Yesterday, Sam of Fit, Feminist and (Almost) Fifty posted a link about thermogenesis that really frustrated me. Now, it’s nothing to do with anything Sam said, or even what Matt Stone – the author of the link – wrote. Rather, it was the idea put forth by Tim Ferriss that sitting in cold water can help with fat loss while sitting in hot water can cause a person’s body to retain body fat. I read this and all I could think was, what am I supposed to do with this information? Am I supposed to give up my much-beloved hot baths for the sake of shaving a fraction of a percent of body fat off my body? Am I supposed to put myself through the agony of regularly sitting in cold water – because I don’t do that enough with lap swimming and open-water swimming, I suppose – just so I can pursue that almighty holy grail of a lean body?
It was at this moment I realized that I have grown weary of the cult of low body fat.
This has been a long time coming, mind you. I can pinpoint a whole bunch of moments at which I found myself rolling my eyes at a lot of fitness advice aimed at promoting leaner bodies with as little body fat as possible. There’s all of the vaguely pro-ana tricks, like drinking two glasses of water before breakfast so you don’t eat too much (!!) and making sure that water is either ice cold or lukewarm, I still can’t remember which, but I guess the temperature of the water you drink on an empty stomach is supposed to promote greater fat loss. There’s all of the restrictive dietary advice: don’t eat fruit, don’t eat bread, don’t eat gluten, don’t eat anything processed, don’t drink alcohol, don’t eat dairy, don’t eat potatoes, well, wait, eat sweet potatoes but not white potatoes, basically don’t eat anything besides organic twigs grown using nothing but the tears of Lisa Frank unicorns. And then there is all of the training information aimed at fat loss, and the supplements, and the timing of your meals, and whether you get enough sleep, and whether your stress is managed well and…
I could go on and on ad infinitum, but I won’t. You get my point.
To a certain extent, I get why so many people are into the pursuit of an ultra-lean body. Part of it, I’m sure, is that lean bodies just look cool from an aesthetic point of view. All of those muscles with all of their striations on full display – I am the first to admit that I find that kind of physique very lovely to look at. There’s more to it than that, though. When a person has a lean body, it serves as visual shorthand of sorts, indicating that the person most likely trains hard and who has excellent nutrition (and, to be realistic, also has a certain genetic make-up that allows for that kind of leanness). You can’t see a person’s 1RM or their 5K PR, but you can see their visible abs, you know?
The issue is that for many people, the visible abs and the ultra-lean body have become the only thing that matters, even more so than the 1RM or the 5K PR. Take Nia Shanks, who recently took some heat from someone who basically called her a fraud for not posting photos of herself in a bikini, or Fit Bitch’s Meg, who has also posted about receiving similar kinds of criticism. Both of these women have demonstrated their fitness prowess time and time again, but that’s just not enough for some people. The signifier – the lean body – has become the ultimate goal, while the signified – physical fitness – has become of secondary importance.
I think about this a lot in my own life and my own pursuit of physical fitness. I’m sure the aforementioned critics would scoff at the notion that I think of myself as physically fit, considering that I haven’t seen my abs since…well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them. To those critics, I would be considered a fraud because I have not melted away every possible bit of body fat.
But I know the truth about my body and my abilities. I know the numbers that actually matter to me. I know that I can run a mile in 6:30, a 5K in 21:19, a half-marathon in 1:44. I can run 20 miles without stopping to walk. I can swim a mile in open water. I can deadlift my body weight. I can do thirty push-ups. I am by no means elite in my level of fitness, but I can do all sorts of things that are pretty remarkable, and so when I think of myself as a physically fit person, it’s not because I’ve managed to meet some cosmetic standard of what a physically fit person looks like. It’s because I have actually done things that physically fit people can do.
Sure, I could probably lower my body fat if I wanted to, and in the process become a faster runner. But then I think about the things I’d have to give up – drinking alcohol, eating bread and pasta, my semi-weekly date with a bacon cheeseburger and a beer, evidently hot baths – and I think about what little I would gain from it, and it just does not seem worth the sacrifice. Perhaps if I was an elite athlete whose livelihood depended on maintaining a peak level of fitness, I might feel differently about this, but I’m not an elite athlete. I’m not even elite in my local area. I’m just a recreational athlete who races for fun. Maybe most importantly, I am a recreational athlete who would like to get pregnant in the upcoming months. It’s kind of hard to do that when your body fat levels have dropped so low that you no longer get your period (which is a whole ‘nother set of issues – known as the Female Athlete Triad – in and of itself).
(And let’s be realistic – if I wanted to become a faster runner or swimmer, what I’d really need to do is run and swim more. Losing body fat might help me shave a couple of seconds off my times, but doing consistent speedwork and strength training will help me a lot more.)
This brings me to another point, which is that when we hold up ultra-leanness as The Fitness Goal for recreational athletes like myself as well as people who are just trying to keep themselves healthy, we are basically saying that everyone should be held to the same standards as elite athletes. This is insane! In what other area of our lives are we expected to emulate the best of the best? Are we all expected to write Pulitzer Prize winning novels? Must we all be capable of singing like the angelic offspring of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston? Should we all be able to engineer the tools necessary to identify the Higgs-Boson particle? No! So why does this idea persist that says we must all have the bodies of Olympic athletes before we can be considered fit and healthy?
