What am I Fit For? Examining Our Relationship to Fitness and Health

 

imageWe are so often taught to treat our body as an object, a project, or an enemy to be defeated. Lose weight, tame curls, drop sizes, deny cravings, and on and on. We are taught to hate ourselves constantly. How does someone learn to love their body and treat it with kindness? How do I even figure out what my body needs? Open up a women’s ‘health’ magazine and it tells me how to lose weight, how to slim down and tone up, but they can’t tell me anything about what my body needs to feel good. They’re much more concerned with telling me what other people want my body to look like and how to pursue that body. No thanks. Plus, no one writing it has met me, so they can’t anticipate my challenges and skills. Here I am, 22 years into the process, and I’m still trying to figure those out!

My relationship with my body currently is kind of strained, shall we say. I’m only recently realizing that pain both is and isn’t a necessary part of my life. I’ve had back, neck and hip pain throughout my childhood, resulting in chiropractor visits since 8th grade, but it wasn’t until recently that it even occurred to me that I could potentially investigate why. I’m privileged to have a name for the source of some of my pain now (relatively minor scoliosis) and access to treatment (physiotherapy), but it surprised me in hindsight that it took 21 years for me to wonder why I hurt. 21 years to even imagine that my body was trying to communicate something it needed, instead of my body simply being an obstacle to my happiness. Now I know that while some of my pain is part of my life, much of it can be managed. I can do stretches and exercises and build strength, little by little by little. It would have been useful to know this 10 years ago…

Still, I have to constantly remind myself that my body is not broken because it has needs. The pain is not a sign that (as I have been fond of saying) my body hates me. My body is not wrong. My body requires my love, attention and support. I owe myself that, and I am years in debt. One of my goals is to (re)learn how to love my body on my own terms.

Our relationship to our bodies, ourselves, are unique, changing and individual, so my story may be completely unfamiliar to you. Still, I wonder how many others are trying to find their way towards self love in a similar way. How many people are trying to seek out well-being without falling into the traps laid by dieting companies and advertisements banking on undermining self-esteem? How many people will be attending the same gym with the same reservations about how those kinds of spaces often frame health in a way that I find harmful, even directly un-healthy, for many?

For me, well-being is a complex and subjective concept that is experienced very differently depending on the individual and includes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellness. In contrast, the ‘health’ I’m critiquing is the one-size-fits-all approach that demands normativity/conformity and offers a narrow vision of what a good life can be. Rachel has an amazing post talking about the myth of the whole and healthy body that deconstructs many of these limited ideas about health. However, I want to take part of that conversation a step further.

If we don’t want the myth of health, if we aren’t chasing down an ideal or trying to squish and fit into someone else’s mould, how do we seek out well-being? How do we learn to care for ourselves? For me, that’s part of  self love, part of beauty, and it’s gonna be quite a journey. Follow this thread on my blog with the tag “Wellness” and join the conversation!

(cross posted to The Body is Not an Apology)

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Being Well in an Unhealthy Society

“It is no measure of good health to be well adjusted to a sick society”

–       Jiddu Krishnamurti, as heard in The Nutritionist by Andrea Gibson

What is health? Western media may say it’s this:

Flat bellies and burning fat?

Or maybe you feel pressure to uphold this kind of ‘health:’

But chances are, the media (and many people around you) are actually leaving your health entirely out of the picture. The idea and ideals of health are too often built around experiences and standards that make abled, white, cis, straight, male, middle class, thin bodies the norm. This leaves so many people without any representation of what health might look like for them. Worse, their bodies and experiences are often made unhealthy, ill and invisible.

Throughout history, many identities have been marked in Western society as illness, putting the achievement of ‘health’ in direct opposition to well-being. This unfortunately continues today. For example, finding appropriate healthcare for people who are transgender can be incredibly difficult, and there has been a well-established and continuing history of people of colour facing unequal healthcare challenges. Mental illness in particular has been used to oppress marginalized people and define them as unhealthy, unfit and even inhuman. Previously on The Body is Not an Apology, we also heard from Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg about how damaging it is to constantly prioritize the ‘ideal’ abled body, as if the only way to be well is to resemble the default diagram in the medical textbooks.

