O Bendy Gymster: Toxic Gym Tropes

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!

Summary

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.

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O Bendy Gymster: The Training Montage and the “New You” (or me?)

I look back at the last six months, and all I see is myself in a training montage (if you feel a sudden urge to listen to “Eye of the Tiger” now, that’s a feature, not a bug). I’m not new to gym, or fitness, by any stretch of the imagination – in fact, I think this year will mark about a decade of that sort of practice.

I am, however, new to doing it at this level of intensity, with this level of focus and research. I’m the sort of nerd who doesn’t do anything by halves. Every major decision or change in daily practice is constantly researched, discussed and considered. With the uncertainty in my scientific career setting me back mentally, I needed another way to progress and achieve goals.

I’d also become intensely aware of the fact that, if I want to stay mobile and functional into old age as a person with hypermobility syndrome (HMS), I needed to take charge of my core strength and balance. If I wanted to be fit as well, fit enough to run and lift weights (and go on cold-water shore dives without being wiped out afterwards), I needed to be informed and careful about how I managed my exercise for best effect: muscle gains, cardio fitness gains, and most importantly, offsetting the disadvantages (increased injury risk and prolonged recovery time) of hypermobility.

This meant that I ramped up my gym attendance and started clinical Pilates.

In July, I got an actual training program. I started really participating in the Fitocracy community – asking questions and reading articles – rather than just logging workouts. Since my brain works really well on dopamine rewards, I started to really “game” fitness, involving not just Fitocracy (a cartoon robot gives you points for exercising!), but also Zombies, Run! (story missions to motivate running), The Walk (the more you walk, the more episodes you unlock to listen to), and Fitbit (setting daily step and activity goals).

Points, story motivation, meeting daily goals: these things work for me. I started to see muscle definition in my shoulders.

Around September, I’d now read enough to realise I should probably be monitoring my protein intake to support all this exercise and muscle development, so I started using MyFitnessPal (MFP) to log food keep an eye on my macronutrient ratios and, well, to see how much I actually eat. Almost casually, this meant I started losing weight. I also found it very difficult to stay on top of protein targets and began to understand why protein powder was a thing (a horrible thing that tastes like slimy boiled arse, but I am told that it varies from brand to brand, and there are better ways to consume it than just adding it to water).

In November, I finished Couch-to-5K – wearing regular weight running shoes.

Around the same time, frustrated by my nauseous sugar response, I started eating a very low carbohydrate diet with the goal of getting into ketosis (the ketogenic diet). This was excellent for my general health and well-being, and didn’t noticeably affect my resistance training (although I plateaued for a while), but it set my running back enormously. By Xmas, it was starting to recover as I adapted to using ketone bodies and fat for energy. Meanwhile, I found it very easy to stay on top of protein targets while eating keto; in fact, the greater challenge was to avoid eating too much protein (excess protein gets converted into glucose. You do want a bit of this to help fuel your brain, but too much and it will lead to a rise in insulin, which switches off ketosis).

There were some struggles around Xmas and New Year’s. I fell off the keto wagon and set my adaptation way back. I was intensely frustrated, because it was also too hot to run and I started to feel as though I was never going to get on top of it all.

In the background, my balance had improved, as well as my core strength. I was able to stay upright with less difficulty, able to sit still without fidgeting for longer, and had less random back pain. My joints were more stable, able to work within a reasonable range of motion without subluxing (partial dislocation) or aching. I quit clinical Pilates for reasons of time and money, and picked up a bunch of extra physiotherapy exercises to compensate.

Meanwhile, my body composition continued to change. The scales were telling me some very surprising things.

On the tenth of January, I injured my calf muscle. The doctor suspected a tear, but an ultrasound happily revealed no such thing – merely a bad strain. I dropped leg work and running and wore a compression bandage everywhere I went, but a few days ago I started gently working it again.

On the seventeenth of January, I bowed to the inevitable, and reluctantly made my way down off the mountain to the shopping centre in search of a new sports bra, new t-shirt bras, and a pair of shorts that didn’t fall down. I stumbled onto some sales (and some things that were just always cheap – thank you, Target!), and was astonished to discover the current size bra I should actually be wearing (no wonder I was getting very, very uncomfortable… bordering on pain, honestly. Two cup sizes out will do that to a lass).

