Radical Movement: Re-framing Exercise

[cross posted to The Body is Not an Apology]

Exercise and loving my body don’t always seem to go hand in hand. Oh, my body needs it, no question. I do love reminding myself that my body can do more than sit in one position all day in front of my computer, but trying to find a way to get active without falling into the diet/weight-focused/six-pack-centric mind set is sometimes a challenge. When I hear “exercise,” I immediately think of the gym and crunches and being uncomfortable, which isn’t the image that’s going to get me moving. Finding a sport or activity I can get excited about – that I can feel great doing! – makes a world of difference.

What sport do you love? I hate to run, unless it’s a soccer game and then I’ll run until I drop. What kind of music makes you want to dance? I never notice the exhaustion or sweat when I’m dancing around like crazy to my favourite songs. What kind of movement makes you smile accidentally? Do you like the serenity of a walk on your own, or do you like the friendships that spring from team sports? Maybe you’re into swimming or mountain biking or tap dancing, who knows. There’s so many incredible ways to move your body, and a lot of them feel great. The challenge is finding something that works for you, not against you.

It’s easy to think that other people’s strategies are going to work for your body, but often the solutions for others weren’t built for your body. When I first started doing yoga, it was based on many recommendations. I had avoided it previously because a) I’m dangerously inflexible b) I’m not very strong, and c) I can’t stand on one foot, and I understood yoga to require flexibility, strength and balance. Headstands for hours? Yeah, not my thing. Of course, the fact that I was dangerously inflexible, unaccountably weak and my balance was laughable meant that maybe yoga was the perfect challenge for me! Plus, my chiropractor said some core strength might mean fewer visits. So, off I went.

Although I initially enjoyed getting to know my body in a totally different way, it quickly became clear that there were some obvious issues. Some people are into crying during yoga, but I don’t think it was supposed to be physical pain causing the waterworks. Maybe this was not my solution, I thought. It certainly wasn’t decreasing my daily pain (more the opposite). Still, I didn’t stop because, hey, no pain no gain, right? Wrong answer.

This highlights the second challenge when choosing exercise for self-love. So often, we are unconsciously (or consciously) operating on the assumption that exercise is punishment, penance or necessarily painful. Activity should be in support of your needs, not an act of punishment and certainly not in direct denial of your needs. Those who have done rehabilitation or physiotherapy might talk about the pain of those exercises, but I think in general we need to approach activity with self-love and self-awareness. We can aim for joyful movement that prioritizes well-being first. Professional athletes might speak to the painful challenges of training, but they can also share stories of the injuries resulting from that kind of activity. I think it’s more of a warning bell than an example to follow.

When it came to yoga, I was saved when someone mentioned that maybe I was doing the wrong kind of yoga. Word to the wise, all yoga is not practiced in the same way.* The style I started with (Ashtanga) required a great deal more of what I lack, while Hatha (what I dabble in now) tends to be slower, gentler and generally kinder to my particular body. Suddenly, I wasn’t crying during class. Through yoga, I found that stretching and using my body in new ways can be both physically helpful and emotionally calming. It even made me more flexible! While I’ve largely stepped back from yoga, I have taken what I’ve learned with me.

Activity and movement is something to start with you, your body and your skills, so there’s no approved work out routine or ideal strategies that work for every body. Movement can be about enjoyment and self-satisfaction, not punishment or (worse) self-hate. In fact, moving your body can make a statement and help form a community. For example, The Olimpias project is actually a performance research and artists’ collective engaged with the disability community that brings dance into their work. It may take some looking around, but there’s people practicing unapologetic, positive movement that contributes to wellness, not the diet industrial complex. We can make a move towards self-love and well-being by finding activity that fits with our bodies, our lives and our communities.

* I think it’s important that I recognize here that yoga is an example of cultural appropriation by the West and often, just at a basic level, a practice that has been heavily commercialized and marketed to privileged communities. There’s a lot of thoughtful critique of yoga in the West that has definitely changed how I approach it.

Advertisements

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)

Guest Lecture: Laura’s Vision of the F-Word

This is Laura, a friend of mine. I whole-heartedly support her message.

