Physical Disobedience

An Unruly Guide to Health and Stamina for the Modern Feminist


By Sarah Hays Coomer

Read by Sarah Hays Coomer

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A manual for activism that begins with our most powerful asset — our bodies

Even as a wave of renewed feminism swells, too many women continue to starve, stuff, overwork, or neglect our bodies in pursuit of paper-thin ideals. “Fitness” has been co-opted by the beauty industry. We associate it with appearance when we should associate it with power.

Grounded in advocacy with a rowdy, accessible spirit, Physical Disobedience asserts that denigrating our bodies is, in practice, an act of submission to inequality. But when we strengthen ourselves — taking broad command of our individual physicality — we reclaim our authority and build stamina for the literal work of activism: the protests, community service, and emotional resilience it takes to face the news and stay engaged.

Physical Disobedience introduces a breathtaking new perspective on wellness by encouraging nonviolence toward our bodies, revitalizing them through diet and exercise, fashion and social media, alternative therapies, music, and motherhood. The goal is no longer to keep our bodies in check. The goal is to ignite them, to set them free, and have a mighty fine time doing it.


Author’s Note

The names and identifying details of people mentioned by first name only in this book have been changed to protect the innocent. Body baggage can be a dirty business, but the stories that follow—the ones these anonymous souls were graciously willing to share—have steadied me and readied me to be a crime-fighting, bullshit-bashing, comfy-cozy-wearing ninja. Named or unnamed, they will do the same for you.




Strange Beauty

It’s picture time, ladies! Smile pretty! Suck it in. Keep it tight. Arms on hips. Twist your body. Bend those knees. You know how we do. If you’re small enough and easy enough on the eyes and ears, you’ll blend right in.

Nope. Not anymore. We’re in the middle of a heavy lift here, and we’re going to need our legs under us.

There is precisely zero chance we will be able to achieve equal stature while chronically apologizing for our own perfectly healthy, unconventionally beautiful bodies.

Women have made enormous progress over the last two hundred years for gender equality and human rights. The feminist activists who came before us deserve ticker tape parades and a series of provocative documentary films in their honor. Sojourner Truth, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Diane Nash, and countless others were unrepentant revolutionaries, doing the dirtiest work long before our time. They were bold and relentless—and they deserve better than what we are doing to our bodies today. They deserve us at our strongest. We’ve come a long way, but after all this time, we remain enshrined in hourglass, whisper-thin ideals perpetuated not only by the media but by our own acquiescence.

We have a mountain of work yet to do on a whole range of issues. You know the ones: equal pay, affordable health care, stronger gun laws, paid family leave, equal representation in government and business, criminal justice, financial reform, support for immigrant and refugee families, environmental conservation, preventing violence against women, minorities, and the disabled, and on and on. It’s a hell of a list.

We understand the work that needs to be done to advance human rights on a macro level. Movements are taking shape worldwide. Women of every ethnicity are running for office and standing up for disenfranchised people in all walks of life, but if we aren’t grounded in our bodies in the first place, none of it will stick. As foot soldiers, we must do the work, on a micro level, to shift the conversations in our own minds and to feed our bodies.

Women are, and will continue to be, at the heart of progressive change throughout the world. We vote in greater numbers than men. We invest tirelessly in our own educations and those of our kids, and we advocate for public health and safety policies that benefit the community as a whole. But before we can make seismic professional, economic, and sociological changes, we have to squeeze out of our Spanx and remember how it feels to breathe—with sweat in our eyes, air in our lungs, and music pouring boldly from our speakers.

This book is a manual for how to bring our activism home, into our bodies, by way of pleasurable, purposeful self-care.

Physical Disobedience is any action that feeds, strengthens, or nurtures our bodies as a direct, unapologetic act of defiance. It is fierce appreciation for what our bodies can do, how they feel, and how they look in all of their “imperfect” glory. It’s a concrete, immediately impactful way to push back that benefits each of us as individuals while simultaneously effecting positive, social change. In other words, taking care of our bodies is a form of political action.

