Sunday, 19 June 2016

5 Tips for Body Positive Fitness

I don't talk much about fitness on Instagram. I don't take gym selfies (mainly because I don't go to the gym), I don't post screenshots of my workout stats or pictures of my salad. The reason for this is that I never want to be the source for someone else's negative comparison. I never want to encourage the idea that being physically fit makes you morally superior, or that eating avocado makes you a better person, even though I really do love avocado. People's relationships with food and exercise are damn complicated, and I never want anyone who follows me to feel pressured, damaged, unworthy or generally bad about themselves for not being a paradigm of physical fitness. Because when it comes to body positivity, physical fitness is largely irrelevant anyway.

I know, I know, there are countless body positive advocates out there who preach the exact opposite. How true body positivity is about self improvement and 'taking care' of your body. I get hundreds of comments along the lines of:

"If you really loved your body then you would exercise and stop eating junk food, instead of promoting unhealthy lifestyles."
"As long as you're healthy it's fine."

But guess what? How many miles you can run doesn't determine whether you're worthy of self love. The number of vegetables on your plate don't dictate whether or not you should hate your body. Nobody should hate their body, regardless of health and fitness. True body positivity isn't about creating yet another exclusionary standard that judges people's value based on how their body looks or performs physically. We all get to go to the bopo party, workout gear not required.

Before we dive into the sweaty, lycra clad essence of this post, it's important to make a few things very clear:

  • Fitness in not in any way a requirement for being body positive.
  • People who live with disabilities or chronic illness and are unable to exercise are still worthy of self love.
  • People who have struggled/are struggling with eating disorders and exercise addiction, who don't workout in order to protect their mental health are still worthy of self love. 
  • People who don't have access to fitness equipment, educational resources about exercise, or simply can't afford to prioritise a healthy lifestyle, are still worthy of self love.
  • People who lead sedentary lifestyles by choice or necessity are still worthy of self love.
And those are just a few ways that people's relationships with food and exercise are damn complicated, and not ours to judge. If we have conversations about body positive fitness without recognising their circumstances as valid first, then we risk being ableist, classist, triggering and insensitive. So for those of you who recognise yourself in one or more of the circumstances above, let me just say it again for you loud and clear - you are still worthy of self love.

The reason I wanted to write this post is because several people have asked me how body positivity and healthy lifestyles can co-exist. Does working out make you a bopo traitor? Is it okay to have fitness goals without it being about weight loss or #bodygoals? How can you exercise without self hatred creeping back in? And as someone who struggled with serious exercise addiction and has now found a happy relationship with movement, I wanted to share a bit about how I got there. So these are tips for those of us who are able and want to pursue fitness in a positive way, without judgement or fear of falling back into the diet industry trap.

1) Fuck fitspo

The fitness world has a seriously heavy focus on appearance (obvious statement number 1). In recent years more than ever, this obsession with using exercise to obtain the 'perfect' body has created a culture of fitsperation that we can't escape from. We've been completely brainwashed into believing that being physically fit has to come with thigh gaps and washboard abs and glutes of steel. We've forgotten the simple truth that fit bodies come in all shapes and sizes. This is bad (obvious statement number 2). But seriously, it hurts us in so many ways.

It makes us think that if we don't look like a stereotypical gym bunny, that we don't belong in fitness circles. It makes ignorant people think that they can determine our health based on our appearance. It's given us yet another beauty standard that 95% of us don't fit into and therefore feel inferior against. It makes the diet industry even more millions (billions). And ultimately, it strips fitness of its most important goal - improving how your body feels, not using exercise to torture yourself because of how your body looks.

So start focusing on the feeling. There are so many amazing benefits to exercise that have nothing to do with dropping dress sizes. The endorphin rush (instant happiness), the feeling of accomplishment, the stress relief, the newfound strength, the improved sleep, the invigorated sex life, the ability to run and leap and dance and generally kick ass harder and longer than before. THAT is what fitness should be about, not making yourself miserable over body fat percentages. You can read more about my hatred of fitspo here.

2) Listen to your body (and mind)

You know the classic fitness phrase 'no pain no gain'? Well screw that. Exercise does not have to equal pain. Sure, if you're doing something intensive there are bound to be moments of woAH this is HARD I am pushing myself! But most of the time you probably shouldn't be thinking oH GOod LoRd I AM GOING TO DIE. Respect your body's limitations and know that limitations are okay. You don't need to be hyperventilating within an inch of your life to benefit from physical activity, and you definitely shouldn't be comparing what you're doing to anyone else. There's no shame in going at your own pace, in fact, your own pace is perfect. Even if that means a slow walk while everyone else runs past you, it's good enough. 

