Reflexively: “Hi, I’m Emily, I’m a fourth year medical student with the team seeing you today.”
If you were to wake me up from a dead sleep those would probably be the first words out of my mouth. While I am a fourth year med student at U of T, more deeply ingrained in my identity is a love of the human body and movement. Through a series of fortunate events I have wended my athletic way from running to triathlon, hiking and climbing to Olympic lifting and Crossfit. Currently, I’m shifting focus from personal athletic development to acquiring the skills to coach other movement enthusiasts. The long game is to eventually bring this passion forward and apply it to the patient populations that I work with in my medical career, but that’s another story. Still so much work to be done and people to learn from, but very stoked to contribute an open letter of my journey to Jenny’s project.
Saturday morning sun beaming onto the lifting platforms through the open garage door.
The hum of road bike tires on pavement.
Sweaty butt prints.
The catch of the climbing harness.
Rushing bubbles of metered swim strokes
The ring of dropped weights and hissing breaths
That’s what fitness means to me – the ability to pick up new things and inhabit the physicality of the human body whether it be in a pool, on a slackline or under a heavy barbell.
But I can’t tell you what fitness should mean to you, or what’s right or wrong about the world of athletics. Everyone I’ve encountered has reasons for their chosen path that are in constant evolution. But maybe I can flesh out what it means to me, as well as warn against some mental pitfalls I’ve wrestled with recently. Maybe that’ll make your road a bit easier.
As you can see from the little self-bio, I have a bit of a wandering eye when it comes to sports. I’ll dive into a project for 2ish years, duke it out, learn from great minds, get my ass handed to me, then find some other challenges I want to pursue and change tracks. Compared to most of the other athletes I’ve encountered who’ve devoted many many years to their chosen sport, I’ve thought maybe I was flawed with an “inability to commit”. Honestly, maybe that’s true, but I prefer to think of it now as more of a curiosity-driven exploration. What am I capable of? Some choose to explore this potential by committing to one path and achieving glory in specialization. I prefer to see this through expanding my skillset and achieving freedom through generalization.
Beyond sheer exploration, the point of sports for me has always been Community. From volleyball to track, through triathlon and now in the weird hybrid world of lifting/crossfit/gymnastics. It’s the community I turn to when work or the rest of life is giving me the middle finger. I train for the shift in focus, the gap between #gymlife and the professional, for the high-fives and for the peace and silence in my own mind when I want it. I train for me – and every so often I need to remind myself of this fact when I start to get down on myself for [insert every reason in the book].
And it’s hard to stay on that track sometimes!
“You’ll never find a man if you look like one.”
A person close to me articulated so eloquently in a recent email. Oy.
I’d be lying if I said this thought hasn’t ever – in my weakest moments - crossed my mind. It brings so much stuff up, doesn’t it, about being adequate, the struggle towards an ideal that I know many people carry with them. And I’d also be lying if I said I hadn’t encountered people who have expressed distaste with my strength or associated appearance (to my face! Assholes!). They exist. At first I used to feel bad, then I found it was easier to think “Meh. They can exist all they want. Over there. Away from me.” And continue to surround myself people who share the same “mindedness” (they also exist in droves), and ignore the weirdos who feel the need to comment on my appearance at every turn.
At some points in my journey, I’ve prioritized the aesthetics over the skills and strength afforded by hard work. Some people take pride and joy in that result and get tremendous satisfaction from it, but I’ve found that it’s a losing battle. And so I work to maintain focus on learning new things, prioritizing growth and evolution of general athletic competence over maintenance of physique. What gets my butt to the gym on a rainy, cold, sleepy, snowy, commuterly impossible day, is curiosity not fear.
It’s taken me a long time to be okay with those priorities that sometimes come into conflict with the outside world. And some days it’s harder than others to stick to my guns (literally). But now when I walk into a bar, I square my unsleeved shoulders, raise my chin and meet every appraising eye. Some people are curious, others derisive, but it really doesn’t matter. A challenge or an invitation – join me, or step aside. I don’t think we should do this for anyone but ourselves!
Sort of related to the above points about trying to keep the negative voices to a dull roar. Instagram and co can really be a mind-warp. Use and peruse with a few tools: 1) grain of salt 2) measure of skepticism 3)curiosity.