Physical Disobedience is about refusing to acquiesce, refusing to allow our bodies to be objectified by others, and taking a hard look at how we objectify them ourselves. It is feminism via fitness. We know how to care for the people we love. We need to make sure our own bodies are cared for as well, and that requires a hefty dose of appreciation and exploration. There is too much at stake. Our bodies make our work possible. Reducing them to decorative trinkets reduces our impact and destroys our experience of being alive.

What do beauty, health, and power look like? According to popular memes, they look like pouty lips and bony shoulders. These images are well defined for us. They are the driving force behind the contorted rituals we inflict on ourselves in the name of glamour, but chronic dieting and unrelenting feelings of failure are the furthest thing from beautiful. They are ugly and damaging, and they sap us of vital energy.

The notions imbedded in our minds about our bodies not measuring up, and all the menial tasks we must undertake to make them submit, eat away at our ability to do what needs to be done.

If we want to move on to the next phase of humanity where women have at least a 50 percent share in governance from the school board to the presidency—because duh—we need to surgically remove these notions, one at a time, learning as we go to hear the physical messages being transmitted through our body systems—of pain, anxiety, fear, and fatigue—and address them head on with endorphins and fresh air, rather than burying them in fad diets or cinnamon crumb cake.


The summer after I graduated from college I spent sunny afternoons in a dark, one-room apartment, staring at my body in a plastic, full-length mirror that was stuck to my closet door with double-sided tape. The bottom left corner was always detaching from the door. I nudged it with my toe, and it would stick for a moment before—pop—coming loose again.

When I engaged in this charming self-analysis, I was usually wearing some incarnation of faded polyester lace underwear and no bra. I faced the mirror head on, eyes narrow, stance wide, and let my breath go, watching flesh spill out over the elastic edges of my panties.

I took stock. Boobs sagging. Belly rolls. Disgusting thighs. I can’t believe I’m wasting my life in this body.

I picked up my camera and snapped photos, front and side. I wished someone were there to take a picture of my cellu-butt, but no such luck. Probably for the best. Nobody wants to see that anyway.

I printed the pictures out and posted them on the refrigerator door. Gross. I figured if I could see for myself how revolting I was, I would find the motivation to do something about it.

I was twenty-two years old, five foot seven inches, 155 pounds. Seriously.

That boring, overworked pattern went on for years. I took on diets and “challenges” to get my appetite and “body fat” under control. I planned workouts that sometimes happened, sometimes not, and cooked a bunch of vegetables that generally ended up in the trash a week later, slimy in Tupperware.

I hovered a hair-trigger above a state of panic, like SpongeBob SquarePants having a nervous breakdown at the sight of cake or fries or food of any kind.

Even when I lost weight, the result never seemed beautiful. It never fit the image I had in my head of how I was supposed to look, how a powerful, confident woman should look—thin, graceful, cheekbones for days, narrow limbs, and a liquid stare.

That woman haunted me, a ghostly image I cobbled together from the usual suspects: billboards, movies, and fashion magazines. She hovered in my mind in every clothing store and at every buffet I attended from the age of fifteen to thirty-five, reminding me in no uncertain terms that I did not measure up. Her giant eyes, baggy sweaters, and skinny jeans beckoned: “You can be beautiful if you just control yourself. Deprive yourself a little more. Find the right boots and lipstick, the right super-cute workout gear, and you will have arrived. You’re a wreck. Lose the weight.”

It was whiplash, predictable and pointless: weight loss and gain, cleanses, makeovers, diets, and half-hearted attempts at trending fashions. The obsession with manipulating my body in one way or another monopolized my bank account, my free time, and my brain year after famished year.

My body was fine. It was more than fine. It was young and strong, but I spent two decades weakening it while shortchanging every other aspect of my life. The fight took me to my knees in front of toilets. It plagued me with stomach ulcers and depression. It prevented me from speaking my mind in social situations and asserting myself in professional ones, and it stopped me from exploring pleasures and possibilities that would otherwise have been open to me.