What’s more – not even elite athletes maintain that level of fitness year-round. I’ve read several interviews with top runners and triathletes who say they deliberately put on weight in the off-season to give their bodies a bit of a break. Many bodybuilders and fitness models – at least, the ones who are careful not to burn their metabolisms into cinders – give themselves breaks from the discipline required to have such lean bodies. That’s why they have their competition weight and their off-season weight. The conditions required to get the bodybuilders and fitness models into the ultra-lean shape in which we are most likely to see them are not really all that sustainable.
I feel like I say this all the time, but clearly it needs to be said even more: what your body looks like is not as important as what it can do. Your body-fat percentage is not the most important number in determining your physical fitness, not when there are so many other numbers that actually indicate what your body is capable of doing.
Once more, with feeling: what your body looks like is not as important as what it can do.
(Here’s a post over at Diary of a Newbie StrongWoman that talks about this same topic, albeit much more succinctly and with less ranting than I did. Enjoy!)
Last week, I read a post by Feministing editor Chloe Angyal in which she admitted to starving herself for two years even while she was working as a public feminist on one of the most high-profile feminist blogs in the U.S. She goes on to ask forgiveness of her readers:
The reason I want to ask your forgiveness is because feminist leaders are not supposed to fall down this hole. Feminist leaders, especially those who are former Presidents of the Princeton Eating Concerns Advisors for god’s sake, are supposed to know better. After all, we know all about the Beauty Myth and we know how photoshop works and we know that it is a radical act to resist the homogenized impossible unattainable commercial vision of what beauty is. We know all this. Which is why, when I fell down that hole, I couldn’t tell anyone about it. On top of everything else – on top of being miserable and ashamed and really fucking hungry – I felt like a bad feminist, and I left like a flaming hypocrite. I felt like I was letting my readers down.
I’ve been mulling over her post since reading it, trying to make sense of the mess of feelings and thoughts her words have inspired in me. I certainly sympathize with her; after all, when you publicly identify as a feminist, you are announcing that you are an idealist in a way, and it can be crushing to acknowledge that you are falling far, far short of your ideals. It’s challenging enough to work these things out on your own, but to do it in public? On the internet? Where perfect strangers feel no compunction about seizing on your failings and turning them into weapons against you and your ideals? It’s a miracle anyone is open about anything on the internet at all.
I can also empathize with her. I considered myself a feminist for all of the years I was in my troubled, violent marriage, and I could never quite figure out how to square the dichotomy, how to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t quite figure out how to extricate myself from this marriage that was essentially the textbook definition of an anti-feminist relationship, that I couldn’t quite summon the nerve to do what I knew in my heart to be right. I already felt such shame over my situation as it was, but the awareness that I was falling far, far short of my ideals was perhaps the most shameful thing of all.
But this is the thing: that shame has since subsided. This is partly because it has been several years since I was involved in that relationship, and I have done a lot of healing work to move beyond this. But it is also partly because I’ve learned that I am not alone. I am not the only feminist who has been in an abusive relationship – not even close. And Chloe is not the only feminist who has struggled with body issues – not even close. I know so many women – strong, intelligent women – who dislike their bodies, who feel ugly, who struggle with self-acceptance and self-love.
In fact, I’d say that if the only women who were allowed to identify as feminists are ones who adhere to the Perfect Feminist Template, then there’d be no feminists left. Certainly this is in part because we are all human beings, with all of the imperfections and frailities that being human entails, but it’s also because the forces we are arrayed against – consumerism, capitalism, patriarchy, racism, a history of violence, psychological trauma, you name it – are just so powerful. The tools we have to protect ourselves – education, economic and political empowerment, critical theory, supportive community, love – can be potent, but sometimes they aren’t enough of a bulwark, and they get us despite our best efforts to evade them.
Rather than piling on ourselves – for even having the problem in the first place, then for failing to live up to our ideals – we’d do well to cut ourselves some slack. No one is going to come along and revoke your feminist credentials if you sometimes look in the mirror and hate what you see.
What we can also do is be open about our struggles. Silence forces us to shoulder the burden of shame alone, and it also contributes to the idea that we are somehow unique in our suffering, that no one else around us would understand, that we alone are flawed in this particular way. The reality is that almost all of us have hearts that serve as battlegrounds, and that most of us are fairly good at hiding that fact. But we don’t have to fight these battles alone. We can take our weaknesses and turn them into strengths, into empathy and compassion and understanding. In the end, these are the things that make us good feminists – and really, good people – not adherence to some imaginary standard of perfection that no one ever attains anyway.
A few weeks ago, I picked up a book by a fairly well-known trainer with the intention of following the four-month weight training plan laid out in the book. As I read through the book, I often found myself rolling my eyes at some of the ways the trainer framed the benefits of following her plan: lots of talk about wearing smaller jeans and tighter clothes, about being hotter and sexier, lots of “you go girl!” type stuff, which quite frankly makes me want to turn in my Vagina Card whenever I encounter it. (Too much? Maybe, but that’s how much I hate that kind of stuff.)
