, or one of the friends whom I complained to about my affliction, would have thought or said something like, “at least you’ll lose some weight.” Now, this is a ridiculous thing to say, I realize. But back then it was assumed that weight loss was an ever present goal in the life of every woman. I’m pleased to report that it didn’t even cross my mind. And that fact makes me very happy because losing weight, even if you do lose weight, is not an “upside” of food poisoning. It has no physical upside. None. It’s a horrible thing that is thoroughly bad in every single way.

The last time I scored a notable body image win that showed a major shift in attitude was a few years ago when I joined my first “learn to run” clinic. They were going around the room asking people why they joined. I said something about wanting to find some people to run with and get some tips about how to run smarter.

What only hit me later was how incredible it was that I didn’t even think of weight loss as a motivator. Back in the day, when I was obsessed with weight loss, I would not embark on any sort of program of activity unless I felt sure it would contribute to weight loss. In fact, as a graduate student almost 30 years ago I literally gave up swimming, an activity I adored and that made me feel amazing, because I read somewhere that it wasn’t an efficient way to lose fat (oh how many layers of unpacking are needed to get to the bottom of what’s wrong with that claim in the first place).

Well I felt the same when I realized I wasn’t seeing anything positive about this bout of food poisoning that had to do with weight loss. Score! So maybe that’s one positive – it has reminded me that I’ve come a long way in how I relate to my body. Maybe even one more – it’s forced me to rest, which is not something I easily do. My tendency is always to take on just a little more than I’ve got the time and energy to do.

So I’ve made progress but I know there are people out there who see weight loss as a silver lining in things like stomach flus and food poisoning. I’m glad I don’t think that way anymore. I would love to want to and to be able to eat more than I ate today. And that’s a good thing that tells me that weight loss is no longer integral to my body image.

Have you ever considered weight loss to be a positive side effect of otherwise negative temporary conditions like food poisoning or stomach bugs?

 

body image · fitness · Guest Post

What Tabletop Gaming Taught Me About Feminist Fitness, Inclusiveness, and Body Image (Guest Post)

by Kimberly Brumble

grey sleeveless workout tank
Personally I’d just settle for being to walk all day long

 

This time of year, when a lot of people are re-committing themselves to various fitness goals, the tabletop gaming community is also abuzz with discussions comparing fitness trackers, sneaker purchases, couch to 5k plans, and the elusive 10,000 steps.  However, unlike a lot of January fitness adopters, the tabletop gamers are training to play a long game with goals cumulating out in mid summer and even early September.  Why?  That’s convention season, and suddenly thousands of people who are passionate about a hobby that involves sitting around a table for 4-6 hours at a stretch will need to also be able to walk 10,000 to 20,000 plus steps in a single day, probably also lugging bags full of games and gaming materials with them, for 12 to even 20-hour stretches at a time.  These are folks, like me, who take their sedentary hobby so seriously they will begin training 6 and even 9 months out to get the most out of the Best Four Days in Gaming.

Hello, I’m Kimberly Brumble.  I’m a philosopher of science.  In my free time I hike, cycle, run, and lift heavy things.  But also once a week for 5 hours I’m a dwarven fighter trying to save Golarion one axe swing at a time.  Yep.  And I live for it. And sitting around a table pretending to be a super-human elite who can do all sorts of things I can’t has changed how I experience fitness.  Our journey begins…

Let me backtrack and give a little background on me and my hobby.  Tabletop gaming centers around playing games on, you guessed it, a table rather than a screen.  These games range from complex board games like the wildly popular Settlers of Catan and Arkham Horror to role playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) or Vampire the Masquerade.  Also popular are miniatures games like War Hammer, deck-building card games like Magic the Gathering, party card games like Werewolf, and so on.  Basically, if you can play it on a table, it probably has a following which attends conventions like GenCon.

If you had caught me 2 years ago, I would have told you that my dalliances with board games began and ended with an ex-boyfriend trying to explain Catan to me, which I experienced much like this.  And then at his suggestion observing his friends play the game, which went much like this.  When the guys finally did let me play I was so bored I sabotaged my own budding civilization in the first hour so I could go do something else at the party.  Much of my experience of board gaming was at first shaped by 1. the weird gendered dynamics involved with learning mechanics-heavy games and 2. playing the wrong games for me.

RPGs and card games and I didn’t fair much better. As a queer geek gal growing up in a yet-to-be-hip Portland, Oregon, of the 80’s and 90’s, I could never get invited to play DnD or Magic the Gathering for two reasons: 1. I was a girl and 2. I didn’t “look” geeky enough to seem “safe” to invite.  A common trope in 90’s geek culture.  Apparently it was scary enough to invite Cool Guys, let alone sporty girls.  I mean I was also plenty geeky (I’ve read the Silmarillion…multiple times…which is something even among Tolkien dorks), but I was also sporty and artsy, and geek culture had yet to  become so mainstream that people who looked like me got invited to the game table.

Fast forward to two years ago when a bunch of grad students in my philosophy department decided to start a game night.  Our goal was two-fold: 1. have a good time in small-town Indiana without spending money and 2. try to build a better, cooperative climate in our hyper-competitive, socially-challenged cohort.  A weekly gaming night morphed into a 2+ year DnD campaign–which I am still skyping into thousands of miles and two countries away–and passion for tabletop gaming.

