Reflections on women, exercise, and body image

I’ve recently started reading Anna Kessel’s Eat, Sweat, Play, and even though I’m not even halfway through it’s already had such an impact on me that I knew I wanted to write about it. The comments and observations she’s made in just a few chapters have been so striking that it’s made me want to take a step back and re-evaluate.

Recently I joined my local gym, and in the past few weeks I’ve been going at least twice a week. This week is the first week where I’ve settled into a routine, doing spinning classes twice during the week after work and going to an intensive workout class on the weekend. My main motivation for joining was guilt and shame; guilt because I knew that I didn’t exercise enough whatsoever, and shame because I don’t like how my body looks.

I’ve felt better after going to the gym, mainly because after I’ve gone to the gym I feel like I’ve reassured my turbulent mind that flips between lusting after sweet things and insulting every ounce of my skin. At the beginning of this week I picked up Anna Kessel’s book, and every time I read another few pages I’ve felt like telling myself off, even as those feelings of guilt and shame still riddle my mind. Eat, Sweat, Play firstly makes the very clear point that women and sport are not often portrayed in media as things that go together. Women playing sport – playing’ being a key word in that sentence – aren’t often shown, and instead women are told about exercising. The difference in a media standpoint is that sport is a competitive environment reserved for men or a fun one reserved for young children, whereas exercise is a realm where women can participate in order to make their bodies better. Whereas sport is fun, exercise is about getting in shape – something that women are told they need to constantly do.

Sport, as Anna Kessel describes it, is meant to be fun. It’s not meant to be a chore or something that you dread doing, it’s something that you choose to do as you enjoy it. Exercise is prescribed, sport is willingly committed. In my experience, they have been one and the same thing – something that I’m not very good at and something that I don’t look good doing. From sweat patches to flabby pieces of my body to stretch marks to short breaths, exercise and sport are words that I have mostly avoided. I always claimed that I liked exercise when I didn’t think of it as exercise – such as rock climbing or kick boxing – as those activities I saw as being more enjoyable. Those activities, I now realise, are sports. Maybe a rather simple realisation, some may think, but this revelation is one that does not come lightly to me.

The war between getting fit and enjoying myself has been something that I’ve felt constantly going on in my head. On the one hand, I can just live my life and have that piece of chocolate, or I can be attractive and slim and fit. Yet, there is an in-between – a stage that I have always hated, and have never actually gotten out of. It’s the stage where you get out of breath after a rather simple exercise, the stage where there are bits of your body that you still can’t stand to look at. It’s the reason why I always hated the thought of going to the gym.

Whilst reading, there have been comments about women’s bodies in sporting environments that have made me want to throw my book across the tube carriage. Women’s bodies are constantly being criticised or sexualised or both. Either your body looks incredible in sport, so you’re sexualised to the point that you feel you cannot participate on an equal level, or your body maybe isn’t up to standards so you’re criticised so much that you’re too embarrassed to participate. Either way, women have been excluded from the world of exercise and sport – a world that there is no reason why they should be.

Embarrassment is an emotion that I feel often when I’m at the gym, and usually I push it so far back to the edge of my sub conscience that I just pretend it isn’t there. When I’m in the changing rooms, I take such pains and care to make sure that I show the least amount of skin as possible. In the gym itself, I feel like everyone is watching me and judging me for how out of breath I get or how unattractive I am when I exercise. After working out I try to cover any sweat patches I have, feeling them like brands on my skin that tell the world that I’m disgusting, ugly, unworthy, repulsive.

But why? Why is my brain programmed to think that I need to keep my body hidden in a changing room? Why does my mind immediately jump to the conclusion that people are watching and judging me? Why do I instantly think that evidence of sweat will make anyone think anything other than ‘she must have worked out’?

Self-consciousness plays a part, yes, but it’s obvious that I’m not the only one that goes through these awful cycles of thought. Clearly women all over the world have the same feelings, and they’re powerful and damaging enough that they exclude so many women from doing something as simple as going for a run.

I’ve set myself a lot of goals recently, and going to the gym regularly is one of them. Now, however, it’s a combined goal – I want to go to the gym regularly and see it as a fun thing I’m doing, and not a chore or prescription. I want to go to the gym not because I think i’m fat and ugly and deserve a punishment, but because I want to be fit and healthy, and this is one way that I can achieve that.

Eat, Sweat, Play is such an important book, and it’s one that I wish I could give to my teenage self so I could come to these conclusions – or, at least make progress on changing my mindset – so much sooner. I’m looking forward to seeing what else the author is going to show me about sport and exercise, and I’m also looking forward to getting up and going to work out – not because I hate my body, but because I love it.

So ends my late night Saturday rambles.

