It’s no secret at all that I love the gym. I am an unashamed gymster. I came to fitness later in life and have been blindsided by the sheer joy of building up the relationship with my body and the things we can get done when we really try.
There’s a lot that I really love about fitness culture. There’s a lot of encouragement, a lot of support, a lot of “I will totally be your spotter, complete stranger, because we share a love of the bench press and this binds us closer.” There’s a lot of numbers and nerdiness and biometric data (often really inaccurate with huge margins of error, but shhhh). The fitness community can be a really joyful and supportive environment.
It can also be really appalling and toxic, and as much as I don’t want to be completely negative, this post really is about the perpetuated ideas that I view with extraordinary distaste.
The trope: The New You! NOT LIKE THE OLD YOU WHICH WAS CRAP
The response: In a previous post, I made it clear that I dislike this whole concept of the “New you!”, but since that message was hidden down the bottom of the post after my account of the whirlwind training montage that has been the past six months, let me make it clear again:
I think it’s harmful. I think being unkind to the “Old You” is not going to get you far in the long term. Sometimes, when people start exercising and eating better, it’s a temporary health kick. Sometimes it’s a long-term “lifestyle change” (although I feel even that terminology has been semantically polluted, let’s just take it at face value and try not to roll our eyes). Nearly everyone who starts out on a health kick thinks it’s going to be a lifestyle change, so they declare the “New Them!” and quite often they start trash talking the “Old Them!”
The problem is that the “Old Them” has not gone anywhere. Firstly, while the improvement in quality of life is no small thing, getting active and eating healthier food does not change your identity. It is worth it to be kind to that identity, because your sense of self is going to stick with you for the rest of your life. I can certainly think of times in my life that I was less self-aware than I am now, and less considerate, and while I am not proud of those times (and take full responsibility for the consequences thereof), they are still a part of who I am now and the journey towards being a bit more self-aware and considerate. While I want to shy away from memories of myself being an absolute tosser, that would be ignoring the lessons I learnt.
The same goes for times when I was less logical and sensible (not that I’m a paragon now, but we’re talking relative comparisons here), and yes, certainly times when I have been less healthy. Trash-talking the Kate of Poor Lifestyle Choices Past will do me precisely no good now, and could lead me to dismiss the very real achievements I made in other areas at the time. The Kate of Poor Lifestyle Choices Past was, by the way, writing a thesis, and I think that this was a commendable and impressive achievement, and the fact that I wasn’t running three times a week, eating keto and lifting weights in no way diminishes the fact that I wrote a thesis.
This is getting a bit in depth and personal, but it really cuts to the heart of why I hate all this “New You!” bullshit: it encourages you to hate the current or the past self, to dismiss that self, and to emotionally kick the crap out of it, and it means that when you lapse in your current plan (which you will, regardless of whether you maintain it overall in the long term), you will feel like shit. You will feel like you are incapable of change. You will feel that you are trapped in that “Old You” that you have taught yourself to hate, and that will feel dreadful (particularly if you are prone to depression or anxiety).
If you don’t buy into the identity-change crap, when you lapse, you can say, “Oh well, shit happens, we can move forward.” And if you decide that the path you’ve chosen for your health kick is not sustainable, then you can say, “I didn’t mind myself before, and this didn’t work for me,” and, if you feel like it, find something else.
“New You” is a trap. And of course, yes, it’s a trap designed to sell things. No-one is surprised by this.
A better option: I’m thinking that maybe sitting down and thinking about the things you like about the current you or the “old you”. They can be physical things. They can be emotional things. Maybe it’s about being smart or talented or kind or funny, but maybe it’s about being strong or having good posture or being very flexible. Don’t reinvent yourself; instead, think about all those things you like and how you’re taking them with you for the ride. If you’re going to increase your health and fitness, instead of making a “New you”, you’re adding to a list of things you like about yourself.
The trope: PAIN IS WEAKNESS LEAVING YOUR BODY
The response: Oh, shut the fuck up. Pain is your body sending a message to your brain that the current situation is not good. Sometimes, the message is incorrect: maybe you have a pain processing disorder, or some neuropathic condition. Sometimes the message is overstating the case: yes, it feels like your arms will fall off if you do another bench press, but as long as you are maintaining form, you can do it and benefit from it. And sometimes the message is on point: your technique is bad, you’ve buckled your shoulder (me!) or sprained your ankle (me again) or broken your finger (oh wait… me), and you need to address the situation.
