Big Fat Myths, Or, Why So Many of Us Avoid the Gym (Guest Post)
I’m here to tell you that you can be both fat and fit. read it again. fat and fit. not fat to fit. not fat but fit. fat AND fit. that’s right. and yes, i have read the articles (including the most recent one from across the pond – it wasn’t peer-reviewed if that’s something that matters to you) that argue that fatness and fitness cannot co-exist. i’ve read them, internalized them and spent years unlearning the things they claimed to know about my body.
i also spent years avoiding the gym (and fitness in general) not taking care of my body because the measures of success too often involved scales and shame (so much shame) and a focus on weight loss. well i’m calling bullshit. and i’m asking that we start focusing on measures that make sense for our lives, whether that be having an easier time getting out of bed in the morning or struggling less with our groceries or lifting twice our body weight at the gym. we need to focus less on the numbers on the scale and more on what healthy means to us.
fitness (to me) is about taking care of myself which happens to include my mental health. it’s about listening to my body and loving myself at every size despite what the world tells me. fitness to me is about self-love, whether that be lifting heavier and sweating more at the gym or staying home with a pint of ice cream because the world feels like too much that day. gym culture can make all of this hard because fitness so often seems to equate to thinness in workout spaces but i’ve been figuring out how to take up space at the gym with my fabulous fat (and fit) body, exaggerating moves and turning the whole experience into some kind of performance. but i still totally get why some people avoid it. i did for a long time too. it can be such a toxic place which seems to care about everything but health.
the gym can really suck (especially for those of us who do not fit fatphobic and racist beauty standards) but i’m going to spend my time there trying to make it a space that can not only be fun but also shame free while also totally getting that you can be fit (and fabulously fat) without spending time or money on a place that can still make so many feel like utter shit.
now i’m spending time unlearning fat shame and learning to listen to my body and what feels good for it. and now i can say that my fat body gives me strength and i love it. so much.
Weronika is a white queer working class libra who wakes up way too early, way too happy. They are ambivalently working on their doctorate while distracting themselves with other projects like developing a trauma-informed therapy practice. They are into reading books, lifting heavy things, and making food for and with people. They are also a body positive personal trainer working with those who hate the gym. You can find out more by emailing them at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lessons in confidence from the gym
Last week the Internet was agog at the sight of a little girl walking into her father’s live TV interview. Her insouciance was astonishing; her swagger delightful.
Her stance was all ”hey dad, what’s happening?” and she was totally chill even when her brother rolled in followed by her mother scrambling to get the little ones out of sight.
I got to thinking about the little girl’s supreme confidence, and just how wonderful it was to see. This new gif has been making the rounds on Facebook, and for good reason.
It also got me thinking about what we do in our cultures to crush the spirits of little girls in different ways and through the different ‘isms.
A place where this happens big time is in the gym. There’s a lot of emphasis on how female bodies should look and what must happen if yours doesn’t measure up.
Of course, there are also prescriptions re: the ways women can get fit and the ways some people think we shouldn’t. For example, I see lots online, of what people call concern-trolling, if you start working with weights. Watch out, you will get too bulky or big, and other comments of that ilk, are frequent.
It isn’t anything I have heard within the walls of the gym where I train, but I know it does happen. Regardless, I’m already a woman who takes up space, so that isn’t a concern of mine.
One thing I don’t see the concern trolls recognizing is how weight training, and finding your fit in whatever way you choose to move overall, provides you with new ways of managing new challenges. Not just in the gym with the various pieces of equipment and weights, but in life too.
Recently, I heard a writing friend speak about how she has come to see where the principles underpinning her particular martial art appear in her daily life. Her commentary made me think about what weight training and developing strength has given me.
And I have to say, it’s confidence. None of my friends and colleagues would describe me as a shrinking violet because I do my best to be prepared and be ready to take on whatever comes my way. But I have to admit, I haven’t always liked dealing with some of the challenges I’ve faced, partly because a little piece of me wasn’t always 100% sure I could do it, even though I have prepared for everything.
