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.

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