Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Tricky, Troubling, Anxiety-Fraught Relationship Between Food, Exercise, & Body Image

I've noticed a trend lately. Actually, it's probably not really a new trend so much as one that's become so ubiquitous as to be unavoidable (because ask my boyfriend; that's the only way I really ever notice anything). As I go about my running / internetting life, I can't help stumbling across gems like these:

I Run Because It Makes My Butt Look Nice

I Run For Dessert

I Run For Dessert

I Run For Dessert

I Run For Dessert

I Run For Dessert

And let's not forget the wonderful world of social media:

Anyone running for weight loss?

Stuff like this really bothers me, and it took a long time to suss out exactly why.

I mean...isn't it good that people are motivated to do healthy things for themselves? Isn't it great that people exercise to stay in shape, rather than eating unhealthy foods and not exercising? Is it just because it's all pink? What is your problem, Ang, like seriously???

And I'd be like...yeah...exercising is good...and wanting to stay in shape & be fit is good...and balancing tasty treats with activity is good...

...So why does this bother me so effing much?

Seriously. I've started & abandoned this post about six times because I felt like there was something crucial here that needed to be addressed, but just couldn't figure out what it was or how to explain it.

Recently I've been reading a blog called The Fat Nutritionist, which I've really enjoyed & find just brilliant. I can't personally go to bat for everything she's ever written, mostly because I haven't read everything she's ever written. But as someone who has dealt with food issues I just think she writes a lot of things that make a lot of sense & that I wish someone had told me when I was a teenager. One of the first posts I came across was one called "Food and Exercise Are Not Matter & Anti-Matter."

"YES!!!!!" I may have shouted (in my head). "YES! That is exactly what I have been trying to put my finger on."

I'll leave it to you to read the full post, but here's the first few paragraphs:

"How often do you hear someone say they need to “work off breakfast,” or that they spoiled their workout by eating some calorific food afterward? I hear it quite a bit, and it always bothers me. Let me count the ways.

First of all, reducing food to “calorie intake” and movement to “calorie expenditure” – setting them up as opposites, one cancelling the other out – disregards the real, complex, essentially human experiences of eating and moving. It sets food and movement up to be rivals, competing for control over your weight. In doing so, it centers weight as The Priority. It assumes one should always be in a state of calorie deficit, pursuing weight loss to the exclusion of enjoying your food, or moving for the fun of it. It also implies that the only reason a person would exercise is for the purpose of off-setting what they eat – that food is matter, and exercise anti-matter."

You can substitute "hotness"/"physical attractiveness" for weight and I think everything still holds. (I mean, let's be real. The obsession that many women have about the number of pounds they weigh is a proxy for physical attractiveness in a world where fat-shaming--and sometimes not-rail-thin-shaming--is the norm, and weight is in some ways the last widely socially acceptable prejudice.)

Mainly, it's this bit:

"It also implies that the only reason a person would exercise is for the purpose of off-setting what they eat."

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with wanting to stay fit and healthy, with feeling good about the way you look because you are active, with wanting to enjoy delicious high-calorie food without regretting what you ate, or even with exercising to lose weight or maintain a weight you're happy with. I'm really not.

But the messages on the shirts & water bottles are a lot more complex than that.

I have written before about the PURE JOY that is running around the super-socially progressive city of San Francisco as a woman on a hot day wearing hot-day appropriate running clothes. (Hint: That post is not actually about joy.) One of the less offensive things that has been shouted at me from street corners is something along the lines of, "HEY WHY'RE YOU RUNNING, BABY????? YOU'RE LOOKIN' HELLA FINE ALREADY!!!!"

Believe it or not, I've actually gotten more sophisticated versions of the same thing from well-meaning friends. "Psshh. It's not like you need to go to the gym." "Hey, it's not like you're going to get fat from missing one run."

