If you’ve tuned in for a nice chat about DJing or jazz or music, you’re going to be very disappointed. This is a long story about how I think about ‘diet’ and ‘exercise’. I’m going to say personal things and talk politics. Sometimes I will lecture. Sometimes I will rant. Mostly I will ramble. As I write this, I keep thinking about Julie and Julia, the relationship between blogging, women and food, and about the regulation and management of food. Because Julie and Julia is about regulating and ordering food and bodies. And the more I read about Julie Powell, the author of the book the film was based on, the more I see the same old connections between food, sex and women’s talking out of turn about personal stuff are still important (incidentally, if anyone has a link to that online article Powell wrote in response to critical reviews of her book Cleaving, could they please let me know? Ta.)
So if you are, then, looking for a nice bit of historical talk about Ellington or carefully objective overview of the latest Mosaic releases, you will be disappointed. Best move on to SwingDJs, where there’s not much talk about bodies, and precious few women doing the talking.
But if you are interested in a bit of a long chat about food and eating and mouths and bodies and so on (no, this isn’t another post about True Blood), taking up your eating irons and dig in.
This post starts with a discussion about the way I’ve engaged with a specific ‘diet’. The ‘CSIRO diet’ (the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet) is an interesting example of a dieting ‘product’ substantiated (or lent the appearance of credibility and authority) by science. More importantly, by one of the highest profile and most credible scientific bodies in Australia – the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.
We originally started on the diet because we wanted to ‘eat better’. We knew people who’d used it and had ‘good results’ (ie lost weight, felt better, etc). I had begun researching diet and nutrition but simply didn’t know where to look for ‘reliable’ information. I admit: I simply bought the idea the CSIRO diet sold me. That the CSIRO was a ‘reliable’ source of ‘scientific’ information about nutrition and exercise. I liked that diet’s emphasis on eating well – eating a lot of food, with an emphasis on fruit and vegetables. I also liked its emphasis on exercise, particularly as my wider research into exercise and health suggested that exercise and being fit are far more important for ‘health’ than weight loss or dieting. The CSIRO diet also suited my own ideas about exercise as a site for self empowerment.
After the talk about the CSIRO diet, I talk about my ideas about gender and diet, and outline some of my thinking about the relationship between feminism and physical fitness. Somewhere in there I wanted to talk about being a foody, but I think the point got lost a bit.
Some of my points were originally posted on a comment on the very excellent Progressive Dinner Party blog. This blog is very nice: it talks about food, but with an eye to issues of social and environmental sustainability, and engagement with class and the importance of geography and notion of ‘local’ (isn’t that a very fine and thought-provoking set of terms?). The post is, in its entirety:
I am prepared to admit this is not appropriate talk for a food blog, because, like most contributors and commenters here, I believe Prog Dinner Party is about celebrating food, not restricting it.
However, in recent weeks a friend and I have put ourselves on diets, as we prepare for a wedding and try to fit into the frocks we’ve chosen (the bride, btw, is a tiny elegant little thing who has to work to keep weight on).
My weight loss method is loosely based around the CSIRO diet, which is a great sort of boot camp on how to cook with less fat, even if I can’t afford to buy all that meat and I don’t eat pork. My version is to follow the formula of two or three small serves of carbs a day, loads of veges and salad and some fruit and low fat dairy and oodles of lean red meat, chicken and fish (up to 350 grammes a day!). Of course I also restrict fats (not much of a problem as I’m not really into cheese or chocolate) and I cut down on carbs and (sob) alcohol. Let you know how it works in a few weeks.
But, in the mean time, I thought it might be interesting to ask PDP readers what they give up when they are faced with the choice of either losing weight or buying a whole new wardrobe. Conversely, if you have the opposite problem, of unwanted skinniness, you might want to reveal what you eat to gain weight. Folks, it’s time to share …
This is just the most fascinating place to begin a discussion of ‘dieting’. My interest was caught by:
– the implied distinction between ‘dieting’ (to lose weight) and ‘diet’ (in the nutritional sense)
– the implications of ‘guilt’ in a discussion of food – feeling guilty for talking about dieting or moderating or managing food on a ‘foody’ blog; feeling guilty for talking about bodies and the way we might feel about our bodies on a blog devoted to food; and so on
– the gender at work; the way this was a discussion opened by a woman author on a blog with male and female contributors
– the invitation to discuss food not just in terms of physical size – too much or too little; fat or skinny
– the ‘invitation to share’ at the end
I think that this post encapsulates all my favourite things about Progressive Dinner Party: it is written by a group of authors who (for the most part) also keep their own blogs. They are a group who’ve ‘known’ each other – either online or in the flesh or both – for years. A culture of discussion, largely managed and peopled by women, but not exclusively, is encouraged, and there is the feeling that all ideas are worth exploring, so long as they’re politely introduced. The comments are friendly and encouraging, even on a topic as challenging as ‘dieting’.
