On Tortoises, Hares, and Ferdinands

So, I was just reading up on swimming, because I am the kind of nerd who cannot go to an open swim at a Park District pool without doing research first. And in the course of that research, I found this article, which attempts to define a “fitness swimmer” as opposed to a competitive one. As it turns out, the article really doesn’t draw a very clear distinction, but that’s beside the point. Here’s what caught my eye:

I started thinking about this, as I have never really considered myself a Fitness Swimmer, as I am a Competitive Swimmer who signed up for the Fitness Committee for a couple of reasons, one being that of trying to understand how someone gets up every morning at 4:15 a.m. (we work out early) and comes to swim with no “real” goals in mind, or any that I could see.

I know, it’s a dizzying sentence, but let’s just focus on the part I emphasized.

It has been said around these parts many a time, but it always bears repeating: if you exercise just because it’s fun and keeps your body happy, you can meet your goal on day one and every damn day thereafter. If you exercise because you want to lose weight or win a race or do it better than the gymbunny next to you, it’s probably going to take a looong time to meet your goal, and there’s a strong likelihood of getting discouraged along the way.

That concept came quite easily to me, and it never even occurred to me that it might be difficult for someone else to grok. What’s not to understand? What I didn’t think about is the fact that I’m not naturally a competitive person, and the older I get, the more any sort of competition makes my skin crawl. I would much rather meander along at my own pace, enjoying myself and indulging my curiosity, than win the race. I am neither the tortoise nor the hare; I move slowly and stop to take naps. Perhaps I’m more of a Ferdinand.

I know that some people genuinely thrive on competition, and more power to them — but the problem is, in a capitalist society*, people who thrive on competition are held up as gods, and those of us with more Ferdinandy dispositions are dismissed as lazy, useless, undisciplined, etc. It’s awfully hard to advance in any career if you don’t want to compete, and it’s awfully hard to make enough money to live on if you don’t advance, so coming in last because you felt like walking instead of running isn’t much of an option. And if you do stop to walk because the running is killing you, or refuse to fight because you’d much rather sit and smell flowers, the whole culture makes sure you know what a freak you are.

Every time I have decided to remove myself from a competition, the overall relief has been enormous — but the feeling that I was “copping out,” or “taking the easy road,” or just not being fucking normal sapped the joy right out of it. Deciding not to continue on an editorial career path because I knew it would eventually make me stop writing altogether was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself — but to this day, I cannot stand having the “What do you do?” conversation with new people, because when I say I’m a writer, they want to know about my books and my magazine and newspaper articles. They want to know where they would have seen me. And when I tell them there are no books — only a few blogs, a few publications in literary magazines they’ve never heard of, and an unfinished novel — then they want to know what I do, really. And 9 times out of 10, I eventually end up admitting that my grandpa left me some money, and I zanily decided to throw caution to the wind and use it to focus on my writing instead of socking it away and continuing to kiss senior editors’ asses.

And then the world is set right again, because now this person understands what I really am: a spoiled dilettante. Certainly not a writer who spent two years working to earn a master’s degree, and who now churns out at least a couple thousand words a day, most of which are read by at least a couple thousand people a day. I cannot be a real writer because they cannot purchase my work. I cannot be a real writer because I do not live in New York and strive to get invited to the hippest cocktail parties. I cannot be a real writer because I do not currently have a “real” job that would make writing nearly impossible. Ergo, I am not a real anything. Except, of course, a real spoiled dilettante.

That bugs me. But not nearly as much as continuing to work in a veal pen for little money and less recognition — all the while knowing I could give it up for a few years and do what I loved — would have bugged me. As in, one of those things irritates me, and the other chipped away at my soul. Big difference. It’s not easy to be a non-competitive person in this society, but it’s a hell of a lot harder to be a non-competitive person who’s forced to compete.

And making matters worse, even when non-competitive people leave their jobs at the end of the day, they’re supposed to carry over that competitive spirit and Puritan work ethic into their personal lives. They’re supposed to care deeply about who in the neighborhood has the cleanest house, the nicest lawn, the most charming and well-rounded children, the best-trained dogs, the priciest cars. And they’re definitely supposed to treat diet and exercise as an ongoing challenge, a competition with the whole rest of the world to see who can exert the most control over his or her mortal coil.

