Bro, Do You Even Lift? And Other Competitive Fitness Discussions


Things I do not ordinarily recommend: selling furniture to strangers on Craigslist. My basic life motto was “nothing good ever comes from Craigslist,” tied for first place with “everything is better with sweatpants” and “there’s no such thing as a bad time to quote Shakespeare.” But I’m in the process of moving out of my apartment, and someone’s got to take care of all this huge, heavy oaken furniture that I borrowed from my roommate’s relatives. So Craigslist it is.

Today’s activity consisted of helping our very friendly, not creepy Craigslister carry a piece of said huge, heavy oaken furniture – namely, a five-drawer dresser – out of our apartment, down a flight of stairs, across the yard, and into his flatbed truck. Now, I realize that from my internet persona it may be difficult to tell, but let me clue you in on a little secret. I’m not exactly bodybuilder material. When I use weights, and that’s really something to write home about, it happens so often, they weigh a whopping three to five pounds. And that’s enough. So needless to say, as I fill out job apps and wait for interviews, “furniture mover” is not something in my near future.

This isn’t particularly earth-shattering in a body-positivity sense, I’m aware. But after we’d heaved the offending armoire into the flatbed, I started listening to the conversation that he, my roommate, and I were having. And it made me think.

“That’s definitely my workout for the day,” I sigh, leaning against the wall of the house.

“Yep, no need to go to the gym today,” Craigslist Guy says.

“We’re two weak, short women, this is as much as we work out,” Roommate says.

And so on. Polite, filler conversation. But why do we always do this? I don’t know about you, readers, but I’m guilty of making entirely too much of a conversational deal out of my exercise regimen. The thought process runs a little bit like this:

  1. Something happens that calls into question my physical fitness level. This can be something as practical as me trying to lift an uncooperative object, or something as, well, as petty as someone else mentioning that they had a good run at the gym yesterday.
  2. I instantly go into a spiral of self-doubt. The thoughts come hard and fast: do I work out enough? I’ve gained a lot of weight recently, clearly this is because I’m not working out enough and I’m trying that whole “intuitive eating” thing, which is currently playing out as that “eat more than you ever thought you’d let yourself” thing. They’re so much healthier than I am. I wish I could lose some weight. Man, this sucks.
  3. I try to come up with an appropriate response, falling into one of two categories: a) explain exactly how often I work out to defend my status as “one of the good ones” (let’s not even talk about how screwed up of a thought this is) or b) I say something self-deprecating.
  4. I generally say something self-deprecating.

This happens, now that I stop to think about it, constantly. In recovery, I find myself continually defending my right not to work out, even though I do it with some regularity. Is this because I want to prove to the world that “fitspo” and “pain is weakness leaving the body” is really not the best inroad to a healthy lifestyle, physically and mentally? Partially. I definitely consciously mention that it’s okay not to go the gym sometimes, and that it’s okay to indulge in that froyo because you’re dying to have it, and because froyo. Sometimes it’s conscious and intentional.

Other times, it’s something else.

When did exercise regimens become the new golden standard for how good of a person you are? Because somehow “going to the gym and getting on the elliptical X days a week” has become synonymous with “getting your life together.” Can’t I have my life together and work out when I want to? And what about those who, broadening our worldview to be a little less ableist, can’t lace up their running shoes and go for a jog? And those who don’t want to, because their stress relief and enjoyment comes from something like gardening, or baking, or cosplaying, or whatever? Do I need to defend myself for choosing to be or not to be in their number? (And did my third motto just subtly slip into this paragraph? Possibly.)

What exactly is the solution for this heightened sensitivity to, and need to defend myself against others about, exactly what I choose to do exercise-wise? Tough to say. For now, I’m making a conscious effort to be more aware of it, and to call myself out when I see the four-step cycle beginning again. I’ll work out or not work out as it fits my mental state, my lifestyle, my schedule, the weather, my mood, the time of day, the placement of Venus in relation to Mars, etc.

But one thing is certain: Craigslist Guy probably didn’t give a winged crap about whether or not I went to the gym this evening. He’s got his dresser. And I’ve got to revise my set of mottos.


Excuses, Excuses – Maria Kang and Body Positivity


What’s my excuse? Didn’t know I needed one.

Over the last few days, the above image has circulated around the Internet with the fervor usually reserved for cats on robot vacuums or whatever Miley Cyrus is up to now. Featuring a thin and toned mother of three posing in a sports bra and matching panties around her three children, aged 8 months to 3 years, this picture of Maria Kang has apparently succeeded in pitting half the virtual world against the other.

