"The work of an intellectual is not to mold the political will of others; it is, through the analyses that [s]he does in his[her] own field, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will (where [s]he has his[her] role as citizen to play).” ~ Michel Foucault
For the past 10 years, I have been engaged in answering following question "How do we empower, encourage, and educate people and communities to embrace and become responsible for active and healthy lifestyles in everyday life?" This was the founding question for my PhD and a personal pursuit as a runner, coach, and volunteer actively involved in the running community. This post has been sitting in my draft archive for far too long. It is an issue that is difficult to discuss: it is both personal and social, and comes with many opinions, values, thoughts, experiences, complaints...it is our body and how we feel and talk about it. It frustrates me to read status updates on Facebook and posts on Twitter that sound something like this "I feel pudgy today, I guess I should go for a run" or "going to boot camp to fit into my new dress". If you have written such comments, this is not directed at you personally, but the underlying script or message that physical activity has become a popularized way to achieving the perfect body, which is an unhealthy view in my opinion. In other words, running has become something we should do, as a means to an end, to achieve a superficial goal, a perfect body or ideal dress size. A recent news story about how strong is becoming the new skinny has un-archived this post (or rant, depending on how you interpret it) because I believe we have a role in our communities, including social media, to challenge the negative and problematic views of physical activity, and it is our responsibility to encourage and educate others about healthy and active lifestyles.
Mixed-messages and physical literacy
I love running, and I love reading about running too. Sometimes I wonder if any one else gets confused by the messages, images and content in popular media. Research on physical literacy, how competent and confident we feel in our bodies, indicates most of us feel 'illiterate', not because we know too little, but are overwhelmed with too much misinformation. My research uncovered a deep bodily dissatisfaction, not because my participants were unsuccessful, all had completed Marathons, IronMans, Birkebieners, and Granfondo's, it was because these women felt their bodies were "failing" them, basically, not living up to the ideal images of a fit endurance athlete. I understood because I felt the same, and I had to learn more about what we can do to change this. In psychology we describe this as body image, a term we are all familiar with, and the strategies focus on changing individual cognition, rethinking our negative self-concepts, but in philosophy, we look at the cultural images of our bodies, and the language and practices we use to create our identities, but our strategies are less clearly defined than psychologists. If you are wondering what's the difference, instead of looking at the individual's self-image, I look at the social image and the structure or stories we tell about our bodies, and how we perceive ourselves in our world. Understanding how to rethink images of ourselves is important because the two are interrelated, we experience social norms on an individual level, but these social norms are created by us, so they too can change.
To illustrate, above is a slideshow of five covers from the same magazine: Runner's World. By mixed messages, the feature content on these covers read as follows: Best Tips Ever, Fit & Strong Forever, Get Fit Fast, 15 Best Tips Ever, and the last Get Fit and Healthy Forever. The tension is there, as we process the images and messages, though we may not always reflect on how they directly impact images of ourselves. Media is not to blame, these are stories we want to see of ourselves. The issue is that of the stories we have constructed of the ideal image of our bodies and how they work. The messages we provide, as journalists and readers/consumers, to achieve the idealized image are confusing and unhelpful. Most of us know you can't get fit fast, especially if you want to stay healthy forever, but we maintain the possibility in story, possibly to keep us motivated. Problematically, we have the social image of 'fitness' as slim and young, and with no body fat, and these images are reproduced in stories of how to make our bodies fit, month after month. A perfect example of this problematic ideal cultural image and script is that of a young woman on the cover with an article on The Perfect Runner's Diet, Lose Weight and Gain Energy - the message that we can achieve the perfect body (young, lean and free of fat or wrinkles) distorts the important message that physical activity is healthy, instead it is portrayed as a means to an end. This in turn can have a negative impact on our self-image and images of other, when we fail to meet these bodily expectations.
This is not an issue of negative body image, but that of bodily dissatisfaction. Our image of a runner has become distorted to an unattainable standard. We feel as though we are experiencing something on an individual level, the thoughts, feelings, emotions feel intimate to us. But we are not alone in these experiences, and rely on social stories to help us individually cope. Consider this situation for example: I once dated a guy who commented on one of the Runner's World magazine covers while I was comfortably sitting in a chair reading it - 'She's a bigger gal, I'm surprised she's an elite marathoner. Normally they are petite, little sparrows'. I turned to the magazine cover, noticed it was Kara Goucher, a runner I admire because she is strong and powerful, I see her as confident, but I shamefully replied 'she just had a baby, that's why'. My response should have been 'she's a strong and talented runner' instead of making an excuse for why she doesn't look like the usual running model on the cover. It also made me aware of my body, its shape and size. What does he think of me if he thinks Kara is fat? Funny, how the elite and talented runner is seen as 'not fit'. The constructed image of fitness has become the expected image of how our body is supposed to look. This distortion can have a negative impact to our sense of self and how we measure and value others. However, we do have control over these images and stories, how we interpret them, and have a responsibility to communicate the message of healthy active lifestyles for every body. The structures of confidence and empowerment are there, the athletic body is appealing, but the ideal runner is a construction, it is not real, no one fits the image of the ideal. The message I want to share is that we are responsible for our actions and words, especially when encouraging others to be active, and our actions have an impact not only in our lives but the lives of others. How do we change this?