However, the confidence I get from my progress with training has given me the edge I need when I absolutely have to persuade a client or a colleague to get on board with what I am recommending.
I have started to carry the “I got this” feeling I get when I see the plates my trainer is loading on the bar, or when she shows me a new exercise or technique, into other places. It’s not that I am overconfident, but I know I have everything I need mentally to get the job done.
While I may not be four years old anymore like Marion Kelly, thanks to the gym, I feel like I am well able to meet any new challenge and own it with the confidence four-year-old girls have the world over.
— Martha is a writer who delights in the new discoveries training offers her. She is a regular contributor to Fit is a Feminist Issue.
Running and chasing away skinny dreams
It’s a funny thing. Running is the one sport that makes me wish I were thin. I don’t feel that way about cycling even though it would me get up hills faster. I guess it helps that I’m pretty speedy on my bike. I’m a slow runner. And as a slow, larger runner, I need cheering up some times and reminding that I belong. Sometimes I even say I am “jogging,” too scared to claim “running” as a thing that I do.
Thanks Not Your Average Runner! I like your images and your messages.
I know you.
You’re not a typical runner, but you run.
You’re not a fitness model. Heck, you might even call yourself Plus-Size. Curvy. Fat. Overweight. Sturdy. Chunky. Voluptuous.
But you are also Brave. Strong. Fierce. Determined. Fabulous.
You are not an average runner.
You are exceptional in every way.
The truth is, running is a sport for everyone – not just the super-fit. You can be a runner at any size, shape or age, and I want to show you how.
Osteoporosis is a Feminist Issue! (Guest Post)
In the past two years, since I started my PhD studies, my research has focused on osteoporosis and how modifiable exercise programs can prevent or slow down its progression. A requirement for PhD, before starting the actual thesis phase, is writing a literature review. Rading a high volume of research articles (up to 400-500) for a critical synthesis of literature would be the most daunting part. However, the review of literature helps the students to identify the strengths, weaknesses and gaps in previous work related to their own topic as a base.
Being at this stage, I read about osteoporosis from different angles to learn about facts, myths and contradictions.
To me, it has been very interesting to read about osteoporosis and how sex and gender differences attributed to bone structure can be addressed through a feminism lens.
So, apart from expanding my overall knowledge on osteoporosis, its symptoms, causes and treatment and assessing exercise programs, I have noticed remarkable feminism involvements in the language of research studies.
Let me start with some statistical facts on osteoporosis:
- Of the millions who are diagnosed or at risk for osteoporosis, 80% are women.
- Osteoporosis affects 1 in 4 women and 1 in 8 men over the age of 50 years in Canada.
- Approximately one in two women over age 50 will break a bone because of osteoporosis.
- Lowered estrogen levels in postmenopausal women leads to osteoporosis.
- A woman’s risk of breaking a hip is equal to her combined risk of breast, uterine and ovarian cancer.
- Women sustain more falls and fractures than men.
And, just by a simple search in PubMed database, entering the keywords “osteoporosis AND postmenopausal women” gives you a list of 11,104 articles while changing keywords to “osteoporosis AND elderly men”, narrows the number of articles down to 344. (it is not an advanced search, I just wanted to give you a comparison between number of studies in women and men)
Also, the figure below might help you to visualize the difference in sex and age prevalence of osteoporosis. As you see, the figure shows the age-adjusted prevalence of osteoporosis at femur neck and lumbar spine 16% in women compared with 4% in men. Also, the ratio of bone density loss at either site is 61% in women versus 38% in men.
Source: CDC/NCHS, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2005–2008
Now, imagine you are a woman (like myself), at the threshold of menopause, and have to read 50-100 pages about osteoporosis on average each day. How would it be? More probably, you think that you are at higher risk for developing osteoporosis because you are a woman. Or, you are at higher risk for falls and as a result, you have more fractures because you are a woman. You lose bone faster than men. So, being a pre or postmenopausal woman puts you at higher risk of broken bones. And not fun to conclude that, osteoporosis is just a “feminine disease” and a welcome gift for you who put your feet in the new world of menopause!
