Hi all – very sorry for the lack of recent posts. Busy teaching this semester!
Recently I participated in a very cool conference hosted by the Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand. As well as being in Wanaka (the best place in NZ, except for Palmy of course ;-)) it was literally teeming with interesting presentations on all sorts of subjects, from fascia (Matthew Stewart) to mental health (Dr Greg Brown) to the intricacies of endurance training (Jamie Scott). Here I post the slides and text from my presentation – please feel free to share widely.
I don’t need to tell you where we have got to with regard to body image and the current ‘acceptable’ images of body in New Zealand.
This recent example of the clothing company Glasson’s using a mannequin with visible ribs highlights the body goal of the fashion and diet industries. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing inherently problematic with ribs – I love ribs. But the imagery and the impact are wholly understated given the context of the population frequenting the store.
In this presentation I want to talk about body mass and endurance athletes, specifically I want to trouble our society’s current understanding of the relationship between mass and endurance within the context of an ancestral understanding of body. However I want to read the term ‘ancestral’ fairly broadly. I’ll start by explaining what I mean by this…
A discontent of our current society is the tendency to read biomedical science as ‘Truth’ with a capital T (that is the only possible truth.). This naturalistic perspective privileges some things at the expense of others. For instance it privileges conscious thought over Unconscious thought. And it privileges the individual (and here I am referring to the molecular individual) over the collective. But perhaps most importantly for our concern is that it privileges biomedical scientific knowledge over what I’ll term philosophical knowledge. So, if we read this quote from a naturalistic perspective we understand certain things about our ancestors – what they ate, how they moved, what their environmental conditions were and the like. To take the ‘thinking critically’ aspect here seriously I believe it is incumbent on us to also respect our ancestor’s philosophy – their understanding of their bodies in context, as devices of physical labour, as Mothers, as leaders, as mystics and others. This vicissitude, this distinction, that sees biomedical and NOT philosophical bodies, is artificial, and in my opinion risks a simplification that threatens to undermine the emergent radical potentiality within the ‘ancestral health’ movement by sucking it into line with the ‘diet’ industry – i.e. just another fad. Which would be a tragedy. So in some ways what I have to say here is rather political, as a strident critic of the wider diet industry it is very exciting for me to be involved with a theorization of health that doesn’t want me to be losing weight.
Ok – so just one more theoretical spiel before I’ll cut to the fun bit. So what are these critical philosophical concepts that I see underpinning the ancestral movement – well thankfully, only one. This comes via Nietzsche and then Foucault – this is the concept of genealogy. Which is not the study of one’s ancestry but a form of enquiry that, and I’m quoting here “seeks to show the plural and sometimes contradictory past that reveals traces of the influence that power has had on truth”. Specifically here I present some ideas on a geneology of the BMI measure, how has this become the ‘truth’ – and what are the facets of this truth, how does it work as a device of power? I do this via what distance runners say about body size.
It isn’t difficult to find bloggers and others promoting the exploits of Scottish highland warriors (I’m not talking specifically about Braveheart here – but you get my drift!). But plumbing my own Scottish ancestry seems like a useful beginning, and a necessary intrusion, to considering what has changed in the last few hundred years with regard to perceptions of body mass.
My entire heritage is Scottish, except perhaps for a little northern English infiltration. And in my family runs a heavy mass set of genes (I say ‘set’ on purpose because so far at least ‘science’ is pretty rubbish when it comes to figuring body mass genetically). Thus I have a set of cousins and others who are all ‘of mass’ and a set who are a little littler (including my brother). Losing weight has always been a problem for this segment of my family, though it’s fair to say that I’m pretty good at it. Top weight ~140kg, lightest around 88kg now somewhere in the vicinity of 105kg (if you want to read lots about my personal experiences I’ve published three journal articles so far that tackle different aspects of this)
The odd thing about the bulky line in my family is our relative sporting prowess at least in distance running, peculiarly. My last half marathon was 1:45:00 at 107kg and 180cm.
So the science is pretty definitive on endurance running performance. The number one factor that impacts on performance (as measured by speed) is body size. The larger you are the slower you run. In fact the physics are pretty simple (read the papers if you want the detail). Age has an effect also – but it isn’t as pronounced and there are some oddities, like men often get faster between the ages of 30-50 (which tends to piss off the young men!).
Now the scientists behind this research have developed a calculator whereby you can adjust your running performance based on your body size age to allow accurate comparisons.
So here you can witness my failure. My PB half marathon is 1:35:55 posted in Manawatu in 2006 when I was 88kg or so and 30 years old – when calculated for size and age my adjusted time is 1:24:26. Fast forward 7 years, one master’s degree, one PhD, two kids including one with rare genetic disease and birth trauma, and no less than 10 fairly awesome running injuries and I run again in Manawatu and cross the line in 1:45:flat (10 mins slower, sigh). But I’m saved by the calculator – when adjusted for my then 107kg mass: 1:23:05.
Ok – so theatrics aside, what this data proves (and my two times are simply two examples of thousands used by the researchers) is that body weight makes a difference – My guess right now is that no one in this room is even remotely surprised, right?