Social media is an awesome resource to connect to like-minded people and open up some cool niches. It can be a great inspiration, but it can also be a powerful deterrent for two main reasons:
1. It conveys talent without showcasing the ridiculous amounts of work that go into developing any athletic skill.
People typically post videos only of the great feats of strength or skill that they’ve achieved. It’s great to celebrate success, but to the outsider looking in, it doesn’t capture the hours of unglamorous work and commitment it takes to get there regardless of talent. ANY skill or strength is developed by the sweat, the grind, and the sacrifice (maybe forgoing that party, or not going on that bender, or waking up at early o’clock to get that extra practice in). Without knowing all this is going on behind the scenes, it’s easy to get demoralized or resentful that you’ll “never get there”, and not even start.
Those superhuman superstars on IG didn’t just “wake up” with a stupendous skillset. You are the boss. You have to decide what you are willing and able to give before you lament over what you haven’t got. Generally, the journey usually starts with a small commitment. A few hours of practice here and there, and slowly you are willing and able to give more. And in turn you receive more, become capable of more. Until you reach your limit!
2. It emphasizes the appearance of effortless fitness.
I woke up one morning and some chick’s butt was on my news feed. In a comparison shot against her “before” shot, which really wasn’t all that different from before. Some dude’s abs were next up on the roster. As much as I want to be positive and supportive, these images really cramp my mental style and here’s why:
This issue is tricky to navigate. On one hand, I think some of the bravest people in the gym are those who show up overweight, and totally new to the fitness world, with some serious fitness/weightloss goals. They get to work. They struggle and fight and get there. That takes some major cahones.
Yet, somehow, those aren’t the people that inundate my newsfeed with #weightloss and shit. I find that those that flood my news feed with physique-based images – by and large – deceivingly (may be unintentionally?) portray their results as effortless. Taking pictures of their junk food choices juxtaposed with the great physical shape that they are in.
Let’s real talk here for a second? It can be totally alienating to see others achieving amazing results when you don’t see the meticulous planning and work going on being the scenes. It can instill very unrealistic expectations, as well as invalidating and destructive voices similar to the fashion industry. AINT NOBODY GOT TIME.
Took me a long time to realize this truth: Most who looks physically awesome in their social media photos or real life are rarely careless about what they put in their mouths (or if they are, it’s with the assistance of PEDs. But that’s a whole other story). No sustainable results occur without planning and work. No matter what you think. No matter how many #eatingallthecarbs hashtags adorn the caption. I repeat: you are the boss. You decide what you are willing and able to give before you lament over the results you haven’t experienced, and use it as an excuse not to even start!
Ok, phew. Lots to think about.
I’ve spent a huge chunk of textual breath philosophizing about how much work is required to “achieve” any results and dumping the responsibility for progress on the reader. I stand behind this! But I’d like to leave you with some thoughts as to why this aspect of fitness/sport shouldn’t be intimidating, but rather inspiring, particularly for the women and young girls (or any new-comer) curious about this world. It’s math! Spelt “Maff” in lifter-speak:
Agency + Strong Community = Empowerment.
Agency: Fitness isn’t something that just “happens” to you. You “happen” to it! It’s simply a bit more Maff! Physical health/skill = work + lifestyle factors such as diet and sleep (+genetics, but we can’t change that, so we’re just gonna forget about it). You are in control. You can build up to the commitment it takes to achieve a high skill level, or you can chill and enjoy the journey and community (all the while with a realistic expectation that perhaps you won’t get as far as fast!). There is a very strong sense of accomplishment that comes from working towards a goal and reaching it. The feeling when you realize you’ve made progress. Actual. Measurable. Progress. Is often enough to stomp on the naysayers, to ignore the people who don’t understand. Slowly the confidence builds from you starting to believe you can actually do cool things like run a 10k or a half or hold a handstand or do a pull-up, rather than watching it from afar starts to creep into other areas of life.
Strong Community: Individual agency is sustained by a strong community. By immersing ourselves in environments supportive of athletic accomplishment regardless of age, gender, sexual preference etc, we avoid getting consumed by the conflicts of women and fitness, and cultural norms and yadda yadda. Ultimately the communities I have found in team sports, road cycling, triathlon, lifting, crossfit etc have allowed me to turn away from the negative voices of self-doubt and find positive ones worth nurturing.
Empowerment: There you have it. No matter what illusion social media portrays, do not fear! The results you achieve are totally up to what you are willing to give in terms of time and effort. Along that spectrum, there’s pretty much room for all-comers. The communities worth being a part of are the kindest to beginners! Ultimately, your reasons and preferred activities are your own, but what moves you should have you leaving the gym/field/studio feeling better than when you left because that’s what keeps the positive voices going and keeps you coming back.