So intense is the cultural pressure to compete in every aspect of our lives, to work toward long-term goals set by other people, to mark success only in terms of specific external accomplishments rather than an overall sense of well-being, there are people who can’t even comprehend why someone would exercise just for fun and general fitness. Not for any “real” goal.

That makes me incredibly sad.

And I might write more about how sad it makes me, but I’m off to a water aerobics class, which I expect to be an absolute blast.

*I am not really anti-capitalist, though I think there ought to be a lot more limits on corporate greed. I’m just saying, competition is the lifeblood of capitalism.

Exercise Experiment #1: Belly Dancing

All right, I’ve just returned from my first ever belly dancing class. Yippee!

I’m trying to figure out what sort of format I want to use for writing up my exercise experiments. Let’s start with a simple 1-5 rating system.

Fun quotient: 3.5. Probably would have been 4.5, but the class was packed. I really liked it, but I wish I’d had more space and a better view of the mirror. If I keep this up, I might try the Friday night class, which should be a lot emptier.

Sweat quotient: 2. I walked in with my hair blown straight and walked out with it wavy. Had to wipe my brow a few times. Which, honestly, was more than I expected — but nothing compared to, say, doing 12 sun salutations in a row. And the instructor said she thought the heat was actually cranked up about halfway through the class, so it wasn’t necessarily just the workout.

Fat Friendliness: 4. There were all sorts of body types, and I’d say I was just slightly above the middle of the range. Very few of the basic movements we did today would be hindered by fat, though I occasionally had to take a slightly wider stance than the instructor to keep my balance, and I suspect there will be arm movements down the road with which the Rack of Doom will interfere.

Exhaustion quotient: 1. About the same as a good walk; I felt like I was doing something, for sure, but I didn’t get tired, and it wasn’t hard at all, cardio-wise.

Post-class invigoration quotient: 2. I got a small burst of energy, but it definitely wasn’t the near-euphoria I get from my yoga practice.

Humiliation quotient: 3. It definitely, definitely helps to have a good amount of body awareness or be especially coordinated, if not both. I’ve got the body awareness from yoga, which helps immeasurably with isolating and moving very specific muscle groups while keeping the rest of your body still. I am not, however, coordinated — in fact, I have a non-verbal LD that makes me pretty spatially challenged. So I did great when we were just practicing tilting our pelvises up and down or moving our ribcages side to side, but I was a total disaster when we started putting steps and movements together in, you know, a dance. That will take a lot more practice for me. The good news is, I’m old enough now to know it will eventually come with practice, even if it takes me longer than anyone else in the class — and I’m old enough not to really give a rat’s ass if it does. But my biggest challenge will be getting frustrated and wanting to give up before it comes — and if I’d started this before I started yoga, when I still had no concept of how to make my pelvis move separately from my ribcage, or how to use my knees to move my hips, the frustration would have been severe. I probably would have given up after one try. (Keep in mind, however, that I am the type of person who is absurdly hard on myself and will totally stand there in my FIRST CLASS EVER beating myself up because I’m not as good as the instructor who’s been at it for years. If you’re somewhat more sane than that, you might be able to cope with the frustration better.)

Pain quotient: 0.5. My feet got a bit crampy, but I think I have mild plantar fasciitis or something like it, so all things considered, it wasn’t bad. Other people complained of lower back pain, but I didn’t have any — and usually, if there’s lower back pain to be had, I will have it.

Other thoughts: I found myself really struggling with my ADD. I could get a lot of stuff (more or less) on the first or second try, but then, as we did it over and over, I’d lose my concentration, start to mess up, and then be too flustered to get back in the groove. I’m going to have to really work at staying present.

Related to that, I found it was really easy to forget to breathe. I’m so used to yoga, where the instructor is calling “Inhale… exhale…” all the time. I did my best to connect breath to movement on my own, but because the speed of the movements you’re doing changes all the time, it was hard. When we were practicing something slowly, just to get used to the movements, it was pretty easy to go “movement 1/inhale; movement 2/exhale.” But then, just as I was getting in the zone, the instructor would go, “Faster!” Goddammit. So I need to figure out how to breathe at a consistent rate while moving at different rates, for the sake of both my lungs and my awareness.

