ASK A SWOLE WOMAN
This is the paid Sunday Ask A Swole Woman edition of She’s a Beast, a newsletter about being strong mentally/emotionally/physically.
tw: body image, eating disorders
Dear Swole Woman,
Thank you for your column and all that you do! I’ve been reading it since the Hairpin days, and you were a huge motivation for me to get into lifting.
The problem, I guess: How do I embrace being a big beautiful horse if it’s counterproductive to some of my other goals? I’ve been into cycling forever, and it is a cesspit of disordered eating and valorizing tiny bodies. But I love it! (I’m sorry! I know you hate endurance sports!) I love riding a bike, I love long endurance rides in the middle of nowhere, I love learning new skills on the bike, I love so many aspects of the local cycling community, and I even love hard training rides and races. But it’s kind of at cross-purposes to lifting—a little bit of strength training is helpful on the bike and for injury prevention, but I’m past that and into the realm of adding way more muscle than I actually need to be successful at cycling. I’m at the point now where everything is harder for me because I’m carrying so much more weight, and because I’ve shifted more of my exercise away from cardio and into weights. I still enjoy bike rides by myself, and I feel like I’m technically better at mountain biking than ever thanks to my newfound power, but group rides with my team often feel awful and I’m constantly struggling, only to get dropped because I’m slow.
I know, intellectually, that it is fine: I am an amateur cyclist at best, I’m just here to have fun, and lifting is going to serve me so well over the long run for my health. But I’ve been struggling with this emotionally for a while now—how do I keep my self-esteem up, when the cycling community, and even sometimes my own teammates, drag it down with toxic messaging about how it’s better to be smaller? How do I, an extremely type A competitive person, learn to be okay with the fact that I’m going to be slower on the bike because I’ve prioritized being stronger and healthier overall?
Thank you!!! —Laura
Two years ago, the filmmaker Caroline Treadway released a 45-minute documentary called Light, on “the hidden world of eating disorders in professional rock climbing.” She opens with a monologue describing how she tried to pitch stories on this subject to climbing magazines and was told that they simply would not publish anything on that subject, period.
Treadway talks about her experience landing in a mental hospital for an eating disorder, then discovering rock climbing, which fundamentally shifted her relationship with her body to one of pride. Then she moved to Boulder, Colorado, which has a powerful outdoorsy/climbing culture, and notes that “everyone was on a diet… the worst part was, it worked.”
Many sports still have a fairly outmoded “any lower body weight is better than any higher body weight” approach. As fatphobic as the world in general is, athletics are even more so. Stereotypically, a fatter person is slower, quicker to tire, more ungainly, and has worse conditioning than a less fat person.
But this goes double for sports where weight “matters,” usually where the sport involves a lot of moving bodies themselves: gymnastics, dance, cycling, rock climbing. While the logic there is fairly sport-specific—if still disordered—the borders of sports diet logic feel porous. We love athletes; an athlete is a classic type of cultural hero. Particularly in recent years, that hero status has diffused into a kind of parasociality, in which we believe that the specific way athletes live has relevance to us non-athletes. We want to know their workouts, their diets, what little gadgets they use to track their sleep, what brand of tub they take their daily ice baths in.
There is a scene in the movie Bring It On where, in dire choreographic straits, the cheerleading team defending its national title hires an outside choreographer. Upon arrival, the choreographer immediately expands his assignment beyond simply choreographing and begins handing out exercise and dietary prescriptions.
After telling the team they will be vastly increasing the length and intensity of their workouts, the choreographer tells everyone to picture what they eat in a day. “Now cut that in half. This is called a diet. Everyone start one today.”
“Why does everyone have to go on a diet?” asks one of the brattier cheerleaders.
“Because in cheerleading we throw people in the air. And fat people,,, don’t go as high,” the choreographer responds.
You don’t have to believe that I’m literally typing this from memory, but I am. In the vacuum created by the cultural messaging that lower body weights are always better, that we should always be conscious of what we eat but with little specific instruction on how to accomplish any of this, the athletes of Bring It On stepped up to fill in the particulars to my 13-year old brain: cutting the amounts in half is good. It didn’t matter that the character who said it was supposed to be a total farce and a joke, because everyone in the movie seemed to ultimately do what he said.