Then I did another running workout, which is what inspired me to write this post.

On the twentieth of January, I decided my calf was recovered enough to try a gentle training run. I was absolutely determined that I would stop at the first sign of any pain in the muscle – the last thing I wanted to do was take a stressed muscle that wasn’t torn and then tear it – so I decided on a Week Four workout from the Couch to 5K program (five minute warm-up walk; three minute run; ninety second walk; five minute run; two-and-a-half minute walk; repeat that last sequence again; five minute cooldown walk) on the treadmill (a much more forgiving surface than the trail I usually run on).

While keto-adapting, I’ve found I have a certain response. I get on the treadmill, and get through my warm-up walk, thinking “Whew, this is harder than I expected. It’s taking my body ages to warm up. Gah.” I thought this was just part of being on keto, and perhaps permanent. Everything eventually would kick in – but maybe it just took longer.

Then I start my running interval, and immediately my body starts crying, “ah crap! Oh god oh god – gah – three minutes of this? Okay, we can do this, we can do this…”

That’s… not what happened yesterday.

The warm-up walk was fine, but I was itching to run. I hit my running interval and-

-everything just worked-

-it felt like I could run forever

-I had to really nag myself to stop after three minutes.

I got runner’s high in about thirty seconds. I just didn’t get tired.

Now, keto is great, but it’s quite obviously not everything. It’s been a long time since I was able to run continuously, so I’ve lost some of my cardio gains – I did start to fatigue towards the end of the workout. The last five minutes required concentration, but what’s important is that they weren’t hell. I wasn’t gasping and forcing myself to continue. In fact, I was so psyched by the whole business that I increased the treadmill speed for the last ninety seconds, because I had so much energy I wanted to dance on the treadmill, and as much as I am perfectly happy to look psyched and silly in the gym, that’s a good way to sprain an ankle.

I’ve still got a way to go to catch up with my pre-keto level of cardio, and Melbourne summer isn’t helping (my blood pressure tanks more than most people’s in the heat; I just bought a pair of compression socks, which seem to help with that). I still need to do an extraordinary amount of pre-run physio preparation to avoid injuring myself.

But as far as fitness goes, it feels like everything’s coming up Kate.

Having said all that, and told my tale of glory (with one or two setbacks), you’d think I’d be more sympathetic to all this advertising that references New Year’s resolutions for fitness and the promise of a “New You!” And, honestly, I have no problem at all with people deciding that 2015 will be their year for fitness. Everyone starts somewhere and a new year’s resolution is no worse a starting point than “I’d like to run for the train without getting out of breath.”

What I do have a problem with is this “New You” issue. I see a lot of people on my fitness forums proudly proclaiming “Bring on the new me!” and while they have every right to say that and use that to motivate them, it honestly makes me twitch – even flinch – because I am honestly not sure that this is the most helpful and healthy narrative with which to approach fitness.

I’ve got a photo of myself from about a year ago that staggered me when I saw it. Whatever you think about intentional weight loss (mine was – mostly – a side effect, but as much as it confuses me, I’m not unhappy about it. Just conflicted), you could use that as my “Before!” picture, take a picture of me now, eleven kgs lighter with Bonus! Muscle Definition, call that my “After!” picture and declare that I have found my “New Me.”

But that’s a load of bollocks. Horse puckey. Balls. Bullshit, to really descend into the vernacular and make it clear what I really think.

I’m not a “New Me”. I’m the same me I was before, except that now I’m two cup sizes down on bras and I had to put a new hole in my belt with my dissection kit (which I’ve done three times over the years, and I now think I have it down to a fine art and possibly my dissection kit is not in super fine maintained condition). I’m the same me, except now I can run further – and I can run for the train without getting out of breath, and I can stay balanced for longer, and sit still more comfortably. I’m the same me, except that now I can lift heavier things and walk further in full dive kit without getting fatigued. I’m the same me, but I have a bit more energy and a bit more pep. I’m the same me, but I trust my body a bit more, and that is probably the biggest difference.

Those things are all great, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t proud to add “total gymster” to be long list of identifying labels, but they’re not who I am. They’re not all completely superficial – having more energy means it’s easier to keep depression at bay, and that honestly makes me a much nicer person to be around – but I don’t have to reintroduce myself to my husband and friends.

