fitness · Weekends with Womack

Today Fat Yoga, Tomorrow Fat Kayaking? Some thoughts on Kayaking While Fat, Safe Spaces, and Inclusiveness

Sam’s recent post on fat yoga raised some thorny questions for me this week (which, for philosophers, is pretty much a sign of “Mission Accomplished”, so thanks, Sam!) Honestly, I’m not even yet sure what these questions are yet. So it seemed like the best thing to do was to start writing, and see what came from it.

This blog has spent a lot of airtime talking about these issues, with respect to size, age, (dis)ability, etc. For instance, Sam has written that doing physical activity while fat means overcoming a cornucopia of obstacles, from condescension and fat-shaming to problems finding right-sized clothing and gear. Tracy has posted about how our concepts of fitness get associated with particular body norms which excludes older, larger-sized and differently abled people.   If you’re interested in these topics, search their archives, and you’ll find loads of thought-provoking posts from them and their guest bloggers.

Some things I read this week made me start thinking about what seems to be to be a point of tension between creating dedicated spaces for fat activity and creating inclusive spaces, building norms and structures for size acceptance.

For this blog, I wanted to offer some thoughts I had when I read about Sam’s position on fat yoga for her.

 “Bottom line: I’m comfortable running/biking/swimming with people of all different shapes but give me yoga with people close to my size please!”

I totally get this. Yoga is an activity with a variety of levels. Tennis, soccer and squash, on the other hand, are sports where it’s less likely that people of vastly different levels play together. So Sam’s interest, it seems, is REALLY about finding a class that happens to cater to people who aren’t very flexible in ways that make yoga positions more difficult or painful or flat-out not possible. And I am so with her on this. I mean really:


Although I wouldn’t mind learning how to do this:


I know, I know, there are lots of you out there who do this, and it’s big fun for you, so no disrespect intended here.

But her comment reminded me of when I was learning how to do sea kayaking, about 15 years ago. I took a variety of intro to sea kayaking classes—some held at a lake, some in a river, and some in the ocean. Technical note: Sea kayaks are quite different from river kayaks. They are longer, narrower, and are designed to go straight. Some of them have rudders, and they look like this:


River kayaks are shorter, are flat on the bottom, with no rudder, and are designed to turn and maneuver easily. They look like this:


When I decided to learn to sea kayak, I had to deal with my fears that I was simply too large to do this. In my first course, we had to wear wetsuits, which were provided for us. I was completely stressed out and embarrassed at the prospect of trying on wetsuits (not a fun prospect for anyone) and not finding one to fit me. In the end I used a men’s one, which fit, but I was embarrassed and angry that there were no women’s sizes for me. And I’m pretty sure that people much larger than I was would be completely excluded because 1) the company didn’t stock sizes much larger than the one I used; and 2) it’s hard to find large-sized wetsuits for women. Looking this up online, there are wetsuits for large and tall men, but not so easily found for women (probably this blog’s readers know about where to find them, but you do have to look, and they are expensive).

My next worry was about fitting into the cockpit of the boat. You’re supposed to fit snugly, but not too snugly, in a sea kayak. The fit needs to be snug, as you use your hips in the course of paddling; otherwise, your upper body gets too tired. But the fit can’t be too snug, as you need to be able to exit the boat in case your kayak turns over. They call this a “wet exit”—one of my favorite sports euphemisms.

wet exit

It turns out this is less scary than one might think; you pretty much just pop out of the boat once it turns over. And courses practice this a lot—hence the wetsuits. I found it was easy getting out of the boat underwater—who knew?

But then there’s the business of getting back in the boat while in deep water—this requires detailed instruction and a lot of practice. I was also afraid I couldn’t do this. I don’t have great upper body strength, and I have a lot of weight to haul out of the water. Finally, once I’m out of the water and on the back deck of the boat, I have to maneuver myself oh-so-carefully to get back in the cockpit without disturbing the boat and falling back into the water again. This is not easy. Luckily we had help—to learn what’s called an assisted rescue, we had instructors and other students. They taught us a bunch of techniques for using two boats, two sets of paddles and two persons to get one person back in the cockpit. These women don’t seem to be minding the process at all:

assisted rescue

So, what happened to my worries? Well, the instructors found a boat to fit me (turns out they make boats with a variety of different widths and different sized cockpits), a wetsuit I could wear (albeit a men’s one that was too long, but hey), and I was able to learn some techniques to get back into the boat from deep water. I even learned how to do a solo rescue—get myself back on the boat by myself (after about 25 tries…) Still– yay!

