accessibility · aging · body image · disability · fitness · inclusiveness · injury

Fitness, Inclusion, and Intersectionality

20130530-172659.jpgI’ve been thinking a lot lately about fitness, exclusion, and inclusion as I prepare my part of a symposium Sam and I have organized. It’s a joint session of the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy (CSWIP) and the Canadian Philosophical Association (CPA), held at the annual Congress of the Federation of Social Sciences and Humanities (CFSSH), this year in Victoria BC.

The topic of the symposium is fitness and feminism. Besides my contribution on inclusive fitness, Sam will be presenting on the role of gender norms in sports, and we have two colleagues from other universities presenting, one on a feminist analysis of “strippercize” as a fitness trend, the other on women marital artists, self-confidence, and femininity.

When we first began to blog, I wrote about inclusive fitness and noted that if we were to count on media representations to tell us who gets to be active, go to the gym, and so forth, we would think only folks who work out are young people, mostly white, and all with strong, youthful bodies.

My main concern at that time was the preoccupation with youth and with a particular lean aesthetic–muscular for men, slender or even thin for women. But I now believe the issue runs deeper than that.

In feminist discourse we talk a lot about intersectional analyses. The intersectional approach recognizes the obvious fact that people have multiple features. Gender and age are just two of them. People, whatever their gender or age, are also disabled or non-disabled, members of racial and ethnic groups, have different incomes, sexualities, and social status, and all of these combine to create unique experiences and unique forms of oppression.

Talking about intersectional identities is one thing, but actually representing them adequately at the level of theory is not as easy. We often falsely contrast the categories, for example, we might refer to women and people with disabilities, as if no women have disabilities or no disabled people are also women.

Many feminist theorists have pointed out that this kind of talk leads to exclusion. It is the perceived lack of an intersectional approach that has led people to criticize feminist theory and practice for being concerned almost exclusively with the so-called problems of privileged, well-to-do white women in the Western world. That’s hardly representative of “women” as a group. And there has been a lot of feminist theoretical work done to try to develop more inclusive approaches and analyses.

Inclusiveness and intersectionality go hand in hand. An inclusive approach to fitness would therefore represent a broad range of people rather than focusing only on non-disabled young people who have the kinds of bodies that we think of as “fit.”

When media does represent athletes with disabilities, they usually draw attention only to elite Olympians. When they represent older people engaging in fitness activities, it’s usually a special interest article that is specifically about working out and ageing.

Lately, I’ve been amazed and pleased to see some of the fitness slideshows on the Livestrong website becoming more inclusive with respect to older people. For example, in a recent article on 20 Ways to Instantly Improve Your Life, they present a much more inclusive representation of people in the photos.

They include black and white people, as well as one woman visibly over 55 who looks likes she’s just finished working really hard. None of the slides specifically draws attention to race or age. It’s just assumed, as rightly it ought to be, that all sorts of people are interested in improving their health and fitness. The diversity is offered as a matter of course, rather than as tokenizing or fulfilling a quota.

What I was unable to find despite extensive internet searches were representations of disabled people. I will be blogging more about this in a future post, but I am increasingly concerned with the level to which fitness discourse is ableist in ways that remain completely overlooked and invisible to most of us (myself included).

And yet surely at least some people with physical disabilities of various kinds (just as at least some without disabilities) are interested in remaining active in the capacity that they are able to do so? A truly inclusive account of fitness would not always be premised on the assumption that only non-disabled folks are interested in using the gym or the pool or the basketball court or the track.

And it would not assume that only elite disabled athletes engage in sports.  And it wouldn’t assume that everyone can run or even that everyone can walk and would acknowledge that some people do not have the option not to sit.

There is an enormous variety of physical ability in the general population, and yet representations of fitness activities in the media pretty much never reflect that variety.

One of the most inclusive physical pursuits I participate in is Iyengar yoga. In an Iyengar yoga class, it is assumed from the start that not everyone is able to achieve the “final pose.” The method introduces props such as blocks and ropes, straps and bolsters, blankets and chairs, among other things, to make up for what people are unable to do.

Moreover, for people who are either permanently or temporarily (due to injury or illness) unable to take a regular class, many Iyengar yoga studios offer special needs classes where individual programs are designed for students and they receive careful attention from the instructor.

