Embarrassingly late to the blog tour here (my b), but I want to tell you about a book that is really meaningful to me. I was excited no matter what, because its editor is Kelly Jensen, whose previous two anthologies were fantastic [disclosure that I contributed to the second one, (Don’t) Call Me Crazy]. But given the topic of this new one, it’s also super relevant to my blog and my interests, so if you’re a subscriber onhere, I assume it’s super relevant to your interests, too.
Body Talk collects the words of 37 contributors talking about anatomy, both literally and more figuratively. They cover everything: body hair, periods, clothes, hormones, gender presentation, perceptions of fatness, obesity, curves… There are also some FAQs, and the whole thing is beautiful designed and with two colors throughout.
I think what I like about this book best is that it’s about radical body understanding more than body positivity. Body positivity is cool as fuck and something we should all aim for sometimes, but it’s not exactly attainable, and if you sit in that place all the time, it can be toxic. Body knowledge, body questioning, body acceptance? A bit more in the realm of possibility. To be honest, I kind of hate my body right now–hate what it looks like, hate how little it can do as it continues to need coddling–six months post-car accident, no less–hate that after so much work to control and understand it, I feel lost inside it now. I’ve been working my way through Body Talk slowly, because it’s emotionally exhausting to have it affect me and to try to take on some of the feelings of the contributors, but it’s absolutely a journey worth taking on.
Okay so. I did not sports as a child. I was (still am, maybe?) afraid of every kind of ball, not coordinated, super awkward, not good at following rules as far as outs and penalties and fouls, and just in general was Not About Them. My mother was not about to have a sedentary child, no matter how much I loved to read and no matter how talented I was at piano, so I was required to do ballet folklórico all school year and swim team in the summers. I think I’m actually a very good swimmer in the technical sense, but in the practical sense I had an undiagnosed (misdiagnosed as asthma) breathing condition, so I was not fast, and as we grew up together, a lot of the kids on the team got mean and I got bullied, so hooray! I quit when I was 16.
But I do really, really love swimming.
I accidentally fell into being a children’s swim instructor, even. I hate what it does to my hair and my skin, and I hate having to take my contacts out, but when I force myself in the water, I am actually really, really happy. Actually, that’s sort of what my YA WIP is about, but that’s neither here nor there.
So when I saw Breath Like Water by Anna Jarzab pop up on my Netgalley–a brown girl! Swimming!–I was intrigued. To be honest, it’s only recently that I started finding something to enjoy and respect about romance as a genre anyway, and it’s really not my taste in YA literature for a number of reasons that I won’t go into here, but the description was still enough for me to give it a try:
Susannah Ramos has always loved the water. A swimmer whose early talent made her a world champion, Susannah was poised for greatness in a sport that demands so much of its young. But an inexplicable slowdown has put her Olympic dream in jeopardy, and Susannah is fighting to keep her career afloat when two important people enter her life: a new coach with a revolutionary training strategy, and a charming fellow swimmer named Harry Matthews.
As Susannah begins her long and painful climb back to the top, her friendship with Harry blossoms into passionate and supportive love. But Harry is facing challenges of his own, and even as their bond draws them closer together, other forces work to tear them apart. As she struggles to balance her needs with those of the people who matter most to her, Susannah will learn the cost–and the beauty–of trying to achieve something extraordinary.
Anna Jarzab, Breath Like Water
Susannah is an elite swimmer poised for college athletics, the Olympics, or both. I have never been an elite anything, and I can’t say I can identify with what her training experience is, but what I can identify with is having your body betray you when you think it should be doing what it could always do, and with not being able to fully comprehend how and why it’s not the same as other people’s. I can also identify with having cruel male teachers and supportive female ones. One of the major threads in this book has to do with her two coaches–first, the one who has been her coach all along but is now losing interest in her as she fails to live up to his standards and has the audacity to have non-swimming interests like friendship and romance, and second, the new assistant coach Beth, who sees something in Susannah that Susannah isn’t quite ready to recognize until she realizes that Beth’s methods are making her a better swimmer and healthier person. I don’t think enough YA focuses on teens’ relationships with adults (especially non-predatory sexual ones and non-parental ones), which seems weird if the point is Teenagers, but adults are a major part of teens’ lives, and I really like how Jarzab explores both positive and negative relationships with adults and their consequences in Susannah’s life, also both positive and negative.
One thing I’ve found as an adult is that, to my surprise, I can value sports and physical activity even when having no interest in participating in them. It’s fun to make fun of sportsball and talk about how Superb Owls are better than the Super Bowl, but it’s also unfair, because we all have the right to like whatever we like, and especially right now when everything in the world is terrible, we shouldn’t begrudge anyone a pastime unless its Naziism or Confederate Pride. This is a chicken-and-egg situation wherein I don’t know if I found fitness because I was finally able to recognize that it goes beyond team sports and competition or if I realized that and then went out and found a gym, but either way, it turns out that I can enjoy watching the Olympics and the World Cup and wearing my Arizona gear during March Madness, and I am allowed to not actually care about the overall standings of different teams and to check out when a game is not actively happening. All at the same time! In learning to love the forms of fitness that have changed my life and my body, I’ve also learned that I can respect other people’s love of sports because it appeals to parts of their brains and bodies. Doing Pilates makes me hyper-aware of every part of my body and has made me realize that athletes must feel similarly when it comes to elite training in their particular sport.