I used to push myself beyond pain every time I exercised, I thought that unless I gave 110% it was worthless, I wouldn't have burned enough calories or lost enough weight (of course that's all I thought exercise was about). Now I respect how my body feels, I know when enough's enough and I'm fine doing the easier version if I'm just not feeling the burn that day. And never again will I pressure myself into a workout that my mind is screaming against.
Your mental health is more important than your physical fitness levels. There is no guilt in the land of bopo fitness, no obsession over missed sessions, no shame about leaving early. And to any of my ED warriors reading this and dealing with exercise addiction like I was - you are allowed to be still. Let yourself heal.

3) Forget your reflection

When I was 9 I joined an after school dance aerobics class, it was full of can-cans and laughter and I loved every minute. One day however, my mum got a call from the school asking whether they should be worried about the luminous shade of purpley red I turned when exercising, and whether this was a pre-existing medical condition. Basically, I have the tendency to turn into a raspberry during intensive exercise, to the extent that it apparently concerns people. I also sweat. A lot. It is not pretty. And for a long time that stopped me from doing any outside activities or enjoying any movement without embarrassment. But we're not required to be pretty, ever. Especially not when we're hammering the treadmill, splashing around in the pool or dancing our socks off just for the fun of it. Seriously, get your sweat on. And wear whatever the hell you're comfortable in - pyjamas, lycra, baggy old tshirts, dinosaur onesies, if you can move in it, it's good.

4) Kick diet culture out

This is the root of so many of our bad relationships with exercise, and it's what fitspo thrives on. If we keep seeing fitness as nothing more than a way to burn calories or punish ourselves for over indulging at dinner last night, it's always going to be a guilt-based obligation. We're always going to dread putting our trainers on and beat ourselves up for not going fast enough. At my worst I couldn't even walk around my house without fixating on how many calories it burned, I had to add an extra hop or jump, I had to run the stairs, I had to do another rep, another lap, another round until either someone caught me or I blacked out. Banish the calorie burning talk. You don't need to spend the whole time picturing how it might change your body, focus on how your body feels. Feel the air on your skin, feel your breath filling up your lungs, take in everything around you, the view, the smell, the touch - hold onto that.

5) Food is fuel, and more

This is a blog post in itself, but I'm gonna keep it simple here. If you want to adjust your nutritional intake to help further your physical health and fitness, you can totally do that without the diet demons creeping back in. Again, no calorie counting, no guilt, no shame. No 'good' and 'bad' foods, yes there are foods that have more nutrients and might make your body feel better (hello avocado), but don't fall into the diet trap of righteous clean eating or forbidden foods. Think about adding in the nutritious stuff, rather than banning the less nutritious stuff. You can have your greens and your dessert and benefit both your body and your mind. Remember that extreme restriction isn't healthy, mentally or physically. Remember that you deserve to eat whatever the hell you want, always.

Cool fact - studies have shown that we absorb way more nutrients from our food when we actually enjoy what we're eating. Which basically means that for all those years you forced yourself to eat dry salad and flavourless meals because they were 'good for you', it wasn't all that good for you at all. The study found that the people who ate their salad with a tasty dressing absorbed a lot more vitamins and other healthy stuff from their meal than the people who left it plain and didn't really like it. And since we have better things to do with our lives than obsess over calories, pass the dressing.

So there are my 5 tips for body positive fitness, from a former exercise addict turned occasional yogi, crosstrainer owner and serious dog walker. It is possible to heal your relationship with exercise and reclaim the movement that makes you feel alive. Get out there and try new things! You might find a lifelong passion, you might decide that working out really isn't for you, you are worthy of self love either way. Keep sweating (or not), my fellow red faced bopo babes.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

To The 'I'm All For Body Positivity BUT' People

It's easy to spot a troll. When an internet troll comes crawling out of its cave and rampages through your account spewing hate and grammatical errors, it's easy to see it for what it is. 'YOUR FCKIN FAT!'* isn't generally the opening to a stimulating debate, or an informed discussion on body positivity. And since I subscribe to a don't-feed-the-trolls block and delete method, it's easy enough to banish them from my Instagram kingdom. *Raises almighty bopo sword that turns bathroom scales into cupcakes*

But there's another kind of comment that I've been getting a lot of lately - people who claim to be in support of body positivity, but only for the people they deem worthy of it. The comments lure you in like a classic backhanded compliment, and leave you with a worse taste in your mouth than the plain old trolls'. It's the same shaming, but it's dressed up in 'expertise' and 'concern' that basically states that self love is only okay below a certain size. That body positivity is something that only certain people deserve. And if you think that, you've got it twisted. Body positivity is for everyone, and you don't get to exclude people because they don't fit into your idea of what the movement should look like. So if you're one of these 'I'm all for body positivity, but...' believers, I'd like to have a word with you...

