Health as an enigma: why I think we all need to define what “health” is really about

My sister recently bought a house in Windsor, which is just far enough away by car to require a podcast en route. Last time I drove down, I listened to one from “Office Hours” (a favourite of my nerdy side!) where they interviewed Ellen Berrey about her book, The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice. I am not particularly well-versed in this area, but she did speak the language of sociology and as she talked about the way that the word “diversity is a hallowed American value, widely shared and honored,” I couldn’t help but think of my own work and the way that the concept of health has come to be taken for granted as universally worth pursuing, without critically considering even the definition of it. Her discussion about the way that the idealization of diversity can actually obscure real inequalities again got me thinking about the way that we idealize health—and particularly the appearance of it. Very rarely do we sit down and define what “healthy” really means to us.

healthy

I couldn’t help but think of some of the people I’ve met who will do extreme things in the name of health—cutting out all carbs, going on extreme diets, running themselves ragged, spending tons of money to lose weight, etc. I see it all the time in my personal life but also as a personal trainer and a professional in the world of health and fitness. Unfortunately, I often see this turn into a slippery slope. My own experience with taking the pursuit of thinness in the name of health too far and straying into disordered eating territory is just one example of the way that trying to be “healthy” can actually compromise that which we’re after in the first place.

Why is this important? In a world where we see all kinds of images offered up as “healthy” (search that hashtag on instagram, for starters), it is more important than ever to be careful not to unquestioningly assume that “health” is defined in a way that fits with us or that serves us. When I was underweight, the natural association between losing weight and getting healthy proved false—just one example of how “health” is not a one-size-fits-all concept. Consider this: with “health” held as an unquestionably worthy pursuit, the association between a thinner body and a healthier body can drive people to do things that are perhaps unhealthy (going on starvation diets, taking diet pills, etc. come to mind), albeit in the name of health. In my humble opinion, I say we get honest about it: it’s not about your health if it’s driving you insane mentally or compromising your quality of life in the process. If we talk about it as being about our health, we’re contributing to that “enigma.”

You eat whole foods and you have a happy relationship with your body, you move it in ways that feel good, but if you don’t look like the images of health offered up in the media, are you actually unhealthy? If you’re, dare I say it, “overweight” by some chart’s standards, are you shit out of luck when it comes to embodying a healthy subjectivity? I don’t think so, but I do think we need to talk about this stuff more (hence this blog). When the images we see of health are all of a narrow range of body types, and when the fitness models on the cover of fitness magazines engage in arguably unhealthy pursuits (cutting out water for photo shoots, engaging in restrictive dieting, etc.), then it’s easy to get confused—so take it easy on yourself. I don’t see the magazines and marketing gurus out there likely opening up the images of fit bodies to encompass all of those that really can be considered fit any time soon, but I do see blogs, social media, etc. as avenues for us to start to open up the definition of “health” to be more realistic and more based on what’s right for each and every one of us. I did just that on this blog not too long ago, and I have been doing my best to come back to that when I get down on myself or my body.

Cheers to blogging!

Do you consider yourself “healthy”?
Have you ever taken the time to define what “healthy” means to you?
What are the parameters you set for yourself when it comes to being “healthy”?

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Conditional acceptance: The problem with the performance focus

I’ve blogged about the need for believing we’re worthy before, but it’s an issue that’s close to my heart and that I’m continuing to work on, so here we go again.

Before I start, let me add: I say yahoo! to anything that shifts the emphasis for women away from how it will make their bodies look (Will pilates give me the toned abs I’ve always wanted?). But the more I read about woman after woman finding her self worth in her abilities, the less comfortable with the whole idea I get.

For my thesis, I’m reading issue after issue after issue of CrossFit magazines and The CrossFit Journal and looking particularly at constructions of healthy femininity. One theme that comes up a lot is CrossFit saving women from their body image woes. Time after time, women are saved from their eating disorders or years of self-abuse thanks to learning to appreciate what their bodies are capable of. In general, these are women who are extremely talented at CrossFit, pictured in sports bras with six packs, and who echo the same sentiment: the route to empowerment is via doing.

I call (at least a little bit of) bullshit.

The route to empowerment is different for all of us. Basing it on ability leaves out those who aren’t able, firstly, but it also sets us up for a conditional kind of self-acceptance that I don’t think will give us the kind of lifelong healthy relationship with our bodies that I am working on creating for myself (and starting a discussion about via this blog and my work in the world).