Bodily dissatisfaction and performance
We have all developed coping skills and things to say to dance around the issue of bodily dissatisfaction: as women we want to be strong and confident, we know that beauty is only skin deep, and we don't want people to know that we have 'those kinds' of issues. That is the script we want others to see. I do have 'those' concerns about my body, and sometimes lack confidence in my own body, but worse lack the confidence to speak openly about the script to change the story. It is easy to brush off superficial comments from an ex- boyfriend, but it is not always easy to discuss the importance of weight in running and performance. By physiological mathematical calculation, my ideal race weight is somewhere between 107 and 115 pounds, and I am on the heavy end as a runner. I am aware of this miscalculation, and how much faster I would be if I lost 5 pounds. This weights heavy on me, and it seems like a rational thought that in this case, weight is not a social issue or distorted norm, but a biological fact that is in my absolute control. I maintain a healthy diet, train properly, and love to run and compete: ideologically weight is not the end all be all of a runner. But runners also ask me questions on diet, and how they can lose weight fast because it is a real performance concern, and I understand why the question is asked. The relationship between weight and performance is a fact, but I awkwardly answer, trying not to reveal my own bodily insecurity: I struggle with finding words to discuss the balance between health and performance, and how we feel about our bodies because failing to reach this ideal number can also psychologically lead to a lack of confidence and decrease in performance. These are the same concerns, fitting into a dress or achieving peak performance, and my concern is not the individual but how we socially value and construct beauty, fitness and performance. Skinny does not mean healthy, being thin doesn't not always lead to great performances when our trust in our bodies is lost in the process of achieving the measurable goal.
As a female runner and coach, I also get asked the specific question at conferences and meetings, usually by male coaches of young female athletes, 'How do I tell her she needs to lose weight without hurting her feelings?'. It has taken me some time to develop a perfect answer for this because on the one hand I do know weight matters in athletic performance, and on the other, I know if it were a male athlete, the coach wouldn't be worried about hurting his athlete's feelings. I also know the question wouldn't be asked if we (as coaches) didn't value results (winning) over health and performance by putting so much weight on body weight in running. These are all part of how we value and construct our bodies in running, from running as a lifestyle to running to win, and how we feel about ourselves and others, but the story we share can change.
This has become a concern for me, not because of how I feel insecure at times, but how my daughter will learn to develop confidence in her own body, what social story about her body is she inheriting from our generation, one where physical activity shifted to meeting ideal bodily images. At 14 years old, she is like most girls, she hates her body. As a mother and runner, I want her to be strong and confident in her body, but I wonder how my athletic pursuits, the practices I have, and how cultural images of fitness might negatively impact her image of herself and her abilities, one that is far more problematic than my experiences. Most girls my daughters age simply give up on physical activity all together, in protest to the ideal image, but a lack of physical activity is unhealthy. How to we bring back the message of health in physical activity, even for performance. The best solution to this issue came in the form of a blog post on how to talk to your daughter about her body:
How to talk to your daughter about her body, step one: don’t talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it works. Don’t say anything if she’s lost weight. Don’t say anything if she’s gained weight. If you think your daughter’s body looks amazing, don’t say that. Here are some things you can say instead: “You look so healthy!” is a great one. Or how about, “you’re looking so strong.” “I can see how happy you are – you’re glowing.” Better yet, compliment her on something that has nothing to do with her body.
Therefore, what I would tell the coach about his concern that an athlete needs to lose weight, or to the new runner who wants to lose weight to look great by running: the number doesn't matter, it is how you feel that is most important. Though training is functionally calculated, and weight/dress size can be measured, our body and worth is not a number. This cultural story needs to change. The truth about training is that you will increase your performance, fitness and health, which will make you leaner. The need to diet or increase mileage to make a calculated goal should not be the focus of a coach or runner, this can lead to bodily dissatisfaction. Don't use a specific number to direct or guide your training, your worth, make it about the experience of running, what we learn, and how we grow as a result. Winning or losing weight is just one of the many reasons why we run. Sounds like a Special K commercial, but the stories we tell ourselves about our bodies do matter in how we feel about our self worth, and not seeing the number can increase our confidence.
Re-imagining active and healthy lifestyles
There is no mistaking that we live in a body, and sometimes we feel that body has failed us: we cope by reminding ourselves that it is unhealthy to compare ourselves to others, that how we look and what we weight is only a superficial measure and not who we really are. So, how do we empower, encourage and educate people and communities to embrace active and healthy lifestyles in everyday life? I don't have a manifesto for how to challenge the social norms of our bodies in a more healthy way, but I do believe that social media, the stories we tell of our lives are powerful messages. Instead of posting why we need to go for a run, reproducing the negative images of physical activity as a means to an end, we can choose to post why we run, what running means to us, and what we've learned to help inspire others to run, and re-imagine physical activity as a way to build confidence, compassion, motivation, knowledge and competence. I am fortunate to belong to a healthy and active running community, locally and online, and enjoy hearing training and race status updates. If you are interested, here is a great collection of stories about how running makes a difference in the lives of women.