I was willing to overlook all of that, because the substance of her book – eat clean, train hard, fuck the pink Barbie weights, and fuck “girl” push-ups while you’re at it – really appealed to me. In fact, I like the substance of her book so much and have enjoyed her workouts so tremendously that I’m not even going to use her name and book title in this post because I don’t want this to seem like I’m hating on her, as I’m not. But there was one thing I was almost unable to deal with, one thing that almost caused me to put down the book and walk away from it forever, and that was the way the trainer used the prospect of inspiring envy in other women as a motivator to work out and get fit.
At first when I read that, I was like, “What is this, junior high school?” I mean, that was about the last time I can remember seriously thinking about how great it would be to be the kind of girl who inspired feelings of envy in other girls. Back then, I couldn’t look at a girl who I thought was prettier or better dressed without feeling achingly jealous of her. I didn’t understand the destructive nature of cultivating envy and jealous toward other girls and women until I was older and two things happened. First, I found myself on the other side of this equation for the first time and I learned it wasn’t quite the glorious ego-boost I’d thought it would be. Instead, I felt alienated from the other girls, and sad at the knowledge that I could inadvertently inspire such bad feelings in another person.
The second thing that happened is that I became involved in girl-zine culture, which pushed back against girl-on-girl competition and instead wanted girls and women to foster strong, genuine relationships with one another. “Jealousy kills girl love.” “We vow to struggle against the “j” word (jealousy) the killer of GIRL LOVE.” “ENCOURAGEMENT IN THE FACE OF INSECURITY is a slogan of the revolution.” It was the first time I had ever explicitly heard someone say that women and girls didn’t have to be in competition with each other. I mean, what were we competing for? Attention from guys? Like that was some kind of super-rare commodity, like we all are living on Mars and male attention is oxygen, and the only way we could survive is if a guy wanted to have sex with us? It sounds stupid, but I realized that was basically the paradigm under which I was operating. What’s more, I realized that this wasn’t just unique to me, that it was girl-on-girl competition was fostered all over our culture, that it was pretty much a given that women were going to be jealous. As Jay-Z put it, “Males shouldn’t be jealous, that’s a female trait.”
The whole notion of jealousy arises from this idea of scarcity, that there’s only so many crumbs of attention and power and sex to go around, and so we should do what we can to get as much of it as possible lest we get screwed out of getting any at all. In the process, we end up screwed anyway, because we get so wrapped up in trying to get one over each other that we fail to notice that we are in fact fighting over crumbs.
I had done a pretty thorough job of banishing girl-on-girl jealousy from my way of thinking about the world, which made reading those words all the more jarring. It was a reminder that, yep, there are women – actual grown-up women, not just teenage girls – who still regard other women through the lens of envy and jealousy. What was even worse was after reading that, I started to see the sentiment show up everywhere – in infomercials, in fitness media, all over the fucking place. I wasn’t sure how I had missed it before but once I realized that this was a common trope in fitness writing, I couldn’t unsee it. It was everywhere. It was even in the book aisles at Target:
The information in the book could be totally legitimate, but the title and subtitle are so gross that I can’t even with it. It makes me want to scream with frustration. Yes, it’s a gimmicky diet book, but it’s one that plays into the worst stereotypes of women as diet-obsessed bitches who really hate their so-called friends, and I want to wipe my butt with it every time I come across it in bookstores. It’s not unique, though. It just happens to be the most egregious perpetrator of a sad, contradictory way of thinking, which is that we can find the motivation to make positive changes in our lives by inspiring negative feelings in other people.
Why fall into that way of thinking? It’s such a cold-hearted way to go through the world, which is the only way I can think to describe a mindset in which everyone – even your friends – are competition. Instead, why not try to be a source of positivity? Why not admire other women you find beautiful or accomplished? Why not be genuinely supportive of other women – or really, of other people in general? You don’t have to be best friends with every woman you meet – you don’t even have to like them – but you don’t have to actively try to tear them down, either.
There are so many excellent, positive reasons to embrace a life of fitness and athletics: because you want to be healthier, because it’s fun, because muscles look cool, because it feels great to be able to do challenging things with your body, because you feel more confident in yourself. The prospect of tearing down other women and making them feel insecure does not need to be one of those reasons. It’s challenging enough to be a woman in this world. Let’s stop making it harder for each other than it already is.
Heads up: I get personal in this post. I’ll be returning to your regularly scheduled dose of fit-feminist ranting, but first, I gotta get this off my chest.
A few weeks ago, I noticed that my husband was stressing out over his training for an upcoming half-Ironman. He had jumped right into it with little rest after the Marathon Bahamas, and he was having difficulty getting his training to the levels it should have been. We were talking about this, and I reminded him that all of this is supposed to be fun, that we aren’t professionals, and that we do this for the fun of it. When it stops being fun, I said, it’s a sign that we need to re-evaluate our priorities and the way we are doing things. He ended up taking my advice and dropping the half-Ironman down to an Olympic distance, the training for which has been a lot more manageable.
