Thoughts on unraveling the complex relationship between exercise and food
Recently we have seen a huge increase in the number of people posting about their exercise on social media, in light of Run for Heroes. This seemingly harmless campaign challenged people to run 5 kilometres, donate £5 to the National Health Service, and nominate 5 friends on social media to join in. So far the effort has raised £5,359,223, a huge sum of money. However, backlash against the campaign was swift, with many people pointing out issues with the concept. The hypocrisy of Conservative donors, the fact that gifts were made through a Virgin company when Richard Branson has a very shady history with the NHS, and the simple fact that the NHS is a right not a charity were all highlighted. As someone who has made a living fundraising for education, I’m hardly one to complain about donating; I know that we can take action to deal with the short term whilst still working to change the long term. Nonetheless these complaints are valid responses to a campaign which sought to place state responsibilities on the shoulders of individuals.
But there was something else in addition to this that bothered me about the slew of running Instastories. Few of these posts were free of something we might call ‘speed-shaming’. We saw a hundred variations of ‘oh my god I’m so slow!’ These were often for times that a PT would actually be pretty happy with. The most uncomfortable thing about these posts was that people were shaming themselves. They were expressing horror at their own efforts, even though they achieved what the campaign set out to do. This is typical of the modern status of exercise, particularly when seen through social media. So often we preemptively judge and criticise ourselves, on the assumption that others will do it for us if we don’t. This ties into much of the rhetoric around fat-shaming: so often we make jokes at our own expense about our bodies because we want to nip any criticism we might face in the bud. ‘Speed shaming’ is just one facet of this. We feel our times aren’t good enough and we aren’t physically fit enough, so we have to leap in and tell everyone that, because they must already be thinking it.
On occasion the ‘I’m so slow today!’ might be a form of humblebragging, to get people thinking the person is usually much faster. ‘Gosh, if X thinks my fast time is slow, what are their usual times?’ But it’s all part of the same problem. When it comes down to it, why do we care, and why should we care how fast we are compared to each other? It is because speed is marker of effort, and the patriarchy requires us to put effort into meeting its standards. Women are just as obsessive, if not more so, as the supposedly hyper-competitive men of the world of running. We somehow feel the need to let people know we are trying to ‘look our best’, even if we don’t right now.
This is something I have struggled with over many years, and see so much of in my daily life. At one point I couldn’t go to the gym without telling people, without letting everyone know how tired I was from working out. Ultimately I think this grew out of insecurities about my body. The sense that I had to justify my physical appearance, to excuse it. A ‘you may think it’s not great, but I do workout and I am trying’ to the world. At university I’d spend hours at a time in the gym, just trying to show that I was making an effort. At work, I would fall into that awful habit of saying ‘well I did go to the gym last night, so I guess I can have a dessert!’. How many times did I exchange comments like ‘Ok, I’ll be naughty!’ when asked if I wanted a side of potatoes with lunch? I’d speak in ways that now make me feel deeply uncomfortable. This moralising tone is all just a part of my relationship with the patriarchy, and its impact on my relationship with food. And in the patriarchy, it is hard to disentangle food from exercise.
This was succinctly demonstrated by the recent TV show The Restaurant that Burns Off Calories. This was not gendered, in that all people were fat-shamed for their calorie consumption, but it does perfectly summarise the idea that food in must equal work out. Like we don’t deserve to eat if we’re not going to work it off. The show was rightly ridiculed, with Beat, the leading UK eating disorder charity, keeping its helpline open for those who might be affected by its deeply unhealthy approach to eating. Queen of happy food Ruby Tandoh stepped up in defence of a better way to live, and was predictably mocked by all the usual right-wing foodies.
Shows like this just act to reinforce our negative self-image: they suggest that we’re right to think people will judge us. This is something I have seen in my own life too. My eating has never become so disordered that I have needed to seek professional help, but a lifetime of people joking about how much I eat has taken its toll, on my experience of both food and exercise. When you’re happy to finish off someone’s dessert for them, you feel you have to spend some extra time on the treadmill to prove yourself worthy. To prove yourself ‘normal’. This is something I am aware of as a white woman, but can be far worse if you are a woman of colour. Our bodies and body types are constantly used as a form of control: society tells us what it thinks of our bodies, what we should think of our bodies, not just because it wants us to change them, but because it wants us to worry about our place in that society.
It’s not easy, but I’m trying hard to improve my relationship with food and exercise. I’m focusing more on what my body can do than what it looks like. Inevitably this could fall back into performative exercising: I’m trying to run fast for longer. But this is to prove to myself that I can do it, not anyone else. I’m not there yet, and maybe I never will be, but I’m moving away from thinking in terms of calories in equals calories out.
Whether it’s speed shaming, questioning our food choices, or joking about our consumption, society works hard to tell us that our bodies are everyone else’s business. This must be countered with a loud and fierce rejection. Our bodies are our own, and if we want to use them for exercise, that’s for us to decide and no one else. We are the only people who have jurisdiction over our bodies. So next time you feel the need to tell someone you went to the gym before picking up another cookie, take a step back. Acknowledge why you might feel the need to say this, then push it aside. You’ll be helping your own mental health, and working to create a society in which we can proclaim our slow speeds with pride, safe in the knowledge that our value is measured not by how many calories we’ve burned, but by what we contribute to society. It may not seem like much, but every marathon starts with small steps, and this is going to be a tough one.
Food and exercise is such a personal thing, and I think it can be really hard to keep your thoughts positive and healthy when engaging with either. What steps do you find work for keeping you happy and healthy in relation to eating and exercise? I’d love to hear your tips and experiences in the comments.
The cult of coming ‘first’ is a powerful way of making nearly everyone a failure, and hence very exploitable. If the only reason someone enjoys something is the element of competition, I think that’s sad. But it’s never easy for people to be confident in their own values, so I think what you write is spot on. We’re all encouraged to compete with our past selves, too (the ‘PB’), so even if you think you’ve managed to escape the pressures of society, you’re still kept in fear of judgement by your future self! This doesn’t mean that everything about eating and exercise is nonsense, just that you have to be doing what’s right for you, for reasons that matter to you – and not internalising the pressures of society. I guess a test of talk about food or exercise could be, might you call this ‘banter’? ‘Banter’ seems to be universally regarded as a kind of ‘acceptable bullying’ – just awful.
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