taking a break

All is well. I'm just taking a break this summer.

~Ai Lu


"Ordinary" athletes and body image

OK, so maybe there isn't such a thing as an "ordinary" athlete. I'm probably kidding myself when I think that there are obsessive athletes and non-obsessive athletes, as if the line between them were a lot stricter than it really is. In statistical terms we would call this line a "zone of rarity," dividing one population from another, but more and more scientists recognize that these hypothetical zones of rarity may not really exist when it comes to mental illnesses. Instead, the border may be just a thin, arbitrary dividing line along a continuum from health to disorder.

Why this scientific digression? I was in a bookstore yesterday and had time to peruse some magazines before meeting my parents. I am not a triathlete, but the cover of the latest issue of Triathlete caught my eye. "BODY IMAGE: Are triathletes obsessed?" it asks, alongside an image of a very fit female athlete in a bikini. It turns out that this also happens to be the "special swimsuit edition." What irony!

The fact that the editors would dare to ask this question alongside an image of almost impossible beauty also suggests that this magazine just doesn't "get it": you can't pretend to be concerned about your readers' obsession with body image, and then promote an ideal that is so difficult to reach, without calling into question your own integrity as a publication.

If all triathletes feel that they should look like this woman (or her male equivalent), I would say that yes, they probably are obsessed with their body image. So what, if anything, makes these folks different from people with eating disorders? Where is the line between wanting to compete for the sake of the game, and wanting to compete to have this (or another) body?

I am not sure myself where this line can be drawn. In my own life, I have had to set it for itself, to know what feels healthy and what feels disordered in relationship to exercise. But I don't feel comfortable speaking for all of the athletes out there who are working to improve their performance through improving their bodies: what right do I have to draw the line for them, when I cannot claim to understand their motivations in the first place? There must be triathletes who participate in the sport for reasons other than enhancing what nature gave them; I would like to know more about how they stay focused on those goals, and what pressures they feel to have a beautiful body, apart from how fast that body is.

Any ideas?


Dividing line

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about exercise addiction, and I had Carrie's post earlier this week to spur my thoughts. I have not "trained" for a sport since high school; while I exercised a lot in college, that felt obligatory to me, a punishment rather than a pleasure. Now, when ask myself if I am cycling is "too" much, I compare my exercise in my college days with this new hobby.

Then, I felt that I had to exercise every day or I would get fat. Now, I know how important it is to take breaks, and to give my body time to rest and recover. Then, I would hardly ever eat before or after my runs; now, I am sure to bring along a snack on any ride over 45 minutes, and I always eat after the ride, too. Then, I usually exercised alone; now, most of my rides are with other people. Then, I measured my success in terms of how my body looked; now, I look at how my body feels.

When I lay it all out like this, I know that this is much closer to how "ordinary" athletes feel about exercise, than how eating disordered folks feel. And it is pretty clear to me what kinds of behaviors would signal a return to that older, disordered patterns of exercise. But in the end, it really boils down to whether or not I'm having fun with my sport. There's no fooling myself in that regard: either it's fun, or it's not -- regardless of how strong or how healthy I think I am becoming, or how "good" it is for me.

I have never felt as free and joyful about exercise as I do about cycling; it is so clear to me that this is something that I like to do, rather than something that I have to do. That's the dividing line, I think, between hobby and obsession, between health and disorder.When it stops being fun and starts being a duty, that's when I'll stop. But for now, I can't wait for the next ride -- for all of the right reasons!



There are many "side effects" to my new cycling hobby -- among which, I am proud to say, weight loss does not figure --, but I have been most surprised by the emergence of a sort of sensual pride in my body.

After a long ride, there is nothing that I like more than to spread out a few yoga mats on the floor, grab a bottle of lotion, put on my shortest shorts, and give my legs a deep massage. Do you know the feeling of hand over muscle? It is incomparable. Of course I'm tired, and sore, and maybe even a little sleepy, but I like those moments of leisure, when the hard job is done and I'm still eager for the next ride.

There is also the sensuality of the ride itself -- the feeling of wind on my face; the motion of my legs on the pedals; the total concentration that I have to employ to keep myself alert to the road and its dangers. I love riding fast, down hills and on the flats; I love the mental place where speed takes me, the feeling of flying (and fleeing?) on my two wheels.

In college, when I developed my eating disorder, I had an academic lifestyle that was almost devoid of any contact with my body or my senses. My days were spent in lecture halls, reading in the library, and writing papers; I heard plenty of speeches from professors about how to put our minds to the best use, but no one ever talked about our bodies. My eating disorder, with its intense preoccupation with food and my body, seemed almost a reaction to an academic world that denied corporeality and substance. Ironically, perhaps, I found that I had to go deeper into my body -- through yoga -- and pay more attention to food -- through cooking -- in order to give those aspects of my life their due. Massage helped too, as did music, and knitting, and no wonder: all of these were activities that allowed me to focus on the senses, instead of denying them as I once had.

Do you feel that there is a relationship between eating disorders and the senses? What does that look like, and what does it mean to you?


Tuna salad days

I am 26 years old and I just started to like tuna salad.

It began, I think, about a month ago, when I stopped at the little cafe at Strictly Bicycles on my way back from a Sunday ride in Jersey. This was the day that I got the clamp fixed on my seatpost. As the mechanic worked on my bike, I settled in on a stool and devoured lunch: tuna salad in a long, thin pita. The salad was fresh, dripping with lemony mayonnaise sauce, and nothing like the picnic salads of my elementary school days. In short, I was hooked. Since then, I have been trying tuna salad sandwiches at every deli I happen to enter, and twiddling with a version in my own kitchen. Tuna salad is the best dish that I have discovered in recent memory: it's easy to make, packs its protein (always tough with salads), and can stand by itself or accompany another meal. I am kicking myself for never having given it its due before this. But then again, I think of how many years I may have ahead of me to eat tuna salad! I give myself a good fifty, at least.

I wasn't satisfied with the recipes that I found in my cookbooks, all full of red pepper and chopped celery (bleh!), so I combined one of my favorite homemade carrot slaws with tuna and a mayonnaise dressing, and came up with the following:

Ai Lu's Tuna Salad:

2 4-ounce cans water-packed tuna
3 medium carrots, coarsely shredded
1/4 head fennel, julienned
6 dried figs, finely sliced
1/2 cup raw cashews
Optional: 1 cup cooked rice

Dressing: 1/4 cup mayonnaise, juice from 1/2 lemon, 1 tablespoon honey, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 tablespoon tahini. Mix well before incorporating into salad until slightly moist.

Condiments: A generous amount of ground pepper, sea salt

Tomorrow I'm traveling to Minnesota to visit my parents over the long holiday weekend, and since I'm too stingy and too picky to pay for airport food, I'll be bringing a tupperware full of this tuna salad with me on the plane. Nothing could be better at 30,000 feet! I just hope that the person next to me likes the smell of fish...