On one side, we have the supporters: “Good for you! This inspires me to lose the baby weight and get in the best shape of my life! Don’t let the haters get you down!”

And then the other side. Mine.

Now, let’s be clear. I support Ms. Kang’s right to take care of herself in whatever way she sees fit. (No pun intended.) If her lifestyle involves regular workout sessions, “clean” eating, and rigorous self-discipline, and that makes her healthy and feel good both physically and mentally, then more power to her. No body positive movement that I support will shame people for any reason, whether they are slim, full-figured, athletic, prefer a marathon of Breaking Bad to a workout, or any combination of the four.

Moreover, I do not and will not support body shaming of this woman. My body positive movement will not stand for the shame and criticism of this woman’s body shape for any reason. And neither should yours. No calling her out for being “a bad mother” or “self-obsessed” or any of those things. Positivity is part of the movement for a reason.

That said, though.

The message conveyed through this picture is not one of supporting a healthy lifestyle through a balanced diet and regular exercise. The message here is work hard enough, and you can look like this.

If Ms. Kang provided a picture of her three kids sitting down with her to a balanced meal full of healthy whole grains and vegetables, or the three of them partaking in mommy-and-me aerobics or whatever her workout routine actually is, I would be completely behind this message. You absolutely can take good care of your body regardless of your family size (though for some it might be more difficult because of economic circumstances, work schedules, physical disability, etc). Advocating health for everybody is totally in line with body positivity. Hey, if we want to love our bodies, shouldn’t we take care of them?

Kang’s apology, though, doesn’t address the real problem that I think should be mentioned about this image: it equates health with body size and sexual attractiveness, which is simply not true.

You can be thin and fit, just as you can be fat and fit. The Health at Every Size (HAES) movement has been trying to spread this message, but apparently it has not caught on as well as it should. Looking good in a sports bra (and hey, who’s to say that her way of looking good is the only way?) does not mean that you can run a marathon, or that you are getting an adequate amount of nutrients, or that all your muscles and organs are in tip-top working order. They can do that just as well at a higher weight, or a different body shape.

If Maria Kang is healthy and happy in her current body, more power to her. But I don’t need an “excuse” not to look like she does. Why? Because even though I look different, even though my abs will never do whatever thing hers are doing and my thighs have some more give to them, I am perfectly capable of being healthy in this body. Just as you’re perfectly capable of being healthy in yours.

Now, I’m all for free speech and first amendment rights. I’m not saying that Kang should take the image down, or that she should stop anything she’s doing. I’m just asking that we think critically about the social movements that lead us to believe that health equals thinness and “conventional attractiveness.” (The only way I can express my disdain for this concept is through quotation marks, because I don’t know how to punctuate an eye-roll.) Consider that athletes, and all women for that matter, come in different shapes and sizes, and one shouldn’t be more valued than another.

What’s my excuse for not looking like Maria Kang?

I look like me.

Exercising Demons

Flipping back through my Facebook timeline (you know, because it’s not like I have anything better to do, like, say the 8-page paper on King Lear that’s due this week…), I came across a status I posted about a month ago, on one of those rare warm March days that get everybody in the northern Midwest unseasonably excited.

“Every year for about five months, I think I hate running. Then a beautiful sunny day like this comes along, and I remember I love running. I hate being cold. Not the same thing.”

In hindsight, both yes and no. Yes, in that there are some days where a good run on a sunny day feels wonderful, and in that I really do hate being cold. No, in that I don’t think I can say I love running. At least not without some parentheses.

If I see this coming at me, then I'll run, no questions asked.

If I see this coming at me, then I’ll run, no questions asked.

I have, like many people in various stages of recovery from anorexia, a complicated relationship with exercise. I wasn’t overly extreme in my habits, because there’s a lot of truth in Newton’s Third Law of Motion: objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and I am a very restful object. The very best days of summer for me are the ones I spend in a lawn chair with a giant book and a bottle of Diet Coke. I reason it this way in conversation: maybe it was important for our Cro Magnon ancestors to be able to outrun a saber tooth tiger, but I have a bus pass.

On the other hand, I was on my high-school varsity cross-country team for two years, and we had practice every day of the school week and meets on weekends. I have terrible hand-eye coordination, but running didn’t require any of that, just a pair of shoes, a willingness to endure, and some determination. And, as I would display over the years with undesirable results, I had all three of those things in spades.

And then the team was gone, and I began college. The myth of the “Freshman Fifteen” (and it is a myth, by the way) looming in the background and a free gym membership coming part and parcel with my student ID, I began my constant battle of fear of weight gain verses exercise aversion. Sure, I walked to class every day, and this year I live on the fourth floor of a dorm from the late 20th century that still doesn’t have elevators. So it’s not like I don’t do anything.

