Q & A with Krista Scott-Dixon
Precision Nutrition: You have a very unique career. You’re a professor, a researcher, a writer, a coach, and more: it’s a mix of academia with all kinds of expertise outside the classroom, like for example your expertise in health and fitness. So I’m curious: what career did your guidance counselor suggest for you?
Krista Scott-Dixon: Wow, that’s a really good question. I actually thought I wanted to be an artist for a while. I did my undergrad in fine arts. I guess because my father was an academic, I always had a sense that I would at least get my PhD. I don’t know that I had a clear plan that I was going to be an academic, per se, but I always sort of had the sense that I would go on and do a PhD, so I would always have this home in academia. But yeah, originally I thought I would be an artist.
KSD: I remember those, it was something like I should go into social services, or something. Like I’d be a teacher, that was another thing people figured I’d be, and I guess I kind of am now. Some kind of social service or teaching job, I guess. And certainly no one ever suggested health and fitness, because I was always like the last-pick-for-the-team kinda person. Actually, no, I was never the last, I was always like the second last. There’s almost always someone worse off than you. [Laughs.] But yeah, certainly health and fitness would not have been up there.
PN: In a number of places you talk about “coming out” as a feminist. Is there pressure not to be one?
KSD: Oh totally. Totally. I think if you move in certain circles, like if you’re part of the liberal elite, it’s not really such a bad thing, but there’s such misunderstanding about it, and there are so many negative connotations about it. You know, when you go outside your little urban world, people are afraid of that word. They associate it with such negative things. Even my students, when they tell their families, or their friends or their boyfriends or whatever, that they enrolled in a women’s studies course, their friends and families freak. They’re like, “I can’t believe you’re taking that.” There’s just so much stigma. And that’s not even naming yourself as a feminist, that’s just taking a course. It’s brutal. So every year we have to deal with the fallout from some family fights. [Laughs.] And breakups happen – literally, I’m not kidding. It’s just very bizarre. So yeah, there is a lot of pressure, and I think that’s because of the negative connotations people have with the term if they’re not familiar with the area.
PN: Most of the problems we face are multi-factorial. On your site, you tell your readers and students that they can mix women’s studies with other studies, be they medicine, law, economics, etc. And certainly you’ve done that yourself with health and fitness. Do you think in general that we’re too narrow-minded and contained in education today?
KSD: That’s an interesting question. I do definitely think there tends to be a focus on purity of discipline, and so people tend to be quite resistant to the idea that you would work across disciplines. Engineering is one example I can think of that’s very rigid about it. Like, if you’re in engineering, you don’t do humanities or anything else like that, you just do engineering. And not only do you just do engineering, you’re taught to think everything outside engineering is crap. [Laughs.] And many universities are heavily invested in this. You actually have discussions like, “Where is sociology going, and how can we make it real sociology again?” People are really, really into that purity. And I think the concept of interdisciplinary work is threatening to a lot of people. York University is a bit different, because they do talk about interdisciplinary work, and that’s sort of their brand, if you will. Not that it’s necessarily always deployed in real life. But I do definitely think that interdisciplinary studies are frowned up, especially between the arts and sciences. There’s science on the one hand, and then there’s sort of a devaluing of what humanities can offer.
PN: What got you interested originally in health and fitness?