Fortunately, being a feminist reader and exposed to a large volume of osteoporosis research articles, I have noticed that something is changing from the oldest to the newest articles. and that something is the “bias in the language” used by the researchers. Although the language of many articles still needs sweeping revision.
But, not all my news about osteoporosis is bad news!
Looking into osteoporosis and searching through a feminism lens opens new door to the research world and I tell you how.
Recently, I read about a new research project called “Gender Innovations”. Gender Innovations is a peer-reviewed project initiated at Stanford University in June 2009, and aimed at developing practical methods of sex and gender analysis for scientists and researchers. Londa Schiebinger, the leader of this project is a pioneer in research on gender and science. She is well known for her writings on the impacts of feminism in the field of science.
In a case study called “Osteoporosis Research in Men”, she states that sex and gender analysis includes men in osteoporosis research, for having a better diagnosis and treatments. She states that osteoporosis had primarily been considered a disease of postmenopausal women, and as a result, this assumption has shaped its screening, practice, diagnosis, and treatment. She believes that more work is needed to “redefine diagnostic cutoffs” for both osteoporotic women and men.
See the link below for more information:
So, based on what I have learned so far, this would be my argument:
There is a need for a feminist framework in osteoporosis studies, where osteoporosis re-definition would reveal the reality that risk factors are pretty much the same for women and men. For example, factors such as family history (genetics), taking steroid medications, sedentary lifestyle, smoking and drinking too much alcohol can increase or decrease the risk of osteoporosis in women and men. Or, malnutrition, deficiency in vitamin D and calcium intake can be risk factors of getting osteoporosis in women and men.
In addition, highlighting osteoporosis as a female disease can lead to a neglect and underestimation of this disease in the men population, specifically, the elderly men. This is another aspect lying beneath of many biased research findings and conclusions. So, it is really important to emphasize the fact that osteoporosis is not just a woman’s disease.
Of a more positive note, research proved that osteoporosis can be prevented and that exercise plays an important role in its prevention. Whether or not you have osteoporosis, whether you are a woman or man, regular exercise is beneficial in so many ways. Exercise improves physical and mental health, functional mobility, balance, strength and quality of life. People, who exercise regularly, can manage osteoporosis much better. Weight bearing exercises, resistance training, flexibility and balance exercises like Pilates, Tai Chi and yoga are good examples of dealing with osteoporosis. Higher impact activities like running, jumping and jogging are proved to be effective. However, they might not be suitable for everyone.
See Sam’s blog post: Keeping bones strong
And last but not least, be happy if you are not thin. Studies show that small boned women are at greater risk for osteoporosis and it does not seem to be a myth!
I am a second year doctoral student in the Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at the Western University, and a certified seniors’ fitness instructor with so much passion about the elderly women’s health and fitness. Besides that, I am a grandmother and a full time babysitter of an almost 2 year-old awesome grandson. Being physically active has been integrated into my busy life since my youth. I used to be a strength coach, so that weight training is my first priority but running, mountain biking, rollerblading, ice skating and yoga are activities that I love to do.
Food Fighting—when we say no to “good” food and yes to “bad” food
This week I’ve been reading and writing about intuitive eating, and thinking more about the meanings food has for us—the humans. I’ve been blogging a bit about this lately here and here. What we eat, why we eat what we do, and what food does for us are all really fascinating and complicated questions, with no easy or one-size-fits-all answers. Our families, our cultural, ethnic, racial, regional and national traditions, our cooking know-how, our incomes, our biological variations—all these contribute to what we eat and what it means to us.
Lately I’ve been thinking about food as resistance, food as anti-authoritarian means of control, food as a way of acting out against, well, whatever. This reminds me of a scene from 1953 movie The Wild One, with Marlon Brando. The scene is here and the quote is this:
Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Johnny: Whadda you got?
