A few weeks ago I was having a mini-existential crisis trying to pack for a three-night academic conference where I was preparing to present some research with a few of my dearest, funniest, sharpest grad school girlfriends.
My dilemma was: Do I bring my workout clothes or leave them at home?
Since my decision to focus on self-care back in January, I’ve exercised at least 5 days a week, almost every week. My body is grateful for it and my spirit is soaring due to all those endorphins. It is an integral part of my wholistic wellness plan and the consistency of it gives me great comfort and mental clarity.
And yet, on a work vacation with my besties, I didn’t want to be that person. You know, the one who wakes up early to workout, potentially making everyone else feel guilty for sleeping in?
The one who orders a salad while everyone else orders a burger, or a water when the rest of the group is getting a round of cocktails?
The one who packs almonds in her purse just in case the hangries strike midday?
Point blank, I didn’t want to come across as persnickety.
Now keep in mind, these women I was meeting and rooming with are some of my dearest friends on earth. Friends who read this blog (hi ladies!) and know all about the self-care journey I’m on. These are women with whom I have no conversational boundaries. We can discuss body hair and boob sweat and childbirth and menstruation and a hundred other bodily topics as casually as we rank the men of the Gilmore Girls (for scholarly purposes, naturally.)
So where does this fear of persnick-ification come from? That answer merits a bit of unpacking. I don’t have a solid answer yet, but after a few weeks of introspection, I do have some leads that overlap in many ways.
- I’m a classic Midwestern Nice Girl. Making people feel comfortable and being perceived as easy-going and low-maintenance is a big part of my own cultural and communal sense of self, even now that I’ve relocated to New England.
- Perhaps it may relate to our cultural embrace of what Anne Helen Petersen* calls Cool Girl femininity, embodied by Jennifer Lawrence’s seemingly effortless coolness. For the Cool Girl, Petersen explains, “Her body, skin, face, and hair all look effortless and natural — the Cool Girl doesn’t even know what an elliptical machine would look like … because trying hard isn’t Cool. Cool Girls don’t have the hang-ups of normal girls: They don’t get bogged down by the patriarchy, or worrying about their weight.” The Cool Girl instructs women to: “be chill and don’t be a downer, act like a dude but look like a supermodel.” Which relates to the fact that…
- The work of maintaining a ‘culturally acceptable’ female body is supposed to be invisible. Our media environment is flooded with an endless visual stream of impossibly thin and fit women who are never actually shown exercising, lifting weights, showering, or making health-conscious dietary choices. In fact, most all of the physical aspects of women’s bodies, both in the media and in the real world, are acceptable only in private: menstruation, lactation, sweating, and any manner of bathroom-related processes. ‘Ideal’ women don’t slog away at the gym, they don’t skip happy hours, they don’t avoid restaurants; they merely exist in mysterious, slender perfection. (Whoever said women don’t sweat –they sparkle– has clearly never stepped foot in a TRX bootcamp.)
- And finally, I’m still figuring out how to be both a body-positive feminist, and a woman with an actual body who is working toward a fitter, healthier lifestyle (re: working out a bunch, eating right, and losing weight.) Contemporary feminism, in reaction to the many restrictions that women have faced throughout history, often aggressively supports indulgence, and a sort of self-focused ‘treat yo self’ and ‘to hell with your standards’ mentality. There’s a voice in my head that tells me that a good feminist, much like Petersen’s Cool Girl, should cultivate an eff-off attitude unconcerned with the pain of exercise or the seeming deprivation of an intentional diet (a Cool Feminist?) But to point #1 above, this attitude doesn’t suit who I am at my core and secondly, the lifestyle changes I’ve made are making me feel like a million bucks, so I am defensive of their merit. Unfettered indulgence made me heavy, dull and at times down-spirited. Fear of deprivation, as this post argues compellingly, can throw a life out of whack in numerous ways and can become its own kind of torment.
So back to That Time When Almonds Made Me Feel Like a Jerkface. Of course my friends didn’t actually care about my healthier decisions on our work-cation. They cheered me on (when they finally woke up), and we had plenty of good time to talk about all the things that were going well in our lives, and the various challenges we were facing in our bodies, our careers, our families. I don’t take that support for granted, having had my fair share of first-hand experience with the discomfort and defensiveness some women express when they see other women try to better themselves or reach ambitious goals. But these women are the. best. (More on the self-care significance of supportive lady circles in another post…)
When I began this journey, I thought that the main source of guilt related to taking care of myself would relate to my family, and my kids especially. I had geared myself up to have those talks with the kids, about why mama needed to get out to the gym, or why we were having certain sorts of meals, etc. What I’ve learned since, though, is that there are many spaces whereI catch myself self-conscious and even ashamed of my new health-focused perspective. Where I harbor a deep fear of persnick-ification. At potlucks and dinner parties. At work luncheons and retreats. On holidays. At conference socials. When company’s coming.
At the end of the day, it comes down to whether or not I consider my own goals to be a higher priority than the social fear of coming across as particular. High maintenance. Un-indulgent. No fun. But I’m learning that there is graciousness to be found in these exchanges, as well, and that by handling them with humor and tact, I don’t have to give up my Midwestern Niceness in order to be an intentional, self-preserving woman. I’m entitled to craft experiences that best serve me and my personal goals, even in mixed company. Even when they might put someone else on the defensive.
It’s not high maintenance to take care of your body in the ways that make the most sense for your schedule. It’s simply maintenance, and it’s a requirement for keeping any powerful machine running.
*P.S. If you don’t follow Anne Helen Petersen’s work at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style on social media and on Buzzfeed, please rectify that immediately. She’s one of my favorite combos of scholarly + popular + journalistic and her insights are sharp, timely and often hilarious.