KSD: Hmmm. Well, my mom used to be a science teacher, she has a science degree – and her science degree was food science. So she taught regular science, like chemistry and all that sort of stuff, but also she had worked as a nutritionist. And so we had a very science-oriented household. Like, we didn’t say, “I have to go pee,” we’d say, “I have to urinate.” [Laughs.] Or like on family vacations, we’d walk down the beach, and there’d be something gross on the beach like a jellyfish or something. And my mother would pick it up, and look at it, and tell us all about jellyfish. So there was a science-friendly mindset. And also a lot of emphasis placed on things like eating right and being active. Not that either of my parents were athletes or anything. But you would just go for a walk every night, that kind of stuff, and that’s just how it was done. Or you would eat vegetables because that’s the right thing to do, so that was kind of the value that circulated in my house. And the interest in science was something that I shared with my mother. So if I had to kind of pinpoint the origins, that where I would say it came from. But certainly I was never interested in athletics, or team sports, or anything like that. I was very averse to those. And then, I guess I got interested in weight training in high school when I had a chance to take a weight training course. That was something that was kind of different from the other team sports. Because I can’t throw a ball. Actually, I’m a good thrower, not a good catcher. [Laughs.] Anything that involves catching a ball is just disastrous for me. But individual sports, I was actually pretty good at, like gymnastics or whatever. And in the moments I was able to participate in that, I really enjoyed it.
KSD: No . . . but I remember my first entrance into the weight room. I was in grade nine, and I was taking an aerobics class as my gym class, it was like an all-girls aerobics class, and one day there was some reason we couldn’t use the gym so the gym teacher took us to the weight room instead. And I remember sitting in there, and there were a couple of older girls in there, and they looked really cool. And one of them was talking about how she wanted to be a female bodybuilder. And I remember thinking that was the coolest thing ever. I guess that would be my first sort of moment in the weight room.
PN: Most of your readers and probably the vast majority of people you’ve helped know you exclusively through the web. How do you think the advent of the web has changed the fitness industry?
KSD: Well, you know it’s interesting. I think it’s been a little bit contradictory in certain ways. It’s been so good in so many ways, because it’s enabled connections and knowledge exchange that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. For instance, I got to be on a conversational basis with Mel Siff, and people have emailed me over the years, like Dave Draper, whom I never would have met otherwise. And whom I may or may not ever meet in person. But you can build these relationships online, relationships that wouldn’t otherwise be built because of geographical location. And you wouldn’t talk to people who are professionals, necessarily, like Michael Yessis, or someone like that – you wouldn’t have access to them. So there’s been that.
And also, the access to information now is so much better. You can get on PubMed and read studies and abstracts. I get the tables of contents of physiology journals emailed to me every month, so I don’t even have to go looking for it. It’s just that much easier. So there’s that too.
But then of course, you have this proliferation of crap. Sites that are all about selling stuff. And you’re still confronted with the problem of knowing what’s good information and what’s not.
PN: Hey, we sell stuff! [Laughs.] But seriously, where do you think the balance is? We had a woman email us the other day, and for whatever reason she was like, “How dare you not offer free advice?” And I was thinking . . .
PN: Yeah exactly, I was thinking, perhaps you missed the over 200 free articles we’ve put online?
KSD: No kidding!
PN: Well, yeah and for Precision Nutrition customers we have this whole free forum, and all kinds of other stuff, like the training program you designed. In any case, people take this very seriously. On the one hand you want to help people, and on the other hand if you’re doing this professionally, you have to make a living. So where do you think that line is drawn?
KSD: You know it’s interesting because a lot of it relates to people’s expectations of things. In my case, people are often surprised to find that it is free . . .
KSD: And your site too! People are often surprised when stuff is free. So it’s an interesting question. Sometimes people feel that if you’re not charging for it, it’s not worthwhile. On the other hand there’s sometimes that sense of entitlement to free stuff. So it’s hard to balance it, I guess. I always send people to the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Nutritional Programs, like constantly. It’s one of my favorite links to send people to, because it just lays it out so clearly. If John ever takes that article down, I’m screwed. [Laughs.]
PN: Well, it’s funny because I remember back in the early days, before a lot of the big fitness websites had taken off, I remember that people used to recommend two sites. One was exrx.net, and the other was your site, www.stumptuous.com. A lot of people would link to those two sites in their signatures. Obviously it’s great for women, but I remember even some of the stubborn old men of the early web days were like, “Yeah, a lot of it is for chicks, but you’ll still learn a lot.” So they would recommend it anyway, even begrudgingly. So tell me a bit about your site, and how it came about.
