"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...



In an effort to supply my active body with enough carbohydrates to get through my long bike rides, I have taken to making muffins. Banana muffins, apple-fig muffins, zucchini, carrot, date muffins -- I am looking for more ideas, so if you have any favorites, please let me know. As soon as I buy poppyseeds I'm going to make lemon poppyseed muffins, just for the sake of rounding out my repertoire with that classic flavor.

My recipes are simple, straight out of The Joy of Cooking. My muffin tin only makes 12 at a time, so it's a dozen, every time. If we have another fifteen minutes before the fish will be ready for dinner, I'll whip up a batch of muffins and pop them in the oven as soon as the fish comes out. We'll eat a few for dessert, I'll save some for breakfast the next day, and the rest of the batch goes into the freezer.

I eat muffins on my bike rides because there are only so many sports bars that I can eat before I say "enough is enough" to the sugary, sticky messes. A part of me has a dreadful suspicion of the "sports supplement" industry, despite knowing plenty of people who rely on PowerBars, Clif Bars, Hammer Bars and the like to get them through their activity of choice (myself included). My suspicion comes from the fact that I usually don't have a clue what the ingredients actually are that make up these odd concoctions. A case in point: PowerBar's first ingredient is "C2 MAX CARBOHYDRATE BLEND (ORGANIC EVAPORATED CANE JUICE SYRUP, MALTODEXTRIN, FRUCTOSE, DEXTROSE)." Thank goodness they clarify what C2 Max Carbohydrate Blend is, otherwise I wouldn't know that they're just talking about sugars, of which I'm not so fond, anyway. (Or, I should say, I know that I can be all too fond of sugar, and I need to be careful about consuming too much!)

I like my homegrown energy solutions. I call them "ride-a-muffins." When cut into quarters and stored in a plastic bag in the back of my bike jersey, they make a perfect snack 20 miles out.

What do you like to eat before/during/after exercise? What keeps you moving, literally and physically?


Lost magic, perhaps

Last night, I asked Chuan what he'd like to eat more of (namely, what we should cook together), now that he and I have both finished our final exams, and he'll have loads more time this summer to dedicate to cooking, if he should choose.

We came up with a list together, mostly inspired by him. These days, I am not so interested in food as I once was; it's harder for me to say definitively "I want this" or "I want to make that." I take this as a good sign, as part of this long recovery from my eating disorder: I don't take the same care to put together meals like I did even a year ago. I'm not sure when the magic went out of food, but I think by giving food my full attention for these last few years, it stopped feeling so special or so forbidden. That's my pet theory for the day: indulge your obsession a little, give it the space it demands, and it just might stop being so alluring after a while. (My cognitive behavioral professor would probably call this an "exposure technique".)

So -- food is not calling my name as persistently or forcefully as it used to. And I'm finding that it's pleasant, for a change, to have a partner who is willing to put together a menu and has strong preferences for certain foods. Last week he invented an excellent curried chicken stew, browning chicken legs in a bit of oil and onions before simmering them with green beans, curry, balsamic vinegar, and a touch of cream. The man is a bit of a genius in the kitchen when he puts his mind to it -- once he realized that day that he couldn't make a Chinese stir-fry with chicken legs, something else had to come out of the pot. And now we're both still thinking about how tender and fragrant that chicken meat was.

Looking forwards, we decided that we want to make salade nicoise, shepherd's pie and apple pie, beef stew and meatloaf, cornbread, eggplant moussaka and gazpacho. These are all comfort foods, in one place or another, and I find it striking that now, when winter is past, we still crave the warm, meaty dishes of winter. There has not been enough ease in our lives in these last few months; perhaps part of us feels stuck back in January, yearning to be taken care of in the darkest days of the year. And so I'll buy a rolling pin and learn how to make pastry dough; we'll put together giant vats of stewed beef to keep us going for a few days; and I'll search for the ripest tomatoes of mid-summer to make a gazpacho to remind me of Barcelona.


(Extra)ordinary feasts

Today is just one of those misty, damp days in New York that reminds me of some parts of China -- Sichuan in particular, famous for its "four rivers" and the resultant humidity of the landscape. There, people eat loads of spicy foods, apparently for their heat-producing effect (to ward off the dankness of the air). Sichuan hotpot has become famous in recent years, but boiling food in a small coal-power stove is common in many parts of China.

I recently came across these photos of my trip to Yunnan in December, and I still have something to say about that trip. After a two-hour horseback ride, we finished the morning with a bowl of fresh rice and a Yunnan hotpot of boiled cabbage, pork fat, potatoes, and squash. I remember this meal clearly, as it was so simple and so good -- the warm broth of the soup after the cold wind of the morning, the vegetables freshly picked from the fields around us by the women below.

Sometimes, when I have a meal that good and that perfect for the occasion, I want to hold onto it. I want every meal to be that way, and I have trouble relinquishing it for the everyday. Travel is like that too: every image seems sprightly and enchanting, not hum-drum and tedious like life back home. But just as I can't keep up the peripatetic lifestyle forever, not every meal can be extraordinary, either. There will be mornings, like today, when fresh apple muffins and caffe latte make up a quaint breakfast. But there will also be mornings of stale cereal and mushy bananas -- and they're just as much a part of life as anything else, just as much a part of life as taking the crowded 4 line of the subway, or cleaning the toilet, or suffering through the anxious minutes before I fall asleep.

When I yearn for the extraordinary, whether in food or in life, I remind myself that these minutes, too -- the ones that I am too happy to let pass by unawares -- are the stuff of my existence. This drab New York morning, this tired lumbar spine, this boredom of keyboards and numbers -- these things, too, are it.


In the lovely month of May

I love May Day. Today's hardly the poster day for it here in New York -- it's gray and overcast out, threatening thunder storms at any minute -- but I love the old-world, witchy feel of May Day. Perhaps the fact that the U.S. refused to name it a workers' holiday, unlike all the other countries, means that it always will have that touch of pagan flower festival about it, rather than being a radical labor day.

May, this year, means the end of my second semester of my Ph.D. program. I didn't say the end of my first year, because I'll be taking summer courses until August, but for now I can take a deep breath and say "I made it." (Almost -- just another week and my papers will be handed in and my final exams over and done with!) Chuan and I have made a reservation at Peter Luger's Steakhouse to celebrate the end of our exams. It's a splurge, but we feel that it's important to mark the end of this semester, to remind ourselves that we have gotten through it all.

This month I'm also leaving my research job at the prestigious hospital where I've been miserably working all year. I am so glad to let this one go, I can't tell you! I'm about up to HERE with prestige and name-brand hospitals and being told that I'm so privileged to be entering someone else's data. Early-stage career exploitation is a terrible thing to experience, yet all so common to those of us who are in our 20's and have high ambitions. I know that I'll have to put up with a lot more before getting my Ph.D., but I still hate it. Eck. Now I'm ready to move on.

This May I'm visiting my parents in Minnesota over Memorial Day, so that's something else to look forward to. And on May 16 I'll be finishing the spring training program with my cycling club, culminating in a 108-mile ride (OMG) to Bear Mountain, New York. Yikes! This will feel like my greatest accomplishment all year, because cycling really has been what has kept me sane through all of the problems on my job and through all of the stress of graduate school. And there's a not insignificant satisfaction that I feel in being able to return to athletic endeavors now that I have put my eating disorder behind.

All in all, May is looking like a great month!