Journey to the Gym: How Exercising as Self-Care Really Works

For a dedicated screen-potato, deciding to try a gym membership is about loving yourself and being reminded to take stock of one’s well-being, mentally and emotionally as well as physically.

by B.C.

I never thought I’d say this, but the gym brings me a special kind of zen. I find its disorder comforting. The one I go to is especially painful to look at. Its branding is marked by bright, kitschy colors and overly encouraging slogans left and right. You can do it!!!!!!! You feel like you’re in a kids’ party place or some kind of large, interactive cult. Maybe even a carnival-themed dystopian society where electricity relies on manpower. Continue reading “Journey to the Gym: How Exercising as Self-Care Really Works”


The Good, The Bad, and The Absolutely Terrifying – Colorado

S.T.’s note: I wrote most of this story on Wednesday morning. Wednesday afternoon, I was just finishing up when the news of the San Bernardino shooting broke. That mass shootings pile up on top of one another so rapidly that one occurs as I wrote about one from a few days earlier is both tragic and outrageous. As of now, we do not know what was behind the San Bernardino shooting, if anything. I decided to go ahead with this piece because there is a link between words and actions, between violent speech and violent deeds; we see that link in violence against women, in violence against black men and women, in violence against Muslims. But the only thing that connects every single mass shooting that has occurred in the U.S.—in 2015, by the way, there have been more mass shootings than days in the year so far—is the guns. I am at a complete loss as to how we address gun control. So I talk and write about the things I feel capable of talking and writing about. 

Some days—some weeks—it feels impossible to find the good in news about women’s reproductive health and rights. Still, it is important not to lose hope completely, so I will tell you that the state of Alabama has stopped trying to defund their (two) Planned Parenthood clinics, and is even covering Planned Parenthood’s legal fees. That is about all the good news I feel I can bring you today, but the resilience of Colorado’s Planned Parenthood clinic and spike in donations after Friday’s devastating shooting cannot be overlooked.

planned parenthood

Now, let’s talk about the shooting. Where do we begin? Do we begin with the event itself? On Friday, November 27th, the day after Thanksgiving, a man entered Colorado’s only Planned Parenthood clinic, and murdered three people, wounding nine others. Do we talk about the murderer, Robert Dear? He certainly fits the profile. His ex-wife, Barbara Micheau, divorced him in 1993, describing him as a “serial philanderer and a problem gambler, a man who kicked her, beat her head against the floor and fathered two children with other women while they were together.” According to both Micheau and Dear’s own statements, he has a history of justifying his actions through the “belief that he will be saved.” Dear has a clear history—domestic violence, vandalizing a different Planned Parenthood clinic, praise for other anti-abortion terrorists—of radically violent misogyny.


Or do we talk, again, about gun control, hoping desperately we aren’t just throwing our voices into the wind? In a sharp condemnation of the way much of America reacts to this sort of senseless violence, President Obama said Saturday that “If we truly care about this — if we’re going to offer up our thoughts and prayers again, for God knows how many times, with a truly clean conscience — then we have to do something about the easy accessibility of weapons of war on our streets to people who have no business wielding them.” Just days later, another mass shooting occurred in San Bernardino, with 14 killed and 14 more injured. I am, in all honestly, too exhausted to say anything further on gun control. Over and over and over, Americans cower in fear in movie theaters, malls, schools, offices, because we cannot, or will not, take real action on gun control. I don’t know how to talk about it anymore.


Maybe we talk about the victims. There are three in Colorado—I made a donation to the Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic in their name, and if you have the means to do so, I urge you to do the same. Their names are Garrett Swasey, Ke’Arre Stewart, and Jennifer Markovsky. All three of them leave behind young children. All three of them were there to help others. Garrett Swasey, a police officer, was killed responding to the call from the clinic. Ke’Arre Stewart, an Iraq war veteran, had gone to Planned Parenthood to accompany a friend. He was shot outside the clinic, and ran back in to warn others with his dying breath. Jennifer Markovsky was also there to support a friend (her friend was also shot, but is not critically injured), and has been widely described by those she left behind as a kind-hearted person who would do anything for her friends, husband, and children.