Pain is a message. It takes interpretation. Is it a throbbing pain, or a stabbing pain? Is it muscle pain or joint pain? Is it overuse pain? Is it a cramp? Do you need to stop what you’re doing or is it the kind of pain that just means you’ve pushed yourself a little and you’re building muscle or endurance? Learning to interpret pain is an important part of getting to know your body, and most of us start to figure these things out as we grow up.
As a hypermobile person and a redhead, I have some quirks in pain processing which actually mean that – for the most part – I don’t feel enough pain. I don’t get enough warnings from my body. That’s high pain tolerance, but to an extent, it’s also high pain threshold, which is a different thing. The former means I can push harder, but it also means I run a higher risk of injuring myself (it also means I am an absolute sook by the time I start to actually become aware of pain because I am not used to most of it being at the level that most people get).
The latter is the problem wherein the message of pain is not getting through, until it builds up to a sufficient threshold amount, and then – then, dear readers – it appears all at once. Then you go from thinking, “Something doesn’t feel right…” to “Oh god, I have to pass out and/or throw up, oh god”. This happened to me a couple of days ago. I have endometriosis, which has only recently returned after a surgical treatment kept it in abeyance for a couple of years. I also buckled my shoulder on bench (bendy gymster ladies: do not do higher weights when you have your period if you’re hypermobile. Progesterone makes your collagen even stretchier than it normally is. You think your form is great, and it is, but only for a person whose joints stay where they are damn well told… my wrist shifted, my shoulder buckled, my target region was then way off, and at this point the weight was moving).
The shoulder injury felt really mild. A twinge here, a bit of a stabbing or shooting pain there. Still, I know my body well enough to know that even a mild joint injury needs to be checked out, because I can’t trust a mild message of pain. So I took it to the physio, who drew certain conclusions, and started taping it.
Meanwhile, my endometriosis was bubbling away in the background (so to speak). While my physio was taping my shoulder, the endo-pain suddenly reached threshold and crashed over me. My blood pressure plummeted. My stomach rolled. “IamverysorryIneedtoliedownrightnowIamgoingtopassout.” The physio helped me out and, at my request, fetched some water and a barley sugar (yes, I’m on keto. Still, a quick hit of glucose will restore tanking blood pressure and help settle nausea. Needs must, etc.).
And at that point, my shoulder started hurting properly. “We’ve reached critical mass so now you get to feel everything,” says my pain processing system happily, and now my shoulder felt like a real injury and it’s a good thing I went to a physio instead of worrying that I was overreacting.
Now, the intentions of “Pain is weakness leaving your body!” as a trope are basically to drive you to keep pushing, keep working, keep building, even when it seems hard, and those are in many ways good impulses. In order to build muscle strength and fitness, you have to push your body to the point of mild damage (micro-tears in the muscle) to send the message to your central nervous system that you’d like to build more muscle, please. If you stop when it seems hard, you will not improve. Progressive overload is the way to go.
The problem is that not everyone is good at interpreting pain. I like to think I have become something of a connoisseur, because I have to pick apart some very quiet and subtle messages. I have friends with fibromyalgia who have the opposite problem, where their bodies are shouting at them all the time and they have to sift through all the noise to work out where the damage is and how much they have to listen to (if they wish to exercise).
My body’s pain message says things like, “Excuse me, I don’t mean to bother you, I mean, only if you’ve got a moment, but if you’re not busy, maybe I should tell you – I mean, is it important? Really? – but I should probably mention: the house is on fire.”
That’s until we get to critical mass, at which point my quiet and gently spoken system turns into a complete arsehole. “I TOLD YOU THE HOUSE WAS ON FIRE AND YOU DIDN’T LISTEN! ARE YOU STUPID OR SOMETHING?”
Many fibro sufferers get messages like, “OH MY FUCKING GOD WE SPILLED SOME MILK! WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE, DIE RIGHT NOW, OH THE DEATH!”
(please note, I am not implying that people with fibro are sooking; quite the opposite. They are experiencing extreme phenomenal pain. It just doesn’t mean that there is corresponding damage. The fact that many learn to ignore high levels of pain and go about their lives anyway is extraordinary. Some hypermobility sufferers also get to a point of chronic pain where they have to learn that pain does not always mean damage. I am not at that point yet. I consider myself very fortunate)
A better option: pain is a message you need to interpret. Sometimes you need to push a bit further. Sometimes you need to stop and hand out some TLC to your body so that you can push further next time – and maybe ask for advice on form or technique so that pain doesn’t happen next time.
