athletes · body image · diets · fat · fitness · stereotypes

Fitness as a Feminist Issue

Feminist-Coming-Out-DayOne criticism of this blog that I’ve encountered, mostly from anti-feminists in disguise, but also from some who take a feminist perspective on at least some issues, is that in scheme of issues facing women in the world, fitness just doesn’t rank all that high on the list.

Domestic violence and violence against women more generally, lack of representation of women, let alone a diversity of women, in positions of influence and power, global poverty and its disproportionate impact on women, the restricted options available to women where employment is concerned, all sorts of issues regarding differences of privilege and oppression among and between women–all of these issues arguably strike more deeply than sport and fitness.

A spate of harsh criticism and even ridicule came in the wake of my recent post on why we should replace “ladies” with “women” on locker room doors everywhere. Much of the criticism involved the claim that if this is what feminists are worrying about these days, then that’s proof enough that feminism has run out of things to complain about.

We’re at a philosophy conference (the Canadian Philosophical Association annual meeting) this week and so, in proper philosophical fashion, I’m feeling motivated to jump in and defend our position against this particular criticism. Why? Because it’s a criticism worth taking seriously and I believe there are a number of good ways to respond to it.

I don’t dispute the point that there are lots of pressing, and even lots of more pressing, feminist issues. In fact, I address lots of them in my research, teaching, and day to day life. I’ve been on a study leave this year, but in courses I taught before my leave and in courses I will teach when I return in September, the students and I covered such topics as: marriage and motherhood, reproductive technologies, disparities of power and privilege among women globally, and anti-racist feminist theory and practice. I write about collective action theory, and my recent book on moral responsibility includes a chapter on cultural ignorance, responsibility, and oppression.

Last year, a colleague and I co-organized a conference on gender and transitional justice in which distinguished scholars presented sophisticated work in philosophy and legal theory. I am currently co-editing a special issue of the Transitional Justice Review on the same topic. I’ve just completed a paper, forthcoming in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, in which responsibility for sexual violence against women figures prominently. I presented parts of that paper at a seminar the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health on a trip to Washington D.C. a couple of months ago.

My co-blogger, Sam, is equally engaged in feminist scholarship on a range of issues that have nothing to do with fitness. Her body of work is nothing short of impressive.

We are also both of us engaged daily in feminist practice, organized and not organized. And I don’t just mean lifting heavy weights and blogging about the ways in which fitness discourse, culture, and practice invites feminist analysis.

So the first point I want to make here is that we have no quarrel with the claim that feminist issues in fitness are not the only feminist issues there are. It’s obvious to both of us that there are lots of other concerns about gender equality and equality more generally that warrant (and get) our attention. Those who think that the post about “ladies” is meant to exhaust the things feminists have left to discuss have missed the mark.

Even in the context of all that we blog about here, it’s easy to see that that post was meant as a fairly light discussion of the more serious general issue of the subtle power of language. Similarly, the post about pink was meant to raise a more abstract question about the way social meanings of seemingly harmless things can stand as obstacles to equality. In feminist discourse we sometimes call it death by “a ton of feathers.”

Granted then that there are more important issues. That doesn’t mean that a feminist analysis of sport and fitness is so trivial that it warrants no attention. Some of the issues we raise on the blog call attention to significant impediments to women’s flourishing: fat shaming, body image, the tyranny of dieting, the narrow aesthetic ideal of femininity and how antithetical it is to athleticism, the sexualization of female athletes, women and competition, issues about entitlement, inclusion, and exclusion, the way expectations about achievement are gender variable, the harms of stereotyping.

What’s more, we also interrogate the very assumptions about what constitutes “fitness” in the first place. And in the future, as I start exploring disability theory in more depth, I will be asking more questions about the concept of “fitness,” its Darwinian origins, and thinking and talking more about ableism and non-disabled privilege. Discussions with philosopher, Shelley Tremain, have contributed to my thinking in these matters.

So I would also dispute the charge that there are no significant issues regarding feminism and fitness. And in many instances, sport and fitness provide us with microcosms of more general feminist concerns about power, privilege, entitlement, and socialization.

Despite that there are other pressing issues—many more urgent than fitness—facing feminists, I stand behind the blog tagline in which we declare that “fitness is a feminist issue.” Fitness is most certainly a feminist issue. Yet nowhere do we claim, nor would either of us ever claim, that fitness is the ONLY feminist issue.