But more than anything, I want to talk about the way we talk about abortion. As an individual, Robert Dear is a misogynist Christian extremist, a right-wing terrorist, no more connected to Christianity than Jihadist terrorists are to Islam. As individuals, each of the three victims cared for the people in their lives—the friends they accompanied to the clinic, the children they raised, the citizens they died protecting—and leave behind devastated families. As national phenomena, gun control and large-scale violence are issues we need to fight with everything we’ve got. But while this violence and the devastation it has caused are being described, and rightly so, as “senseless,” it is not random, nor, in a sick way, is it all too difficult to understand.


I do not think that responding to this atrocity by talking about abortion rights is simply a calculating move to further a political agenda while in a national spotlight. I think it is insulting to those who have died to pretend that there was no reason they were killed, nothing behind the violence. In particular, Stewart and Markowitz were killed because they made the decision to be there for their friends as their friends sought basic healthcare. They were killed—Robert Dear killed them—because, whatever their respective personal beliefs, they assisted women they cared for in getting necessary medical care from one of the only places in the state that offers it, or at least offers it at an affordable price.


I do not know what sort of care those women were seeking. I do not know if they were there for abortions or ultrasounds, pap smears or breast exams. I don’t care. If anyone tells me that “they weren’t even there to get abortions,” or repeats  the statistic that only 3% of Planned Parenthood’s services are actually abortion, my stomach will tighten. Yes, the other 97% of Planned Parenthood’s services are very important. Yes, millions of women—and some men, too—will lose access (do lose access) to important healthcare when Planned Parenthoods are shut down or attacked because of that 3%. But when we justify Planned Parenthood’s existence through all the other wonderful and important work it does, we suggest that abortion needs to be justified. That maybe there’s something a little icky about abortion. That maybe we should just focus on the other things, and not talk about that too much.


Let me be clear: I fully understand why, as an individual, religious or not, some people feel that they would never be able to get an abortion. I fully understand why some people are deeply, deeply uncomfortable with the idea of anyone getting an abortion. And perhaps for some people, some of that discomfort will never go away. But I also feel certain that the more we talk about it, and the more open and varied ways we find to talk about it, the more that discomfort will dissipate. Still, it is okay to feel discomfort around abortion; what is painfully necessary is to extend that discomfort to include empathy. And the way the most vocal advocates of the anti-abortion movement speak does everything it can to quash any semblance of empathy for women seeking abortions.


So, let’s talk about talking about abortion. When I was thirteen, I was in DC’s Dupont Circle with my dad and some classmates. What looked like a mini version of one those buses designed for tours—railings and a megaphone affixed to the top—drove by. But this bus was plastered with pictures of tiny, half-formed fetuses, covered in blood and goop, faces contorted as if they were crying out in pain. The megaphone at the top blared rhetoric about “baby-killers,” “murderers,” “sin,” but mostly I remember those pictures, so much larger than life and so graphic. That was fourteen years ago; since then, anti-abortion rhetoric has gotten a stronger hold in American media and politics, and reproductive rights have been rolled back across several states. Over the summer, an undercover video making it seem as if Planned Parenthood runs some sort organ farm, made waves and inspired even more regressive legislation; despite being debunked, these videos succeeded in generating more fear and hate around both abortion itself and Planned Parenthood in particular. It is widely reported that after he was taken into custody, Robert Dear said “no more baby parts.” It would seem that these videos had an impact on him. As Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus succinctly puts it: “inflammatory rhetoric inflames.” Marcus cites the rhetoric of those like Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina. Let’s not forget Ben Carson’s comparison between abortion and slavery. And that’s just this political season. The extreme right-wing rhetoric is toxic and dangerous, and the extreme right-wing terrorists who follow this rhetoric (not just around abortion) are a national crisis. But to return to my earlier point, we also need to talk about how pro-choice people discuss abortion, because often, there are issues there too.


