An Original Article from Our Spring 2020 Bold Magazine with Extra Introduction from Janet Conroy-Quirk
You can find this edition as well as all of our magazines HERE.
We’ve all been through so much these past few months. We hope you’re taking care of yourselves, however that looks for YOU. Health is a term that is thrown around a lot, and, as we’ve seen during Covid, the focus is often on weight. Which we know doesn’t define health! Why not think more about emotional, spiritual, social, natural health? We invite you to take a few minutes to enjoy this piece about what “health” means to different, real people.
“Accepting your body is not just about physicality, it’s about accepting who you are, not continuing to wait until you become the person you imagine being.”– Lindo (formerly Linda) Bacon, Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight
In December of last year, I wrote a piece about a controversial Peloton ad that was stirring up a lot of discussion. My view examined the implications of giving fitness equipment as a gift. I also attempted to explore the way in which workouts/exercise are depicted in the media. I was trying to challenge the mindset of “workouts that make you cry” or the celebrated practice of sacrificing sleep or socialization in order to exercise, and to be perceived as “healthy.”
Not everyone was open to my perspective. People seemed to think I was attacking their exercise preferences, or exercise in general. They defended the benefits of movement, which I never disputed. After diplomatically explaining myself for a few days, I realized that I wasn’t going to be truly heard by everyone. I began ruefully referring to myself as “The Bitch Who Stole Fitness” and moved on with my holiday merriment.
But productive conversations were had, too. I shared my stories of being laughed at and photographed at gyms. I compared them to the the fictional (but frighteningly realistic) Peloton narrative, of a straight-sized woman expressing apprehension about using a stationary bike within the safety and privacy of her home. I talked about thin privilege and compared systemic discrimination and public bullying to mild uncertainty about climbing upon a new exercise machine in a private space. Most people were able to acknowledge my point -that there is, indeed, a spectrum of experiences when it comes to discomfort in fitness settings, and some are far more damaging and dangerous than others..
But I too, needed to listen and hear the experiences others have had when it comes to health and exercise, and value them. Two friends shared their ambivalence about running and exercising postpartum. Another described gaining strength and confidence through CrossFit. A woman in her 70’s explained her frustration with the “Mean Girls” in her aqua aerobics class. Those journeys are all important. And I recognize that.
I remain a strong believer that we place too much emphasis on intense exercise as “fitness”, and that the phrase health doesn’t only apply to the movements our bodies can perform. For instance, we have a pretty serious problem in the U.S. with how we view and treat mental health. One of my least favorite internet comments/ catchphrases is, “I’m not crying, You’re crying!” Generally, you see this posted alongside a poignant story or emotional photo. The joke, of course, is that crying is shameful and weak, and that it’s funny to accuse someone else of being affected by the sadness, beauty and humanity in the world.
That, my friends, is not healthy. Nor is going online to tell someone they’re going to die because you don’t like their size. Nor is treating someone differently at your gym because they’re not a “regular”, by your subjective standards. Nor is promoting fatphobia by watching movie/tv content that includes fat jokes, fat suits, or fat stereotypes. And it’s far from healthy to capitalize on others’ insecurities and convince them they need to embark on a “fitness” journey “for their health”- looking at you, Facebook “wellness” pyramid schemers.
I thought about making this piece all about the culture that allows “unhealthy” behaviors to thrive, resulting in shaming / bigoted attacks on large bodies. But I spend a LOT of time on that. So, instead, I’d like to go in another direction and shed some light on what “health” really means, to different people. The incredible individuals featured here were willing to share their ideas and their challenges. Their stories include losses and gains that have nothing to do with pounds. They discuss pain that is more profound than any ab workout. And they all highlight strength that beats a planking record any day. Some of these stories ARE about movement and exercise- done in ways that brings happiness. Others are about the other aspects of health we overlook sometimes. Enjoy.
“We might not come in first, but we come in first in FUN!”
These three women, all mothers, are a testament to the power of friendship, empowerment and support. They all live in a picturesque area of Massachusetts where runs happen in apple orchards, autumnal lanes, snowy back roads and vibrant, small-town main streets. They particularly enjoy fundraising runs (preferably with costumes and a deejay at the finish line!) that benefit their communities, neighbors, or larger causes. And they make it FUN. Their photo albums are filled with shots of turkey outfits, Santa suits, and always huge smiles.