However, not everyone was so lucky. There was a woman in one class who was larger than I was, and who was visibly anxious about all the things I mentioned. And things went poorly for her. The instructors for this particular course (a one-day class on a lake) were clearly unskilled at teaching someone who was anxious and in particular anxious about her size. Their response was to segregate her from the rest of us, which exacerbated her anxieties and distress. When it came to learning the assisted rescue, they didn’t pair her with one of the other students. Instead, two of them used a technique used to put an injured paddler back in a boat, called the scoop technique.   This can be used even if a paddler is unconscious.

Right. So, the take-home message for her was that there was no way for her to get back in the boat under her own power; she had to be rendered motionless and passive to get back in her own kayak. I was furious about what I saw, and talked to the instructors afterwards. They never got what I was saying. I also didn’t get a chance to talk to her, as she left immediately.

Obviously, the moral of this particular story is: educate instructors so they are made aware of how it feels to be a larger-sized person in this context, and also how to teach students of all sizes. This is not impossible—there are loads of techniques, there’s specialized equipment, etc.

But I wonder: can we say anything general about when it’s good to have all-sizes-respected classes, and when it’s good to have large-sizes-only classes for some activity? Are some sports or activity classes better for the former, and others better for the latter? Of course we can and should have both, but it’s not clear to me if some sports or circumstances favor one or the other.  I had hoped to come up with some answers. However, at least the question is out there, and I’ll be thinking on it. In the meantime, blog readers, what are your thoughts and experiences? I’d love to hear your perspectives.

body image · weight loss

Lower death risk for the overweight, go us!

From the New York Times: “The report on nearly three million people found that those whose B.M.I. ranked them as overweight had less risk of dying than people of normal weight. And while obese people had a greater mortality risk over all, those at the lowest obesity level (B.M.I. of 30 to 34.9) were not more likely to die than normal-weight people. The report, although not the first to suggest this relationship between B.M.I. and mortality, is by far the largest and most carefully done, analyzing nearly 100 studies, experts said.”

This is in keeping with a declaration made by The New York Times in 1912 when they declared Elsie Scheel, “the perfect woman” at 171 lbs.

Read more here: The ‘Perfect Woman’ In 1912, Elsie Scheel, Was 171 Pounds And Loved Beefsteaks

Blogger Kate Harding described Scheel in these terms: “Miss Elsie Scheel’s BMI would have been 26.8, placing her squarely in today’s dreaded “overweight” category. At Banana Republic, to pick a random contemporary store, she would wear a size 8 top, a 12/14 bottom, and probably a 12 dress with the bust taken in.” (Kate Harding is the author of the BMI Project.)

I’ve written a bit about the so-called obesity paradox, Obesity, health, and fitness: some odd connections.

That’s okay. I’m not worried. I’ve been in the overweight category all of my adult life, even at my thinnest. Given my 122 lb base of muscle and bone, I’ll always be overweight. Which is, I’ve argued here, part of the problem with weight and BMI as measures of anything meaningful.

I often wonder about the effect of news like this on the naturally lean. One of thing that interests me is that it seems it just doesn’t matter how big the health benefits of being overweight are, no one would suggest that underweight people try to gain weight. It’s just too tough. Why doesn’t this work the other way?

body image · diets · gender policing · health · weight loss

Three Amazing Rants about Food, Nutrition, and Weight Loss

Must be something in the air…

  • Krista Scott Dixon at Stumptuous in Rant 66 December 2012: The First Rule of Fast Club rants about and aims fury and righteous rage in the direction of lots of things including the following: why intermittent fasting may not be the cure all for women’s weight woes, why in general what works for young men won’t work for women, and why women shouldn’t listen to young, thin, male personal trainers.

Most lean young guys giving fitness and nutrition advice are basing that advice — in part — on their own bodily experience. Which won’t match yours. (See above.)

Most lean young guys giving fitness and nutrition advice have not seen a sufficiently diverse client base. Hey, that’s what happens when you’re young. It’s not bad. It’s just the math of reality. In a few decades, then they’ll be Dave Draper and have some awesome yarns to spin. And then maybe I’ll take their advice.

Food Villain Mythology is usually supported by a handful of (cherry picked) scientific studies and an elaborate and sophisticated web of logical fallacy. The resultant construct usually holds that the Food Villain in question is the root cause of either modern society’s obesity and diabetes epidemic, or the root cause of an individual’s obesity and illness. There is usually some kernel of truth in the claim. Take wheat for instance: it is true that wheat can be problematic for some individuals who have an allergy or intolerance, and for anyone who consumes it in excess or to the exclusion of other foods that would provide a more well rounded nutritional foundation. There are other issues with wheat too, involving its cultivation, processing, ubiquitousness and nutrient profile. But Food Villain Mythology has taken those issues and created what amounts to mass hysteria in some circles, with an entire mythology centering on wheat’s Magical Ability to single-handedly drive obesity and disease. Scary stuff.

