Archive for May 2007

Allison Stokke Rocks

May 30, 2007

What I love about Allison Stokke is not what Matt Ufford and other bloggers love about her. “Hubba hubba and other grunting sounds,” Ufford wrote about Stokke, the California high school pole vaulter whose life has been turned upside-down by unwanted Internet oglers in recent weeks.

Photos of Stokke — thin, strong, gorgeous — have been flying around the Internet faster than a sprinter round a track, and as a result, thousands of anonymous users are looking at Stokke in her tight track uniform and posting graphic sexual fantasies. Reporters from around the world are requesting interviews with this new young sex symbol.

Some female athletes would love the attention. Some would respond by agreeing to pose for risque magazines. Some have justified the sexualization of female athletes by claiming that they’re proud of their bodies, and eager to show them off – even if to an audience that treats their photos with as much respect as they afford centerfold “girls.”

Stokke is different. Wise, at eighteen years old. She can’t do much to stop the worldwide “locker-room talk,” as her mother, Cindy Stokke, describes it. But Allison, a 2004 state pole vaulting champion, doesn’t have to like it, and doesn’t pretend to.

“Even if none of it is illegal, it just all feels really demeaning,” she told the Washington Post. “I worked so hard for pole vaulting and all this other stuff, and it’s almost like that doesn’t matter. Nobody sees that. Nobody really sees me.”

This is the crux of the answer to the “oh, we’re just appreciating female athletes’ bodies” argument. When female athletes are treated like Playboy bunnies, they lose their individuality and their identity. They become a product to be consumed by a lustful male public.

Allison Stokke wants to be known for her accomplishments – like any other athlete. Yes, she “worked hard for her body.” But the buff body was not her goal. And as long as her body is all these men see, they are “winning” by “demeaning” her, as she put it: reducing her to a sexual object to fulfill their fantasies.

It takes courage for female athletes to Just Say No to unwanted media attention. No, she can’t stop the Internet, but she doesn’t have to buy into it either, and so far, she isn’t. (Oh, please do NOT accept that sure-to-be impending invitation from Hustler, Allison, even though it would fund your college education!)

It takes strength to define oneself on one’s own terms. Fortunately, Allison Stokke is both courageous and strong – not just as a pole vaulter, but as a person.

Those who manage to see not just the body but the person will become true fans.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

Muscle Memory Run Amok

May 17, 2007

Mom says, “The word that comes to mind is engaging.” She’s talking about this Bodies in Motion blog. She’s my biggest fan. How fortunate I am!

But here’s what else she said, after reading the Muscle Memory post: “Sometimes muscle memory goes awry. Like today, I was at the bank, and the teller handed me the receipt. I started to sign it – as if it were a credit card receipt. Isn’t that weird?”

Yes! Weird and common. I remember her joking about this while driving me to swimming practice. Sometimes we’d end up instead at the hospital, where she used to visit patients. “Whoops! The car just drove itself here!” she’d say, laughing.

I’ve “driven myself” many places I didn’t intend to go, because my muscles went on automatic while my mind went blank. I bet you have too.

“When you’re old, you worry that this is dementia – or that others will think it is,” adds Mom. In her case, fortunately, it’s not.

(She also adds responding to another post on this blog, “I AM old, by the way. I don’t mind the word. I use it all the time.” (She’s almost 83.)

She’s right about muscle memory. Our muscles respond in the ways they’re in the habit of responding. Our hands reach for French fries. Our mouths open. Our hands reach for more French fries. Mouths open again. All of this can take place repeatedly while the brain is fully engaged elsewhere – in a conversation, for instance.

Which is why good habits are so essential. Half the time, we’re not really consciously deciding what to do and not do anyway.

Our hands and mouths are just reaching and chewing, reaching and chewing… signing slips of paper…. driving in a certain direction… all because of habit.

Get in the habit of doing good things for yourself – and others – and doing good things will start to come naturally.

Oprah Winfrey: Embody the Message

May 14, 2007

Howard University scored big this year by landing Oprah Winfrey as their commencement speaker on Saturday, May 12. Winfrey “brought down the house,” according to, with such stories as the one about the grandmother who urged her to befriend white people.

“She used to say, ‘I hope you get some good white folks that are kind to you.’ And I regret that she didn’t live past 1963 to see that I did grow up and get some really good white folks working for me,” Winfrey said, to laughter and a loud applause.

The Washington Post asked Karen Bradley, a University of Maryland professor of dance and an expert on nonverbal communication, to examine Winfrey’s body language to explain her appeal.

Bradley described Oprah as “entirely authentic.” Oprah’s emotions and actions are completely congruent, Bradley said. “That’s what we call presence or charisma.”

The phrase Bradley used that I found most interesting was “completely embodied.” Bradley defined this as “what someone is feeling internally is congruent with what they’re expressing.”

Apparently Oprah cried when receiving an honorary doctorate – yet did not seem embarrassed by her tears, instead turning to the audience to “use her emotions to feed her message.” She raised one hand when discussing blessings, “as if bestow a benediction on the crowd.”

Manipulative? Does sound suspicious. Is Oprah Winfrey aware of the power of her presence? Of course. Has she received public speaking training or coaching? Probably.

But I don’t think “completely embodied” can be faked. We’ve all seen speakers who gesture at the “right” times, who walk purposefully across the stage (or through the audience, a technique Phil Donahue popularlized) yet who don’t seem congruent, or charismatic, or “embodied.”

In fact, their bodies seem to be lying to us: saying and doing one thing, yet shining with a certain polish that makes us wince at the glare of their harsh light.

