The following is the text of a talk that I gave at Middlebury College in March 2011, as part of a conference called “The F Word: Producing Texts/Enacting Feminism.” The conference organizers asked me to draw on my experiences to discuss issues of working across boundaries in feminist theory and political practice.
I was honoured to share a program with three other awesome women:
Afterwards I had the opportunity to talk with students and faculty both formally and informally. From our discussions I concluded that these issues are more salient than I had imagined.
So many people out there are suffering with poor health and a lack of body-mind-life integration, and these are linked closely with social inequality as well as a lack of personal self-determination. It is essential for us to develop new visions for fitness and wellness that have a social justice component.
Thanks for inviting me here today. It’s a great privilege to be invited here.
Today I want to talk about change and transition. I want to talk about the lived realities of our bodies. I want to talk about pain.
I want to talk about the ways in which self-transformation and working towards deep health are social justice projects.
I’d like to ask three questions today:
1. How we can incorporate scientific knowledge – particularly in the fields of physiology or biology (or in my case, nutrition, fitness, and health) – into social justice work?
2. How can we look at the project of physical self-transformation as a site for social justice intervention?
3. And finally I want to ask: Why does it matter? Aren’t these just personal vanity projects and beneath our notice as “serious scholars”?
Let me start with a brief history. I finished my PhD in Women’s Studies in 2002. I focused on issues of subjectivity as well as women in science and technology. This is where my interest in science – particularly biology – comes from today.
In 2004 I published Doing IT, which was about women’s work in information technology. In 2006 I published Trans/Forming Feminisms, which was about working across boundaries in trans and feminist issues. In 2008, along with Pat and Hugh Armstrong, I published Critical to Care, which examined women’s labour in ancillary health occupations.
Throughout grad school I worked as a personal trainer.
After I finished my PhD I continued to teach at York University in Toronto. I left to work for nearly a year in a public health/occupational health research institute. In 2008, I left academia altogether to work in three roles:
- As the research director for the Healthy Food Bank foundation, which raises money to buy healthy food for food agencies.
- As Editor-in-Chief of Spezzatino, which is a food magazine that supports the HFB.
- And finally, I work with a company called Precision Nutrition developing a large-scale health intervention called the Lean Eating program. We’ll talk about this more in a bit.
What I do now
I’m going to briefly introduce what I do now so that you have some context, and then I’ll come back to it when I talk about the application of some of these questions I’m going to raise.
When I left academia, I started as a nutrition coach with what’s called the Lean Eating program of Precision Nutrition. Eventually I began to supervise the development of it. I now create the content and curriculum for it.
This started as a 4-month program, grew to 6 months, now doing 12 months. It’s a virtual program – all done online. It’s much like an online course.
Originally this program focused on sports nutrition – so, how can we get people to lose fat, gain muscle, and get fitter and healthier.
But along the way, we realized that we actually had a living laboratory of the change process, so the program has grown to be a large-scale, in-depth change creation process that uses body transformation as a point of entry for life transformation (although we don’t tell people that at the beginning!).
To be very clear, what we have found is that when people set out to change their bodily experiences – they change their lives.
And indeed one of the points I’m going to argue today is that our body is our interface to the world.
When we make changes to our bodies’ material (and make no mistake, we are changing bodies down to the electrical, chemical, and mechanical levels) — or our bodies’ actions — or our bodies being-in-the-world:
- we change our perspectives and outlook on life
- we change or deepen our political views
- we change our relationships to other people
- we change our social and physical environments.
So it’s very important that we do this with a social justice foundation, and we’ll come back to this later.
Now, when I quit my job in academia and started doing this, many folks were puzzled – their concept of what this would involve was very limited, so they imagined that maybe I was producing meal plans for people or lecturing them about how they should eat broccoli.
Here’s how the program works.
- It’s a 12-month intensive program organized around creating conceptual and behavioural change to people’s physical fitness, nutrition, and health
- There’s a program for women and program for men
- People get daily lessons and often assignments.
