16 Jan 2013

The Politics of Exercise

During a recent discussion with two other feminists, I got to thinking about the complicated relationship feminism has with body modification, especially diet and exercise. One of the women I was chatting with said she had made a New Year's resolution to become stronger, especially in her upper body, and was planning to start doing chin-ups. As a roller derby player her legs were already pretty strong, and she wanted her arms to match. It was easy to approve of such a goal precisely because of the way she framed it - this wasn't about becoming thinner, more toned, or anything to do with appearance, but it was about making one's body more useful. Body optimisation, if you will. And that made me think how rarely women are actually taught to exercise for this purpose. Thinness is overwhelmingly the main goal of exercise that is marketed to women, followed by 'toning' to add 'killer abs' onto an already flat stomach. But markers of real physical strength are a no-no. Big muscly arms? Hell no, look at the flak Madonna gets. Burly thighs? Nope, you'll just get that Serena-Williams 'man in a dress' abuse. The ability to carry heavy boxes? Don't be silly, that's something only men require!
I can't remember the last time I saw any form of fitness marketed to women on the basis that 'it'll make you stronger'. And yet, the last time I was lying under my car wrestling with a torque wrench and rapidly deciding that, since my arms weren't strong enough, I was going to have to use my feet to create enough force to undo a screw, it occurred to me that greater physical strength would be useful in so many avenues of life. Not just protecting ourselves from violence - while I agree that greater assertiveness, willingness to use force/aggression and self-defence all need to be taught to women and girls much more, I'm not naive enough to think this will always be enough - but just for everyday tasks. Be it having to shove my care client's heavy mobile fire across the room using my feet because it's too heavy for me to pick up, or gurning with the strain as my mum and I carry a metal-based chair across the room, there are many moments in my life when I'm aware that more strength would be a good thing. But for various reasons (and one of them being that the weights room at my gym might as well have 'Sweaty, Puffing, Preening Boys' Club' stamped on the door) I don't do a great deal to change that fact. Still, props to the woman who has decided she is going to do something about it.
Because exercise can be a great thing. And I say this as a former overweight child who despised exercise precisely because of the way it was pushed on me by contemptuous Nietszchean sports teachers and concerned family members as a way to 'fix me'. The more people tried to get me to shed my chub by pointing me towards the football field, the more determinedly I stuck to the things I loved - books and the great indoors. The more anyone tried to advocate the joys of the physical, the more I stuck to showing I was far better suited to the mental side of things. But when I left school, and with it the horrendous memories of muddy lacrosse fields, icy netball courts and that hellish sodden bog known as the cross-country run, I started trying more activities. I did street dance at uni and loved it, and participated in several live performances. I went paintballing and loved the aggression, as well as the anonymity that meant no one could tell who the puffing figure in this particular boilersuit was. I tried a bit of yoga, and swam a lot - the latter being the only activity I ever got a badge for during my childhood. Turned out I could swim 3km just fine, as long as I was left to do it at my own pace. And now, at the age of 29, I find myself contemplating roller skating and rejoining a street dance class to recapture the joys I experienced as a student. As a sufferer of depression I recognise the importance of exercise, and as a cautious, anxious person, I also recognise the importance of pushing myself to try new, scary things. Much as the 10 year-old part of me still fears being mocked or abused (and to be fair to my fellow students, it was usually the teacher rather than any other kids giving me aggro, or at home, my own family), I'm mostly able to push past it and reclaim sport as something that's just as much mine as it is any naturally coordinated, athletically gifted person's.
But do I do it because I want to be stronger? Probably not. Do I do it because I want to stay a certain weight? Yup, that comes into it. I do also exercise because, as a care worker, I regularly see the ravages that age wreaks on the body, and am determined to keep those at bay for as long as I can. I want to be able to still make it to the toilet when I'm 80, and remain capable of simple acts such as cutting my own food up without shrieking from joint pain. But it's probably mostly the holding-back-the-tide-of-weight-gain that motivates me to go to the gym. And I wonder, if it were possible to remain slim (but entirely without strength) without exercising, would a lot more of us remain on the couch? Probably. Because we're still taught that our bodies' appearances matter more than what they can do. Which is a shame, because our bodies can do some amazing things. So as I continue my adult forays into the world of exercise I'll try to focus less on looks and more on my body's surprising capabilities. But - and this is the easy thing to forget in a world where so many things have become brutally goal-oriented - I'll also try to focus on just having some fun.

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