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.

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)

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.

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.