Maybe Brando didn’t have this in mind, but food is a prime way of rebelling against whatever they got.
Catrin Smith has a really interesting article on women prisoners’ attitudes about food in prison. They have two sources of food—the prison cafeteria, which serves institutional, non-tasty but supposedly nutritionally balanced food, and the prison store, which sells cookies, chips, and other snack foods, which are high in sugar, salt, and fat content. In nutritional terms, the cafeteria food is “good” and the store food is “bad”. However, Smith found in her interviews with the women prisoners that
“Prison food is frequently defined as ‘bad’, in that it remains symbolic, irrespective of its actual quality, of disciplinary control. Here, controlling a prisoner’s intake of food can be seen as an important means of exerting power in a context in which a woman is rendered a subject to the regulations of the institution. Women prisoners are relegated to a child-like state – told when and what to eat – and food becomes associated with penal authority and denial.
Not surprisingly, prison food and eating practices, in turn, become a powerful focus of frustration and anger. At the same time, ‘bad’ food, as defined in dominant nutritional discourses and the women’s own accounts, becomes a source of pleasure (hence ‘good’), not least because of its taste but also because of its very power and status as ‘forbidden’.
Attempts to control the diet of women prisoners so that they ‘conform’ to the imperatives of the institution, or even, for that matter, to the demands of ‘good health’, may therefore be resisted or ignored in favour of the release offered by ‘unhealthy’ food and dietary behaviour.”
This phenomenon is pretty common—we see “good” food resistance also in students who reject or throw away cafeteria food, resulting in lots of waste and also loss of nutritional intake. What are they eating instead? A la carte items like fries, burgers, pizza, chicken fingers, for one.
For another, lots of schools get revenue from vending machine purchases of sodas, energy drinks, and all kinds of snack foods.
Policies vary a lot from school to school about student access to vending machines, but they are a part of student eating in many schools. Also, many high schools have policies allowing students to eat off-campus, at places like this.
I remember well that feeling (for me, starting in college) of freedom to go where I wanted, select my own meals, and control when I eat and how much. It was for me in some ways a vehicle for rebelling against parental authority. My mother denied my sister and me regular access to sugary cereals, snack cakes, chips, candy, etc. Of course this was for our own good, but when I got to college and went to a friend’s apartment, I remember seeing this in his kitchen cupboard.
Now, I don’t actually LIKE this kind of food (probably because I didn’t develop a taste for it, courtesy of my mom’s oversight—thanks, Mom!). But the IDEA of it seemed transgressive, rebellious, bold.
One of the primary tenets of intuitive eating is that no food is prohibited, even Little Debbie cakes or this new burger, recently unveiled by Hardee’s in the US, which features a beef burger, hot dog and potato chips, all housed in a bun.
I know that for some situations in which I desire some nutritionally “bad” foods, I will want to exercise some external control, follow a rule or nutritional guideline, and not buy or eat those foods. An example of this (for me) would be when I pass by the chips aisle in the grocery store. However, for other situations, I know I will want to go ahead and eat some of the foods I consider to be “bad”. For instance, if I’m at a birthday party, I will always want some cake and ice cream. The difficulty is figuring out how to regulate those processes so to be able to exercise my judgment in accord with my own desires and values and health goals.
Bottom line: it seems to me that I need more strategies than those provided by intuitive eating in order to deal with the issue of when-to-eat-rebelliously and when-not-to-eat-rebelliously.
Readers, do you ever eat “rebelliously”? I’d love to hear any comments you have.
The joy of diagnosis: Sleep apnea (Guest post)
I’m sick…. ill, and I’m really happy about it! I’m relieved to know that I have sleep apnea, and especially that it’s severe. Although my treatment hasn’t started, good treatment is available. Also, there is a definite physical reason behind some of the problems I’ve had in recent years, even though it’s an extremely serious condition. The regular interruption of breathing that defines apnea can cause serious strain on the heart in addition to some of the other symptoms that are more easily observed and that have troubled me. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is common, often arising in middle age (I’m 48), though less in women than men. Mine may be encouraged by allergies, sinus problems, a small jaw, and body weight. (Non-obstructive or central sleep apnea (CSA) is due to problems with how the brain controls sleep.)
