body image · fitness

How Critical Are You about Your Fitness Info?

Think for YourselfWe’ve got a few common themes that run through many of our blog posts.  One stand-out springs from Sam and my shared disposition to take a critical view of a lot of what we see, read, and hear about fitness. It’s that disposition that led us to become professional philosophers in the first place.

Our feminism adds a particular social/political spin to the types of critiques that are salient to us.  Add to that our enthusiasm for fitness and a pending milestone birthday (less than 18 months to go!), and the result is this blog and the “fittest by fifty” project that fuels it.

As a graduate student, my housemate and I subscribed to Shape magazine.  We were philosophy students, but we didn’t ask many questions about what we read in the pages of Shape.  Even though from month to month there might even be contradictory claims, we just sloughed it off and moved on, taking in everything we thought we could use and modifying our workouts and diets to respond to “new research findings.” I even gave up swimming back then because of something I read in the magazine about how swimmers have more trouble losing fat. It wasn’t even based on a full article — just one of those little snippets that they put in capsule form at the beginning of the magazine. Sad.

I’ve posted before about the fallacy of the appeal to authority. But there are other good reasons to ask questions about both the received view and any new research.

Over time, science does yield different and we hope better information about what we need. For example, where BMI used to be seen as a better health indicator than body weight alone,  it’s now routine to question the merits of BMI. Where restrictive dieting coupled with exercise used to be (and perhaps still is) the main recommendation for people who are thought to be overweight or out of shape, now we hear more about the importance of metabolic health.  In essence, we now know that severely restricting calories can damage the metabolism so that it almost grinds to a halt.

Since not everyone is a scientist, we do need to rely on the findings of science. The mistake I made back when I dropped swimming after reading one article was to base my decision on the very latest scientific findings, culled by a Shape reporter from (I’m guessing) one peer review article, condensed into sound byte form on the pages of a glossy magazine.  That’s really not enough on which to draw a solid conclusion about swimming.

Feminist philosophers and critics of science have launched compelling critiques of scientific methods and experiments on which much of our health data has been based. In her post about Intermittent Fasting, Sam notes her shock at discovering that

“for all I’d heard IF touted as good for people, most of the research supporting IF had been done on men. Surprise, surprise. For the effects of fasting specifically on women you need to read about studies with rats and mice, and the news isn’t good. Women, it seems (well at least female rats and mice) don’t get the same benefits from fasting and they suffer some additional ill effects.”

Her interjection of “surprise, surprise” comes as no surprise to those who have studied the history of health research in even the most rudimentary way.  Historically, the vast majority of important health research was conducted on male subjects alone. Then, based on those studies, researchers drew conclusions that were supposed to apply gender-neutrally to all people.

But that’s not such a great idea, given that men and women have quite different bodies. As in the case of intermittent fasting research and dieting more generally, some practices might have different affects on men than they do on women.

Feminist critics have also pointed out that, historically, far fewer women have been engaged in the practice of science (as scientists). The exclusion of women as subjects skews the findings, making them inappropriate bases on which to draw conclusions about women. But how does the exclusion of women as practitioners make a difference?

One kind of difference it might make is in the questions that get asked.  If we assume that our gendered existence has an impact on the way we experience the world, having mostly men do the research on health and fitness (even on women’s health and fitness) may not yield the same sorts of questions that having women doing the research might yield.

Moreover, since scientific research is an empirical undertaking, any evidence drawn from trials and experiments must be interpreted. Though objectivity is of course a goal, it’s easy for the scientists’ biases to enter into their interpretations of the data. Just as our experience of the world might nudge us in the direction of different questions, so might our experience of the world nudge us in the direction of different answers.

The feminist critics of science also challenge the epistemological hierarchy that privileges the opinions of experts and gives them an exalted authority on which the rest of us, in our ignorance, must rely.  When we defer in this way to the authority of the experts, we give them a lot of power.  Again, I think of Dr. Oz and the disproportionate influence his opinions have on the health practices of so many North Americans.

Back in the seventies, a collective of women in Boston recognized the gap in expertise between what they wanted and needed to know about women’s health and sexuality and what the medical establishment had to offer.  Their critical approach to their own health gave rise to the first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. It’s been through many updates and revisions, including a new edition in 2011.

I seek out blogs that are critical of the received views of women’s health and fitness for similar reasons as the original group who put together Our Bodies, Ourselves. Not all blogs are alike, and there are some that do offer interesting approaches that challenge some basic assumptions. Three of these are: Go Kaleo, Fit and Feminist, and Dances with Fat.

The majority of fitness blogs I see recommended on different lists of fitness blogs to read do not question basic assumptions. Rather than challenging weight loss is a major goal, or that achieving a certain “fit” aesthetic is what most people want, and that these two factors are major motivators for people, the vast majority of fitness blogs run with those very assumptions.

I want good information, but I want it from the perspective of others who seek to challenge the received views and the established authorities. This is not to say that I will accept any old thing I hear, or that I have no respect for good science.

But I think there are good reasons to reserve judgment on new research findings until there is a lot of solid evidence in its favour and we know it has proven to be the case for a range of test subjects. I think too that we should care whether some of the scientists doing the research are women, not just because women are smart and capable, but also because they might ask different questions that resonate more strongly with other women, and they might interpret the evidence differently than their male colleagues in ways that are significant, not just for science, but for me as woman who cares about my health and my level of fitness.

[image credit: Telling Secrets blog]

3 thoughts on “How Critical Are You about Your Fitness Info?

  1. Re: representation of women in scientific fields – truly saddening. When I was doing my undergrad, I briefly considered a career in research… until I completed a sociology course about science and technology. Women are so underemployed, underpaid, under appreciated, and unrepresented in scientific research, and we can only wonder what is being silenced, eclipsed from the view of the scientific lens, as a result.

    Re: “Shape”-type articles – I recently learned that my mother refuses to eat more than three macadamia nuts at a time, because she read in a magazine that three macadamia nuts contain the same amount of fat as a piece of bread. My brain nearly exploded.

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  2. Your science experience is, unfortunately, fairly common. But I’m told things are improving. Lots of science disciplines are (reportedly) engaged in active recruitment and trying to improve the atmosphere for women in science. It’s really quite bad in my discipline, philosophy, and we often cite stats that show we are now behind the sciences on gender equity.

    Stuff like the macadamia nut thing makes me so sad!
    Thanks for your comments.

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