KSD: Well my site started I think in 1996. Because I had taken this weight training course in high school – and the guy who taught it was a real advocate of women’s training – I knew when I decided to start the site that the information I was finding elsewhere on the web was crap. I also knew where to find good information, because I worked at a university, and I could go and read academic textbooks on physiology, coaching, kinesiology, and so forth. So I knew where to find the good stuff, and I became increasingly resentful of the proliferation of bad stuff. And I thought, I can’t be the only one in this situation. So that’s how I got started. It was a very modest little thing. I mean, it might have had five articles on it or something. And it was just dedicated to being an information resource for people who are looking for factual, evidence-based information on women’s training. And then it just kind of grew and grew, and my knowledge base grew, and I started building this expertise and broadening my focus. So I don’t know, it was a very organic process. I just wrote about what people were interested in. I might get ten questions about the same thing, so I would write an article about that. Or there would be some domain of knowledge that seemed unique to me, like for example how to do a pull-up. The stuff you wouldn’t find in a mainstream magazine. So that went up too.
I also wanted to provide an alternative representation, because when you think fitness for women, you think “fitness model.” And that’s so meaningless for most women. They don’t identify with it. They even resent it, you know, and for most women it’s not inspiring at all. And it’s not reality either. 99% of fit women don’t look like that. So I wanted to sort of provide alternative images of fit women, so other women could read about them and go, “Hey, there’s a 60 year old women powerlifting – I can do that, I’m a 60 year old woman too.” Things like that, things to make it more meaningful to them.
PN: Okay, I’m going to put you on the spot. Is fat beautiful, or should people just get in shape?
KSD: Well, that’s an interesting question. I think that fit is beautiful, and I think that fit comes in many sizes. Fat is too broad, too. You can be fat and out of shape, or fat and in pretty good shape, and those things look and feel very different. It’s about what people do with their bodies, how they carry themselves and so on. A big shot putter is different than an average couch potato, but they could both be covered under the rubric of “fat.” The thing with biology is that there’s usually a sweet spot. You don’t want too much or too little of anything. But there’s a range within which certain things are optimized. And I think that the range that culturally we’re happy with, in terms of fatness – put it this way, we’ve got a very narrow range that we’re willing to accept in our representations, our images, but we seem satisfied with a much wider range in real life. I mean, so many people are fat now that it’s almost the norm. To me, though, fit is attractive, and fit comes in different sizes for sure.
PN: When it comes to this stuff, stuff related to body image, people take it very seriously – especially in reference to themselves. Do you think it’s possible, or necessary, or advisable even, to separate who we are from what we look like?
KSD: That’s a really interesting question. I don’t think it’s possible. To try to do it sort of a false Cartesianism. I think physical culture is about unifying all these dimensions of ourselves. I think the problem comes when we define aesthetics in a very narrow way, when we give it very narrow parameters of what’s okay. But I think this idea that giving a shit what you look like is somehow unfeminist, somehow beneath you as an intellectual – and I sometimes hear colleagues talking about this – it’s plain wrong. The reality is that we have eyes for a reason, right? And we are invested in how we look. And how we look has two components, too: how we actually look to other people, and how we think we look or how we want to look. There’s this sort of interior/exterior dynamic. So I don’t think it’s possible to separate the two, and anyone who says they can is either full of it or mentally unhealthy. But I think there are different ways to come to terms with that divide, and I think that people sometimes come to terms with it in ways that are unhealthy. But I don’t think that our appearance itself is the problem.
PN: Let’s talk nutrition for a second. When it comes to our relationship with food, do you see a difference between men and women?
