When exercise = danger

Leah talks about a consent violation she experienced during medical care last year, and also shares her insights into her own fear around exercising.

Good Girls Talk About Sex
Good Girls Talk About Sex
When exercise = danger
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In this episode we talk about

  • Leah begins by sharing about her quarantine weight gain, which led her to confront a lifetime’s worth of avoidance issues around exercise — and an insight into how that mirrors the effects a negative body image had on safety in her sex
  • Leah shares a traumatic memory of assault at age 12 at the hands of her father.
  • Built-in responses to trauma complicate our culture’s idea that pushing through weight loss difficulties is just about
  • Early socialization and sexualization for those who grew up in girl bodies adds further trauma and mixed messaging.
  • Leah talks about an experience of violation of consent during a visit to a new Boldly, she addresses it after the visit.


Full episode text

LEAH: Welcome to Good Girls Talk About Sex. I’m sex educator and sexual communication coach Leah Carey and this is a place to share conversations with all sorts of women about their experience of sexuality. These are unfiltered conversations between adult women talking about sex. If anything about the previous sentence offends you, turn back now! And if you’re looking for a trigger warning, you’re not going to get it from me. I believe that you are stronger than the trauma you have experienced. I have faith in your ability to deal with things that upset you. Sound good? Let’s start the show!


LEAH: Hey friends. I’m going to skip the lowdown questions this week and I’ll get back to it next time because there are some things on my mind that I want to talk about. It’s two stories actually. One is about a consent violation I experienced with a doctor and the other is my own story of why exercise is a profoundly difficult subject for me. Both of these have come up in my conversations in the last week and they feel kind of ready for me to talk about. While these are both personal stories, I’m willing to bet that they’ll each ring some bells of familiarity for many of you.

So let’s start with my relationship with exercise and how it was shaped by my experience of my sexuality. Like many people, I have put on some weight since COVID-19 turned our world upside down. It’s easy to blame my current sedentary state of working from home during isolation, but the truth is I tend to shy away from anything that smacks of exercise. The very idea of exercise of a consistent routine that helps me to feel good, to be healthy, and get a little trimmer, it’s very appealing to me.

It’s something that I’ve tried to create for myself countless times throughout my life. But it’s rare that the zeal for exercise lasts longer than a couple of weeks. Now, if I have a physical job, which I have in the past, I can do it without a problem. But set me a task like take a walk for 30 minutes every day, something I have to do consistently and have some sort of accountability for and I will find a way to sabotage it no matter how enthusiastic I am to create change at the beginning. I have spent a lot of time beating up on myself about this.

And then when I spent a serious time looking about body image issues as they relate to sexuality, things started to get clearer for me. As I have talked about before, my dad stared telling me around age 11 that I was getting fat and no one would be attracted to me because boys don’t like girls who are fat, which is completely heteronormative. He harped about exercise as a way to make myself attractive. At the same time, he was sexually inappropriate with me, talking to me sexually about my body, talking to me about his sex life with my mother and how unhappy he was with it, and talking to women other than my

mother sexually and predatively. There was a lot of sexual energy flying around our home and it was deeply confusing.

Around age 12, he got blackout drunk one night and came into my bedroom. He pushed me down on the bed, started kissing me, and running his hands around my body. Thank God he was too drunk to get his hands under my nightgown. I had already been learning how to freeze and be quiet but that night the freeze was so profound that I don’t think I’ll ever forget the feeling. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was suffocating and I was literally frozen. I couldn’t have moved any part of my body even if I had been brave enough. All I could do was just lay there and wait for it to be over.

So let’s put together all those pieces. One, my father was recognizing me as a sexual being. Two, being fat would make me unattractive as a sexual being. Three, exercise would make me attractive as a sexual being. It’s a hard thing to admit but I’m pretty sure my brain connected the idea that if I were skinny and fit, I would be in much greater danger from my dad. Is it any wonder that in my young mind exercise became the enemy?

In fact, at the time, it was probably the most rational connection my brain could have made since at age 12, I didn’t have any other means to protect myself, which is why, even now in my mid-40s, any time someone talks to be about exercise, I get scared and shut down. It doesn’t matter how simple or how low impact the exercise would be.