The notion of ‘health’ I’m critiquing here is a one-size-fits-all approach where we are told that our bodies should look and act the same as some standard model, and that the same things must be done to make a body look that way. The same dieting, same exercises, and the same pills are supposed to work (roughly) for everyone, which ignores the fact that we have different bodies, needs and desires. The Body Mass Index is a perfect example of this, as it is often used to measure ‘health’ but it only asks for two measurements (height and weight) to compare to a standard chart. Obviously, its insights are limited. [sidebar: click here if you want a great post exploring why BMI isn’t an effective measure of health.] Even something commonplace for many, like caffeine, can have drastically different effects on people, so how can we expect our bodies to conform to a single model? Sameness does not create wellness.

‘Health’ is too often about ‘solving’ your body like it is a problem, selling a product, and building insecurity, not about prioritizing your actual needs. This version of health actually demands unhealthy actions and attitudes for many people. For example, the weight loss paradigm can be incredibly harmful to those of many shapes and sizes. It is not healthy to hate our bodies. It is not healthy to deny our needs. We needn’t apologize for our differences in ability, neurology, gender, size, race or age. We definitely shouldn’t be asked to sacrifice our mental or emotional health for a strange version of physical health. That isn’t well-being.

Well-being is a term that I’ve found better approximates what I want for my body. To me, well-being is a comprehensive approach that encapsulates physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual wellness and prioritizes unique needs and desires. My well-being requires something different from your well being, although many things may be shared. Essentially, there is awareness that while well-being might be achieved one way for me, the same strategy could have the opposite effect on you. That doesn’t make you unwell or your body wrong. Wellness as a concept can handle individual difference, because it’s unique for everyone. It is most definitely not about chasing an ideal body, mind or emotional state. Wellness doesn’t look like a specific size, hormone level, mobility, body mass or normative response. At its core, well-being is about creating and facilitating radical self love.

The complexity and subjectivity of wellness mean that it generally can’t become a six item list in Cosmo this week. It’s a challenging process, as our bodies are constantly changing, so there is no quick fix in many cases. In fact, well-being often requires individual, family and community resources to be achieved. What makes it even more difficult is that we’re not always taught how to take care of ourselves in this way and we’re actually often coached to ignore what our body, mind and heart require. Where do we turn to get advice if it’s so hard to come by?

Many people, including medical professionals, are getting fed up with ‘health’ and have started to search for well-being. An example of this in the medical field for the specific topic of weight is the Health at Every Size movement, which has received growing support. The Health at Every Size (HAES) approach takes the focus off of weight and acknowledges the stress weight loss actually puts on a body, as well as the very high chance that weight loss is temporary. Instead, some of the tenets of the approach are:

  • “Accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes”
  • “Eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety, and appetite”
  • “Finding the joy in moving one’s body”

For those who face sizism and fat phobia from even the medical professionals supposed to care for their well-being, HAES could be a game-changer. Fat studies scholars and critical obesity researchers are doing incredible work to challenge the dominant paradigm regarding fat, obesity and health that I don’t have space to get into in this post, but some resources are below.

While the HAES approach is not going to work for everyone, it does show that there can be innovation and new ways of looking at health. We can challenge what health is supposed to look like. We can work together in a community and redefine how we care for ourselves and each other. Well-being could offer an alternative to ‘health’ that empowers people to find what works for them, instead of evaluating themselves based on an unobtainable standard. Well-being is a perspective that honors the diversity of bodies and experiences in hopes of supporting self-care, genuine wellness and unapologetic self-love.

Recommended Resources for critical obesity work and introduction to HAES:

Bacon, Linda. Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight. Dallas, TX: BenBella, 2008.

Rich, Emma, Lee F. Monaghan, and Lucy Aphramor. Debating Obesity: Critical Perspectives. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Rothblum, Esther D., and Sondra Solovay. The Fat Studies Reader. New York: New York UP, 2009.

The Body is Not an Apology

The Body is Not an Apology

This summer has offered me a fantastic opportunity to join a new online community as a content intern with The Body is Not an Apology.

The Body Is Not An Apology is a global movement focused on radical self love and body empowerment. We believe that each time one of us unapologetically owns our beauty, loves our scars, heals our shame; we in turn give others permission to do the same! We believe that discrimination, social inequality and injustice are manifestations of our inability to make peace with the body, our own and others. Through education, personal transformation projects and community building, The Body is Not An Apology fosters global, radical, unapologetic self love which translates to radical human action in service toward a more just and compassionate world.