Remarks like these betray a hidden assumption that many people have about exercise (particularly women and exercise) in our culture: People (especially women) exercise in order to be skinny / attractive / not get fat / lose weight / etc. Exercise is so unpleasant and horrible that that is the only believable reason why anyone would ever do it. Oh, sure, you may couch it in terms of "keeping fit" or "staying healthy," but *obviously* those are just code words for tip-toeing around icky things like fatness and the deathly serious business of avoiding it.

When we plaster phrases like these all over our T-shirts and water bottles to the exclusion of other reasons for running, it feels a bit apologetic, as if we are tacitly agreeing with this assumption and acknowledging that yes, exercise is indeed horrible, and naturally everyone who sees you is surely mystified as to why on earth you'd put yourself through it. So naturally, we give them our excuse. Dessert. Cupcakes. Nice butt. Whatever. "Oh, nononono!! I don't actually like this! I'm not a weirdo or anything! I just want to eat whatever I want & be hot & skinny, like a normal person!"

(Also, let's be real. No one should EVER run a marathon for any other reason than because they want to run a marathon. There are much, MUCH easier ways to go about achieving just about any ulterior motive you could possibly have, including getting a nice butt. We should also all know by now that training for a marathon is a TERRRRIBLE weight loss plan.)

The ones about eating, particularly eating certain foods like cupcakes & dessert, also express the flip side of that assumption: that those foods are ones that you can't or shouldn't eat just because you want to, because you like them and they make you happy. That they need to be earned, bought & paid for with pain and sacrifice and general unpleasantness. "I run so I can eat cupcakes" pretty clearly implies that if you don't, you can't eat the cupcakes. (Or, at best, that if you don't run and eat them anyway, you are BADBADBAD and deserve whatever happens to you as a result.)

Say it with me now:

  • I do not need an excuse to run, exercise, work out, or otherwise move and be active in the world.
  • It is okay to enjoy exercise for its own sake.
  • Exercise is necessary, normal, and healthy when done in a balanced way.
  • I don't have to justify my running / exercising / working out / moving / being active in the world to ANYONE.

If you go run for two hours and someone is like, "Ugh, why would you ever do that?!?," you are not obligated to give them a reason that they'll understand, that they find believable and "normal." You're not obligated to give them any answer at all, if you don't feel like it.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Are you ready for the next part? I think this might be harder for some people, but give it a try.

  • I do not need an excuse to eat--anything, or in any amount.
  • It is okay to enjoy eating for its own sake (even--GASP!--dessert).
  • Eating is necessary, normal, and healthy when done in a balanced way.
  • I don't have to justify my eating--anything or in any amount--to ANYONE.

I think one of the things I love about The Fat Nutritionist is that Michelle, the proprietess, totally gets behind these very ideas (and goes into much, MUCH more detail in many, many posts than I ever could on this blog). So if you find yourself reading some of those statements and going butbutbutbutbut then I really recommend perusing her site. There's great stuff there, particularly for folks who have or have had food / body image issues. (She is a proponent of the Health At Every Size movement and also has a number of posts exploring the many wrong assumptions people have about the connections between overall health and weight.)

I wondered at first whether I was just picking up on the types of messages above because I dislike them. So to be fair, I tried googling various combinations of a few different phrases based on other reasons I can think of for running (I run to be strong, I run for fun, I run to stay healthy, etc.). There really wasn't much, and I had to dig pretty far into the search results to find the few things I did come across. There were these from the Nike Women's races, first of all:

I Run For Dessert

I Run For Dessert

I personally find the "I run to be fearless" one a little weird, because I can't say I've ever heard of anyone who said they started running because they were afraid (unless they were being chased by something), and I've never thought of running as likely to make you particularly braver. But still. I can give them points for trying.

And there was this:

I also ran across these cute key chains:

I Run For Dessert

I Run For Dessert

Then again, the same company was also selling this one:

I Run For Dessert

So that was kind of disappointing.

I want to wrap it up with a little Q & A, because it seems only fair to address some questions that I feel will inevitably come up.

Question: "What if I do run because I want to eat high-calorie food? Are you saying that's not okay?"