As it relates to me, I know that athletics helped me a whole lot to appreciate my body. I’ve mentioned before the way I keep my picture of my big ol’ deadlift PR around for when I’m feeling shitty about myself. I hang my latest race bibs around to remind myself that I’m badass for signing up for things that force me outside of my comfort zone on a regular basis. And moving away from the need to burn calories and burn off food to testing out my performance and seeing what I can do with the body I’ve been given has certainly helped me feel better about what I’ve been given.

capability

But.

Since I’ve started to focus on triathlon training again (with lifting things on occasion more for fun than anything and because I like to feel strong), I’m not as strong as I used to be. I can’t do as many pull-ups as I once could, and I sometimes find myself beating my self up for letting myself slip. And on the triathlon front, I don’t run or bike as fast as I did when I was in the midst of my eating disordered days.

But.

I’m healthy. I have balanced hormones. My weight went way up and then has started to come down a bit (not much by the standards of those who employ 30 day challenges or body transformations, but 10 pounds over two years without losing my period). I like training and understand that when my body is whispering no, I should listen so it doesn’t scream. These are perhaps more important than winning an age category at a race or impressing people in the gym and on instagram.

priorities
So in my recovery and body love journey, I’ve seen that impressing myself with what I can do is certainly a tool for me to, like I said appreciate my body. But acceptance requires me to dig deeper. Yesterday I got a migraine and missed my workout. If my self-worth is based on what I can do, what’s a girl who’s stuck in bed and only wants to eat cereal and chocolate to do?

I think the answer lies in realizing that we can’t find the kind of self-love we want outside of ourselves. Some of us look for it from guys, some of us keep on trying to show that we’re good enough by taking it out on our bodies, and some of us don’t even realize that we want it.

This all comes back to a piece of advice worth repeating over and over again ‘til we get it: we are inherently worthy. Whether or not we work out, whether or not we can lift as much as someone else—or our former selves, whether we run faster than we did last year, whether we put pants on in the morning, whether we eat “clean” or choose cookies. Loving ourselves doesn’t require us to be better than yesterday, because we weren’t bad or unworthy yesterday.

can be already are

Loving our bodies doesn’t require that we do exceptional things with them. I think our bodies are exceptional just by virtue of the fact that they let us live our lives. It’s great when we can also appreciate what they’re capable of, but getting to a place of acceptance is another worthy goal, in my opinion.

Sometimes I forget this. As a goal-oriented and ambitious person, I struggle with feeling worthy unless I’m productive, or I work out, or I do this or that. But I for one would like to accept my body so that when things that stop me from performing as I might like to – injury, pregnancy, illness, life – come around, I still feel like a boss. While we by all means celebrate what we’re capable of, let’s give this acceptance thing—no conditions required—a go!

love yourself first

Do you struggle with this? What’s helped you?

Running, vaccines, and trust

If we let every (interpretation) of every article out there that shakes up what we think drive us crazy, we’ll always be thinking we are doing the wrong thing. I know that diet books are designed to sell something, but I like to think I can have faith in the good ‘ol scientific method. That being said, when it comes to health, there are so many factors that go into things, so many ways that people can take an abstract of an article out of context, and so many people competing to convince you that their way is the right way that I think we need to take things with a grain of salt.

This week, there was research in the news about vigorous running being bad for you—as bad as sitting on the couch, apparently—while moderate running was better. Some media just reported on it, others tried to sort it out for people. Naturally, Runner’s World was on the side where the research was flawed.

Every day I seem to see things about vaccines in the news or on my social media. I don’t usually say much, but I saw on the local news website that 20% of Ontarians believe that there’s some kind of link between autism and vaccinations. I don’t know where the stats come from—they didn’t ask my house!—but I do know that this is one of those things that matters—a lot. I guess I feel like if you choose to run vs. if you don’t choose to run is not as big of a deal as being involved in a resurgence of an entirely curable disease. I don’t get it—even the journal that originally published the research that put the link out there retracted it, and there’s no one that seems to be able to replicate the original research.

But we latch onto ideas that are sold to us—by the media, by “professionals,” by our parents. Look at the way the Paleo diet has taken off, or gluten free diets for the average joe, or the way that people used to avoid cholesterol because they thought it was the reason they had heart disease. I can see when I’m reading a diet book that there’s a vested interest in convincing me, but I think given the way that everyone seems to be marketing themselves nowadays (hello facebook page as a serious means for self-promotion), there are a lot more sources out there to be weary of. Right now, I’m trying to convince you to be on my side—for no monetary gain, but simply because I, like so many other bloggers, like it when people are on my side. I also like it when people talk about things, think about things differently, or learn something from what I write (bonus points if they comment about it).