 

Laura also recently posted a note on facebook talking about weight and beauty. It was from an article she wrote for Totem Park residence newspaper at the University of British Columbia. I asked her if I could share it here because I thought it was such a great example of how you can move beyond the number of pounds and see the beauty that doesn’t show up on the scale. Here it is below, enjoy:

The F- Word

Muffin top, thunder thighs, and other reasons why we love to hate ourselves

A few weeks ago, after insisting I didn’t believe in calories for the holiday season, I stepped on the scale to reveal a five pound increase.

I weigh 176.5 lbs.

By the way, this is not an article about fitness, health, or how I lost my holiday eggnog gut.  In fact, I am pretty comfortable with my weight.  Consequently, unlike most other women, I am willing to reveal that dreaded number which continues to haunt the human existence.

Some of you will read that number, 176.5, and automatically label me with the word “fat”.  I have been called many names, from fatty, to elephant, from Jigglypuff to humorless quips about the size of my ass.  And with a BMI of around 33, I can’t really argue.  I am a fat-assed Jigglypuff.

Somehow I survived grade school with fantastic self-esteem.  Somehow I avoided an eating disorder, except for that brief period of skipping breakfasts and lunches (I called it “vegetarianism”), and that one time I stuck a toothbrush down my throat.

So why was an eleven-year-old girl with fantastic self-esteem reduced to sticking a toothbrush down her throat?

There are a few reasons, and my story is not unique, nor the most severe.  Social media and advertising sells us our vision of sex appeal, what we are and are not allowed to perceive as sexy.  A California girl with big breasts is a plus.  Washboard abs is almost a necessity if you want a girlfriend.  But having a fat girlfriend makes you a “chubby chaser”.  You may try to insist you are somehow different, but be honest: your first lessons in sex probably came from magazines and television, reading articles about what men really want and watching movies where breasts are both big and perfectly symmetrical (for your learning experience, breasts are commonly saggy and different sizes.  But it doesn’t matter whether they’re “sexy” or not, because boobies are always fun to play with).

Another reason is body policing.  We love to talk about the things we hate most on our own bodies, but even more than that we love judging others.  We love to assess and compare; Facebook stalk acquaintances to see who got fat after high school, look at pictures of celebrities who lost weight, and ridicule Robert Pattinson’s own asymmetrical nipples and airbrushed abs in Twilight: New Moon.  We notice and praise weight-loss in a light of glorification because the F-Word (re: FAT) has been blacklisted as an epidemic, a deadly virus, in our own country.

I want to be perfectly clear in this next sentence, because it is not a popular opinion, especially in our health-conscious, fat-free, low-sodium society:

Fat is not the enemy.

Fat acceptance is an unpopular idea because many will argue that it promotes obesity and compliance with an unhealthy lifestyle, that obesity related illness is taking up tax-paying dollars.  It is true that our society needs a lifestyle change.  Yet directly linking fat to health issues promotes the assumptions “Thin must = Healthy” and “Fat always = Unhealthy”.  This is simply untrue.

Why is weight-loss or gain something we talk about constantly?  Why should being sexually attractive be our first, if not only, priority?  I think we sell ourselves short by defining our self-worth by a number.  Why is it wrong to make fun of the shape of eyes, or the colour of skin, yet it is still OK to ridicule the shape of a body?  Why is FAT an accusation, as if having this soft, pliable flesh is a crime?

When you look into the mirror, don’t see a roll.  Don’t see fat thighs or a double chin.  Don’t see “who you really are” trapped under a layer of evil fat.  Don’t chop yourself into pieces and disfigure your body in that way.  Don’t exercise because you hate your body; exercise because you LOVE IT.  Exercise because it feels like a breath of cold mountain air, like a natural high.  Grab your fat, squish it between your fingers, and hug it.  If you have no fat to hug, hug your ribcage, or your washboard abs, or your liver and whatever you look like, love your whole self.

Never deny anyone the human right of loving their whole self.

My name is Laura and  I weight 176.5lbs.  I am fat, and just so you know, I love my whole self; thunder thighs and all.”

I love this piece. Thanks for sharing Laura.

(Note: If you want to hear more from Laura, she has a tumblr here.)