Sunday, January 10, 2010

Feminists at the Gym

Since I moved to Chicago in July 2008, my exercise life has been pretty pathetic. In fact, I've gone months at a time with it being completely non-existent. Yeah, I'd go on kicks once in awhile where I'd daydream about getting a gym membership, or I'd go for a walk, do my Jane Fonda or Cindy Crawford tape, or do Pilates twice a week in my living room. (My cats get really concerned when I pull out my Pilates mat. Usually one or both decides it's best to stretch out on it with me. It makes me a little uncomfortable.)

The only thing that saved me from losing all muscle definition whatsoever this past year was my job waiting tables. All that pacing around in circles when you don't have tables (cause of course you're not allowed to sit down!), running after customers, and carrying trays of beer and burgers actually does burn calories. In fact, after my first month of waiting tables, I actually lost weight. This of course balanced out right around the time I realized I could get a free beer after every shift. What, beer's not good for you? Go figure.

Anyway, now that I've quit my job waiting tables, I've realized how easy it would be to sit on my couch in my sweatpants all day, computer on lap, eating, and not working out, ever. Next thing I know, I finally get a job interview, and I have to wear said sweatpants, because no other clothes fit. Hiring manager takes one look at me and calls security. I go home, sit on the couch and eat an entire box of macaroni and cheese, cycle continues.

Good news. I also now have a gym membership and I've decided to use it. After a week of announcing that I would go to the gym, I finally did it today. And here's the thing: As soon as I walked into the gym I felt better. I got on an elliptical, played Bajofondo Tango Club on my iPod, and I was ready to rule the world. Seriously. Every time I work out, my mind clears, I feel happy and energetic, and I'm ready to apply for 5,000 jobs if that's what it takes for someone to realize how brilliant I am. And all it took was 45 minutes of my day.

I realize that what I'm saying is of no surprise to anyone, least of all me. I grew up doing Jane Fonda workout tapes with my mom, for chrissakes. I played sports from ages 5 to 17. I get it. Endorphins, health, yada yada yada. I KNOW that I feel better when I'm working out and eating right. So what the hell? Why don't I ever do it? Well, all that's changing now. It's 2010, and I'm almost 26-years-old. My metabolism isn't going to have a crush on me forever. Plus, at this time in my life, poor and job searching, what I need more than ever is the mental and physical boost I get from exercise.

Now, you might be wondering (if you haven't given up on reading already), why I'm talking in such detail about my exercise habits. In recent months, I've grown increasingly aware of the discussion of body image and fat hate in the feminist blogosphere. Both are important topics, and until now, I've completely ignored them here on the Rainbow chronicles, aside from my one previous post about trying to find motivation to exercise. To be honest, that's most likely due to the fact that those aren't the feminist issues that really get my blood boiling and make me want to write. To be really honest, it's a topic that I find difficult to write, for a number of reasons. For one, I don't always agree (EEK!) with the popular discussion on the issues. That's not to say that I don't think body image is an important concern—it is, whether you're a woman, man, feminist, whoever, it's important. That's also not to say that I don't think there is a major problem with discrimination of overweight people, or "fat hatred" in our culture—there is. So, what, then?

Body image, and more specifically, having a healthy body image, is something I read about, listen to my peers discuss, and think about pretty regularly. Until this week I've worked in a bar where I serve food with a gaggle of other young women. If you think none of us talk about food, working out, or weight loss, you're out of your mind. You're constantly surrounded by food and booze, you're probably going to talk about these things. In fact, these subjects are brought up so often that it makes me want to pull my hair out.

Now, I'd be lying if I told you I never participated in these conversations. I'd be lying if I said I've never made statements bemoaning my inability to work out regularly or the fact that the night before I drank five Stella's and then ate a burrito at 2 a.m. (Body image aside, don't eat a burrito at 2 a.m. after drinking a lot of beer. Woof.) However. These kinds of conversations happen a lot, and I can't tell you how many times I've heard a co-worker call herself fat. Now, how many bars do you go to where your server is overweight? It doesn't happen very often in Chicago. And if you've never been to my former place of employment, or looked at my pictures on Facebook, let me fill you in. Not only was I working with a gaggle of other young women, I was working with a gaggle of hot mamas. And yes, most of them are on the thin side. (For the record, that is not to say I think only thin women are attractive. I don't. Babe!)

So why are we constantly having these conversations? Why do women who aren't even overweight see themselves as such? Well, duh. Portrayals of women in the media, in Hollywood...we all know why. And I commend my favorite feminists for tackling this issue constantly, and constantly sending out a message that women of all sizes are beautiful. And even though they're mostly just trying to sell soap, I'm still a big fan of the Dove beauty campaign. (I say 'still' as if you were sitting in my journalism undergrad class several years ago when I got into a full-out debate with some jerk regarding it.) It's dangerous for impressionable young girls to see super skinny and anorexic models and actresses as the standard of beauty.