For some people, abortion is a decision made out of desperation, an incredibly difficult one, a sacrifice for already existent children. Two women I know have told me very similar stories about their mothers: pro-life Catholic women who got pregnant when they already had children to care for, whose pregnancies—for health reasons, for financial reasons—would have rendered them incapable of caring for the children who needed them. Both of these women did something they believed was ‘sinful’ in order to provide a life for the children they had. On the other end of the spectrum are women like Emily Letts, who knew immediately that she did not want to be pregnant, and for whom an abortion was a simple medical procedure. There are as many reasons for getting an abortion, as many feelings about one’s own abortion, as there are women who have had them. There aren’t right or wrong reasons for not wanting to continue a pregnancy or have a child. There are not right or wrong ways to feel about one’s decision. It is important to note that 95% percent of women who have abortions do not regret them afterwards (and there will always be a small percent of people who regret any major decision, this is inevitable).


This is what we need to talk about. Not only the women who we think of getting abortions out of desperation—young teenagers, rape victims, women with health issues—they are very important. But the women who simply know that they are not ready to have children, that they do not want to spend nine months of their life going through major body changes, conducting their lives differently, are just as important. While, on the one hand, we need to work on sex-education and access to birth control to make abortions rare in addition to safe and accessible, we also need to normalize abortions. We need to hear more stories. We need to say the word out loud, and not in hushed tones or with euphemisms. The Colorado shooting was an act of terrorism, meant to both punish people for going against an extreme ideology and scare people away from seeking abortions or providing them. We need to push against this terror, to make the world safer for women seeking abortions and the men and women who provide them. So let’s talk about gun control, let’s talk about violence, let’s talk about extremism, let’s honor the dead. But let’s also talk about abortion, and do so openly and unafraid.

Big Food and the Fitspo Trap: Is Pinterest bad for our health?

Fitspo’s assertion that we have the power to change our bodies takes for granted that people are not—and should not—be happy with their bodies unless they fit into one of a few “attractive” body types, and learning to love, care for, and revel in the body that you have is never a virtue. While we have the power to fight back against genetics, fitspo never tells us we have the power to rescript what “fit,” “healthy,” “attractive,” and “beautiful” mean in our world.

As someone deeply invested in both the health of my own body and the right of people everywhere to make decisions regarding every aspect of their physical, mental, and emotional selves, I want to highlight what I see as some of the underlying issues that make the fitspo narrative—as well as other narratives we see or read about obesity and sickness—so dangerous. While fitspo pretends to offer us agency over our bodies, it really serves to affirm and extend the belief that fatness is a moral problem, an issue of work ethic.

During my typical daily perusal of Pinterest, I am beset with various cheerful, click-baity pins suggesting various diet and exercise tips for staying or becoming slim and/or fit. Whether I’m browsing for bathing suits, a new workout top, or a vegan cupcake recipe, Pinterest assumes I’m also looking to be skinny. A search using the term “fitspo” or “fitspiration” turns up very similar results to a search using the word “healthy”.  Fellow pinners are constantly sharing posts like “How to Beat Back Fat,” “10 Natural Ways to Get Rid of Belly Fat,” or the more concerning “21 Ways to Lose 10 Pounds in a Week” or “5 Foods to Never Eat.” Each headline is accompanied by images of women showing off their toned physiques (all too often without showing the model’s head, driving home the point that I’m not to look at them as people: they are bodies and with enough work, I can insert my own head onto their form). The cumulative message of these pins is that with a few simple tweaks to my routine, I will be able to achieve the svelte physique of my dreams.

We hate our lives and feel like our souls are being crunched into oblivion but at least we're synchronized.
We hate our lives and feel like our souls are being crunched into oblivion but at least we’re synchronized.

The internet is full of articles that seem aimed at empowering people to change their bodies. Through these articles, people are provided with questionably authoritative scientific knowledge that may help them make changes and choices in their lifestyle that allow them to wield a greater degree of control over their bodies and their health. They can, for example, fight against their genetics and natural body composition in order to seek a desired “look”.  According to the fitspo narrative, our bodies are ours to shape and by exhibiting discipline, self-control, and extreme amounts of hard work, we really can achieve whatever shape we desire—or more accurately, we can achieve a physique which falls into a range of “acceptable” body types (for women, slim, toned, “goddess”, etc.)