Answer: Any particular person's individual reason for running (or doing any type of activity) is not mine (or anyone else's, for that matter) to judge. I personally think it is completely possible to really enjoy delicious, rich food and also prefer your body stay the same shape & size that it is. In that situation, you either have to cut back on the rich food, or expend more calories. Them's just physics. That choice in & of itself is a completely neutral one--it's how you feel and respond to that choice that makes a difference.

If you find yourself becoming totally depressed because you feel deprived of foods you love, or completely miserable because you're forcing yourself through an activity (or amount of an activity) that sucks, that is what is not okay. If you feel disgusted with yourself every time you eat dessert and have to go run 10 miles to "work it off," that is not okay. If you make the choice to eat the foods you love & exercise more out of abject terror of gaining weight or negative attitudes / beliefs about certain weights or body types, that is not okay. I can't tell you what your feelings are about the decision to run so you can eat x thing or y amount. You are the one who has to check in with yourself about why you run for cupcakes, whether you run only for cupcakes, what your relationship with the cupcakes is to begin with, etc.

Question: "What if I do run (or do x type of exercise) because I want to lose/maintain my weigh? Is there something wrong with that?"

Answer: Again, in & of itself, this is a neutral decision. You're the one that has to think about what is motivating you to lose or stay at a certain weight. As part of a larger lifestyle shift towards habits you feel good about? Probably okay. Because you're disgusted with or terrified by a certain body shape or type & are exercising compulsively in order to change or avoid it? Probably not okay. To lose 5 vanity pounds so your favorite pants won't pinch so much? Probably okay. To get approval, acceptance, or attention from friends/family/a significant other/boys/girls? Probably not so great. (Personally, I feel like negative emotions--fear, panic, disgust, depression, anxiety, etc.--around food & exercise are often red flags that bigger issues may be in play somewhere & bear closer examination. But that is just my opinion.)

I think you also have to think about how you feel about the running (or whatever type of exercise you do). If you hate it and think of it as a chore you have to do in order to lose / maintain weight, odds are good that plan is not going to last very long anyway. For all that I can rarely get through an article without at least one eye roll, it's worth considering a couple of paragraphs from one I read recently:

    If you are running to lose weight, I encourage you to separate exercise and weight. Yes, you should run for health, fitness, stress relief and most importantly, for enjoyment. (After all, the E in exercise stands for enjoyment!) [Okay, that last part made me barf a little.]

    If you run primarily to burn off calories, exercise will become punishment for having excess body fat. You'll eventually quit running—and that’s a bad idea. (A better idea is to seek personalized help by meeting with a local sports dietitian.)

Like I said, it's not any one of these products or posts that is the problem. It is not the idea that someone might run to lose or maintain weight. It's the ubiquity of this particular message in the absence of others, the fact that these slogans are plastered everywhere while many, many, MANY other great and wonderful reasons for running & exercising are not, the message that sends, and what it says about people's beliefs & attitudes about exercise, food, & body image.

Question: "What if I do run (or do x type of exercise) in order to stay/become physically attractive? Is there something wrong with that?"

Answer: The short answer is, I'm not sure about this because it's HELLA complicated. Mainly because the idea of "physically attractive" is complicated and we have some pretty messed up ideas about what it means in our culture. So while I don't have a nice, simplistic answer for you around this, I have nailed down a few thoughts. First & foremost, I'd say that wanting to look attractive & taking steps to accomplish whatever that means to you is reasonable & normal & healthy, as long as...

  • You're not putting yourself or others at risk, physically, mentally, or emotionally, in order to do it. (Obviously what constitutes 'at risk' in this department is a HUGE can of worms that I am just not going to open here.)
  • You've dealt with any issues you have around having confidence in your physical appearance & feeling good about it. Otherwise, no amount of weight loss / body changing is going to make you feel good. You have to fix the insides first on this one.
  • Your happiness, self-esteem, etc. isn't tied up with what other people think about your body. If you run a million miles a week because everyone just HAS to think you're the hottest chick or dude in the room, that's a non-starter and you need to deal with that first.
  • You are under no illusions that attractiveness is an objective, one-dimensional scale on which we are all striving for some ideal at one end of the spectrum and desperately avoiding the other (ie, looking better/more attractive/hotter means looking more like x celebrity/athlete/model/etc. and less like y). Really. Physical attractiveness can look like a billion different things. Don't let the barrage of media you're constantly inundated with with convince you otherwise. (Yes...This can be really hard. They've been at us our whole lives.)
  • You're not having any other of those bad feelings I mentioned before about it. ("Hottie Mystique," anyone?) Because again, that's a red flag that your choice to run/exercise in order to become/stay physically attractive may be indicative of deeper issues that need addressing.