Yet, even though sometimes those conversations at work made me want to rip my hair out, I think it's important that women feel safe discussing their body image fears and concerns with each other. If we can't discuss it with each other, it's only going to fester into a bigger problem. But it's also our responsibility as women, and friends, to give each other positive, realistic feedback. That's much more than a dismissal: "You're not fat!" "I wish I had your butt!" Etc. Etc.

We should encourage each other to eat healthy. We should go to the gym together. And not because we're trying to be skinny. Not because we want to change our natural body. Not because some man told us our butt would look better if we did (yeah, I've actually had a man tell me he knew of exercises I could do to make my ass look better). But if you are trying to lose a few pounds for the right reasons (hopefully because your doctor recommended it), that's okay, too! We should support each other.

We should do these things because when you're taking care of yourself, you feel better. I know I do. (I know Jane Fonda felt better when she started her exercise program! Yeah, my mom owned the book, too. And I read it.)

I'm not trying to say that popular feminist bloggers disagree with any of these points. In fact, it's already been said, in one way or another. However, I'm concerned that amidst all the posts on fat hate and body image, I rarely, if ever, see one discussing the importance of healthy diet and exercise. Heart disease is the #1 killer of women. Let's not be afraid to talk about how to avoid it.

So let's continue the discussion about how we can love ourselves at any size. But let's include in this discussion that, no matter if you're naturally thin, naturally overweight, or somewhere in between, why it's so important to exercise.

After all, those workout endorphins just give us more energy to spread word about feminist issues.

If you read this and immediately a blog post or article came to mind discussing exercise, working out, healthy body image, etc., please include in the comment thread!


  1. Great post, Alison! This is definitely a topic that hits close to home on a couple of different levels.

    I have a passion for overall wellness from my perspective as a healthcare provider who takes care of men and women with diabetes, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia, the majority of which are obese if not morbidly obese. I encourage healthy lifestyles, physical activity, and weight loss on a regular basis. My patients have to lose weight to decrease their risk of serious complications that may result if they maintain or worsen a state of obesity or morbid obesity. Their longevity literally depends on healthier lifestyles, which includes losing weight. I care about their health and well-being. I see their family members with worried looks on their faces as they hear about the declining health of their loved ones. In other words, societal stereotypes are not at the forefront of my mind when I'm making interventions to help someone lose weight.

    You know that I'm not a self-declared feminist, nor an avid blogger (so I don't have any witty blogs to link to). I am, however, an independent, liberal, educated, and compassionate woman who has a strong opinion about this topic! I take care of myself and work out 4-5 times in a week. I'm not, however, going to act like I haven't struggled with body image and eating habits. There was a time in my life when I wasn't eating as much as I should have and lost more weight than was necessary. My 5'3", 120 lbs-ish, (largely owed to good Asian genetics) physique would likely not require that I be overly concerned with counting calories. In my opinion, my emotional state at that time played the largest role in those unhealthy tendencies. It was a time in my life when I was not fulfilled personally or professionally, not self-confident, and not in control of major life...stuff. Now the life stuff has fallen into place and I have an overall healthier lifestyle. Maybe skinny models had an underlying role that influenced me to want to lose weight. I don't know. I don't remember making a conscious effort to look like skinny models, though. I was just confused. In essence, I recognize that societal norms highlight positive images of thin, sometimes overly thin, women. Maybe that will change one day. Until that day, I believe men and women should just be confident and comfortable with their bodies. I do not, however, encourage anyone to maintain a state of obesity to prove a rebellious point against a societal expectation of thinness. Cue the cheezy line - be happy and be healthy! Work out! Eat right! Drink a beer! Eat ice cream (or a whole box of mac and cheese)! Do whatever makes you love yourself to the fullest, but do yourself (and your loved ones)a favor and live a healthy life at the same time.

    Thanks for posting this, Alison. Have fun at the gym!

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this, Jasmine! Your professional (and personal) perspective on this really adds to this discussion.

    I completely agree with what you said about emotional state playing in to unhealthy tendencies. After my mom died, my weight bounced around the following year. I went from having no interest in eating or working out (and losing too much weight) to eating and drinking whatever I wanted (and gaining all that weight, plus some, back). But at both times, I felt like crap because I wasn't taking care of myself.

    Now I think of my mom for inspiration to take better care of myself. Even when she was on an oxygen tank, she'd be in the living room every morning, doing leg lifts and crunches, and she'd still walk 2 miles every morning in the summer, dragging that oxygen tank behind her. If she could do that, I have no excuse! I know she'd really admire your healthy lifestyle. I do!

  3. I am just now catching up on your blog... love this one! I am on yet another fad diet... no carbs! HAHA! Can we catch up soon?? I miss you!

  4. OH, D! yes please. miss you too! kiss kiss