I’ve tried to guess how many hours a day, in the thick of those years, I spent feeling awkward in my clothes and obsessing about food or exercise, but truthfully, I don’t think there was any time at all when my body and its inadequacies weren’t at least a little bit on my mind.

I’ve tried to calculate what difference it might have made in my career, relationships, income, and mental and physical health if those years had been spent differently.

But there is no going back to those summer afternoons in my discount underwear. I can’t recapture the time that was lost. I can’t reach out to lovers I drove away by putting down my body and looking to them for reassurance. I can’t retrieve mislaid job opportunities and vanished friendships.

It has been eighteen years since that summer in front of the mirror, and I’m relieved to have spent much of that time peeling off sheets of soot and ash covering my eyes—one brittle, filmy layer at a time.

I didn’t become a personal trainer to lose weight or to get ultra fit. I have never been to a 6 a.m. boot camp, and I have never run more than a 5K. I still eat all the treats my temperamental stomach will allow in reasonable portions. I’m able to steer clear of the guilt-driven binges that used to torment me because I know that tomorrow and the day after that I’ll have the chance to enjoy food again. There is no need to stuff myself when I’m not playing a daily game of deprivation and negotiation.

I became a personal trainer because I wanted to extend an olive branch to my body, to find a way to live with it, and through it, gratefully. I couldn’t bear the thought of an entire lifetime spent hating the physical vehicle that I could not, under any circumstances, escape. So I set out to mend my body (and my opinion of it) and became a trainer for people like me, people who want to make peace with their bodies and get stronger and more powerful along the way.

Working with my personal training clients has taught me what beauty actually looks like, and it’s not at all what I thought. It is strange and mysterious. It is honest, well-worn, and radiant.

I had no idea how far removed I was from true beauty and feminine power until I could begin to see them for what they are, but I can tell you now, with eyes almost clear, that it’s mighty fine on the other side of that illusion.

A journalist asked me once how I justify being a personal trainer when I talk so much about treating bodies of all sizes as intuitive, bright resources for leadership and connection. She thought that because I’m a trainer, my job is to help people mold their bodies “into shape.” In a way, she was right. I do help people mold their bodies, but not into any particular shape. I’m not trying to make them fit any picture that has ever been printed anywhere. I’m helping them discover what their bodies feel like when they are able to stand up, know their own worth, and stop diminishing what they have to offer. And that can come at any weight.


Leonard Cohen wrote, “When you call me close to tell me your body is not beautiful, I want to summon the eyes and hidden mouths of stone and light and water to testify against you.”1

When I see capable, intelligent human beings belittling themselves based on looking not fill-in-the-blank enough, I want to testify. Actually, I want to scream. Assuming they’re not cruel, self-involved people, the only ugly thing about them is their unceasing tendency to undervalue their bodies and contributions.

Every time you knock yourself down a notch because your hair isn’t straight enough or your backside isn’t small enough, you are laying waste to mental energy that could be spent doing something useful or enjoyable—or doing nothing at all but listening to the birds chirp and watching clouds float by. A lifetime spent merely enduring your body squanders your power and forfeits your capacity for contentment. But a lifetime spent living into and through your body frees you to be a whole person, with valid needs and concerns, regardless of the size you wear or the uniqueness of your individual style.

When my clients deride themselves for not measuring up to the images in their own minds, when they shrink from personal and professional growth because they believe their bodies disqualify them from advancement, I ache, again, to testify to the extraordinary strength I see in them. They are intelligent and wise and ridiculous, and I adore them.

When I ask them about the women they love—about their mothers, sisters, partners, and best friends—they testify. They tell me about perseverance, intelligence, and humor. But when dealing with their own bodies, the grace they offer their loved ones dissolves in a swamp of irrelevant criteria that they apply to no one but themselves.

Beauty has nothing to do with the pursuit of “perfection.” Beauty is found in authenticity, empathy, play, and passion. It is found in our humanity—bodies at work, limber and awake, free and unbowed.