Jarzab does a great job describing swim practices and training and the excruciating pain Susannah experiences during an injury; you can feel it and find joy in the discipline of it all. (Honestly, it makes me a little embarrassed of the quality of my two sports novels, but they’re already published and unchangeable, so whatever.) I’m not really a woo person or Aerobics Barbie kind of cheery, #goodvibesonly fitness person; I am someone who likes fitness in the ways that athletes like Susannah like their sport. Serious work is something I find joy in. I don’t really like fun. Ask anyone who’s known me since high school; they will confirm that. “Fun” in the conventional sense is not something I enjoy.
So anyway, that’s what appeals to me in Breath Like Water. It’s not serious in a drudgery sort of way, but it’s serious in the sense that it’s a disciplined text about a disciplined person, and the wins and losses, in and out of the pool, are earned and feel real. Susannah and Harry’s relationship is believable, and as a girl who never had a date to prom or a boyfriend to walk to her to biology class and is obviously still bitter about it, I appreciate that it doesn’t feel like a romance that’s too easy. Escapism’s not really my jam, which is why I don’t like many YA romances. This one’s not that.
It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.
–Circe, by Madeline Miller
My usual retort to any cis woman when she tells me that she doesn’t want to lift heavy weights because she doesn’t want to bulk up goes something like this: “Are you eating 200 grams of protein a day and taking testosterone supplements? Cause if you’re not, lifting some weights is not going to bulk you up.” It’s a joke, but it’s also true. Generally speaking, if you are genetically female, you are not designed to get substantially bulky without outside help. Lifting twenty pounds instead of two will not change that, though it will make you stronger.
There are two important things in fitness, and you don’t exactly get them at the same time: muscular strength and muscular endurance. Strength is what you can lift, right? Endurance is how often or for how long you can lift it. Want to increase your strength? Go high weight, low rep. Want to increase your endurance? Go low weight, high rep. Want to be fit? Do both.
Low weight, high rep is how many workouts marketed to women are designed: LA Fitness’ Body Works Plus Abs program, barre classes, and Pound are some examples. They trade on the fear that women have about bulking up, which is too bad, because they could just market themselves as muscular endurance classes without the fear-mongering. They are fantastic for that! But at some point you also have to work on more sustained and heavier exercises if you want to get stronger. Lifting heavy weight to failure in, say, six reps will do wonders for your overall strength, while lifting light weights to failure in, say, 32 reps, will help you with your stamina.
Please do both. Please.
There’s nothing new or interesting about saying that women are shamed a lot when it comes to fitness. We are told not to do things that will make us bulk up, even though that’s not how science works anyway, and we’re told we’re always inadequate but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to “improve” every day, and and and. But if there’s one thing I can impart to you (and assume about you), it’s that you should not be afraid of lifting heavier weights (and you probably aren’t doing a lot of it). That doesn’t literally mean you have to go bench press 200 pounds, though feel free if you want to. It could also mean doing slow bodyweight exercises, throwing some pushups into your routine, strapping on or setting up some resistance bands to push and pull. But don’t speed through everything with two pounds.
The goddess Circe doesn’t give any fucks about society’s wishes for her, though in our human defense, we don’t have centuries upon centuries to unlearn harmful body messages, and she did. Though this book starts out kind of boring, essentially just giving us summaries of all the major Greek myths, it gradually turns into this really fantastic feminist tale, and I’m so glad I stuck with the initial boring bits to get to the amazing rest of it all. Highly recommend.
Okay, I get it. You are maybe not a weirdo like me and thus do not want to read stuff that is super heavy on the exercise science. BUT you are also a person who respects the scientific process. Awesome! The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer is a book you’ll want to pick up. Here’s why:
First, take a look at the author’s qualifications. Gretchen Reynolds is a long-time columnist for The New York Times, arguably the most respected newspaper in the country. Reporters, as you might know, are trained (at least we hope) in doing their homework, fact checking (or, at least, sending someone else to fact check), and coming at things from multiple perspectives. People who take time on things are usually more convincing people than those who do not. Good author? Check. Extra points because she’s chatty and super engaging and occasionally funny.
The book is organized as a glorified FAQ to exercise, basically. That makes it incredibly readable, even if you, unlike me, do not like reading science books cover to cover. You can skip around to chapters that interest you and learn, in very easy prose, summaries on the latest studies in exercise science so that you know that HIIT is actually worthwhile and produces results, that running actually does NOT ruin your knees, and that regular engagement in fitness will indeed keep you from aging before your time.
If this book has a flaw, it’s that Reynolds does have the underlying assumption that the only reason anyone cares about fitness is because they care about weight loss. She often ends sections with a bit of self-deprecating snark, which I can absolutely appreciate, but that snark holds some derision about fat people and fatness. She doesn’t really get down to a lot of the whole “skinny fat” or HAES movement.