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On Anxiety, Stress, and Worrying

I have always been a worrier. Sometimes I say this to people and they think I’m saying ‘warrior’ (though with the amount of stress I face, really I should get to say that as well), but this is to clarify that I mean the less fun version. I’ve always been a worrier, and so faced a lot of stress – but the main issue is that because I worry about everything, most of the stress is just completely unnecessary. I swear if I had a Superpower, I’d be one of those lame Superheroes who had the power of extreme worrying. “But what if the villain has a gun? What if they have a hostage? What if this is all a trap? What if they’re actually good? Are we doing the right thing? How can anyone know for sure? Did I leave the oven on?”

Who would my arch nemesis be? Super-Chilled-Man?

Anyway, I digress.

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Whenever I get these emotions of pure terror, I’ve always called it worrying – but ‘worry’ just doesn’t feel like a strong enough word sometimes. If you say to someone ‘oh I’ve been worrying about it’, the response is normally a ‘aw don’t worry, it’s all fine!’ (And fyi, that isn’t helpful – I’ll still worry until I have physical proof everything is fine thank you – and then probably panic that it will all go downhill). It’s only over the last few years that people are openly discussing issues related to depression and anxiety, and whilst I by no means believe that I suffer from depression, I do tend to think that – like I’m sure most people do – have a heck ton of anxiety. Then again, I wouldn’t go as far to say that I suffer from anxiety, as it feels like taking it away from people who genuinely have the illness. So once more, I’m left with calling it worrying – but is it worrying when you constantly struggle to sleep because you over-analyse every possible scenario, that you always arrive at least 30 minutes (if not more) early because you worried 10 minutes early would not give you enough leeway? Is it worrying that when you go out with friends, as soon as it hits 9pm you start to panic about it getting dark and thinking that you risk of being attacked is increasing, and if you don’t get back soon something awful is going to happen? Or is all of this just culture. Is it the media that have taught me this, that have ingrained this panic?

Unfortunately for everyone reading this, I have no answers.

(Just so you’re aware).

I feel like everyone feels stress, so there’s almost no point in complaining about stress – there’s always going to be someone who one-ups you – and is it really ‘beating’ you if the ‘winner’ is the one who is more stressed out? Every time I’m stressed about something – be it work, university, getting rejected, unable to find a place to live, waiting for results – there is always someone right there to say that they are more stressed, and so insinuating that I do not have the right to be stressed. My brother is a perfect example of this. Without fail, whenever I claim to be stressed or tired or have a lot going on, he’ll immediately say that he is more stressed. He’s currently a first year Junior Doctor, and to be fair to him he probably is more stressed, but through his whole degree (and mine), it does not matter what is happening. If I’ve had a week of work and he’s had a week off and I say I’m tired, he’ll say ‘you don’t even know what tired is’.

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And that’s the problem with conversations about things like stress and anxiety. Everyone has at least one example of when they’ve felt stressed, and so everyone can simultaneously understand what you’re going through but also feel that their stress is that much worse. Some people will refuse to think that anyone can possibly understand what ‘real’ stress is, and look down their noses with superiority at anyone they deem unworthy. But that simply doesn’t work. Just because someone is in business whereas the other does manual labour does not mean that one is entitled to claim to get more stressed than the other. Everyone feels stress in relation to what they’re doing, and unless you have done every single job in the world, you have no idea what the other person is feeling. Because it’s not even just the work or the job, it’s the person. Do you know their mental well-being? Sure, you have a stressful job, but do you have their lifestyle? Do you have that white privilege that has allowed you to be stressed about generic things like work instead of things like race and discrimination? Do you come from a family that supports you, whereas someone else might have no family whatsoever to back them up?

Mental well-being is still such a new topic to a lot of people, and the biggest dilemma we face is that we cannot physically gage a person’s mental health from just looking at them. From my limited knowledge, the best indicator is what the actual person says they’re feeling – and everyone is so distrustful, that you can never truly know. An acquaintance can be nasty and blame it on depression, and there should be no reason for you to distrust that – but of course you do. Sure, they’re horrible and then out of nowhere they bring in depression. You want to immediately trust they’re being honest, because only someone awful would lie about a thing like that, but the case of the matter is that they could lie. There is no way to look at someone and be able to say ‘yup, they suffer from ___, I can see that with my own eyes’.

So once more, I’m left unable to say anything concrete on my actual mental health and just leave it with ‘I’m a worrier, as in I worry, not that I’m a warrior, though I feel like one’. My only hope is that people remember to be empathetic, and show compassion instead of wariness. I hope that when someone says “I’m stressed” or “I’m tired”, people don’t jump to “Not as stressed/tired as me” and instead just offer sympathy, and invite an open discussion.

Wouldn’t that be grand.