Monday, November 18, 2019

Why Is It So Hard

Most of us can sense when something is wrong, even if it's not something we can really put a finger on or explain to the fullest, some kind of moral dumbfounding. Then there are times when it's quite clear why something is wrong. To me, what I'm about to address is the latter, but oddly, at least one person doesn't think so.

I was about to take a break from blogging about the mess that is the running world right now, but then I stumbled upon the following tweet:

Race Weight





People addressed the issue from both sides, and that should have been enough. Points were made all around, and even though we didn't all agree, the air was cleared. Oh, but that's never enough. The original poster wanted to point out just how wrong anyone who took an opposing stance was. But the reason why some of us aren't laughing isn't because we're too dumb to get highbrow humor; it's because some shit just ain't funny.

Obviously, the tweet was meant as a joke. In the past, this person has made other "jokes" that reinforce diet culture and unhealthy relationships with food, especially around the holidays. It's the reason why I stopped paying much attention to him on social media a few years back, but this tweet made me take it one step further and unfollow him. I've mentioned others whom I have unfollowed for this same reason in previous blog posts. I admit, my tolerance for that kind of rhetoric is low. Their idea of funny is to use outdated ideas that suggest having to earn your food or beer or having to burn it off. In the eating disorder recovery community, these are the exact kinds of concepts that are triggering and outright dangerous to promote.

As much as "triggering" has become a bad word, it should be acknowledged because in certain communities, those who become triggered can resort to self-harm and even risk death. That aside, jokes about weight, overeating, and using food as a reward or punishment aren't funny. If you're aiming for comedy, at least try a new, more creative routine.

I considered not publishing this, but fuck it. I'm tired of people and their holier than thou attitudes disregarding people I care about in an effort to be funny or relevant.

My responses are in red. This blog post is what prompted me:

When news broke recently about the fat shaming and related psychological abuse that was suffered by members of the Nike Oregon Project and by members of past British Olympic track and field teams at the hands of their coaches, I, like so many others, found the alleged behavior unconscionable. But I also found it absurd. It's unconscionable, yes, and if it weren't so widespread, it might also be absurd. The fact is, it happens a lot at all levels of the sport and is a very real and very painful experience for those who are being shamed. Worse, some individuals, no matter their weight, begin to believe the abuser's words. 
Let’s be clear: Fat shaming any athlete (or nonathlete, for that matter) is unconscionable. But fat shaming an elite athlete whose body is finely tuned to perform at the very highest level is both unconscionable and kind of ridiculous.  But it happens, and these kinds of problems are happening now, in real time, to many athletes and non-athletes.
I’ve always had an absurdist sense of humor. So, it wasn’t long after I read these disturbing reports that I found myself imagining the absurd scenario of a thickheaded coach trying to distance himself from the likes of Alberto Salazar and Charles van Commenee by announcing that he only fat-shamed athletes who actually were fat. It amused me to picture a coach so utterly clueless about what is actually wrong about fat shaming that he believed his behavior (fat shaming only truly fat athletes) was materially different from the behavior described in the reports (fat shaming finely tuned elite athletes). OK, we get he likes the word absurd, but, again, this wasn't an isolated incidence. These kinds of problems have been occurring for years at all levels in the sport, in other sports, and in general. It isn't just one or two coaches, and the actual weight of the athlete or size isn't the problem. Psychological and emotional abuse is the deeper issue. This happens to athletes of all sizes. Fat is used by abusive individuals in these cases as a general insult like any other, specifically to put down and humiliate a person or to attempt to gain control over her by emotionally abusing her. Getting into why using fat as an insult is wrong is a whole other can of worms I'm sidestepping for now, but it's a related topic.
Now, it so happens that I myself am an endurance coach and writer who has written extensively on the topic of performance weight management. In consideration of this fact, I got it into my head to post a tweet in the character of a thickheaded coach who thought the crime that the accused coaches committed was not fat shaming per se but fat-shaming athletes who weren’t fat. So I did, and let’s just say that the joke was not well received. Clearly, and it's not the fault of the audience. Women and men of all sizes and shapes experience fat shaming. I find little humor in the idea that a coach did an oopsie and fat shamed the wrong body type. 
As the pile-on continued (it was hardly a pile-on, more of a debate with some in support of bad humor and others not), I thought about what went wrong, and I came to the conclusion that my chief mistake was to assume that my Twitter followers had sufficient context to appreciate the joke as it was intended. (He didn't think hard enough) On further reflection, I decided the same joke probably would have gotten a few more laughs and a little less criticism if it were delivered as a set piece in a television show or film, where a good comedic actor delivered the very same words I used in my tweet in a manner that invited viewers to laugh at his thick-headedness. (I doubt that very much.) But that’s neither here nor there, because I am not a screenwriter, I’m an endurance coach with a Twitter account. I'm 100 percent sure I'm not the only one cringing at this.
I don’t think the context issue was the only factor involved in the joke’s flat landing, however. Rather, I think the negativity directed at me has been fueled in part by an ongoing backlash against our focus on body weight in endurance sports. As the author of the book Racing Weight, I am keenly aware that a growing contingent within the endurance community believes that, misfired jokes notwithstanding, the topic of performance weight management ought to be more or less taboo. Long before I posted my tweet, it was suggested to me, more than once, that I did something wrong in writing Racing Weight. I never saw it until after the "joke" nosedived, but OK. I think most people who said anything have more of a problem with the title, not the content.
The specific accusation is that in discussing weight management as a tool for performance, folks like me contribute to an unhealthy fixation on weight in endurance sports that motivates some coaches to fat-shame and psychologically abuse athletes and causes some athletes to develop issues such as eating disorders and body dysmorphia even without a coach’s overt influence. The solution, therefore, is to avoid discussing performance weight management except for the sake of actively discourage athletes from focusing on it. That wasn't the specific accusation. Again, the issue isn't weight so much as the abuse. There are all kinds of resources available that help athletes eat and train optimally. There are ways to discuss these kinds of concerns without joking, belittling, or triggering others. Rachael Steil offers some great resources on her blog. 
The intent here is unimpeachable. Eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and over-fixation on body weight are huge problems in endurance sports, and anyone in a position to do something to fix them has an obligation to chip in. As one who is very much in such a position, I try hard to do my part. (Apparently not hard enough) I think the Twitter critics who read my tweet literally (Nope, missed the point again) —who actually think I fat-shame some athletes (eye roll)—would be surprised to see how I counsel the athletes I coach on these matters. I never encourage athletes to lose weight, I preach caution to all of those who set their own goal to lose weight, and I talk to them a lot more about the importance of having a healthy relationship with food than I do about the mechanics of shedding body fat. I’m proud to say I’ve brought a few athletes back from very dark places through these means. I don't think the majority of people arguing were suggesting he actually fat shames anyone, more that this kind of post is inconsiderate, especially considering the current climate in the running world. A good comedian not only reads the room but doesn't need several paragraphs to explain the "joke". And do some research. Fat shaming doesn't just hurt the one being shamed. It hurts those who watch it. This "joke" is one step removed. In other words, this tweet that he's so desperately trying to defend is potentially hurting others merely by suggestion. 