I'm all for body positivity but... this takes it too far.

I get this kind of comment a lot on pictures celebrating my belly rolls. You might be wondering, 'too far? Takes what too far? Self love? Eating disorder recovery? Cute bikinis? What!?'. Here are some more examples that fall under the 'too far' umbrella:

"I really love your message, but... Aren't you worried about promoting obesity?"

"Embracing all body types is great, but... We have to remember to always put our health first"

"Body positivity is cool, but... you're just encouraging people to be unhealthy"

At least when a troll tells me I'm an blubber filled whale who's gonna get diabetes and die at 30, they get straight to the point. They don't pretend to be team bopo and then slide their prejudices in under the socially accepted guise of faux concern. And how do you determine when someone's gone 'too far'? Do you count the belly rolls (2 is okay, 3 or more is certain death)? Or do you just judge by your general levels of discomfort at someone who doesn't fit your narrow minded ideals unapologetically loving themselves? Discomfort aside, there are so many ways that your comment just doesn't hold up, here are a few of them:

1) Promoting obesity. I've never seen a single body positive fat babe promoting their size as something that everyone should aspire to. I've never read a caption that says 'YOU'LL ONLY BE BEAUTIFUL ONCE YOU GET TO THIS SIZE SO YOU BETTER STOCK UP ON JUNK FOOD AND GAIN WEIGHT UNTIL YOU'RE OBESE TOO!' (but I've seen a hell of a lot that say the opposite). A person isn't promoting obesity merely by daring to exist in their body. Daring to leave their homes, take up public space, and wear whatever they want. The only thing they're promoting is living in the body you have right now, whatever that body looks like. And considering some of the biggest industries in the world are dedicated to promoting thinness, why are people so horrified at the thought of the agenda being flipped? Why are we scared of celebrating some chub?

2) When people make accusations about promoting obesity, what they're really referring to are the health issues that everyone associates with fatness. They assume that a fat person with the audacity to love their body is trying to justify being unfit, glorify a nutritionally poor diet, and throw their health away. As anyone who's seen a newspaper headline in the past decade knows, obesity is killing us all, and since that message is so ingrained into every aspect of our society, people take it upon themselves to become health crusaders, bullying people into change. 

Except the real truth is that you can't tell someone's health by looking at their size. Physical wellbeing is a hell of a lot more complicated than an archaic height/weight chart can predict, and far more nuanced than a sensationalist 'FAT KILLS!' headline splashed across a front cover. 

Human beings are not all supposed to look the same, and it's completely possible to be metabolically healthy in an 'overweight' or 'obese' body. In fact, the largest ever clinical study on the relationship between weight and mortality showed that people in the 'overweight' BMI category lived the longest, with those in the 'underweight' and 'obese' categories still only showing a slight increase in premature death rates. Catherine Flegal's study is also pretty groundbreaking considering that it wasn't funded by, or affiliated with the diet industry in any way (countless scientific 'truths' about obesity are the product of studies with some seriously dodgy connections in the weight loss world, meaning results are often over-inflated, misinterpreted, or completely fabricated to push a diet company's agenda. Check out Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon or Body of Truth by Harriet Brown to learn more). And countless more studies show that fitness, regardless of size, is the key to health, and fit and fat are not mutually exclusive. Even if you could tell someone's physical health just by looking at them, does that mean they don't deserve self love?

3) When it comes to body positivity, physical health is largely irrelevant. There shouldn't be any fitness requirements. There isn't a daily vegetable quota to fulfill. Being unhealthy doesn't make you any less worthy as a human being. In fact, our obsession with proving our health is ableist - do people with chronic illnesses not deserve body positivity? What about people with disabilities who aren't able to exercise?