But most of us can’t see any of that. All we can see are the numbers on the scale, the pictures on the fridge, the dieting apps on our phones, and the plastic mirrors taped to the door—pop—day after day, year after year.

We’re trying to look like something that has nothing to do with who we are, and that’s not beautiful. It’s a prison sentence for every woman who has ever been disregarded, underpaid, assaulted, or ignored.

Nip and tuck, ladies, or lose your place in line.

We have been looking for validation in the wrong places all along, and that backward search has cost us dearly, stripping us of opportunities, cold hard cash, and well-deserved confidence. Worst of all, it has led us to exploit, control, and shun our bodies—which makes us sick, body and mind. And feeling sick keeps us quiet. It keeps us distracted and dependent on somebody else for approval. It keeps us grumpy when we should be having the time of our lives while our bodies are younger than they will ever be again.

The reasons we have pursued diet and exercise have been misguided at best and destructive at worst. The big, illusive promise of achieving some kind of skin-and-bones victory over ourselves is a lie. I’ve lost the weight, and I’ve seen a lot of other people lose it, too. That alone doesn’t do the trick. Skinny doesn’t make for happy, folks.

When we find new, powerful, healthy ways to be in our bodies—large or small—we are beautiful and free, but when we throw everything we have into defeating our bodies, we find nothing but an empty void at the bottom of a bone-dry well. And we wake up skinny and parched. Or, more likely, fat and parched.

Being thin doesn’t legitimize us. Caring about something and doing something about it does. Celebrating and commiserating with friends and lovers does. Using whatever energy we can muster to make a difference for somebody who needs a boost—that’s where legitimacy comes from.

So what does beauty look like?

It looks like Lisa, who spends her days as a social worker in underfunded public schools. Lisa goes to work every day under an avalanche of bureaucracy. Many of her students suffer on the streets or in abusive homes. She comforts them the best she can and goes home at night to two kids of her own. She ruminates on what more she can do to give her students a little bit more of a shot, to expose and heal the bigotry they face on a daily basis. She spends her weekends sponsoring birthday parties for foster kids who want to be an astronaut or a princess for the day and throwing baby showers for teenage moms she mentors. During football season, she eats brisket and tacos every chance she gets while cheering on her beloved Longhorns.

Lisa is beauty.

It looks like Janine, who runs operations for a major entertainment company in Hollywood, California, while raising a daughter and stepson. She is a former hellion who somehow found herself president of her daughter’s elementary school PTA. She has opened her arms to a family of three generations living next door in a two-bedroom house. She lets the whole neighborhood full of kids and grandkids run roughshod through her home every day, feeding them and giving them a safe place to crash when pressurized family dynamics explode. She is a fierce defender of women’s and LGBTQ rights, a hiker, and a one-woman wrecking ball against the anti-vaccine movement.

Janine is beauty.

It looks like Amber, a forty-five-year-old physician who has worked her entire career to achieve a place of professional respect that allows her to choose which committees to chair, which research projects to pursue, and which causes to support. When a colleague ignored her repeated insistence that she was not interested in doing his work for him (and giving him the credit), she wrote a scathing letter to him and his superior outlining exactly what her interests were; how she planned to spend her time in the coming months; and when she would be unavailable on vacation. They acquiesced. She had done the work. She knew her value. She recognized when she was being disrespected, and she called bullshit.

Amber is beauty.

And it looks like Janay Jumping Eagle, a Native American student at Little Wound High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation near the Badlands of South Dakota. Her Lakota tribe suffered from a rash of teen suicides in recent years, and she took matters into her own hands, by reaching out to kids who were coming up in grades behind her with an event called There Is Hope. The event featured a basketball tournament, food for the kids (many of whom can’t afford a full meal every day), suicide prevention booths, and first-person storytelling from parents who lost their children.