KSD: Oh yeah. It’s huge. It’s absolutely different. Although what’s interesting is that I’m seeing now more and more men becoming like women. Now, they’re not there yet. But the things I’m hearing from them, especially young men, are becoming remarkably similar. And I think that has to do with the fact that men’s bodies are becoming much more commodified than they were. A generation ago, men didn’t know what their abs were, or what their pecs were, but now of course every man knows. And you have this sense now that it’s much more explicit what you’re supposed to look like. And you have images presented to you, depicting exactly what you’re supposed to look like. So I think that the concern is actually emergent with men, but it’s not quite where it is with women just yet. We’ve taken it to a whole new level. [Laughs.] Naomi Wolf had this interesting study in her book, The Beauty Myth. She talked about a study that was done to men subjected to food deprivation. These were regular college guys from up the street. Well they put them in a close environment and deprived them of food. They were very under-nourished, an intake of 600 or 800 calories, something like that. After a fairly short time, about a week, the men became obsessed with food in the same way that women are now. They continually talked about food, they had all this guilt and these moral associations with food, they fantasized about food, they exchanged recipes – food became a much more central thing. And I think the point of it all is that women’s behaviors around food set up this self-replicating thing. You have a dysfunctional relationship with food, which then reproduces itself. But also the study showed that it’s not necessarily a gender thing – I think a lot of it has to do with cultural norms and behaviors for sure.
PN: What’s the role of nutrition in the overall picture? If we understand that our identities are tied up with how we look, and we want to change that, what role do you think nutrition plays in that process?
KSD: I think it’s fundamental. I don’t think you can overstate the importance of nutrition. I think it’s absolutely central. And I think a big missing piece for me in nutrition – there’s this focus on eating this or that number of calories – but for me it’s about wellness and self-care. I always tell people, if you care for your insides, the outside will take care of itself. Even things like food quality. Are you eating a lot of chemical crap, or are you eating good food, unprocessed food? Are you eating the best quality of food that you can eat? Even like, if you have a piece of chocolate, are you eating Lindt 85%, or are you eating some piece of crap Cadbury wax, mostly-paraffin substance? So that’s a dimension I don’t hear a lot of. Nutrition is absolutely critical. You cannot be healthy, you cannot be fit, if your nutrition isn’t at least passable. It’s just not possible. Maybe it’s possible temporarily if you’re fifteen and in that kind of state of immortality that teenagers are in. But eventually, it just catches up to you.
PN: You once told me that you estimate that something like 30% to 40% of girls have an eating disorder. Um, what the hell’s going on?
KSD: Totally. I think there are a lot of reasons for it. I think eating disorders are very multi-factorial. In a way, they’re just symptoms. Food and eating are like languages we use to express certain things. We can express love, we can express refusal, we can express all kinds of things, and so I think it’s partly a physiological thing because in disordered eating you often see disorders in serotonin and dopamine and the neurotransmitter axes and so forth, but it’s so much more a symptom of other things. It’s a culturally sanctioned way of acting out all the other pressures that young women are experiencing. What you see is that boys tend to act outwardly, whereas girls tend to turn inward. Girls are much more likely to self-harm, to cut themselves, starve themselves, all kinds of stuff like that. Boys are more likely to go out and hit something, crash a car, whatever. So you have these differently gendered patterns.
You have this spectrum. Yes, on the one hand you have this super-anorexic 86 pounder, but that’s only the extreme manifestation. That’s only 1% or 2% of the problem. So many people have what could be considered disordered eating. It’s just immense. Partially it’s ignorance, partially it’s a way of expressing cultural pressures, partially it’s a way of acting out, it’s a way of attempting to manage your body, it’s a way of exerting control in a world where you feel like you don’t have a lot of control. And it’s just a function of living in our society, where the body has become so commodified and our ideas of fitness now have nothing to do with function. Most people have no concept of their bodies as functional anymore. It’s all about decorative. There has to be a balance.
PN: So given that, do you think that there is anything that can be done, be it with training or nutrition or what have you, to right the ship, or are people more or less at the mercy of the larger cultural landscape?