But in my mind, this is simply not enough.

Exercise and dietary strictness have such moral connotations in my head that I’m not entirely sure how to disentangle them. Working out became a regimen, something that I had to do a certain number of days a week, or…

Well, there really wasn’t an or.

I would go to the gym that number of days a week because that was just what had to be done. Any less and I would gain weight in a terrifying spiral out of control, and any more was just not going to happen, considering how much I hated going this often as it was. It was the maximum reasonable possibility for someone who has never been dripping sweat and thought, “Oh, I’m so glad I’m sweating! I feel so good now!”

My favorite things: yoga and cats.

My favorite things: yoga and cats.

When I decided that it was time to commit to recovery (or, really, my parents and doctors decided for me, and I was kind of taken along for the ride), exercise was one of the first things pulled out of the equation. For about six months, I was not to go running anymore. I was not to go to the gym. Yoga was fine, and more than fine, really; it was something I really enjoyed. I might not have gone about it the right way at first, signing up for the most vigorous of classes and considering in the back of my mind how many calories my sun salutations were burning. Buddha would have been rolling in his grave. (Or his reincarnation. Or whatever.) But I learned, and now a minute spent in downward dog is sometimes enough to clear my head. I’m not alone in using yoga as a recovery tool for eating disorders: you can read another testimony of its usefulness here.

But then my weight passed the point that my doctor considered the minimum threshold for exercise, and here I am again, five years-ish after the onset of my eating disorder, lying on my bed wondering if I need to go for a run right now.

The question is not “do I want to go for a run right now.” The answer to that is a wild, resounding no. I have other things to be doing: writing that paper on King Lear, for instance, or watching another episode of Firefly from the DVDs I borrowed from a friend, or doing the laundry I’ve been putting off doing for two weeks (I really do need to do that).

No, the question is “do I need to.”

If I don’t, how much weight am I going to gain by tomorrow morning?

If I don’t, how much worse will my pants fit, considering they already aren’t going on as well as they did a month ago?

If I don’t, when will I make time to go later in the week, because I need to get my allotted days in or… or… because I need to.

If I don’t, how much faster will I be gaining weight, because it’s already coming on at a pace beyond anything I feel comfortable with, and that’s with this exercise routine in place?

Does it even matter if I do, because I’m just going to gain weight anyway because I’ve lost all control of my body?

I’ll be the first one to admit, I’m not the best at dealing with these thoughts when they come up. Eating habits, I’ve more or less got those urges down. I eat regular meals at regular times (there’s a rigidity to this that I wish I didn’t have, but if it makes me feel more safe to eat similar things at the same time each day, as long as they’re balanced, healthy meals there’s not much cause for complaint). If I’m not hungry, well, it doesn’t matter. It’s six-fifteen, so I need to go get dinner. End of story.

Image credit: hittheroadjane.com

Image credit: hittheroadjane.com

Exercise urges, on the other hand, I haven’t figured out a good way to deal with. I’m notorious for caving in, because I know it’s the only surefire effective way to get rid of the urge. If I don’t, I’ll keep nagging myself throughout the rest of the day, no matter what else I’m supposed to be doing, You should be working out right now. You should be working out. You should have worked out when you had the time. I’ll be nervous and anxious and that won’t help me eat anything healthier. I’ll be miserable for longer. Better suck it up and do it.

I might not know how to deal with this self-imposed pressure, but I do know that it is not true.

Exercise should be an opportunity to celebrate one’s body. If I’m going to move my body, it should be to make it feel strong, healthy, happy, loved, worthwhile. I should do it because I want to, and because I enjoy it. Exercise should not be a punishment, a miserable endeavor done mostly to avoid sitting paralyzed on the couch with one running shoe in hand.

There is nothing moral about exercise. People who work out regularly are not any better people than those who prefer leisurely walks to class and a few flights of stairs to their dorm rooms at the end of the day. The only reason I need to be in tip-top fighting shape is if I need to wrestle a saber tooth tiger on a regular basis, and I’m not planning on it. Fitness is great if it’s done for health and enjoyment, but when you think about it objectively as the lovely folks at Libero Network did, is fitness really that big of a deal?

If anyone out there has tips for overcoming exercise guilt and compulsion, I’d love to hear your strategies. For now, I’m learning to sit with the feeling that I’m not currently running a marathon, that there are some squishy bits to me that weren’t there a few months ago, that there will always be girls on this campus who are thinner than me and who run faster and farther and longer than me, and that this is okay.

Because if I’m not going to accept my life choices and my body, who the hell else is?