At any rate, my comment in this post isn’t really all that great. But it was a sort of ‘ok, I’m going to finally jump in here’ comment on issues I’d been thinking about for a while. I’m still thinking about all these things. Which is why I think I want to talk about them more here. Because this is a BLOG. It’s meant to be indulgent, it’s ok to ramble, and over here I’m not cluttering up other people’s comments. I also figure it’s time I got the fuck out of twitter and started WRIGHTING WHOLE PARAGRAPHS AGAIN. Finally.
I’m not sure whether that paneer dish in my last post actually conforms to our CSIRO low-carb lifestyle, but then very little does. We don’t particularly like the recipes in the CSIRO recipe books. They’re very Women’s Weekly, don’t pay attention to seasonal changes and availabilities of produce, aren’t climate-relative (ie the emphasis on heavy meat dishes doesn’t really gel with our subtropical life style) and they’re generally very Anglo-type meals. Or Anglicised versions of cuisines from other cultures.
But we do like the way eating a low-carb diet makes us feel. It’s nice to go to bed not feeling over-stuffed. We like the way this approach to food, with its serious emphasis on quantities of specific food groups, forces us to get away from the telly, eat at the dining table, eat less takeaway and really concentrate on our meals.
So we follow the CSIRO ‘rules’: don’t eat carbs after lunch, don’t eat a whole lot of carbs, eat wholemeal or multigrain/unprocessed carbs, eat a truck load of vegetables every day (salads/vegies twice a day), eat 2-3 serves (or thereabouts) of dairy per day, don’t eat processed foods because they have too much salt and sugar (this wasn’t a change to our usual lifestyle, but it reinforced the eat-less-takeaway element), eat a couple of serves of fruit per day. The one CSIRO rule (the biggest one, actually) which we don’t really follow, is to eat at least 300g of protein per day.
The CSIRO rules emphasise red meat, and farmed red meat in particular. This means that game meats are neglected, which is a big shame when you’re living in Australia, a country with a struggling kangaroo industry. I remember reading about the Eastern European refusal to take kangaroo any more (as part of some sort of reciprocal trade/carbon trading/whatevs shitstorm) and thought ‘oh shit, the kangaroo industry is going to struggle.’ Australians don’t eat as much kangaroo as they should. It’s a very, very low fat meat, and kangaroos are environmentally sustainable, unlike cows or sheep with their land-destroying hooves and grazing habits. You can buy roo in the local supermarkets, but I haven’t found it in my local Chinese butcher. Though there is quite a bit of crocodile to buy in Ashfield…
So we adjust the protein part of the CSIRO lifestyle: less red meat. We just don’t like it much. Less cow for us. We prefer chicken and seafood, and we like to eat meat-free dishes. So we eat a fair bit of white fish, salmon and prawns. My recent investigations into the Australian salmon industry has scared me, though, so we’re easing off on that one. Living in a Chinese area means that the local fish shop(s) are really really good. But most of the available fish is sold whole, and with the Chinese names. The shop keepers don’t speak English and I don’t speak any Chinese languages. So my cooking has been a matter of experimentation with the whole fish situation. I must also learn to fillet my own fish.
Vegetarian dishes tend to combine grains and pulses for effective protein sources: rice and lentils; peanut butter on toast; hommus on pide. Sure, you could eat a bunch of eggs or cheese for a sort of Skip vegetarian diet, but I’m really much more interested in more complicated approaches to vegetarian cooking. But then that means you’re upping your carb intake. And the CSIRO diet is all about reducing carbs and adding protein. Mostly because proteins are good appetite suppressors.