The best change is that I have a better relationship with my body. I know that we can get things done when we work together, and even that’s an artificial plural; in many ways, I am my body. I’m my legs, my arms, my ribcage, and that funny looking mole in the middle of my back. And it’s still the same body.

When it really comes right down to it, we are constantly rebuilding ourselves: physically, mentally, emotionally. Every day can bring a New You, if that’s how you want to look at it. As I get older, my body will continue to change – I’m in my mid/early thirties now, but there middle age to be greeted, there’s menopause, there’s other changes in body shape, there’s a certain amount of frailty to be expected. My interests will change. Hobbies will come and go. Other identities will be added to those I already claim.

None of that will change who I am, or what I am, and I don’t think there was anything wrong with the so-called Old Me. I was a bit less fit, definitely fatter, and at a very similar state of emotional equilibrium. I had the same friends, the same opinions, the same interests. I mostly liked who I was then, and I mostly like who I am now.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the notion of trying to re-invent yourself, but what I am saying is that sometimes this “New You!” narrative can be unkind in the short term and self-defeating in the long term. I’m saying that, at least in my case, I found my pursuit of fitness and health a lot easier from the perspective of working with my body and self-image rather than against those things. It’s not that I haven’t tried the latter – I certainly have – but it wasn’t effective, and ultimately, it was psychologically harmful.

So yes, I still see the last six months or so as a training montage, because that entertains me. I am vain as the proverbial peacock, and sometimes shallow as the equally proverbial puddle, and I’ve internalised the same body image bullshit as everyone else, and yes, I’m happier with how I look now.

But I am not fooling myself. This is not a New Me. This is the same Me, who does different things and is currently having a good time doing it.

I hope, if you’re pursuing a similar idea, that you have a good time doing it, and that you embrace the so-called Old You and take it along for the journey.

Post. “O Bendy Gymster” is the name I give to posts on fitness and gym and exercise as a hypermobile person. I’m a gymster, and I’m very bendy, and there really isn’t a story behind that title; but knowing that I have a particular biomechanial issue means that it’s easier for me to work out effectively, and I find that really empowering, so here we are.

I am my own filter: Kate’s Social Media Rant

I know they get clicks – that they are, in fact, the quintessential click-bait – but I am so fucking tired of those articles about what you should or should not do on social media.

“Five things you do on Facebook that you should stop doing!” could also be translated as, “Are you insecure about whether your online ‘friends’ are actually friends or whether they are judging you for oversharing or bragging? Click here and give us money and we’ll probably make you feel worse!”

So here’s my take on it, click-bait or otherwise (aside: were I to write anything that could even remotely be described as “click-bait” I would be delighted).

One of the things that is listed as an internet no-no is usually “having a whinge”.

Having a whinge

I think that having a whinge is one of the most important things we can do, socially and psychologically, and I suspect I may be in the minority on that. I have limits on what I think is appropriate, and I’ll express those when asked, but for the vast majority of the time I only apply those limits to myself.

If you read my Facebook, you might be very surprised that I apply any limits to myself, since my Facebook feed runs the gamut from the political (rare), the scientific (moderate), the cute (frequent) and the intensely banal (embarrassingly frequent), but we’ll get back to this.

People like to complain about complainers (the irony of this is often lost on them; I often find that sort of complaining far, far more irritating than the original sook), and they often like to say it is for the following reason:

“People should do something about their problems instead of just complaining about it.”

Now, this might genuinely be their motivation – I can’t read minds – but, cynical beast that I am, jaded by my day to day internet addiction and experiencing the death of a thousand cuts ill-considered internet comments, I honestly think that it’s more that they are made uncomfortable, or personally annoyed.

“I hate reading about someone’s [crappy day/experiences with bigotry/deaths in the family/personal suffering] because it interrupts my preferred flow of [political discussion/musical discoveries/cute cat pictures] and sometimes it makes me bummed.”

There’s nothing invalid about that response. It’s pretty normal.

So back to that first rationalisation: if it’s genuine – if this dichotomy of talkers vs. doers is why an anti-whinger is having trouble with their sulky Facebook or Twitter feed – I have a piece of very exciting news.

