Fitness, Food and Family: A Complex Relationship

“Thinly veiled personal remarks, masquerading as concern for one’s health and well-being spout from the mouths of our dearest friends. When did obesity become so stigmatized?”

Penny Walker

Shortly after my father died, probably in response to some deep and unacknowledged fear that if I didn’t buck my ideas up I’d be next, I joined a gym. After all, he was a fit man, still walking for an hour on the beach every day at 80. Everyone said he looked nearer 65, and he did; his striking shock of pure white hair the only visual clue to the truth. He had always loved exercise, sailing, swimming, cycling; he even took up skiing at 62. For me on the other hand, exercise has never really appealed.

I can (and have) done all the above. By exercise, I mean the daily ritual of keeping oneself in shape. “In shape”, there’s a phrase. What do we mean by “in shape”? I heard on the radio this morning about the advent of women’s AFL in Perth 100 years ago. With the onset of hostilities in Europe denuding the country of its young and fit menfolk, the women of Perth took it upon themselves to keep the game going. There was a team of factory workers and another from Foy and Gibson, the department store. They played in long silk dresses and hats. But did they train for it, as we do for sporting events today?

It has always seemed to me that the high-profile event part of any sporting thing is the fun bit, if any of it can be said to be actually “fun”. In my time, I had won trophies both helming and crewing racing dinghies, and represented my college in high board diving. Neither activity, it needs to be pointed out, require breath-draining stamina. The long, hard slog of training to get you there, that’s where I come unstuck. So, it was with the gym.

I started off with good intentions and stuck at it for more than four years by reminding myself daily that it was only a half hour out of my schedule, and not allowing myself to return home after dropping the boys at the school bus stop until I had done my workout. Even if this meant sitting outside the gym in the freezing cold on Tuesdays and Thursdays waiting for it to open at 8:00 am. Did I feel better for it? Was I healthier?

In a physical sense, I suppose I did, though it galls me to admit it. I am a cup of coffee and a paperback novel kind of girl first thing in the mornings. The exercise also undoubtedly boosted my endorphin levels, making me super cheery for the hour or so following.  However, the experience became jaded when it began to be infused with guilt. If I missed a session, I’d be ashamed of myself.  If some weight had mysteriously larded itself to my tummy and the tape measure was unkind, it would eat at me for days. All the perky encouragement from the genuine ladies who ran the all-women gym only made things worse. I wanted to leave, to give up this struggle against which I felt I couldn’t triumph, but hung on in there instead, hating every second yet fearing the judgement of my peers.

I am certain that I am not alone. My escape came sadly with the death of my mother in England. Two parents, two deaths, bookending my experiment with gyms and personal fitness. I cancelled my membership and flew there to be with her. It took a while. When I returned, I chose to set my own regime; to try to be kind to myself, to lay off with the recriminations.

It has been harder to do than I thought.

The culture of thinness pervades everything. I find myself ambivalent about the whole issue of fitness. The way it has become inextricably linked to diet and body image. It is a multi-billion-dollar industry, trading on the insecurities of mainly (but not always) women. Where is the line between good health and psychological stability, on the one hand, and eating disorders, cyclical failure and obsession on the other?

More worryingly, the obsession seems to be infecting younger and younger girls. I use the word ‘infecting’ deliberately. It is a visual virus flung at us from every media platform. Advertising, films, magazine covers, and catwalks all feature the super skinny. For many of us, membership to “the perfect body club” is an unattainable aspiration.

There was the horrifying case of a young black woman who was convinced by a man, a stranger she met in a nightclub, that he could increase the size of her buttocks. She met him at his garage where he proceeded to pump her glutes full of a mixture of tyre sealant and cement, which led tragically to her death. I feel appalled that her desire for this body enhancement was so desperate, that she was prepared to put herself at such risk.

To a large extent our genetics dictate what our bodies will look like. To have a sense of inner peace, at some point we must come to terms with this. How can our psyches stand up to the visual onslaught? How can we possibly find contentment when all around us circle these skeletal crows pecking at our self-confidence? Our society has become so intolerant of obesity. I am not very overweight but it is a constant battle and self-worth seems to be the casualty. It seems to me that plain rudeness has become acceptable. Thinly veiled personal remarks, masquerading as concern for one’s health and well-being spout from the mouths of our dearest friends. When did obesity become so stigmatized?

When I analyse my internal response to this, a split personality appears. I alternate between the urge to actively sabotage my own efforts to eat well and exercise as a “sod off” gesture of personal defiance to an industry I abhor; and feeling horrified and ashamed at my lack of commitment to fight the flab. Add into this mix the fact that my husband is the most amazing cook who, if he wishes to practice his art, has to deal with catering around my newly acquired food intolerances. He navigates the gluten free world with aplomb, all for my benefit; producing celebration worthy three course meals every Sunday complete with wine and roast potatoes prepared of course, with duck fat. Yum. I am hardly going to sit at the head of our family table morosely munching on a desiccated stick of celery whilst the rest of my largely male brood – I do have a newly acquired daughter in law, who will hopefully over time be the first of several to help equalize the current gender imbalance – roll jovially forward; unconcerned by their waist-lines, fuelled in their bonhomie by excellent grub and fine wine.

So, on Sundays, I stick two fingers up to whole shebang, eat the roast potatoes and rest replete, glass in hand, blithely saying to myself that anyone who gives a damn about the way I look is not worth bothering with. Sadly, by Monday morning, that lovely alcohol induced glow of personal acceptance has evaporated, leaving me once again full of self-loathing and misery. And there it is again, Guilt. Guilt at my lack of self-control versus the potential guilt that would come from rejecting the “especially for me” meals.

What saddens me most about all of this is the internal impact it has on my emotional wellbeing. I find myself dreading the meal (or rather the Monday morning aftermath), knowing my all or nothing personality does not comply with the “a little of what you fancy does you good” ideal. In fact, the more I try and lay down rules for myself, the harder my steely inner core of resistance becomes. I am my own worst enemy.

The internal debate arising from this situation leaves me yo-yo-ing. Monday through Friday, I watch the groups of women on the oval working out with a personal trainer and wonder whether I should buy the Lycra and try it. The very thought is unpalatable. Then the weekend arrives, and the desire to gracefully acknowledge and accept my husband’s efforts to nurture us all through the food that he cooks is far more important.

Family meal-times in our house have always been precious, especially with a Dad who travels so much. When the boys were younger, the dining table at the end of the day was our equivalent of a tribal council rock. Anyone with a problem could bring it and share it and between us we would try to find a workable solution. Comedy routines were born and careers discussed. As the boys grew, so did the size of this happy band. They brought their friends, and then girlfriends too. I added a twist to the mix with a pair of young men I met through my work at the theatre; washed ashore here in Perth with no family to fall back on, they adopted us and added their passions to the whole, enriching us all. Our Sunday lunches became the stuff of legend. Now that they are all grown, those opportunities to gather and enjoy one another’s company are fewer and farther between, and the sharing of food is central to the experience. Dad’s roast dinner is an irresistible enticement.

Kate Moss said, “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”. She may be right, but I think on balance; nothing feels as good as family. For me, what epitomizes family most is a crowded, happy Sunday lunch, our long table groaning with plates, glassware and elbows; and the creativity and inspiration we all derive from being together in one place. It can be deafeningly noisy as they all compete for the floor but the ideas and the laughter, the feeling of gathering my tribe around me, that feeling can feed my soul for weeks.


Fitness, Food and Family: A Complex relationship. by Penelope Walker is licensed under a creative commons attribution-non-commercial 4.0 International License.

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