- People get daily workouts
- Clients get an online support group
- Clients also get individualized coaching and supervision
Each iteration has had about 500-600 people. We are on the 6th iteration now – that means we’ve had around 4000 people in total go through the program. I’ve coached three cohorts and still retain some coaching clients.
Each coach will deal with hundreds of personal correspondences over the course of the program, and each support forum generates thousands of posts.
So as you can imagine, we’ve collected an incredible amount of data from this.
And we’ve learned a tremendous amount about the relationship between body transformation and life transformation, which I think has lessons here for both our own lives as well as the life of our political and social movements.
Key questions for me
I’ve been interested in science, technology and health – both individual and public health – for about 20 years.
I’ve also been interested in questions of subjectivity and identity.
Two of the questions that always interested me were:
WHY do people make change?
HOW do people make change?
I’ve always been quite curious and nosy about this. It’s great to be a qualitative interviewer because you get to be nosy with people!
- For instance, when researching trans issues, I went to conferences, events etc. met hundreds of people and often asked (once I knew people well enough – although Americans would talk without much prompting!): Why did you decide to transition and what was your journey like?
- When researching work and employment, I asked: why did people have the career trajectories they did?
- In this current position with PN, I’m focused on people’s journeys through desire for change and physical self-transformation.
Discomfort around change
As social justice advocates we are change agents. But change hasn’t necessarily gotten easier for us.
We continue to grapple with things like:
- WHAT actually needs changing
- WHAT constitutes appropriate, important, and/or valuable changes
- HOW to make that change – in other words, what methods or strategies we should use
And as advocates of social justice, we often feel and see a lot of discomfort around certain types of change, esp. body change.
1. First, we may be uncomfortable with change that proceeds to what we view as too heteronormative, too Anglo, too bourgeois, too ability-focused or normative in any other way. So, for example, when someone wants to lose weight, our hackles immediately go up – we want to critique the beauty myth.
2. Another type of discomfort comes from the assumption that change agents are judging us.
For instance, I’ve had people expect that I would be putting them under surveillance and monitoring their bodies.
I link this to the semi-punitive nature of the deficit model of change in our culture: the idea here is that you change because you are broken. We don’t view change as growth, evolution, or simply… change.
This is a good time to establish my own approach to change. I use an evolution or a growth model, which assumes that change happens for a few reasons:
- We get to the point of having a mismatch in our situation – either our coping mechanisms no longer work, or in many people’s cases their physiological needs are out of sync with what they’re actually doing with their bodies. Politically of course the same things happens with social movements – what you’re doing isn’t working any more.
- We reach a point where worlds collide – where physical pressures, psychological pressures, environmental pressures, etc. all come together into a moment of crisis.
- Or, which is the approach I like to focus on, we say “This is working really well. This is awesome. How can we do more of this?”
3. Another reason for discomfort around change is that we are critical of discourses of individual empowerment – such as “you can do it if you just try hard enough” – and rightly so as these discourses can be insidious and blaming and we feel defensive when we hear them.
These discourses suggest if your life isn’t better then it’s for lack of trying. These discourses suggest that you should always want to change and improve or be a certain way.
4. We may feel discomfort with idea of single-person change – which I call the “hero narrative” – that is decontextualized.
In the hero narrative, things like social geography, structural factors, community, environment and so forth are irrelevant. As I will argue later, change MUST be communal and work across boundaries and life domains.
5. There are misconceptions about what is and is not possible – especially with bodies but this can apply to other things as well.
We’re told that some things are possible when they aren’t. We continue to strive for them only to meet repeated failure, then assume it is our fault. On the other hand, we’re told that some things are impossible when in fact they’re quite achievable. The trick, of course, is to know the difference.
6. We may feel concerned that discussing change would obscure important questions about what is – what people are dealing with right now.
7. We may feel shame around change – shame at the desire for change.
People will say to me: “I know I’m not supposed to want this, but I do.” This is especially true for people in social justice fields who feel that any kind of focus on the physical self is a distraction from the “real business” of making political change. I know this because these people – from academia, or activist, or intellectual circles – are my clients. Many seek me out specifically because of my approach. They come to me feeling tremendous shame over wanting their bodies to be different.