It’s a bombshell. Stand back.

These two categories are not mutually exclusive.

You can both whinge about a problem while contributing to solving it. I like to think I do this from time to time. I’m an expressive sort of person (I like to say that I am nothing if not verbose, and honestly perhaps that should be the subtitle of this blog…). I think in narratives, and arguments, and conversations and rants. I do not, alas, think in pithy one-liners. These posts would be much shorter if I did.

This applies to everything from intensely banal personal problems (i.e., my frustration with the current state of our carport and the paved areas in our yard) to much more significant political stances (i.e., my frustration with the current Australian government, my frustration with the endemic sexism, racism and other assorted bigotries in our society, my frustration with the wanton destruction of fragile marine ecosystems…).

I don’t fool myself that expressing my frustration with any of these things will solve the problem, but I am not so busy expressing my frustration that it will stop me from trying to do anything about it (although admittedly my political activism is largely about online conversation and discussion, and I have only changed one or two minds to date, but I count those as successes; also donations. Not as good as volunteering time, but still something).

To return to the banal: I can complain about the state of my carport and also clean it up. I can complain about endemic sexism and also call people on it when it occurs and have that conversation. I can complain about some ill health problems and also address them medically.

Now, sometimes it’s not the case. Sometimes there’s nothing I can do about a situation, or nothing I am willing to do for various reasons ranging from laziness to fear to lack of resources; and I may whinge anyway.

Good Lord, Kate, says the anti-whinger, why are you doing that? That’s self indulgent and only pisses people off.

I do it for a few reasons, and in no particular order, they are as follows:

  1. I am, as stated above, expressive by nature. I find nothing so satisfying as accurately and precisely delineating my thoughts and feelings on an issue, no matter how insignificant. It’s as though it ticks a little box in my brain. I have successfully described and outlined a problem. Dopamine reward!
  2. This is more an extension of (1), but venting feels good. It’s not entirely supported as a positive act; psychologically it is better to vent productively (i.e., outlining a problem, why you feel that way, possible solutions if any), but sometimes it’s good to just let it rip (I would argue, though, that you should always choose your audience with care when you do this. Never forget that the internet is forever).
  3. Sometimes it makes a good story. When shit happens, and especially when it gets ridiculous, there’s a part of my brain that says, “This will make a great anecdote later.” I am happy to whinge and try, if I can find the energy and the narrative, to make it as entertaining as I possibly can. I see it as a challenge, and it also helps me deal with the problem.
  4. Because I bloody well can.

Now that we’ve dealt with whingeing, and how I think that it’s perfectly appropriate 99.9% of the time for someone to have a sook in their own feed, everything else falls into the category of miscellaneous.

You can’t please everyone; don’t try

If you’ve consulted one or many of those “what you shouldn’t post on Facebook of Twitter” articles, you will have spotted a pattern – or rather, you will have spotted a lack of a pattern.

Variously, apparently, you should not:

  1. post about fitness (this includes everything from “I ran a marathon” to “gym killed me today”)
  2. post about nutrition (self-explanatory)
  3. post about medical stuff (oh noes! Oversharing! How dare you mention that you are in overwhelming pain all the time and you’re feeling a bit bummed and would like a little emotional support!)
  4. post about politics (that just makes people angry!)
  5. post about religion (I can channel myself here. People posting about their religion makes me want to stab myself in the eye, but since that would be unproductive, I take the radical step of minding my own business)
  6. post about their relationship (because who cares how much you love your snoogy woogums?)
  7. post about their children (because who cares about your sprogs?)
  8. post about their pets (HAHAHAHAHAHAHA I’m sorry I can’t comment on this one even a little)
  9. post about their failures (this comes under “whingeing”, I believe)
  10. post about their successes (because you’re showing off – or humble-bragging – or rubbing it in)

And one might reasonably wonder – after reading all this – what one can post about without upsetting the Buzzfeed authorship. Relatively few people seem to complain about people posting science or music or art, but then those can push political buttons.

And this self-righteous superior malarkey basically ends up in one place:

“I have things that I prefer to see in my feed, and these are obviously universal because everyone reacts the same way to these things that I do. I am the quintessential Internet Human and there is no variation around this mean.”

Twit.

