Casey Johnston on Diet Culture and ExerciseBy Finn Cohen & Anna Gazmarian • March 8, 2023
Our interview this month with Jaclyn A. Siegel [“The Strong, Silent Type,” by Sam Risak] focuses on masculinity and male body image, and part of that discussion addresses muscle dysmorphia that is characterized by an obsessive focus on muscularity and associated with weight lifting. But there’s an aspect of weight training that can be beneficial to everyone. The writer Casey Johnston has been advocating that idea for several years, after discovering that picking up heavy things in deliberate ways could improve her quality of life. From 2016 to 2021 her column “Ask a Swole Woman,” for VICE, The Hairpin, and SELF, was full of advice about lifting, eating, and dismissing ideas she sees as unhealthy and unproductive, like counting calories and strict, punishing exercise routines. In the past year her newsletter, She’s a Beast, has become popular enough (23,000 subscribers) to land her a book deal about her experiences with weight lifting.
Johnston grew up near Albany, New York, and played field hockey and lacrosse in high school. In college, after gaining weight and struggling with depression, she started running and progressed to half-marathons. But she found that path unsatisfying. “I hoped that I would get to a point with running where it felt like set and forget: where I wouldn’t have to think so much about what I was eating or feeling guilty that I wasn’t working out enough,” she says. “And it never got to that point. I only ever felt like I had to run more and more and eat less and less to stay where I was.”
After coming across a post on Reddit by a woman who was touting her success with weight training, Johnston decided to try it herself. She researched the mechanics of lifting and began eating a lot more in a way that made sense to her rather than following a lot of restrictions. In 2017 she joined a powerlifting gym and began working with a coach. During the pandemic her backyard gym in Brooklyn became a way to share her progress on social media. She moved to Los Angeles last year and got her personal-trainer certification, but her newsletter has become her main focus.
My colleague Anna Gazmarian and I have both followed Johnston’s work for years, and since we both also lift weights, we thought talking with her would be an interesting complement to the Jaclyn A. Siegel interview. Over a phone call late last year, Johnston discussed her belief that incorporating functional movement and changing our attitudes about food can drastically improve our lives.
Gazmarian: How do you think diet culture has affected the idea of fitness?
Johnston: I think most people are not really accustomed to thinking of food as anything but a lever to pull in terms of weight loss. And the people who have managed to resist that oftentimes have been able to do it only when they can look at food as an element of total chaos and gluttony, like, “I refuse to feel guilty about seeing no meaning in food at all except for the enjoyment of it.” I don’t think either of these things is necessarily wrong in the right context. But I think we’ve lost track of how food can enhance our lives. Diet culture is definitely the biggest enemy there, because it’s so focused on being destructive to your body and seeing food only as something that you should not have or should not enjoy because to do so will mean you will gain weight. I think that’s the most basic understanding that most people have about food. Even the phrase “you gotta eat” — I think a lot of people are like, “You don’t gotta eat, especially if you should be losing weight.” They think that should be your top directive when it comes to food, not “How am I going to feel if I skip breakfast?” We should be guided first by the idea of “What do we need?”
Cohen: How do you think this concept of wellness has evolved in the U.S. in the last decade?
Johnston: When I was growing up, wellness was not really a word that people used. I think it’s only in the last ten years that people have started to say it a lot as a blanket term for health. It has more of a self-care than a medical element to it. But it’s been used so much as to be a bit meaningless. Maybe the best thing you could say is that wellness should be a journey, not a destination. It’s something you should feel entitled to consider in your decision. For your health and wellness, should you take a job that requires you to work twenty hours a day? Probably not. I think wellness, as an ideal that you’re supposed to always be pursuing but can never quite achieve, can create a pretty toxic way of thinking.
Cohen: In the online world of fitness, there are some nearly religious proponents of a particular discipline. They all insist their way is the only way to do something. What’s a healthy way for people to navigate this?
Johnston: I feel you can rest assured, just as with most other things in life, that anyone saying their way is the only way is not right. The things that are always going to help and make you feel good are much more abstract. Nothing you’re going to find in an advertisement is going to be the magic bullet that it purports to be. The general principle always comes back to these fuzzier concepts that no one can really give you an instruction manual for. Being in “good shape” or eating a “balanced diet” — those have some guidelines but can look different for every person. It applies to sleep, too: some people need lots of high-quality sleep. Some people need a little bit less, and it doesn’t matter if they wake up in the middle of the night. There’s not one prescription for these things. But I think that we latch on to them because we feel lost about this stuff. We don’t have good support systems for helping people eat well, either in terms of information or the literal food resources.