We have to work through the question of whether body transformation is “selling out” or buying in to an oppressive system.
In addition, people who have gone through transition, or who are coming out, also struggle with what to do with their lived body histories, and each person makes different choices around this.
8. We may feel discomfort about change that is foisted upon us.
For instance, this could be a change in our health status. We age. We may become disabled or ill.
This could be a change that comes from the powerful drive for making our body presentation match our internally felt identity – as in the case of trans people or simply people who are struggling to develop all kinds of new identities. Another example of this might occur in migration (a literal kind of transition) and the work of having to develop a diasporic identity.
Then, there are other identity changes — such as pregnancy, or parenthood — where other people are ready to jump in and define your identity for you.
9. Finally, we have concerns about the nature of change itself:
- What are we trying to change to?
- Are we trying to be different?
- Are we trying to “fix ourselves”?
- Or does change involve elaborating on aspects of ourselves that already existed?
- Is this a total self-reinvention?
I would argue that change is all of these things – change is complex.
Today I am going to talk a bit more about my experiences of change, working in these domains of food and eating.
I want to focus on body transformation and change more broadly as a site for social justice work, and suggest possibilities for working across disciplines and practices.
Gaps in current knowledge/practice
During my 10 years of teaching I noticed that most students were interested in theory but not in developing practice or policy.
Now I find the same thing is true of nutrition clients. They’re often interested in a variety of plans or gathering additional information – especially with the internet – but not as interested in actually doing the daily actions that make change possible.
I’ve found that people in liberal arts and social sciences are also quite uncomfortable with discussing the actual science behind body projects; they have a fear of what I call – all one word — “scienceandmath”.
This discomfort and hesitation has left a gap in our understanding of health and body issues.
Social justice advocates have produced many critiques of science without understanding the actual science itself.
As activists and academics we are also very good at critiquing things without being able to provide clear, practical alternatives.
So this has given us an analysis of body experience that is missing a very large piece.
We have the social determinants of health approach, which identifies ways in which health, activity, and nutritional disparities depend intersectionally on systemic factors such as geography, the organization of public space, the social welfare system, immigrant status, income/employment, access to resources and services such as adequate health care, and so forth.
We have an approach that analyzes discourses around the body, and of knowledge production.
Now, I want to say here that investigating the knowledge claims of mass media, public discourse, and scientific or medical regimes is a valid project.
Social justice advocates from all fields have made important critiques of:
- media representations
- publicly disseminated scientific knowledge claims
- and body-related practices and domains of knowledge such as medical science
This is important, because we are avid consumers of health- and body-related information. There are industries – such as the pharmaceutical industry or what I call the fitness-industrial complex – that profit from our bodies and from particular discourses.
And it’s especially important because it’s often the people who are most marginalized who have certain regimes enacted upon their bodies.
In other words, it is essential to have a critical social justice framework that takes up questions of ability, aging, racialization, access to care, etc.
Critiques of the presumed “truth” of scientific findings are fundamental in an information- and image-saturated world in which bodies are commodified and consumed.
Despite ongoing calls for a “materiality of the body”, very few social justice and feminist advocates are aware of or understand the actual practice, research, and primary literature in the field of anatomy, physiology or sports science.
Indeed, with a few exceptions feminist knowledge of physiology and the project of science in general appears to be derived entirely from secondary sources, such as women’s magazines that make inaccurate claims, or commercially marketed scientific studies that support the claims of drug or dietary supplement manufacturers.
So, often, when we talk about the material structures of physiology, this can be viewed as evidence of “biological essentialism”.
The underlying assumption here is that: society and culture are complex, while physiology is simplistic and mechanistic. “Science”, “medicine”, and “health care” are treated as: homogeneous, hegemonic, vaguely conspiratorial entities whose sole purposes are to “medicalize” our bodies and enact some type of disciplining practice upon it, such as pharmaceutical treament or surgery.
Social justice researchers – although they accept the fluidity of a discursive body – may forget both the facticity and the fluidity of the biological body.