If you happen to be at the Congress of the Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Science this week in Victoria BC and want to hear more feminist philosophical analysis of fitness, please join us at the joint session of the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy and the Canadian Philosophical Association on June 5th (tomorrow) in the Clearihue Building, room 109 from 9-noon.

24 thoughts on “Fitness as a Feminist Issue

  1. While there may be other feminist issues to be addressed, that does not negate the need for blogs like this one. By addressing the needs in the area of fitness, you are pushing for change. What may seem like a small change because it’s in the area of fitness can have a ripple effect and turn into a much larger change. It starts with one person who then passes the information along to a circle of friends who then pass it further along.

    As someone who has personally been oppressed by the tyranny of dieting, the trap of fat shaming (both internally and externally), as well as body image issues, this blog has encouraged me – and I’ve only been reading it less than a month. Thank you for the time and effort you put into this blog. It is making a difference.

    1. Your account of how feminism actually works for change is so right. Thanks for the positive feedback about how reading the blog is helping you.

  2. Well. As you can imagine, I have a lot to say about this, and I could probably write an entire post on why I think fitness is a feminist issue. Plus I think I’m taking some personal offense to the idea that feminist analysis of fitness is frivolous and inconsequential, not just because I blog about this stuff as well, but because it is so not in line with my actual lived experience as a woman.

    This is my background: I was sexually abused as a child. I was raised in an extremely patriarchal religion in a very conservative state. I spent the first nine years of my adult life in an abusive relationship, with a man who controlled me and beat me regularly and restricted my access to money and outside relationships. These are “real” feminist issues, yes? By the standards put forth by your critics, correct?

    And yet immersing myself in a life of fitness – actually, to be more specific, a life of athleticism and strength-building – has played a major role in helping me to recover from all of these things and reconceptualizing myself not as a victim or as someone who is weak, but as someone with power and strength. That has in turn influenced every other part of my life. I am braver, stronger, more ambitious, more confident because of these things, and I am able to do better work on behalf of myself and of others.

    When I hear critics attack fitness as frivolity that should be regarded as beneath notice, I take great offense to that, because fitness played a major role in helping me become a whole person. (It certainly saved my life more than any book of feminist theory ever did, and I say this as someone who loves feminist theory.) I cannot separate feminist fitness from the “real” feminist issues, because in my life they are deeply intertwined.

    1. Your comment makes so clear one thing that I didn’t mention at all but is obvious now that I’ve read what you just said: empowerment! It’s like your blog’s tagline says: “because it takes strong women to smash patriarchy.” And there are lots of different kinds of strength that engaging in athleticism and strength-building (another great way of talking about what we’re doing here) contributes to. Thanks once again for your astute feminist commentary. In solidarity!

  3. I’m absolutely not buying the premise that only the most important or pressing issues are worth attention. If that were true, we would focus our attention, time, and money only – ONLY – on feeding the starving. Because the most basic need of all is simply to keep a person alive; the rest is irrelevant fluff if that person is dead. Which means we’d spend NO time on literacy, domestic violence that didn’t end in death, education, libraries, museums, roads, the arts, parks, animal welfare, sexual assault, etc. Follow that logic and anyone who donates to any cause other than UNICEF is some kind of dumb-ass who has willfully wasted their resources.

    Additionally, you can write about any damned thing you want. Both of you write fantastic, meaningful pieces about fitness and feminism, and their intersection, but you’re not *required* to. With all due respect, you don’t represent ALL feminists, you’re not our elected leaders with a mandate to follow everyone’s beliefs. So sometimes you don’t, big deal. And vice versa – whoever is criticizing your discussion of “women” vs. “ladies” isn’t king of the feminists, either. If they think you’re not holding up your end of feminism, then they’re welcome to start their own blog and show the world how it’s supposed to be done. A very good example of wasting resources is ridiculing other people’s efforts as being insufficient.

    The Social Justice Olympics can be pretty silly…

    1. Your point that feminists aren’t all cut from the same cloth and that there is diversity on us is so important. How boring it would be if we all agreed on everything all the time!

  4. Yes.

    To this I would also add that “sexism” is not some tag-on, not a weird outgrowth of culture that appears only in some places and guises, where it can be cut away without disturbing the tissue underneath. Sexism is so pervasive, it forms a systemic part of so much of our culture, that there is almost nothing (or maybe actually nothing) about our culture and society which are not, either in origins or in present-day manifestations, sexist in some ways or degree. So, to me, one of the most valuable ways of countering and working against sexism is pointing out that pervasiveness, how there is nothing that is not affected by sexism–and that means talking a lot about the sexism in so-called “trivial” places and issues. It’s that good old-fashioned consciousness raising, and it is so valuable.