Inevitably, there will be people who are like, "Geez, Ang, calm down. It's not that big a deal. You're taking this WAAAAAY too seriously. Don't be so sensitive." And they get to have that opinion. But I'd also point out that not too terribly long ago that's the same response people got, to the letter, when they argued that black face & other racial stereotypes in entertainment were offensive, or that women getting smacked in the ass by their boss was a problem.

So if that's your initial reaction, I'd invite you to consider that just because something doesn't come across as harmful to you, or you don't understand why something is potentially harmful to others, doesn't mean it isn't or can't be. I would invite you to think about how the stakes around these issues can be higher for some people than for others, about your underlying assumptions about food and exercise, and how perpetuating those assumptions, even in a cute, jokey way--especially when that's almost all we get--can potentially do real long-term damage. (All the food / exercise / body image angst & obsession we've got going on in this country didn't come from nowhere, you know.)

I would encourage companies that make T-shirts and water bottles and key chains and races / organizations with a social media presence consider making products / posts that promote a wider variety of the reasons and motivations that people run and exercise. While it's important for people to feel good about their appearance and there's nothing wrong with touting the benefits of running in that regard, I would encourage them to recognize that our society is already obsessed with appearance & attractiveness, and to consider using messages that focus less on what running can do your for your appearance and more on what it can do for your mental and emotional health & well-being, your self-concept, your sense of achievement & accomplishment, etc. I'm not asking anyone to burn the "I run for cupcakes" T-shirt. I'm just asking for a balance in terms of the messages we send about the sport we love.

Bottom line? I wish we could all just enjoy the different part of our lives more, for their own sake. Eat delicious food that we love because it is a great pleasure to do so. Move our bodies and be active in the world because it makes us feel good and we enjoy it. Obsess less (online and off) about how "fit" we are or are not. Worry less about what other people think about what our bodies are like and what we do with them. It's a tall order, but I think tossing out the idea of food & exercise as opposite forces might not be the worst place we could possibly start.

**Post-script:** I am totally not used to writing about serious stuff on the internet. While I don't expect everyone who reads this to understand & agree 100% and I am absolutely open to discussion around it, I DO know that the people who read my blog are the awesome-est, and are utterly cool with civil, respectful discourse. I will not delete your comment just because you disagree with something I've said here--in fact, I would love to hear your opinion!--but I will ABSOLUTELY delete it if you're just going to poop in the pool & make the conversation miserable for everyone. I do not expect to have to resort to deleting, because my readers are not pool-poopers.



Further Reading...

  • A Primer on Privilege: What It Is and What It Isn't. This one, I really think everyone should read, because we all have some form of privilege or another and should be aware of it when we interact with other people. But every time I see / hear / read about "fit" people concern-trolling "unfit" people, I REALLY want to make them read it. I think it's a bit more accessible for some people than the traditional "Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack."

  • Stigma Against Fat People the Last Acceptable Prejudice, Studies Find. "At a time when obesity is seen as a serious public health threat, research has found a growing prejudice against fat people. "Thinness has come to symbolize important values in our society, values such as discipline, hard work, ambition and willpower. If you're not thin, then you don't have them," she said."

  • Eat Food. Stuff You Like. As Much As You Want. "Going through the motions in order to reach the carrot or escape the stick actually takes something away from the benefit of those motions. Exercising to lose weight makes fitness not as fun or useful. Eating to lose weight makes nutrition not as fun or useful. And, when things are not fun (meaning, intrinsically rewarding), it’s pretty much guaranteed that you will stop doing them."