It’s a good model for an inclusive, intersectional approach where every effort is made to provide an accessible experience to people with a range of abilities, and of different ages, shapes, and sizes. No assumption that you have a thin, flexible “yoga body.” No assumption that you can reach the floor in a forward bend. And what’s more, they pay careful attention to what you can and cannot reasonably be expected to do.

The Y is another inclusive fitness space where a variety of abilities, shapes, sizes, socio-economic groups, ages, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations are welcomed and appreciated.  This is one of the reasons I love going there more than any other gym in the city.

These are just some of the thoughts that have been going through my head as I prepare for my presentation next week on inclusive fitness.  I’m painfully aware that I myself do not present a thoroughly intersectional and inclusive analysis in all of my blog posts. But this is something that I am becoming more conscious of and I am doing my best to do better.

14 thoughts on “Fitness, Inclusion, and Intersectionality

  1. Surprisingly there’s some good imagery around disability associated with CrossFit. Just image search CrossFit +wheelchair, for example. See also Accessing Athleticism, this piece on redesigning CrossFit,–207113921.html. In a way it’s well suited to disabled athletes since it’s all about challenging you at the level you’re at. You might worry about some of the imagery being too “heroic” or “motivational” but there’s no shortage of pictures of people with disabilities of various sorts doing CrossFit.

  2. Excellent post! -and where you’re heading personally, very cool, Tracy.

  3. Hi! This is the first post of yours I’ve read (it was shared on Facebook by Fit and Feminist)- really interesting! Discussing individuals with disabilities being physically active and intersectionality made me think of a week-long athletic competition in Montreal for athletes with disabilities ( I volunteered with this event for the first time this year. There is so much diversity in the world of disabled sport (and categorizing levels of disability to meet eligibility requirements for different categories of competition is quite a process) and this event intersects that world. Throughout the week, there are international competitions sanctioned by the paralympic committee in sports like fencing and sitting volleyball that attract athletes from over 20 countries, there are several divisions of wheelchair basketball competitions, from club recreational to the Canadian championships, there are several days of elementary and high school competitions for students, there are multiple soccer competitions, from powerchair soccer to a 7-aside competition for athletes who are ambulant but may have a range of other disabilities (eg. hearing impairment). A great example of intersectionality within the world of disabled sport. The event gets publicity in Montreal (but not as much as it should!).

    1. This is all really good to hear. I’m going to look into that world of sports. As you say, it’s unfortunate that it doesn’t get more coverage. Thank you for your comment.

  4. My nephew wanted to attend a bodybuilding competition at the Metro Convention Centre this weekend and so I went with him. Two very interesting matters to comment on: (1) there is a wheelchair division of bodybuilding that some people are trying to make more well-known and more mainstream. I had no clue earlier that such a division even existed!; and (2) the most heavily muscled and defined woman did not win her division. A more feminine-looking woman won. While I am hardly qualified to judge such an event, I know when “looks” matter. The most heavily muscled woman ought to have won, but she did not because she was unattractive to say the least, by “normal” standards. All that work this woman put in to becoming what she is today! And even in a bodybuilding contest, she faces prejudice for not being good enough looking or feminine enough!

    1. Happy to hear about the wheelchair division. The situation with the woman with the most muscle and most definition is sad. No change since Bev Francis lost out in pumping Iron 2. Fascinating discussion in that film of standards for judging female bodybuilding.

  5. Never even heard of Pumping Iron 2. Thanks. Going to look into that .

    1. Just looked at pictures of Bev Francis and the other women competing in the 1980’s. All the women competing are now more like Bev. Rachel McLish would by today’s standards have more of a chance as a participant in the women’s figure division, and no chance of even competing in the bodybuilding division. But the problem is still the same, in many ways. Bev Francis was far more physically “attractive” than the muscular woman who only came in 3rd at the event I recently saw. And the women that won was as muscular if not more muscular than Bev Francis, but she was much more attractive and still had the general “dimensions” of a women in terms of chest to waist to hip ratios – in other words, while extremely muscular, she was sexy. The women who ought to have won but instead came in third, was not sexy at all. So – It’s still “sexiness” that matters in the sport, unfortunately.

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