Friday, November 25, 2011

Gym Math

Every few years, I go through the urge to totally revamp my body. I have friends who have become aerobics instructors, who have run half-marathons, who have taken up yoga and who have transformed themselves, through the power of Youtube workout videos, into more toned, svelter versions of themselves. My roommate has stunk up our hallway with her in-room workout B.O. for the last few months, but I can't deny the end result. She looks terrific. Her skin is clearer and she's lost weight, which makes all the times I had to see her doing jumping jacks in a bra and cotton panties worthwhile. For her.

I do not generally enjoy exercise. It's not that I hate being active, but there's a mental block about going to the gym - it's far, I'm cold, I don't have the right clothes, I don't have the right playlist, I don't have enough time, I'm already too fat for a forty-minute workout to change anything, I'm hungry, I don't want to leave the house, and so on, ad nauseum, forever. I equate going to the gym with unpleasant tasks like getting my teeth cleaned: it's good for me, but I don't enjoy it.

But here's the thing: one of my friends is getting married in six months, and she is a bona fide babe. It's borders on ridiculous: she's got this face and nice hair and a smokin' hot bod. She's also smart and funny, which is generally my territory, since I don't have "pretty" on 100% lock. I have to bring my A-game to this wedding. You can't tell if someone is smart or funny in photos - you can, on the other hand, definitely tell how many chins they have. I've made a pact with myself to be my funny, smart and generally awesome self while doing my bridesmaid duties, but since this is going to be a photo-heavy look good doing it.

So: the gym. When I get there, I usually have a good time. I like the crosstrainer and the rowing machine, both of which are mindless and fun. The last time I was there, I was listening to the new Childish Gambino album, and I almost launched myself off the crosstrainer with laughter at some of his more risque lines. The time before that, I attended a Pilates class; I got the giggles and just could not stop. Despite my not loving commute trip there, it turns out that being at the gym makes me laugh. It also gives me a chance to catch up on my reading - although reading a magazine is actually kind of tough on the more aerobic machines, it's perfect for the stationary bike.

My fears about looking stupid are also kind of off-base. I do look stupid, but not outside the bell curve of stupid-looking gym rats. For every lipgloss-wearing 22-year-old in all-black workout gear and a high, shiny ponytail, there are thirteen middle-aged men in fleece tracksuits with sweat pouring off them, trying not to expire on the treadmill. There are six old men with enormous guts and spindly little legs doing bicep curls in the middle of the room. There are three school-aged children furiously peddling on excerbikes they won't be big enough to use for at least another three years. And that's only in the gym room - there are whole dance studios and pools full of uncoordinated, old, fat, unfashionable people for me to just blend right into.

The other side of the coin is that, no matter what I eat, I seem to be bloated, gassy and generally smelly. My boyfriend can attest to this - I burped in his face (by accident!) the other day and he was like, "What is WRONG with you? What have you been eating?" He was right to be put out. I am not a good little digestor. I think I can trace it back to a nasty bout with whooping cough in the ninth grade, and the subsequent run of nuclear-grade antibiotics that were prescribed to knock the retro disease out of my system. Antibiotics, as it turns out, kill all bacteria, even the good ones in your gut. They don't just come back, either - Wired points out that, even two years after a course of antibiotics, gut flora just isn't as diverse. A lack of diversity in gut bacteria can lead to obesity, which in turns flattens the diversity further. And so on, forever, until we all become those big fat blobbos like in Wall-E.

My dirty little secret is that I'm a pretty healthy eater. Maybe my portions are too big, but I eat a varied diet of leafy greens, orange fruits and vegetables, and low-fat proteins. I don't eat that much dairy, or bread, and I don't gorge on pasta. So it's infuriating that I'm past the high end of the healthy BMI range, and I'm active and smart about diet. Like, what do I have to do to lose weight? Do some bloodletting? Cut my hair? What? I'll do it - I don't want to be the fat bridesmaid in my pretty friend's pictures. You know, the one that looks like the hot air balloon with legs.