  • Gym Class. "I had a pretty happily active childhood, despite being the unathletic and slightly fat child of two decidedly unathletic and slightly fat parents. Until gym class became a “thing,” that is. A graded, micromanaged academic requirement, starting in junior high — unhappily coinciding with the absolute social, emotional, and physical nadir of human existence. Or at least of mine. If you want to destroy all the inherent joy in something, slap a grade on it."

  • The Denial of Life. "If you genuinely enjoy marathons, run them. If that would be torture to you, don’t. Find something else to enjoy. If you love salad, eat it. If salad is punishment, for God’s sake, there are a million other foods to take its place. Food that isn’t enjoyed isn’t worth a damn. Find something better. You deserve it."

  • The Great Divorce of Body & Mind. "I look back on the time I was dieting as a period of falling-out with my body. We fell out of synchronicity, and out of favour, with one another. We were no longer on speaking terms. And though the diet was a dramatic physical manifestation of the rift that had formed between my mind and my body, I believe the fault that led to the rift started much earlier."

  • Your Body Is Your Home. "Why does it matter how we think of our bodies? Well, in my experience, treating my body like a machine has not ended well. Treating it like an expensive outfit designed to impress other people has not ended well. Treating it like an unruly child or pet who needs to be reckoned with and brought under submission has not ended well. And I’ve lived for long periods of time where it was as if my body and myself were no longer on speaking terms."

  • About That Video. "Yesterday, the video of Jennifer Livingston, a fat news anchor responding to an email about how fat and unhealthy she was, went viral...A lot of people have tried to make the argument that the email was not bullying, since it referenced concern for her health. Health is always and forever the argument weight bigots lean on to give a socially acceptable veneer to their harassment"

  • Pictures of You. "I’m thinking today about body image. My body image, to be specific, and the way I feel when suddenly confronted with photographs of myself taken by other people, showing my whole body."

  • The Third Option. "There is a third option that has been conveniently left out of the discussion, though a vocal minority of fat people have been arguing for it since the late 1960s: what if fatness is neither a disease nor a cause for blame and stigma? What if there are so many different reasons people are fat that it’s impossible to boil it down to “personal responsibility” and moral failure?"

  • How To Eat In A Nutshell. Lesson One: Permission. "There is one golden rule to normal eating, and it is this: no one decides what or how much goes in your mouth but you...You do not have to eat anything you don’t like, don’t want, or aren’t in the mood for. No matter who is pushing it, who thinks it’s for your own good, or what magazine says it’s the new superfood. You don’t have to count calories, or Points, or measure portions out and leave the table feeling hungry. You do not have to."


  1. Wow, that was a great post and you hit on an area that bothers me to the core as well-both as a female athlete (actually the athlete part is irrelevant) and as a sports professional working with female runners. It is shocking the body types that think they're not 'doing' enough to justify not having a cupcake, but just a meal. While the individual is ultimately responsible for what they focus on and where they get their info. The environmental cues like shirts and just the typical topics of convo you speak of make it very difficult and confusing.

    Thanks for pointing out something that is so obvious but we're all too afraid to talk about.

  2. Those shirts drive me nuts too. I was reading a blog the other day from someone who is getting ready to run a marathon in a couple of weeks. She made the comment that she needed to lose a bunch of weight before the race so that her time would be faster. It really kind of rubbed me the wrong way because I thought that it was ridiculous she would say that. There was a million things I wanted to say, but instead I kept my mouth shut.

    1. Yeah...I never know how to respond to stuff like that, especially with people I don't know very well.

    2. I think that losing weight to become faster and better at your sport (as long as you are within healthy boundaries) fits in with Angela's good reasons for losing weight. It seems that your friend is losing weight to enhance her enjoyment of a sport.
      Cyclists sometimes lose weight to make themselves lighter uphill. They still seem to be a fairly normal weight, but have just streamlined themselves by losing unnecessary fat.

  3. this is an excellent post. thank you.