In recent years I’ve known something was wrong with me. I seem always tired, lethargic, and have trouble concentrating. I can nap pretty much any time of the day. I may be more irritable too. I thought I was being lazy, not trying hard enough, failing to manage my time. It was hard not to beat myself up. Or perhaps this was related to my migraines or tension headaches. Maybe I was depressed?
I worked on my organization, I got more exercise, set multiple alarms for the morning, put inspirational notes next to the bed to help me get up, and treated my headaches more seriously. They all helped, but I’m still tired most of the time, and the stress of the situation actually did make me depressed. Another problem seemed to be my recent dramatic snoring. Sometimes the dog even left the bed! I live alone and so have little idea how I sleep, but when there was occasion, others observed not just the horrific noise but that I seemed to have trouble breathing.
I tried sleeping on my side, which helps my snoring but also aggravates my shoulder and hip problems. It turns out that I have mild apnea on my side, and severe (stopping breathing about once a minute) on my back where I prefer to sleep mostly. That was the diagnosis from the sleep study, in which the patient gets all hooked up with electrodes of various sorts (including glue in the hair,) a snoring microphone (!), and a breath monitor. (In a private room like a tiny institutional hotel with a shared bathroom.)
Now I have the choice of the very effective CPAP machine (standing for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) which would normally be the obvious choice since I have adequate health coverage. Many of my friends find the machine has changed their lives — yeah, they say that, almost all of them.
Sure, some complain that it’s embarrassing to have to wear the mask to bed, making one an unattractive bed partner, like Darth Vader. But it must be better than the snoring, to be sure; and if that’s a deal breaker, it’s not much of a “deal.” Also, some people find the mask uncomfortable, and while they’ve made big improvements in design in recent years nobody wants to wear an apparatus on their head if they don’t have to; so sometimes people refuse to use it or don’t use it regularly. My problem is that I have a rare genetic vascular condition (HHT) that manifests in ways that mean that I can’t scuba dive, of all the odd things, because of the forced air; I suspect the positive air pressure of the CPAP may pose a similar problem. I’m waiting for advice from my specialist, but it may be best for me to try the alternative dental appliance; it’s not typically best for severe sleep apnea, but it may be best for me.
One downside of this diagnosis is the complication to my body image: weight loss can eliminate sleep apnea. I would certainly love to lose some weight. Yet of course, as the sleep specialist understood, I’d have done that already if I could.
On the other hand, people do lose weight sometimes as a result of addressing their sleep apnea. More energy makes them more active, I suspect, and less inclined to seek energy in food; though an improvement in mood might help too. Anticipating this reminds me of the perverse pleasure so many of us have when an illness makes us lose weight: “because of the flu last month I can get into my old jeans!” Although if I should lose weight from treating my sleep apnea, it would be due to improved health. I just need to resist letting that possibility fuel weight loss fantasies that take up time I could be spending actually enjoying my life.
Time and energy are the real promise of treatment. In my homemade efforts to fight the energy loss from sleep apnea I got more active; now — with treatment — I should be able to perform and recover better (running-walking with my dog and yoga, recently the quite ambitious ashtanga style), and I’ll have the time to exercise more. I’ll keep repeating that to myself, and let the weight fall where it may.
Improvised winter athletics: Journeys in urban and suburban skiing
This winter in Boston is poised to break most of the cold weather and snow records. As of this morning (I say that because we are expecting more snow this afternoon), Boston has gotten 96 inches of snow, almost all of it in the past month. At MIT, a four-story high mound of snow has been named “The Alps of MIT”, and students are sledding and practicing their mountaineering skills. No need to travel to New Hampshire to the White Mountains, one student said to the Boston Globe.