It can manifest in a lot of different ways. I’m not sure I can do it. That will be too hard. What if I fail? But the root of it is still that old message. If I exercise, I will be in actual physical danger. It feels important to tell the story because I know that I’m far from alone in it. There are so many people who have been sexually assaulted and added on layers of fat as a protection against further assault because they believe it makes them unattractive as a sexual being.

And it’s not just sexual assault that has this outcome either. There are all kinds of emotional and mental difficulties that we can experience that cause this layering on of fat. And then we go the next step and suggest to people that if they have some layers of fat, they are that bad people or less moral or lazy.

If you freeze up like I do at the mention of exercise, I want you to know that you’re not lazy. You’re not broken. There is nothing wrong with you. Your brain has made a connection that was entirely rational given the circumstances. Perhaps it doesn’t look or feel rational in today’s circumstances, but just because something is logical doesn’t mean that the neural pathways in our brains have developed to facilitate it yet like me. My neural pathways still connect exercise with mortal danger.

And our cultural narrative advocates for ignoring the issue and pushing through it. Just do it. Fake it till you make it. No pain, no gain. And the corollary to that narrative is that the harder you work, the faster you push, the higher moral and ethical standing you have. That’s what it means to be a “good fat person.” You recognize that you are fat but you are doing the work to become less fat because that is what is good and right in our culture.

But when it comes to reprogramming our brains against a belief like mortal danger, all that pushing and clawing and fighting can actually backfire. It’s part of why it’s so common for people who have lost a huge amount of weight to regain it in a few years. They’ve done the hard physical work but they didn’t do the internal reprogramming to create new neural pathways for themselves that say that being in a body that is considered conventionally attractive is safe.

And if you believe that the layers of fat are protecting you from assault, it’s common sense that your body and brain will do whatever is necessary to add them back on if you lose them. Now, of course, I’m not suggesting that you or I stop working on our issues and just give in. But I am saying that we need to do it in a gentle way.

We need to be kind to ourselves in the process. It’s just like watching a baby learn to walk. When the baby takes a step and falls down, you don’t chastise them for not walking quickly enough. You cheer them for their accomplishment of taking a step. You encourage them to keep trying. You hold them when they cry. And you let them keep crawling for as long as it takes until they feel steady on their feet.

We need to do that with ourselves. We need to be gentle and kind and loving to ourselves as we learn new patterns. We need to give ourselves some grace when we try something new and fall back into an old pattern without knowing why. And, as a reminder to everyone out there who immediately suggests exercise as a bomb to heal all ills, please remember not everyone’s systems respond to the same way yours does. For you, it may release endorphins and make you feel great and I’m thrilled for you. But for others of us, it causes an extreme fright, flight, freeze response.

This is not about people not caring about their bodies or their health. In fact, people who are heavy or who have disordered eating, often have obsessive amounts of thoughts about their bodies and about their health. There are lots of reasons that people might become heavy and very few, I would wager to say none, have laziness or lack of willpower as their root cause.

We have a lot of emotional trauma in this world and those of us who grew up in little girl bodies have an overwhelming amount of sexual trauma. The fact that it shows up for so many of us in weight issues, body issues, and other physical challenges is 100% unsurprising.

Okay, that was a lot. So let’s take a quick break and I’ll be back with a story about a medical consent violation I experienced last year and how I’d like to support you if you’ve experienced something similar.


LEAH: Remember how fun it was to have teenage sleepovers where we’d do each other’s nails and braid each other’s hair and gossip about kissing and relationships? I’m lucky because I still get to have those fun juicy conversations on a regular basis.

But I know that a lot of you might find it hard to make the time and space to have these intimate connecting conversations with your girlfriends. So I’ve created a space where you get to have that same fun again. It’s an adult PJ Party!

It’s a whole luxurious evening of girl talk. I’ll lead you into a no holds barred conversation with your girlfriends talking about sex, relationships, toys, kink, orgasms, anything you can think of, we can talk about it! Even better, we’ll do it in a way that preserves social distancing and gives you a night of connection and intimacy with your favorite people.