There are also questions to be asked about the CSIRO diet’s funding (which was in part from Australian primary producers – meat farmers to be specific) and how this affected their research and findings. [EDIT: I followed up this stuff on vegetarianism and am revising my original comments. I’ve posted them in a following post] [s]Their very brief section(s) on vegetarianism are really quite bullshitty. There’s a line something like ‘there’s no evidence that vegetariaism is bad for you…’ Which of course is misleading if not downright deceitful. A vegetarian diet is much better for you than a meat diet, so long as you’re eating well. No diet is good for you if it doesn’t have mostly fresh fruit and vegies, wholegrain foods, dairy products and then protein, and finally a small amount of certain types of fats. You can skip the dairy stuff (so long as you replace it), but you certainly don’t need to eat meat.[/s][/EDIT]
What all this means for us, of course, is that we quite like the CSIRO diet books as a general guide for eating ‘well’. It’s very easy to use, it’s really, really well written and laid out and it makes managing your diet and exercise simple. Which was really helpful for two people who lead quite active lifestyles, like to cook a lot and like to eat even more. It was simply useful to have a nice, simple set of guidelines. But while we found we were losing weight, toning up, saving money and generally feeling really GOOD on the CSIRO diet, we didn’t particularly enjoy the meals. And what is the point of eating if it’s not the best fucking thing on earth?
So we began adjusting recipes and then creating our own recipes. What we’ve found in tailoring food from Indian, Italian, Thai and other cuisines, is that we simply eat the carb meals during the day (good lunches!) and then eat at least 2 or 3 ‘dishes’ at each dinner. A salad or two plus a meat/protein dish. Three vegetable dishes. This can be a bit labour intensive, but then cooking is labour. To pretend that it isn’t is dishonest and a sop to a processed food industry. But it needn’t be shitty labour.
I love to cook, and I love exploring fresh produce. Moving to a predominantly Chinese area from a middle eastern/mediterranean community meant an exciting chance to change the way I shop and cook.
I’ve noticed, shopping in Ashfield, that vegetables are absolutely central to Asian cooking. Ashfield is ‘pan-Asian’ (to use a dodgy term) or ‘Asia-Pacific’: Indian families (predominantly Fijian-Indian families and Indian students), Chinese, Phillipino, Malaysian, Pacific Islander… So when I go to my local greengrocers (there are two very good ones in Ashfield, plus the supermarkets and a large number of small Chinese grocers) I see a lot of greens and a lot of people buying them. Choi. Spinach. Herbs. All of them seem absolutely essential to everyday cooking. And you buy them fresh – you don’t keep choi for a week in your fridge. You eat it that day. These products are correspondingly very cheap. 50c for a bunch of coriander. $1 for a massive bunch of spinach. The next most important vegetables are onions, and then aromatics like garlic and ginger and chilli. Fruit is up there with greens – water melon, oranges, limes, lemons, seasonal fruit. At the moment it’s pawpaw (GROSS), mangoes, stone fruit. There are cherries and lychees about, but they’re expensive.
When I go to my local greengrocers, these are the types of vegetables that are cheap and fresh. With, of course, a massive range of other ‘specialist’ ‘Asian’ vegies that I don’t even know the names of, let alone know how to cook (though I’m working on it). I hadn’t figured out what the Indian students and mums were buying so much milk for until I suddenly realised: paneer! Eggs are also pretty important, and you can buy them in all the greengrocers for very little.
I don’t eat cheese, bread or even smallgoods much any more, unless I make a special trip to Dulwich Hill and the delis. I eat a lot of seafood. But I don’t eat much organic meat. It’s simply not a Chinese butcher’s concern here. So this means we don’t eat pork here much (except for BBQ pork – the local BBQ joint makes FABULOUS BBQ pork and I can’t resist it). My favourite butcher does do free range chickens, but I have to buy them whole and then ask her to take off the heads and feet, which feels silly. But. I can buy most types of poultry: pigeons, ducks, squabs (what is that, anyway?) and so on. I can also buy all sorts of offal.
The mass of smaller Asian grocers also means that I can buy lots of great types of soy products, lots of spices and grains in bulk, and of course, rice. Rice. Rice. Rice. But I don’t buy it much any more.
This all makes for very exciting cooking for me. And it means that I’m having to get braver about asking my butcher and fishmonger for advice about buying and preparing their products. It also means that I have decided I need more than English if i’m going to be a badass cook.