To be “completely embodied,” one must live IN one’s body, for starters. By “coming out” as someone who struggles with food, weight, and exercise, Oprah seems to have achieved something even beyond her impressive philanthropic, media, and publishing successes: She accepts her body without shame or self-pity. She lives in her body. And thus, when she gestures with her hand, or feels moved to tears, or speaks “from the heart,” her physical message and her verbal message are congruent — which feels satisfying to an audience, and inspires trust.

Yet another reason to be physically active, and to “embody” ourselves. It’s good for our health, sure — and it’s also good for our relationships, and our effectivness as leaders.

The Woman Who Goes for a Walk

May 10, 2007

Women who walk are women on the move, literally. They’re going places.

Where? Away. Away from stress, away from closets too full of the wrong clothes, away from mirrors, and away from old-fashioned ways of thinking and experiencing about themselves, their bodies, their lives.

They’re also going toward. Toward friendships, toward adventures, toward new ways of thinking about and experiencing themselves, their bodies, their lives.

When you’re walking, you’re not worried about whether your tummy is poking out. You’re breathing deeply, enjoying the scenery and your friends and your own strong body. You’re celebrating the simple joy of putting one foot in front of the other.

My latest book is called We Are All Athletes.

This is also true: We are all walkers. We are all naturally drawn toward adventure, exploration, investigation of what might be around the next bend. We’re drawn toward testing ourselves, seeing how far, how fast we can travel.

When we become daily walkers; we make a commitment to become the kind of person who goes places. This changes how we see ourselves, and how others see us. A walk is a journey. It’s an adventure.

The woman who goes for a walk is not the same person as the woman who returns home.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

Stephen Hawking and Flight

May 10, 2007

I talked with the cartoonist John Callahan shortly after the late Christopher Reeve was paralyzed in his riding accident in 1995. Callahan’s a quadriplegic too. He’s a shaky-handed cartoonist who lampoons social attitudes toward disability.

One recent cartoon shows a beggar on the street. Instead of hands, the beggar has sharp scythes. The sign near his cup reads, “Will refrain from shaking hands with you. $5.00.”

When Reeve responded to the accident not only by resuming his acting and directing career but also becoming a spokesperson for spinal cord research, Callahan jokingly complained about Reeve, who was best known for his movie role as Superman.

“He’s making it hard to be a self-pitying crip,” Callahan told me. “The SuperCrip is setting the bar awfully high.”

Now Stephen Hawking, 65, set the bar even higher – and soared over it. The accomplished astrophysicist and author of A Brief History of Time has used a wheelchair for nearly four decades, but he “flew” during a buoyant journey on a Boeing 727. The plane created a zero-gravity effect for passengers by looping through the sky in huge arcs.

“It was amazing,” said Hawking, who pirouetted like a “gold-medal gymnast” during the 25-second segments of weightlessness, a crew member reported in the Washington Post.

The stunt raised money to combat several diseases, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the one that has severely disabled Hawking.

It also raised awareness of people with disabilities. “I hope many people will follow in my path,” Hawking said.

Callahan and comrades, watch out. Another SuperCrip is refusing to be limited by even by the laws of physics, such as gravity.

Hawking believes space exploration will save our species when we destroy the earth.

Personally, I don’t believe we need to go that far, literally. We just need to stop polluting our home.

But I do believe that people, including disabled people, often limit themselves with “ground rules” that restrict their achievements.

And I do believe that all of us can fly.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

Julia Sweeney and Muscle Memory: Going Through the Motions

May 7, 2007

During a recent trip to Los Angeles I sat in the studio audience during a taping of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show, “Letting Go of God.”

Sweeney is best known for her hilarious portrayal of Pat, the person of indecipherable gender on “Saturday Night Live.” (My favorite episode: Pat’s colleagues try to trick Pat into revealing his or her gender by asking what Pat’s mother said when she first saw the newborn Pat. “My mother said, ‘Oh good! It’s a …. baby!'” Pat replies.)

“Letting Go of God,” which Sweeney said she hopes will debut in movie version at the Toronto Film Festival, is a serious story told with Sweeney’s signature humor. When Sweeney informs her mother she no longer believes in God, her mother says, “But you’re not going stop going to church, are you?”

Sweeney and I met at my brother’s wedding because my brother (Peter Martin Nelson) is her attorney. After the show, I asked her about focus. “How can you say the same lines over and over without getting distracted by things that are going on in the audience, or in your own head?” I asked.

“It’s all about muscle memory,” she replied, surprising me by quoting my own book, We Are All Athletes, back to me.

“I keep thinking about how you say you’ve got to do something a thousand times to groove it. That’s true whether it’s throwing a ball or delivering lines. I can’t possibly be fully present for every line I deliver, especially not during a taping, when it goes on for hours.

“But my body knows the material now. So I can be thinking about that guy in the front row who’s snoring, and feeling annoyed at him, and worrying that everyone’s going to walk out — but at the same time I can talk about Mormons or Buddhists or my cat. Because it’s in my muscle memory. My body knows it.”

Our bodies know so much. And so much of what we do is based on muscle memory — a fancy term for habit. How and when we get out of bed. How we relax, or don’t, in the shower. What we reach for, when we reach for food.

Buddhists urge us to be aware of each moment, and I admire that goal, and even strive for it (though striving is very un-Buddhist) but total moment-by-moment awareness is unrealistic for modern Americans.

Mostly, we “go through the motions.”

Those motions are based in large part on what we’ve “rehearsed” thousands of times in the past.

Mariah Burton Nelson

American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation