aging · athletes · body image · disability · equality · fat · fitness · inclusiveness

Guest Lecturing in “The Body”

I just got back from guest lecturing in a Women’s Studies class called “The Body,” taught by our friend and colleague, Wendy Pearson.  Here’s the course description:

How we understand the body, whether through scientific investigation or through its representation in media, literature or art, has material effects on how people’s lives and experiences are shaped. We will examine social and scientific constructions of the body, including concepts of beauty, health, fitness, sexuality, and questions of representation.

The course will also consider how our relationship – both personal and cultural — to our bodies shapes our sense of self and both prescribes and proscribes certain possibilities for how we may live our lives. We will look, for example, at the way in which only certain very fit bodies qualify as athletic or at the ways in which the relationship between musculature and class identity has changed since the early 20th century. We will examine particular social problems, such as our society’s difficulty with understanding the disabled body as sexual, the current cultural obsession with children’s body size, and the psychiatric and medical response to people who feel that their bodily sex does not match their gender. We will consider changing definitions of beauty and how that affects the ways in which different people understand themselves. We may also look at questions of representation, the various ways in which bodies and body parts are represented in the media and the issue of why some forms of representation of the nude body count as art while others are considered pornographic.

Sam and I shared the three-hour class tonight. She took the first half to talk about “Obesity Panics” and the trouble with framing obesity as an illness and its prevalence as an “epidemic.”

When I arrived shortly before the break, the packed room of 180 keen students was challenging her claim that there is something wrong with obesity being considered a disease.  I got there just in time to hear Sam say that unlike cancer, obesity isn’t something you “get.”  It’s something that the charts say you “are.”

After the break, it way my turn. My topic: “Fitness and Normative Bodies.”  By the time Sam was done with them, they were afraid to say that there was a relationship between fitness and fatness.  So hesitant were they to draw any connection that when I asked them about what measures or indicators they might use to judge whether they were physically fit or whether they’d made any progress, not a single person said anything about body weight or even about body composition.

We had a lively discussion about the impact of subtle forms of exclusion in fitness media and representations of fitness culture, in which only a narrow demographic of youthful, lean, toned, nondisabled, people, mostly men and mostly white are depicted.  When women do appear in fitness media, there is a very narrow range of acceptable body types that pass muster.

I saw heads nodding (not nodding off!) when I said that engaging in physical activities that challenge us can be a real source of confidence and empowerment.

It took some convincing, but after hearing both of us I think the majority of the class was at least willing to entertain the idea that there is a pernicious form of exclusion going on in fitness culture. Though sometimes subtle, it makes it very difficult for people who do not fit the normative ideal body type to feel as if they belong.

This then becomes an equality issue, given that health, well-being, confidence, and a sense of your own power are all desirable social goods that can benefit everyone.

I ended by talking a bit about Olga Kotelko, who took up track and field at the age of 77 and had over 750 gold medals to her name by the time she turned 95 (at which age she died).

Olga Kotelko, who began her 18 year track career at age 77 and had 750 gold medals to her name by the time she died at 95.
Olga Kotelko, who began her 18 year track career at age 77 and had 750 gold medals to her name by the time she died at 95.

The upshot: a more inclusive fitness culture that doesn’t preoccupy itself with the narrow demographic who occupies “the normative body” would have enormous social and political benefits that extend way beyond physical fitness.

Thanks, Wendy, for an opportunity to talk to your class. What a fabulous idea for a course and what fun it was to be there!

athletes · competition · fitness · fitness classes · Guest Post · health · motivation

Giving Up Giving Up: On Becoming an “Athletic Learner” (Guest Post)

  • I can’t.
  • I’m going to be no good.
  • I don’t know how.
  • I give up.

Never in my life have I thought of myself as an Athlete. In high school gym class, and later in social activities and sports as an adult, I have always had just enough coordination to pick up the basics, but never enough inherent athletic talent to excel or become an expert.

But the biggest impediment to my non-starter athletic career has been my deep, long-standing fear of failure. Fear of living up to my potential. Fear of letting the team down. Fear of getting hurt and being in pain. Fear of giving 100% that still results in a poor performance.

These fears have been cultivated not within a culture of sports but within academics. High achieving students and faculty have strong intrinsic motivation to achieve excellence, but they work in a demanding culture that can be extremely competitive and heartbreakingly critical. Even if one’s work never makes it to the general public, academic writing and teaching are very much public performances that serve up for scrutiny one’s intellectual talents to colleagues, peers, and students.

The most ambitious and confident folks do well in such a culture—particularly in the face of academic journals with low acceptance rates, single job postings with hundreds of applicants, and students who apparently evaluate teaching effectiveness based on their instructor’s appearance. Self-assurance, along with determination and perseverance—are traits of successful scholars and athletes alike.