DnD will change your life.  There has been a lot written about the social and even professional benefits of RPGs in terms of team-building skills, empathy and community building, and even writing, but for this post I’m going to focus on how it changed my experience of fitness.  That’s right: if you are still reading this, my fellow jocks, DnD changed how I experience fitness.  Here’s how:

First the bad: Tabletop gaming lives up to some of the stereotypes.  Committing to a long-running DnD campaign (Pathfinder, actually, for my fellow RPGers reading) meant committing to sit at a table for 4-6 hours a week, during my free time.  That’s time that I used to spend hiking, cycling, and running.  I now spend it sitting.  That doesn’t mean I don’t still do those things, but I don’t do them on Saturday afternoons (when we currently game).  It’s not more time spent sitting gaming than many people spend in a week watching TV, but there it is.  Also, there are snacks.  Lots of snacks.  Which is great.  And not.

But here is the good (and maybe surprising):  plenty of us gamers are still really active people during the rest of our lives.  What’s more, I have found that gaming and gaming culture has some nice benefits for people, and particularly femme-type people, who are also into fitness.  First of all, DnD campaigns in general involve a lot of action. Even if the players are sitting, they are imagining fighting, swimming, climbing, and doing so, so, so much walking.  Ever read or watched Lord of the Rings? Yeah, it’s like that.  And actually, you can just walk into Mordor.  It’s pretty much the only way to do it (eagles aside).  So even if you play a very squishy (that’s DnD speak for non-athletic and easy to hurt) wizard, your character is probably pretty fit and occasionally making climb, swim, acrobatics, and wilderness survival checks and, generally…hopefully…dice permitting, passing most of them.  On top of that you can choose to play a character who uses physical abilities rather than magic primarily to get shit done.  In our game I play a fighter–and I don’t use magic, just a lot of strength and agility and stamina.  Which is nice, actually, because it kind of motivates me to think about and maintain those physical abilities IRL as well.  Characters “level up” and improve their abilities, which makes them better at doing more stuff, and I have gone from thinking about fitness as maintenance, or beauty, or a duty, to “leveling up” with regard to my IRL physical stats.  Charisma (charm, social skills, beauty) after all, is its own stat.  Strength, agility, and constitution have nothing to do with how you look in the world of DnD, and that’s kind of liberating, especially I think for women and femme-type folks.

Speaking of gender and stats, in DnD the gender of a character does not determine their base stats or how stats progress. Men, women, and every other gender imaginable start with the same base stats available to them.  That means your average human in DnD has a strength of 10, dexterity 10, and constitution (hardiness) of 10.  It’s up to you to change those scores as you build your character and play the game.  For me, a gender-fluid woman who has struggled my whole life with gendered norms and expectations about fitness, that was a revelation.  If I didn’t have to go into DnD with gendered expectations about my own abilities, maybe I didn’t need to bring those to the gym/mountains/cycle track either.  And what I can imagine has a big impact on what I find myself able to do and be.

Finally, I want to say something about the world of DnD and gender with regards to the DnD races.  If you have consumed any high fantasy media you are probably aware that much high fantasy post-Tolkien comes stocked with some standard-issue (and often less standard-issue) fantasy “races.”  It’s important to note that these “humanoid” races do not and probably should not track real-world human concepts of race: we are talking elves, humans, dwarves, gnomes, haflings, orcs, and the like.  While they do come preloaded as tropes with their own set of representational problems, others have also argued that thinking about these issues in fantasy can also open dialogue about issues in media representation of real racism, cis-sexism, hetero-sexism, and ableism.  One thing which fantasy races have done for fans of the genre is to provide us with a multitude of alternate images of different genders as strong, agile, and beautiful people.  In my own experience as a stocky, muscular woman standing 5’2’’, I have found myself drawn to characters with similar builds; thick legs and powerful arms can be beautiful too.  Or not.  Because beauty is not compulsory for effectiveness.  Not even for bards.  Body diversity matters.  Even in fiction.  And especially in a genre in which men and women have so often been made to look like this:

conan

It’s powerful to see them depicted in a range of bodies.  Like this:

kb2
Behold the “Rat Queens” from the eponymous, amazing DnD comic by Kurtis J. Wiebe. Source:https://www.facebook.com/RatQueens/photos/a.145825672257123.1073741828.145821855590838/217050488467974/?type=3&theater

And the same has been true increasingly for men as well:

men
Some of the men of “Rat Queens” getting sporty. Source: https://www.facebook.com/RatQueens/photos/a.145825672257123.1073741828.145821855590838/667798140059871/?type=1&theater

 

Feels good to go post-human, yeah?

So to sum up, tabletop gaming has brought new perspectives on fitness for me as it has slowly taken over my non-academic life: I think about my fitness in terms of being able to do things I want to do (like walk around a convention all day lugging heavy gaming manuals, something my DnD fighter would consider par for the course), or improving my ability scores (rather than punishing myself or maintaining or striving for some abstract appearance-related goal).  What’s more, it’s expanded how I and many gamers imagine strong, capable, competent, optionally beautiful, and powerful bodies- both ours and those we inhabit in our dream-lives saving imaginary worlds, one Saturday afternoon at a time.

 

kb

Kimberly “Berly” Brumble is a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary. Her research focuses on how uncertainty in climate modeling effects decision-making and how decision-making under “deep uncertainty” involves both scientists and policy-makers in the environmental sciences and geophysics. She enjoys hiking, camping, cycling, cycle camping, running, canoeing and kayaking, lifting heavy things, and pretending that the Canadian Rockies are the Misty Mountains on weekends. She is also pretty serious about illustrating and painting. She has recently discovered playing in, writing, and running rpgs. Catch her next year at GenCon on her recurring panel “Philosophers Play Pathfinder.”

body image · diets · fitness · weight loss

Imagine if size really didn’t matter. Can you?

tape-measureOne of the most intriguing news items this week reported on a six-year study that measured what happened to the contestants who lost dramatic amounts of weight in Season 8 of the reality TV show we here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue love to hate: The Biggest Loser.