Janay said, “After losing so many friends and family members, I just wanted to make a positive impact on my community. I wanted other people to know that there are people who care and who will help with whatever they need. I was just thinking what can I do? What do these kids like to do the most? And I thought of basketball. I knew the kids were safe and happy playing basketball. They were smiling at the end of the day, and that’s all I wanted. The suicide rate dropped after that, so I think it worked. I like that I was a part of that. I just wanted to help.”

She appeared in a 2017 documentary called Little Wounds’ Warriors.2 She is just a seventeen-year-old kid, growing up in a tribe steeped in poverty, alcoholism, and cultural injustice, but she understands viscerally that healing can come from moving our bodies and connecting with our communities.

Janay is beauty.

Whatever the shape of our flesh, the color of our skin, or the “imperfections” we perceive in ourselves, there is nothing that matters more than being as connected and present as we can and as astonished as we can to be alive and well. The more we live into our passions, the more we settle into our bodies and the more our bodies begin to serve our purposes.

Physical Disobedience is about defiance, but it is not about anger. Above all else, it’s a celebration of rowdy women and an exploration of how to harness our physical and emotional prowess for good. It’s a salute to smarts, goofiness, softness, and muscle.

There is power in unconventional beauty and even more power in recognizing it.

Our bodies need not comply. They belong to us. They are the greatest tools we have to enhance and reinforce every aspect of our lives, and it is long past time to write our own definitions of beauty, for ourselves.


“Mom! Run!” My son shouted, “We have to go around three times without falling!” We were standing on a concrete track that borders a field behind a school near our house. We took off and made it three-quarters of the way around before he declared breathlessly, “And we can walk whenever we need to, Ma.”

I hadn’t run in months. I don’t like running, never have, but for my little guy on the first spring afternoon of the year, for that moment, I would do anything. So we ran. We paused to walk for a minute before he took off again, leaving me with my thoughts, I can’t believe they want to slash funding for the Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA).3 I mean who the hell doesn’t want addicts in every town in America getting off opioids?! Despair washed over me—bleak and abrasive—but my son caught my eye up ahead with an impish smile, and I was off again.

Chest out, running uphill in flatfooted Converse, it dawned on me. This is it. This is the plan. When the horror show of partisanship, racism, misogyny, and class warfare descends, my reaction, every time, needs to be to run up hills, a few thousand feet until I can breathe and see the sky again; or drop for a set of impromptu park bench push-ups; or whip up a few servings of curried cauliflower with almonds and golden raisins, for the first time ever.

The balms that will heal our bodies and minds—and give us the strength to shovel the truckloads of short-sighted, asinine, toxic waste arriving daily at our doorsteps—are oxygen and vital nutrients, the building blocks of our human bodies.

Each step and every healthy bite takes us closer to well-being, closer to raw, unrepentant liberty at home, at work, in our neighborhoods, and within the confines of our own minds.

When you can’t breathe for the state of the news and your muscles ache from grief pulsing just below the surface of your skin, defy the urge to placate yourself with sugar and screens. Lash out against the people and policies causing you pain by activating your body and claiming your physical space. It doesn’t matter if you are wheelchair bound or muscle bound. Whatever the state of your body, begin each day with naked appreciation for your unkempt hair, your biceps, quadriceps, and the intercostal muscles that enable your ribs to breathe in and out. Make time to move for the sake of personal liberty. Dress in clothes that feel dynamic and easy, and practice sitting, walking, and standing in ways that feel expansive—deviant even. Disobey the rules you’ve embraced that dictate how you carry yourself through the world, and uproot your habitual responses to adversity.

With political and personal fires cropping up all over the horizon, your job is to make sure you’re hydrated, well-rested, equipped with protective gear, and ready with a pick ax to build an impenetrable fireline—knowing all along that you’ve never been more beautiful or more powerful. This book will help you suit up.

We have to stop apologizing for our bodies, and we will only be able to do that when we associate beauty with purpose. Effortlessly.

