Resisting a culture of body optimization
"Programs for physical strength and joy that avoid toxic excellence"? Hands down, this was prenatal yoga for me. I had never ever tried yoga, didn't know much about it. But what a chance to develop new strength and skill as well as community, within a *uniquely female* context that intentionally modified the stretches and poses to our needs and goals. I've never felt (or been) healthier and stronger in my life than I was during that year or so of my first pregnancy and newborn time, thanks to the prenatal and then postpartum yoga studio I found. It's such a contrast to a competitive toxic excellence, with the lens wholly on noticing what was happening in our own (constantly changing) bodies, and building strength through movement that was oriented toward labor and recovery and handling a new baby. I felt deep gratitude for those months of body work and preparation that guided me to explore and celebrate what my body could do. Childbirth is one of the most strenuous yet exciting physical challenges I've ever attempted.
"Who hosts the most casual athletic communities?" In my experience, it's churches! I wonder to what extent church rec leaders recognize this as an intentional ministry, a needful gift to communities in which competitive and travel leagues start to dominate as soon as upper elementary. Church teams, in my area anyway, are a place where even a 9 or 10yo can be a beginner without social stigma. It seems like if young children don't get on the sports train early and often, even the community rec leagues in the parks and municipalities are "too much" for a learner who just wants to play for fun.
I grew up with very sedentary parents, and only joined the track team in high school to strengthen my college resume. I'm glad I had that pressure! After a (long) time, I realized that I did actually enjoy the feeling of moving my body, and feeling physically strong and capable--things as an academically successful "nerd" I'd never before felt in my life, and certainly never experienced in gym class. (I think the tired American "jock/nerd" dichotomy may be wearing down now?)
Part of the satisfaction I got from professional kitchen work was the physicality of it, and over the past few years I've found great joy and pride in yoga and climbing--things pre-track me, and honestly pre-kitchen me, never could've imagined myself getting into. I've read about people having toxic experiences with yoga (ashtanga especially), and I'm sure competitive climbing can get dark. But my own personal experience of basically every yoga studio and climbing gym I've been to is the presence of a joyous and enthusiastic spirit, from employees and practitioners alike. My daughter is 2 and a half, and we're clipping her into her own climbing harness for the first time next month. We can't wait.
I was a ballet dancer on the preprofessional track until I was 18, when college and injury necessitated quitting. Now, a decade later, when I go take an occasional ballet class for fun, it doesn’t feel rewarding in the way it did, because I can feel that it’s not treating my joints kindly, above and beyond what I’d expect from the effects of aging and being out of shape. Classical ballet is a perfect example for this topic, because the current standards of excellence for the art require that dancers abuse their bodies--and I’m not even necessarily talking about body image and disordered eating, just the aesthetic ideals behind turnout and pointe work. Another issue is that, for a “serious” student it requires a pretty much all-consuming time (and likely financial) commitment. (These issues and others are discussed in a book called Turning Pointe by Chloe Angyal.) So, anyway, these days, I feel ambivalent about the art form. I’m grateful for my time in it, but it seems like there’s no really ethical way to pursue *excellence* within it as it currently exists. Definitely processing these questions as we consider future extracurriculars for our children.
I ran in high school and the pressure to minimize our bodies was incredible. Our coach would tell us that every pound 'extra' was 3 seconds on our 5K time (or something like that). In college I switched to triathlons, and the culture there was so much better - first because we were a club sport, not varsity, and second because we all came from different backgrounds and strengths (swimmers vs runners vs people just our for a challenge). I'm still (10-15 years later) recovering from the damage this all did to my body.
The men on our high school team were given the same message (shamed over a single Oreo, etc), but young men's bodies are differently able to handle the stress
Thank you for this post! I didn't play any sports in school, never had any pain, and didn't know why my husband who played everything always had aches and pains and was icing a body part constantly. After having sons in sports, I now know why. I've long felt the sports world pendulum has swung way too far in pushing our kids to injury. I watched this in basketball as my oldest son loved the game, but not the pressure and kid after kid was injured, especially those who joined select teams on top of their high school team. The injuries were exponential in football with concussions plaguing many of the kids. With my younger sons I encouraged them to put off sports until late elementary or middle school and focus on playing with friends outside. This seemed to offer a protective barrier for childhood and imagination to flourish. While many of my mom friends worried about my boys being deprived of what all their kids had, I saw them thrive without the pressure of running from practice to practice. We have a hoop at the end of our driveway and always provided various backyard activities like a trampoline, playset, ect. The kids have a pick-up basketball game on our hoop almost daily or neighbor kids gather in the backyard. This, to me is what childhood should look like.
