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.


Date: 2015-03-07 10:33 am (UTC)
electricant: (Default)
From: [personal profile] electricant
I am torn, because on the one hand I fully agree with the statement from the article that "You’re not a better person for working out, or a worse person for not, no matter what magazines or gyms tell you." No one is morally better than anyone else because of the amount of exercise they do.

However, I, personally, am a better person for working out. I'm not better than anyone else, but I'm better as me-working-out than I am as me-not-working out. And that better does include a moral dimension.

I'm better when I work out, because it makes me feel better. My mental health is a thousand times better when I work out than when I don't. Me working out is someone who has the emotional and physical capacity to do things like volunteer with children in foster care, take care of my friends when they need me, and participate more fully in my faith community.

I am more virtuous when I work out, in the true sense of the word. The ancient Greek "arete", the concept behind virtue ethics, means "excellence" and referred to physical, intellectual, and moral traits. Each type of excellence contributed to and supported the development of the others. Virtues are habits that allow a person to develop these traits in themselves. I feel like working out is a habit that allows me to develop many positive traits in myself - some physical, some intellectual, and some moral.

Thinking this way helps to motivate me to keep exercising. It helps to consider myself holistically, as an entire person whose body and mind and moral values are all intimately interconnected. It helps to feel like in exercising regularly I am living in accordance with my personal values on multiple levels. And that is way more motivating than wanting to lose weight or conform to societal expectations about how one should live.

None of this makes exercise a moral imperative for anyone else, of course. But I feel like it is a moral imperative for me personally, according to my own value system, and that believing this to be the case keeps me doing it, where other reasons wouldn't.

Re: Virtue

Date: 2015-03-11 01:39 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
None of this makes exercise a moral imperative for anyone else, of course

As a virtue ethicist myself, I don't quite know where this comes from. Is it that you think there are other ways in which to develop physical excellence, and that exercise is the path for you to develop physical excellence but other ways might be better for other people? In which case what might these other ways be?

Or is it that you think that developing physical excellence is not a moral imperative for other people as it is for you? In which case I would question whether you really are a virtue ethicist. For as I understand it, if a virtue is a virtue it is so objectively; something cannot be a virtue for some people to develop but not for others. Everyone has a moral imperative to develop all the virtues as much as they can.

(Depending on your position on the unity of the virtues, that might be tautologous. I'm not sure where I stand on the unity of the virtues. Aristotle was big on it and when in doubt I often tend to defer to him, just as he was generally right about so much, but still I'm not entirely sure. Anyway.)

One thing I do think is that there are some virtues which are, as it were, cardinal virtues: the ones on which the others depend. Lewis identified courage as one when he wrote it was 'not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point'.

But if courage is the form of every virtue at the testing-point, then before the testing-point (and in building readiness for it) the form of virtue is discipline: forcing oneself to do what one knows one ought to, though one doesn't want to, though it is hard, though one would rather not, though it gives one no pleasure now nor later.

One's attitude to exercise, I often think, is a barometer of one's discipline: if one commits to exercise and does so through thick and thin, regardless of how one may be feeling at the time, that is symptomatic of a generally good discipline, of keeping oneself under control and not allowing one's ephemeral feelings of pain or pleasure, readiness or tiredness, tranquillity or frustration, to rule one's life, but instead of simply doing one's duty to improve oneself in every dimension, whether one enjoys it or not.

And if one has committed to, and maintained, discipline in things such as exercise (and its equivalents in the spheres of the intellectual, social, spiritual, and so on virtues) then one will be better-placed to display courage when one finds oneself in the crucible and the heat is coming up from below, and one finds out once and for all whether one is silver or slag.

Re: Virtue

Date: 2015-03-11 08:06 am (UTC)
electricant: (Default)
From: [personal profile] electricant
I guess first off, I'm using virtue ethics as a practical conceptual framework that I can apply in my own life in a way that helps me be generally happier and healthier. I don't know if it's a robust ontological theory of ethics that is universally applicable, and I'm not seeking to use it that way.

Is it that you think there are other ways in which to develop physical excellence, and that exercise is the path for you to develop physical excellence but other ways might be better for other people? In which case what might these other ways be?

Yes, I think there are probably lots of ways of embodying physical excellence and lots of paths to it. I want there to be space for each individual to determine for themselves what excellence means for their own body. Maybe it means being strong enough to lift both of your children at once. Maybe it means getting through the day with minimal pain, with enough energy to get a few basic tasks done. Maybe it means have the lung capacity and vocal control to sing beautifully. Not all of these ways of being physically excellent require structured exercise. Paths to other types of physical excellence might involve the process of going through pregnancy and birth and the day to day physical life of parenting, getting enough rest and sleep and taking medications regularly, or practicing vocal exercises and singing regularly.

Or is it that you think that developing physical excellence is not a moral imperative for other people as it is for you?

Also yes. I don't know if the things that I consider virtues for me are objective, and I don't think others are morally obligated to pursue things that I consider virtues. So I'm probably not a virtue ethicist by philosophical standards. I care more about having practical models for thinking about how to live my actual life than determining what is ultimately and objectively good. Other people are free to use different models and frameworks if they disagree with mine. Even if they agree that the things I value are good things, the frameworks they use might not obligate them to pursue those things.


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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