As noted before I love talking about working out. I also love hearing about why other people workout and how they relate to it. I recently sent my friend Alison Roh Park – media justice organizer, poet, runner, and all around good people – a few questions about why she works out and how it all started. What follows is her open and thoughtful response grounded in an analysis of gender, race and class. Read it!
I ran around a lot as a kid, spent most of my summers going to the playground with my sister and riding the swings or playing tennis on the wall for handball with some old racquets my dad found. My dad would wake us all up at 6:30 in the morning in the summers and make us do chejo (Korean calisthenics). My siblings and I complained about it, but actually thinking back, we all had a good time doing it. My folks were supportive of pretty much any extracurricular activity, but we didn’t really watch any sports. I think my siblings played some team sports with their friends but not seriously, and I don’t remember watching any sports other then when my sister and I tried to get control of the remote when my brother was watching basketball or football.
I was on the swim team in high school for almost 2 seasons. I think I used to clock in as the second slowest on almost every event other than the 50 meter freestyle. My school in Flushing didn’t have a pool, so I had to take the bus and train for over an hour each way to Cypress Hill. My parents worked a lot of nights, and dinner was usually Cheez Doodles and quarter water while waiting for the train at night in a deserted station after practice. It sucked.
In sophomore year of high school, I injured my knee on a pommel horse. This was the result of a little known fact about me: I was a raver for about a year and decided to practice vaulting with my friend from gymnastics class after school. My 30-inch pants hem got caught on the upholstery and I ended up dislocating my kneecap. It was a pretty serious and affected my ability to really get into exercise until recently.
Until recently, having a healthy relationship to my body was close to impossible. When I think of where I was with my health and fitness even two years ago, the chronic illnesses and knee injury I had to deal over the course of a decade aren’t even the first things that come to mind. I used to call myself a “serial monogamist,” but in reality, most of my twenties were spent surviving and healing from a series of abusive relationships. They left me disconnected from my body, along with the realities of growing a young girl of color in New York City; daily street harassment; sexual violence in many shapes and forms, including by mainstream media; lack of access to sex education and reproductive health services; and standards of beauty in my various communities. It’s hard to feel ownership over your body when you’re treated as a commodity, when others—be it partners, men, strangers, or the state—exert control over it.
I started a long (lifelong) process of self-work a few years ago, and it’s been a really beautiful, painful journey. I don’t think I ever quite understood what people meant when they say you need to “find yourself” until now, and for me, that means making a commitment to being present. Some people call it mindfulness, others might call it being real, but ultimately it’s been about making conscious choices that keep me grounded in my body, being aware of what’s happening outside and inside at this very moment, accepting past hurts and choosing to define myself by new standards.
I recently read a poem by Louise Gluck called “Liberation”, and the most memorable line in it is “Only victims have a destiny.” Victimization is real, and the framing I’m using here is about what one does with victimization. I’m trying my best to stay grounded in what I can do for myself, what I can do now, and what I can do moving forward. In many ways I see parallels in what I’m trying to do in my personal journey with movement work—to see and accept what is really happening, and to build individual and collective power to interrupt and undo business as usual. With regard to my health, this means accepting the behaviors I’ve learned, and accepting that they no longer serve me. I’m definitely not there, and I’m not quite sure that one ever “arrives” at a moment of total transformation, but I’m working to stay in the driver’s seat. And, I believe the how is always more important that the what.
For so many years I said, “I can’t run, I don’t like running, I can’t run because I’m too overweight, I can’t run because I have a bad knee.” About a year ago, a friend asked me to join her on a 10K run (about 6.5 miles). I agreed, and my sister decided to join us and run the half marathon. I got on a training plan and I ran the 10K with only two months of training. It was amazing, but I didn’t run again for a few months after that, and didn’t understand why. I started beating myself up for it, which just made it harder to get up and go. I started and stopped a few times and finally signed up for two races. Since then, I’ve started weightlifting, completed the Spartan Super 10-mile mountain obstacle course and introduced some critical healthy behaviors into my daily routine. Last week I ran my first half marathon with my sister who is now training for the New York City marathon and the Iron Man.
I am affirmed when people who love me and support me notice that I look healthier, that I’m in a better mood, that I’m stronger and more muscular. Others make comments about how much better I look (because I’ve lost a few pounds) without knowing or caring about the emotional context of this change. These comments are unhelpful if not hurtful, and I’ve actually been finding myself triggered by them. Many people mask fat-phobia by talking about health; some people are just unapologetically hateful, and in the end it’s the same kind of abuse and entitlement (to comment and interrogate another person’s body) that contribute to the mind-body disconnect of the person who’s experiencing these comments.
We often start from the outside in—lose weight instead of getting the right nutrition; build muscle instead of building strength—and that comes from a place of judgment. We internalize that judgment by using words like should, need to, too much, too little, and have to, so often and unnecessarily, when it comes to health and fitness. This kind of language doesn’t honor who we each individually are, our experiences, our values, what we like and want, or the traumas we carry around with us.
One of the biggest challenges for me is staying in my body. It does sometimes feel crazy, constantly coaching myself to stay in my body and do the things that feel right, the things that are nourishing. But I understand that one doesn’t make meaningful change overnight. Really sometimes I feel like I’m organizing the different parts of me, managing my complexities to have them work in sync with one another and without judgment. A big part of mindfulness for me has been giving myself the time, space, and gentleness to let my body and emotions catch up with my mind. I’ve found they work themselves out when I am kind and gentle with myself to just be. Maybe my parents were onto something when they used to say that practice makes perfect.