Our interest in a vegetable-heavy diet has also meant that we’ve had to explore a whole range of salads (because it’s summer) and vegetable dishes. And Indian and Asian food has brought home the textured vegetable protein. It sounds like a lot of work to make two or three dishes for dinner, and I guess it is. But I’m not working at the moment, and to be honest, our palates are positively delighted by the way we’ve had to explore new vegetables. At first we simply made a lot of salads with grilled meats. But that’s boring. Now we eat: salads with grilled meats (especially important when your kitchen is as shitty as ours, and your BBQ so great); combinations of vegetable dishes (such as this paneer/salad combo); the odd carb-based meal (nachos one night, a potato curry another). Pumpkin has also assumed a greater significance in our lives.
Choosing vegetarian options also encourages us to be creative. If we’re avoiding carbs, we’re avoiding lentils, beans, pulses. But that’s crap – they’re awesomely nom. So we have to manage the food we eat throughout the day as well. Perhaps a salad with egg for lunch so we can eat carbs at night. The Squeeze cycles about 80km a week on a single geared bike in a hilly town, so he needs more carbs than I do. Not even a solid diet of Tranky Doo can account for a carb-heavy diet.
Again, all this sounds like work. But then, it is. Having a body is a big responsibility. It’s precision engineering. It takes a careful balance of nutrients to keep it in prime condition. But then, I quite like complex, creative processes. I like figuring out jazz routines from vintage clips. I like sewing and crocheting and making popups. And I like cooking.
Ultimately, a carefully balanced diet is its own reward. Yes, nanna, you’re right. It is. Eating a diet with less carbs has made me feel a lot better and healthier. I’m sure that if you were having digestive problems (irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, heart burn, etc), then this sort of diet management combined with exercise would be utterly wonderful. I was lucky enough to be pretty sound, digestion-wise, so I found this diet (which is pretty heavy on the fibre) was just a sort of turbo-boost, health wise. I find I have to eat constantly, though, to meet the minimum requirements. Snacking twice a day. Eating lunch and breakfast every day, and not just making do with a light salad at lunch time.
I think that this sort of regime has also addressed some of my less healthy eating behaviours. Hells, I know it has. Binge eating – eating lots of sweeties or high-fat foods – was one of my responses to high stress situations, and I hadn’t even realised. The CSIRO book suggests that if you really desperately have to have a sweety or a fatty food, then you should. But rather than eating a whole pack of biscuits or a whole cake, you should just eat 80g, or a small portion. It wasn’t until I had to actually monitor what I ate that I realised that if I was feeling a bit stressy or tired or upset, I’d head to the (truly awesome) patisserie, baclava bakery, gelateria. I tended to explain this sort of obsessive (and compulsive) stress management as ‘being a foodie.’ Eating good (amazing) food was a reward for my own gastropodery. Now I still love these things, I just don’t eat a million of them each week. And I’ve come to think about fruit and vegetables in new ways: they are their own source of awesome food-reward amazingness. To be honest, I have largely stopped thinking of food as a ‘reward’. I still obsess over it (which, of course, is what diets and nutrition and foodyness are all about, aren’t they?). But I’m aware of my special interest.
As I type this, I have the urge to excuse or explain away my relationship with food. Part of me thinks I should feel guilty about loving food, or about dealing with stress by eating or admiring or making or buying or writing about or thinking about or looking at food. Here are the two factors that I think contribute to this association of guilt with good and pleasure:
1. my family background
2. broader gendered notions of body
Both are bound up with guilt, pleasure, reward, punishment, forgiveness, indulgence, privacy, publicity, my feelings about my body, my feelings about myself, my ideas about other people’s feelings about my body/self/value… and so on. You’re probably all familiar with the discussions about bodies and gender. And I don’t particularly want to discuss my family on the intertubes. But I am very interested in the relationships between feminism, feminist discourse, ‘diet’ and ‘nutrition’, images of the body and self image, ‘fitness’, ‘health’, exercise, independence, power, autonomy, strength and FOOD.
One of my own justifications for not ‘dieting’ or otherwise moderating or regulating or simply paying attention to what I eat has always been that I am a feminist. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the only attractive/valuable/important/meaningful/good/positive/innocent/positive female body is a thin/skinny/dieted/controlled/exercised/observed/managed one.