For those of us who have gained and lost, lost and gained, and lost and gained again, the most obvious result wasn’t a shocker. The contestants are heavier than they were when the show ended.  The season’s winner, Danny Cahill, went from 430 pounds to 191 pounds over the seven month period of the weight loss competition.

And he’s gained 100 of it back. According to The New York Times article “After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight,” the regain is despite his best efforts. “In fact,” the article goes on to say, “most of that season’s 16 contestants have regained much if not all of the weight they lost so arduously. Some are even heavier now.”

The study has been revealing, not because it told us what we already knew–that it’s hard to keep off lost weight–but because the researchers discovered just how hard the body fights to regain lost weight. The key: resting metabolism. We all know that the metabolism slows when we diet. But here’s the thing:

What shocked the researchers was what happened next: As the years went by and the numbers on the scale climbed, the contestants’ metabolisms did not recover. They became even slower, and the pounds kept piling on. It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight.

Mr. Cahill was one of the worst off. As he regained more than 100 pounds, his metabolism slowed so much that, just to maintain his current weight of 295 pounds, he now has to eat 800 calories a day less than a typical man his size. Anything more turns to fat.

The sad truth for the vast majority of people who try to lose weight and keep it off is this: “despite spending billions of dollars on weight-loss drugs and dieting programs, even the most motivated are working against their own biology.”

All of the contestants in the study burn hundreds fewer calories per day than expected for a man or woman their size.  The upshot seems to be that extreme dieting and weight loss permanently slows the metabolism.

There’s a lot more to the article reporting on this research, and you can read it here. But what I really want to consider now is how we are supposed to react to this news. I venture to say, from a quick look at the first few of the over 2600 comments (I know, I know), that people will look for an explanation that makes this group of people different.

The most frequent thing that was pointed out in the first few comments I read is that they lost the weight really quickly.  What about following the progress of people in, say, Weight Watchers? That’s a slower loss. Do they keep it off?  Actually, the answer is: no. Not really. Not many. Any WW promotional materials that include “success stories” will say “results not typical.”

So the first reaction people have is denial.  This can’t be representative. It’s hard to know why anyone who has tried to lose weight and keep it off would think this isn’t representative since, chances are, if that’s you, you gained it back too! Really, these findings should come as reassurance that we’re not all a bunch of weak-willed moral failures.

But instead, people find them threatening because they may show something that’s really hard to accept: that for most people, it just cannot be done. You can lose the weight, but your body will do its damnedest to regain what was lost.

Why should we recoil from this likelihood?  Because it’s really hard to imagine a world in which size doesn’t matter.

One of the comments I read said, “so can we stop fat-shaming people now?” But the groundswell of support for the idea that the Biggest Loser contestants just “did it wrong” suggests that fat-shaming is alive and well.

People with normative bodies–the right size, shape, colour–gain all sorts of social and economic benefits and privileges. They’re more likely to get jobs, high grades, good performance evaluations. They have a better chance of finding partners, earning more money, having friends, being acceptable to strangers. Their chances of suffering abuse and discrimination because of their size are lower; their chances of finding clothing that fits, of fitting into the seat on their next flight, and of being able to eat what they like without being judged are much higher.

In other words, being perceived as obese by others has enormous social and economic costs.  Our obsession with size is so far reaching and ranges over so many areas of life, that it’s hard to imagine what a world where size doesn’t matter would be like.

If size didn’t matter, people wouldn’t be denied employment because of their size. It wouldn’t be commonplace for people to police the food choices of others and to hide behind the claim that “I’m just concerned about your health.” No one would face abuse because of their size or be the butt of bad jokes. There’d be more roles for people of all sizes in movies, and fat people could be cast in roles other than “the fat friend.” Doctors wouldn’t zero in on weight when you go for a check-up. Weight-loss wouldn’t be a popular indicator of physical fitness. Fashionable clothes would be accessible to people of all sizes. No one would spend money on weight loss programs or special “diet” foods. And people wouldn’t post about their weight loss efforts on social media. A show like The Biggest Loser would hold no one’s interest. And the results of the study would be neither here nor there.

I’m sure not everyone believes the research results in this study are depressing. But for those who do, why do they? People want to keep believing that something can be done about being fat. Keeping this possibility alive supports continued discrimination and hate because it throws responsibility back on individuals who are larger than the normative standard.

It’s obvious from the number of people who are attempting to lose weight and keep it off themselves that it’s not only people with normative bodies who are fat phobic. Lots of folks have internalized the cultural messages and experienced the social/economic costs of being larger than what’s deemed okay.

When the costs are real, it can be challenging not to hold out hope for change. If there haven’t been enough other studies about set-points and weight regain and so on, by following a high profile group of “losers,” this particular study shows in sad detail that dieting can and does do serious and permanent metabolic damage to those who diet “successfully.” And that it doesn’t work.

The upshot is, though I would like to think the comment “so can we stop fat-shaming people now?” would win the day, sadly, that’s not about to happen. People are too invested in (1) despising fat and (2) making it up to individuals to make the right choices so they won’t be fat to accept what so many already know: dieting doesn’t work.