I’m sorry (spoiler: I’m not sorry), but hell, it’s not hard to step back and think that maybe what you want to see and what I want to see and what other people want to see might vary just a tad.

I like to see posts about my friends’ kids, not just for the cute factor, but for the reality factor (these posts are not always overwhelmingly positive), and because I’m quite genuinely interested in what’s happening in my friends’ lives. Also, I like the kids.

I like to see posts about pets, for very similar reasons.

I like to see posts about medical things, about fitness, about nutrition. I like to see posts about politics.

I’m ambivalent about relationship posts. It’s not my thing – in many cases, unless carefully worded, such posts can come back to bite you very hard in the backside, and maybe you’re into that, but they make me squirm a little. Still, it’s absolutely your call. I do occasionally post about my relationship, but only when I find it very entertaining (given the nature of my relationship with Husband, it is usually pretty entertaining, at least for me).

I really hate religion posts (with the exception of very thoughtful pro-atheism posts, because I agree with many of those, and who doesn’t like a nice echo chamber?), but if you want to post about religion, go nuts. It’s your call, your feed; they’re your thoughts and your feelings, and if you want to use social media to share them, if you find that empowering or even just fun, then please do it. Don’t worry about people like me who are driven nuts by it. We’ll get over ourselves and move on. You can’t please everyone and it’s not worth trying.

What I really love to see? I love to see posts about friends’ successes. I want to hear about your promotion, your new job, your grant, your new best time in a 5K run, your new sculpture, your market stall, your paper, your novel. The idea that posting about good things in your life is “bragging” is just about one of those most vile things I can think of. Are some people having a brag and being a bit superior? Well, probably. Whatever. That’s not my problem. If you really don’t want to see good things happening to your friends, I think you might have some other problems you want to deal with, and I’m not being passive-aggressive: I mean there’s some insecurity and some anxiety happening, and it’s worth having a think about it. Sometimes it is hard to see someone succeed where we have failed, even if we love them; sometimes it can be stupendously hard; but most of us see that we can’t make it their problem. It’s our problem, and we deal with it. There’s no need to take off their shine.

Social media is a place where a bunch of different people raised in different ways – in different countries, towns, religions, and under different social rules and regimes – come together. When they do come together, they bring their baggage with them – their personal rules and preferences on what is, and is not, appropriate – and they often presume that their rules are universal.

People post about what they care about. They post about their passions. Sometimes they admittedly just post about what they had for dinner (I can take or leave that one; it’s similar to my banal “Oh God I’m in the lab and I haven’t had coffee, which end of the pipette goes where?” sort of posts). They post about what’s on their mind, and the thing about social media is that you can use it how you like. You can use it to promote things you are passionate about; you can use it to stay in touch with friends; you can use it to tell anecdotes about your day; and none of these things are mutually exclusive.

Here is how it works: social media is about things going outward from the writer, not inward towards the reader; or, to put it another way, the focus is on expression, not consumption, of material.

Do you have a responsibility to entertain people? Of course not. A social media feed is not a journalism feed. It’s not a magazine, or a novel, or a newspaper. People who write in those contexts, who write professionally, are subject to a wide swathe of ethical responsibilities. Social media is not a professional context: it’s just a bunch of people spewing whatever comes into their head at odd moments, and that has turned out to be enormously popular and enormously effective and incredibly annoying in a variety of ways.

But – my own opinion – you also do have an implied responsibility not to ruin it for everybody else, by which I mean: don’t show up self-righteously to tell people how boring their posts are, or how they’re using social media “wrong”, and while I won’t generally tell people what to post or what not to post, I have very little patience with meta-whingeing: whingeing about other people whingeing (although if you’re of a recursive mindset, my own stance is meta-meta-whingeing; DUDE, MIND BLOWN).

And in my own, excessively verbose way, I’ll get to the point:

Be your own filter. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. I scroll past “God is good!” You can scroll past “Look at my adorable children,” or “i hate my ex [sic]”. If you want to argue about the merits of a political position, that’s your call (I do and have done so, depending on the issue and how much I feel like I can be bothered getting stuck into it). If someone consistently posts a bunch of tripe that drives you mad, you can filter or unfriend them. That’s a power that you have.

