“Health is a social justice option”
With fewer than 30 days until Team Ella Baker Center shines at the Oakland Running Festival, I bring you part four of my heath and fitness series on Ella’s Voice. Meet my awesome and kickass workout buddy Salima Hamirani. Salima is a recovering organizer who has grand plans to make it big in the world of social justice journalism and broadcasting, where the low pay and sparse job opportunities reconfirm her ongoing dedication to the work. She also spends time gardening and thinking about food justice while keeping up her “street cred”. Outside of work, she has competed in a few marathons, exercises regularly and lifts weights. She also "hangs out" at the Ella Baker Center for fun.
Salima has also included training tips for runners at the end of the interview, so read through to check out her solid advice!
1. How would you describe your lifelong relationship to exercise?
When I was young, exercise was an unconscious attempt to understand and assert myself. I mean, off the field, things were a little rough in East London. I was queer and gender non-conforming. I was female and felt strongly about it. I was brown – a “paki” – in a country that expressly hated its former colonies and their hordes of immigrating people. My body was a marker for things that were not mainstream and acceptable and despite my desire as a child to “fit in”. There was nothing I could do about my gender expression and definitely nothing I could do about my race.
I really hated my body. As often as possible I would hide and cover it because I found my body uncomfortable and, in all honesty, I found it shameful. It’s amazing when you think about it: the majority of young women, especially queer young women of color, experience their bodies as something disgraceful and as something to escape or hide.
On the playing field, however, things were different. I think I was born a competitive person, and I was thus an easy athlete. Especially track. I loved track. I murdered at sprints. After runs, teachers and parents would all of a sudden congratulate me.
The fact that sports allowed me to use my body and feel proud of it set me up for a very intimate connection with physical activity. It’s an intense experience to lead your team to a win when you’re brown and your classmates usually shun you because of your ethnicity, or to out run a boy who’s taunted you for years because of your androgyny. My body felt so powerful when I competed. You know, I think that’s why we have so many queer athletes and so many queer women of color who compete professionally. When else does the world celebrate us as rugged and muscled and dark? Not often.
Of course, my boyish ways only added to my general torment—and besides, girls are never pushed physically. It was definitely a struggle to maintain pleasure while competing because of social expectations. But I couldn’t help it. I loved to exercise.
I remember a young woman I found particularly attractive once telling me: “It’s sort of odd that you run around and get so sweaty with the boys no matter what you’re wearing, I mean…. Look at you… you’re dripping wet.” When I realized I was in fact completely sweating through my school uniform, I felt such an urge of shame and yet a profound inner confidence. I felt inappropriate and beautiful simultaneously.
Thing is, I was never going to be white, or straight or comfortable as conservatively feminine, so that latter feeling, that feeling of being beautiful and strong when I competed always won out.
I’ve definitely grown into myself since my awkward youth and my relationship to exercise has changed because of it. I think more about my health, I recognize that I am able-bodied and that this is temporary. I think about low-income communities and endemic health problems like cancer, diabetes or heart disease and I think, “I don’t want to be sick, I need to stay in shape.” I really have a hard time motivating myself to run, or to lift. I mean, I work out because I know I should, but isn’t that “should” a strange thing? Now that I feel so much more comfortable in my identity it feels strange to have to force myself to keep fit. I do miss running for the sake of it, just because I loved the way it made me feel.
2. How would you define fitness? How would you define health/healthiness?
I can only answer this question in relation to my own workout goals—and did I mention that I am competitive? I wouldn’t take my ideals as universal advice.
In my view, fitness is constantly pushing yourself just a tiny bit more. I don’t care much about physical appearance or weight, so I don’t think pushing yourself to add muscle or lose weight somehow means you’re in shape. In fact those goals are often counterproductive. Pushing your body, whatever its ability, to do just a little more every time equals fitness - running faster, lifting more.
I like to workout with someone better than me and see if I can keep up. Like I said, sometimes this is probably bad advice. Keeping up with someone better than you might mean that you run the lake faster than you ever have before. Or you’ll throw up. It’s a coin toss really? I mean, I probably shouldn’t tell you how many times I’ve felt sick in boot camp with Molly….. [Molly’s note: You’re not the only one, sister!]
I’d also suggest to anyone, no matter what your ability- aim to be an athlete that is not a one trick-pony. Women, for instance, are drawn to distance running because of social norms around femininity and the fear of developing muscles. But really, you’re a better athlete if you can also lift and if you develop overall strength. Besides, we’re losing bone density faster as we age. Lifting helps you maintain bone density. Men, similarly, often spend hours in the gym lifting outlandish amounts of weight to build muscles that look like dead animals under their skin, but they cannot sprint a mile. Just forget about the looks. Focus on well-rounded ability.