Can you imagine a world where size doesn’t matter? What does it look like?

body image · fat · fitness

Breaking news: fat suit use in western hospitals unrelated to WHO report on global diabetes; Details at 11…

There’s a new report out today by the World Health Organization about global increases in diabetes.  The news is bad:  there’s been a fourfold increase in the number of people with diabetes world wide, and the incidence has increased from 4.7% to 8.5%.  Those increases are especially concentrated  in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

I’ll be blogging in more wonky detail about recent studies and reports on body weight and global public health concerns on Sunday.  But one thing struck me about how this particular news outlet  presented the information (thanks Samantha for sending me the article):  the picture they chose to illustrate and identify the news story.  It’s at the top of the blog and here.
Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 12.49.19 AM.png
In case you’re having trouble parsing the image, it appears to be a white woman from a well-resourced country being helped by a white female hospital staff member to put on a hospital gown in an examining room, WHILE WEARING A FAT SUIT.
What? Can someone explain this to me?
This ridiculous nonsensical image conveys the following messages to me:
  • Fat people are grotesque.
  • Fat people are passive, not able to do things for themselves.
  • Fat people need to be in hospitals.
  • In order to depict fat people we think it’s more effective to show a person in a fat suit.
The WHO report and other studies show that type 2 diabetes is affecting Asian and African and middle eastern populations severely, but the picture doesn’t reflect that message.  Diabetes also strikes Asian populations at much lower BMIs than in, say, Latino populations.  But we don’t see an Asian person or a Latino person at a diabetes clinic.  Nope, just that white lady in the fat suit.
I suppose it could be worse– they could’ve depicted her with no head.
Okay, this may seem like just a rant.  Well, it IS a rant, but for a reason.  Images that represent fat people in these bizarre or scornful or pathologized ways have two bad effects:
1) they stigmatize fat people, causing all kinds of harm;
2) they distract us from the real and pressing global public health issues, like how to deal with increased diabetes globally.
So enough with the weird staged fat suit pictures.  And while we’re at it, please put the heads back on those headless fat people– they need them.  Thank you.
aging · body image · fitness · weight lifting · yoga

Muscles and Aging Women’s Bodies

I loved Nanette’s post about strength training and the feminine ideal a couple of weeks ago, and I have to admit that it made me long for those days as a grad student in my twenties when I used to work out at the gym a lot and, like Nanette, I could literally see the results. If you didn’t see Nanette’s post, here she is and this is what it’s like to have a buff, young body that shows your effort:

nanette Back shotI know we’re not all about looks here, and for all sorts of reasons. I’ve talked openly about the inspirational disvalue of fitspo. But oh how fabulous those back muscles look.

Lots of us aren’t in our twenties anymore. And lots of us have bodies that never really did show the fruits of our labor in quite that same dramatic way (if at all) in the first place. For women with aging bodies, much of the mental work goes into accepting that we may never look the way we think we should, should have (or wish we would or would have) or we may not be able to maintain the body we had in our twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, etc.

We need to let go of some of those more superficial dreams because hanging onto an appearance ideal is the biggest indicator of who is going struggle with aging. Check out Sam’s post about this topic here.

We don’t have to fight aging. Instead, we can age well. See what Sam has to say about that here.

I’ve been reflecting on all of this lately because, not suprisingly for a woman in her fifties, I have lots of friends in their fifties too. And we all have thoughts about aging. Lots of “battle” language in my conversations with friends these days as they continue to fight their bodies.

I’ve already sworn off talking about people’s weight loss goals and diets with them. Not interested.

But I realize too that, true to the challenge Sam and I set for ourselves in 2012 when we started the blog, taking weight loss and body composition out of the equation, I am in fact the fittest I’ve ever been in my life. I feel pretty awesome. This week, another friend of mine, also in her fifties and also the fittest of her life, came with her partner to spend some time with us for a few days on our sailboat in the Bahamas.

We were super active, walking, hiking, swimming, kayaking, and even taking in a yoga class on the beach one day. We talked about how hard we work to stay strong and physically healthy these days, and also how energized and committed we feel to our respective routines. Being on vacation, it didn’t even cross our minds not to stay active. These things just evolved as part of each day.

Part of that “battle” language I talked about just now has to do with rejecting the aging body.  We are told that at a certain age, our bodies become “unsightly.” I swear someone invented the tankini to shame older women into ditching their two piece bikinis so no one would have to look at our bellies. If, as Nanette says, the feminine ideal is for women to be soft and demure and weak, the older woman is supposed to be even softer, weaker, and more invisible.

Not too long ago, it wasn’t uncommon to encounter lists of things that that women “of a certain age” should not wear.  According to this article:

Our bodies change and in many cases not for the better. Arms don’t have the muscle tone that they used to have and totally sleeveless tops show this is off so well. This will be equally true of thin woman as those who are overweight.

If these articles had their way, we would be walking that fine edge between being too frumpy and dressing in an age-appropriate way.  And no one is spared–the fat and the thin are equally at risk of getting it all wrong. But that was before it became clear that those women were a force to be reckoned with, responding with a loud and resounding “f**k that!”

The mental work of overcoming internalized and externally imposed expectations about how we are supposed to look has a huge impact on our ability to feel good in the bodies we have, no matter how the passing of time may affect how we look. I’ve heard lots of people say, and I believe it to be true, that body confidence is a lot more attractive, sexy even (and yes, we get to keep being sexy and get to — gasp — keep having sex), than even the most objectively perfect-looking body of an insecure person (remember: the more wedded we are to our looks, the tougher it is to age).

Anyway, if there’s one thing Cindi and I rocked this week it was body confidence. Why? Because both of us feel strong and healthy and energized by what we’re doing. We may not have tons of it, but both of us have some muscle that we didn’t have a few years ago and we feel it. Here’s Cindi, rocking her new found pipes on the beach.

My friend Cindi, looking awesome after beach yoga and a long swim in the ocean.
My friend Cindi, looking awesome after beach yoga and a long swim in the ocean.

And here we are after a bit of a hike to see “the monument” at the top of the ridge, down to the beach on the other side, and then back over again, on our way to the long and deserted beach that ranks as my favourite place to go swimming in the entire world. Smooth white sand, soft surf (on the calmer days), and clear turquoise colored water.