Obviously, the secret is going to be more gym and less food. Not much less food, because I love snacks - seriously, yogurt with almonds and blueberries are my jam - but there's always room for 10% less food and 50% more gym. That means feeling 60% hotter on a day that is 100% not about me, and that is going to be awesome.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Scmecks Ed

This weekend, the New York Times Magazine ran an interesting and reader-provoking article called "Teaching Good Sex." Focusing on a private school in Philly's approach to sexual education, the article raises the interesting question: what if we actually taught kids about sex? Not just abstinence, contraceptives, or disease prevention, but actual pleasure and intimacy?

The article is quite sweet, which isn't surprising. In 2009, the magazine ran a charming piece on the perils and triumphs of coming out in middle school. That author spoke to several young men and women about their experiences, including one boy who realized at the age of eleven that he didn't want to live a lie. In the midst of It Gets Better messaging, the writers focused on children for whom it had already gotten better. The article didn't gloss over some of the negative parts of being out at such a young age - the naysayers who crow "It's all a phase," or the specter (and reality) of bullying, especially in the smaller schools and towns - but overall, things looked bright for these kids.

However, both articles exist in sort of an alternate universe. American public policy has largely been divided over sex ed for kids - from 1996 to 2010, about half of American states offered truncated and morally judgmental courses in their public schools through funding from a policy called Title V. In order to get that funding, school boards had to commit to teaching things like "abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children" and "that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects." Support for the program came from parents and social conservatives, who felt that any mention of contraceptive use diluted the message that sex = married, monogamous sex.

As a Canadian, I was exposed to a variety of sex education throughout the years. In the fifth grade, I labelled parts of the penis and vagina. I somehow missed the canonical demonstration of condom use - roll it down over a banana, girls! - but I ended up with a fairly thorough understanding of what diseases might erupt or what a penis looked like. We talked about rape and sexual harassment, and about sexual orientation, but I don't remember any conversations about pleasure, intimacy, or the importance of communication. Sex is about so many things - procreation, intimacy, power relations, gender politics. It's about reclamation, like the girls who participated in SlutWalks after being told that rapes were a result of too-sexy clothes. It's about commitment, sometimes. Other times it's about joy. But running through it all, sex should be about pleasure.

With all the worry about gay kids, pregnant teenagers, and chlamydia outbreaks in the rest home, we so rarely touch on the basics. Sex is fun (mostly), but it comes with its own communication skill set. Just as marriage isn't a natural state of being (even if the conservatives tell you it totally is and that you're a freak if you're not in holy matrimony), talking about sex isn't something that just comes naturally to adults. It's like long division or good grammar: it needs to be taught, the younger the better. It's not like your husband slides a wedding ring on your finger and you're DTF with mad skillz.

The gap between "aware of sex" and "ready to have sex" isn't huge. All the better to fill it some positive, communication-heavy theories, then. Not talking about sex doesn't mean it doesn't happen. People are engaging in unsafe behaviours because they can't talk safely or openly about their experiences. Disrespect never gets called out. You might feel kind of gross when your boyfriend takes your heads and not-so-subtly steers it towards his erection, but if someone doesn't cock an eyebrow and validate your squicky emotions, the shame and weirdness of that moment can act as a barrier from bringing it into the light. Worse, if you mention it to your girlfriends and they all know exactly what you're talking about, it can perpetuate the normality of not-okay behaviours.

Teaching about something and giving permission to do it isn't the same thing. Students learn about space launches and the Holocaust, but nobody's telling them to get out there and reenact 'em. Sex education for kids and teenagers falls under the same ideology. It's important to have authority figures who are comfortable addressing the vagaries of the human experience from all angles. Sex isn't just about penis-in-vagina; it's about being open with your partners and being comfortable. The article talked about one student who had been the target of a nasty Facebook post implying that she was giving oral sex at parties; the incident came up during the sex ed classes as an example of "things that are not okay."

I don't know what the future holds for American students. The program profiled in this article was offered at a private school, and many of the online commentors expressed the sentiment that teaching sex ed was what was holding America back from being an Old Testament utopia/a math-and-science powerhouse/free of teen moms/whatever. I like to think that the graduates of that class have much better skills to work with in the soft science of sex, and even if they choose never to have sex with anyone, the ability to talk through a tough situation. Sex is hard. Love is hard. That's why they should teach it in schools.