Thursday, January 29, 2015

Little Things Matter to Big People

Dear Fitness Center:

When we joined your gym a few months ago, my partner mentioned that he'd been a member previously.  He was asked, "Why did you quit last time?"  I understand the purpose of this question, to try and help someone tailor their experience differently in a way that retains customers.  The answer, as it is for many people who join gyms and quit them, was a complex muddle of "It cost more in time and money than I was willing/able to spend to get the benefits I wanted."

But if I ever have to answer that question, here's what I'll say:

It's your towels.

Not specifically the towels themselves, you see, but what they represent in the context of your gym and how you manage it.

The best time for me to work out is at lunch, which means I drive over, hit the elliptical for 20-25 minutes, shower, and drive back to work for the afternoon.  This is, for me, a workout routine I can establish as a habit, meaning that regular activity 3-5 times a week becomes a set part of my life.  All the studies I've read say that, whatever my size, that is an improvement and a positive thing over spending the same lunch hour working, or sitting at my desk and reading.

But here we find...the towels.  I am not particularly body-shy.  I have used communal showers for almost two decades now, so being unclothed around a bunch of other women in the locker room isn't really a thing with me.  But I'd like to wrap a towel around me as I walk from the shower to the locker, in part because it's a bit chilly in there, and in part because that seems to be the standard of behaviour everyone else is engaging in, and I'd like to respect others' comfort levels.

The towel won't wrap, though.  Each time I work out, each time I shower, I attempt to squish my body into one of your towels, unable to even convince it to tuck neatly around my chest, and it simply gapes below.  My hips and stomach are completely exposed, in all their rounded glory, as I scurry to my locker, trying to juggle my workout clothes and shoes and my glasses and my conditioner, and keep the towel from falling off.  I have yet to succeed; every day or two I hold my head up defiantly as that inadequate towel pools around my feet.  I can't go back to work unshowered, and packing a towel for my own use adds a load of laundry each week to an already-full domestic schedule, so I face the towel every day, and it demoralizes me, removing some of that endorphin high from my workout.

I look around at all the pictures you have, of people enjoying their workouts, happily swimming and biking and practicing yoga, and every last one of those people is thin.  Not just an average-weight person, but a deliberately thin one, one who fits in the towel with ease.  There are no pictures of happy fat people working out in your gym, not anywhere.  I have never, in fact, worked out in a gym where there were pictures of happy healthy fat people, despite the fact that I know a lot of happy healthy fat people who enjoy working out.

When I came in for my 'free consultation', I explained "I am trying to rebuild healthy habits, so what I plan to do is get in the habit of coming in, just to hit the elliptical, or the treadmill or the stairmaster, several times a week.  I have about 25 minutes.  Eventually I will want to put together a weights routine that I can switch out with that, even though I know it'll have to be limited."  The trainer explained patiently that 25 minutes of weight lifting just wasn't even worth doing, and if I wasn't willing to commit to more time than that, then probably I should just stick to the elliptical, because that would have to be enough and it was 'better than nothing'.  I was pushed and pushed and pushed to weigh myself and lay out a 'goal weight' and a 'target weight loss rate' no matter how many times I said it wasn't about getting skinny.

All of this, over and together, tells me that the story you're selling is this one:  thin people go to the gym.  Thin, happy people are people who work out.  People who work out are thin, happy people.  There is no space for the fat fit.  They do not exist, they do not belong here, this is a place where inadequate people come and they get thin, because thin is how you win when you commit to fitness as a lifestyle.

I will never be thin.  Even at my 'goal weight', five or ten pounds above where my face starts to look a little uncanny-angular, I am a 36DDD.  As for the bottom half of my body, this train is an express to Callipygia and it is equipped with a full caboose.  There is no changing that, and I do not want there to be.

My 'ideal body' is measured in my functionality.  At my peak of fitness, I can't tell you my waist size, but I can tell you that I can hike 8 desert miles with ease, and manage Hill Country hikes with hundreds of feet of change in elevation.  I can run five back-to-back 20-hour active days without exhaustion.  I can lift, carry, and push almost anything I'm likely to need to.  My long-term goal is a solo overnight 20 or 30 mile hike.  But when I explain to people at your gym these functional goals I have, I hear "Ok, so at what weight do you think you'd be able to do all that?"

So, I get that this is a gym and selling fitness is your job.  I get that your job is easiest when I'm satisfied with easy metrics like weight and body fat percentage, and when I'm willing to simply do what I'm told, make getting to the gym on your terms a priority in my life, and live out a 'success story' for your ads.  Joe Sixpack who lost 60 pounds and umpty inches makes a much better photo op than the woman who hauls her size fourteen fluffy ass up 15 miles of Big Bend trails.

And I get that you're telling the story larger culture taught you:  There is no room in fitness for fat people.  A fat person in the gym can't possibly be working on any goal beyond self-erasure.  I cannot possibly have a workout goal that includes expanding anything about myself, not even my capacity for physical endurance, because expanse should be my enemy.