A couple of days ago, I found myself on the other side of this conversation. I had been training harder in all three disciplines, had taken up a new weight training program, had started even counting my calories in an attempt to lose some body fat, all of which I hoped would help make me a leaner, meaner racer. I managed to keep it all going for a couple of weeks before it came crashing down on me, and I found myself scarcely capable of more than laying on the couch in my pajamas, staring slack-jawed at whatever screen was in front of me.
“Remember what you told me,” he said, as he watched me enter my dinner into the calorie-counting app, “about how all of this is supposed to be fun?”
I was losing perspective, and in the process forgetting what it was that drew me to all of this in the first place. I was forgetting that I did all of this – that I lifted weights, that I ran, that I swam, that I experimented with making food – because I enjoyed it, because it made me feel good, because it was fun.
This all became clear on Saturday morning, when I was standing in the starting corral before the Suncoast Classic 10K. It had been a few months since I had raced, and it was slightly surreal to look around me and see a lot of familiar faces from my racing community. I didn’t really feel nervous, even though Brian said he wanted us to shoot for a PR because I knew I’d spent the past several days being totally lazy and eating all sorts of delicious processed garbage and generally doing everything you wouldn’t expect of an athlete in training. Instead, I just figured I’d run hard and see what happened.
Then the warning horn sounded and we were off. The morning was cold and drizzly – perfect conditions for running – and once I got free of some slower runners ahead of me, I fell into a rhythm that was just ahead of the goal pace. The cold air and water chilled my thighs and my face, and made me feel alive and excited to be running. I paid attention to the way my body felt, to each step and to each swing of my arm, to the other runners, to everyone and everything I saw around me. It was marvelous. At the halfway point, I said to myself, Yes! This is why you do this, because you love the way this feels, because it makes you feel so good, because it is so much fun to run like a kid in the rain. Don’t you ever, ever forget this.
We ended up not only getting our PR but also coming really close to breaking a long-standing goal, but you know, even if that hadn’t happened, I still would have felt good about the race anyway, if only because of that moment of clarity I had somewhere around mile three.
Since then, I’ve been doing some serious soul-untangling, trying to figure out how I had lost my athletic spark so quickly. It’s complicated and multifaceted, and I’m sure I haven’t been able to grasp everything that’s going on yet, but I will try to lay it out for you:
- I had underestimated just how discouraged I was by my inability to break four hours in the marathon. I had trained my ass off for that race and yet I was totally thwarted by something beyond my control: the heat, the sunshine, the lack of shade. (Of course, there is a part of me, the part of me that always second-guesses myself after a race, that says I’m just being a chump and that if I’d wanted it bad enough I could have had it.) I’m also frustrated by the difficulty I have with the marathon distance, as I feel like someone who can run the times I run at all other distances should be capable of much faster times.
- I sometimes still have a hard time with the fact that I don’t “look like a runner.” This, despite the fact that I have written about it extensively, that I know that “looking like a runner” is kind of a bullshit thing, and that recreational runners come in all shapes and sizes. During the 10k I caught glimpses of myself in the storefront windows and my only thought was, holy shit I look like a lumbering beast. This is also why I hate race photos. I feel pretty good about myself as a runner, as long as I don’t see what I look like when I run. I know that I can’t do anything about my height, but I figured I could do something about my body fat percentage….
- …which led me to start spending a lot of time lurking in online forums for fitness-minded women. Problem is, most of what I found was aimed at women who do fitness and figure competitions. These are women who are interested in leaning out and ensuring their muscles have good symmetry and basically crafting their bodies in what I consider to be a performance art of sorts. These are not goals I share, but it didn’t keep me from absorbing some of the things I was reading, and while some of that information was great, other bits of information was….well…let’s just say that I had a real moment of clarity when I realized I was reading an argument about whether it’s better to drink water before eating or during eating if you are trying to lose fat. But I realized I was definitely internalizing a lot of what I was reading and seeing: all of those lean, glistening bodies, that fat-shaming fitspo, the glorification of suffering and pain in the pursuit of physical perfection.
- I’d started tracking my food in an attempt to get a grasp on my nutrition, and while it was informative at first, I soon found myself thinking about food more than I cared to. I have no real history of disordered eating – aside from a few instances of stress-induced “bulimia” – but I could easily see how thinking about calories and macronutrients and targets and grams of protein and meal-timing and fasting and blah blah blah…I could see how all of that could spiral out of control very quickly.
- I had not really taken a break after the marathon. I let my legs heal and then I was back at work, getting in the pool and on my bike. Plus, I had bought a house and moved into it over the holiday break and I had not taken any time off from my job while doing this. I was basically running on fumes already when I decided that I was going to undertake my plan to become the Best Athlete Ever! In a way, I suppose I’m grateful that I was already so close to empty because it meant I crashed out a lot sooner than I would have had I been well-rested and fully energized. So I was basically running at an energy deficit, which was not only affecting my training but also my work (hello, mistake city!)