It is one thing to keep running when a bad study tells you that it will kill you earlier—besides your family, you’re not hurting anyone—it is another not to vaccinate your kids because a retracted study started an unfortunate trend and you got sucked into it—you’re hurting other peoples’ kids. I think what we need is to step back and think about what we believe, why we believe it, and what that all means for us and for everyone else. This kind of issue gets at bigger things—who should be able to decide if we are required to vaccinate our kids? Are we the ones in charge of our health and our health decisions? What’s different because we live in a country where we all share the health care costs?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do hope they make us think.

PS Here is one of the “lighter” responses to all this debate on facebook – “I’m an anti-breaker”

magazine covers: should they inspire, or should they just sell magazines?

To answer the question in the title of this post, I think magazines, ideally, can do both.

The reason behind this post is all of the hubbub that Camille Leblanc-Bazinet’s latest magazine cover, this one on the box, a CrossFit magazine, has caused.

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Camille has been on the cover of lots of magazines, CrossFit and more mainstream.

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Her popularity makes sense: she’s Canada’s sweetheart, she’s beautiful, and she won the CrossFit Games this year.

She’s also been photographed in some pretty racy ways (this is one from SweatRX).

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So, when people were getting angry on the interwebs about her bikini model-esque cover, I thought maybe there was a little overreacting going on. My reaction? I would rather see her doing something than just standing there. There was a lot of talk about the poor photoshopping that went on and plenty of outrage over the whole process, but maybe I’ve just come to accept that magazines will photoshop even the women I look at and think of as pictures of strength and fitness.

I haven’t read most of the posts out there, but I think what’s missing is a recognition that she posed for this photo. With that racy one from SweatRX in her portfolio, I don’t think it’s that much of a surprise that Camille is using her sexiness to sell herself. Girl power? Or playing into a bigger problem? That depends on how you think a magazine should sell itself. Camille’s mentioned before (in magazine articles) that CrossFit can help shift body image:

“Now that Leblanc-Bazinet is a pro in the weight room, she holds her head just as high. “If I gain two pounds but I can lift 100 more pounds on my bar, I’m like, ‘Hell yeah,'” she says. “I only want to be fitter, stronger, faster, and healthier, and that’s given me tons of confidence.”

Amen to that, I say.

A few months ago, Annie Thorisdottir was on the cover of Vogue. She was pictured in ways that are different from what we would typically see of CrossFit athletes in their element, but there wasn’t so much outrage (at least that I’m aware of).

annie vogue

Maybe the difference was the magazine? Do we expect our CrossFit magazines to resist the urge to sell magazines using sex appeal or making the athletes who grace their covers into cover models?

To me, this just reiterates a point about how we don’t want to just replace one ideal with another. There is something different than saying “strong is the new sexy” and then leaving “sexy” as this objectified, half naked person who is just standing there. The thing with the cover of Camille is: she is much more than that, and while she looks good standing there, she doesn’t have to just stand there. I love the women of CrossFit because of what they can do. I love that their bodies come in different shapes and sizes and degrees of ripped. I appreciate photos of them the most when they remind me that their bodies look that way thanks to their doing and that their bodies are capable of doing amazing things. I read the magazines because I appreciate a break from the typical “tone your tush by Tuesday” articles that fill up lots of general health and fitness magazines.

So the box, if you’re listening, I’m not mad that you did this “to” Camille (let’s hold her at least a little responsible, folks). But you should know: I like the photos of her in action a lot more. My boyfriend doesn’t seem to mind one or the other, but I think he’d like to see more of Lauren Fisher. We’ll both buy your magazine. I have an old photo from your magazine of Camille tacked to my vision board. She’s snatching, and I put it there because I am sure that some day soon my snatch is going to look just like hers.  

Those active photos are the ones I want to see. They’re the ones that make me want to go do CrossFit. They’re the ones that remind me that it’s okay to work out for something besides the pursuit of looking sexy. I like CrossFit magazines because they’re about the sport more often than they are about losing weight or looking a certain way. Reading Shape and Self, when I let myself get sucked into it (usually because there’s a recipe I want to eat somewhere in there or they’re talking about CrossFit or triathlon or something else I care about), leave me with the sense that exercise is really about changing the way my body looks. I think women especially are sick of, when it comes to fitness and health, seeing ourselves as objects or looking at our bodies as things to be “perfected,” whatever that ever-changing definition of “perfected” is. I like that CrossFit gives me a space where it’s a heck of a lot easier to get away from that obsession. Here’s hoping that this isn’t a trend. I, for one, think it’s pretty silly to put the fittest woman in the world in a bikini and ask her to stand there.