What I mean by that is that physiology is governed by particular scientific principles – so for instance, if I raise your body temperature too high, your cells will die – but the biological body is also in constant dialogue with the lived environment as well as its own internal systems and substances.
Social justice scholars may assume that data, results, and diagnostic or methodological constructs emerging from biological research are widely and uncritically taken for granted even by the clinicians that produce them. There’s little awareness that within these disciplines, concepts and methods are also contested.
Today I want to make perhaps a strange proposition to a liberal arts audience – I want to argue in favour of the complexity, the richness, the diversity and wonder of biology.
We hear from the media sources that we rightly critique that we do not have “good bodies”.
I want to tell you that if you are alive here in this room you have a good body. An almost infinite number of tiny chemical reactions had to occur – and are still occurring – just right in order to create you and keep you going.
Biologically speaking, if you have made it to being a viable multicellular organism, you should consider your life a great success.
Let me illustrate this concept with a diagram. Let’s talk about one thing I know, which is eating. Who here eats? OK, so, eating is pretty basic, right? It’s hard to get more “essential” than eating.
I mean, yeah, there are social rituals around eating, and food politics, and stuff, but we can probably agree that eating is a basic biological function.
Here is a simplified schematic diagram of how eating is organized physiologically, in your body.
Each part of that diagram is controlled by any number of chemical, electrical, and mechanical signals. You have literally about 100 things that can influence your eating behaviour just at a biological level.
As you can see… it’s slightly more complicated than you would expect.
Now, I’m not implying that social science researchers must also be physiology researchers. I’m sure all of you are thinking “Oh gawd, not another demand on my time!”
Yet without an awareness of and dialogue with the biological literature, social science and liberal arts researchers risk understanding all claims about physiology as equivalent.
We risk making truth claims about physiology (and its associated institutional practices) that are oversimplified and reductionist; that disavow any role for biology altogether; and/or that can be refuted or confirmed by the available physiological evidence.
We need to keep critiquing knowledge about the body but we cannot do this if we do not truly understand the body or if we do not engage with this scientific research directly.
If we do not engage directly, we will not know that life sciences may contain liberatory or useful concepts and practices for feminist and social justice projects, rather than merely a set of negative, pathologizing discourses.
Thus what we need to do is work in collaboration and coalition – even with disciplines that may make us uncomfortable.
We may learn that there are certain unpalatable truths about biology that contravene our political agendas and long-held assumptions… or conversely that the richness and wonder of biology affirms the richness and wonder of our existence. It can go both ways.
In any case, we have to do this work if we want to reduce our blind spots.
We’ve been hearing a lot about the so-called obesity epidemic. I don’t want to go down that road too much but I want to make a few points.
Evidence from physiology suggests that:
- First, activity and nutritional quality are much more significant factors than body weight alone in determining overall wellness, quality of life, and longevity. Not having adequate activity and nutritional quality is THE biggest factor in determining health outcomes and options – for instance, if you lose mobility then you lose a lot of self-determination and access to the world
- Unlike body weight or size, many of these factors are within our control.
- Improving access to these factors and helping people implement them (to the best of their ability) should be an important social justice project.
Let me be clear here. Preventable chronic diseases and poor health affect us and our communities. They affect our ability to do important political and social and personal work because many of us are exhausted, we are not functioning as well as we can, and our resources are going to simply surviving.
So I propose to you that in many cases – whether that is politically or individually – we need to confront physical change.
What does Lean Eating tell us about change?
The lessons I have learned in developing the Lean Eating program have reinforced many of my contentions about the intersections between feminist/social justice movements. These fall into four themes.
1. Knowledge of/in the body
Here I am describing an actual somatic knowledge that is stored and communicated chemically, electrically, and mechanically in the body, e.g. in the form of hormones and cell signals, and electrical impulses.
There isn’t just a “connection” between brain and body – brain IS body and vice versa.