- I was taking myself waaay too seriously. I am a freaking hobby jogger who does triathlon during the summer for fun, and there is not a damn thing wrong with that. Sure, I would like to one day qualify for the Boston Marathon, but if that doesn’t happen, big deal. No one is really going to care but me, you know? It’s okay to do this stuff for fun.
There’s a common theme to all of these things, which is that I basically went against the principles I had developed over the past several years. I cared too much about what my body looked like, even though my body was doing more than I ever thought it was capable of doing. I willingly consumed media that made me feel like shit and contributed to bad mental habits. My motivation was no longer positive (fun, pleasure) and had instead become negative (fat loss, changing my body.)
In short, I was doing much of what I had railed against, even though I knew better. I guess I thought of it as an experiment of sorts, and that I was grounded enough in my body-positive principles that I could try different things – things that went against my principles – and still be okay. I don’t know if I think that’s the case anymore.
But you know, it goes to show just how fucking tricky all of this is, and how insidious it is, too, that even a lady like me, who spends a huge chunk of her time thinking about ways to make sports and fitness more of a positive and inclusive experience for all people, can find herself susceptible to this kind of damaging thinking. It’s everywhere – in the mass media we consume, in the fitness media we seek out, in the conversations we have, in the messages we implicitly absorb when listening to other people talk.
So yeah, this is where I’m at now, a bit humbled, a bit chastened, with a lighter RSS reader and a smaller selection of Facebook pages on my wall. But I’m also feeling more like myself again, more excited about running and training, more excited about everything, and that, my friends is, a pretty good way to feel.
Several years ago, while researching gender in the early Catholic church for a college class, I read a book called Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven. In it, the author describes the way boys were taken from their homes when they were really young and put into monasteries, where they only had contact with other men. The men would then teach the boys about women, specifically that women were craven, lustful beasts who were destroyers of all that was righteous and holy. The boys, never having had contact with women aside from long-distant memories of their mothers, would absorb these teachings as fact, then grow up and teach the next generation of boys to fear women and to view them as little more than monsters.
I think of this passage often when I encounter articles that purport to “explain” women, like we are some great anthropological mystery that needs to be unraveled through careful observation and theorizing, especially when those articles are written by someone who has seemingly never bothered to consult even a single woman when developing his hypotheses. Why, it’s as if we are an alien species whose secrets cannot be deciphered through direct inquiry because we don’t even operate within the same paradigm of existence, let alone even speak the same language.
The end result is that when I do read these articles, I am often presented with a vision of womanhood that is about as familiar to me as the dark side of Neptune. When I was younger, I used to take this as proof that I was one of those exceptional females, that I was somehow special because I did not conform to what I was told women were supposed to be like, but as I’ve grown up and met dozens – if not hundreds – of women who are also not at all what women are supposed to be like, I have learned that it is not that I am exceptional, but that the ideas of what women are “supposed to be like” are bullshit. I mean, if you are trying to categorically define an entire group of people and yet millions of people see themselves as exceptions to your categories, rather than thinking there is something wrong with those millions of people, perhaps the answer is that there is something wrong with your categories.
I had this experience again – twice actually – yesterday: once while reading trainer Bret Contreras’ inaccurately-named “120 Strength Training Tips for Women” and once while reading “Yoga Pants Nation” by Nathan Graziano over at the Good Men Project (which really, can they just rename it to the “Nice Guys Project”? Ain’t been nothing good about those men for quite some time now.) If I had had no exposure to women aside from reading those articles, I would have come to believe that my gender consisted of little more than bubble-headed pink Lyrca-clad giggle-bots who live for nothing but making all men everywhere think about sex at all times. Now, I don’t deny that there are most likely women in the world who fit this description, but there are also men in the world who are just like the Situation, and you don’t see me talking about how all men are likely to GTL themselves until they look like tattooed-and-muscled troll dolls in too-tight Affliction t-shirts, now do you?
(Other ladies throughout the series of tubes have since written takedowns of both pieces, and here they are for your reading pleasure:
- “Women Wear Yoga Pants Because They Are Comfortable, Not Because They Apparently Give You A Boner” by Amelia McDonell-Parry at the Frisky
- “Strength Training ‘Tips’ for Women Perpetuate Stereotypes that Contribute to the Gym as Boys’ Club” by Tracy I at Fit, Feminist and (almost) Fifty
- “The Rant of An Angry Pink Lady, a reaction to Bret Contreras” by JoFitness at Breaking the Mold
- “120 Hilarious Fitness Tips for Women from a Swole Bro” by Laura Beck at Jezebel
I came away from reading these things, both with a pounding rage-headache and the distinct sense that both of these men could benefit from not only talking to some women, but actually listening to what those women have to say and taking it seriously and maybe – just maybe – considering that they, as the actual person in question, understand more about their behavior and their motivations than he, an external observer, could ever hope to know.
Graziano gave us a perfect example of this listening-but-not-really when he writes that:
when I ask women about yoga pants—hoping they’ll tell me the trend will pass—most women tell me that it isn’t that yoga pants are fashionable, per se, but they are comfortable to wear.
He can’t possibly find room in his imagination to fathom how that is possible, though, so he quickly disregards what every single woman tells him and moves onto something more pleasing to his sensibilities, which is that the women are dressing in those soul-vexing yoga pants as part of the “the age-old tease where women flaunt and men look.”