I mean, you could just show up on posts you don’t like and tell people that their thoughts, interests and feelings are of no interest to you or anyone else and they should shut up, but that’s kind of an arse move, and it makes you the problem.

Morning Coffee Feminism: Large Dogs

“Really?” he asked. “What breed of dog would you get?”

“A rottweiler,” I said, surprised by the question. I’m sure I’d made no secret of my preference, and I knew he loved the breed also.

There was silence for a moment. “Are you sure?” he asked, looking as though he were trying to fish more tactful words out of the air. “You need to be very strong-willed…”

I blinked. Had he met me?

“…have a lot of force of personality, you know… strength…”

If you’ve met me, you’re probably not labouring under the delusion that I lack personal stage presence, and if you’ve spent any time with me at all, you’re unlikely to think I’m anything other than strong-willed.

I like phrases like “strong-willed” and “determined”. They sound so much better than “stubborn” and “plants her feet like a recalcitrant yak.”

My guest – who knew, and knows me, very well – refused to meet my eyes, and it was at that moment I realised: this wasn’t about whether I could command an audience on stage or look stern at a puppy. This was about my sex.

But we didn’t say that. It would have started an argument.

 

***************

“You treat that dog as a child substitute.”

I glanced across at my dog, who was happily flopped on the paving, his leash hooked onto a post. Since he was tied up, the other end was hooked to his harness, rather than his collar, because if he tugged at it, I didn’t want him to give himself an accidental correction.

“I don’t put children in correction collars,” I pointed out.

After a brief digression of black humour, I returned to the point. “I also don’t have them sleep in crates, leave them outside in the rain during the day, or kick them out of the house when they misbehave. I admit I haven’t had the opportunity, since I don’t have a kid, but I can promise I wouldn’t do these things. I also wouldn’t insist a child sit before coming inside, or wait for an invitation before coming up on the couch, or stay in a fixed position while I prepare food.”

“Yeah, but-”

“No, wait. Are you absolutely sure that you didn’t decide that, because I was female, I was going to treat any dog I got like a child? And are you sure you didn’t decide that ahead of time, and interpret every action I take in light of that? Because that’s called confirmation bias.”

There was silence for a moment. My conversational companion sipped at his wine. “Yeah. Okay. That’s a fair point.”

I only won like that once. The next time we had this conversation, he completely denied it. It would have destroyed his belief that mostly what women want out of life is to have babies, and somehow they’re incapable of viewing pets as anything other than babies. And if only I wasn’t so happy with and interested in my dogs, I would be absolutely trying conceive some potential offspring right now.

 

***************

I used to spend some time on a rottie enthusiast forum – I mostly lurked and just read things. I didn’t post. There were some really good tips and lovely people on there. Also, some absolute rubbish.

I remember being really affected by one extremely long conversation where a man insisted, at length, that women just didn’t have the force of personality to manage large dogs like rottweilers. They needed a man’s touch. I can provide links if anyone wants to watch the carnage that followed from numerous female dog owners and handlers.

This just in: you don’t need to be able to lift the dog – if it comes down to a need for physical control, all you need is leverage. Very small people can have leverage, and dogs don’t usually know how to work around it. If you’re getting to the point where you’re a big strong guy and you’re relying on that to control your dog, you have a serious problem. Furthermore, despite reports of dogs being sexist, I’ve found just as much anecdotal evidence going the other way. I think it really does have a lot to do with body language and confidence, as well as patience and determination, and these are not specifically male traits.

Furthermore, I’ll just link you through to The K9 Company again. There’s two women on the front page. The taller one? That’s Cat. She’s one of our trainers and runs the business with her partner, Brent. The delighted rottweiler there is Zooka. He’s honestly the best trained (and perhaps one of the most loved) dogs I have ever met. He is Cat’s dog.

If you want to tell Cat that women can’t handle rottweilers, be my freaking guest. Just let me know ahead of time so I can track down a flak jacket, because I don’t want to get injured as I enjoy the show.

 

***************

Post. “Morning coffee feminism” is a new blog post series I’m starting up, basically telling short stories about times where sexism and gender essentialism has impacted my life. They’re mostly what are called “micro-aggressions”, the little things that just start to add up like crazy over a lifetime. I was just going to write one post but it was reaching novella length, so here we are! Feel free to share your own experiences or opinions in the comments.

