Guest Post · martial arts

What (Feminist) Self-Defense Courses Can Do (Guest Post)

(Note: many of the points I make here are developed more fully – and in acadamese – in “In Defense of Self-Defense,” Philosophical Papers Vol. 38, No. 3 (November 2009): 363-380)


As Sam B. mentioned in a recent blog post, self-defense is a controversial topic, particularly among anti sexual violence activists. There are several concerns about recommending self-defense as a way to combat rape culture. Probably the most commonly voiced one has to do with misplacing the burden of fighting that fight: rather than insisting that women use precious resources of time, money, and energy to protect themselves against an unjust threat, we should insist that men take responsibility for not posing that threat in the first place. But there are also concerns about whether self-defense really protects women against sexual violence. After all, most self-defense courses teach women to protect themselves against attacks by strangers, which are the rarest form of sexual violence. It seems they would be pretty ineffective in cases of violence perpetuated by an acquaintance, partner, or family member.

My take is that the first concern can be pretty well addressed if the self-defense course is explicitly feminist in its approach. Not all self-defense is created equal, and some approaches tend to naturalize the threat of sexual violence, as if it were a necessary part of human society (which it is not). Feminist self-defense courses, by contrast, present sexual violence as an example of injustice, a form of gender inequality that should cause us to be angry. In fact, part of feminist self-defense courses (at least the good ones) is to tap into that anger and give it expression. Such a course would never imply that such a complex social and political situation can be remedied by any one response, and wouldn’t present self-defense as the only or even primary way of counteracting the threat of sexual violence.

But it’s the second one that Sam’s blog focused on, and that’s the one that I want to respond to more fully here. I worry that when we evaluate self-defense primarily in terms of how effective it is in preventing specific instances of sexual violence, we miss some of its broader possible effects. For me, one of the crucial elements of feminist self-defense courses is that they target, explicitly and concretely, some of the bodily habits that a rape culture imposes on femininely gendered bodies. I don’t think it’s an accident that a rape culture like ours teaches feminine bodies to take up less space, to react to physical attacks with paralysis, and to underutilize their vocal capacities. These bodily habits are so deeply ingrained that they are often difficult to perceive (my students are still stunned when I point out gendered differences in how they sit, although the tumblr about men taking up space in trains has helped!).

Iris Marion Young analyzed feminine bodily comportment in her great article, “Throwing Like a Girl,” so if you want to read more about how feminine bodily habits reflect a sexist society, go check that out. I’m particularly interested in how those habits not only reflect, but actually perpetuate, rape culture by encouraging women to experience their bodies as weak, fragile, and expected targets of sexualized violence. All the common ways that women are encouraged to protect themselves against sexual violence – don’t go to certain places at certain times, don’t walk alone, that sort of thing – frame the problem of sexual violence as a problem of women’s bodies. It’s as if when those bodies are in the wrong places, or do the wrong things, suddenly this threat materializes out of thin air. And really, that feminine body should have known better than to cause that threat to show up.

So normative feminine bodily comportment not only renders women’s bodies less likely to be able to respond effectively to an actual assault, but encourages women to see their own bodies as the source of the threat of assault itself. And here’s my general point: this imposition of this kind of bodily comportment is harmful to all women, regardless of whether they are ever actually sexually assaulted. It limits their experience, alienates them from the full range of their bodily capacities, and pits their sense of self against their own body.

When feminist self-defense is done well, it takes this problem of feminine bodily comportment head-on. And it doesn’t do so cognitively, which is how I primarily teach this stuff. In my philosophy classes (although I try to involve at least some bodily experiences), we mostly talk about ideas, read texts, and write papers. But feminist self-defense classes teach women how to move differently. It’s a muscular pedagogy, one that creates new corporeal habits. And these new habits – the ability to kick, or to yell, or to become familiar with the sensation of feeling one’s fist meet someone else’s body with force – contradict what women are usually told about what their body can do and be. And that, in my mind, is what makes it such a powerful tool against rape culture.

Our bodies, as the book title goes, are our selves. So when we change our bodily habits and capacities, we change our way of being in the world (and maybe even the world itself). Now there’s no doubt that a single feminist self-defense course isn’t sufficient to undermine or transform a lifetime of corporeal socialization. And even if one has more extensive training, there’s no guarantee that those skills or habits will be accessible in every instance of sexual assault. But I don’t think that’s where the definition of success should be focused. Feminist self-defense courses shouldn’t aim primarily at reducing incidents of sexual violence (although if they do that, it’s great, of course). They should aim to thwart the cultural forces that keep women from experiencing their bodies as powerful, capable, resilient aspects of their being that do not deserve to be the targets of violence.