It must be wonderful to be able to occupy the kind of headspace in the world that allows you to construct the world so that you are the center of everything, including the wardrobe decisions of women who didn’t even know you existed prior to the moment they caught a glimpse of you behind them as they stepped on the treadmill at the gym.
Contreras does this too, although I have to say that I find his article infinitely more frustrating than Graziano’s, if only for the fact that he wedges these embarrassing little observations in between loads of really useful stuff. If his article would have been simply training tips for women, I would not be writing about him right now. (Actually, I might be, because he also shows that he is very focused on his female clients as primarily sexual beings, referring to their grunts of exertion as sexual – while men’s are not? – and writing about the “coregasm,” because there just aren’t ways in which women can feel sexually inadequate in this world.)
But instead, he chose to include “tips” like this:
Women like wearing pink workout apparel and take their training attire much more seriously than men (for example they tend to match their shoes with their shorts or shirts, etc.)
I would be curious if he actually talked to a woman before developing this super-technical “tip.” Perhaps if he had, she could have told him that pink is one of the main color choices when it comes to training clothing for women. For instance, my lifting gloves are pink, but this is not because I sought out pink gear. Rather, these were the only ones that fit me.
The fitness industry – and really, all consumer-goods industries – have decided that everything meant to be used by a woman or girl should come in some hue of pink. Has he never had the privilege of being blinded by the flamingo-puke pink of the girls’ toy aisle at his local Target? And of course, he’s never going to see men in pink – when was the last time Champion made a men’s pair of basketball shorts in a fetching shade of fuschia?
And hey, what if she actually likes the color pink? I also happen to like the color pink! I kind of resent the fact that my liking of the color pink somehow renders me less serious about my training than someone who is dressed in all black. That said, I also resent the fact that pink is presented as the only choice for women.
And then there is this:
Women sometimes dress very sexy for the gym and are then annoyed when males show interest while they’re training, which on the surface doesn’t make the best of sense
As a woman who wears workout clothing that could be considered “sexy,” I could tell Contreras that the reason I wear tight capris is because it’s easier for me to do things like push-ups, planks and hip thrusts if I don’t have to worry about flashing the Gynecologist’s Special to everyone in the free weights section. I wear short shorts when I run because I find it easier and cooler to have less fabric around my thighs. I wear tight tank tops when I lift because otherwise I end up rolling up the sleeves of my t-shirts and wind up with a wad of sweaty gross cotton in my armpits.
I also like the way I look in my gym clothes – which I guess I’m not supposed to admit but whatever – and if a guy at the gym thinks I look good too, I’m fine with that, as long as he doesn’t ogle or hit on me or act the fool. Sadly, there are guys out there who haven’t quite learned how to admire a woman they find attractive without being total doucheburgers about it, but it’s not the woman’s fault if she gets annoyed with that.
See? Women tend to have reasons for doing things! We are not irrational little monsters who are forced, kicking and screaming by our XX chromosomes, to wear tight pink clothes!
These are not isolated incidents. This happens all the time. It happened last week, when I wrote about some research conducted by Dr. Robert Deaner, in which he tried to figure out why women were less “competitive” at the elite levels than men. Over the course of the excellent comments that unfolded in the post – which, by the way, I love the readers of this blog, you all are so smart and fierce – I found myself getting progressively annoyed with Deaner, who analyzed some race reports, identified trends in the way the top male and female runners placed, and then used that information to come up with the following theory:
“I have argued that the most parsimonious explanation … is that more male than female distance runners are motivated to maintain the large training volumes and intensive training needed for elite performances.”
And yet there is nothing to indicate that he ever actually talked to female runners to find out why this might be the case. The idea that women may find it hard to juggle large training volumes while trying to do things like have kids (because the childbearing years tend to coincide with the top running years) and raise families (the labor of which still falls disproportionately upon the shoulders of women) doesn’t seem to occur to him. Rather, it’s just that they aren’t motivated to do so – they just don’t want to.
When this happens, we women are reduced to tabula rasa against which the so-called authorities of the world can project their ideas about us. That we might have motivations, ideas, beliefs, choices – basically, internal lives of our own – doesn’t seem to register. I would suggest that the next time someone decides to write an article in which they try to “explain” something that confuses them about women, that they might do us a favor and actually talk to some of us first and listen to what we have to say. After all, we are the authorities on our lives, not you. If you are really curious to know what’s up, all you have to do is ask.
When I was about twenty-two years old, I had this idea that I was going to see if I could become a model – because that’s what tall, thin, slightly insecure girls do, I suppose – so for a summer, in an attempt to slim my entire body down, I restricted my calories, did a bunch of yoga and spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to do spot-reduction exercises aimed at my “problem spots.” (Basically, I did everything wrong.) I was particularly obsessed with my thighs, and I had this daily routine of weighted leg-lifts that I’d do in my bedroom, all in a futile attempt at slimming them down to what I thought of as model proportions. I was particularly maddened by my inner thighs, which touched no matter what I did.