What do you think of the cover?
Do you do CrossFit? What for?

Miss Indiana nailed it, but we’re missing the point

There is a long list of things I don’t watch on television, one of them being the Miss America Pageant. I do, however, watch my facebook news feed and Today Show clips and yesterday, all the talk about one of the contestants, Miss Indiana, and her “normal” body, caught my eye.

If you haven’t seen the news, headlines like “Miss Indiana Mekayla Diehl: ‘I didn’t go to extremes’ for my body” (Fox News) or “Miss Indiana Mekayla Diehl ‘Blown Away’ by Being Called ‘Normal’” (ABC News). Afterwards, Miss Indiana has been talking about how she chose to maintain her healthy lifestyle rather than starve herself or go to extremes to get ready for the swimsuit portion of the competition. She says that the response from the world of social media, where people have applauded her for her “normal” body, has been positively overwhelming.

But along with the praise for her body also came questions over just how “normal” her body is. The Los Angeles Times included a chart of what an actual “normal” woman would look like and compared that to Miss Indiana’s proportions.  They include her BMI (18) and her height and conclude,” A bag of bones she is not, but she is far from average.”

source: jezebel

source: jezebel

There are a couple of reasons why I don’t think all of this is all good. I am all for people talking about body image and for expanding the range of bodies we think are beautiful. But all of this talk about Miss Indiana’s body versus the “normal” body of a woman does something that I think is problematic: it normalizes talking about how acceptable another woman’s body is. Sure, we can say that it’s okay because if she is unacceptable it’s not because she’s too big, but I don’t think it is. Today, though, it’s normal to print and talk about how much someone weighs. It’s also normal to critique their bodies, and this kind of discussion needs to come with a little bit of caution.

I don’t see men’s magazines discussing Miss Indiana’s body. These women are all beauties–they wouldn’t be on that stage if they weren’t. I don’t think it’s as normal for men to dissect and critique each others’ bodies to decide publicly if they’re acceptable. Maybe this is because women know that they’ve spent a long time being told to look a way that is unrealistic for them. But what we need to do isn’t to come up with a new realistic ideal for all women to aim for. Jezebel’s “Miss Indiana’s ‘Normal’ Body is Nowhere Near Normal” makes a point about this reflecting women’s obsession with matching some norm, saying, “…[P]ublic response to Diehl exposes something else about the way that the media has warped people’s ideas of how women should or do look. It reveals how badly we want to see ourselves reflected in society’s ideal, and how much we’re willing to ignore reality in order to seek that identification.”

The more we discuss her body and whether it’s “normal” enough for us to feel happy, the more we normalize this kind of dissection of how other women look and the less we question whether or not we should all be trying to look the same.  We don’t take the time, then, to consider the effects of the pageant itself when we get sucked into discussing whether or not the winner is too thin or now that she isn’t quite as thin, not not thin enough.What if we just didn’t watch it in the first place?

I’ve talked about this before–in relation to “strong is the new skinny:” We will never win when we shift what’s normal without discussing why we think we should all be “normal.” When we talk about her not being average, do we want her to be average? Isn’t the majority of the population, if you believe the statistics, inactive and unhealthy?

Regardless, when we try to make one body type that we unquestioningly assume is healthy (whether or not it is) the new normal, we aren’t fixing things. We are looking at one body type and saying all the others are wrong. We aren’t thinking about all the things that go into having a healthy body and a healthy life:

  • Does that “normal” woman love her body?
  • Does that normal woman move it in ways that make it feel good and function well?
  • Does that normal woman eat enough real food?
  • Does that normal woman get enough sleep?

To that end, Miss Indiana seems to be nailing it. She’s active. She talks about liking her body. Those are two big important parts of living a healthy life, in my opinion.

But this is really about us.

  • Do we love our bodies?
  • Do we move in ways that make us feel good and function well?
  • Do we eat enough real food?
  • Do we get enough sleep?

It’s a lot easier to complain about things outside of us and big that we probably can’t control than it is to address what we can: how we relate to and how we take care of our own bodies. If we can learn to love our bodies, we don’t need to worry about matching an ideal, because we will be our own ideal.

I’m at the point where if I was going to bother wishing I had someone else’s body, I’d be wishing it was one of someone who does something that awes me: how about a pro cyclist or maybe a top CrossFit athlete? And then, rather than feeling bad about not matching up, what would happen if I used those women as examples of what’s possible and started to work on doing the things that would make me more capable like them? I’m still striving, but it seems to me to be in a much healthier direction.