True beauty is ours for the taking. To begin reclaiming it, we must be able to stand up, tall and grounded—and for that, we will need the muscles at our core. We will need our hearts and lungs to process air as efficiently as possible; legs ready to catapult us forward; and arms robust enough to lift whatever needs lifting. We will need our strength in whatever capacity each of us can manage. And we will need each other—including and especially the compelling, brave, wholehearted, and provocative men who have our backs.

There is power in our bodies and in our numbers.

And the best part is, we can walk whenever we need to.

There is precisely zero chance we will be able to achieve equal stature while chronically apologizing for our own perfectly healthy, unconventionally beautiful bodies.


Holding On to Air

Standing on the sidewalk on a sunny, early-summer afternoon, the kid from next door came tumbling over to me, all long limbs and panting breath. “Did you know you can’t hold on to air??” she asked.

“I did know that!” I replied, “you try and grab it, but, DAHH!, it slips away.” We tried and failed and tried even harder, but no—we couldn’t hold on to air. Sorely disappointed though we were, we shrugged it off and parted ways until next time.

In the days following that astute observation from mini-Yoda next door, I began to catch myself—with alarming regularity—holding on to air, attempting to control the uncontrollable. I grasped and grabbed and lurched in an impossible effort to “get a handle” on various situations. But trying to hold on to air is like trying to hold on to summer or, of course, beauty. It can’t be done. As soon as you try to grab it or re-create it, it slips beyond your grasp.


  • "Finally- a health and fitness manifesto for the rest of us!"
    -- Jessamyn Stanley, author of Every Body Yoga: Let Go of Fear, Get on The Mat, Love Your Body
  • "At times shocking, at times laugh out loud funny, and at times hugely enlightening and insightful,Physical Disobedience will help set you on the right tracks towards health and happiness-and provide you with plenty of practical tips and know-how on how best to stay there. We live in a world where it's all too easy to hold yourself accountable to impossibly high standards, and this book helps remind us it's OK to be us, to be happy in our bodies however they might look or whatever they might do."
    -- Emma-Kate Lidbury, professional triathlete and six-time Ironman 70.3 champion
  • "From playground to hospice, Physical Disobedience dives in to the intrinsic value of human bodies at work and at play-championing women's bodies, in particular, as uniquely powerful in their diversity. This book decodes the many ways physiological fluency can support both happiness and progress. A must read for any man or woman who strives to stand on equal footing with everyone, regardless of gender."
    --Daniel Pink, New York Times bestselling author of When and Drive
  • "In this spirited mixture of fitness guide and self-help, personal trainer Coomer argues that women can better fight injustice by keeping strong and fit, arguing that 'taking care of our bodies is a form of political action.'"—Publishers Weekly
  • "A critically important, exceptionally informative, deftly crafted, impressively insightful book that should be a 'must read' for every woman of every age who is concerned with their physical appearance or who has suffered under any number of fad diets trying for that 'perfect' physique."—Midwest Book Review
  • "There is hope in this book. Physical Disobedience is a dystopian survival guide, a feminist's manual that debunks, redefines, and brings true beauty and health into the light."—Mary Gauthier

On Sale
Aug 21, 2018
Hachette Audio

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Sarah Hays Coomer

About the Author

Sarah Hays Coomer is a Mayo Clinic and National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach, a Certified Personal Trainer with the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and a Certified Nutrition and Wellness Consultant with the American Fitness Professionals & Associates. Sarah is the author of three books: The Habit Trip: A Fill-in-the-Blank Journey to a Life on Purpose (Running Press, 2020), Physical Disobedience (Seal Press, 2018) and Lightness of Body and Mind (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). Her work has been featured in Thrive Global, The Wall Street Journal, Utne Reader, Huffington Post, Bustle, and The Tennessean, among others. She has spoken at organizations and universities nationwide including Google, Vanderbilt University, the Nashville Women’s March 2019, The University of the South, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, Confluence, and the Girls to the Moon Conference. Sarah lives in Nashville, TN with her husband, son, and two rescue dogs, Ringo and Moon.

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