I thought about that summer this morning when I read Tracy’s post at Fit, Feminist and (almost) Fifty about the “thigh gap” obsession, which seems to be ongoing among a certain set of young woman. Obviously this isn’t a new thing – see my first paragraph - but thanks to the internet, it’s been getting media coverage under the guise of the “disturbing new trend” in teenage body image problems.
Tracy lays out the biggest problem with the fixation on the thigh gap:
The thigh gap is just another example of the false idea that achieving a certain (often unattainable by most) aesthetic will bring happiness. Seeking inspiration from representations of unattainable ideals is a set-up — at a minimum it leads to disappointment and demoralization, at worst it can lead people to under-eat, overexercise, and develop eating disorders.
The rest of the post is great, so make sure to go and read it.
I sometimes come across thigh-gap thinspo in my various travails around the internet, and one thing I am always struck by is how the thighs held up as the ideal are little more than skin stretched over bone. Like, where is the muscle? Muscle is necessary to being able to walk, jump, lift boxes, squat down, you name it. Thighs need muscle to be functional! Muscle should not be considered optional!
And not just muscle, but body fat, too. Body fat is not an evil thing. Body fat provides you with padding so you don’t bang your bones and organs against things all the time. It keeps your body warm. It produces hormones, especially estrogen, which is another thing that is not really optional!
The obsession with the thigh gap is an example of the way the biological realities of our bodies have become totally divorced from the aesthetic ideals against which they are held. It’s not even a matter of form versus function. In this case, obsession with form – the thigh gap – obliterates function – the thigh’s ability to do what thighs do.
I see this with calories, too. Somehow the calorie has become this terrible evil that needs to be minimized at all costs, with the ideal being as close to zero as possible. It’s as if calories are thetans and we are all Scientologists and we are supposed to do whatever is necessary to become free of them. But what this mindset fails to grasp is that calories are necessary. Every living thing needs to take in some kind of fuel to burn – because that’s what a calorie is, it’s a measure of heat, not evil soul-destroying awfulness bent on ruining your life - and a certain number of them are absolutely essential just to exist.
I remember reading Wasted by Marya Hornbacher several years ago, and being struck by a passage in which she describes having an epiphany about food, and how food was something she actually needed. Her belief that food was inherently evil had so thoroughly absorbed her that she’d all but forgotten that food is an essential part of life.
As much as I want to believe that this is a mindset that is limited to people with eating disorders and those who seek to emulate them, the reality is that I see this kind of thinking showing up all over the place: in daily conversations, on healthy living blogs that promote seventeen-calorie “desserts,” even in fitness magazines and on daytime television. It’s as if we have become so accustomed to thinking of ourselves as apart from – and in some ways, above – the natural world, like science does not apply to our bodies, like the only thing forcing us to eat more than 1200 calories a day is lack of willpower and not, you know, our metabolism.
There’s a lot of nastiness to unpack when it comes to things like the obsession with the thigh gap and zero-calorie everything, and a basic lack of understanding about how bodies work is only one part of that, but man, it is a really big part of it. Knowledge like “food is necessary to live” and “your body needs muscles so it can do stuff” isn’t esoterica, and yet when I see pages after pages of thigh-gap instructions like “don’t cross your legs because you’ll retain water” or diet tips like “roll your fruit in diet Jello for a tasty calorie-free dessert” or “don’t starve yourself but only eat a little bit every two hours” and I’m reading these not in some Dark Ages of science but in the 21st century, I can’t help but think we’ve somehow failed in a really basic way. Like, we aren’t even succeeding at being alive. Like, amoeba do this whole “feeding and existing” thing better than some of us supposedly highly evolved beings.
Or maybe I’m just morose because I spent an hour searching “thigh gap” on the internet and it was a lot like looking into the darkness and seeing the darkness staring back at me. That’s probably it, isn’t it.
P.S. To the person who wrote an article in which they asked, “Is your thigh gap the right shape?” – go fuck yourself.
We’ve all heard the gender stereotype, that women are supposed to be more cooperative while men are supposed to be more competitive. I generally tend to push back against such gender-essentialist ways of looking at the world because they fail to account for the variability of individuals, as well as for the way people actually interact. Take sports. Sports are, at their core, competitive, but success within sports requires the ability to cooperate, both with teammates and coaches. And interpersonal competitiveness is not something you only see in men. Just ask anyone who has ever had a run-in with a “queen bee.” Over my thirty-three years I’ve learned that all kinds of people have all kinds of personalities, and that those personalities don’t often correlate to expectations based on that person’s race or gender or sexuality.
Consequently my hackles tend to go up whenever I see anything that appears to fall into that kind of reductionist thinking. In fact, I was all ready for them to go up when I came across an article by Amby Burfoot at Runners World entitled “Why Are Women Runners Less Competitive Than Men”? Oh man, they were so ready to spring into action so I could pound my keyboard furiously in a righteous feminist rage. How dare he, etc. etc. After all, the researcher cited in the article, Robert Deaner, has been used by dudes like John Tierney to justify retrograde gender mores using pseudo-science for years now. He’s pretty much begging for some righteously feminist keyboard-pounding, don’t you think?