We don’t need “normal” beauty pageant competitors—we need to see that our bodies are normal and are all that we can really control. If we are healthy and taking care of ourselves, we need to rest assured that that makes our bodies good enough, whether or not people on the interwebs agree.

take care

What did you think about the Miss Indiana news and discussion?
Do you watch beauty pageants?
What kind of body do you strive for? One that looks a certain way, or one that does certain things? 

 

CrossFit, empowerment, and thinking critically about the way we talk about CrossFit women

Good morning Monday!

First grad school conference presentation: check.

There I am!

There I am!

I had fun presenting what I’ve been working on as of late and what I hope to continue to work on as I figure out what exactly my thesis will be all about. Here’s the gist of my abstract from the weekend:

“CrossFit, which calls itself “the sport of fitness,” has grown from a single website to a fitness empire with over 7000 gyms around the world, leveraging specific narratives appealing to ideologies promoting individual responsibility for health to establish itself quickly even in a crowded consumer fitness industry. What are the narratives CrossFit uses to promote itself and to establish itself as a leader in the crowded consumer fitness industry? How do these fit in with the dominant discourses in contemporary neoliberal society?

These questions are explored using a Critical Discourse Analysis of a Canadian CrossFit magazine, SweatRX. Drawing on discourses of feminine liberation and emphasizing a focus on performance over aesthetics, the representations of the feminine body in SweatRX promote an alternative form of bodily control that is paradoxically oppressive. By constructing the CrossFitting female body as a site of control and offering up identities based on consumption, a potentially empowering and emancipatory practice is commodified into a method for self management and participation in the fitness marketplace. In the context of contemporary neoliberal society, these narratives can remain unquestioned and reproduce dominant cultural ideologies concerning the moral significance of taking individual responsibility for one’s health, diverting attention away from broader social and cultural factors that constrain health. This is an important extension on research demonstrating the shift towards health as an individual’s responsibility and contributes to a growing body of work examining this shift.”

If you’re not a sociocultural nerd, you probably got “blah, blah, blah” from all of that. So here’s what I said:

“For years, women’s participation in physical activity has been widespread. The embodiment of the ideal “fit” woman, however, has changed over the years. CrossFit is a relatively new player in the fitness marketplace and as such, the “strong is the new skinny” and the muscular body type constructed as the ideal CrossFit female contrasts with the previously skinny, then skinny and toned, feminine ideal. Physical activity can be a place of liberation and empowerment for women, but in the past the commodification as well as the focus on the aesthetic benefits of activities have transformed opportunities for empowerment into sites of control. However, labelling any activity as purely emancipatory or empowering will only further limit the opportunity afforded by an activity. My goal was thus not to promote or condemn CrossFit but to examine the ways in which one selected CrossFit media, SweatRX, a Canadian magazine about the sport, represents the female CrossFitter.

I found several themes, some of which maintain the status quo and others which suggest transformation. Firstly, the female CrossFitter as part of a movement with the aim of empowerment and social progress. This is liberating on the surface but simplistic: suggesting that taking up an exercise program is the same as addressing issues constraining women and constraining health turns social progress into something marketable and commodifiable. Secondly, the female CrossFitter as superior (what I call the “Zumba is for dumbasses” theme in my own head) where bulky is redefined as the ideal and any woman who doesn’t strive for a strong physicality is marked as inferior. Then, a sustained focus on aesthetics (training like a beast but looking like a beauty, etc.). A paradoxical call to resist the media and consumer fitness industries in the midst of the promotion of the consumption of CrossFit and its associated products and culture (one article told readers to resist the media “asphyxiating your subconscious, compelling you to be an obedient American consumer”). A reiteration of women’s social roles (as naturally different from men’s)–i.e. CrossFit as the route to help a woman be a better mother, more capable of “tackling dirty laundry.”

It’s not all bad, though. There is a focus on performance, which is where I think there’s hope. Consider the lack of mirrors in a CrossFit gym. I think saying that just because some of the media’s messages might be problematic, CrossFit is problematic, would rob women of a chance to take up an activity where they can focus on what their bodies are capable of–instead of how they look.”

After my presentation, a girl asked me what I would change if I was the editor of the magazine. What’s tricky is being friends with people who write for this magazine, fans of people who appear in there, and a freelance writer myself. I know that when I write an article I’m not trying to “normalize gender asymmetries that limit women’s opportunities” etc. etc. I’ve met the editor of the magazine at a trade show (at least at the time–she was also an editor for a yoga magazine). If I was in the hot seat–because I think as an editor you carry a lot of responsibility–I would change the subtle things. I would keep talking about body image but I wouldn’t make it a woman’s problem uniquely. I would watch for the subtle things: using women models to show scaled versions of workouts, showing photos of female CrossFitters in gowns and things instead of in their element (or at least including profiles of males in the same way).

