This morning at 8 a.m. (because doctors meet really, really early) Sam and I met on the fifth floor of St. Joseph’s hospital to give at talk at Grand Rounds in the Diabetes and Endocrinology Department.
We were invited quite some time ago because our friend, swimmer, and guest blogger Dr. Savita Dhanvantari has taken an interest in our feminist approach to fitness and thought we might have something worthwhile to share with the group.
I ran into Sam in the corridor, both of us looking for the classroom in the Diabetes Education Centre, having parked our bikes at different entrances. The hospital is a bit of a maze but we found our destination with a bit of time to spare, just enough to set up the slides.
About 20 people attended the early-morning presentation. The plan was that we’d talk for about 30 minutes and then have a Q and A.
Here’s what our objectives for the talk were:
1. To consider some of the barriers to women for participating in fitness activities
2. Provide a feminist context for the discussion, focusing on social attitudes, cultural expectations, conflicts between athletic and aesthetic values, assumptions about fitness and fatness.
3. Engage in a discussion about how to perpetuate positive messages that encourage women to get active.
Now, to readers of this blog, all of this is old hat. But most of the people we were addressing aren’t readers of the blog. They’re MDs who don’t usually spend a lot of time in sessions with philosophers, let alone bloggers, as the main speakers. Nevertheless, they were an attentive audience, with lots of nodding as we spoke.
We focused on five specific barriers:
1. Making fitness about weight loss
2. Focus on aesthetics instead of athletics
3. Gender gap in sports and fitness activities that starts in childhood
4. Unjust gendered divisions of work time and play time
5. Feeling excluded from gyms and other fitness spaces because of weight, age, lack of knowledge/skill, gender, clothing (a general perception of not belonging).
Then we gave a bit of a summary about why we consider our approach to be feminist. Apart from a consistent gender analysis, we think of our approach as feminist because:
- we talk about social attitudes that create barriers for women’s participation in physical activities (e.g. boys are encouraged to be more active than girls, women’s fitness focuses on weight loss and thinness, etc.)
- we talk about the social and cultural expectations and values that get in women’s way of pursuing fitness activities (e.g. obligations to put “family first,” gendered division of labor in the home shrinks available time, etc.)
- we shift the focus from fatness to fitness, from the aesthetic of normative femininity to what the body can do
We ended by making a few recommendations for how to shift the conversation in ways that might be more encouraging for people who have never been physically active, ways that might make them feel more open to trying to introduce physical activity into their lives. Here’s what we recommended as positive messages:
- Promote inclusive fitness
- Starting small is okay
- Find things people enjoy
- Make fitness a family thing
- Everyday exercise
- Stop focusing on weight loss as a measure of success
- Use your influence as MDs to shift to a message that works for more people
The Q&A was interesting for us. In addition to the usual sorts of questions about whether we thought things were any better today than, say, 30 years ago, quite a few people shared their experiences as clinicians. We heard the frustration they can experience when working with patients who, for their health, need to get active and yet don’t. But here’s where starting where they are, encouraging small steps, and being sensitive to the sorts of barriers that may stand in the way of people’s willingness to incorporate activity into their lives may make a difference.
My ears perked up when one of the doctors suggested that she was working towards getting rid of the scale in her clinic altogether (not quite there yet, but that it’s even being considered is amazing).
We just scratched the surface in the hour we were with them. There is so much more of a conversation to be had. Nevertheless, we appreciated the opportunity to talk to a group of physicians who work with people whose health is in peril and would improve if they became physically active. We hope our feminist approach made sense to them and gives them a different perspective, while also offering something useful and practical.