Then I read the article.
Check this out:
[Deaner]‘s saying that the women who finish in 5th, 10th, and nth place behind the female race winners are often farther back, relatively, than the 5th, 10th, and nth place male finishers. That is, the 10th place female might be 15 percent behind the female winner, while the 10th place male is likely to be only 10 percent behind the male winner.
Now I’ve been running for about six years now, and I’ve been consistently grabbing age group awards for the last five of those years. I don’t always age-group, but even when I don’t, I am usually in the top ten percent. This happens even though my times, while good, are still slower than those of a decent high-school cross-country runner. For the first few years, I jokingly explained my age-group awards as resulting from the fact that all of the other women in my age group were too busy having babies. But then I moved up into the 30-34 age group, and the same thing held true. In my local racing community, I can think of about three or four women in my age group who consistently beat me. This is true even though I am a six foot tall woman with hips who did not run in high school and who smoked for nearly a decade and a bunch of other factors that don’t really mark me as the kind of person you’d think of as a “natural runner.”
(I’m not the only female runner to make this observation. RoseRunner, who, by the way, is an outstanding runner who would knock the compression shorts off me if we ever raced each other, has written in the past about the same thing.)
Meanwhile, my husband, who races in the 50-54 age group, is posting times that are as fast as mine, if not faster, and he doesn’t win age-group awards nearly as often as I do, because he is also racing against a lot of men who can do things like run 20-minute 5Ks. His age group of middle-aged men is much, much more competitive than my age group of young women.
The interesting thing is that my age groups tend to be among the biggest at any given race, so it’s not as if I’m like the 70-year-old who age-groups just because I show up, you know? The women are showing up in droves at races, but they just tend to be less competitive than their male counterparts.
Over time I’ve developed a couple of theories about this. One thing I’ve seen is that a lot of women who do run tend to run with companions – usually their friends or maybe their sisters or something like that. Running is this fun, social thing they do, a way of getting fit and healthy while having a good time and getting a cool medal and t-shirt. Another thing I’ve seen is that women – especially women with kids – don’t have the time to put into aspects of training that will help them get faster, like speed workouts at tracks, or piling on the kind of mileage to help them build endurance. I have other ideas – that some women feel too embarrassed to physically exert themselves in public, that the idea of competitiveness as being “unladylike” still persists to a certain degree – but I have no way of knowing how true any of this is.
All I know is that if women I race against were as competitive as the men my husband races against, the number of age group awards in my possession would easily be reduced by half. I’m just not that good of a runner.
Burfoot’s article goes on to address a second piece of research that confirms what Deaner found and provides some possible explanations:
Marquette University’s Sandra Hunter and Alyssa Stevens concluded that roughly a third of the difference between male and female race distributions is due to the lower participations rates of women. When more women participate, the top 10 women get more competitive.
Those explanations did not include physical factors like VO2 max, lactate threshold, and running economy.
Hunter and Stevens went on to say that as the number of women toeing the line has increased, so has their competitiveness:
In one telling analysis, Hunter and Stevens found that the male-female distribution gap shrank over the 31 years, as more women began competing.
That’s awesome news, especially for someone like me, who is highly competitive and who very much thrives off of going up against others who are bringing their A-game. I train hard, I race hard, I do speedwork, I do strength training, I watch videos, I do drills, I do all sorts of things that are geared toward one goal: making me a better, faster racer.
Now, I do think it’s worth unpacking the possible social implications of this discrepancy. If women are less inclined to be competitive because of social connotations that a competitive woman is somehow unladylike, then that is worth addressing. But I also think that as time goes on, and more girls are born into a world in which they see more women competing as athletes and hear fewer messages about the supposed freakish nature of those women, those girls are going to in turn grow up to be women who will be more inclined to embrace that competitive spirit and not view it as somehow antithetical to their femininity. I strongly believe that over time, the competitiveness gap will narrow, and maybe even one day vanish.
But I also think it’s worth talking about the fact that not everyone aspires to be fast or to lead the pack or to win age-group awards, and – hold on to your butts, because this is the real mind-blowing part – this is okay. You can run or do triathlon or compete or play sports for whatever reasons you want, and it’s perfectly okay.
This is what seems to be missing out on conversations about the relative competitiveness of men v. women, which is that there are a lot of reasons why people get out and spend their weekend mornings at road races, and that competition is not necessarily one of those reasons. The implied assumption of a lot of this research – and the articles and discussion that follows – is that competitiveness is sort of like the Holy Grail of running, that it is inherently more valuable than racing for social reasons or even just to complete it. Even though I myself am very competitive, I question the idea that I am somehow superior to someone who is, say, running for the sake of completing the race.
It comes back to that whole debate about valuing so-called “male” qualities at the expense of “female” qualities. Why must we posit everything as a hierarchy, in which one thing is devalued in order to give another thing value? What do we lose out on when we discard one set of values in praise of another? I say we accept that there are a lot of ways to be a runner, and that almost* all of them are perfectly fine.
*Except if you like to tweet during races. Even my expansive sense of open-mindedness cannot accommodate runners who tweet during races. Put your damn phone away, okay?