As the world shifts into what will inevitably be a challenging winter, I have been thinking a great deal about personal wellbeing and self-care for myself, my students, and my children. The advice we get from well-meaning health professionals is that maintaining our fitness and healthy eating practises is essential to our wellbeing in 2020. It is something we can control and it can provide some inner peace when the rest of the world is in chaos. While I agree with this, I believe the path is more complex than simply adopting these good practices.
I was inspired to write this post because of the pressure I have been feeling to maintain my pre-pandemic health practices when often I have just wanted to curl up on the couch with brownies and shut out the year 2020. I have begun to readjust my thinking surrounding fitness and have come to some personal conclusions I will share in this post. I will also offer some academic insights in hopes that this will help you (or your students) in some small way as you continue on your own journey to good health in these challenging times.
Fitness can serve you in different ways at different points in your life
Over the course of 2020, my fitness habits have fluctuated dramatically. In March, I was so wound up I developed an onerous fitness regime in an attempt to release some anxiety and come to grips with the uncertainty that was engulfing our lives. I am sure I’m not alone there. It wasn’t exactly within my health limits to do this much cardiovascular activity; my back and ankles were aching and I found the increased stress on my circulatory system wasn’t great because I was already in a fairly constant state of ‘fight or flight’. As time wore on and we all adjusted to a new normal, how I moved my body changed as well. I focused on Yoga and pilates and moving in a slower, more methodical way; perhaps I needed the centering. At another time, I did nothing at all; I just baked and put on 10 pounds.
What I found hard through all of this was releasing judgement of myself. I was yearning for a neutrality and an approach that revolved around curiosity as opposed to the discipline of my body. When I was sedentary for those few months, I felt I needed an answer as to why I was not vigorously exercising; ‘I must be too exhausted, parenting is all consuming, I need comfort food to cope, I’ll get back on track soon;” these were all statements that were on replay in my head. It was exhausting in an already exhausting year. I couldn’t help but think, why can’t I just be with what is?
The bigger picture behind self-monitoring the body
As a wellbeing research nerd, I inevitably turn to academia to find answers. There is a large body of research that revolves around this concept of monitoring the body and the subsequent negative self-talk that ensues. Grounded in neoliberal studies, researchers have found time and again that our need to self-regulate eating and fitness practices are intimately intertwined with neoliberal agendas to control the body; that is, powerful but invisible governmental practices that ask of citizens to take full responsibility for their own health (it makes healthcare less expensive that way). Neoliberal discourses place the individual under self-surveillance through draw[ing] on neoliberal notions of individualism that position the person as primarily responsible for changing their lifestyle via range of disciplinary measures and control techniques (Campos, 2004; Gard & Wright, 2001; Beausoleil, 2009) .
With this logic, I am unable to be curious about my own fitness (or lack-thereof) because I am constantly bombarded with messages that it is my duty to keep moving and keep eating well; popular culture reinforces this message and shows me what the ‘healthy’ woman should look like. The body I maintain and the practices I undertake are specific and gendered; slight, less body fat, a diet that promotes productivity and allows me to thrive at home and work. No where, in this narrative, have I thought about the joy of movement, the taste and pleasure of eating good food, or the way that fitness will serve me at different times in my life. Nowhere, have I evaluated the level of burn out experienced from a work-from-home lifestyle combined with rigorous fitness regimes, and there is something very wrong with this.
Applying this thinking to teenage wellbeing
This yo-yo fitness cycle I found myself in this year was eye opening in many ways. It took me back to my teenage years when body perception and awareness were at an all-time high and I suffered confidence issues. We know many of our young people have these feelings of self-doubt, and that self-monitoring really picks up in the teenage years. Friends, social media and advertising further reinforce the concept of individual responsibility to look a certain way; a narrow and constantly changing version of ‘health’ and beauty ranging from the ‘waif,’ made famous by Kate Moss in the ’90s, to the curvy shape of the infamous Kardashian sisters today. It’s hard to keep up and especially hard as our young people immerse themselves even deeper into their online worlds this year.
We can help our young people break this cycle by promoting the simple joys of movement and eating. We can encourage them to get outside and forest bath, to connect with what feels good and to give them vast choice in how they move their bodies. When joy and pleasure becomes the primary focus, a curiosity about how one moves emerges; a young person may find that they actually despise running but love skiing, that Paleo makes them feel weak, but plant-based gives them life; they will eat that brownie and savour it, without guilt and it will contribute to their overall wellbeing that day; burn-out culture will get called out because it doesn’t feel good to be productive ALL the time. You can see the dialogue shift in important and impactful ways that our youth desperately need for their wellbeing, especially this year.
Health and wellbeing are social justice issues
It is not lost on me that anything I have stated above is completely rooted in privilege; privilege to move my body in the ways I want to and for my society to allow that; the very good luck of having the time and resources to buy and prepare healthy food, to run, to stretch; the able-body to allow me to feel sore after I run and to bake and type this post; the space and proper ventilation in the places I live and work to not get repeatedly ill and continue to move.
I would be remiss here if I did not mention the staggering and heart-breaking statistics of COVID-19 deaths in 2020 and the connection to health; the CDC explicitly states that “long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.” Primarily, the social determinants of health (socioeconomic status, access to education, health care access, etc.) have played a major role in determining the victims of COVID-19; Black and Hispanic communities have been especially hard hit.
These groups, statistically, often live in ‘food deserts’ where access to healthy food exists far outside of the neighbourhood. The area where I taught in Toronto, for example, was a food desert, and families were forced to take several buses and a subway ride to find healthy and affordable food; a real risk in the current pandemic, in regular times, inconvenient and rarely doable. Counter this with the stress from working several jobs to try to pay the bills and lack of time for physical activity and healthy eating and the results have been devastating; we have all watched this unfold.
The path to our personal wellbeing is multifaceted, complex and steeped in circulating discourses about how we should live and behave in our bodies. Not everyone has the same access to be ‘well’ and the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed this heart-breaking fact on a devastating stage. As we work against competing ideals of health, I wish for you (and me) to make space, without judgement, to find joy and to find the practices that give you the most life. Fill your body with those things, then give to the communities that are trying to do the same. Approach your body with curiosity and gratitude for what it can do for you; marvel at what it can achieve and honour it.