Points, at first, were a fun game to follow, and they did make me more aware of the amount of vegetables and healthy foods I was consuming. Just like in my middle-school WW years, I carefully controlled my caloric intake, I joined Jazzercise (which, to this day, I love — fit is it!), and I ate Weight Watchers-sanctioned aspartame gummies (1 point, entire package, ingredients unpronounceable) nearly constantly. Fuck an apple, those fools were two points, and points were valuable, like precious gold. Or something even better because you can’t eat gold.

I’m working on my own Weight Watchers rant and will post it here in the near future. Til then, enjoy these.

body image · diets · fat · fitness · health · weight loss

Working Out While Fat

Just after I reposted my story of why I left Goodlife Fitness in 2006 two super posts appeared on the problems of working out in public while fat.

The wonderfully titled essay by Lindy West, Hello, Fellow Gym-Goers, Look at My Fat Butt, details how wonderful exercise is but also how awful it is be everyone’s idea of a ‘before’ picture:

The more I exercised, the more I loved it. I felt strong and lean, I had tons of energy, I slept like a brick. But my body didn’t look much different. You’d still see me on the street and read “fat person.” And as a fat person, going to the gym is doubly challenging. There’s the basic challenge we all face—of getting the fuck out of bed, finding a clean sports bra, physically moving your body toward a place where a man will yell at you until you do enough lunges (IT DEFIES ALL EVOLUTIONARY LOGIC)—but for fat people, there’s an even more intimidating challenge on top of that.

It’s entering a building where you know that every person inside is working toward the singular goal of not becoming you.

Do you know how hard it is to walk into a building devoted to not becoming you when you are you!? It’s the worst! I’m me literally every day! “Fat=bad/thin=good” is so seamlessly built into our culture that people I consider close friends don’t hesitate to lament their weight “problems” to me—not stopping to consider that what they’re saying, to my face, is “becoming you is my worst nightmare, and not becoming you is my top priority.”

And Emily Anderson published Fat Acceptance at the Gym Burns More Than Calories at Women’s E-News. It’s an excerpt from her contribution to the anthology “Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion.”

Being a fat woman at the gym is in itself an act of social disobedience. I shouldn’t be in there, taking up the space of the lithe-bodied, unless it’s with a face of sincere penance and shame. But I have claimed the gym as my own. I celebrate being visible and fat all over the gym–running and sweating and sometimes breaking into song, lifting dumbbells alongside muscle-laden men with uncompleted tribal band bicep tattoos, flinging my weight around in aerobics and finally cooling it poolside in my bright, non-apple-body-shape flattering tankini.

I smile and chat with women before yoga and mention how hungry I always am after class and can’t wait to eat. I want to be seen. I am fat and happy in places where I should be fat and shameful, and denying this stereotype is a political action in my eyes.

You should definitely go read Anderson’s essay to find out about her daring and transgressive act on the elliptical machine.

I loved what both writers had to say, despite my own ambivalence about the word ‘fat’ as it applies to me. Thanks Lindy West and Emily Anderson for your fat pride trail blazing ways. I too hate it when people assume I’m either new to the gym (ha ha ha) or that I must already have lost a lot of weight and then they express admiration that I’ve made it so far. I really do worry about putting fat people off exercise when they think they only reason to do it is to lose weight and then they meet me.

I’ve often thought I’d like to teach a fitness class for big people, one that doesn’t mention weight loss at all. No mention of calories burned or looking good in your skinny jeans. I’m cool with people trying to lose weight–I’m not without goals in that department myself–but my dream class would focus on fitness and moving for fun only. The Y’s fitness instructor certification classes look like they might be fun. And I think I’d have a blast teaching spin classes too. Perhaps I’ll get my certification as part of this ‘fittest at fifty’ project.

Clearly, there’s a need for a spaces without fat shaming. A gym in Vancouver, Body Exchange, set out to create a safe haven for plus size exercisers but it ran into controversy with its plans not accept skinny members.

The Province interviewed Tony Leyland, from Simon Fraser University’s department of biomedical physiology and kinesiology, about the plus sized gyms and he was adamant that people not downplay the social value of creating safe places for mothballed bodies.
Leyland also says some bodies are naturally resistant to being lean. Even slightly pudgy people can be terrific athletes, he says. “Fitness trumps a lot of things,” he says. “The evidence is clear that people are really going to benefit from getting fit whether they lose weight or not.”You can read more about it here, Canada’s only plus size fitness company: no skinnies need apply.
I’m still not sure of what I think of a plus size only gym–generally speaking I prefer inclusion to hiding out in safe spaces and I worry that then people would think that’s where you belong, “Get thee to the fat gym”–but I think plus size, healthy at every size inspired classes would be lovely.
fat · fitness · health · sports nutrition · weight loss

Fat, fit, and why I want to be leaner anyway

As you’ll know from reading my posts on our blog, I’m fat and fit, aiming to be fitter and to be the fittest I’ve ever been, at 50. (In some moods I prefer big and fit, read why here.)

