Monday, July 22, 2013

RUN LIKE A GIRL


Review of RUN LIKE A GIRL: HOW STRONG WOMEN MAKE HAPPY LIVES by MINA SAMUELS
(review based on advance reading copy)

I’m still only recently discovering how much I enjoy reading nonfiction for leisure, so this one probably sat in my to-read pile for much longer than it should, despite strong suspicions that I would relish the subject matter. Let’s do the math: 1. It’s a book and I do love me some books, 2. It focuses on working out/fitness/athletics, another subject/pastime that’s very important to me, 3. It’s geared specifically to women and how physical strength can encourage and maintain emotional strength. In retrospect, I should have started reading this the very moment I received a copy. Indeed, once I finally began RUN LIKE A GIRL I related immediately and already adored the book before the end of chapter one.

As Samuels mentions, athletics have an innate benefit because your accomplishments and improvements can be easily measured. It’s easy for people, and women in particular, to dismiss their own feats, whether to themselves or other people. With working out it’s hard to overlook the steady increase in how far or fast you can run, how much you can lift, or how your form and skill has improved in a particular sport or activity.

When I reached the part about a woman whose mother often asks the question, “What’s the point?” and Samuels’ further speculation that this isn’t a question athletic men receive, I wished the author was sitting next to me so I could look up and exclaim, “EXACTLY!” or perhaps even give her a hug. For those starting to wonder about me specifically, I do tend to workout every day or near that (I hear something about rest days being good for you.) and it’s high on the list of what’s important to me. (Okay, books still win out, though.) I love running, yoga, weight lifting, and as of writing this review am doing my third round of a program called Insanity. People have frequently explained to me (usually other women) that if I want to be skinny I should just eat less. That all this working out is “unnecessary.” To which I respond as calmly as I can: “I don’t want to be skinny; I want to be fit.”

Did you know women’s salaries are still far lower than men’s - looking at the same jobs and ranks? Of course, you did. At least I hope so. I think of that as fairly common knowledge. However, did you know that psychological studies found that if a man asks for a raise and doesn’t get it he is more often than not still respected for taking the initiative to stand up for himself and assert his worth…whereas if a woman asks for a raise and doesn’t get it she is more often than not begrudged for even asking, resented for not appreciating what she has and not being a team player, etc. Here’s another one. Did you know that - as of this book’s publication in March 2011 - women still weren’t allowed in ski jumping in the Olympics? (In fact, only a few months after the book’s publication, the Olympic Committee finally voted to allow women ski jumpers in the upcoming 2014 program.) When Samuels lists the reasons cited for omitting women, it all sounds like far too familiar vague rubbish. Her theory is that since underweight or even anorexic men tend to dominate that sport, naturally smaller women actually have a chance of easily beating out the men and that’s something for which many people still aren’t ready. (See Samuels’ entire discussion about men who hate being “chicked” aka being beaten by a girl.)

So see those lovely, lengthy paragraphs above mentioning all sorts of fascinating topics for discussion? Yeah, that’s all in the first chapter. And I’m hardly listing everything!

Samuels peppers her book with personal stories and case histories and, while I think I still would have been intrigued by the pure facts, this approach certainly adds to her book’s appeal. It’s one thing to say I fit in with a certain study’s findings and quite another to read a quote from a specific women talking about her life and say I fit in with her.

When Samuels discusses how early experiences can shape a woman’s attitude towards athletics, the personal stories from individual women especially helped shape her point. Some women were discouraged from their eagerness to participate in physical activities while others had the benefit of supportive mentors. Looking back at my own experience, I’ve been lucky to have numerous amazing P.E. teachers and coaches. In fact, I often found myself confused about the evil P.E. teacher trope found in so many stories, whether television, movie, or book. In the fictional world, often when you say you can’t and the P.E. teacher insists you can, they’re just being mean and dense. However, in my experience whenever I said, “I can’t!” and my P.E. teacher or coach insisted,” You can!” turns out they were right - and the very fact that they believed I could do better even when I didn’t spurred me to try harder.

There’s some important advice in these pages as well, including a lengthy portion on something I need to hear again and again and not just in relation to athletic activities: don’t focus on what you didn’t do but on what you did. Samuels shares a story in which she completed a marathon but far from her desired time. She felt so discouraged that she refused to take the completion medal the volunteer tried to hand her. Later she realized that she had set her goal unrealistically high, which set herself up for failure and drained accomplishment from the admirable act of completing the marathon. She also later discusses the importance of measuring your accomplishments by yourself. Though this book focuses specifically on females in athletics the thesis is hardly, “So go out there and beat all the boys!” Don’t measure yourself by males nor by your most athletic female friends, your family or your workout buddy. In fact, this kind of behavior is often what discourages people, not just women, from any attempts to enter a certain athletic field. They look at professional athletes or their friend who has been running/doing yoga for decades and think, “I can’t do that.” Ask yourself: what’s an accomplishment for you?

Given that this is a book geared more towards women rather than athletics in general, there’s an entire chapter focused on the relationships between men and women and how they can help or harm women’s relationships with their favorite sports and workout activities. Lots of personal stories here, both from women talking about men who have been supportive and men who have, well, not. About fathers, brothers, boyfriends, husbands, male friends, mentors, etc.

I found myself intrigued by the relatively brief mention of exercise bulimia. While I hadn’t heard the specific terminology before, being around a lot of gyms and fit-orientated people I’m familiar with the behavior. It’s when a goal of fitness becomes an unhealthy obsession. When working out is seen purely as a way to purge calories and the aim becomes not so much actual fitness but to work out as much as physically possible…and beyond.

Samuels made me change my mind about workout skirts, too. She admits to a time when she judged women who arrived at a marathon in a skirt. Skirts aren’t for working out! she would think. Then a woman she knew who designs sportswear encouraged her to at least give one a try. Samuels did and immediately understood the appeal. Realizing I had the same reaction to seeing women arriving to a workout in a skirt (and that I already had plans to buy more workout clothes with a friend that very same day!), I picked up my first workout skirt. It is soooo comfortable. I’m hardly going to ditch my workout pants and shorts for a wardrobe of all skirts, but I, too, understand their appeal now and that women who wear them aren’t necessarily choosing style over comfort.

I could go on. For the record, I haven’t been outlining the whole book here. For every topic I mention, there are dozens I haven’t. Last, though, I want to say how much RUN LIKE A GIRL inspired me. It’s hardly a dull recitation of facts. It’s relatable, empowering, and uplifting. I found myself wishing more than once that this book came on audiobook, because I would eagerly listen to snippets again and again before workouts to pump myself up!

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