This is sort of tangential, but I think it can be difficult to judge the badness of toxic excellence *from the outside*, just as it can be difficult to judge it from the inside.
I'm with you in being suspicious of ballet—serious ballet, in particular—but I'm not sure I'd feel this way if I'd been a ballerina. Part of this has to do with times that I've spent in other excellence-oriented spaces (like academic institutions, or doing math competitions) which have their own cultural pathologies, but where the goodness of the thing-pursued is so obvious to me (in part because in pursuing it you come to appreciate it) that the pathologies seem potentially worth it. They're a danger to be guarded against, not something inherent to the pursuit. (And maybe disordered eating is like this with ballet.)
And there isn't some sort of meta-epistemic move we can make to figure out whether we've been brainwashed into mistakingly believing something is good which is actually bad (or at least, so contaminated by badness as to be unjustified) because in pursuing it we've come to value it. I assume some people feel about attaining an unhealthy weight the way I feel about understanding a theorem. I'm quite confident that they're wrong to feel that way, and that I'm right, but there isn't any way to prove it. In cases like this—and in the case of bodybuilding—we can reason about it more abstractly, like, "what good is being pursued here?" and with excessive weight loss it just seems bad. But for things like ballet and football, I'm more suspicious of my willingness to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Because I'm not as hard on, say, the equally problematic fields of analytic philosophy and competitive math than I am on ballet/football.
I work part-time at a climbing gym and I’m also specially trained in adaptive belay (read: assisting climbers with disabilities using different belay methods up the wall.) In general I would say that climbing is a very open sport: everybody and every *body* can climb, and it’s a sport that’s focused on individual achievement vs competition, so it avoids a lot of toxicity.
Climbing is also a communal sport in the sense that you have to have someone on the other end of the rope in order to climb. This forges some wonderful interpersonal bonds. With one of my climbing partners, we’ve developed a sense of each other’s moods and moves and can anticipate what the other will do on the wall; we’ve climbed together so often that we know how to best support the other in achieving their goals. I literally trust this person with my life on a regular basis. Climbing culture across the country is, generally, extremely supportive in this way: it doesn’t matter if you’re at the crag, or at Yosemite, or at the gym, it’s a common cultural etiquette to stay positive and to help others as you can.
Climbing is also an intensely brainy sport, not only for figuring out how to best climb the route, but also how to manage fear (because even though you’re safely tied in your brain will feel afraid of falling at some point or another.) There are many times even the strongest climber won’t be able to send (i.e. finish the climb) if they don’t have the proper technique or if they don’t know how to manage their fear. I’ve personally witnessed a small group of averaged-muscled women climb a medium-hard route, just for some bulky, weight-lifting men to walk over and say, “if those girls can do this it should be easy” and then watched each of them in turn crash and burn because of poor technique. One of the things that attracts me to the sport, to be honest, is its egalitarian nature. One of the best climbers in our gym is a woman with muscular dystrophy and what she’s able to do with her body in order to send a climb, though she does not climb the harder grades, is incredible.
I found my way out of the culture of toxic excellence by becoming a victim of it. I was a really serious cellist growing up, and started college as a music performance major in a strong program. (Not, like, Juilliard, but think like a top 10 cello studio in the US.) I struggled with what I would later learn was anxiety, but rather than deal with that I pushed through by practicing as much and as hard as I could. Far too many hours for a freshman, especially a freshman whose new teacher was changing their bowing technique. No one in the program, including my teacher, thought I should be doing anything but what I was doing. I kept silent about the nagging pain.
Anyway, long story short, I ended up injuring my shoulder so badly through repetitive use that it has never been the same since, even after physical therapy, and a career as a cellist was shot. There were other good things this opened up for me, and on the whole I'm glad I didn't pursue the career of a classical musician for a number of reasons. But learning a hard lesson through loss did it for me. Life's a marathon, not a sprint, and... well... you only get one crack at it. Treat yourself kindly, or you might be left unable to do the things you love.
My kids are loving karate! There are kids (and adults!) of all body types in their studio, and they even find ways to adjust for people who have physical limitations. It's been great so far.
Sports that relies on technical skills rather than pure physical prowess (e.g. rock climbing, ball sports, equitation). Sports that requires being well rounded rather than maximising one particular aspect. True outside sports (hiking, road or mountain cycling). Endurance sports. Sports which are not inherently competitive. Sports with objective rather than subjective standards of accomplishment. Chess.