– description from their tumblr

Dreamed up by Sonya Renee and inspired by her fantastic piece of the same name, The Body is Not an Apology has grown from a project into a community. Taking the body as the starting point of empowerment, politics, love and social justice, this movement speaks to what drives my own activism. I think you can start with the body when you talk about almost any kind of inequality or injustice, making it a fantastic place to start activist work. The fact that the movement embraces an intersectional approach in so important to me, as you can’t talk about the body without also talking about sexism, racism, colonialism, ablism, classism, transphobia, heterosexism, sizism/fatphobia, agism… You have to talk about it all. The community and the mandate is broad and diverse, as the main project is supporting and creating radical self love and compassion. That is a pretty great goal.

I have been incredibly fortunate to get to participate in the tumblr and spend weeks of the summer blogging for The Body is Not an Apology. I’ll be sharing some of those entries here, so take a look at my work here and the rest of the posts at thebodyisnotanapology.tumblr.com, because the work up there by everyone on the Content Team is fantastic. I’m learning so much from my fellow interns – people have such amazing things to contribute – and I’m excited to pass on that link to you. Take a look, and look forward to a busier blog.

BvsB: Blog 2.0

It has been a while. I haven’t been a consistent blogger since I left high school and as I now have a degree, let’s just say that it has been a while, hmm? In light of the last four years, I would like to shift this blog from a focus on my book to a focus on my more general interests. However, there is significant overlap! Topics to be covered will include:

  • The Body (body positivity, fat acceptance, sizism, fatphobia, disordered eating, self-acceptance, ability, wellness, embodiment…)
  • Beauty (beauty standards, Western norms, standardized beauty, normativity, white washing, media representation, pop culture, body policing, heteronormativity…)
  • Social Justice and Intersectional Feminism (sex, gender, anti-racist feminism, trans* rights, sexuality, reproductive rights, classism, equity, inequality, representation, activism, identity…)
  • Media (critique, production, literacy, critical fandom, deconstruction, celebration…)

And more!

You may have noticed that most of the sub-categories could fit in many of the major categories. My interests are wide but are usually all part of the same venn diagram. If you like what you’re seeing above, I politely suggest you subscribe. I will be attempting to post at least once a week in future. 

Second announcement: I am writing for thebodyisnotanapology.tumblr.com as a current Content Intern, so I will be cross posting most of the work that I do there to this blog. I started posting early in the summer, so I have a backlog of content. Get ready for much, much more frequent posts!
So come along for the ride and let me know what you think in the comments. 

#solidarityisforwhitewomen, Hugo, 20/20 hindsight

If you are not already following the twitter hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, drop everything and go check it out. I’ll wait.

 

Okay, if you’ve come back or come up for air, welcome. Really, please do take a look. As a white feminist, I have found the conversation on twitter to highlight the gaps in my education, knowledge and community, as well as pointing to my privilege. These are key conversations for me as a feminist. I like to think that I approach feminism with an intersectional* focus, but my blind spots remain as persistent as ever.

Hugo Schwyzer is one such blind spot. I have linked to him in the past, even including him in a “Men We Love” section of Antigone Magazine, while under the false impression that he was a gentleman to be impressed with. Recently, the entire feminist community has come to terms with the fact that he is no role model, feminist or otherwise, as people finally hear women of colour out of twitter as they (again) relate stories of how he’s treated them, point out his racism, and highlight his lack of support for  abuse survivors, sex workers, people of colour and many others. His public meltdown on twitter sparked Mikki Kendall to use the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen and start a conversation about white feminists’ support of Hugo’s feminist career at the expense of people of colour, particularly the women of colour he hurt. This inspired a much larger (and critical) conversation about how white feminism mistreats women of colour in general.

I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know many of the things currently being discussed as a part of this conversation, about Schwyzer and about the many feminist women of colour that I haven’t been hearing. I’m uncomfortable, and I think that’s important. I think it can be difficult to sit with the discomfort, rather than excuse or explain or change the topic. So, this is me, uncomfortable and ready to listen. I’m going to continue to fall short as an ally and as an anti-racist feminist. As a feminist, period. But the point isn’t to be perfect. The point is to keep trying and keep listening and keep checking that rear view for a good look at all the mistakes you’re about to learn from. Bitch had a great piece really taking responsibility for how they handled the recent Schwyzer situation and I appreciate the example of learning and reflection.

This is not the first time feminism has been called out for its racism, for the dominance of white voices and privileged perspectives of all sorts, and it won’t be the last. It continues to be a critical conversation to have. It continues to be a problem. From the first days of trying to get suffrage to digital feminism today, there has not been equality among women or women activists. There has always been a disparity between the stated politics and the personal politics of how it plays out. Pretending that isn’t there isn’t going to make the positive changes necessary. So, here’s to #solidarityisforwhitewomen and to being uncomfortable and to being accountable to those you aren’t hearing.