The trope: KILL YOUR FAT SELF
The response: Do I really need to explain why this is toxic? Anything that teaches you to hate any part of your body is probably not going to be great for you in the long run, and our society’s horrendously unhealthy obsession with fat and the locations and amounts thereof is all about building a really shitty, self-loathing relationship with your body. I do not think there is anything redeeming in this message. If people want to lose fat and change up their body composition, that’s their personal choice (my body is doing those things at the moment); but doing it via hate is, in the long run, a problem. It also leads people to start hating on other fat people, some of whom have made different choices (and some who have made exactly the same choices), because they’ve learned to hate fat and they no longer seem to care exactly whose fat they are hating.
There’s an in-group/out-group phenomenon that cuts in, not to mention the “good fatty/bad fatty” dichotomy.
I do not believe that being fat is inherently unhealthy, or metabolically healthy obesity would not be a thing (and it is not even a particularly rare thing). Having said that, if someone decides that they want to give it a shot at changing up the system, they can do it without hating on their body.
To be a bit confessional, way back in the past I have hit the gym in an attempt to lose weight. I have, in the past, declared war on my body. I have certainly felt disgust at my squishy parts. The end result was that I didn’t enjoy working out. I didn’t enjoy moving my body as much because it was an act of aggression, and not one of achievement. I have pushed myself based on these impulses – and guess what! It didn’t work. In fact, not only did it not work, but it made me feel even worse about my body. It meant I started noticing and obsessing over my perceived flaws, and started wanting really quick results to justify all this adrenaline and frustration. When I was focusing on those results, I wasn’t focusing on getting fitter and stronger – the things that make me happy about gym – and even the endorphin high wasn’t as much fun.
This is, of course, just my experience.
A better option: Going keto means that I’ve actually increased the ability of my body to use stored fat as an energy source – something that it was very inefficient about before. So, if I think about the fact that my body fat percentage is going to decrease as a result of my exercise, I think of it mostly as using fat. Hurrah, my body has stored up energy and now I am using it to do things. It’s fuel. I actually don’t want to stash it, to be honest, because I’ve internalised the same conflicting body crap that most of us have, and I haven’t completely got past that; but thinking of it as “insulation” (because I do get colder without it), or “padding” (because goddamn my knees are bony now that I have lost some of it, I now sleep with a pillow between my knees), or “fuel” (because now I can run and use it to keep going and going and going) is about eight hundred times better than thinking of it as disgusting or repulsive or something dreadful.
I could also think of it as “buoyancy assistance”, but actually that irritates me in diving and is not a positive thing (divers will spot the pun there). If, however, you like to float, then it would be a good thing!
In the long run, I think these sorts of tropes are harmful, not just in terms of one’s relationship to one’s body, but in the way one thinks of health and fitness. I think they can lead to injury (ignoring pain), disordered relationships with food and your body (hating on your body fat) and difficulties with long-term planning and identity (new you/old you).
On top of that, though, I think it’s simply bad PR. People are turned off by gym culture for a lot of reasons, but these sorts of tropes have a lot to answer for. They don’t make gyms welcoming – they make them intimidating. They make them seem like temples to judgement and desperation, rather than potentially fun places to work out, and they absolutely can be the latter.
This is a real problem: while my gym has been very welcoming and friendly and judgement-free, not all gyms are so good. I’ve heard tales of women copping abuse in the weights room, newbies getting laughed at and fat people of any gender copping abuse in pretty much any part of the gym, no matter how experienced/fit/strong they are. How is this helpful?
I want more people in my gym. I want a mix of body types and genders and levels of experience. I want people to feel comfortable asking questions of the staff. Alright, yes, a packed gym can be a pain, but then the answer is for someone else to come along and open another gym. I don’t want people to think that everyone is staring at them for being fat or inexperienced or female. I don’t want them to think they have to ignore pain, or apologise for their fat bodies, or change their identities to enjoy the gym. I want people to feel welcome and enjoy this particular option for exercise.
So, next time, just to make things a bit more positive, I’m going to try and dig out the gym tropes I do like, and share those.