Mandy comments on the importance of bringing joy into movement, saying, “My best advice is, do what makes you happy. Choose exercise that makes you feel good. Set realistic goals. Stop focusing on what you can’t do and be proud of what you can. Most importantly – find a group of women with similar interests and do it together! Dress up for a 5k – you won’t regret it! Dance at the dj station at the end of the race – you won’t regret it. Go for a hike together or a walk to vent the daily struggles. Being healthy does not mean being in a gym 24/7.”
Beyond the fun, these women have solidified a deep friendship. Jessi shares that along their runs, she found herself an outlet to share some intense challenges.
“I needed to vent, I needed to cry, I needed nonjudgmental support. I think running allows you (me/us) to let all the bad out and helps you take all the good in. These two ladies, moms, friends have done more for me just by being there for runs/walks/texts, I can’t thank them enough. We support each other so much and we feel so much of each others’ joy and pain. We have this because we bonded over running. We can add beach days, pool days, apple picking, Red Sox games, Ladies’ Night Out, movies, late night Christmas shopping, Christmas Caroling, and drive-by deliveries to our memory book too.”
Mandy agrees, explaining that she struggled in younger years with body image and confidence, but states, “Jump ahead a couple more years of and I find myself in a car with Jess and Sarah. All of us basically strangers to one another and we were on an hour car ride to run a half marathon. Let me tell you, I’ve never laughed quite so much. In a matter of minutes I feel like we all knew each other, as if we’d been friends forever. We knew we would all have peed our pants before the end of the race, we knew we weren’t super fast, and we knew the goal was to just finish so we could dance and share a beer! It was one of the best days of my life! We now run together any chance we can, and text constantly about the real struggles of our lives. The running and working out is just the icing on the cake.”
Jessi reflects on the reality of what movement looks like for different abilities. She says, “I embrace the modified version of anything in health and fitness, or the modified version of anything in life really. In my perspective, it is an effort and it totally matters. It doesn’t matter how fast a runner, how many minutes/hours the workout is or how heavy the weights are – what matters is getting out there or in your basement and feeling a sense of accomplishment after. I know I am the one my kids look to for stability, comfort and love. They don’t have it anywhere else. I need to have my mental and physical strength for them. It is what keeps me motivated!”
Sarah, too, reflects on her ideas of what really matters in terms of health.
“I never really used exercise as a way to reach an unattainable “ideal” (well, maybe a short time in my teen years) but more as a way to feel healthy. I love the natural endorphins I feel during and after working out — whether it is running or any other form of exercise. I love getting sweaty and feeling like I purge out all my stress, anxiety, and toxins. Running is my go-to choice for stress reduction. I don’t run to lose weight or get thinner — I run to feel strong and powerful. I run as it feels like meditation for me — I love that very Zen feeling. I love trail running, I connect with nature and peace in a way I don’t get in daily life.”
Sarah summarizes this inspiring trio’s experience by saying, “Sometimes my daughter will ask me after a race, “Did you win?” And I’ll answer, “Nope! But we had the most fun!”
Sean is 41 years old, and happily married with two beautiful children- a boy of five and a girl of seven. A well- traveled man, as well as an Eagle Scout who knows his way around nature, he works in the travel industry, while also devoting time to writing and performing music and providing support to individuals recovering from addiction.
Sean reflects on health by saying, “As someone who’s struggled with mental health and alcoholism, health is something I think about a lot. I have some chronic health issues; kidney stones, gout etc. So physical pain is part of my life much of the time. That’s caused me to develop a wider scope of health than something purely rooted in the body. Spiritual hygiene and physical health are equally important to me and I try to spend as much time as I can working on both.”
He considers the role that media plays on our impressions of health.
“Certainly there’s no emphasis on spiritual health in the media. We’re not encouraged to practice meditation, which is proven to have several health benefits. Mental health is approached at best via commercials for psychoactive drugs that go on to list terrifying side-effects. And as much as there’s been talk of moving away from the weight-centric approach to health, fad diets and “transformation selfies” show that we’re still solidly there.”
