I have a piece up at Deseret on why no new state should approve online gambling, and the states who have should restore their bans. “A state that relies on gambling revenue is similarly reliant on worsening the lives of its citizens. It plans to fix crumbling infrastructure by eroding the financial stability of its families, to fill potholes by laying pits in the path of its people.”
(This week’s Other Feminisms talks about body dysmorphia and disordered eating, in case that’s a topic some readers need to handle carefully)
I saw a disturbing little diptych in my recent reading. First, from the New York Times, former Penn State runner Audra Koopman quoted in “Female College Athletes Say Pressure to Cut Body Fat Is Toxic.”
“A lot of us have kind of been brainwashed into thinking that that is something that’s good for you and it is good for you to lose your period and it is good for you to have that feeling of hunger in your stomach.”
Then, in the Washington Post’s feature on the science of steroids and bodybuilding, Jamie Pinder, a three-time Ms. Olympia competitor said:
A lot of people got very mad at me because they think that I should be an advocate for women doing whatever they want to their bodies. But my point is, should we be promoting a sport where women are downright abusing anabolics? It’s like, I don’t care if people are alcoholics, but do I want to watch a sport where people drink themselves to death?
I’ve always said I won’t let my daughters sign up for ballet. I know there are some non-toxic studios, but it’s always seemed like the simplest ways to increase their risk for an eating disorder. Whatever good there is in ballet, I’d encourage them to find elsewhere.
What I see in these other examples is the way that other feats of athletic prowess can be drawn into a kind of toxic excellence. It takes weightlifting (as well as steroids) to be a bodybuilder, but, at competitions, the strength they’ve developed isn’t on display, just the poses that show off the competitors veins and muscles. It would be as if a competition for chefs consisted solely of showing off their burn and knife injuries with no food eaten at all.
Meanwhile, in many college athletics, the quantification of fitness leads many girls (and a number of men) to become progressively less healthy as they chase bodyfat percentage benchmarks without regard for how destroying their body destroys their strength and speed.
At the Summer Olympics, we see gymnasts who are encouraged to train through injuries and stay silent about abuse, and then, in the Winter Olympics, it’s skaters who are ripping through quads during the brief window their bodies are light enough to fly—and stunting their puberty and their growth to push that window a little longer.
There’s a kind of treadmill, where the athletes who are gifted enough to excel are invited to push further and further, until their bodies are destroyed and they’ve hypertrained and hypertrained themselves until the sport is a long way from the play it started as.
I’d be curious to hear how you find ways to pursue strength and exult in the gift of a body while remaining an amateur in the most basic sense: a lover of your discipline, not a competitor. I’m particularly interested in hearing from parents of older girls, but also from readers who are making these choices about their own physical explorations.
"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.