KSD: My mother, as I said, was a science teacher and is now a high school principal. So she’s a long-time educator, and I said to her once, “How do you build self-esteem?” Because I think we have this sense that self-esteem is built through affirmations, and saying to yourself, “I’m okay,” and whatever. I’m good enough, smart enough, whatever. But she said something interesting, which was that self-esteem is built through skills. And I thought that was actually a rather profound statement. And what I’ve noticed in my own practice is that if you demonstrate to people that they can gain the skills, and that their bodies are functional, then that can actually be life changing for the majority of people that do it. Weight training is one way. But I also know a lot of people who are involved with boxing, and that’s been an amazing experience. It really transforms women’s relationships with their bodies. So I do think that the potential is there even with training alone – if the training is the right kind of training. If the training focuses on functionality and performance, then I think it actually can be life changing.
PN: In other words, modalities that take the emphasis off how you look and place it instead on what you’re able to achieve?
KSD: Yeah, exactly. Because girls never get to have bodies that do stuff. It’s always about what you look like. It’s extremely disempowering. And it disguises the fact that having a body that’s non-functional is a problem. I work in an all-female workplace – actually there are a couple of guys – and even just lifting boxes, everyone is like, “Oh I can’t lift that.” And I’m like, “You should be embarrassed to say that.” We’re talking about 20 pound boxes, I mean, what’s the problem here? But there’s this sense that that’s normal, that’s okay. I’m currently taking a yoga class, and there are some women in the class that can’t support their own body weight on their hands. But they’re not saying, “Oh my God, I really need to fix this.” They’re saying, “Oh well, that’s normal.” So I think the sense of what’s normal for women is so flawed. But part of it’s a class thing too: no one does manual labor anymore. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers would think all of us are pathetic. [Laughs.] So the standards of functionality have all been decreased because there is this sense, which is a very middle class sense, that women are supposed to be ornamental. That norm was never applied to working class women who had to go out and earn a living, often dong pretty heavy stuff. In general, that’s the problem: there’s just no emphasis on functionality at all.
PN: What’s it like for a woman in the average commercial gym?
KSD: I think it can be pretty intimidating for sure, and I think it can be pretty negative if you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, or if you don’t look like other people, or if you’re just anxious about your whole self-presentation. We all have so much body angst. So I think it can be quite intimidating. The commercial fitness industry thrives on making people feel like they don’t know what they’re doing, or that they’re going to hurt themselves. It’s like the burden of self-reliance is shifted off the consumer. The consumer walks in the gym and they’re confronted with stuff they don’t know about, stuff they’re scared of, stuff that might hurt them. Again, it’s very disempowering. They’re thinking, “I don’t know how to use this,” which is stupid because training is about movement, and we all know how to move, we all know how to squat, we all know how to sit down, and stuff like that. But somehow this idea came about that we have to outsource this to other people. So to me that’s what the commercial gyms are fostering: this sense that you have to outsource responsibility for your own body to other people. And not that you can’t benefit from other people’s expertise. But it’s more this feeling like, “I don’t have to know, I don’t have to care, I don’t have to learn, because someone else will do it for me.” The “hurting yourself” discourse always bothers me. There’s that sort of baseline that everyone encounters when they walk into a commercial gym. And then there’s the more gendered dimensions. So like, how do you command your space in the weightroom, how do you get the equipment you want, how do you keep creepy guys away from you. [Laughs]. There’s definitely that as well.
KSD: You know, to be honest, I’ve never really had that much of a problem with it. I’m a very direct kind of person. I make eye contact. I think about my body language, and I don’t use submissive body language, I just go in and dominate the space. I’m polite about it, I’m not a jerk, but a lot of women I think are so intimidated that they’re not really sure how to respond to it. They’ll just wear a walkman – oh my god, I just dated myself – I mean an iPod! [Laughs.] But they’ll have headphones on so no one talks to them, sort of a passive-aggressive kind of thing. People respond to it differently. But I don’t know, maybe it’s just my glasses.
PN: There’s a time for self-reliance and a time for seeking expertise. What do you think is the role of a good coach?
