liv: oil painting of seated nude with her back to the viewer (body)
[personal profile] liv
I am a fan of Naomi Alderman in general, and I was really impressed with her piece on being a fat person who made a fitness app (the app in question is Zombies, Run!, which I've been enjoying after several of you recommended it to me. So [personal profile] rmc28, you might be particularly interested in the linked article). I love the title There's no morality in exercise and the lede You’re not a better person for working out, or a worse person for not. And the whole piece really resonated with me. It was so important to me to find a way into exercise that isn't about weight loss or morality, and particularly not weight-loss conflated with morality, and I feel like Alderman really gets that. Plus what she says about competition is really wise; if only people who are already highly athletic are allowed to train and improve, that's a pretty unhelpful situation.

As well as agreeing with Alderman politically, I find that my experiences in many ways chime with hers, so I want to babble about that for a bit. This will involve talking about weight, body image, dieting and social attitudes to health / fitness / weight, all that scary complicated emotive stuff. I also mention childhood bullying, which is not a very surprising thing to come up in this sort of context.

I've been realizing recently that one of the reasons I don't feel comfortable socializing with under-eights is because I was bullied quite a lot between about 5 and about 8 or 9. The dominant discourse is so much that bullying happens in high school, and takes certain expected forms, that I'd almost forgotten that my experience is different. I should say it wasn't very horrendous, I know a lot of people have had far worse experiences than I did, the majority of it was emotional rather than physical and it wasn't by any means continual. I mean, obviously a handful of six-year-olds isn't scary at 35 like they were at 5, but I think I missed out on learning how to socialize with that age-group, because they mostly excluded me or teased me, or occasionally roughed me up in uneven fights.

There were lots of reasons for it; very occasionally it was to do with being the only Jewish kid at school, but most of it wasn't anti-semitism. Some of it was to do with being semi-accelerated, I was spending enough of my time around older kids for academic reasons that the gap in social development was pretty glaring. And some of it was probably for no reason at all; a lot of children's social hierarchies are basically arbitrary and I happened to be low on the totem pole for a few years, and there's no point searching for an explanation. But I do think some of the reason was because I was really unathletic, and a liability at both organized and informal physical games. The main reason for that was uncontrolled asthma. I mean, I'm relatively physically clumsy as well, and I wasn't that interested in sports compared to, say, reading. But I think all of those things would have been much less prominent if I'd been able to move rapidly without getting out of breath or often, triggering asthma attacks. They wouldn't give me the good drugs until I was 12, because steroids can stunt growth, and I do often think of an alternative version of myself where I ended up a few inches shorter, but was able to breathe reliably between the ages of 3 and 12.

That experience meant that by the time I did get to secondary school, I was completely convinced that I was rubbish at sport. Frankly, I didn't get much guidance about how to improve, I just kept on doing the compulsory minimum very badly (luckily my peers from the age of 10 or so didn't really care if I was bad at sport). There was no encouragement to improve for the sake of learning a skill, there was no real hint that anything other than being one of the best in a competition was worthwhile. Perhaps surprisingly given all this, I really wanted to play hockey. (For North Americans, unadorned "hockey" means field hockey, we don't really play ice hockey over here, certainly not at school.) I had no option to play hockey just to play, I spent the whole of secondary school desperately scrabbling to be among the top 20 players which was not remotely possible for me, because if you weren't competitively good you were nothing.

At one point I got a school report saying, [Liv] might be quite a useful little hockey player if she could lose a bit of weight. Which was a nonsense, in hindsight; my problem wasn't that I was fat, my problem was that I had no physical stamina and couldn't run fast or keep going for the length of a match. And the reason for that was partly asthma, though mainly indirectly because 10 years with uncontrolled asthma meant that I'd never formed the habit of being physically active enough to build up fitness. But anyway, I took the comment to heart and set about trying to lose weight; I'd read The Beauty Myth and was very much influenced by it, though I now realize there are some real issues with that book, so I wasn't going to lose weight to "look good". But this was functional, right, I was losing weight to get fitter so that I could be in the hockey team. And I went about it in a reasonably sensible way, I continued to eat a balanced diet, just smaller portions, and I cut out snacks and most sweet things. I tried to run a mile every day, just stumbling round and round my back garden in circles, not having any guidance about how to build up cardio-vascular fitness properly, everybody just assumed fitness would magically happen if I lost weight.