And that doesn't mean anyone is taking it literally. It's the idea of it, the suggestion that gets in a person's head. It is offensive. That might be hard for people to understand, but one doesn't have to take a statement like that literally to be affected by it. And because it has been the norm for so long for "fat" to be the brunt of jokes, we often don't recognize how damaging it can be to make offhanded comments like that. In his head, it was funny and absurd, but to write it that way out of context shows insensitivity. 
Having said all of this, I must also say that I disagree with those who believe that the topic of performance weight management ought to be taboo, for two reasons. The first is that, in my experience, forbidding an open, rational discussion of the topic only drives athletes’ efforts to manage their weight underground, which greatly increases the likelihood that they’ll go about it the wrong way. It’s sort of like the argument that is often made for teaching sexual education in school. Folks are going to do it regardless of whether you tell them not to, so why not talk openly about how to do it and how not to do it? Um, who said it's taboo? Obviously, there are sensible ways to address weight that don't include body shaming, using terms that could be considered offensive, or ridiculing. The condescending way in which this guy addresses his audience is amusing considering the backlash he received. That takes some balls.
The second reason I deem the racing weight backlash misguided is that, as a general principle, I believe that truth is the only road to effective solutions for all problems. I think we do athletes a disservice when we assume they can’t handle the truth. A small minority of athletes, those who have a history of disordered eating or who are at high risk for developing an eating disorder, do need to be steered away from giving any mind space to their weight and body shape. (he just said it's a huge problem in endurance sports, but now only a few people are at risk?)I half-jokingly tell the athletes I coach who belong to this minority, “My one and only prescription for you is to spend 80 percent less time thinking about food.” But I think it’s a mistake to establish general rules for the discussion of performance weight management based on the vulnerabilities of this small group. No, all kinds of nope here. It is most definitely not a small minority who have a history of eating disorders or are at risk. Even as far back as 2004, studies showed that athletes are up to three times more likely to develop an eating disorder. I may have cited this before, but here are some statistics on athletes and eating disorders. And apparently this guy is magic and can see beforehand which athlete is susceptible to developing an eating disorder and which isn't. Pretty impressive... if it were only true. 

Again, good coaches look at how to train different body types differently. What's absurd is thinking several paragraphs of blah blah counters a tweet that offended many people for good reason. Instead of a simple apology or taking it down or just leaving it be after people offered opinions, he wrote this? I mean, really. Stop putting the blame on those who have lived it and are upset by this kind of poorly thought out comment.
 Instead, in my view, the “standard” approach to dealing with performance weight management should be based on facts and truth. And here are the most relevant truths, as I see them:
1. Body weight and body composition can affect endurance performance both positively and negatively. Again, I don't think anyone was arguing otherwise. 
2. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or dangerous about actively managing one’s weight and body composition in the pursuit of better performance. Jesus. Talk about missing the point. No, there's not, unless a coach bullies an athlete to the point where she self harms. And that's what the topic of conversation has been lately. 
3. There are safe, healthy, and effective ways to pursue one’s optimal racing weight and there are unsafe, unhealthy, and ineffective ways. Nobody said otherwise. 
4. The desire to actively pursue optimal racing weight should come from the individual athlete and should never come from a coach or anyone else. Racing weight shouldn't be the goal. Performance and health should be. 
5. Athletes who express such a desire should receive (ideally professional) guidance that is evidence-based and that is informed every bit as much by psychological concerns as by physical ones. For example, it should be drilled into athletes’ heads that optimal racing weight is determined functionally (i.e., by how the athlete feels and performs), not by the scale, and least of all by arbitrary numerical goals. Agree, but then one has to question why even call it race weight? 
6. Athletes who have expressed a goal to actively pursue their racing weight (well, I hope nobody does, because after just explaining how athletes should focus on performance, we are back focusing on weight as a goal.) and who start heading in a bad direction (And how does one know when they start?), either physically or psychologically, despite qualified guidance, should be supported in letting go of weight management as a performance tool and encouraged to focus instead on some of the many other available tools. . .
. . . like performance-enhancing drugs!  <----- Well, at least that was funny.
Ah, Lord help me.



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