When I was a student, somebody I knew once criticised me for going for a run because she considered it to be un-feminist. “But aren’t you conforming to patriarchal beauty standards by jogging to be thin?”
Firstly, even if I did want to “conform to patriarchal beauty standards” that would be my choice and it would be just fine if I wanted to.
Secondly, that’s a huge misconception about why women exercise. I say women, because I don’t think that men get this bullshit. Men are allowed to exercise to be fit, to be strong or because it’s fun. Women apparently exercise to loose weight. I know this because every time I talk about going to the gym at least one person chimes in and says, “But you don’t need to to to the gym! You’re so thin!”
Again, if I wanted to go the the gym to loose weight or to keep weight off that would be my choice and it would be just fine. But it’s not the reason I go to the gym so it’s really annoying. And it’s exactly this kind of attitude that does enforce the patriarchy, by assuming women are thinking about their weight all the goddamn time.
Now I have gotten that off my chest, I can move on to talking about the real reasons that I exercise.
I have another memory from around the same time that I was told that jogging what un-feminist. I remember running late at night, around and around the block in which I lived. I remember the way the street lamps hit the pavement, and I remember how powerful I felt. How alive it made me feel to work my legs and raise my heartbeat after a day hunched over a computer writing my dissertation. I remember how soundly I used to sleep, often still in my running kit, when I returned from these late night runs.
It’s no coincidence that I’ve fallen back in love with running after each relationship break up I’ve had. Running helps me process my feelings and makes me feel calmer. It gives me the space to think through difficult decisions and imagine different futures.
It also makes me feel really badass.
I once moved into a house where one of the first things my new housemates asked me was “So what sports do you play?” I hesitated, before saying that I didn’t. “Oh right,” he replied. “You’re one of those people who read books.”
Another falsehood, and one that I believed for almost as long as the exercise-is-for-losing-weight myth. Because I wasn’t sporty at school, I was made to feel as though exercise wasn’t for me. Because I was a geek, I thought I couldn’t also be fit.
One of the reasons that I list running a half marathon as one as my greatest achievements isn’t because there is anything objectively really difficult about running one (loads of people run far further all the time), but because it is never something I even dreamed I would be able to do.
That’s another reason I exercise: to completely defy the expectations I have for myself and my body. I never thought I was the kind of person who could run a half marathon, but after six months of solid training I ran one in a good time. I never thought I would be able to touch my toes, but after 2 years of weekly yoga I was able to. The same with being able to clasp my hands behind my back. I am currently marveling that I can do more than one full press up. In a few months I hope to be able to do a pull up.
I can do these things, because I have put in the work. That makes me feel good about myself.
Regular exercised ultimately cured (if you are ever really cured) my eating disorders, not because it helps me to burn calories, but because it makes me feel in control of my own body. In a society that routinely teaches woman that their bodies are not their own.
When I don’t exercise, I feel somewhat disconnected from my body. I’m all in my head, my anxiety grows more severe, and I start to develop dysmorphia. When I move my body, I feel that it is part of me and I enjoy living inside it. Muscle ache reminds me that I am connected to my limbs.
When I’m lost, I exercise to come back to myself.
Related: Susuannah Conway write beautifully about how she inhabits her body.