  4. I have no problem with people exercising to lose weight, maintain weight, or improve health. In fact, I think that's a great idea. Diet alone won't change everything! But I am annoyed by
    1. The run-to-eat mentality, rather than a healthy relationship with both food and exercise. Eating is not an evil activity that requires a punishment. Which leads me to the second thing that annoys me:
    2. Running is not punishment. I, personally, run because I enjoy it. If I used it as an activity that payed back calories I ate (and should have enjoyed), then running would no longer be fun. It would be work. And that would kill it for me!

  5. I will say that I run because I really enjoy the feeling of it. I also like the trickle down effects that running provides - ie not having to really worry as much about what you eat or how much you eat. Having been off and on injured for 2 years now, I miss being able to run consistently and the health benefits that it provides.

  6. Awesome post. Thanks for writing this. I've been thinking similar thoughts in response to all the run-to-eat paraphenalia as well. As a side note, it reminded me of this interchange I had with a neighbor a few years ago.

  7. Right fucking on!

    I eat because I love food. I exercise because I love to: I feel good, I feel healthy, I don't feel run down in the afternoon at work.

    As a side note, our local running club asked Humboldt Roller Derby to come down to their women's run to kick things was awesome! The runners loved it. We did, too. Women in sports supporting each other because we love sport!

  8. I saw this post on Friday but wanted to save it for a time when I could read it without distraction and properly respond. First of all: great post, Angela. I found it very thoughtful and original in the sense that this IS something we all see and think about, but I don't think I've ever read anything about it. Second, I feel like the food-exercise antagonism in our country is just another aspect of the puritanical (and eff'ed up) foundation of our country -- the other aspects being our society's views on alcohol/drugs and sex. It seems like we can never enjoy something just for the sake of enjoying it... if we like it, it has to be bad for us (cupcakes) and has to followed by punishment (exercise). Third (and related) is the public's perception of running. Most people view running as horrible and couldn't imagine that people run for fun. So, I think these products use that feeling as the basis for a (not that funny) joke. Forth, the issue of weight vs food vs exercise is sooooo complicated. It's tough because weight is only ONE readout of physical health -- it's much easier to fat shame an overweight individual than to point fingers at someone who may seem normal weight, but has an eating disorder. Fifth (and finally), the thing that makes me most angry about all of this is the seemingly female-specific marketing of these products. And as products are only made when there's demand, it appears that women have completely bought into this message... which leads to my final rant: I hate the See Jane Run motto, "I run for champagne and chocolate!" ARGH.

  9. Same as Jen - I wanted to have time to think about this, and I was too tired over the weekend to think. I guess I wanted to say that I agree.

    I hate those tshirts about running for cupcakes or doughnuts. Yes, sometimes I do reward myself with cake treats, and sometimes I do run to burn off too much indulgence of the aforementioned. But does anyone SERIOUSLY run to eat cupcakes? And how demeaning is it that we have t-shirts that shout it out? As you said, we should run because it makes us happy, healthy, strong, free. Those are the reasons I run and the reasons for which I would encourage another person to start running. Not to eat flipping cupcakes!

    Tell you what I hate more though....'hunky firemen' in tuxedos at the end of a race. NOTHING makes me angrier. (Apart from genocide/child abuse/hurting animals etc - you know what I mean).

  10. The things you wrote about in this post are so important to discuss.

    As someone who struggled with an eating disorder for many years (both anorexia and bulimia) I simply cannot think of running/exercise in a calories in/calories out perspective without being highly triggered. It took me a VERY long time and many therapy sessions before I could finally see exercise as something independent of eating/weight but now that I do, I am a much happier person. I run and weight lift now because I feel strong and happy when I do them. They are two things that, during the darkest days in my life, I couldn't have done because I didn't have the energy or endurance for it.

    I know my perspective is at the extreme end since many women use calories in/calories out without having eating disorders; however, I still think it's important for women to try and see exercise and eating as independent. It allows us all to view exercise in a much more positive light because it takes the "punishment" aspect out of the equation.