On one hand, the claim that we have control over our own bodies, even against our predetermined genetics, is hopeful (if only lawmakers took women’s agency as seriously as Pinterest does). However, ultimately this narrative is built on an unstable web of half-truths and bad assumptions. Fitspo’s assertion that we have the power to change our bodies takes for granted that people are not—and should not—be happy with their bodies unless they fit into one of a few “attractive” body types,  and learning to love, care for, and revel in the body that you have is never a virtue. While we have the power to fight back against genetics, fitspo never tells us we have the power to rescript what “fit,” “healthy,” “attractive,” and “beautiful” mean in our world.

As someone deeply invested in both the health of my own body and the right of people everywhere to make decisions regarding every aspect of their physical, mental, and emotional selves, I want to highlight what I see as some of the underlying issues that make the fitspo narrative—as well as other narratives we see or read about obesity and sickness—so dangerous. While fitspo pretends to offer us agency over our bodies, it really serves to affirm and extend the belief that fatness is a moral problem, an issue of work ethic.

But let’s back up a bit. Medical professionals have agreed that statistically Americans are getting fatter and sicker at an alarming rate (especially among juvenile populations).This fact, combined with the rise of processed foods* and the historically powerful lobby of certain food industries, has been the subject of documentaries such as Food Inc., Hungry for Change, and Fed Up. Each of these documentaries outlines the way that the “big food” lobbyists have created a situation where we are left in the dark about the nutritional content of the food that we are sold. For example, the sugar lobby has made it so that food manufacturers do not have to print the daily percentage values for sugar on their products, masking the fact that many foods probably have too much of that sweetener.

Here’s the typical narrative: Food companies are huge players in a capitalist system that encourages and incentivizes them to make processed food as cheaply as possible while also being tasty enough to fly off the shelves (read: lots of sugar or artificial sweetener). As more health information is disseminated amongst the general public (i.e. that a diet with too much sugar leads to health problems) these companies try to protect their product by hiding contents or by making a new product that has lower amounts of a specific ingredient (i.e. diet soda is sugar-free) and is marketed as “healthier”, despite the fact that in order to take out a specific ingredient, they often had to replace it with an even less desirable alternative (like aspartame, a neurotoxin-cum-sweetener found in diet soda). Occasionally, policymakers or healthcare whistleblowers call these companies out for their crap, often with scientific studies in hand in  government hearings and demand that companies provide more information and become more accountable for the harmful ingredients in their food, but this rarely ever leads anywhere. Increasingly, the powerful “big food” lobbyists sideline systemic change by buying their way into academic studies and by choosing certain nutrients, often “fat” or “calories” to demonize while they continue designing low quality foods. These foods activate our brains in a way that causes us to become addicted to specific ingredients and then gain weight which has been correlated with certain health problems, such as diabetes.

It’s at this point that health professionals often step in, offering ways to combat big food’s nefarious plot. But health professionals are often also tied into their own industries and we see magazines and TV programs report on “superfoods”  or supplements that promise to transform our diets and health (often these superfoods are then incorporated into processed foods to make them more appealing to health-conscious consumers). Thus when faced with criticism, the food industry throws up its hands and says “I don’t know what more you want from us. We gave you low fat food with acai berries. Your weight gain (obviously unwanted) must be because you don’t exercise enough”. And then, the fitness industry—bolstered by online movements like fitspo—takes over and tells us that “This month’s choices are next month’s body” and “suck it up so one day you won’t have to suck it in”. We are convinced that it is our work ethic rather than our ability to make informed decisions about food and exercise that will give us control over over bodies and self-esteem (nevermind freeing ourselves from this system by choosing to accept our bodies the way that they are).

Weights are tools for living your best capitalist-work-ethic dreams, according to a familiar moral fitness narrative.
Weights are tools for living your best capitalist-work-ethic dreams, according to a familiar moral fitness narrative.

Try as they may, the documentaries that shed light on this system also do little to actually combat it. Like fitspo, they focus on body weight as an indicator of health, often showing pictures of headless fat bodies as signifiers of sickness and spending little time discussing the way that thin does not mean healthy (and vice versa!). As many of these documentarians point out by using the phrase “fat and sick,” being overweight and being sick are two separate things. But by focusing so heavily on losing weight as a key to a healthier life, these documentaries implicitly make the inaccurate claim that we can know whether or not a body is healthy by looking at its size alone.