KSD: I think a good coach is kind of like a midwife. You provide people the resources they need, you provide them the guidance, but you also provide them with the sense that they themselves are responsible for doing it. And I think that’s the reality too. You can’t make people eat healthy, right? All you can do is provide them with the information and the guidance they need, in other words the support they need to do it, whether that’s information support, structural support like giving them a plan, or emotional support – the you-can-do-it, rah-rah stuff. A good coach is someone who facilitates rather than imposes their will. A good coach is someone who’s able to bring out the best in people, so you’re able to locate that nugget of whatever someone is good at and develop it into something greater. A good coach doesn’t try to turn an endurance athlete into a sprinter, they recognize that the person is a really good endurance athlete and they steer them towards that. You identify the features that each person has, and you work to make those blossom. That’s how I see it.
PN: Can men and women be coached the same way, or are there differences they have to take into account?
KSD: I think that if you want to paint it in broad strokes, I think that men and women tend on average to respond to different things. But at the same time a good coach understands that everyone is an individual and that no two people are exactly equal. For example, I respond really well to what you might call a male style of coaching, which is the whole drill sergeant, alright-ladies-stop-your-crying, drop-and-give-me-fifty sort of thing. That’s the sort of coaching I like. Although on the other hand, while I don’t need someone to hold my hand, I have had coaches who have had a gentler style, which also really worked well for me. So I think a lot of it is about the individual. Coaches do have to be cognizant of gender differences, however. For example, a coach who coaches women should never comment on their weight. Just don’t go there. They should understand that in general it’s a sensitive issue. On the other hand, though, let’s say you’re coaching a specialized group of women, like boxers. Every one of them knows their body weight, and they don’t give a shit about it. They know they fight at 175 or whatever, and they don’t have those same issues. So there’s a negotiation between social values and individual attributes, I would say.
PN: Alright, a few more quick questions. One: can a guy pick up a girl in a women’s studies class?
KSD: [Laughs.] Well, jeez, why not, your playing field is going to be huge! They’ll see you as a snag, you’d be this new age guy or whatever, so why not? [Laughs.]
KSD: [Laughs.] Oh God. I’m more of an ‘e’ person myself. You know, it’s so funny, I just did an interview for the National Post yesterday. The University of Waterloo has just changed its Women’s Center from ‘y’ to ‘e’. And they called me up as an expert commentator on the significance of that shift. [Laughs.] It was rather bizarre actually.
PN: What’s the common denominator among people who achieve great things?
KSD: There are probably lots. Great things don’t happen by accident. Yes, it helps to have an intrinsic predisposition. No one ever won a gold medal in the Olympics who wasn’t genetically suited for it. But in general, great things come from a lot of good, or okay, or even bad things – reiterated over and over, and over and over again. Times a billion. [Laughs.] There’s this myth that a great thing is a one-time deal. But the achievement is just the tip of the iceberg, it’s less than 1% of what took place. So it’s doing a lot of little things, doing them well, and if you do them poorly, learning from them and remedying them the next time. But above all it’s the knowledge that the great things don’t happen by accident.
PN: If you had a dream client, what kind of attitude would you want them to have?
KSD: Oh, I can actually think of a couple of dream clients I’ve had. Both of them were boxers. They’re willing to bust their ass. They’re willing to do what I tell them. It’s a combination of self-reliance and handing themselves over to me. So they’re willing to put their trust in me, and follow my advice completely. They’re willing to say, “I trust that you have the expertise I need,” but at the same time they’re willing to advocate for themselves, ask questions, and ultimately do the work. So a dream client would certainly be a hard-working one. And one who enters into it with abandon. They’re just gung-ho, let’s go, give ‘er. That to me is a total dream client. You don’t have to work through issues like, “What if I get too big,” “I don’t like fish,” whatever. They’re just willing to trust you and to go for it.
PN: Krista, this has been great. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview, and to design the awesome program you’ve put together for the Precision Nutrition members. We really appreciate it.