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While I’m critical of the magazine–it’s a critical discourse analysis, remember–I think it’s hopeful. I think women reading it are able to see possibilities for them to experience things outside what has traditionally been considered acceptable for women. I think CrossFit is the perfect platform for us to work on these things given just how much potential there is in the sport. Ditto for triathlon, for running, for whatever gives us a chance to get away from how an activity will make our bodies look to how it feels, what it does for our health and well-being, who it makes us.

Now that I’ve tried to sum up a lot of pages in the amount of words I assume will be just enough to leave you informed but not make you give up on this post, back to my weekend recap ;)!

14.4: check.

open 14.4

My thoughts when I saw this workout?

grumpy cat

Last year, I cried during the open WOD with toes to bar because I got a TON of no reps. This year, I didn’t have much faith in my ability to get through 50 of them, even though I knew I’d have ample time to try (I love rowing and finished those calories in about 3:15). Luckily, my coaches had some strategy and faith in my ability and I surprised myself by getting through the darn things with enough time to dive into the wall balls. I think I had more no reps on wall balls (I blame my surprise and awe at the fact that I did more toes to bar during the workout than I’ve done in 2014) than I had on the toes to bar. I ended up with a score of 140, which was fine and dandy with me!

I think the Open has been a good experience this year because I’ve surprised myself more than once with where I’m doing well. I’m doing it in an environment where everyone is good enough so long as you’re trying your best. I’m seeing that I am stronger and fitter in lots of ways than last year, even if some things (like burpees) feel a heck of a lot harder this time.

Now that I’ve written you my life story and committed the CrossFit crime of incessantly talking about CrossFit, I think I should at least mention the love your body stuff over at Molly’s blog that I’m keeping up with. Yesterday was about feeling sexy–and I feel like my chat on her post earlier in the week does that one justice--and today is a good one, discussing the ways in which our body carries our life story. My favourite part of the post is when Molly talks about thinking ahead to your 80 year old self and looking back on the story of you and your body. Like she says, at the end of our life, I don’t think wanting our thighs to be smaller is going to be part of that letter. I hope that my letter looks back on a life of using my body to do the things that scare me, challenge me, excite me, and fill me up.

crossssfit

 

Happy Monday!

CrossFitters, CrossFit haters, exercisers, writers, personal trainers, coaches: I’d love to hear your take on my thoughts on the magazine analysis and on how we can contribute to a message out there that emphasizes all the good in CrossFit without getting sucked into the bad part of health and fitness writing…thoughts? 

buying (into) dieting and swallowing balloons: my thoughts

This week has been filled with all kinds of chitter chatter on social media and some of the mainstream media regarding weight, dieting, and bodies. I’ve already thrown myself into the debate over The Biggest Loser because it really got me thinking  and thought I’d round things out by chiming in on two other stories that also struck me.

For those of us who find ourselves sucked into the dieting industry’s ways–I know I’ve been guilty of this–here’s an interesting read on what one writer says the dieting trend for the year is: “Let them eat cake for breakfast.”  I think she hit the nail on the head:

“The cycle of weight loss and gain that characterizes most individual diets, applies to the industry as a whole. You bought Atkins, you failed at Atkins and now, here it is, the title you’ve been waiting for, published this month and announcing a new chapter in the whole sorry cycle…”

My (non)diet books (the vegetarian ones, the paleo ones, the “lifestyle” ones) are on the shelf right next to my anti-dieting and intuitive eating books. Ditto for my podcast collection–there’s Jillian Michaels and there’s interview with Geneen Roth. I have signed up for online coaching groups about giving up dieting right after I’ve signed up for a 30 day challenge. Usually, it goes something like this: I, drawn by the lure of “health” (a convenient stand in for “weight loss” or “getting skinny”) have found myself cutting out food groups or experimenting with my diet in a restrictive way. Then, I find myself coming back to the realization that dieting is not the answer and turning to the opposite site of the spectrum to justify eating all the cookies it to myself.

This all seems a little silly when I think about the fact that “the weight” I have gotten so concerned over in the past would probably change my BMI by about 1. Small beans. I know logically that my body is perfectly healthy the way it is and that’s the reminder I’m taking away. Simple.

This article (also from the guardian) about a weight loss gastric ballon pill that has launched in the UK, got at a more complicated issue.