The solutions that these documentaries often suggest appeal to our power as consumers, not activists. They ask us to change our buying practices, moving away from processed foods and towards local, organic options, which are not options available to everyone. Though choosing one product over another can certainly be a form of activism, I am uncomfortable with the conclusion that the way to combat big food is to opt out of their productions, instead of demanding that they make more honestly-labeled and perhaps even higher-quality processed food.  As it stands, these documentaries give people who do not have access to local, organic food  no other options, confirming that people with less income or the many Americans who live in a food desert with limited grocery options actually do not have the same level of agency over their health as their wealthier, suburban counterparts.

A few more observations about this system:

  1. All of the industries described benefit from you trying to lose weight (buying new food products, gym memberships etc.) but none of them benefit from you actually being happy about your body (as a result of weight loss or just because you’re cool with your body the way it is).
  1. By not providing information about nutritional content or by providing false information about nutrition and exercise in order to protect industry interests, all of these industries take away our abilities to make informed decisions about our health.
  1.  When our health suffers the consequences of not having this information, it becomes our problem to fix: we have the power to remake our bodies, but apparently not the power to force the food industry to be more transparent about their contributions to the public health problems.
  1. By displacing responsibility for health problems away from industry and onto individual morality/willpower, the conglomerate of food, fitness, and health industries encourages us to see our bodies purely as a result of our discipline and the obesity epidemic resulting from a collective dearth of individual willpower.

The problem with all of this is that it transfers the “blame” for fatness or sickness to a person’s lack of labor and lack of moral fortitude without ever holding large scale capitalist industries accountable for the way that their practices affect not only our ability to make decisions about food and health as informed consumers, but also for the way their products have spawned other industries that contribute to this vicious cycle. This situation leads to phenomena such as fitspo that further affirms that society connects thinness with values such as discipline, willpower, and endurance (all forms of labor) and fatness with immorality and laziness.** Fitspo messages like “Don’t give up what you want most for what you want now” ignore the possibility that we may want to live in a mindset and a body where those two wants are not opposed. What I want is to live in a society where my self-control regarding ice cream is not an overall statement of my moral fortitude. Eating ice cream now does not threaten what I want most, because what I want most is not related to the way my body conforms to social norms. Fitspo assumes that our primary want is for our bodies to be deemed attractive by society.

I also do not want to argue that wanting to be fit or lose weight is bad. Fitspo and the food industry wrong those of us with those goals as well. They work symbiotically: the food industry keeps information from us that will actually help us make informed decisions in pursuing our health or weight goals and the fitness industry tells us that our ability to lose weight depends on us, regardless of the fact that the consumption of certain foods and chemicals that appear to be diet-friendly actually lead to weight gain.

What we choose to do with more accurate nutritional  information once it is disseminated is ultimately up to each individual. It’s necessary for us to stop all of our body shaming practices, perpetuated by fitspo and the diet/fitness industries. Our power and right to decide what our body looks like is not limited to those of us who want our bodies to fit a certain cultural norm. We have a right to ignore any and all health guidelines without any consequence to the perception of our “discipline,” because if we can reshape our bodies however we want, fat is also an acceptable body shape.

Therefore, if we are truly to have power over our bodies, as fitspo wants to claim we do, we need accurate information about the nutritional content of our food and reliable information about nutrition and exercise that will promote health without selling us a normative body type. Furthermore, we need more healthful alternatives to low-quality food that do not come with a high price tag. Perhaps it’s time to start figuring out how to make a higher quality processed food that is available to everyone, or how to make organic and local food available and affordable for all.

Most food industry critics realize that the problem we face results from a capitalist system that creates low-quality, dishonestly-labeled food, but those critics still often insist that the solution lies in individual willpower and consumer practices. It’s time to rethink that logic: the problem is with production, so let’s fix production. Equally important is the cultural work we do in advocating for body-positive movements that will ultimately allow us to find pleasure and satisfaction in our bodies, whatever size and state of health they are in. We have a right to make informed decisions about our health, but we are not then obligated to make our bodies conform to a certain societal norm. As soon as we can culturally abandon the notion of an “ideal body,” the forces of the food, health, and fitness industries will have one less way to lure us into their traps.