Or, if you prefer, join a group where nobody knows each other in advance so you could be completely open and honest without worrying about revealing too much to people you see every day. So let me help you create a space where the conversation can be easy, sexy, and fun. Visit leahcarey.com/pjparty for all the information and to book a party for you and your friends.

Again, that link is leahcarey.com/pjparty and it’s in the app you’re listening to right now.


LEAH: Let’s dive into this next story which is much more recent. It occurred in 2019. So I had a history of getting a lot of headaches. Ever since I was a kid, a headache could ruin my day. Back in New Hampshire, I had a wonderful chiropractor who could work magic on my neck and shoulders. But since moving to Portland, Oregon, I struggled to find a chiropractor that’s a good fit for me.

Last year, as my headaches grew worse, I reached out on Facebook asking local friends for recommendation of their favorite chiropractors. One recommendation was for a guy that I could get in to see quickly so I booked an appointment. I had been on his table for about ten minutes when he said, “I’m going to do some traction on your neck.” Now, that didn’t raise any red flags for me because I’ve had other chiropractors use the word “traction” in reference to techniques that were quite helpful.

But this doctor with absolutely no warning or explanation did something I had definitely never experienced before. He strapped my head down the table. Even worse, because he was sitting behind me, I had no idea it was coming. One moment I was laying on the table absolutely fine, the next I was secure to a table by a man I didn’t know in a small room with no means of escape and a strap around my chin that made me think I couldn’t open my mouth to speak.

In the paradigm of fight, flight, and freeze, my system almost always goes into freeze. Physically, my body was still on the table. But internally, I was in a different time zone, maybe I was even on a different planet. It took me a day or two to finally come back into my body and to feel like I had landed and was safe enough to write a letter to the chiropractor about the incident explaining what had happened and how I had felt about it. And I want to read that for you.

“Dear Dr. X..,

I wanted to share with you what I experienced at your office this weekend and explain why I won’t be returning.”

And I detailed for him exactly what I had just told you.

“You may wonder why I didn’t say anything at the moment, I wrote. It’s not unusual for people who have experienced some level of sexual abuse, assault or other trauma as I have to remove ourselves mentally and emotionally from what feels like a danger situation. We put on a smile and a happy voice in order to get through the moment. My entire focus narrowed to the knowledge that I was at a physical disadvantage. My background told me if I said or did anything to upset the person who had the physical advantage, it could end very, very badly for me. I recognize that this is probably a 180 degrees different from you intention in that moment.

As a healer, I am certain you had a legitimate reason for placing me in that position. However, not only was there no communication about what that reason was, there was no communication that it was even going to happen. One moment I was lying comfortable in the table. The next moment I was strapped on the table with no idea how to release myself and the impression that I was unable to communicate.

You will see in my email signature that I work in the field of sexual communication and consent, which is why I am reaching out to you. Not because I’m angry or am even looking for an apology, but because if this type of response and disassociation happen to me, with a wealth of communication and negotiation skills at my disposal, imagine what happens to patients who have a similar response but have no way to process it or contextualize it. You have probably done this procedure hundreds or possibly thousands of times over your career, but this was the first time I had ever been strapped down like this. The whole experience could have been more positive if I had the opportunity to understand what was about to happen so I didn’t feel helpless. I hope that in the future you will take an extra moment to communicate with each patient what you are about to do. If it’s something about strapping a person on the table, please get their verbal consent before proceeding.”

So to his credit, he responded quickly with an apology. He did, however, say that nothing like this had ever happened before n his 39 years of practice. To which I feel completely confident saying, “Yes. It has.”

He just didn’t know because as a person in a position of power, no one told him. When I shared this story on my personal Facebook page last year, I was shocked at the number of people who responded saying that they had also experienced a consent violation during a medical procedure. Thankfully, at least one doctor, Dr. Evelin Dacker, who you can hear in the February 2019 episode My Sex Education Came From Judy Bloom, is actively working with other health providers to understand how important explicit informed consent is and how to go about getting it.