 

*Intersectionality is the idea that identities and experiences aren’t happening in a vacuum. The categories that we have come up with (race, gender, class, ability, age, sexuality) all overlap, intermingle and influence one another. Intersectionality acknowledges that you can’t talk about one identity category separately from any other. It’s a  more complex analysis than taking one aspect on at a time and makes a bunch of sense as soon as you explain it, in my opinion.

Talking Back: Exhibit A

Ashley Judd recently responded to the criticism that she was facing in the media/celebrity blog sites/tabloids/magazines/everywhere. It was criticism not on her acting, choice of projects, humanitarian aid strategies, pursuit of a Masters degree, or various other actual activities. People were criticizing the ‘object’ that is Ashley Judd, the public face, and they were determining all the things that could be wrong, or surgically modified, or too fat. Judd has had enough. She writes:

“The Conversation about women happens everywhere, publicly and privately. We are described and detailed, our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart, our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification. Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted…. The dialogue is constructed so that our bodies are a source of speculation, ridicule, and invalidation, as if they belong to others—and in my case, to the actual public…”

Please read her response to the body policing and objectification here.

I know (and Ashley Judd knows) that celebrities are public faces and will thus face some criticism, but what is the source of that critique? What is the basis for ripping down famous women? Bodies. Faces. The flesh and bones that keep these women walking around. I am no supporter of celebrity worship or hype, but if we’re going to do it, I so wish it revolved around what they did, not what they looked like. Judd would seem to agree. When celebrities speak out, they talk back to a culture that has done so much speaking for and about them. Using their fame to bring attention to the media’s cruelty is so important.

Kate Winslet is also well known for calling the media on their unrealistic demands on women’s bodies. When she was photoshopped outrageously, she said so and complained that, “I don’t look like that and I don’t desire to look like that.” This kind of message is critical, because celebrities are so often trapped in the position where their bodies are policed harshly by the public as well as their employers, making their careers reliant on conforming to the beauty standard. Their conventional beauty is often what gets them fame and fortune to begin with. But if the winners of the beauty game are pointing out that it is rigged, that it is unfair, maybe it will be harder to deny. Maybe the rules will change. As people who both benefit and suffer under the current body standards, celebrities are uniquely placed to speak up. Now, if only we would all listen.

BMI – Body Mass Index as a Ruler of Health

The Body Mass Index is a measure based on height and weight, and arguably not based on determining the health of an individual. While many kids and adults use the system to determine their health, based on the assumption that fat relates to health, there’s a lot of problems with BMI as a health indicator. Beauty Redefined  has a great post covering all the various issues with BMI. Check it out here.

ruler

I’m currently taking a social science statistics course in university and we talk a lot about measurement. What does it mean when we measure a particular thing? How do we go about it? What do we learn from the result? These are important questions. When we’re trying to define health with BMI, there’s a lot of poor answers to these questions.

First, does measuring the fat in your body measure your health? We use the BMI as a measure of health often in public discourse. If determining health is the purpose of the Body Mass Index, does it do this? While public sentiment would say,”yes,” the scientific community has not yet determined a solid answer. A lot of people are convinced that fat is a huge factor of health, and some scientists are convinced that fat is not as closely linked to total health as we’ve been led to believe. So, it’s not settled whether being 20 pounds ‘overweight’ makes you significantly less healthy and at risk of many diseases. How much weight means how much less healthy? We’re not totally sure yet. (more info in the link above).

Second, if fat is the factor of health to measure, are we even measuring fat when we use the BMI? Well… unfortunately, we’re not. By using the height and weight, we’re not entirely sure what we’re measuring. How much of your weight is muscle? How much is fat? What about people with different body frames? It’s a test that’s very easy to use, but doesn’t effectively measure what it indicates. Other options, like waist circumference, have been suggested as alternatives that better estimate our body composition.

How we count matters when we’re measuring health. Think inches versus centimeters. If you’re measured in inches – 2.5 cm each – you will be fewer inches tall than you are centimeters tall. Is that because you’re shorter when measured in inches? Of course not, but knowing that we’re measuring in inches, not centimeters, is very important. When we measure health, we need to know whether we’re measuring correctly. Using the BMI system is not the most accurate way to determine the health risks that we have, and if health is what we’re after – not just more skinny people –  then we need to start counting differently.