And, unfortunately for me, as a recent PhD graduate all that negative self-talk (I can’t, I’m no good, I don’t know how, I give up) had been causing psychological “injuries” from which I was failing to recover. The fear that held me back from pursuing an academic career was not dissimilar from the fear that kept me from joining rec leagues. There were other reasons that I eventually took a university staff position, some perfectly reasonable. Looking back, though, I can admit that, I can’t had started to become I shouldn’t—and my self-talk about improving for the next academic success had become talk about giving up.

However, three years later—as a result of my fantastic “alt-ac” job whose one down side is that I sit sedentary at a computer most days—I’ve decided to become not an Athlete but an Athletic Learner. In the past four months I’ve started cardio-kick boxing, running, and soccer. Recently I’ve been to a yoga class, a step class, and (next week) a Zumba class. I even look like a lunatic walking up and down the stairs of my building when I take breaks.

For every new sport or activity, I try do my research. I focus not on my lack of inherent talent but rather on learning the rules, the strategy, the steps, and the mechanics. I also attempt to understand the implications of these activities for my short and long term health.

Have I failed in Athletic Learning? Well, in the very first game of soccer in my adult life I managed to score not one but two goals in a row on my own team, the ball ricocheting directly off my elbows into our net. (Not surprisingly, after the game I was the one asked to set up a team practice).

Meanwhile, in kick-boxing I still can’t roundhouse kick as hard or as long as others. In the intermediate step class, I could barely keep from getting my feet tangled up. In yoga, corpse pose was pretty much the only position I was 100% sure I had mastered.

But although I’m very, very far from expert status, through these activities I’ve met some new people and re-connected with old friends. I’ve been drilled in soccer by a bunch of sweet, precocious 10-year olds girls (whose mothers are on my soccer team), and I’ve learned a ton about how my body works. These day my lower back is often upset with me, but I’ve also learned that even pain acquired by Athletic Learning is more pleasurable than feeling nothing as a result of doing nothing (which was pretty much all that I was doing previously).

So, this year my self-talk around my lack of mastery of athletics sounds more like:

  • I can’t refuse a new and fun activity.
  • I’m going to be no good at being so hard on myself.
  • I don’t know how I’m going to do this [insert sport], but gosh-darn it I’m doing it anyway.
  • I give up giving up.

I am not, and probably never will be, an expert Athlete. Instead, my plan is to continue striving to be an Athletic Learner. And fortunately, this mental and attitudnal shift has made it impossible for me to fail…because success means that, no matter how poor my performance, I’ve at least learned something new.

cat yoga

Photo by Lisa Campeau, 2011. Reproduced with permission (CC BY 2.0).

cycling · family

Give the girl a bike!


Everyone loves this Susan B. Anthony quote: “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

We tend to think of the connection between bicycles and feminism as a historical thing. See my post about the anti-bike backlash of the late 1800s here:  Bicycles: Making good women go bad since the 1800s.

However, bicycles are still playing a role in improving the lives of girls and women all over the world. See, for example, Will bike riding in Saudi Arabia change the way women dress? October is bike to school day/month in many parts of the world where the choice is between biking and getting a drive from parents. But in many other parts of the world it’s the possession of a bicycle that makes getting to school possible at all.

Thanks to reader and business ethics blogger Chris MacDonald for sharing this academic paper with us, “Cycling to School: Increasing Secondary School Enrollment for Girls in India,” by Karthik Muralidharan and Nishith Prakash. (A University of California at San Diego NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH Working Paper,

What is the challenge with keeping girls in school? In rural India many, about half, of the girls drop out midway through their education. Although school is free, transport costs deter rural families from sending girls to school. Bikes make education possible for girls who would otherwise have to leave school. Charitable programs like Give a Girl a Bike aim to provide bikes and improve educational opportunities for girls in rural India.

“Bikes for girls” programs sound great. But do they work?

Yes, according to research conducted by Muralidharan and Prakash. “We find that the Cycle program was much more cost effective at increasing girls’ enrolment than comparable conditional cash transfer programs in South Asia, suggesting that the coordinated provision of bicycles to girls may have generated externalities beyond the cash value of the program, including improved safety from girls cycling to school in groups, and changes in patriarchal social norms that proscribed female mobility outside the village, which inhibited female secondary school participation.”

 Read more here:

How cycling set deprived Indian girls on a life-long journey: One simple initiative in Bihar state not only solved an everyday problem for schoolgirls, but also expanded their horizons (The Guardian)

India Free Bicycle Program Crucial To Keep Girls In School (Huffington Post)

Thanks Chris!