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In Praise of Softness

Do you remember the stir that Mad Men caused when it first appeared in 2007? Do you recall discussing how beautiful the styles of the late 1950s were and how inappropriate some of the behaviour seemed in the 21st century? And then there were many articles praising the body type that would have been considered desirable during that time – Christina Hendricks’ Joan Harris being an example of the voluptuous figure that we associate with Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield, actresses who are front of mind when thinking of the sex symbols of mid-century America.

I can remember reading an interview with Christina Hendricks where she mentioned that the Director of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, did not want the female actresses working out in keeping with the aesthetic of the time period. In the 1950s, it was not unheard of for women to lift weights (more on that later!) but you would certainly not see many sculpted female bodies during that time.

Can you imagine what the guidelines for a show about the 2020s would be fifty years from now? If we were looking at a cast of beautiful actresses, I’m certain that the director’s edict would be for sculpted arms and abs, a defined booty, and hardly any “softness” at all. We are always trying to ‘sculpt’ areas that feel soft!

Contrast this to the time when I first started doing group fitness in high school and we did NOT want to build muscles. My goal, at that time, was to do lots of cardio, tone (not build muscles) and preserve that little bit of softness to stay “feminine” (whatever that meant to me at the time!). Then, as years passed, it became more acceptable and encouraged for women to lift heavier weights and be strong…a fantastic development!

me, at 22, in my little Montreal kitchen

But did we go too far? There are times that I feel the exercise world is so very HARD. We talk about shredding, building, pushing hard. Even yoga can feel like a grind! When I first took yoga in the 90s, it was so different to the classes that I see in studios today. In that more traditional class at the university recreation centre, the stretches were long and luxurious. We would spend 5 minutes just doing slow hip circles! As Annelise Hagan writes in her book “The Yoga Face”, “…the yoga currently popular in gyms and studios these days reflects our preoccupation with fitness: classes oftentimes are gruelling and highly athletic.”

I feel like we need to be okay with a bit of softness, in our bodies and in our workout schedules. We need to balance the more yang exercises like weight training and intense cardio with the more yin movements like yoga and barre. Our appetite for movement can change day to day and it’s important to listen to what our body needs. There can be tremendous pressure to feel that if you aren’t sweating and pushing hard, you haven’t really “worked out”.

It’s interesting to note that women DID lift weights back in the 1950s. I think there is an assumption that exercise for women didn’t really happen until Jane Fonda hit the scene in the 80s. But the 1950s were when Jack Lalanne started his exercise show, when movie stars visited Terry Hunt’s gym in Hollywood for weight training, and Marilyn Monroe talked about her weightlifting routine in an interview with Pageant magazine. But it was nowhere near the same pressure that I think a lot of women feel now to hit the gym. How can we balance the very real benefits of strength training and exercise with the (also very important) aspects of relaxation and rest.

I struggle with this inner conflict all the time. There are days when I know I should rest or just do gentle stretching but I will push and do a workout. There are days when I get so frustrated at the softer parts of my body, which logically I know is ridiculous. So my goal over the summer is to be okay with softness, just like I was twenty years ago at the beginning of my fitness career. Softness can be beautiful too 💕

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