Cindi and I, expressing our trees with enthusiasm from atop the ridge. Photo credit: Jan Hertsens.
Cindi and I, expressing our trees with enthusiasm from atop the ridge. Photo credit: Jan Hertsens.

If Sam is right that aging is a lifestyle choice, it’s a lifestyle choice we’re not choosing to make right now, at least not in that way.  If you’re an older woman whose body isn’t quite the lean machine it once was, or maybe never was, then maybe it’s time to make the choice to love what you have and work it to its best potential.

I’m a bit squishier than my younger self, with the muscle I have hiding under a less lean physique, but I’m feeling strong and vibrant. And life is good. I can still do yoga. I can do squats, lunges, bench presses, dips, and am coming close to being able to complete a full pull-up for the first time in my life (stay tuned for a progress report when that day finally comes). Not to mention (but I will) the triathlons, half marathons, marathons…

We may be getting older, but we are not ready for those tankinis yet, unless that’s what we want, because as the Huff Post rebuttle to the ridiculous idea that people get to police our clothing choices says:

You are over 50 for fuck’s sake. Wear whatever you want. If you’ve made it to 50 and still need to consult articles on how to dress appropriately then you are so missing out on one of the best things about being over 50. One of the best things about getting older is realizing that we don’t have to spend our energy worrying what other people think and we get to be comfortable in our own skin…

 

 

body image · diets · fitness · weight loss

Are People Really Happy for People Who Lose Weight?

smiley faceThis topic of weight loss has come up quite a bit lately, even though we are a blog that professes (rightly) not to be about weight loss and definitely not about dieting.

I can’t even count the number of posts we’ve written over the years that say fitness is not measured by weight loss (recent case in point: Sam’s musing yesterday).

And anyone who knows me knows well that I do not compliment people on weight loss. Pretty much never, since that time Sam and I both remember all too well when we complimented someone who, in fact, had indeed lost lots of weight — because she had cancer! Yes, that ranks up there with the times in my life I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide.  And of course, Sam’s recent weight loss has a lot to do with having her thyroid removed because she had surgery for thyroid cancer in the summer.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “you’ve lost weight! you look great!” is not a compliment. Granted, lots of people are trying to lose weight. And, granted, those people probably like it when people notice (maybe?) because heck, they’re trying. Why isn’t it a compliment? Because it implicitly says, “and you used to look like shit, and guess what? I noticed that too!” And it implicitly assumes that everyone wants to lose weight, that losing weight is a good thing in and of itself, that being fat is not good (and looks awful), and that people are entitled to monitor the size of others’ bodies. And all of that is crap that we shouldn’t be assuming and doing.

But here’s something: I wonder whether people are actually happy when someone they know loses weight (not because of cancer, but because of effort)?  The reason I wonder is that at any given time, I would say a good 50% of the people I know are trying to lose weight or thinking about it, and more than 50% of those aren’t successful (not surprisingly, given this and this and this and this and oh so much more!).

So I’m going to go out on a limb here, and it may be a lonely limb that reveals me to be petty and small-minded: a lot of the time, people aren’t actually happy for you when you lose weight. First, there are the killjoy feminists like me who don’t really notice anymore when the people around them lose weight.  I consider the not noticing to be a personal accomplishment of mine.

But even more than that, there are those people who are battling the odds when the odds are heavily not in their favour. That would be the majority of people on a diet or weight loss program, actively trying to lose weight. I’m going to venture that a good portion of those people actually feel a little screw turn in their gut whenever someone they knows beats the odds and actually “succeeds” at that elusive goal: weight loss.

Seeing people who, for whatever reason (sometimes cancer, sometimes dieting, sometimes grief, sometimes — though not nearly as often as we’d like — exercise) drop pounds can start an internal monologue that, far from being thrilled for the person, quickly turns inward to self-flagellation and a sense of failure: If she can do it, why can’t I? What am I doing wrong? What’s wrong with me? I’m such a failure.

I’m happy for you if that’s never you. But if that’s sometimes you, join the club. Because I do go there, still today–my non-weight loss noticing-self can go there.

So I’m just going to put this out there and be totally frank. I really can’t stand it when people talk about their weight loss. I don’t care what the reasons. I don’t care if you’re trying or not trying. I don’t care if it’s for performance or for looks or just because that’s what friends, family, and strangers like to talk about.

You know, you can dress it up any way you like. But to me it’s such a personal thing that our social world has made into a public thing. And I’m always stumped about what we’re supposed to say. “Good for you!” even when someone is trying just goes against everything that feels right to me. It’s like encouraging something that I see ruin the lives of perfectly excellent people who think that weight loss will afford them something they need in order to feel good about themselves (or better about themselves). I just can’t have the conversation anymore, with anyone. [I like Carly’s suggestion of saying, “how does that feel for you?” but those don’t feel like my words]

So this brings me back to the question of whether people are really happy for people who lose weight. If you’re like me, you’ve read lots of stuff on dieting and weight loss in your time. And they always talk about the saboteurs. Those are the people who want you to eat another helping because they cooked it, or a piece of cake because it’s a special occasion, or chocolate because it’s Valentine’s Day, and therefore thwart your efforts at weight loss. Are they happy when their loved ones lose weight? Sometimes, the literature says, they feel threatened.

And then there are those people who are trying and getting nowhere. Are they happy for you? I’m not so sure. But I think it’s complicated. And that’s because successful weight loss is hard to square with the reality of how difficult it is to lose and maintain weight loss. And so when someone achieves it, we may be a little happy for them (maybe some people are super happy for them), but lots more people just use it as another reason to get down on themselves. And that’s the painful truth for many.