At my lightest I was somewhere over 10 stone, what's that in real money, a bit over 65kg I think, and still quite a bit over the supposed "ideal" weight for my height according to the nonsense BMI standard. Getting to that weight attracted a lot of positive comments, especially from teachers, some of them really quite inappropriate in retrospect. Like the time I came back to school noticeably thinner after a holiday, and one of the teachers looked at me and did the sexy hourglass gesture, ooh, look at you! The truth was that weight was never the issue, I was really unfit when I was a skinny asthmatic kid, and I was still really unfit when I went through puberty and reached my adult weight which has altered really very little in the last 20 years. It's of course possible that if my condition and my social circumstances had allowed me to be more active as a kid I might have ended up with a different body type, but who knows.

So anyway, I doggedly went to all these hockey practices, and I continued to be pretty good at stick skills and pretty good at the tactics of the game and reading the pitch, but I continued to be "bad at" hockey because I couldn't run fast or keep going through the game. And when we started moving from grass to Astroturf and they changed the rules to get rid of the concept of offside so that the game became faster and more fluid, I really really couldn't keep up. I was in theory B team reserve, but the B team very rarely got any games at all and the reserves were rarely swapped in (unless one of the good players was injured). I can remember the exact moment when I gave up the whole weight loss thing for good: I was standing on the sidelines, freezing cold (I think nowadays they don't make kids play outdoor sport in just a t-shirt and skirt and not allow you to put on any extra layers while you're waiting around) in the sleety rain with the temperature falling as the sun set, and I was so damn hungry I was practically hallucinating about a box of chocolates. And I just thought, it's not worth all this effort, all this depriving myself of good food, putting all this free time into hockey practice and abortive attempts to get fitter, for the sake of a few minutes of playing hockey per term.

So after that, I deliberately avoided doing any physical exercise between the ages of 18 and 32. Which I'm sure has been bad for my long-term health, and also stopped me from participating in stuff that I might have found fun if I'd been a bit fitter. I did some dancing and some hillwalking during that time, but it was always a mixture of fun and misery because I was so out of breath trying to do anything at all athletically challenging.

Coming to an understanding, as Alderman has, that I can do exercise just for me, so that I feel better in my body, has been a revelation to me. I started exercising regularly in late 2010, thanks to encouragement from my lovely DW readers and especially from [personal profile] mathcathy, who helped me establish the habit of going to the gym. And after a couple of years of using gym machines, I took up running via the Couch to 5K programme, which worked really well for me. I've been running regularly for about 2½ years now. I am not doing this to compete, even after all that time I'm still just about the slowest runner in existence among all the people who actually run. I am not doing it to lose weight; in fact I weigh almost exactly the same as I did at the beginning. My appearance has changed somewhat, though; I'm still visibly fat, but I'm also muscular, a body type I barely even knew existed until it happened to me, and I will admit that from a vanity perspective, I like the shape I now have. I'm not doing it to prove a moral point about how "healthy" and "virtuous" I am, I'm doing it purely and simply because running regularly means I can actually enjoy going for long walks in the hills, and evenings of folk dancing. My asthma has got way better now that I'm fit; it's primarily exercise triggered, but now the amount of exercise needed to raise my heartrate enough to set it off is a frank sprint, not any time I try to climb stairs or an uphill slope, or even walk briskly in cold air.

So I really appreciate the ethos behind the Zombies, Run! app (which I am using to make winter treadmill running less boring, and I'm about halfway through Season 2 now and enjoying the story). I appreciate that it gamifies exercise without making it about a competition against standards I could never reach. I love the ways that the characters in the game consistently praise your character for completing a workout, with absolutely no reference to how fast you are. You're reliable, you're dependable, you're consistent, you're helping save humanity and your community from the zombies. They never say "you're fast", and you can't fail missions by being too slow, and they never comment on how your body looks.

I personally like statistics, so I'm proud of myself that I can now run a 12-minute mile, which most competitively-oriented resources consider to be an absolute minimum pace to even count as running, I'm barely at novice level and it's taken me 2½ years to get here. I really like that I get to set that as a goal, running 5K in under 40 minutes, not running marathons or trying to be faster than people who are actually athletic. Or I could just set myself a goal of running regularly and not care about the pace at all, and it would still be good. And generally I like my body cos it can do things I want to do, even if they are not really impressive things compared to some people. Before I exercised regularly, it wasn't that I didn't like my body, I was just indifferent to it, it was this meat-suit I had to carry around that I didn't really identify with. So that, as well as the fitness, feels like an improvement.

And it's not a moral imperative, not at all, I get certain benefits from exercise but I could well imagine another person deciding it's not worth the effort. I am putting a lot of time in, and I have had to give up some stuff I wanted to do to be able to do this regular running. But at least I want to offer the possibility that you can exercise because you want to, you don't have to try for weight loss, you don't have to do it because it's healthy and you are obliged to strive for health. And you can still exercise even if, like me, you're fairly bad at it. Competition can be fun, but it's not the only option.
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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