Rant 19 November 2004: The fitness fascist

My husband and I joke that we work in two of the most misunderstood fields. As a nuclear physicist, he gets subjected to Homer Simpson and “glow in the dark” jokes ad nauseam. Either that or someone accuses him of poisoning the planet. As a researcher and writer in the field of women’s studies, I get subjected to “what is there to know about women?” questions, women who say, “I’m not a feminist! I like men!” (apparently not noticing that I don’t hate at least one man or I wouldn’t be married), or “you know what the problem is with feminism” lectures from men with mother issues who couldn’t even name a single feminist including said mother. In either case, people assume that they are well qualified to comment on our professions and we take a lot of shit at parties. It’s enough to make one want to hole up in the corner, get drunk, and go face down in the cheezies within minutes of getting in the door.

I also work in another misunderstood field: fitness and nutrition. It’s understandable that people have incorrect ideas about what fitness and nutrition are really about. I recently saw a series of photos from the recent Weider Olympia event that illustrates what a joke that arena of “fitness” is. Yes, the “girls” (for some reason they are rarely “women”) are muscular, lean, and lovely, but somehow, having them demonstrate their good health in cages and cop outfits doesn’t exactly inspire me to pull my face out of the Cheeto bowl. This vision of fitness doesn’t reflect my life or my needs.

Sometimes people want to learn more about what I do as a trainer. I’ve learned from experience, though, that few people are genuinely interested in learning about the subject. Fitness and nutrition is, rather, a site for our social anxieties.

As soon as they find out about my second job, one response people have is to begin confessing their sins. Or, they announce triumphantly they are beyond caring about their bodies: they will wrap their cigars with a filet mignon and smoke that sucker while driving, seatbelt-less, 100 in a 50 zone. In that case, they view fitness types as some special breed of self-flagellating ascetics, lean as whippets, waking at 4 am to run while sucking with pursed lips on an alfalfa sprout. Somehow, they interpret chain smoking and eating Ho-Hos as a celebration of life’s joys.

They might say, “I couldn’t do what you do. I like to eat too much.” Honey, I love to eat too. Much of my life is spent thinking about the acquisition, preparation, and consumption of food. A simple recipe for figs in marsala wine can bring me to near-tears. I recall the radicchio-laced gorgonzola I had in Padua like most people recall their first kiss; I grieve for the closure of a particularly wonderful Indian restaurant and their butter chicken specialty with a deep and profound melancholy. And all the while, I remain dedicated towards feeding my body to nourish it. The job of nutrition is not to constrain but to liberate, and to assist people to make better choices. It’s not incompatible with pleasure and enjoyment of food.

In extreme cases, my physical shape and size are taken as a personal insult, as if my mere corporeal existence is a sign of someone else’s failure.

In all of these situations, food and activity acquires a moral character of goodness and badness. Ice cream equals guilt. Sloth equals shame. “Fitness people”, whoever they are, are body fascists who think they know better than everyone else, and want us all to shove more Brussels sprouts down our quivering, resisting gullets.

The funny thing is, few of the complainers actually seem to do anything about their own negative feelings about their bodies. They seem to rather prefer the guilt, shame and self-loathing. Which makes me wonder, what benefit are people deriving from feeling badly about themselves and fitness? Why has fitness and nutrition acquired this quasi-religious status that positions fitness “experts” as inquisitors and allows people to repeat a cycle of sinning, repentance, and penance? Many people feel that pointing out facts of physiology is somehow akin to abandoning them or judging them. Physiology isn’t good or bad, it just is. It follows certain rules, albeit complex. Some elements we have control over. Others we do not. Ideally, we control the things we can control, and don’t worry about the rest. We have control over more processes than we think. But we don’t drive cars into walls while wearing no seatbelts and then bitch about the laws of
physics because we launched ourselves through the windshield.

When I talk about fitness and good nutrition, people hear skinny and starving oneself. They assume that I am trying to convert them to a cult of prim, suffering sylphs. Yet of course, skinny and self-starving is the very antithesis of what fitness and wellness are about, particularly if it’s the type of skinny commonly achieved by young women by living on celery, caffeine, smokes, and self-disgust.

Fitness can be broadly interpreted as the power to do or readiness for a particular activity, or life in general. Fitness is not a size or a shape. It’s a lifestyle and an attitude that is accessible to everyone regardless of ability. Good nutrition means making wise food choices aimed at optimizing the body’s machinery and enabling its self-healing processes. It does not mean living on the diet of a medieval cave-dwelling hermit. It does not mean eating only rice cakes and iceberg lettuce. Man, that shit ain’t even food.

If you feel threatened or defensive about fitness and nutrition, try to figure out why instead of junking the whole better living project altogether. Then figure out ways to solve the problem instead of stewing about how much it sucks.

Do you want to see better, more appropriate role models? Throw out the fitness rags and get inspired by real people instead. Go and visit your local soccer pitch or softball field in the summer–you might find a bunch of like-minded women who’d be happy to let you join them. Check out community centres, boxing gyms, martial arts dojos, skating rinks, rowing clubs, university fitness centres, pools, climbing gyms, parks, anywhere you can find besides a chrome ‘n’ tone gym, and look for women who are into fitness and wellness for its own sake. At my climbing gym there are no pneumatic supermodels, but lots of tough, inspiring, chalk-dusty female physiques scurrying up the walls—and most of them are on the sunset side of 35. When I see a gray-haired woman with bowling-ball deltoids doing a one-handed pullup on a 5.11 overhang, I can’t help but cheer inside.

Do you need help to achieve your goals? Then read this site, or ExRx.net, or go and buy a book such as Walter Willett‘s Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy or Stuart McRobert’s Insider’s Tell All Handbook of Weight Training

Do you need support? Find a workout buddy or support community, in person or online, such as in YahooGroups. Start your own group.

Do you feel alone? You aren’t — find someone else who shares your interests or who is willing to listen to your concerns. Smile and say hi to everyone in the gym. It’ll feel like less of a gauntlet of perfect bodies and more like a gathering of folks just like you.

Do you feel bored by your current selection of food and exercise? Take a cooking class and find a fun new activity. Go beyond canned tuna and hamstering on the treadmill.

The only time someone like me should be seen as pushing you around is when you pay me to give you a boot in the ass. The rest of the time, it’s up to you.