I don’t mean to be saying that that’s the only reason, or even the main reason, I don’t like to talk about weight loss (yours or mine). But it’s not a neutral subject, and it’s loaded with all sorts of cultural meaning that hooks into horrible attitudes that I don’t like to encourage. And even when someone’s reasons aren’t about that stuff, it’s still highly personal and that makes it at the very least an odd thing to advertise and go on about.

I can’t control what others want to talk about, but over the last little while, after a few conversations (with a few different people) that made me squirm and feel uncomfortable, I know for certain that I’m not taking part anymore. And for all of these complicated reasons, I’m going to be totally honest and say I’m happy for people about all sorts of things, but not super happy for someone simply because they’ve lost weight. I realize that makes me sound grumpy and petty, but there it is.

fitness

The Panopticon Revisited: Kitchen Mirrors for Self-Surveillance

 I hate tracking because it feels like the panopticon to me. I wrote about that a long while ago when we first started this blog. See my post here. The panopticon is a prison design that social-political philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with in the 19th Century. The thing of it is, prisoners never know when they’re being watched. So they start to engage in self-surveillance and self-monitoring. They become so good at it that guards are hardly necessary.

Feminist philosophers have used this same idea to talk about the way normative feminity works. Always conscious of the possibility  that we are being watched and monitored, we women begin to do it ourselves. It’s basically the idea of keeping ourselves in line with rules imposed from the outside by internalizing those rules. Tracking feels like that to me.

But a new study that came out recently takes the panopticon metaphor to a whole new level, indeed, no longer even a metaphor. Maybe you’ve already heard. If you read the blog regularly you definitely have already heard because–and this is the beauty of having a team of feminists working together to respond to the latest research that does a disservice to women–Catherine blogged about it on Sunday. See her “Mirror, Mirror” post. 

If you want to eat less “bad” food (even though food is beyond good and evil), hang a mirror in the kitchen. Yes. You read that right. You can read more about the story in this story from The Washington Post and this one from The National Post. 

Apparently, watching ourselves eat food that we perceive to be bad, evil, or wrong to eat makes us feel crappy. We look for a reason and blame it on the chocolate cake.

This is just not something I can get behind. First of all, if you’re going to eat the cake, don’t you want to enjoy it? Do we really need to find further ways to feel shitty about ourselves?

Second, as if incessant tracking isn’t bad enough, now we are supposed to watch ourselves in the mirror too? It just feels so messed up.

Third, there’s the panopticon. It’s a bad thing, all that self-monitoring and self-surveillance to make sure we all into line with standards of behaviour that external norms impose on us. The panopticon is a prison design for Pete’s sake.  Its purpose in to promote compliance.

No, no, no. So please, let’s try to enjoy our food. Yes, let’s make choices. I’m all for thinking about how I may use food for all sorts of reasons that have little to do with keeping myself physically fed and nourished. Having some awareness is a good thing. But when we kick that to the level of self-surveillance and literally keeping an eye on ourselves so we behave, that’s a disturbing prospect worth resisting more than a piece of chocolate cake.

fitness

Good Advice, Bad Advice: some thoughts from our bloggers on 2015

As this year wraps up, we’ve all been awash in benedictions on 2015 and expectations for 2016. Still, it’s cheering to look forward to fresh slates and new possibilities. This includes fitness. I’ll be posting Sunday on my fitness goals for 2016. For now, as a final adieu to 2015, I asked our bloggers what were some of their favorite fitness advice or revelations for this year. I also asked them what was the worst piece of fitness advice they ran across. Here are some of their responses (edited for brevity).

Let’s start with the revelations and good advice.

Gyms? You don’t necessarily need them.

I let my membership lapse in February, intending to switch to the YMCA; I then experimented with not joining, to see if all my outdoor activities could make the gym redundant. And they did. I cycled as usual with my club… I joined a rowing club in town and was motivated to get out on the water as often as possible because, no gym… I took up yoga at a specialist Iyengar studio in town because I could justify the added cost. And I swam, swam, swam at community pools around town, including my gorgeous outdoor neighbourhood pool.

Now, here we are at the end of the year, deep into winter, and I have no plans to head back to the gym! I am riding outside until it snows, riding my rollers, doing a trainer class with friends, using the ergometers at the rowing club as well as their weight equipment, and I’ve hired a personal trainer that my friends rave about, and indeed he is superb. I don’t miss the gym one bit. It’s true that all this stuff together costs a bit more than a year’s gym membership, but not much. Best of all, I’ve realised that doing sports stuff I love is WAY more fun this way.

Know that you can go slow.

I turned 50 this year and the biggest shift for me was to accept that I’m slowing down and taking longer to recover, that I won’t be in the faster group of runners or cyclists anymore. That was hard to swallow and I fought it. But acknowledging It helped me be present to what is true for me — that I’m 50 and can still ride 525 km through the Vietnamese hills with only my base fitness, I can run 10km with ease and joy — but all only if I slow down, stretch, remember that I’m preserving my body for mobility for another several decades rather than trying to win something in the now. 

For daunting exercises, divide and conquer.

There’s always a couple of exercises in my sets that make me anxious. A friend told me to divide my reps by three and make them more manageable chunks. It works beautifully!

Enjoy the immediate gratification of good feeling that exercise can bring.

Exercise does NOT have to hurt to be beneficial.

Just say NO to fat shaming at your doctor’s office.

Finally, after years of putting off medical care and gritting my teeth when I finally trudged into my doctor’s office, I changed practices and started afresh with someone I could be honest with. I told her I would not agree to be weighed anymore (except at a yearly physical), or unless it was needed (e.g. pre-operative appointment). I explained my position and she didn’t argue with me. I still get asked to be weighed each time to go (even for a cough—argh), but I say no each time and briefly remind them of the conversation we had. I’d prefer not being asked, but I can handle this, and it makes medical appointments much less stressful.