DOG QUEST: Teaching survival skills, or, “It’s a human’s human’s human’s human’s world.”

…with apologies to James Brown.

I’m currently feverishly promoting this article. If it’s too long for you (it is long, but it’s not dense – very readable), the tl;dr version is this:

Dominance theory is dead. It does not work. It is fail. Application of dominance theory results in traumatised dogs, dog “aggression”, injured humans and a certain amount of stress.

First, I will briefly explain what dominance theory is (for more detail, please do read the linked article. It is very important). Then I will explain how this has applied to my own experience, my own dogs, and the training philosophies I have picked up along the way.

If you have ever heard anyone talk about how you must be “alpha” with a dog – that’s dominance theory. If you’ve ever had anyone tell you that you need to roll over and lie on your dog – that’s dominance theory. If any behaviour that occurs is interpreted in light of canine aggression and a desire to move up in the hierarchy – that’s dominance theory. It’s based on flawed interpretations of wolf pack structure and, believe it or not, Nazi justification of eugenics programmes (the latter came as some surprise to me).

If you have these ideas about dog training and behaviour lurking around in your head, don’t feel too bad. They are almost universal, and pop up in everything from poorly-researched documentaries to romantic werewolf literature (of which I read a great deal. Shh). We pretty much all grew up with these ideas of alphas and omegas and dominance. The best you can do is to replace this all-pervading pile of horse-puckey with good information, and reassess how you interact with your dog.

Dominance theory promotes the idea that there are leaders and followers in a pack, and that this is what dogs look for, and if you don’t nip it in the bud quick smart, your dog will think you are a follower and will try to be leader.

Firstly, wolf packs don’t work like that. Wolf packs are nuclear family units: mum, dad, and various generations of pups who stick around until they grow up and sod off to find their own mate (sound familiar?).

Secondly, dogs aren’t wolves, and haven’t been for a very, very long time. Dogs have been bred by humans to be tame and easily domesticated, and to look to humans for leadership and companionship. They are not the same. Behavioural observations drawn from one group can not be readily applied to the other. That’s a little like saying we behave like chimps (with some caveats); it’s not that we don’t have any behaviours in common, but their expression is wildly different.

I went to the Dog Lovers Show in Melbourne at the start of May (and I need to post about that, it was largely a very positive experience), and sat in with a behaviourist giving a presentation about dogs and kids. She said that the best way to understand dogs was to describe them as toddlers (intelligent, affectionate, playful, self-motivated, largely amoral) with mouths full of knives (what big teeth you have, little Abby-dog).

The comparison of kids to dogs is a common one, and there’s a whole blog post in that too, but I’m going to point out what I personally feel is the absolute crucial functional difference between raising a dog and raising a kid, and why I’ve given this post the title that I have.

When you raise a kid, you are – ultimately – guiding a little fellow human towards independence and autonomy. You are protecting them and loving them, yes, but you are also teaching them how to interact safely with the world and make their own decisions. One day, they will talk back, and one day soon, they will argue, and then, they will start making their own decisions, and eventually, they will make all their own decisions and you will be left biting your nails and watching the end result of all your parenting (not that it ever really ends, or so I’m told, but there’s a letting-go-point and I understand that this is nerve-wracking).

When you raise a dog, this never happens. There is no letting-go-point. Dogs cannot ever be autonomous or independent, no matter how intelligent they are or how well trained. They’ll be able to do certain things – work out where they are allowed to poop, for example, or operate those toys that deliver treats, or herd sheep – but they’ll never be able to feed themselves, or refill their water bucket, or contribute to financial decisions which help pay for their food. They will never be self-sufficient. Dogs are companions and friends and an absolute delight and treasure; but they are pets, and they are completely dependent on us.

Dogs have to live in a human world, and if they live solely as dogs, they are not safe. For example, biting and mouthing is one of the ways in which dogs communicate. They nip, they herd, they push, they pull, they demand attention, they nag, they play. Biting and mouthing are not automatically warnings, or aggressive behaviours. They certainly can be, but it’s far from certain.

If dogs are not trained out of these behaviours, someone will get hurt, and ultimately, it will be the dog who pays the price.