So what happens when we asked 1000 NZ marathon runners whether they thought that endurance races should have weight divisions?
75% unsupportive or very unsupportive
10% are ambivalent
Ok – so the assumption must be that the 15% in support are the big heavier runners?
Yes, this is exactly what we see – as body weight increases so does support for weight categories, the correlation is 80%, which is strong.
But when we run those figures by Body Mass instead the correlation disappears, in fact it disappears because this very significant drop from generally supportive to generally unsupportive between the categories of ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’. Now please remember that those runners in the ‘obese’ category still can run 42.2km in one go – nothing to be sneezed at, they are very fit, very dedicated people, just larger than average people.
So what exactly is going on? We have this anomaly – larger people with BMIs over 30 don’t support weight divisions, whilst larger people with BMIs between 25 and 30 generally do. It seems for runners we can ignore ‘overweight’ mass but not ‘obese’ mass. In fact here we can see the power of the BMI as it determines how people understand the ‘truth’ of their bodies, regardless of how they consciously reject it.
So in the next two slides I’m going to show you two small pieces of data, separated by 20 years or so that provide a snapshot from the perspective of the endurance runner on body weight.
I’ll leave you alone to read this quietly – written in the early 1990s ‘Oversized oafs’… ‘blubberous blimps’… ‘hefty hippos’ which is your favourite alliterative genius?
In fact this type of vitriolic reaction is totally common in road running events (not in mountain running interestingly – I have a pet theory on this – but no time now to explore it). Laura Chase, a U.S. based academic interested in weight divisions in running even uncovered this as a factor in the suicide of one of the first proponents of this idea. This is what NZ runners said.
The first ‘camp’ of reasoning (and I hesitate to call this reasoning) suggests that there is a significant danger within the recognition of weight divisions, as it apparently ‘sends the wrong message’; after all we wouldn’t want them to belong!
The second ‘camp’ presents the sport as an individual enterprise, in fact so individualized that there is no competition except competing against your-self.
The third ‘camp’ recognizes that larger runners “should be allowed” (which is actually fairly representative, in fact quite a few suggest there should be checks in place to prevent larger runners from participating – due to their supposed risk profile). But that they themselves would react very very badly by being classified by weight – this is more prevalent among women, because heaven forbid there is ever an official public record of the number on the scales!!
Ok… so what how can I theorise this reaction within the philosophy of genealogy in ancestral health? More interestingly – how can a philosophy of ancestral health, or perhaps more fittingly ancestral hauora become a kaupapa for re-thinking body mass in endurance running. I have only two slides left – I’ll first tackle the theory-side and then some learnings.
So the problem with the Other is actually a feel simple one – and an ancient one. Philosophically this dates back as far as we care to go, Plato’s cave for instance. The issue that confronts us is that the Other lives in us – we are constructed from it, via the twists and turns of language acquisition. The things we fear the most are habitually part of us.
This results in people habitually resisting any mechanism which grants legitimacy to something that might empower the Other, despite their desire. The irony is that this resistance is one side of a coin – it ‘simply’ needs a flip to become reality. That flip is the movement from fundamentalism to pluralism.
What is the utility of a body? What is the function of a body? – Here we can take a steer from the demands of the environment. Having a body ‘fit’ to work is a functional demand, and one that is very easy to moralize into a particular physical environment. We also need bodies that have utility socially – what does that look like now? (I acknowledge my new found colleague Adele Hite for the image on your right – her presentation to the Ancestral Society in the U.S. in 2013 is fascinating!)
Size does not equal health. Skinny is a modern (or perhaps a post-modern) neurosis. This does not mean that skinny people are neurotic, but that the overwhelming desire for skinny creates neurotic behaviour. Thus the meme that follows Kate Moss around “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” is in fact representative of our society’s discontent with body size. My challenge to that, aside from the obvious challenge posed by bacon, is a challenge for all those who think ancestrally to think in plural and allow contradiction to exist without seeking to placate this with some sort of overarching truth, a fundamentalist truth. Instead work with people, of any size, to recognize their utility and function – whatever that might be.
One thing that Adele Hite has suggested is whether this could take the form of an alliance or relationship to the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement, which seeks above all body acceptance. Now, while very supportive of the respect of all bodies, I’m also cautious – due in part to some significant concerns raised by a sociologist colleague Deborah Lupton, for instance she states that HAES “reproduces the classic Cartesian duality of the mind/self as separate from the body/flesh and turns it on its head. Instead of the rational mind positioned as superior to the fleshly body, here the body is represented as ‘wise’ and all-knowing, to which the mind/self should relinquish control. Yet as theorists such as Merleau-Ponty have argued, we cannot separate ‘self’ from ‘body’: we always and inevitably experience the world as embodied selves”. But on balance I think it is a good idea. However what about an alliance with desire? A most ancient driving force I’m sure you would agree? For me at least a tenet of ancestral health involves respecting desire – which I think seems very logical within the philosophy? And certainly a significant point of departure from the diet industry.