And if you're so concerned with people's health, why aren't you also harassing the thin people online who eat junk food? Or smoke and drink? Because they still look healthy to you? We all have at least one thin friend who eats nothing but fast food and never exercises, who's clearly genetically predisposed to be thin - but we refuse to believe the opposite can be the case for fat people. Are you starting to see why your 'concern' is misplaced? There is no justification for using 'health concern' to bully someone, especially since if you actually cared about their health, you would include mental and emotional health. The self hatred you want them to feel isn't healthy at any size.

I'm all for body positivity, but... you don't have to show your body so much.

Oh sweet slut shaming. Other phrases employed by this kind of 'I'm all for body positivity, but...' person include:

"Self love is important, but... So is self respect"

"I love your attitude, but... It's not necessary to show your body like this"

"Body positivity is great, but... If you were really a feminist you wouldn't be objectifying yourself by showing your body all the time"

All of these are carefully cloaked versions of the troll with a profile picture of a car who creeps along and says something like 'U NOTHIN BUT A FCKIN HOE WHO WANTS ATTENTION SLUT' (the best ones are the dudes who then have topless pictures of themselves all over their accounts). So let's break them down...

1) Equating sexuality with self respect is one of the most sexist double standards there is. Apparently a lot of people haven't realised that we're in 2016 and the way a woman decides to express herself sexually has absolutely no bearing on how much she respects herself as a multi-dimensional, complex person (ya know, more than just walking genitalia). Female sexuality has been suppressed and demonised for centuries as a form of control, and the seeds of those outdated ideas are still everywhere. You are allowed to embrace your sexuality however you want, as long as it's consensual, and however you do that isn't a reflection of your moral character. Judges of 'self respect' also make the mistake of assuming that showing your body is always sexual...

2) We live in a world that can't see a female body in its most natural form without sexualizing it. Our inability to see flesh without thinking sex is a seriously damaging aspect of rape culture. Our bodies are not inherently erotic and we should be able to appreciate beauty without throwing arousal into the mix. A nude painting isn't necessarily pornographic - that's something that we've imposed upon it. When I show my body I don't do it for the viewing pleasure of creepy straight guys, and I certainly don't want any unsolicited sexually explicit comments. They make my skin crawl. We have to realise that we can embrace our bodies without it being for the gratification of someone else. Your body doesn't exist to please others, and the amount of skin you show is never an invitation for sexual advances.

3) The most important aspect of body positivity is recognising your value beyond your physical self. Yes we can celebrate our cellulite and learn to see ourselves as beautiful, but ultimately we are all more than that. In an ideal world we wouldn't even need body positivity because we wouldn't be judged as bodies first and people second,  but that's not the world we're living in. The world we live in is filled with people consumed by self hatred because they don't believe their bodies are good enough. Which means that body love is necessary, if we're gonna reach full, all encompassing self love. And body love includes seeing more diverse bodies, celebrating our features, and honouring our outer shells.

Fearlessly rocking a bikini picture isn't the same thing as objectifying yourself. You are not turning yourself into an object whose only value is the physical. By reclaiming your body you're reclaiming so many aspects of yourself - your courage, your mental health, your happiness, your badass attitude. You are celebrating your whole self. Besides, you should always be skeptical of any feminist who tries to tell women what to do with their bodies.

What 'I'm all for body positivity, but...' people don't realise, is that true body positivity doesn't exclude anyone. There should be no weight limits or fitness requirements. Self love isn't reserved for people with perfect physical health or bodies that are 'curvy' but not 'too big'. Body positivity isn't glorifying obesity, it's glorifying happiness, and living in the body you have now. You don't need to be able to run a mile or eat nothing but quinoa to be worthy of that.

If you think someone needs to be under a certain size or within an irrelevant BMI category to deserve body acceptance, then you're not 'all for body positivity' at all. You're actually 'all for' judging people based on their weight and making assumptions about their health. You're pretty ableist, too.

If you think someone needs to show less skin in order to stand for body positivity, then you're not 'all for body positivity' at all. You're actually 'all for' using shame to dictate what someone should do with their body. You're pretty sexist, too.

This movement began in the 70s as radical feminist fat acceptance, and since then it's been watered down into something that's almost as restrictive as the beauty ideals it rails against. Mainstream body positivity still isn't size inclusive, it's still whitewashed and hourglass shape obsessed. It still doesn't represent bodies of all abilities, all ages or all genders. And I'm not okay with people trying to make it even more exclusionary by policing the bodies that deserve it. We all deserve it.

I'm all for expressing your opinion, but... don't be a fatphobic, slut shaming dickhead about it.

* The best response I've ever seen to 'YOUR FCKN FAT!' is 'I can assure you that Fat and I are just friends'.