Oh, and finally — because this is always my first question about any new exercise program — the website suggests wearing something tight on top (“like a leotard or halter top”) and something “feminine and flowy” on the bottom, like a long skirt. Plus a hip scarf. I do not own any long skirts, leotards, halter tops, or hip scarves, so I improvised with bootcut yoga pants, a tight tank top, and an old Land’s End pareo. As it turned out, almost everyone was dressed pretty much like me — many of the students had their own belly dance-specific hip scarves, but otherwise, it was yoga pants/leggings and t-shirts all around.

So. Overall, it was really fun, and I definitely intend to go back. Breaking everything down to the basics does make it feel more like an exercise class than a dance class, per se, and I actually like that about it — quite frankly, I don’t see myself ever performing as a belly dancer. Not ’cause I don’t think I’ll get it eventually, or ’cause I don’t think it looks awesome, but because the idea just doesn’t really appeal to me and never has; I don’t dig the idea of waggling my hips at strangers all that much, and lord knows I will never, ever find a sequined bra top that fits me. I decided to try it because so many people had told me how fun it is — and they were right — but if I were going to take a dance class with an eye to performing, there are like a half dozen other styles I’d prefer. (You may or may not be hearing about some of those in the future.)

ETA Next-day pain quotient: 1. If I try to do the same moves we were practicing yesterday, my hips hurt and my arms get tired quickly. But I don’t feel sore functioning normally.

Guinea Piggery

All right, y’all have inspired me with the 220-comment Exercise Smorgasbord thread! I stopped my private yoga lessons a couple of months ago (long story), and even though I’ve been mostly keeping up with my home practice, I feel like I’ve lost a lot of momentum. So I really want to try finding other ways into my body — which I suspect will help get the yoga back on track, too. I was already kicking around a few ideas, and then that thread came along and gave me a million new ones.

So. On Tuesday, I’m going swimming with M. LeBlanc — first time I’ve really been lap swimming since high school. (I’ve done plenty of swimming since then, but most of it just messing around.) Yeehaw! I am also going to take advantage of the fact that I have a bellydancing studio and a Pilates studio within two blocks of my apartment. A series of beginner bellydancing lessons just started, but I’m going to call tomorrow and see if I can get in on that late. And the Pilates studio has an introductory offer of 3 private lessons for a surprisingly reasonable price, so I’ll try that and see how I like it.

I’m also thinking quite seriously about joining the Y to get in on the water aerobics thing, which has always sounded hella fun to me, but which I’ve never tried because, quite frankly, it took me this long to get over wearing a bathing suit in public. Even in front of a bunch of little old ladies. Once again, the whole “acceptance” thing does not come in a complete package overnight.

Beyond that, I’m trying to convince Ottermatic, Tari, Colleen, Sweet Machine, and/or M. LeBlanc to join me for a hooping class next month. And finally, although it is FREEZING FUCKING COLD here right now, I’ve been doing some research on rowing and kayaking — both of which can be done on the Chicago River from the same location — for when the weather gets nicer. And the research is making me wish I could start tomorrow. Except for the part where tomorrow is also going to be FREEZING FUCKING COLD.

Do I honestly expect to keep up with all of these new endeavors? Hell no. At best, I expect to find one or two new things I like enough to do them semi-regularly. But in the meantime, I will be blogging the experiments — partly to give the Shapeletariat more information on the fat friendliness of these forms of exercise, and partly to keep up my motivation to at least try all this shit once.

Because I can’t (read: won’t) try everything that came up in that thread, I’d also like to issue an invitation to Shapelings to play guest blogger for a day. If you go out and try a new form of exercise for the first time — or the first time in years — write it up and send it to me. (Note: although you’re welcome to comment about your experiences here, if you want me to post something, please e-mail it to katesblog at gmail.) I can’t guarantee I’ll post every one that comes in, but I’ll try to make a series of it. I think that would be fun.

I also think rollerskating would be fun, but there’s no fucking rink less than an hour away from here. Grrrrr.