I also get that you can't change that larger culture.  That asking a business to change its entire philosophy when most of us can't even find pants in our size or doctors who'll consider non-weight-related causes is not so realistic.  You can't change how the world views me, you can't change the American perception of fitness to include the fact that it is a thing personally defined, by each and every one of us, that it is a constantly-changing idea based on the capacity of the body you inhabit, not a cookie-cutter image of fat-free triathletes smiling past their water bottles.

You can't singlehandedly end shaming and misinformation about weight, you can't singlehandedly make people understand that the entire idea of 'extreme diet and workout program to get to the right size' is a path to failure every single time because it can never be sustainable, you cannot completely revolutionize the world so that fat people feel welcome, so that we feel we have a right to exist in this world.

But you know what you can do?

Get bigger towels.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Keeping Austin Weird

It will come as a surprise to no one who knows me that I have loved Austin, Texas since I was about nine years old.  When I was in middle school and we would come to Austin for back-to-school or holiday shopping, it always seemed like this magical place.  My sister graduated high school and went to UT, and her stories of the crazy happenings in her dorm, and the places she took us to visit when we came, all reinforced my belief that Austin is magic, that somehow everything is possible.

Eventually, my life brought me here, and the last ten years have been incredible.  It really is all I had hoped.

But...a lot of people seem tremendously invested in an Austin That Was.  The Austin of Slacker, the Austin of the 70s, the Austin of ten/fifteen/thirty years ago, the days 'when it was still cool'.

They say 'Keep Austin Weird' and damn, people do try.  They wear funny hats and they take pictures of the funny things they see and so many of them strive for something special, something different, something 'Austin Weird.'  Everyone seems to have a perception of what 'Austin Weird' is, and for many people I know, it's past tense.  They say to me, "Oh, ten years?  Then you missed all the good stuff."

This city was never the weird, bright, bold, beautiful place it is simply because its residents saw everyone else wearing stripes and wore plaid on purpose to be different.  What's made this place great and beautiful isn't the fact that people are deliberately seeking out the untrodden path.  It's that we have not crushed those who choose it, and the key to 'preserving Austin' lies in that.

So when I hear how 'Keep Austin Weird' is a pale shadow of itself, how it's all ruined now, how this place and that place have closed and we've lost so much of what made Austin Austin, I just want to stop and shout this at the top of my lungs:

Stop.  Stop that.  Stop it right now.  What makes this city an incredible place, what makes it weird and unique and lovely, isn't that we have collected and preserved a quirky heritage, in cultural amber, a time capsule of that most perfect moment you remember, that glorious summer sun just before you hit the water in Barton Springs, that exquisite taco you once got on South Congress, that night that started with a crazy live show and ended up with you and your favorite band climbing to the top of Mt. Bonnell to watch the sun come up.  Stop loving a collection of moments you believe will never come again.

What's hurting this city the most is the perception that somehow its best and most beautiful days have passed, that it's better to sit and remember those moments than it is to go out and find the people who are making them now.  Things can never be what they were, and if you waste your energy lamenting what's gone you will miss the beauty right in front of you.  Every night of the week, people are singing and dancing and performing and cooking, and they are making amazing things they want to share with you.

Find them.  Accept the creativity and the gift of their passion with you, and support them in that pursuit however you can.  When your friend says, "I'm thinking of this kind of crazy thing I want to do," say, "How can I help you do that?" instead of "Are you really sure that's a good idea?"

It starts with supporting local businesses, but it doesn't stop there.  We must understand the importance of supporting local PASSION, and do it.  This city is still a place where people who want to make things, all kinds of things, from software code to beer to music to pottery, can find a community that will honor what it means for them to put that piece of themselves out into the world.  Bluntly put, give them money, if you can afford to do it, because if passion will pay, then it spreads out beyond itself to inspire others and it supports a culture where people are encouraged to believe in their dreams.

Not everyone has the means or the courage to follow a dream.  Some folks have responsibilities or obligations, or they're just not ready to leap.  Some folks' passions lie closer to home.  But when we encounter someone who does, who has said, "against all the odds, I am gonna try to find a way to share this thing that I love," then the best thing we can do, to make the world a better place and really keep it weird, is to stop worrying about if it's the next big thing or if it's better or worse than the world that lives in memory and just revel in it.

It can be hard to face someone else's passion.  It's easier to reach for what's familiar, and that's where the influx of new people in the last twenty years (including me) has created some conflict, because how do we tell whether a newcomer is bringing a passion to life or reestablishing the comfort zone left behind in another city?

There really isn't much way to do that objectively, so make a practice of seeking out, in every aspect of your experience, the people who are doing the things that bring them joy, that make them sing, that really feed their souls.

So I say to you, who mourn that Lost Better Austin (and really anyone else), that I have a challenge for you.  This year, in 2015, make it your active mission to seek out and support those who are doing the things that make them come alive.  And before the end of the year, if you're not already doing the thing that feeds your deepest heart, I challenge you to take one single step, no matter how small, along the path that leads to it.

I love you all.