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For most of my life, I thought of my body as merely a convenient way to move my head from one place to another. I was lucky growing up, having inherited my body type from a long line of scrawny female relatives. While the fact that I also inherited myopia and uncooperative hair didn’t do much for my teenage social life, I was comforted by the fact that I could eat all the candy and cake I wanted without putting on weight. As a result, I didn’t give a shit about exercise.
I continued to not give a shit about exercise all the way through my twenties. Who needed exercise when you had books to read, records to buy, and rock shows to attend? I was still active: I danced at shows, rode my bike to work, and walked my dogs. I figured that would be enough to keep me happy and in shape for, oh, the
Wrong. So wrong.
Somewhere around my thirtieth birthday, things started to change. I put on weight, felt pissed off a lot for no reason, and got winded walking up stairs. I still biked, danced, and walked, but those activities didn’t feel as good as they used to. I knew my body was, as the writer Julia Alvarez deftly put it, “not mine for free anymore.” But there was no damn way I was going to start exercising.
Because exercise blows, right? We all know that. Exercise is for people who don’t mind wearing spandex and headbands and white running shoes. For brainwashed freaks who talk about their “runner’s high” and drink flax shakes and go to bed early. There was no way I was going to get involved in all that, no matter how fat and miserable I managed to get.
Then it was February, the coldest, crappiest Canadian month. I had the day off from work and spent most of it on the couch reading, getting up only to turn over whatever record I was listening to. At some point I turned on the TV and promptly fell asleep.
When I woke up, disoriented, dehydrated, and cranky, the TV was still on. Oprah Winfrey sat smugly on a couch with two young amazons who I didn’t recognize. I squinted at the TV for about five minutes before they were identified as Venus and Serena Williams. I rolled my eyes at their over-the-top outfits and burrowed a little deeper into the couch.
Then they started talking about getting younger girls into sports. About how exercise raises women’s confidence in themselves and makes them happier and more powerful. About how physical fitness can do a lot for a person’s self image.
Oh shit, I thought, feeling fat on the couch. I’m actually being affected by something on the Oprah Winfrey Show. It was time to turn off the TV. And call my friend Pam.
“Hey, Pam? Are you, like, still going to do that women’sLearn to Run class? Is it too late for me to sign up? Do I need to buy new shoes?”
The Learn to Run class was my perfect entrance into the world of exercise. It was based on interval training, so we added a minute to our running time every week. Even though most of the girls in the class worked in offices, wore pink, and cooed over each other’s gigantic diamond engagement rings, I still felt like I belonged. I could actually run. And by the end of the class I could run for half an hour without stopping.
When I started to run a few times a week and discovered that I liked it, I couldn’t help wondering about the correlation between my identity as a punk and my newfound love of exercise. So, is exercising and keeping fit a punk rock thing to do or not? While arguably healthy choices (I’m thinking vegetarianism, straight edgery etc…) have long been associated with punk rock, they seem to be more politically based than decisions made for personal health and fitness. Exercise, on the other hand, is more personal than political. Rather than getting bogged down in my own definitions and reasons, I decided to interview three punks who have been fit for way longer than me.
First I asked Dan Yemin, of Paint It Black, Kid Dynamite, and numerous other seminal hardcore bands, about the links he could see between punk rock and exercise. Dan works out four times a week doing a routine of weights and elliptical training. He used to run almost daily before he realized that it was too hard on his joints. He’s starting to consider going to a yoga class that a bunch of other thirty-something Philly punk rock guys go to. Dan had clearly thought a lot about the reasons behind his choice to stay so fit. “I think that some of the reasons are good, healthy reasons and some of them are maybe somewhat immature, to be honest,” he said, laughing. “Here’s an immature one I’m not so proud of: it’s kind of my revenge against all the jocks from high school because they’re all bald and fat and working eighty hour a week corporate jobs that are giving them ulcers and heart disease and, for a thirty-eight-year-old guy, I’m in pretty good shape.”