Exercise smorgasbord

As I’ve mentioned before, I really love the Tuesday “fitness” section of the local commuter paper. It can be mildly fatphobic, but it details all kinds of trendy, expensive equipment and classes, and I like to imagine that if this blog were my full-time job, I’d try them all out (tax-deductibly!) and report back to you. Sadly this blog is merely the thing I do when I should be doing my full-time job. But it occurred to me that, with your help, I could still provide a pretty broad view of exercise options outside the hamster-wheel gym mold.

As it happens, I like the gym — my short daily stint on the elliptical is what keeps me off antidepressants. But I’m going to lean away from classic gym exercises like standard cardio machines, weight training, and swimming, for a few reasons. One, the fat-friendliness of these exercises depends almost entirely on the climate of your gym, which I can’t really predict, and some people have understandable aversions to the possibility of judgmental hardbodies, or in fact anything that smacks of phys ed. Two, gymgoing evokes a self-punishment mindset, where you drag yourself through a workout you hate because you think it will make you “good”; it doesn’t have to be like that, and it’s not for many people, but I really want to make the point that there are plenty of other options available. Three, relatedly, I figure everybody already knows that the gym is there, and many people probably already know if they like it or not. I want a compendium of physical activities that people might never have thought of, that might catch the imagination.

My ultimate goal here is that we have a list of activities that exercise-prone Shapelings can peruse for fun new ideas, and that Shapelings who aren’t active but want to be can scour for something that sounds exciting and meets their needs. (If you aren’t active and don’t want to be, obviously it won’t be very helpful for you, but I’ve put most of the text behind a cut!) If possible, try to be sensitive to size ranges, fitness level ranges, health ranges, and expense. There will necessarily be some guesswork involved — for instance, I don’t know how much exertion a person with chronic pain can handle, and thin Shapelings will have to estimate the fat-friendliness of their favorite activities. For that reason, don’t hesitate to post reviews of things that have already been mentioned, offering your own view.

I’ll start, with some sports and activities I have personal experience with. Don’t feel constrained to my format when you add your own.

Continue reading

Open for Discussion: “Standard Obligatory Beauty Maintenance”

A few people have sent me the link to this article, which is supposedly about the differences between British and American women, but is really about what an insecure, clueless knob Tad Safran is. Wicked Child just mentioned it in comments on Fillyjonk’s latest, and people seem keen to discuss, so I thought I’d move it up top.

Some choice quotes for your enjoyment (emphasis mine):

I am a massive fan of British women. UK girls, in my opinion, are the greatest natural beauties in the world . . . when they’re 17 or 18 years old.

An informal poll of my US female friends revealed that they spend roughly $700 (£350) a month on what they consider standard obligatory beauty maintenance. That covers haircut, highlights, manicure, pedicure, waxing, tanning, make-up, facials, teeth whitening etc. They will spend a further $1,000 (£500) a month on physical conditioning such as military fitness, spinning sessions, vikram yoga, Pilates, deep-tissue sports massage, personal training etc. On top of that, add the occasional spa day, a week-long “bikini boot camp” in Mexico at the start of every summer and seasonal splurges on personal shoppers and clothing. I’m not sure any of my British female friends spends £700 during an entire year on her appearance. American women see these costs as a simple and sensible investment in their future.

As with many societal ills, I blame the parents. British mothers do not instruct their daughters the way American mothers do. In the US, beauty treatments appear to be a large part of their growing-up experience. A trip to the beauty salon is a group event for girls, an opportunity for a gossip and a catchup. This continues into adulthood.

Another part of the problem is that women in Britain do not help each other. American women have no qualms about telling their friends, in no uncertain terms, when they look like crap, or have put on weight, or are dressed like a bag-lady.

[L]adies, the only time a man will notice your shoes is if your feet are wedged on top of his shoulders bouncing either side of his head.

American women are generally more grasping than British women socially and financially so I suppose that it makes sense that they are more striving aesthetically, too. Their obsession with their looks, however, can be unattractive and can even turn unpleasant.

And right about there is where my head asploded.

Your thoughts?