  5. Don’t despair! I feel REALLY REALLY strongly about negative/loaded/inequitable language for women, including the ghastly term ‘ladies’. I write about it myself on my own blog; I also wrote and told you so when you put out that post. There must be lots of us who feel like me! Keep on keeping on!

    1. Yes and thank you. I enjoyed reading your blog post where you talked about ‘ladies’ too. Definitely keeping on keeping on. In solidarity!

  6. I agree while there are many feminist issues, in fact, one could make the argument that if it exists a feminist perspective can be taken on it; but like has already been shared, there is a need for a variety of voices speaking about various issues. There are so many issues, sometimes as a feminist and writer it becomes overwhelming which issue to ‘focus’ on. The main thing I believe people who criticize any blog that chooses to select one area to discuss,is that if someone feels strongly enough about one issue regarding women/women’s rights/issues/gender discrimination, then they most likely are concerned with many issues.

    If writers wrote about feminist issues encompassing every aspect of life it affected, a blog post would turn into a dissertation quickly.

    I love that empowerment was also mentioned about someone else. Love the piece, the comments, and the blog!

  7. Excellent article and responses! I think the world of fitness needs this type of thoughtful, philosophical blogging to compliment and counter many of the unjust trends and attitudes that are prevalent. While I tend to focus on the plain ‘irrationality’ of the fitness world – a feminist specific approach is much needed and appreciated. Please keep up the good work.

    1. I agree. The fact is, a lot of women have serious body image issues and conventional fitness wisdom says they should basically abuse their bodies to deal with them. The field is crying out for feminist analysis and perspective. I don’t understand how this is a controversial belief.

  8. If anything, the fitness world is in dire need of more intelligent discourse especially in questioning and debating The Way Things Are. You, Sam, and Caitlin over at F&F are doing a great job at not only trying to change the conversation, but doing so in a way that promotes, well, healthier attitudes about how we see and treat ourselves versus how we see and treat each other. I’m not the most prolific commenter here, but know that I’ve really enjoyed what you both are posting here!

  9. I’m gonna restrain from trying to say anything wise, cause there is already enough wise things written here, but I would just like to add that if it’s written ‘ladies’ then it should obviously be written ‘gentlemen’ 😉

  10. I am with you on your response to the criticism you have received. Perhaps there are more “pressing,” life-or-death issues at the “fore front” of today’s feminist movement but that does not negate the value of addressing other topics that are just as valid and relevant to MANY women. Please! Finding health and wellness in a society- in which women (and men) are constantly bombarded with intangible images of beauty and “fitness,” while at the same time having fast food restaurants posted at every corner, food and supplements filled with mysterious ingredients and dubious claims lining the grocery shelves, and there is a miracle diet or miraculous fitness plan that is “all the rage” every other month- is a CHALLENGE… and eating disorders ARE life or death. I could go on and on about this for an hour, but honestly, I don’t need to because I don’t think you need to be convinced- Fitness IS DEFINITELY a feminist issue. I applaud your work.

  11. I have two responses to that criticism:
    1. fuck you – bodily autonomy and what constitutes health for women and what’s an appropriate activity choice for women is actually pretty core to the idea of feminism. It’s tied up in everything from the idea that women’s uteruses would shrivel up if they studied to hard to Title IX in the US.
    2. fuck you again – “oh, but how can you worry about this while $HORRIBLE-THING is still going on?” is derailing and trolling behavior. I don’t know, how can you worry about the shit you worry about when all this other stuff is going on and people are starving and women are getting honor-killed and entropy in the universe is increasing to lead to the heat death of the universe?

    And a third comment, which should be sung to the tune of “It’s My Party”:

    1. Yeah! I love enthusiastic expressions of feminist solidarity and smart feminist commentary! Thank you!

  12. I think Saudi Arabia and some of the nearby Middle Eastern countries will illustrate the intersection and interdependence of feminism, political power, literacy, health and sports. A lot more women there are becoming university-educated. Yet many cannot pursue their careers as fast by taking advantage of their skills and knowledge because of still a deeply gender-segregated society. And a lot less Saudi women participate openly in any sport with men around. In Kuwait, obesity among women has risen…..they are confined in that society.

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