Dan is not the only one who harkens back to his high school days when thinking through his desire to be fit. Hallie Bullit, of the NYC pop punk band The Unlovables, is also an avid exerciser. She runs, does Pilates, works out, and dances. Hallie has always been a dancer, but she didn’t really get involved in other forms of exercise until she was in her mid twenties and her roommate decided to run a marathon. Now in her late twenties, Hallie is a self-described “fitness freak.” When I talked to her about coming to exercise later in life, she thought back to her teenage years.
“I really hated, hated P.E.! I was that kind of classic kid who was always picked last for kickball,” she said. “I can’t remember any one of my P.E. teachers ever being encouraging in the slightest. Now, as an adult, to—really, in a lot of ways—be such a jock, it makes me think I could have been excelling at all this stuff when I was younger.”
There is definitely something punk rock about hating gym class (or “P.E.” as you Americans say). Phys. ed. represents everything that punks tend to rally against: joining in, competition, following orders, being a part of a team. It’s no wonder that most of the people in the punk scene who I spoke to about exercise came to it later in their lives. It makes sense that this acceptance came after they’d gotten over the knee-jerk anti-fitness sneering that is understandably bred around the time puberty hits and phys. ed. becomes unbearable.
Dan touched on this as well. “My immediate experience is that sports are the defining factor for boys in American culture.” When I asked for more of an explanation, he continued. “It’s like, if you’re not into sports, you’re pretty much non-existent; you’re a pariah. And kids in the States, even with little league sports, are raised to be pretty competitive, which means they tend to be pretty intolerant of people who aren’t good. There’s a big chunk of time between the ages of eight and thirteen where, if you suck at sports, you’re getting yelled at and humiliated.”
As a Canadian, I wondered, are things different up here? After all, my own high school didn’t even have a football team. Neither did my university. I was only required to take two phys. ed. classes in my entire high school career and I took “general” level phys. ed., which was basically a class of uncoordinated girls playing lackadaisical volleyball games just to earn the credits with a bare minimum of effort. We rarely even worked up a sweat. Yet, on the weekends I rode my bike for hours to get to friends’ houses. I danced like a maniac to Blondie albums in my bedroom when my parents weren’t home. I walked for hours through downtown streets with my friends as we went from record store to record store. But I wouldn’t have considered any of that to be exercise. And I never would have played competitive sports. Even without a big time high school football team spawning future frat boys and bubbly cheerleaders, I had a fairly well-honed hatred for the athletic teenagers who walked the halls of my suburban high school.
To further answer my Canada question, I looked to fellow Canadian, Grant Lawrence, lead singer of west coast punk icons The Smugglers. Though he spent most of his teens and twenties with an aversion to jocks, Grant started to enjoy exercise and sports once he had a solid decade between himself and high school. Now in his mid-thirties, Grant works out, bikes, kayaks, and also plays goalie on the musician-heavy hockey team The Vancouver Flying Vees. I asked him if he ever got any flack for being a hockey-playing punk, or if hockey is just so universally accepted in Canada that no one would ever think to criticize. “I have never personally gotten grief for accepting sports again,” Grant told me, “but I wouldn’t say that hockey is universally accepted in Canada. In every town, there are outsider nerd kids who have been teased by the bullies who, likely, are also hockey players. Those outsider kids likely hate hockey and everything it stands for. Hopefully, like me, they can come around eventually.”
Grant also chimed in on the punk versus jock question. He talked about his interest in physical fitness “book ending” the seventeen years he spent playing in The Smugglers. As a kid, he says, he played lots of sports and even has a fond memory of annihilating a notorious jock/bully in a foot race. But our old friend puberty intervened again and Grant’s brief time as an athlete quickly ended. He shared Hallie’s professed hatred for phys. ed. classes. “I began to loathe gym with a passion,” he admitted, “hated the jockular attitude of the inevitable bullies who would end up at the top of the adolescent sports food chain, and I quit it all outright. I have never been a big guy… kinda short, hereditarily bad knees which would always dislocate playing sports, and I wore horribly nerdy glasses. When I started getting teased for the way I looked and played, I said fuck it, and drifted towards the arts.”