Most sports actually seem fine until semiprofessional level.
Thank you so much for this post! It couldn't possibly have been better timed for me. I have been trying to find approaches to body issues that are built around an ethical worldview that I can get behind. I find there is a lot of talk about how moralizing food choices is bad, and the implicit argument seems to be that moralizing and shame are generally bad, for some vaguely utilitarian value of 'bad.' While I generally agree that the way our culture moralizes food is bad, that's not because moralizing is inherently bad! But I have a much harder time articulating a positive ethical vision around how to relate to food and the body that differs from the culturally dominant view, and that makes it harder to oppose the scripts in my head about how restriction is inherently good, etc.
If anyone has any thoughts about what a positive ethical vision around food and body image would look like, I'd be delighted to hear them!
I grew up doing Irish dance, which, while full of many different body types and a healthier approach to stage artifice than ballet, is actually worse for your joints (the only thing cushioning your jumps is your feet; you land on straight legs). I've still got knee problems if I'm on my feet too much (my couple years in a coffeeshop had me regularly wrapping one knee or another to get through the full eight-hour shift, especially if the weather was changing). Ballroom dance in college helped scratch the 'excellence' itch, but inevitably you join the competitive circuit, and I do not think I'd put my kids into competitive ballroom dance at all (plus the social aspect is what I liked the most about it!). As an adult, I took ballet classes, and found a really excellent teacher at a studio in DC, but as rates went up I was eventually priced out, and the closer, cheaper, and also way more professional studio was just not my speed (too intense, not fun enough, felt way too much like a workout and not a class).
... but throughout, something I haven't noted, is that I also learned to fence in middle school, and that has been by far one of the healthiest environments for physical engagement, even despite the bruises. I think the competitive circuit for fencing also becomes unhealthy (or at least all-consuming), but I found a nice lateral move to take the same skills somewhere more casual (and yet also super intense, but in a different way): heavy rapier in the SCA! That's full of people of all ages and body types, and I've heard a new-ish refrain: "If you're not having fun, stop. You can come back any time."
I've only ever been part of casual sports (sailing, Jiu Jitsu, and now more recently running) - that's not to say that I never take it seriously, only that I only took it seriously as part of the enjoyment of it. I never really felt an unhealthy pressure in the clubs I've been part of, only an encouragement to improve over time.
I think it's easier if you're not trying to go for something at an elite level, and are just doing it for fun and general fitness. Best advice I have (do not take this very seriously!) is to cultivate a disinterest in sport from an early age, being more interested in books than sports and having terrible physical coordination meant that becoming a professional athlete was never on the table for me, although you still need to promote enough movement to avoid the dangers of inactivity.
This is definitely something that we regularly wrestle with when considering our kids's activities. We have 3 girls and 1 one boy, and a lot of variety in skill and temperament. We also homeschool, so sports are their "P.E."
So far, limiting factors include time and money. We can't over-invest in one kid without limiting what the others can do. We also keep an eye out for cultures that can be damaging. For example, one of my daughters probably would have some level of success modeling or acting. As fun and even potentially profitable as those fields would be, having just a glimpse of what they do to people, especially young girls, gives us pause. Of course, I don't know how to get her into those fields, which is also to her benefit. A trickier situation is that my sweetest, most people pleasing child also has a prototypical gymnast's body. She could have real success there, even if only in smaller competitions and possibly college. It seems like we have some responsibility to give her the opportunity to discover her potential, but that is balanced against the risk that the pressure of competition could crush her spirit. Fortunately for now, we are at a very noncompetitive gym, and she is just learning to enjoy it and see what she can accomplish with her body.
Healthy opportunities for fitness?
Fitness routines where participants aren't grounded in a competitive group experience.
Drop-in dance classes and gym memberships have been those for me.
Once the pandemic erupted and the gyms shut down, organizing a home gym has been crucial.
I love latin social dancing (salsa, bachata, kizomba, Zouk), because it brought me back to my body. Through dancing I was able to work with my body, not against it, and I always felt that I was doing something beautiful. The following aspect in particular was so freeing. The social aspect (in London UK) where you turn up, everyone does a class for an hour, then dances, was an equaliser because everyone would know how to do something. There are competitions etc, but I consciously avoided entering for them, because the unpredictability of the social dance is what I actually enjoyed, not choreography. Social dance is a balance between order and chaos, choreographed dance is too much order for me!