Sometimes the political struggle is in our muscles, our tendons and ligaments, and our vocal chords. What I love about feminist self-defense courses is how they take the political fight right to the body. Of course, that fight needs to be taken to the masculine body as well – but that would be the subject of another post.


 Ann J. Cahill teaches philosophy at Elon University in North Carolina. She likes baking a lot more than running.

cycling · fitness

Biking to church camp: Building a community that cares

On arrival at camp this year. Thanks to a tailwind, we arrived first!
Mallory and me arriving at camp a couple of years ago

My church holds an annual family camp at a retreat centre just outside the city. Camp is a nice mix of “do your own thing” or join in on group activities such as music, crafts, and hiking.

You sleep in bunk houses with four sets of bunk beds per room. This year though my daughter Mallory and I got to sleep in the quiet house since there weren’t any loud teenagers with us. We’d been in the bunks since the loud toddler and crying baby years.

The main building has a big wrap around porch with rocking chairs and there are well marked hiking trails that run through the property.

For the past few years Mallory and I have been riding to camp. When I started training seriously a few years ago I was reluctant to go to church camp. Weekends were for long rides and long runs. But then I decided to combine church camp with running and biking. Ride down there Friday, trail run Saturday, ride back Sunday.

It reminds me of when I was chair of my academic department and would schedule department retreats about 40 km outside the city. Perfect distance for arriving by bike. Later when the university organized summer two day retreats for academic leaders I’d bike there too. It was more like 80 km, definitely required an early start, and again I’d send my bags with someone else.

Riding to camp combines a few things I really like: Building community (each year the number of people who’ve ridden has grown); making exercise part of life, not some extra thing that competes for your time; caring for the environment, sure some people have to drive but not everyone needs to.

It’s an easy distance, just 45 km, and pretty much anyone can do it. It’s also on quiet country roads and the advantage of biking to camp is that lots of other people who are driving can carry your stuff and you’ve got a full day to recover before riding back. It’s not as far as Port Stanley, where the feminist fitness bloggers biked a few weeks ago and there’s no long downhill to the water. I love getting people who don’t normally ride their bikes outside the city to experience how quiet the country roads can be. This year 8 people biked one way or both to church camp. I’m hoping for an even larger group next year.

Oh, and there’s an ice cream store at the 2/3 there point. What could be better?

It’s a nice ride. See

There’s some of photos of camp below and lots more here.








body image · link round up

Fit is a Feminist Issue, Link Round Up #31

This is where we share stuff we can’t share on Facebook page for fear of being kicked out! Read why here. Usually the posts are about body image, sometimes there’s nudity but we’re all adults here. Right?

Why does a fitness blog even care about body image? You can read about that here.

Forget Brazilian waxes. A new spate of services is taking personal grooming to the next level

The last time I went for a facial, my aesthetician told me that I wasn’t exfoliating enough. She recommended I use a sugar-and-salt scrub two to three times a week and follow it with a deep moisturizing lotion. She also said I would benefit from a clarifying mask. When she was done, she told me to avoid taking a hot shower and exercising for the rest of the day. I emerged from the treatment room feeling a bit sore, tender to the touch and walking a little funny. Did I mention the facial was performed on my vagina?

Dubbed the vajacial and inspired by its popularity in cities like New York and San Francisco, the treatment is now available at Fuzz Wax Bar’s three locations in Toronto. In a nutshell, it’s a revitalization treatment performed 10 or more days after a bikini wax and is intended to beautify the area. With the deftness normally reserved for dental surgery, an aesthetician tackles the delicate skin with a cleanser, exfoliant, tweezers and a needle (to poke out the ingrowns) before applying the mask. And for the finale, a high-frequency electrical wand is smoothed over the area to treat deep-rooted ingrown hairs and to prevent breakouts.

Also in the UK: Vagina Facials Or ‘Vagacials’ Are The Latest Beauty Trend Sweeping The UK

A new craze promising to give women “the vagina of a 25-year-old” is currently all the rage in Britain. Developed by dating guru and “vagacial pioneer” Lisa Palmer, these vagina facials reportedly give ladyparts back their youthful glow using a combination of steam treatments and applying a mixture of coconut oil, egg whites and vitamins.

15 Subtle But Shocking Photoshopped Images of Already Beautiful Celebrities

Flip through any magazine, and you’ll see gorgeous women gracing every page. These celebrities are so beautiful and perfect, you can hardly believe they’re real.

It’s no secret that they’ve had some help to look the way they do — lighting, teams of makeup artists and hair stylists, and of course the fabulous clothes — but it can still set regular women up for unrealistic expectations.