Goals/Schmoals—you can do the movement you do without judgment, assessment, or goals.

I’m trying to get out of the mindset that leads to self judgement when I don’t achieve an arbitrary goal. Self judgement is super demotivating. I have become very mindful of the temptation to critique myself when I don’t run/bike/whatever. Instead, I look to the next opportunity to do it, not because I should, but because I want to take care of myself. It’s resulted in the achievement of goals, ironically. I am now the proud owner of a 10minute mile (6 minute kilometer). It’s not that I’ve abandoned goals altogether, I just don’t take my failure as seriously as I used to.

When you feel the need, go for speed.

Speed work actually works! In swimming and running my times improved from speed drills. I will be doing more of this in my training through the winter. 

No one else is going to call you a failure (so how about don’t do it to yourself?).

I took a trad climbing course this summer. That’s a rock climbing technique where you place your own protection in natural features in the rock instead of clipping into already set bolts. It’s completely terrifying, since it requires even more trust in your own ability than regular rock climbing does. After a particularly knee-shaking, life-choice-questioning climb that weekend, I was once again reminded of a life lesson I probably should have learned by now (I don’t actually think I’ve learned it yet), that most people out there are not the least bit concerned with branding you a failure. And when you come back down off the cliff convinced that your friends will never let you show your face near them again because of whatever inability you have just displayed, you find yourself proven utterly wrong. Because they really don’t care half as much as you do about how good you are at things.

All movement counts—the power of everyday exercise is not to be underestimated.

I’ve blogged about this a bunch, and my experience on sabbatical demonstrated that just being active every day can strengthen me, improve the quality of my sleep, and make me feel happier. I’m keeping it up now that I’m back.

Now to the bad fitness advice to be avoided.

Anything to do with linking fitness and BMI is bad bad bad, especially doctor weigh-ins.

I see a rheumatologist regularly because I have an autoimmune disease; every time I visit her office – EVERY TIME – I have to be weighed and my weight noted in my file. My rheumatologist knows that I am an athlete and we talk a lot about which activities are helpful and/or harmful for the joint condition, and how to mitigate the latter. She’s a very good and sensible doctor, and I know she’s not *asking* for my weight; it’s something that gets done as a matter of routine for all patients by the interns. But why, for heaven’s sake, does it need to be routine? It’s just like the regular weigh-in when I get my physical at the doctor; the nurse duly notes my weight and then gets out the BMI chart. I always want to scream: put that away! It tells you nothing about my body or my health!

It’s one of the things I hate about going to the doctor – it makes me anxious for a good period of time before I head into the appointment room. I get performance anxiety about it. Surely that’s not a good thing?

Just say NO to diet trends.

I find the whole gluten free/paleo/deprive yourself of whatever trendy item is in vogue diet to be quite tiresome [you said it, sister! –caw].

I dislike the endless cycling of diets and “bad” foods everyone is obsessed with. I’m still with Michael Pollans “eat food, not too much, mostly plants “and keep a special place in my heart for carbs if I’m working out hard.

Worst advice was was to eliminate grains & starches from my plate as part of the Prevent weightloss program I’m accessing through work. After a week of feeling deflated and falling asleep every night after dinner for two hours I put grains and starchy foods back on my plate. I need that energy!

Bogus advice from factory farming and self-serving “health” industries: Milk (and its many contaminants), it does a body good.

Once more with feeling: weight loss does NOT equal fitness.

I continue to encounter people (mostly in my practice) that are fixated on the fitness=weight loss equation. By that I mean, fitness is for weight loss or weight loss means I’m getting fit etc. I have become more vocal about steering people away from that as a goal. I try to shift the conversation to taking care of the body by moving it and fueling it well, instead of punishing it and starving it. Punitive strategies never work in the long term and do great damage over time.

Demonizing fatness and body positivity are wrong and scary, and we all have to stand together on this.

The most appalling thing I’ve been exposed to fitness-wise is the sub-group of people who have made it their personal mission to debunk Ragen Chastain and everything she says. People need to get a life. I found it shocking to learn that there are whole blogs devoted to inspecting date stamps on her training photos and so forth to prove that her claims about training can’t be true. Seriously? It’s fat hatred in action. It was enough to make me leave the Pathetic Triathletes group, which made me realize too that I prefer the feminist fitness community that we have cultivated to any other fitness community in the world.

So, readers, what are some of your favorite fitness revelations of the year? Any really bad advice that stands out? Let us know.

And Happy New Year from Fit is a Feminist Issue!

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diets · fitness

Behind the scenes at a no-nonsense for-real weight management course: wrestling demons

As we approach the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, we are pummeled with ads promising us that, if we just sign up for some new plan (however loony or expensive it may be), we will be renewed and transformed. Gone will be the extra pounds, the shame of unattractiveness, and the social rejection. In its place will be new-found confidence, social and professional opportunities aplenty, and inner joy. You can see for yourself right here:

new you

We’ll be posting a bit on this blog about the push to turn over a new leaf, start a new regimen, set new goals, and remake ourselves as soon as the calendar year turns over. And we also want to hear from readers, too, about how they are responding to the wave of self-improvement fever.

Not that I’m against self-improvement, or even against enthusiasm about new beginnings. The end of the year is a good time to take stock, reflect on what’s working in your life, what you want to change, and what goals you might want to pursue. However, doing a google search of images related to “new year’s resolution”, almost every image included the following:

lose weight

Sigh.

We all know (from great posts like these among other places) that losing weight may or may not be difficult, but maintaining weight loss over time is nigh unto impossible. But that doesn’t stop people from wanting it badly.