*Due to the forces that we are discussing, the phrase “processed food” has been evacuated of stable meaning. I tend to use it to describe foods that have artificial ingredients or additives (with a negative connotation), but in reality most of the food we eat must be “processed” in some way to make it edible. Here’s a great article from Jacobin about the history of food processing if you’re interested in pursuing this further!

**By asserting that fatness is not a result of a lack in moral fortitude, I’m not trying to take anything away from those who have had great success with losing weight or toning up. It certainly does take discipline to do those things. My point is that being fat does not equate to a lack of discipline and we are wrong to make any assumptions about a person’s health, happiness, or fitness based on the way their body looks. We all have different goals, challenges, and resources and it’s time to stop policing bodies.

The Good, The Bad, and The Absolutely Terrifying: The Week in Abortion Legislation

Writer ST rounds up the latest developments in abortion legislation. What are old men without medical degrees telling you to do with your ovaries/womb/vagina? Come with us on a tour.

The Good: It often feels like we are being inundated with terrible news about reproductive rights, but there are good things happening too. For all the gynoticians out there telling us what we can and cannot do with our bodies, there are reproductive-rights champions fighting back at every level.

• On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld a 4th-circuit court ruling stating that North Carolina’s ultrasound law (which required women to view an ultrasound of their fetus prior to receiving an abortion) placed an undue burden on…wait for it…doctors. That’s right: the law was changed not because it limits women’s freedoms, but because forcing doctors to narrate ultrasounds to their patients violates their first-amendment right to freedom of speech. But hey, at least the ruling has a good outcome, right? (I’m appreciative of everything doctors do in this fight, but it’s pretty depressing that women’s agency over their own bodies isn’t enough).

• In unequivocal good news (well, for people who support reproductive rights), women in Oregon will now be able to get a year’s worth of birth control at a time, sparing them from going through this rigmarole every 30 days. Yay Oregon!

• In more potentially good news out of the PNW, Senator Patty Murray introduces a bill to make over-the-counter birth control available while keeping it covered by insurance companies. The bill is called “Affordability IS Accessibility,” and you can sign the petition for it here!

The Bad: In slightly more-familiar territory, the past week has seen another rash of clinic-shut-downs, bans, and insane lawsuits.

• Wisconsin, home to Scott Walker, misogynist extraordinaire, has a bill in the works that would implement a 20-week ban on abortions. While the future of the bill is unclear, Walker has said he will sign it into law, and even if it is later overturned by a federal court, it could do some serious damage (see below for why).

• I guess this is technically good news: apparently, murder charges against a Georgia woman arrested for taking an abortion pill have been dropped—but the mere fact that she was arrested—for murder—in the first place is pretty awful. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem Kenlissa Jones is fully off the hook, another reason I’m including this with “the bad.”

A new ruling in Texas effectively shut down a majority of the state’s abortion clinics, in addition to banning abortions after 20 weeks and restricting the use of RU4-86, colloquially known as the “abortion pill.” With only 8 clinics left in the state, many Texas women are now hours away from abortion access, adding yet another hurdle to an ever-expanding list.

The Absolutely Terrifying: All I can say here is that I am deeply thankful for the power of veto; while I don’t know what will happen in the senate, I feel at least 90% confident that Obama will not allow the following law to come to be.

In May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a national 20-week abortion ban, initially introduced by Senator Trent Franks (AZ-R).Now, South Carolina senator and presidential hopeful Lindsay Graham is determined to see this bill through. Perhaps this ban is simply part of a presidential bid, or perhaps it’s part of an effort to get the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for the future of reproductive rights.

And in case you’re not sure why this law would be so terrible, here are some stories from women who have abortions beyond 20 weeks. Abortions after 20 weeks are incredibly rare; roughly 63% of abortions occur before 8 weeks, and less than 2% of abortions occur at the 21st week or beyond. As the above stories indicate, this ban would have very little effect on most women seeking abortions, but would be catastrophic to those who need late abortions for medical reasons.

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