In discussing how those concepts are presented now, as opposed to five, ten, twenty, thirty years ago, Sean observes, “There’s probably more awareness of the negative effects of that approach, but it’s still the norm. I mean 25 or 30 years ago you wouldn’t see yoga in the media. But even that is basically reduced to flexible aerobics, and all the spiritual stuff is diluted almost completely.”
Sean discusses what makes him happy, saying, “My family. Being in nature. My wife’s smile and the way her hair smells when she hugs me. The way my kids still laugh at my jokes. Old friends. Making music. Simple things, really. A big part of my approach to health is surrounding myself with things like that; ensuring they’re always nearby in some way. It keeps out the bad stuff. It makes the universe taste better, if that makes sense.”
“The youngest client I’ve had who’s mentioned body image concern was ten. But anecdotally, I’ve heard of younger kids expressing those feelings.”– Erin
Erin is a therapist (LMHC) based Massachusetts who works with women of various ages, many struggling with anxiety/depression. She is married and the mother of two girls, ages four and two and a half. She examines health from her professional experience and explains that body image is often tied to anxiety and depression. She explores how complex the concepts of health and happiness can be.
“Probably 75% of my clients aged 12-60 have, at some point, talked about body image. Not necessarily weight, but body. For some, they’ve gained weight as a result of being on medication- medication that makes them happy, and it can be a fast gain.”
Erin, too, considers the role of media to be an external factor in ideas about health and fitness. She recalls her own experience growing up and being made fun of for being too tall and reflects that media “continues to depict wellness in ways that aren’t inclusive. You think Barbie. A white, young, unrealistic body type. When we were younger, I fed into it.”
Now, however, Erin finds her good health not only in her work, but in “…reading when I’m not too tired. Running has been helpful because I just space out. Just to be able to go and not have anyone be able to contact me. Part of that is being a therapist and having little kids. And outside works better than inside for me.”
Most importantly, Erin and her husband make sure that their daughters receive healthy messages about beauty. “We might say, “You’re beautiful”, but we follow it with, “You’re strong.” I praise them for their humor, and we celebrate all of who they are.”
“As a mom my primary focus is on them and our hectic schedule. I am obsessed with plants and nature and I believe, wholeheartedly, in self-care even though I am guilty of neglecting myself at times.”– Jess
Jess is a 40 year old mother of two children, who are her greatest sources of happiness. She focuses on modeling confidence for them and seeking happiness in nature.
Jess considers health by explaining, “At this time in my life, I am more concerned with just staying active, especially in the winter. I am not the type of person who is out walking every day because I just do not have the time but, if the weather permits, I try to get out and walk a hiking trail with or without the kids. I also try to sprinkle in some yoga at home. I think it’s important to keep moving, even if it’s gentle movement. It’s also important to be mindful of yourself. I do these things when it works for me. Not on a schedule and not part of a gym.”
She compares this mindset to younger approaches to heath.
“There was a time when I was younger, where I started going to classes with women I worked with that were really into it. I’d work all day and then go kill myself with an outrageous body pump class and it just didn’t work for me but that’s what everyone else was doing and I was still impressionable.”
Jess finds joy in caring for animals and plants, often referring to her beautiful home garden as her “sanctuary.” Her peaceful perspective is that definitions and practices of health can vary, and that as long as everyone is respectful, those views can co-exist.
“People can be really opinionated on the matter when another person’s life doesn’t even affect them. I think it’s okay to have differing views as long as those views are personal and you’re not projecting them on other people. I would just share that every person’s journey through life is different and whatever works for you is great, but doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. Health is not a “one size fits all” in my opinion.”
We hope our readers will share their definitions of health and happiness with us on our site and on our social media!
As someone who values all types of health, I’ll share that the healthiest time of week for me is often the one hour I spend with my therapist. It’s a safe space where I explore how I’ve experienced the world and how I want to exist in it. Not everyone “gets” therapy. They envision the movie version – the lying on a couch trope, or the cliché “How does that make you feel?” language. It’s not that, for me. I simply speak, breathe, and listen, and it’s just not about validation. It’s about processing life in a way that helps me feel safe, confident and… healthy.
Stay well, and stay Bold.