Weight loss isn’t a direct goal for me in this project. That’s partly because I’m a supporter of the Healthy At Every Size movement, partly because I don’t think there’s a fatness-fitness connection, and partly because for me, personally, there aren’t health related reasons to lose weight. So I take it as a starting point that it’s possible to be the fittest I’ve ever been and not weigh the least I’ve ever weighed. Indeed, although I wouldn’t like it, I might be the fittest I’ve ever been and weigh more than I do now, though I’d much rather that not be the outcome I get.

As I detailed in Fat, Fat, and What’s Wrong with BMI I’m a bit of a healthy living rock star. Yes, I’m significantly overweight but I have excellent blood pressure and heart rate, excellent good-bad cholesterol ratios, and excellent blood sugar levels. I’m also an over-achiever in the bone density department but that’s from years of living large and lifting heavy weights.

(An aside: Bone density is a great reason to lift weights, especially for you small, thin women whose frames aren’t much challenged by the mass you carry around. Weight lifting works to build bones unlike endurance sports such as swimming, cycling, and running which in volume can actually hurt bone density. Read “Training to Improve Bone Density in Adults: A Review and Recommendation here.)

I’m also not sure about the wisdom of picking a goal–long term weight loss–that defeats almost all the people who aim for it. (Read Gina Kolata’s Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss—and the Myths and Realities of Dieting for some of my reasons.)

Oh, and I already eat very well. I’m a vegetarian, aspiring vegan, non-drinker, who stays well away from fast food. I have a bit of a sweet tooth and sometimes I eat too much of  good thing but there’s not a lot of room for nutrition improvement.

But I really would like to improve my ratio of lean to fat, by building more muscle and losing some fat, even if I think that’s got zero to do with fitness or being fittest by fifty.


That’s a question that in our culture hardly seems worth asking. Everyone I know, pretty much, wants to shrink. The size 4s want to get back to size 0, the 10s back to 4, and so on. It’s a cultural obsession and mega money making industry. I try to stay clear.

Most people assume weight loss is why I exercise. But really, if that were my goal I would have quit long ago. Indeed I worry that lots of fat people quit working out because they aren’t getting thinner and why else would they go to gym? The fat but fit person looks like she’s doing all the work and not getting the rewards. Nevermind that the real rewards are health related and have nothing to do with weight.

So again, why do I want to be leaner?

My main reason I want to get leaner is sports performance. An awful lot of what I do depends on a power to weight ratio. For an explanation of power to weight ratio and its importance when it comes to cycling, read The Pursuit of Leanness over at Australia’s Cycling Tips blog.

I’ll never be a hill climber. I’m a reasonably powerful sprinter and time trialer (for a recreational cyclist in her midlife years!). I know my place in the cycling world. But I’m sick of getting dropped on hills.

My second motivation for the pursuit of lean is wear and tear on joints. I love sports and physical activity. Hard to imagine life without it. But you don’t see many overweight runners in their 70s. Cyclists either. I worry about stress on my knees and hips and think there’s got to be an advantage to weighing less. Or at least if I want to play with people lots younger than me, as seems to be the case with every sport that I do, I want to even the playing field.

Evening the playing field is one of the reasons I feel great being a non-drinker on multi-day cycling events. Stay up, you 19 year olds and 25 year olds. Have another beer. I’ll be asleep, sober, and well hydrated by 10 pm. Not fun now but fun when I see you suffering tomorrow.

Finally, there’s  bad motivation, one of which I try to be wary. And no, it’s not looking good naked. Like Tracy, I’m pretty comfortable in that department. I don’t have a lot of body image issues. I’ve often wondered about why that’s so. I’ve got some thoughts about my resilience in that department, fodder for a later post, I think. (Short answer: Thanks spouse, thanks feminism, thanks queer community.)

Sometimes I want to look like the very fit person I am. There are days when I’m weary of fighting the good fight, challenging our notions of the size and shape fitness takes. Sometimes I want people to look at me and see who I am and what I do.

For example, I’ve got incredible abs. You can’t see them as they are under a layer of fat but they do amazing things. I’m very strong in my core but it’s like they’re a secret super power, my invisible abs.

Not being seen for who I am is a bit of a struggle on my life on a few fronts. (You can read some of my work on bisexual invisibility here and here.)

So sometimes I’m sick of it all and want to be seen as the athlete I am.

But I’m hoping to keep those motivations at bay and focus on the hills and the climbing.