I do believe that we are all truly unique incarnations of one particular species. Our lives – our lived experiences – our genetics, and so on all contribute to the shape and size and colour and scent of our bodies. Yoga taught me that the way we look – the shape of our bodies – is a product not only of genetics and diet, but much more importantly, of how we manage stress (where do we put it in our bodies?), how we think of our bodies (which parts do we attempt to conceal), the types of movements we do habitually (computing or running? walking or cycling? hunching or striding?), and our intimate, conscious awareness of how our bodies work.
In regards to the latter point, Yoga is, basically, about being in our bodies. This means that we must become aware of our bodies. Sounds like mysticism, until you approach it as a matter of biomechanics. We cannot correct posture or gait or stance until we understand and become consciously aware of how we use our muscle groups. And it takes practice to get good at understanding how our bodies work, or how we can make our bodies work. This means that we have to experiment with a range of movements and activities, every day, to really understand how we work. Sounds practical, really – how can we realise our potential if we aren’t aware of our abilities and limitations? But most of us simply don’t explore the full potential of our bodies.
From this perspective, each body is an absolute treasure trove of potential movements and muscular experimentations. Whether that body has four limbs or two, is old or young, has subcutaneous fat or not, is male or female, is pre or post menopausal… Yoga really brought home to me, simply with the rule that you always go to yoga – even if you’re ‘injured’ – that each body is really both interesting and really really powerful. I think that this is why I now don’t accept the idea of ‘dis’ability. It is more useful (and exciting) to think of each body – each person – as a unique collection and combination of forces and pieces and potentials.
This sounds terribly hippy dippy.
But in terms of gender, it’s incredibly exciting. Before yoga and experimenting with dance, my sense of self was determined by things like gender – my femaleness. My womanness. By ‘health’ – whether I was in pain, had allergies, was menstruating, had a cold, etcetera and so on. And by what I looked like. Now, I think of my body as this sort of amazing possibility. I don’t think about ‘fat’ as appearance. I think about ‘fat’ as a layer or part of myself that makes it difficult to achieve a particular range of movement or to hold a particular pose or to sustain an aerobic exercise. But it’s also something that makes me particularly bouyant in the pool, keeps me warm in cold weather, and makes it easier for me (ultimately) to gain muscle. It’s not a liability or a bad thing or something shameful. It’s just my body and me as I am at this moment. And doing regular exercise (walking, cycling, dancing – all things that I adore) has made it clear that carrying less fat is simply more convenient for certain activities. Less padding means a greater range of movement. Less weight means less stress on my (needy) foot and other joints. A system having to deal with increased fat or decreased aerobic fitness doesn’t deliver the endorphine rush I LOVE in quite the way I’d like.
I am not, however, ready to adopt a hardcore athletic lifestyle. I do like a long lie on the couch. So I find a point of compromise. How much exercise must I do, how much diet management must I do to attain and maintain the right equilibrium?
So my body has become more than just a set of signifiers pointing at ‘woman’ or ‘female’. This is not to suggest that I am not a woman or female in my mind or self. This is part of who I am. But not all. Most importantly, an interest in my body has led me to the point where I don’t think of my body solely in terms of its relationship to or comparison to other women’s bodies, or as a site for (masculine) sexual desire. Nor do I think of my body as a vessel for carrying my brain: it is me. My mood affects my muscles. My breathing affects my emotions. And so on.
Here, of course, the notion of ‘control’ or ‘regime’ gets problematic. Is an interest in exercise and diet simply another way of controlling the female body? If she’s not interested in ‘dieting’ to achieve the ‘preferred’ or fashionable shape (or, more importantly, to achieve a body shape which allows her to properly participate in systems of consumption: purchase, discard, purchase again; clothing, makeup, ‘beauty’ products, shoes, perfumes, cleansers, jewelry…) is she instead ‘exercising’ to achieve another bodily ideal? Does this process serve just as well to keep women from moving on to other (more important) work?
Here, I have to stop and think about the way I think about myself. Why am I so interested in exercise and nutrition? And, also, where should I place my diet and exercise on a hierarchy of ‘what’s important’?
Control is certainly an important factor. I control what I eat, I control my life, I take control. This is, of course, at the root of many discussions about eating disorders. Food and controlling it is a way for women to control their lives. To maintain ‘order’ in chaos. Mainstream media, social and institutional structures – all the stuff of everyday life – works to manage and homogenise women and women’s bodies. Capitalist societies organise us according to our ability to ‘buy’ to engage with and participate in a formalisd system of buying and selling. Patriarchy – in my culture – relies on my accepting a role as ‘consumer’, but far more importantly, as gendered consumer. I am to buy products which make me a particular type of woman. Or, rather, I am to carry an insistent anxiety that I am not quite right as a woman (too fat, too thin, too old…), and the only way I can become ‘right’ is to buy this dress, that makeup, those shoes, these diet meals… that exercise plan?