My thoughts? WOW! Science is CRAZY in the things we can do. Also, people are CRAZY. I don’t understand how we’ve gotten to a point where the band-aids we’re slapping on the issue of weight are balloons that we can swallow. Jumping on a fad diet fad diet suddenly seem cute in comparison to this option, touted for being non-invasive. The article says the balloon pills could work for people who don’t qualify for traditional gastric bypass surgery.

After all the talk this week about how sad and unfortunate it is that the winner of the most recent season of The Biggest Loser appears to have taken her weight loss too far, passing into the extreme category, I did a serious face palm when I found this story. Regardless of whether someone is overweight or obese, my stance is that extreme is extreme—and when it comes to our health, extreme isn’t the answer. Weight loss should be a process that addresses nutrition and activity along with viewing the person as a whole.

I suppose that while swallowing a balloon isn’t as ridiculous as swallowing tape worms in the pursuit of a smaller body, I’m still not celebrating the pills. Those who say that more people will be able to address their weight raise a good point, but I’d rather see more people being able to address their health, taking an approach that addresses them as a whole person rather than singling out obesity as a disease and approaching it as such. We can dedicate our time and our resources towards coming up with strategies like this to deal with what we’ve decided is a problem or disease or epidemic, or we can start to look at weight and too much of it as a symptom and get busy re-approaching the way we eat, exercise, and live.

Thoughts?
Have you been on the diet train? How did you get off of it?
Do you think the gastric balloon pill is a good thing?
What do you think the best way to address obesity is: is it an epidemic we need to cure or a symptom we need to prevent?

My takeaway:

take care

less dieting: a cause for celebration or deeper consideration?

As an advocate for more healthy and happy in the world, news that less people are dieting should be a big win for me. According to USA Today’s “Fewer people say they’re on a diet”, that’s exactly the case:

 “On average, about 20% of people said they were on a diet during any given week in 2012, down from a high of 31% in 1991, according to new data from the NPD Group, a market research firm.

Women showed the biggest decline, with 23% reporting being on a diet in 2012, vs. 36% in 1991.”

The title of the piece points towards what I think is going on (and what it suggests) – less people say they’re dieting. I’m going to hold off on tossing the confetti and popping the champagne.

Does this mean less people are dieting?

It seems to me that more people than ever are working on their bodies. I see all kinds of new diet foods on the shelf (gluten free is the diet du jour). There seems to be just as many magazines offering ways to drop 10lbs fast or TV spots talking about the latest research on which workout is best for dropping pounds (or not).

I think I have some insight into what could be going on. The poll allowed people to define for themselves what “dieting” meant–something I think is important to take into consideration.

Let’s face it: it’s not ”sexy” to be on a diet any more. Powerful women don’t diet – they accept their bodies. We spend hours and hours and all kinds of money in the pursuit of body acceptance. I know I would hesitate to tell anyone I was on a diet, even if I was (let’s say theoretically for a medical condition OR for aesthetic reasons).

stop dieting

In this culture where “dieting” is taboo, it’s become the socially acceptable—and celebrated—behaviour to eat for our health. I know plenty of people who are afraid of the gluten ghost today and who bought fat free everything in the name of their health. Depending on the “lifestyle” flavor of the week, it can become easy to see a “diet” as a way of life, especially when marketers encourage us to see things that way.

dieting

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I think eating with our health in mind is a wonderful thing, but I’m not naïve. In our society, taking responsibility for your health carries moral significance. I know that—and so do marketers. The person who doesn’t take responsibility for their health—the overweight person who you see ordering French fries, for instance—is seen as any host of undesirable things: lazy, gross, unhealthy, a burden on the tax system, etc. It’s no surprise to me that people want people to know that they eat healthy. Dieting, however, has come to be seen not only as something that doesn’t work but also as an indication that you’re vain or narcissistic. No wonder the people they polled aren’t on diets!

It’s interesting: “Orthorexia” emerged in the 1990s (in the years between the polls in the article). This diagnosable eating disorder is the extreme effect of what focusing on “eating healthy” can do (“an eating disorder in which a person is obsessed with “eating right”). Whether you call it a diet obsession or a healthy eating obsession, no one wins when food takes over your life.

Part of me still wants to celebrate that less people are dieting. Maybe all the anti-dieting workers in the world and the intuitive eating advocates have made a difference. But given that there are still so many overweight and obese individuals who have to struggle with their weight as well as with the ways that people view their weight, I don’t think the battle has been won. I don’t think stigmatizing dieting fixes the issue–it just gives it a new name. Though I think that shifting a focus to eating for health is a good thing, I think people need to be careful not to take “health” information exactly as it comes. Figuring out what you define as health and moving towards that will help you keep an eye out for things that are misleading and simply using health as a way to market or legitimize themselves.