I realize I am taking some things for granted that I should probably vocalize. Everything I’ve said about fitness so far assumes a few things about you: you’re able bodied; you’re young and genetically free of impediments; you don’t work two to three jobs to keep your family fed; you have access to safe exercise space; in your neighborhood there exist a number of accessible grocery stores or farmer’s markets; you can afford to see a doctor; you can afford healthy food; you are mentally calm and safe.
Herein lies the dilemma. I wish I could reiterate what we so often hear from mainstream medicine– if you maximize what’s available to you, you are healthy. Unfortunately health is much more absolute that you would imagine. If you cannot eat nutritious food, but you still exercise, you are not healthy. If you eat decently and exercise, but you work two to three jobs and never sleep, you are not healthy.
That’s because health is not an individual choice or option. It is a communal value to which we all contribute. The simplest way I can put it- health is a social justice option.
That doesn’t mean we should never discuss eating and exercise habits as contributors to health. It means we also take social and environmental factors into consideration. So, let’s take them into consideration: surprise, MOST of us are unhealthy. We live in a polluted and inaccessible world! I hate to be a downer, but we can continue to maximize what’s available to us and we’re still going to be sick and unhealthy.
I think we can change our overall health as a community, though. I don’t think such progress entails us joining gyms or shopping at Whole Foods. I think it means we start joining campaigns and social justice organizations that directly confront public health.
3. Why do you exercise? Also, what or whom is your motivation for staying healthy?
I exercise, as I mentioned to stay fit. But, in a rare public display of private information, I also exercise as a form of therapy. I hate talking about my feelings, which is probably incredibly fun and not at all exasperating for my intimate friends. In lieu of talking I often work out my feelings through an extremely difficult workout.
Mostly, this is healthier than you would imagine. Talking is incredibly important, but we’re also animals, let’s not forget that. As physical animals, our bodies were meant to be used. That’s why we often work out emotions through sex, and touching. I also work out emotions through heavy lifting and pushups (and sometimes through sex).
When I was young I often looked to older women runners I admired. Girls turn to magazines and pop-icons as physical archetypes and as sexual archetypes (which should disturb us since so many of those bodies are frankly unhealthy). Luckily, since I was too busy being inescapably gay, my early idols were always gender ambiguous female athletes.
As an adult, I often look to my peers. Molly’s lifting capacity astounds me and I think trying to lift ten pounds fewer than she has pushed me through a number of boot camps. Nwamaka and Alicia are apparently incredible runners, I actually think of them and my friends who jog daily when I set out on a long run! My friend Abraham is a wheelchair sprinter, who rides hills for an hour every day. I think of him when I run the Lake Merritt Cascade and I want to die at the top.
4. Do you have any training or other tips for our runners?
I don’t run distance anymore so I’m not training. I work out with Molly at Phoenix, I also work out with a group of women a few times a week– I guess I would call it aerobic lifting. Once a week I box.
While I ran distance, I had a pretty strict workout routine that I can share. Most untrained distance runners make the mistake of running distance every day. For some people this is fine. For the rest of us, repetitive routine leads to injury and plateaus. If you’ve reached that five-mile limit and if you’ve started accumulating stress injuries there’s a simple remedy.
First, cross train. Bike or swim. Find a rowing machine at the gym and use it instead of running every day. Cross training builds muscles to stabilize your running ones. It also adds newness that forces you to work harder. Plus, you build muscle all over your body instead of just in your legs and glutes.
Second, work in sprints. If I only had half an hour to an hour to run, I would do sprints, over and over and over. Sprinting forces your heart to max out every time. No matter how fast you are, a sprint will tax you. It’s a surefire way to force your lungs and heart to increase capacity very, very quickly. When you’re not sprinting, run intervals so that you’re pushing yourself for a minute or two every ten minutes during a long run or just run stairs.
This also applies to cross training: If you work in a bike ride once a week, ride it up-hill. Combined with sprints and cross training, you should do long runs at a slow pace, slower than usual to increase distance, probably once or twice a week.
Third, dig deep and figure out what sort of gender or race assumptions you’ve developed about body type or body image and start dealing with them. Stop exercising to fit into a body type or social norm. Do you know how often women are required to undergo gender testing at the professional level? One of my female heroes, a South African sprinter named Caster Semenya, has been asked countless times to verify her stated gender. I look at her and think: that’s an amazing female athlete. Mainstream culture watches her and thinks, she’s too strong and ripped to be a woman; women do not look like that. Isn’t that incredible?
Finally, work out with friends. Play games with your friends. Play basketball, go on a hike with a group or just go to a park on a nice day and play Frisbee. It’s good for you – emotionally speaking - to run around with people you love and since you’re in such great shape, you’ll even motivate them to start working out!
You can run the lake with Team Ella Baker Center every Sunday at 9:45 from the columns. Join us!