At the end of a long day at work, a lot of people don’t feel they have the time or energy to exercise. That’s a failure of the system, not a failure of individual people. Ideally we’d all be able to freely explore these elements of our daily lives. We’re supposed to eat three times a day, and we’re supposed to exercise most days; we should have the space to find our own way to structure that. If someone says, “I have the one perfect solution. It’s going to be easy, and it’s not that time-consuming,” obviously people will choose that.
Gazmarian: Why is strength training important for women, and how can it be made more accessible?
Johnston: Women are the main target of diet culture, and excessive prolonged dieting will deplete your muscles over the years. This is what happened to me; I lost a lot of muscle along with the body fat that I wanted to lose. A lot of people don’t realize that muscle mass is extremely important for our metabolism and to how our bodies move. There are correlations between more muscle mass and better mood, better sleep, and better energy. You can also feel the benefits of strength training much quicker in terms of energy, and in terms of how you’re teaching your body to move. Basic lifts that allow you to build strength — squats, bench presses, deadlifts — have a lot of benefits that carry over to real life. The basic formula is pushing and pulling stuff with your legs and arms: bending down to pick things up, moving things around overhead, learning to use the muscles together in the right way. Instead of bending over at your waist and using your lower back, you learn to extend your hips backward and use the much bigger muscles in your legs and your butt to pick something up. That’s really important, not just for maintaining those muscles, but for building sustainable movement patterns.
I think women were particularly discouraged from doing these kinds of activities, which is why I think it’s so important to get the message to more women directly. It’s not just for men; it’s not just for football players or Olympic athletes. Everyone can get something out of weight lifting, and it’s almost like the lower the point you’re starting from, the more low-hanging fruit you have to pluck quickly. Women have particular health challenges: bone density and stability are big problems for women especially as they get older. Building muscle earlier in life is better; you can do it any time, but your potential for growth is greater, your susceptibility to injury is lower, and you get to enjoy the benefits for longer. Diet culture really wastes our youth on destroying our bodies with these not only fruitless but counterproductive quick-fix “solutions” for becoming more attractive.
Gazmarian: There’s a lot of emphasis on using BMI to determine health, but it can exclude different body types. Do you think there’s a better way of measuring health?
Johnston: I don’t think there’s a singular metric that is better. BMI is fundamentally racist, but ultimately it’s just someone’s height and weight. Those are facts of our existence, but they can’t even begin to paint a whole picture. If you care about someone’s actual health, you have to look at other data: How much is somebody working out? How do they feel? What are they eating? How are they mentally? I hear from people all the time who say, “My doctor looked at my BMI and said I should lose weight. They said eat less.” And that’s it. That’s not a way of providing even a rudimentary level of care for somebody. Everything that goes into our BMI is both complex and formed by our daily habits; if we insist on using it, it’s being used backward. Taking care of your health is not as simple as losing weight and eating fewer calories every day. There’s been a lot of good research in the last few years to illustrate how much texture there is to that overall picture; people are actually slightly healthier and have lower mortality at a higher body weight. That doesn’t extend infinitely up the graph, but we have a general cultural impression that being of a low body weight is the key to being healthy. And that’s not supported by the evidence. We need to be more focused on what our habits are and how we feel.
We have a slightly better grasp of this dynamic in end-of-life care now: When does the quality-of-life graph start to trend away from all we’re doing just to keep somebody alive? In the context of diet and health, we can push people to never, ever eat a cupcake, but what are we living for if not to sometimes have enjoyable sensory experiences? We’re not here just to try and live as long as possible, or to be in absolutely perfect health 100 percent of the time. There needs to be some flexibility to that, and we haven’t really brought that flexibility into the healthcare sphere because we’re so fixated on finding a perfect solution to the “problem” of health as it relates to weight. The idea that there is only one solution is rooted in fatphobia.
Cohen: How do you think we’ve gotten to the place where fatphobia is dictating so much of the way we live our lives?
Johnston: We have fluctuations of what the beauty ideal is, and for many decades that ideal has been “thinner is better.” I was just reading The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow, and there’s a section where they’re talking about a society of people who are now long gone. Archaeologists find lots of these portly female idols carved out of stone on digs in this area. They haven’t found any similar idols of men. The broader interpretation has been that women were revered figures in some way. And the fact that they weighed more was a sign of their age and experience in a time when people didn’t live superlong.
It’s a very complex thing. It’s racism, it’s misogyny. The truth is that changing your body in that way as a matter of personal will, regardless of other factors, is extremely difficult to do, and then even more difficult to maintain. It’s dictated by so many factors, and many of them are increasingly taken out of our control, like having the time and resources and energy to move around and obtain and prepare nutritious food. Many of us have minimal financial freedom and almost no free time, and that’s not a matter of personal failure; it’s deregulation, it’s subordination of workers. But because it’s so difficult to continuously lose weight and stay small, you can subdue a massive number of people by turning that into an insecurity and preoccupying them with the task of policing their body like this. The more resources you take away from them, the harder it is. It’s an extremely efficient drain to keep everyone circling.
I’m not the first to make that point by any stretch, but we’ve developed a real vitriol against fat people in our time. Some group of people must be looking for a scapegoat that represents what they think fat people represent, like a sort of biblical transgression. It’s bigotry.
Cohen: Going back to BMI: when you were talking about different things that we do every day, are you talking about how much time we sit, our posture, how close to bedtime people are eating?
Johnston: Say somebody has bad posture and their shoulders hurt all the time. They get sent to physical therapy, the physical therapist says, “You need to practice tiny movements with your shoulders; we’re gonna do three sets of twenty every day.” That person could probably benefit from lifting heavy weights in a way that would slingshot them past those little rehab exercises, but seemingly few PTs guide people in that direction. That’s an example of how we have not even begun to engage with the offerings of strength training for our daily body mechanics. How we pick stuff up from the floor, how we sit in a chair, how we carry things — these habits cause injuries every single day. People don’t have a sophisticated concept of their ability to change those habits. They say, “Oh, I played baseball in high school; I twisted my knee, and now I have a bad knee forever.” I don’t necessarily think everything can be 100 percent cured, but there’s a lot to be said for the idea of building up the muscle around our weak joints to avoid pain and injury, and for training basically sound movement patterns that will protect us. I’m not a doctor, but it’s a well-established fact that people with, say, back pain or rheumatoid arthritis will be discouraged from moving a lot or lifting heavy weights. A doctor might tell someone with back pain, “Don’t lift more than ten pounds, because it will aggravate your back,” when, in fact, someone with back pain could learn to move their body in a way that shifts the effort away from the muscles that are so easily strained, toward their bigger neglected muscles, and restore their body to more functionality than before.
I’m not really sure why it hasn’t been more widely integrated; I think people are afraid of liability, and they’re afraid of telling people to do something that sounds hard. I think a lot of people hear, “You should lift weights,” and their response is “That sounds like a lot of work; I have to go to a specific place, and I need this specific equipment.” But the world that I want to live in is one where we accept as an incontrovertible fact that, not even for aesthetic or weight loss reasons, or any kind of moral imperative, but for basic health and body-comfort and enjoyment reasons, most people should be lifting weights two or three days a week. If we taught people in school how to lift weights, I think our experience in our bodies would be completely different. I’ve heard from a couple of people that their kids were being taught to squat and deadlift in gym class. We didn’t have that when I was kid. If that change is happening out there, I would be thrilled.
Cohen: How do you think most of our society defines athletic versus how you define it?
Johnston: I think when somebody thinks of an athletic person, it’s a former college athlete or someone who runs marathons. A number of fitness businesses have started to call their clients athletes. I don’t think there should be a law that everyone has to participate in athletics, but I think that, for the vast majority of us, our experience of our bodies is impoverished by not considering — or having the time or energy to cultivate — our own basic level of athleticism. It can be a much bigger tent: a personal journey versus a tightly circumscribed definition. I think someone who is athletic has a flexible relationship with their body and its capability. They’re attuned to their physicality. They like to move. They know that moving is not always a perfectly enjoyable or comfortable experience, and they like finding an appropriate degree of challenging themselves and enjoy achieving things with their body, whether that’s new personal bests or just getting out and moving around that day.
Cohen: Since you started doing a lot of lifting, have you had a lot of mansplaining at the weight rack from coaches or trainers or just other guys at the gym?
Johnston: Never from coaches; the coaches I’ve dealt with have always been extremely kind and generous and patient. So have most guys at the gym. Not too dissimilar to fatphobia, we have a lot of ingrained fear of big, muscled guys, but I’ve found so many of them to be really nice. They’re excited to see someone new who’s getting into lifting. Sometimes that can take the form of being a little too excited and wanting to show you things, but they mean well. One reader told me a story about someone at her gym who was referred to as Deadlift Dennis. He was really huge and deadlifted a lot of weight and was always very kind and helpful to people. They’d say, “Thanks, man, I had a really rough day,” and he would clap them on the shoulder and say, “All that matters is that you’re here.” And that’s much more typical of guys in the weight room, in my experience — much more so than I imagined it would be.
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