Stairs: the great equalizer

So, as I apparently feel compelled to mention each time I post, I’m in grad school right now, studying and teaching literature. I’m in the thick of end-of-term paper-writing and paper-grading, so I’ve been getting a lot of visits from students in my office, which is shared with several other grad students. This office is at on the top floor of a four-story building; there’s an elevator, but it’s not immediately obvious that it exists unless you already know where to look.

Let me tell you a little secret, Shapelings, especially those of you who have mentioned in various threads that you don’t feel bad about your weight except when you get tired going up stairs. Here it is: everyone gets tired going up stairs! Watching undergrads and grad students of all builds and levels of athleticism arrive at my office sweating and catching their breath has been a great lesson to me in how we beat ourselves up undeservedly. Thin students, fat students, bookish students, athletic students — all of them arrive in my little office needing a moment to catch their breath, many of them arrive sweaty, and almost all of them apologize to me for it. After observing this phenomenon for a couple weeks, if a student apologized for huffing and puffing a bit, I began telling them two things: 1) everyone feels like that after those stairs, and 2) that’s why I take the elevator.

Last year? When I didn’t have that office and would only have to go up to the fourth floor twice a week for class? I mentally beat myself up every time I got to the fourth floor, feeling terribly embarrassed for being red-faced and warm as I entered class. My classmates don’t seem to get sweaty! Something is wrong with me — I’m so out of shape! Sure, I walk several miles each day with no problem, but I must be a beast because I’m the only one sweating! It wasn’t until I was running late one day and hopped in the elevator — already occupied by two of my classmates — that I figured out that other people were just choosing not to take the stairs. And when I realized that everyone else was taking the elevator, I also realized that the only reason I wasn’t was because I heard the voices of a thousand women’s magazine writers telling me that taking the stairs was a great way to tone my thighs during my everyday activities.

The point of this post, then, is to remind us all of the obvious: Human bodies sweat. Human bodies get tired. Human bodies do some things with ease and some things with great effort. I’ve seen giant football-playing dudes and lithe 18-year-old girls come up the same set of stairs sweating at least as much as my 28-year-old, nerdy, untoned self. Find an activity that your body really likes to do — whether it’s yoga, walking, gardening, or Dance Dance Revolution — and give yourself a break on the other stuff. I’ll see you at the top of the stairs.

Changing the conversation

Y’all, I just spent an hour or so talking about workout routines, weight, and the ridiculousness of pants sizing with two other women, and not one of us lapsed for an instant into self-loathing or even self-judgment. (The other two are quite thin, but as all our thin readers know, that hardly lets you off the hook normally.) The phrase “I have no idea what I weigh” was used. All three of us agreed that we would be fine with pants labeled according to waist size, if some kind of non-insane sizing standard could not be agreed upon, but we acknowledged that most women’s fear of being labeled an unacceptable size would keep that from ever happening. The two of us who are regular gymgoers discussed machines and joked about trying to do pullups, and we all talked about our feelings regarding socializing during a workout (we object). Not on the agenda: diet talk, plans for weight loss, or self-recrimination about wearing the wrong size or weighing too much or being shaped wrong or not working out enough.

Now, I realize that I have some unusually sane friends. But even though it’s the exception rather than the rule, I still think we should celebrate small victories like this. Every time a bunch of women can get excited about clothes or exercise without hating themselves or each other, an angel seriously gets its wings, you guys. Slowly but relentlessly, we — all of us — are changing the psychological landscape available to women, clearing out space for us to think and talk about more important things than our big asses and our tiny salads. Even when we’re not getting together to plot out the fourth wave of feminism, something as simple as enthusing about our exercise habits instead of lamenting or judging or comparing or bragging about them is HUGE. And I feel like it’s gotta be self-propagating. The more conversations like this happen, the more this conversational space is opened up as a viable locus for discourse, and the more people can move in from the fringes.

My challenge to you today: push the boundaries of the conversations about food, diet, and exercise that women are allowed to have. It’s great to talk about other stuff, and that’s an act of rebellion in and of itself — because of course, our obsession with taking up less space is supposed to take up all our time, and weaken our ability to do anything else. But I’m giddy about the radical possibilities of talking about these minefield issues without submitting to self-loathing or oneupsmanship. Target your sanest friends, and have a public conversation about tasty food and how tasty it is, or exercise and how fun it is, or comfortable clothes and how cute they can be. Who knows? The idea just might catch on.