But given that small sampling of my friends, I’m guessing there are a fair of number of you who are listening who have also experienced a consent violation during a medical procedure. You may not have thought about it as a consent violation, because our primitive brain gets stuck at, “I feel weird” or “I feel gross but I’m not sure why” but then go immediately to “They’re a doctor and they know best so I must be wrong for thinking that something bad happened.”

If you’ve had this experience and you’re not sure what to do about it, I highly recommend to reach out to the practitioner involved to let them know what happened. It made me feel a lot better. There are two potential positives from this. One, you may be able to help that provider heighten their awareness for their actions and a need for consent, which is doing everybody a favor. But two, and I think more important, you can start to reclaim your own voice in a face of an authority figure who left you feeling violated.

Let me be clear. This is not legal advice and if you’re planning to pursue legal action against a medical professional, speak with your lawyer before doing anything else and ignore the rest of what I’m going to say. But if you’re not looking for legal relief, and you need to have an experience of speaking your truth to someone who should have listened to you, I think writing a letter is a great place to start. I’d be happy to work with you to sort through exactly what the consent violation was and then write a letter to the person in question that leaves you feeling empowered regardless of their response.

For more information, visit leahcarey.com/medicalconsent and that link will be on the Show Notes. This has been a lot so I’m going to leave it here for today.

So that’s it for today. Good Girls Talk About Sex is produced by me, Leah Carey, and edited by Gretchen Kilby. I have additional administrative support from Lara O’Connor and Magnolia Afable. And I’m incredibly grateful for the financial support form Good Girls Talk About Sex community members at Patreon. If you want to support me in telling these stories and answering your questions, head over to Patreon.com/goodgirlstalkaboutsex

But there’s also no pressure. All of the audio extras at Patreon are now free for everyone. And if you can’t or don’t want to contribute, it’s absolutely fine. You can keep listening for free for as long as you want.

To ask a question about your sex life, your desires or anything else to do with female sexuality, call and leave a message at 720-GOOD-SEX. You will remain completely anonymous and you just leave a message so I promise you won’t have to talk with a real person. Before we go, I want to remind you that the messages you’ve probably heard about your sexuality aren’t true. You are worthy. You are desirable. And you are not broken. I work with women just like you to reflect their true sexual nature back to them without the judgment, shame or fear that could get in the way of seeing it for themselves. As a coach and PJ party hostess, I will guide you in embracing the sexuality that is innately yours no matter what it looks like. I’m here to help you sink so deeply into your true sexuality that the version of yourself that

was so scared to speak up for her own needs feels like a mirage from another lifetime. Until next, here’s to your better sex life!

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Notable quotables

You are allowed to change your mind in the middle of a sexual interaction. No matter what you’ve done before. #consent

𝘎𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘎𝘪𝘳𝘭𝘴 𝘛𝘢𝘭𝘬 𝘈𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘚𝘦𝘹 podcast Click to Tweet

You are allowed to change your mind in the middle of a sexual interaction. No matter how far you’ve gone. #consent

𝘎𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘎𝘪𝘳𝘭𝘴 𝘛𝘢𝘭𝘬 𝘈𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘚𝘦𝘹 podcast Click to Tweet

You are allowed to change your mind in the middle of a sexual interaction. Even if you did the same thing last week and loved it. #consent

𝘎𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘎𝘪𝘳𝘭𝘴 𝘛𝘢𝘭𝘬 𝘈𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘚𝘦𝘹 podcast Click to Tweet

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Consent means that you are consenting in each and every moment to continue going forward. It is active and ongoing. #consent

𝘎𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘎𝘪𝘳𝘭𝘴 𝘛𝘢𝘭𝘬 𝘈𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘚𝘦𝘹 podcast Click to Tweet

The constant cultural messaging about how ‘my natural smell is bad and therefore I should douche so my vulva smells like flowers’ left me with a complex about how I smell.

𝘎𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘎𝘪𝘳𝘭𝘴 𝘛𝘢𝘭𝘬 𝘈𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘚𝘦𝘹 podcast Click to Tweet

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