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.

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