Here we have a chicken and egg type conundrum. Do punk rockers abandon physical fitness because it’s not cool and doesn’t fit into their punk values? Or are they driven away from it by the teasing and competitiveness of the jocks and bullies? There seems to be a pervading attitude of “I’ll reject you before you reject me” that keeps punk kids from getting involved in exercise and sports during those horrid, horrid teen years. And who can blame them?
Grant wasn’t alone in his decision to say “fuck it” to phys. ed. and move on to rock’n’roll. “I just bought that whole bill of goods,” Hallie told me when I asked her a similar question: “I’m a girl who’s artsy so I’m not going to be good at this. It was easier to just believe that and not have to try. I was definitely afraid of failure as a kid when it came to trying something that no one ever told me I could be good at. It was like, I’ll just stand here and look like I don’t give a shit. That will make the whole thing less painful. And I didn’t like the kids who played sports. They were the kids who were mean to me, so why would I want to do the thing that they were into?”
Dan says that he didn’t start exercising until he turned twenty, an age that places him happily out of the high school world. But is it any easier to integrate physical fitness into your identity as a punk rocker than it was to integrate punk into the world of high school athletics? “I think, as punks, we’re supposed to be more conscious, right?” Dan asked me. I agreed and he continued, “Although the typical stereotype is like, Live Fast Die Young; real self destructive. But I think those of us that survived that—if you haven’t lived fast enough to die young, then you’re a thinking person and you’ve survived, so you develop more of a long term perspective.”
Grant also speaks from an older and wiser perspective when it comes to sports. “By the time I got back to hockey, all those trappings of locker room bullshit were gone,” he says. “The bullies had mellowed and humbled. The nerds had gained self-confidence. Playing at age thirty felt like playing at age ten again—the same feeling of exuberance and fun. We all just had to get through the bullshit insecurities of our teens and twenties, both the jock assholes and the art fags.” I don’t doubt his statement at all, given my own ability to make nice with the crew of engagement-ringed, office job girls who I started running with. The desire to be fit and the experience of running made us less likely to harp on high school style differences, and more likely to just relax and enjoy ourselves. And what with exercise being an easy ticket to increased self-confidence, there was no reason for the competitive, bitchy attitudes of yore.
Truthfully, I felt more social confusion when I tried to explain my newfound attitude towards fitness to my punk rock friends. Try explaining how much you like getting up early, putting on white sneakers, and getting all out of breath and sweaty to people whose forays into fitness consist mainly of biking home drunk from the bar. People may not directly hassle fit punk rockers, but there does seem to be a universal confusion about it. Hallie describes this Does-Not-Compute attitude when she talks about getting up to run while on tour with The Unlovables: “When we’re on tour and we’re staying at some punk house and people see me coming back from my run, I get some of the strangest looks! But I can’t tell how much of that is Oh you freak! You exercise! or if it’s like, Oh you freak! You played a show last night and are about to spend seven hours in a car and that’s what you wanted to do with your morning? Go running?”
And yet, even if there are some who would peg exercise as not punk rock, something about physical fitness is unavoidably attractive for those who participate. “I get somewhat of a high from exercising,” said Grant. “I believe in its healing power for mind and body. I remember when touring with the band I had an expression: the healing power of rock’n’roll, meaning that if I ever had, say, a head cold or a sore back or whatever, I would climb up on stage, physically freak out, sweat all the snot out, get the blood pumping, and inevitably I would get off stage and feel way, way better. I’ve experienced the exact same thing with hockey.”
Hallie, who’s non-rock day jobs have had her performing on Broadway and, more recently, teaching dance classes, has some unique reasons for staying in shape. “I am a dancer and an actress so I actually don’t have a choice. It’s sort of professionally expected of me that I be in shape.” But she admitted to feeling lucky that fitness is something she enjoys fitting into her otherwise hectic schedule.
For Dan, as well, fitness has become an automatic part of his life and identity. “I just didn’t feel in any way masculine when I was younger and it sucks to not feel like you possess any masculinity. So I think working out is just kind of a way of reclaiming that.” I wondered if things were different for us girls. Dan agreed that a gender discrepancy probably exists, “Women feel like they’re expected to stay in shape so that they’ll be attractive to men. In a kind of twisted way, this means that women in the punk scene might not get made fun of for exercising, whereas with guys it’s not considered punk to take care of yourself.”