But if you have questions about random fitness things and don’t want to have to flip through every back issue of SELF to see if they were answered? This book. This book. Good stuff. Definitely pick up the paperback for keeps and make notes in it.
I love to read diet books the way I used to love to watch The Biggest Loser: it’s a sick, harmful thing to do and it makes me complicit in a system of shaming, policing, and encouraging a certain kind of lifestyle based entirely on capitalism, not wellbeing. (Especially the show.) It is truly a distasteful thing to do. And I swear I’m going to stop. At least The Biggest Loser. No more of that. Don’t watch that show. Don’t watch it because your health will be better if you stop, and because if it loses ratings, it will stop encouraging bad habits for its audience (their food advice especially is based on decades-old misinformation) and stop ruining the lives of its vulnerable contestants, who deserve real health.
At the end of 2010, an osteopath suggested that my myriad health problems (you may find this TMI, but….constant gas, indigestion, suppressed immune system, halitosis, Candida, a rash that didn’t respond to eczema treatment, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, weight gain, depression and a feeling of air bubbles popping inside my intestines daily) would be solved by eliminating gluten from my diet. Soon after, another doctor told me that eliminating processed soy and all dairy would make me feel amazing. I was fairly willing to take this advice, but as I say often, nothing is real to me if I haven’t read a book about it. [This is likely linked to my obsessive compulsive anxiety, not just my love of reading, but whatever. It has served me well more times than it has disrupted my life – thought it has done that too.]
A good friend of mine recommended a book she had liked, Good Calories, Bad Calories. I thought it sounded sillypants and that I would kind of hateread it, but instead, I found it chock full of cited research, from scientific articles to news to transcripts of congressional hearings and beyond. This isn’t a review of that book but rather the book that taught me, a few months before I went to library school, how important it is to have information literacy and not just plain old literacy.
If you don’t want to read diet books, don’t start. If you do, consider this: there is a difference between “dieting” and having “a diet,” and you should try to frame your thinking around the latter, not the former. Dieting is an action, and plenty of research indicates that it’s a worthless, cyclical pursuit that invariably leads to gaining the weight you lost and losing steam, motivation, and self esteem.
On the other hand, keeping to A Diet can mean all kinds of things. It can mean that your diet doesn’t include this or that because you’re allergic or because it gives you tummy problems. It could mean that you make your biggest meal lunch because you find it gives you energy or that you prefer lots of tiny meals throughout the day. It could mean that you feel like not eating animal products is the ethical way to live. It could mean that you try to make your meals revolve around food you grow or raise yourself. It can mean whatever the fuck you want it to mean. It could mean that you are adding this or that food because you found you were deficient in this or that vitamin. But whatever it is, it should mean that it’s an ongoing thing (acknowledging that things ebb and flow and change) and a lifestyle, not a thing you do for a specific amount of time for a drastic result.
So, as I noted, these medical professionals suggested A Diet, not that I Go On A Diet. And so I tried it, but not before going to the library and getting the book Amanda suggested. And also The Idiot’s Guide to Eating Gluten-free. And some cookbooks. And the original paleo book. And on and on. I wanted to read about fucking everything. It was kind of like how Aziz Ansari describes researching 800 restaurants and wasting three hours before going out to eat, except I do it with life changes and books.
Anyway, let’s get back to the information literacy thing. One thing that made reading the book less than enjoyable but ultimately more useful than some other books was the copious amount of footnotes and endnotes and the very long works cited page.
I hope you learned this from your librarian when you were in school, and if you didn’t, I hope now you can see how important it is that all schools have librarians: any scholar or writer worth his/her/zur salt who is writing an argumentative essay or opinion piece uses the work of their colleagues, predecessors, and/or dissenters to underscore their points and substantiate their theses. They do literature reviews. They highlight and annotate what they read. They use those to prove that the things they prevent as fact are, in fact, facts (heh) and to show that they are contributing to a body of research about the same or similar things. What’s more, if they are good writers, they integrate this research into compelling, digestible prose.
I’m not saying they are infallible; I am saying that if you are trying to determine which diet book on the shelf is more likely to be worthwhile, flip to the back and see how many pages of notes and references they have. If the book has none at all, put it back on the shelf and walk away. If it has a lot, the reading experience may not be fun, exactly, but again, if your librarian and teachers did their jobs, you should be able to read the writer’s words and the quotes they pull and begin to assess bias (note: there is no such thing as “unbiased writing;” it is your job to find multiple points of bias and come up with your most objective [ha! you are not objective, ever] conclusion, and your librarian can help you with that) and use the author’s conclusions to come to your own as far as how much they have convinced you.
Diet books are not gospel. But good ones do their homework.
tl;dr: the more references, citations, notes, and appendices a book has, the more likely it is to be based in real science. The more likely it’s based in real science, the more likely it’s a good choice for you. Science is cool like that.
Silly pro tip: I have found that the books with the best research have the goofiest titles. And they’re the ones I base many of my lifestyle choices on today. See below.