The same can apply to containment. Dogs will naturally wander about, establish territory, interact with other dogs, and explore – but they live in a human world, a world full of cars and trucks, bigger dogs, pounds and council regulations. Again, the dog will ultimately be the one to pay the price.

This is why I don’t call what I teach my dogs “tricks”. I call them “survival skills” (or, sometimes, fun games). Recall – getting your dog to return to you – is definitely a survival skill. Holding positions like sit, drop and stand may seem more like tricks, but not only are they good for discipline (and fun to learn. Dogs love to learn, especially if there are rewards like treats, and praise, and playing), they are good for veterinary examination. I teach my dogs that they have to let the vet play with their feet and their ears and examine them, and while they are still pretty wriggly at the vet, they’re well-behaved overall. Drop is also good for making big dogs less threatening to small children – I’ve had kids who were very scared of Amos come over and give him a pat once I got him into a drop.

It’s not that tricks aren’t fun to learn – but none of these things are idle. We don’t teach dogs “heel” and “sit” and “drop” because we want to show off or dominate our dogs; we teach them because it makes it safer and easier for dogs to interact with humans in a human world.

Achieving a good level of obedience is not about being a bully in the way that dominance theory espouses. Dogs need boundaries to their behaviour because they live in our world, not theirs, and unlike children, they will never be able to live in their own world. We’ve bred them for ours. This is where dominance theory is so seductive to people: it’s a simple might-makes-right solution to a complex problem (and simple solutions to complex problems are almost universally wrong). We accept the first premise – that we need to teach dogs to obey certain commands that we give them – and perhaps the second premise – that in order for that obedience to take place, a dog must respect us – and then we go bananas with it, because that respect is as much about trust as anything else. Dogs are self-interested. They have to trust that you won’t hurt them, that your decisions are best, and perhaps that sometimes obedience results in cheese (Amos’s favourite thing in all the land), while disobedience results in dogs being put outside and ignored and not getting any attention (let alone any cheese).

The attitude espoused by dominance theory – that we must physically bully our dogs into obedience – is harmful. Training is one thing. Reward. Praise. Repeat. Occasionally passive punishment (ignore dog! possibly combined with sharp words – “Bad puppy!” is still very effective with Amos) helps for things like jumping and mouthing. I used to believe otherwise (I used to think I knew everything), but now I know better. The science is not behind dominance theory.

I have a few great examples.

Amos has, on two occasions, behaved in a way I might describe as “a challenge.” In both cases, I told him to go outside, and he didn’t want to. His posture got very stiff, and he stared at me, and he growled when I touched his collar. This is un-Amos-like behaviour, and the Cesar Milans of the world would probably say that he was challenging me for dominance. Bullshit. In both cases, there were special circumstances. The first time was shortly after we got Abby – he’d been sick, there was a new dog around, and he was stressed. The second time, he was not feeling well. He was stressed, he was shitty, and he didn’t want to go outside, and he’d had enough.

I’m not saying it’s acceptable behaviour – it absolutely is not! – but it’s not a challenge, and it’s not aggression. In fact, when I told him off, and persisted in touching the collar, he backed down. He continued to growl and grumble, but he got up and went to the door. He was protesting. He was, in fact, trying to see what he could get away with – pushing the boundaries – and all it got him was being told off, put outside, and ignored. At no point did he attempt to mouth, or bite, or cause me any damage.

[side note: this is one point where the difference between dogs and kids would come into play. With a kid, depending on their age or developmental stage and what the behaviour was, I would ideally explain why those boundaries existed. I can’t do that with a dog]

I have had people tell me that my dog was “being dominant” when he licked me (or anyone else). This is such extraordinarily stinky bullshit that I do not even know where to start. Licking is affection, greeting and excitement. I ran into some difficulty when my dad kept telling Amos off for licking him, and Amos started licking him more – because all Amos knew was that dad was cross with him, so he licked him to say, “Do not be cross with the puppy! Be friends!” and the cycle was a bit confusing for everyone.

I have had people tell me to hit my dog.

There was a time when I would have listened, and thus, when I would not have the trust from my dog that I have now.

Dog behaviour is fascinating and complex. You want the trust and respect of your dog. You do not ever want their fear. If fear makes people stupid, imagine what it does to dogs who can’t reason through their emotions.

Please… read the article.