To hell with tiny pants

My exceptionally lovely and talented friend Cacie (who is also a regular reader and a fledgling size-acceptance enthusiast) recently went shopping for pants. She writes in her livejournal:

I did, however, buy two pairs of jeans because a) they actually fit, which is more than I can say of all the rest of my jeans that I must have bought during a very long hunger strike, 2) they had the color/fit/stretch that I wanted, and lastly) they were buy one get one 1/2 off. There is nothing like putting on some weight and waiting months before trying on a pair of well-fitting jeans and going “Oh my god. This is what pants should feel like.” Granted, I’m not exactly thrilled about my extra 10 – 15 pounds that I can’t seem to shake, but MAN. To hell with tiny pants.

To hell with tiny pants! Goddamn, Shapelings, I want that to be our rallying cry. To hell with squeezing and binding and discomfort, on our asses or our attitudes. To hell with not having any room to breathe.

Cacie is a very small person and in fact her pants are objectively tiny, but of course that’s not the point. It’s not about whether your pants are big or tiny compared to other people’s pants, but whether you’re going to continue squeezing yourself into pants — or beliefs, or ideals, or expectations — that don’t fit YOU. Eventually we all have the option to try on something that fits, whether it’s a size 12 or a size 20 or the anti-dieting habit or the idea that you’re allowed to stop hating your body, and breathe that sigh of relief that only comes with the relaxing of uncomfortable pressure.

Only a few months after discovering size acceptance, Cacie is not only making great inroads into non-dieting, but giving us slogans that I want emblazoned on a fucking T-shirt. Not all my friends are so astute — some of them have really been embracing the tiny pants lately. One friend was just diagnosed with “several large gallstones,” almost certainly brought on by her weight loss on South Beach. (That’s right, folks, weight-loss dieting can give you gallstones. Never told you that in health class, did they?) Her reaction? Well, since she can’t eat anything she likes due to the pain, she’s dropping a lot more weight, so at least there’s an up side!

Another friend is trying on the crazy pants most of us know so well: She says she’s tired and down on herself and not feeling like her body is functioning properly (fighting off infections, healing well, and so on), so she’s joining a gym and vowing to lose two pounds a week. Apparently the health benefits of exercise can only be realized when you dig up skinny photos of yourself and tape them to your mirror for motivation! (And just as an aside, shouldn’t this make it painfully obvious that the “health” thing is a weak excuse? I mean, she’s not taping up pictures of her lymphatic system.) When I countered that perhaps she should focus on feeling healthy, feeling better about herself, and feeling like her immune system is functioning properly, in which case she would be basically guaranteed to succeed, she said she had read that two pounds a week is what you should aim for if you want sustained weight loss. Yeah, and I read that virginity is what you should aim for if you want to catch a unicorn, but that doesn’t make unicorns exist.

I don’t say this to mock my friend, because we all know what this is like. I just want to use it as an example of squeezing yourself into tiny pants, literal and figurative. This friend is actually collecting all her literal tiny pants to remind herself of the size she used to be, and if she’s anything like I was when I was dieting, she’ll be trying them on every week just to check. But she’s also forcing herself into tiny ideas, like the idea that health boils down to size, or that weight loss is a viable goal while simply feeling good is not. She’s a smart girl, and her brain is too big to fit into that outlook without some uncomfortable compression.

Fat or thin, we’re all too big for such small ideas. To hell with tiny pants.

Open for Discussion: The Jiggle Factor

Sorry about the light posting this week, folks — I’ve been working on a couple of other writing projects. But I know you all do just fine without me, so here, have a topic:

For many overweight exercisers, every step of a workout comes with an unintended cascade of motion — breasts bounce, belly fat shakes and thighs rub. The added jiggle and friction of moving body fat is more than just bothersome. It can alter people’s gait and make them more prone to injuries and joint problems. The discomfort prevents many overweight people from exercising altogether.

On the upside, Kelly Bliss is quoted extensively. On the downside, you’re grinding your joints to a pulp! Sigh.

What do you think, Shapelings?