I was thinking about this gender divide when, during my conversation with Hallie, we discussed the possibility that women might have a different experience with physical fitness than men. “Some of my punk rock friends are in really poor health,” she said. “Really, really upsettingly poor health. Mostly guys, but I think that’s because our little scene here is made up mostly of guys. I would be interested to know if punk rock girls on the whole are in as bad shape as punk rock boys. I kind of doubt it.”
So what is a fit punk to do when he or she wants to get friends into the groove? Telling someone that they might want to get off their ass is a fairly delicate subject to bring up, even in typically brash punk rock circles. As Hallie said, “You feel like if you say, ‘You should be in better health,’you’re lecturing or on your high horse or whatever, so I never mention it. You don’t want to sound like you’re judging someone and it can’t sound like it’s about weight or a million other things that we’re not supposed to talk about or notice. ‘Cause saying something about someone sitting on a couch for hours and hours of their life, that makes you an asshole!”
Assholes or not, there’s no getting away from the fact that another benefit of exercise is the increased foxiness that results. If all those other practical healthy reasons don’t move us to, well, move, then maybe we need to succumb to vanity just a little bit. You know, for the sake of our health. As Grant puts it, “The aesthetic of not having a massive beer gut is a nice bonus.” Looking good can often turn into feeling good, which never hurts anyone. Dan went on to tie that element of improved self confidence into being a performer, “To feel proud of your body, or at least not ashamed of it, is a huge factor in feeling comfortable in front of people.”
Not to say that being a fitness buff saves you from the potential humiliation that we all remember from gym class. For instance, when I started running, I tried to keep the dork factor at bay by refusing to buy clothes designed especially for running. I hit the streets in my Rock for Choice T-shirt and a pair of black shorts. But when the weather got hotter and my runs got longer, I had to suck it up and admit that the easily sweat-logged natural fibers were no longer my friends. Now I wear the unnatural “wicking” fabrics and I’m comfortable, even in the heat. However, all that comfort doesn’t stop me from feeling dorky when I get dressed up in my running clothes. Hallie agrees that “the running gear is pretty heinous.” We commiserated over the remarkable ugliness of white and yellow running shoes. She laughed, “There’s a degree of horribleness to all of it. The women’s stuff especially! I’m sure that’s part of the weirdness when people see me playing a show the night before in whatever cockamamie outfit I’ve put together, but then I wake up in the morning and put on my little running uniform!”
Grant added another level to exercise-induced humiliation by ending our interview with this story: “I once got my arm caught in my iPod headphone wires while riding a stationary bike at the gym. The iPod went flying out of the cup holder and hit the guy beside me in the side of the head. I attempted to catch the iPod, slipped off the seat of the bike, and fell into a cactus in the corner. The guy had me kicked out of the gym for ‘throwing his iPod at me for no reason.’ I was pulling thorns out of my hand for a week.”
As for me, the benefits of getting into shape turned out to drastically outweigh any lingering uncoolness that I may have once associated with exercise. After I’d been running regularly for several months, I started to notice huge changes in predictable and not-so-predictable areas of my life. First, I realized I had way more energy than I’d had before and I stopped being in a bad mood all the time. My skin cleared up, I stopped craving junk food all the time, and I lost fifteen pounds. And I can’t say for sure, but I’d be willing to bet that it was regular exercise that kept me from getting overly emo when I went through a break up last year. Though I’ve tried a few other forms of exercise like yoga and swimming, I really like running because I can do it anywhere. I even brought my gear to this year’s Punk Rock Bowling Tournament in Vegas. Running also doesn’t cost anything to do, at least after you get your sweat-wicking, high tech, ridiculous-looking running outfit. And if nothing else, running gives me an excuse to be alone and listen to an hour of uninterrupted music before any of my other daily responsibilities need attending to. And for me, being anti-social and listening to loud music is still punk rock, even if I’m doing it in white shoes.