As a quick example, let’s take the enteric nervous system. This is the “second brain” in your gut – it uses all the same neurotransmitters. You can think of how you get stomach butterflies when nervous. When we talk about “gut feelings” in fact we can be quite literal. This is essentially a non-cognitive brain that “thinks” and “feels” without explicit “consciousness”, right in the middle of our bellies. How cool is that?!
If we understand how human physiology works we will come to appreciate the incredible richness and wonder of it.
People come to me and think they are broken. They are in a certain situation, they say, because there is something wrong with them.
I tell them: You are not broken. Your body works magnificently. Your body is an elegant, incredibly complex and highly tuned system that regulates your intake and your expenditure with 99.9% efficiency at all times.
I heard someone say once that life is solving millions of complex equations simultaneously. That is what our bodies are doing.
Thus when I am talking about the discourse of the body, I am talking about actual chemical and electrical and mechanical communication that is occurring within the body. Your cells are talking to each other right now.
The body has many languages. It speaks through physical pain as well as through food and eating. I differentiate food from eating because both the substance of food and the act of eating have profound biological, social and emotional and political dimensions for us.
There is a tremendous amount of pain and suffering in people’s lives, and this pain and suffering is literally expressed in the body.
Women come to me for help because their lives are devouring them. They are experiencing a trauma of self-loathing and a lack of physical self-determination.
Women’s hunger is a hunger for change. They come to me because – for whatever reason – and I tell people that their journeys are their own – their eating and food and their bodies are causing them distress. Whatever they are doing to cope is no longer working for them.
Painful emotions are also stored in movement and body tissues. Massage therapists will tell you that sometimes, they’ll find a point of spasm, and when they trigger that point, their clients will have an emotional reaction.
We have women crying all the time during their workouts, especially in the early days, because the intense movement and present-ness somehow stimulates stored emotions. They’ll literally be doing pushups or something, and start bawling – somehow the movement experience and activation of their bodies in that way lets something loose.
The other interesting thing is what happens with angry clients.
Here, I distinguish between healthy vs unhealthy anger.
Unhealthy anger is not a judgement but an observation about the effects and consequence of the anger. Unhealthy anger is anger that seeks to destroy, slash and burn. It’s horizontal hostility. We are often so angry that we don’t even know what we’re angry about – we spray our anger everywhere or take it into ourselves and allow it to destroy us from the inside. We become alienated from our own bodies.
Unhealthy anger is exhausting. We see it among activists and academics in social justice fields who are burning out. This pain is expressed in our bodies.
Healthy anger is mad as hell and not going to take it any more. Healthy anger seeks justice. Healthy anger helps us work towards a better world. Healthy anger says “Hey, this is bullshit – let’s find a better solution”.
Healthy anger empowers us. Unhealthy anger destroys us. And with unhealthy anger, clients’ bodies do not work properly. They are awash in inflammation. They are literally eating themselves from the inside out.
So we can see food and eating and movement and other things as well such as inflammation or the chemical environment as languages that the body speaks.
We need – as social justice advocates – to recognize that body transformation is pain transformation. In order to transform your body you must go through the pain and engage meaningfully with it.
The goal is not to eliminate pain (since that is impossible) but rather to develop a different relationship with it.
Body transformation becomes a proxy for life transformation – but body transformation IS also life transformation.
Now one of the things I want to say here is that most of what actually happens in body transformation is intangible. Here are some things our clients have said to us.
- “I walk tall now.”
- “My posture is better.”
- “I’m so much happier on the inside.”
- “I’ve become a better parent.”
- “I feel healthy.”
- “I feel confident in my decisions.”
- “I am stronger… inside and out.”
- “I’m determined.”
- “I am more focused.”
- “You have given me back my life.”
However, that all being said, it’s important to point out that change itself also causes pain. There is no change without pain and discomfort.
3. Transition and changes
Transition is a complex time no matter what that transition involves – e.g. coming out, transitioning physically, or engaging in political movements dedicated to change.
Transition can be joyous, empowering, affirming, also traumatic and painful. It inspires primal & adaptive emotions such as fear, shame, anger – loss and grief.