Do you have a special approach to eating? Would you call it a diet?
If something is labeled or called “healthy,” do you assume it is good for you? What does that mean to you?

spinning, weight gain, and health

This post will be the short and sweet and maybe saucy kind that I write in response to something I’ve seen on the interwebs that rubs me the wrong way. Today I was perusing Today Show videos and immediately went to a clip called “Gaining weight? It might be your spin class.”

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The (female) hosts chatted about celebrity trainer Tracy Anderson’s assertion that spin classes can make you gain weight, something that’s getting plenty of attention elsewhere (people love spinning almost as much as other people love instilling fear about gaining weight!).

1. ‘I don’t buy that c**p’: SoulCycle instructors slam Tracy Anderson over her claim that ‘spinning bulks thighs and causes weight gain’ on the daily mail
2. Weight loss experts rip Tracy Anderson for saying spinning makes your thighs fat on examiner.com

In the article for Redbook called “Why Spinning Might Not Be Worth it After All,” Anderson talked about how spinning might burn calories but is also a recipe for “bulking” up your thighs and how she’s seen women come to her after spinning for months wondering why they can’t fit into their jeans.

Really?

Before I go any further, let me put this disclaimer out there: I’m a spin instructor, yes. But I’m also a bootcamp instructor, dabble in yoga, an avid CrossFitter, and a bit of a triathlete. I also like rock climbing and hiking. I do not discriminate over what kind of exercise is “best” or what someone else “should” do–I just think people should get moving. My response to this clip has less to do with redeeming spinning and more to do with getting real about what they’re talking about–and it’s not “health.

What put my panties in a twist about the Today Show clip was the assertion that gaining weight was a bad thing, regardless of what kind of weight that is. I agree that spinning can help you gain muscle. Notice that I say “help you to gain muscle” not “doom you to pack on the pounds.” I know from my personal experience as well as my job and my education that gaining weight is not universally bad. Lately, intellectual masturbation grad school readings have taken me into articles on the way obesity is represented. One article I read (Articulating Fatness: Obesity and the Scientific Tautologies of Bodily Accumulation in Neoliberal Times, if you’re nerdy), talked about the “anorexic ideation” that drives us to think thinner and lighter is always better. I don’t blame the reporters on the Today Show for (likely unconsciously) suggesting that weighing more is inherently bad—it’s something most people take as a given. That being said, to liken gaining weight to “getting fat,” given the way that we think of “fat” in our culture is a mistake.

I liked how, in response to one host’s “As you know, muscle weighs more than fat,” (false, for the record) comment, another chimed in about how gaining muscle is a good thing. Unfortunately, she went on to complain about how spinning hurt her butt (her instructor should have told her that a few classes and getting used to the seat would change that).

My take?  This kind of sensationalism in the media’s coverage of weight, often masqueraded as coverage that is important to our health, reaffirms that it’s not really about our health or even our weight—it’s about fitting our bodies into a (gendered) ideal. I can confidently say that if this were targeted at men, the story wouldn’t fly. What guy wouldn’t want to put on muscle? I’m making a big generalization here, but it’s okay and celebrated for men to gain the same muscle that women are cautioned against. If we’re looking out for our health, that doesn’t seem right. Regardless of sex, muscle is health promoting, protecting, and something that we want to build and preserve as we get older. The original article in Redbook does a good job of explaining that muscle is good and encourages variety. It’s all the media that goes along with the darn thing that is misled and misleading.

So, unlike that host who talks about spin classes hurting her bum, I think the only pain in the butt here is the fact that this even made the news. If your goal is to lose weight at all costs, maybe it all means you won’t take up spinning (sad Cheryl). If it’s to improve your body composition, maybe you’ll make the connection that muscle is a good thing and that building muscle will help you towards that end. If you want to improve your health, maybe you’ll cut through all this fluff and realize that if you love spinning and it’s an exercise you’ll actually do, there’s no reason to abandon a form of exercise you actually enjoy.

love spin

Do you like spinning?
How do you choose what kind of exercise routine you do? Health? Aesthetics? A mixture of the two? 

Also: Tracy Anderson is kind of on a roll, in my books. First, with her program for men (“Anderson’s made-for-guys routines look girly—you won’t lift a weight over 10lbs”) and then with her risqué line of gym wear (“as little fabric between the bellybutton and crotch”).