shame

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

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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.

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Excuses, Excuses – Maria Kang and Body Positivity

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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.

Get Your Judgment Out Of My French Fries

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Note: this post appeared this morning on the fabulous blog The Outlier Collective, which invites two bloggers weekly to engage in often controversial topics from various perspectives. You should definitely check that blog out (the editors are lovely, lovely people), and the post can be found in its original context here. And thanks again to MadameWeebles for inviting me to write a guest post – you should all definitely check out her site as well!

“Where are you putting all that?”

My  hand stopped halfway to my mouth, the thick, crispy, delicious french fry left hovering halfway between me and my plate. My friends around the pub table continued eating, and I sighed. Here we go again.

That’s the trouble trying to have a social life while in recovery from an eating disorder: sometimes you forget just how much of our culture revolves around food. We bond by going out to eat, out for drinks, out for ice cream, out for popcorn at the movies. What I’m noticing, though, is that as women, we’re encouraged to bond around not eating.

I’m not talking about pro-ana groups specifically, though I’ll argue with my last breath that they’re a more dramatic manifestation of the same impulse. All I’m saying is that it’s easy to bond over shared problems, and the common denominator of personal malaise for the modern woman tends to be the size of our bodies.

Diet culture is not only a cash cow for mail-order food programs, it’s a great way to build community. Think about all those throwaway phrases you and I have used while out with friends.

“God, sometimes I just can’t stop eating.”

“I know I shouldn’t have the pasta, so I’ll have to hit the gym extra hard tomorrow.”

“Ugh, I can feel my food baby after that sandwich.”

Maybe you have that friend who looks at you when you decide to order that white chocolate cheesecake and jokingly sneers, “All right then, fatty.”

Speaking in huge, broad generalizations, we are bonding over an association between food and feelings of shame and self-loathing.

As if there were something morally heinous about ordering the giant beef burrito you’ve been daydreaming about for days.

As if an ice cream sundae had the power to transform you into the Antichrist.

As if the food you put into our body says anything about the quality of the character you carry around in it.

Eating can be a source of pleasure and enjoyment, but in the end it’s the shame as shoveling coal into a steam ship. Everybody does it. It keeps us moving, and when we stop doing it, or don’t do it often enough, we sink. Simple as that. And if sometimes you can make your coal-shoveling a little more exciting, and do it around a table with friends and ambient lighting, why on Earth wouldn’t you?

The reasons for why we wouldn’t are endless. Pop culture and the media telling us we need to be waif-thin and order salads with dressing on the side, otherwise we’re worthless and unlovable. Doctors and the American Medical Association telling us that obesity is a disease, and it’s contagious by simply looking at a plate of churros (I exaggerate, but only slightly). Well-meaning family members and friends looking us up and down, commenting on our bodies like we’re public property, and if we don’t look a certain way we’re on the fast track to death or old-maid-hood or some other horrific fate like being left on the side of the ballroom while Mr. Darcy dances with someone else.

Or simply the voices in our head, telling us that if we eat what we really want, if we don’t behave like the perfect mental construct of what a woman should be, we are in some way less than, imperfect, failures.

Those voices are more difficult to ignore than any of us like to admit. Time was, the question around my nearly-eaten french fry would never have been asked, because you couldn’t have gotten me near a plate of fried, salty potatoes with a ten-foot pole.

Which is a shame, because this was one of the most delicious meals I have ever eaten. It was a dinner of salty delicious chips, a pint of Guinness, and a bowl of soup that may or may not have included octopus tentacles. And you know why? Because while I still have moments where I hem and haw and panic over the moral consequences of a plate of pasta, in the end, I’m starting to relearn that food is food. And if I only end up in this pub once in my whole life, am I going to be proud of myself for bypassing the chips and the octopus for a chicken Caesar salad, dressing on the side, while staring longingly at my friends’ meals?

I doubt it.

“Where am I putting all this?” I repeated, looking down at the fry. “In my mouth. And it’s delicious.”