As I said earlier, we assume that change often involves a deficit model – that we change because we are broken and need to be fixed. I see most people change because their healthy and resilient self and bodies are asserting their own survival – these resilient and creative selves are attempting to fix people’s relationships and environment.
This type of transition is not a kind of self-reinvention but rather a self-evolution in which the raw material for the new self was always there, and we honour the journey.
Self transformation is one of the most profound and complex human desires. We are constantly torn between the desire for change and the desire for comfort and stasis. This is especially true when we are doing the very hard work that change involves.
Change involves pain and trauma even when we want to change.
Change has physical consequences. We need to be able to cope with change and transition as it unfolds in our own bodies.
As social justice advocates we also have to be very careful to ensure that our own natural change process is a healthy and positive one, and that we do not constrain other people’s pathways. For instance, trans ppl speak of being shamed by social justice allies because their destination gender presentation is viewed as “too normative”.
One interesting thing I have learned is that when we act as change agents, we ourselves change. Change is a collective practice. There is no individual change. I cannot watch you change and remain unaffected by it. And you cannot change without me – or someone or something else – supporting you.
So what are we changing towards?
Well, in my business I focus on helping people move towards what I call deep health.
4. Towards deep health
Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. (World Health Organization)
Deep health is about optimal performance not a single standard – it’s about ensuring that each process or organism runs as well as it can, accepting whatever limitations might be in place at any moment.
Deep health includes three things:
- development of a robust, flexible identity
- living in a body that is integrated and attached to one’s emotions and cognition – the thoughts and feelings do not exist outside the material of the body
- meaningful social connection and interaction – includes working across boundaries.
Deep health is about nourishment and ensuring that one’s physical experience in the world is as good and meaningful and affirming as it can be, while also accepting the presence of pain.
The pain that I see in my hundreds of female clients is tremendously deep.
It is the pain of spiritual annihilation (in a secular sense). The pain of self-destruction. The pain of no identity (As one client said to me, “I don’t know who I am.”).
Identity questions preoccupy feminism and social justice movements bc these hold the key to self-determination. The same is true of physical identity and capacity.
I want to close by arguing that questions of physical health, fitness, and good nutrition – and issues of the body’s material – are absolutely salient for social justice advocates.
If you work in the field of trans issues, for instance, you can see tremendous pain and physical alienation. Queer communities have all kinds of coping mechanisms as bodies try to compensate for or avoid pain. Rates of substance abuse, chronic disease, unhealthy eating are very high in marginalized communities.
We can see that improving health, fitness, and nutrition improves quality of life dramatically.
So treating bodily health and by extension developing and improving wellness relationships is a social justice issue.
Towards feminist fitness
Now, while most folks will agree that good health and good nutrition are valuable things, they won’t necessarily be as comfortable with the concept of fitness and movement.
“Fitness” is rarely well defined in feminist social science, and is often used synonymously with thinness or disciplined adherence to a particular, typically restrictive, exercise regime.
Yet in the field of physiology and sports science, fitness is defined as a capacity or preparedness for a specific set of tasks – in essence, the “power to do”. This definition matches the aims of social justice projects.
Fitness and wellness and good nutrition are all social justice projects because they help move us towards the power to do.
What we have found in our body transformation project was:
1.That it was important to develop deep health across all life domains, including physical experience, and
2. That we were able to conceptualize this deep health as something that connected people’s core identities and values to broader relationships and communities.
We have the capacity to bring elements of our bodies and our selves into being – there are many things that are within our control – it is not empowering to suggest that we are out of control and our bodies are simply essentialist objects.
If we don’t address this area we cut out a huge part of people’s lives and psychic domains. We also fail as advocates for people’s health. We are unequipped to deal with the real experiences of real people with bodily realities.
Biology is not essentialism. Biology is not “destiny”.
Biology is complexity and change – it is a rich, diverse, highly varied and plastic set of experiences and processes. Biology is a set of possibilities.
If we eliminate or avoid this domain of knowledge we do a tremendous disservice to social justice projects and our own health as those who advocate in favour of a better world. Yet if we embrace these possibilities, we can act in our fullest capacity as change agents.