Indeed. And although I love cross country skiing in rural New England (I blogged about it here), it hasn’t been possible (because of multiple storms over the weekends) to go to the back country in order to engage in winter sports. Also, most of my usual winter athletic activities have been severely curtailed. I’m playing on a women’s squash team this year, but several of our matches have been canceled because of snow or bad road conditions or public transportation breakdown. And winter cycling (for me, at least) is out of the question. Even with knobby or studded tires, the piles of snow everywhere make for poor visibility on the roads, so motorists can’t see you. Unless they are on snowmobiles and you are on a snowboard.
But where Nature closes a door, it has certainly opened a window—in this case, a window into city cross-country skiing. My partner Dan and I have been skiing at local parks in the middle of Boston like the Emerald Necklace, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park in NYC. We carried our skis for about 3 blocks, then put them on and skied down the snow-packed sidewalk into the urban woods. The hum of car tires on pavement was in the background while we made our way down routes tracked by other city-dwelling outdoorsy folks. That’s me below, standing on a higher packed area near a baseball field.
My most hardcore outdoorsy athlete friend Rachel has combined her intrepid cycling habits with cross country skiing by fashioning a DIY ski carrier for her commuter bike rack. This way she can ride to and from skiing. Handy, huh?
We went to another Boston area spot recently, the Middlesex Fells, which is a great accessible place for hiking, walking, and mountain biking. This year the snow is deep, with routes mostly tracked (we broke trail only a little), and we were able to get there in a half hour. Here’s Dan and me in the woods—again, there’s a low hum in the background; Interstate 93 is close by.
My friend Matt, a very good skier, decided to try schussing down a huge mound of snow, and created the best face-plant photo op ever.
On the suburban front, there are conservation lands all over the Boston area, where you can ski in woods, fields, by farm houses and suburban tract homes. There is some parking, and they are everywhere. At Foss Farm, we connected to a series of trails just outside of Boston. My friend Janet is taking in the scene here on a bench over a snow-covered and frozen wetland area.
Probably by now you get the idea—it’s possible to get out and move regardless (almost) of weather, transportation gridlock, and location. In a winter that is breaking records here and yon, this is the silver lining. Hey, it’s something.
I leave you with the last scrap of that lining below. Rachel (the intrepid bike commuter) has had to give in and actually drive to work sometimes. But she’s discovered that if she gets up really early, she can ski a little at Great Brook Farm before work. And this is what it looks like.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
Canine fitness coach (Guest post)
At one time I thought it would be good to have a small dog that I could take places with me, but I soon learned that a big dog could take me all sorts of places I really wanted to go! I had the chance to adopt a very nice husky-shepherd mix that a friend had rescued, and I knew she’d keep me active. I knew she could run with me, if I wanted, and that otherwise keeping her happy would require me to walk a lot. I named her Abbie – Abigail means “heavenly gift,” and she has not only required me to be active but helped me to enjoy exercise and build a better body image.
I’ve never particularly enjoyed exercise, except for step classes in certain places, dancing, and walking. Finding exercise that I can enjoy has been a long-term quest. I would run a little from time to time just because it was minimal hassle and investment. But running has become a special pleasure with Abbie: finding the freedom in letting out my stride and running alongside her, sharing the joy she finds in running. Nobody enjoys running like a dog, and perhaps no dogs more than huskies. Her pleasure at using her strength inspires me to simply enjoy what I’m doing, and to accept the exercise as an end in itself. We enjoy our movement, being together, and being simply being out!
I find it easiest to lose weight (and keep it off) when I run or get intense cardio of any kind, and I used to consider losing weight really important. It was my central reason for exercising: I’ve suffered from the usual body image nonsense that many women endure. I wanted a better motivation to exercise, but I couldn’t internalize the other goals it serves: stress reduction, energy, sleeping well, and so on. That’s a lot easier to do now that Abbie’s helped me to appreciate the pleasures of exercise itself, and being outside just to be in the light and the air. That motivates me to continue to exercise, so I can continue to do more, especially as my aging body needs encouragement.