I do research on weight, weight stigma, health, eating and behavior change, have read and written lots about these issues.  But there is no substitute for hearing the stories of the struggles of real people as they try to make a more peaceful and accepting life that includes food.

Two weeks ago, I was invited to attend the last meeting of an 8-week course in Sydney, Australia on weight management run by Ginette Lenham, a counseler, therapist and support group facilitator specializing in weight management issues for women. She counsels women with complex sets of challenges ranging from fertility to gynecological to endocrine to psychological, working on how to respond to emotional eating and other triggers in their lives. Her website is here.

The stories these women shared were not surprising, but they were revealing. Here are some stories, and the underlying messages I am going to guard against as I face the new-year pull to remake myself in a more skinny image. These messages are powerful, but they are not true. The women in that room shared them in order to expose them for the falsehoods they are, and get some help in doing battle against them.

Message: Weight equals worth and status as a person

“You know, your position in a social hierarchy can change enormously with weight loss or gain. When you’re obese, people don’t see you as a person with control or discipline. My friends who have known me a long time (when I was thinner) have more confidence in me, in my abilities, than my newer friends (who only know me as fat). They think an obese person is a different sort of person, not a person like them.”

Message: Weight loss will fix any ailment

 “I joined a running club; it’s really helped my motivation and improved my performance. I was having trouble recently with getting blisters and talked with someone about it. She said, ‘oh—after I lost a lot of weight, I stopped getting them’. Argh! “

“One woman in our running club won an award; at the ceremony, all they talked about was how much weight she had lost.”

Message: There are ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods, and it’s never okay to eat ‘bad’ foods

“I used to work as a waitress, and women were always apologizing for their orders. They would say to me, ‘I’ll have this cake but I won’t have any dinner.’”

Message: Eating “right” is a “natural” ability, which some have and some don’t

“I look at my kids to see how they are eating—what they eat and what they leave behind on the plate. I have no idea what to do, or how to eat intuitively.”

“Some people are just stronger and they know when to stop.”

Ginette’s approach is largely about helping people to identify these negative messages and then to set aside those harsh judgments, focusing instead on individual health and life goals. This is a long-term process, and is not about learning to love salad. There’s no gimmickry—no magic pill to swallow, no exercise machine to use. Will it result in weight loss? Maybe, maybe not. What she hopes for her clients is of course some solutions to their complex medical problems, some of which are weight-related, but more importantly, in her own words, “you can learn to be liberated from all the negative self-talk that is associated with your previous weight loss experiences.”

Now that’s a new year’s resolution worth making.

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Weekends with Womack

Fit to be tied: clothes shopping and sizing madnes

Finding clothes that fit is not the most unpleasant task women face, but it is constant, often frustrating and sometimes downright demoralizing. Sam has blogged here and here about clothing troubles athletic women have, and both Sam and Tracy have blogged (here and here, among other places) on the elusive search-for-the-right-sports-bra.

As a size 14/16 woman, I’m used to (if not happy about) the fact that many clothing manufacturers don’t seem to care about my demographic, even though 14 is the most common size for women in the US.  But this treatment extends to other sizes as well, as I found out in person this weekend.

My 30-year-old cousin Xina and I met in New York City this weekend to hang out with some friends and their kids, go to museums and engage in a bit of shopping and other girly activities. Xina is tall (5’ 11”) and slender. She wears a clothing size 10—12. On Saturday (after getting pedicures, which are a relative bargain in New York) we headed to Urban Outfitters. She saw this really cute jumpsuit that she wanted to try on.

jumpsuitBut we couldn’t find a size 10 or 12. So we went to ask a salesperson if they had one, or if they could find it at another store. The salesperson returned shortly and told us, in discreetly hushed tones, “That item doesn’t come in a 12. 10 is the biggest size we carry, but we don’t have one in the store.” There seemed to be at most only one size 10 left in the entire tri-state area. Huh.

I was astounded. So used to being size and body-shamed in retail outlets myself, I was nonetheless surprised to see it in action with my lovely young svelte cousin as the target. Seriously, people?

Xina used to work in retail clothing stores, and wasn’t surprised at all by this treatment. She informed me that lots of clothing retailers relegate their size 12 and up customers to online sales, not stocking those sizes in stores. There seems to be a fear on the part of these brands that if non-tiny people a) populate their dressing rooms and stores, and b) actually appear in public wearing their clothing, the brand will lose its cachet, its mystique, its je ne sais quoi. Witness Abecrombie and Fitch’s refusal to stock women’s size XL and Lululemon CEO’s claim that “some women’s bodies just don’t work” for their yoga pants. By the way, he resigned a month after making said comments.

One (super-lame-o) claim that clothing manufacturers make about their failure to make decent clothing in sizes 14 and above is that there is a lot of variation in body shape in those sizes, so it’s not possible to systematize tailored garment patterns enough for production.

Again—Seriously?

What holds for sizes 14 and above also holds for sizes 12 and under, namely that body shapes vary in systematic and predictable ways. Of course the variation isn’t unlimited—for instance, people aren’t usually shaped like this:

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 6.22.32 PMBut I digress.

Here’s a diagram of a UK size 12 on different height women (for a clothing tailoring website):

size 12

We also see this in action when we put the same dress on different shaped women:

garment

And just in case you didn’t see this already, the “one size fits most” myth got definitively busted here with women of different sizes, heights and body shapes.

And hey, this clothing maker managed to produce cute tops and pants for these different-shaped women without violating the laws of physics:

physics

So.  What do we want?

Reasonably well-fitting attractive clothing in a variety of sizes.

When do we want it?

NOW.

Okay, I gotta work on the phrasing, but you get the idea.

revolution