But even with all that help, someone at the top always thinks the images of these women still need to be altered within an inch of their lives. Enter Photoshop…


Last week the death of burlesque legend Blaze Starr reminded us all of a far cheekier era of stripper—an anachronistic kind of T and A, with a little more glam and giggle to it than today’s Las Vegas-style bottle service strip clubs. It’s easy to crystallize someone like Starr in our memory as a young bombshell, taking it all off for roaring crowds, scandalizing politics with the Governor of Louisiana (and probably JFK, too), but we should always remember—there is life after pasties! For her book Legends The Living Art Of Risque, French photographer Marie Baronnet captures the fabulous ladies of mid-century burlesque in all their mature glory.

These women are going topless, but it’s for a very good reason! [Uncensored]

Women’s Right To Go Topless In Public Has Become More Critical Than Ever, So Let’s #FreeTheNipple

The Free The Nipple movement has come a long way since the December 2014 release of Lina Esco’s film Free the Nipple, and with summer just beginning, men and women around the world are increasingly supporting it. Free The Nipple demands women’s rights to the same social privileges accorded to men, fighting specifically for women’s right to go topless in public. Public toplessness is explicitly illegal for women in only three out of 50 states, yet across the country, women can face jail time and large fines. For fighting this injustice, Free The Nipple has become a feminist essential as it protests a culture bent on sexualizing women’s bodies without their consent and also empowers women with the long-denied bodily autonomy that men have enjoyed for decades now. This summer, with Free The Nipple protests rising both in frequency and in the media’s attention, the movement has become more critical than ever.

On Thursday, the Association of Libertarian Feminists (ALF) launched a petition against Facebook’s censorship of the female nipple, directly addressed to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The ALF posted a link to an article covering a recent Free The Nipple gathering in Iceland on its page; the post was removed for violating Facebook’s community guidelines regarding nudity. The ALF created the petition to protest the policies that saw their post removed. “Facebook is exercising a double standard, allowing photos of topless men but censoring artful or political expressions of female bodies,” the petition overview stated on its page.

family · fitness

Let’s stop talking about children and exercise (reblog from Impact Ethics)

I wrote a piece for Impact Ethics on the dangers of focusing just on sports for kids and neglecting everyday exercise (walking and biking to school, for example). I agree with all the commentators who recommend that children be left alone to play unsupervised (kids are more physically active when playing without adult supervision) but I wanted to focus on active lifestyles as well.

Impact Ethics

Samantha Brennan suggests shifting the dialogue about childhood fitness from exercise to daily movement.

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Why Some Challenges Aren’t Worth Taking: I’m Looking at You, Belly Button Challenge!

challengeThis blog originated out of our Fittest by Fifty Challenge — to be the fittest we’d ever been in our lives by the time we turned 50. Along the way, we’ve talked about challenges of various sorts and why we like them. See here for “Why I Like Challenges” and here for Sam’s post about the burpee challenge.

But one challenge we will not be promoted is the Belly-Button Challenge. It’s old news by now, really took off last week on social media. Here’s the challenge, according to the Toronto Star in an article entitled “The Terrifying Horribleness of the Belly Button Challenge“:

attempting to reach around one’s back and touch one’s belly button to prove one is svelte enough to do so.

It started in China and went viral, with mostly young women posting pictures of themselves reaching around to touch their belly button.  It was touted as a test of fitness.

But no sooner had it taken social media hostage than the naysayers kicked in with their two cents.  Instead of testing fitness, people complained that it promotes body shame and an unhealthy aspiration to ultra-thinness. But then it came out that not even all thin people can successfully do this. Anyone who has taken yoga will know full well that there are some maneuvers some people can do, and others other people can do, and no one can do everything. Not surprisingly, it depends on all sorts of things.

In a tongue and cheek article, “Don’t Try the Belly Button Challenge,” posted on The Atlantic‘s website, James Hamblin writes that in fact:

It’s actually a test of shoulder flexibility, not fitness. The shoulder has the greatest range of motion of any joint in the body. If you’re looking to impress people, how about telling them that fact?

And then a body positivity/boob self-examination counter-movement took hold. #BoobsOverBellyButtons encourages women to forget about their belly buttons and instead focus on their boobs. Here’s what it says on Curvy Kate’s website:

Well here at Curvy Kate HQ we think that this is a load of old tosh and there are a heck of a lot more important things to be checking on your body than whether your arms are flexible enough to reach all the way around your own torso.