For me, taking control of my diet, of exercise, is about taking control. I don’t watch broadcast television or read magazines or listen to the radio. On the one hand this shuts me off from all sorts of interesting current affairs, but on the other, it sure does cut a whole lot of anxiety and anger out of my life. I’ve also noticed that it means I have no idea what is ‘beautiful’ or ‘fashionable’ in the wider world. No idea at all. My sense of self value or beauty is determined, for the most part, by the way my body works. I do take an interest in what I look like. I love to make clothes, to dress up, to experiment with colour and form and shape. But it’s not the sum total of my interest in my body. My interest has shifted from ‘what do other see when they look at my body’ to ‘what can my body do?’
Function is far more important to me these days. Dealing with pain in the past (an injured foot recently, chronic migraines years ago… and so on) means that I now aim for living ‘pain free’. Every day that I’m not in pain is, truly, a blessing. Every day that I can move freely and easily is a blessing. And it’s addictive. I like being able to dictate the terms of my health. Of being able to take control of my well being. And, quite simply, eating ‘well’ and exercising regularly is a very simple and effective way of maintaining my health.
Good health not only means that I am free from pain. I’m now aiming higher than that (and my attention is always caught by the way women experience pain and illness everyday – many women carry pain killers in their bags at all times. Surely this expectation of pain and acceptance of it as ‘everyday’ is something worth commenting on?) Now I want to use my body to achieve other things.
Cycling is synonymous with independence for me. It costs me nothing: it is financial independence. It lets me take myself from place to place: I do not rely on other people to get me where I want to go. It is safe: I can escape or avoid the ‘dangerous streets’. These are very, very important things to me, as a woman. It means that I can control when and where I go. Cycling, unlike walking, does not carry gendered connotations of danger the way walking does. Cycling at night is consistently represented as ‘dangerous’ for cyclists, but not like walking. Simply, the idea of speed, of being able to ‘escape’ is important for me – I am not ‘caught’ in a bus, on a road, by myself. Cyclists don’t, in an ideological sense, ‘look’ vulnerable the way pedestrians do. Further, repeated cycling changes the way my body looks and works. And the way I dress. Cycling regularly means that I don’t wear ‘feminine’ clothes to ride. My clothing for cycling simply doesn’t carry that same meaning or value that a dress or short skirt or low-necked blouse does. My clothing ‘says’ practical, independent, freedom of movement. It certainly feels that. And what your body ‘says’ on this level is a massive part of how women are perceived and constructed and regarded by themselves and others as ‘vulnerable’. Further, the very process of cycling – of regular exercise – makes my body stronger and more independent.
I think this is the part that I like most about exercise and diet management. It makes me feel powerful. It seems almost a silly thing to write or say. But as a feminist, as a woman, I am constantly negotiating discourse which seeks to remind and convince me that I am weak, vulnerable. That to be a woman is to be un-powerful. Whether its dominant ideological presentations of woman=object or feminist discourse reminding me of unequal pay rates, rape and sexual assault and beauty ‘myths’.
In my own life, I feel that activism is about action. We might begin with a process I think of as ‘complaint’, where we’ve realised we’re getting screwed, and – by the Goddess! – we’re angry about it! But while this is important, and it’s essential to talk about and theorise and highlight the shitful stuff that happens to us, to women and to all of us, I think that this cannot be the end point. I tend to get angry about something, then get tired of being angry. Because carrying around all that anger stops you actually getting on and doing stuff.
I get tired of being angry about bullshit gender dynamics in lindy hop culture. I get tired of being angry about the way women follows compete with each other for the ‘attention’ of male lead dance partners. I could just give up dancing. But I’m stubborn. I love dancing. So I think of ways to get active and change things for the better. Because, really, you never know til you try. And I’m always surprised by just how much you can achieve with sufficient bloody mindedness. So, in dance, that meant learning to lead. Getting interested in solo dance. Exploring other avenues to power within the broader dance community – DJing, managing events and so on.