So welcome the #BoobsOverBellyButtons movement! We want to encourage you guys to check your boobs and get to know what normal feels like…rather than doing these ridiculous body-shaming (and downright painful) demonstrations.

And despite how silly the belly-button challenge is, there is something irresistable about it for so many people. Jennifer Lilley’s Huffington Post article, “Why I Detest the Belly Button Challenge, But I Couldn’t Resist Trying It,” gets at this push-me, pull-you reaction to the challenge. Despite thinking that it’s a ridiculous measure that tells us nothing and, worse, triggers the diet-mentality and body hatred, she feels drawn to it, knowing she won’t “pass.” She takes the challenge and, as predicted, she can’t touch her belly button:

However, my thrill in not meeting the goal in this challenge was quickly replaced with thoughts I recognized all too well. For the first time in a long while, I felt a pang of disappointment. I caught myself in the mirror striking a pose in which I was half-hugging myself, trying to embrace an ideal. I was astutely aware of the space between my fingers and my navel. I even took my other hand to “measure” the distance with my outstretched fingers, and then stared at it.

What is it about “failing” the challenge that makes a person feel inadequate even when they know full well that it’s not a measure of fitness and that it’s no comment on their worth or even their health?  It’s that pernicious message–Lilley likens it to the thigh gap, which is another thing that people associate with thinness and, by false extension, health, when in fact lots of it has to do with the physical hand a person is dealt. See “Why the Thigh Gap Makes Me Sad” to read more about the thigh gap.

The Belly Button Challenge is different from the Burpee Challenge or a 30-day Yoga Challenge or any kind of challenge that pushes us in the direction of establishing a habit or that has us immerse ourselves in something for a period of time as a sort of discipline or sees us working toward a goal (like our Fittest by 50 Challenge). It’s different because you try it once and then it’s over (like can you touch your nose with your tongue? Can you whistle?). There’s just not a lot that it tells us about anything and it’s not clear what we are to do (lose weight? Work on shoulder flexibility?) if we “fail.”

Not so useful. But I’m sure most of you who read this blog never thought it would be anyway.  And I have to admit I was curious how far from being able to do this I would be. Answer: about 4 inches.


The Day my Purse Stood up for Body Positivity (Reblog)

This is something I’ve wondered about and struggled with: Do we have an ethical obligation to buy sports clothes only from manufacturers who make a full range of sizes? I’m not small, I weigh a lot, but I fit within the usual size range so I can buy work out wear wherever I want (except Lululemon–their size range leaves me out!) but I often feel torn about it. When I blogged about finding a sports bra that fit–see–a few readers commented that I ought to have spent my money elsewhere since the Oiselle large (which fits me) is only a 12, not even a 14-16. And I agree that in a world in which 14 is the average size it’s odd to make your large smaller than that.

So part of me is with the people like Leah who advocate spending on our money on stuff made by companies that support body diversity. The other part of me thinks it’s okay if companies specialize and that we can spend our money on products that fit us and not worry about those who are excluded.

I’m curious. What do you think? Is there an ethical obligation to buy from companies who sell a full range of sizes? If not an obligation (maybe that’s too strong) is it better, ethically speaking, to buy from companies who sell a full range of sizes? Let us know what you think.

Body Positive Athletes

Ethical buying and consumerism. Its a concept that has grown rapidly and something we have probably been doing unconsciously for most of our lives as customers. I’m sure so many people out there already subscribe to an ethos when they purchase their clothing, but I must admit that whilst I do it with my grocery items, I’ve never done it with clothing – until now.

Today I have decided that I am going to buy ethically for Body Positivity.

As we all know, one of the major issues in my Body Positivity advocacy is to encourage sporting brands who stock sizes 14-up to actually feature athletes 14-up in their gear. As someone who has previously worked in fashion and retail for many years, I have know that by doing this, they will not only have people running to their stores or jumping online to buy the product they now know…

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competition · cycling · racing

Memories: On winning a bike race and leaving Australia

Facebook tells me that I had a big day, seven years ago.

On this day, seven years ago I won a bike race and packed to come home from Australia.

Samantha Brennan, “won a bike race today (a crit).”

My friend writes, “Nice crit victory – rode away from the grade, passed the next grade and took all the points (just as well she’s going home else it would be up a grade or two for you girl!). Safe travels.”

Another friends writes: “Congratulations to the crit victory! That’s a really nice way of finishing your time here in Canberra!”

Next status update from me. Samantha Brennan “is boxing her bike, sigh, after a fun race this afternoon.”

(Do you remember when status updates weren’t in first person?)

I think my bike wanted to stay in Australia (and move up a grade!)

I miss that place!

Mount Stromlo.jpg