I got tired of being angry about my feeling afraid to walk about at night, or to catch trains at night or to be out at night on my own. I got tired of being angry that I couldn’t walk without pain. I didn’t want to cave and use consumption as an escape – buy a car, buy petrol, buy buy buy. And I certainly didn’t want to accept the bullshit that I should be at home at night. So I started riding my bike. Physical strength, health and independence are, quite simply, empowering. And exciting. Simply thinking about your body as source of power or freedom or mobility or independence or strength, rather than thinking of your body as something to be looked at, to be held, or desired or protected is really exciting. It’s hardly a new idea. The difference between object and subject isn’t new at all. Nor is the association of these with gender.
I’m always surprised by women’s insistence that they don’t want to ride a bike or ‘get muscles’ or not wear make up or all these sorts of things. To me muscles aren’t an end in themselves, but signifying strength, independence, power – a body with function, whose form is intimately associated with action and power and independence. All very un-feminine, in the conventional sense.
I’m not suggesting that, as an alternative, the only bodies with value are strong, athletic bodies. There are circumstances which affect the ways we use our bodies. But, as yoga taught me, it’s not useful to just ‘accept’ your body as it is. It’s far more interesting to explore our bodies, to understand and become aware of them, no matter what the specifics of our parts and pieces. One of the most important parts of dealing with my foot injury last year was realising that just because I couldn’t walk or do the things that I used to love doing (and which defined me and my sense of self-value), didn’t mean that I was ‘totally crap’. I simply had to work with what I had. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t walk 800m to the train station. I couldn’t walk around the shopping centre. I couldn’t go down stairs without holding the hand rail and taking one step with both feet, slowly. This was profoundly distressing for someone who is so fiercely independent. I dealt, every day, routinely, with the impatience and intolerance of strangers. I was too slow on the stairs, getting on trains and buses. I couldn’t line up for very long at all. I couldn’t keep up with shop assistants taking me to another part of the shop. I had to ask for help carrying heavy things. It was utterly demoralising. Distressing. Upsetting. Infuriating. I became quite badly depressed. Badly, badly depressed.
Until, eventually, I decided that – seeing as how this condition was permanent – I could either accept it, lie down on the couch and never get up again, or I could do something. I have to wear special orthotic soles in my shoes. I still can’t stand up too much, walk too much or dance too much. But if I do regular exercises, I can strengthen my body to the point where I can do more. I count it a massive, triumphant victory that I’m not in pain every day. Every dance I have now is magic, a perfect, wonderful thing. But I am very much aware of the fact that I cannot simply assume that I will ‘improve’. I have to do a range of exercises three times a day. I have to moderate my dancing and exercise.
I think it’s the idea that I can do something that’s important. Becoming aware of my body and then adopting a fairly strict exercise regime has been essential to my improved sense of self worth. Frankly, if we treat our bodies badly, if we ignore them and just assume that they will be fine without our attention, we’re asking for trouble.
As a feminist, I can’t simply write off diet talk and exercise talk as ‘patriarchy bullshit’. I’ve decided that I am going to be the boss of the way I think about my body, and I’m going to think about these things in a healthy, empowering way. I consciously choose not to read magazines or watch telly or engage with mass media in an everyday broadcast model, for the most part because I am aware of the way these media present me – incessantly with the sort of bullshit ideas about identity and value I’m spent my research career identifying and critiquing. While I’ve also spent a great deal of time writing and thinking about the way that we can subvert or transgress dominant images or ideas about bodies and identity in the mainstream media, I simply don’t think I can be arsed. I choose not to submerse myself in this discourse. I’m opting out. Because every time I see another photo of a woman advertising the latest clothing or cleaning product ‘for women’, it sticks. Every time I hear another comment about women’s bodies on the radio, no matter how minor or even inconsequential, it sticks. And, to be honest, I’m a bit tired of getting angry or of constantly reading on the slant or from the margins or with a queer eye.
…I think I’ve run out of steam. It’s late and I will probably have trouble sleeping now because I’m all running around inside my head.
I think I’ll end, then, by repeating my points:
– exercise is good for you. It makes you feel good. It makes your body work well.
– food and eating it is good.
– talking about food and exercise is something we should do, as feminists.
– I am a feminist and I want to talk about food and exercise.
– the word ‘diet’ doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative one.
– food and exercise are utterly bound up with issues of gender, power, identity, class, sexuality… all the usual stuff. Probably because they are – as with all the important and interesting things – important and interesting.