Fitness and the Normative Body

One of the great privileges that Sam and I both have as professors in the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research is that we actually get opportunities to talk to smart students about fitness as a feminist issue.

As we did last year, we got to guest tonight lecture in the Women’s Studies course, “The Body.” This time, our colleague Andrea Allen invited us.

Sam spent her half talking about the “obesity epidemic.” When I got there, she had a slide up about HAES and was adeptly dealing with questions about health concerns and size diversity.  I love the point she made about the poor outcomes when doctors “prescribe” diets and exercise to their overweight patients.

If there was a medication that had a 5% chance of making things better and a 20% chance of making them worse, she said, no respectable physician would prescribe it.

The students had a short break during which they could process the message — diets, as a rule, don’t work. If we want people to thrive physically, we need to take the focus off of weight as a measure of fitness and emphasize movement for its own sake instead.

For my half, I started off talking about the panopticon, self-surveillance, and the normative messaging about the ideal feminine body that we are all supposed to conform to. I could pick out the Women’s Studies majors because their hands flew up when I asked if anyone knew what “the panopticon” was.

I got to talk about women working out in sheds (appropriate outrage on the faces of the students) and that ridiculous and irresponsible fat-shaming research that says people should keep a mirror in the kitchen to eat in front of if they want to lose weight. Ugh!

I engaged the class in a discussion of the way fitness culture excludes a great many groups of people by failing to represent them. to welcome them, to be accessible to them–women, people of color, disabled people, people over 35, people who lack the time or the money to be able to participate.

I’m not teaching my own classes this year, so I had fun with the students. They caught on quickly and there were lots of heads nodding. I like to think that exposing them to at least some critical thinking about fitness at an early age makes it more likely that they will learn to question some of what we assume is true.

And some of them said things that made it clear that they’re already starting to do that, like:

  • poverty doesn’t just render fitness pursuits less accessible because of money, but also because of time
  • when diversity is represented in fitness media, it’s really only gender diversity. You might get a mixed group of older white people (but there are no young people with them), or white para-athletes (note that the only “disabled” athletes we ever see are those who compete at elite levels), or people of color but they’re young, with bodies that meet the normative ideals
  • the body is a site of empowerment because it enables self-expression
  • women are in a lose-lose situation because they either do “lightweight” physical activities (like aerobics classes) or they are unfeminine

And just like last year, by the time we got to the end not a single person was willing to defend the claim that it’s impossible to be fit and fat or that thin=fit (maybe they were thinking it, but I like to think that they were all convinced). If that’s all they take away, that’s a good start.

It was an enjoyable evening with a great turnout (despite a snow storm). I hope we get invited back next year.



3 thoughts on “Fitness and the Normative Body

  1. My business partner, Joyce Duren, just publisher her second book about her life battle and the effects of the disease Lupus, “Lupus The Journey Continues”. We are now moving forward reopen healing clinics in rural and minority areas for women’s physical and mental health. One of the major parts of our concerns is that of women’s fitness. Rape of women and molestation of young girls is not a new cause and effect issue to most women living in America today, but do we know the facts??? My work experience and background includes Executive Director of the Sacramento Women’s Rape Crisis, Mother Emergency Service Center back in 1974. Jerry Brown Jr. was Governor in Sacramento then also, hmm mm, maybe just a coincidence, or is time repeating itself? We help with the establishment of providing nation wide services to rape victims, battered and abused women. We marched ten thousand strong in the historical “Take Back The Night” closing pornography shops in San Francisco, Ca., then all over the country. We organizes safe shelters for abused and battered women with the establishing of “HOT” lines on 800 numbers. President Jimmy Carter gave women twenty-five million dollars to hold state conferences and a national one where thirty thousand women attended in Huston, Texas to establish resolution’s that could aid women causes in America. What has happened?? Are we as women better off today??? I am calling on our sister’s to address what is going on and a call to “ACTION” that will allow us to revisit women’s issues and apply necessary steps to reclaim our ground. Need your input NOW! I AM WOMAN.

  2. I’m so glad that you got to do this and that it resonated with the students! I think it’s such an important discussion to have. I still remember the day we had a TA come in and talk to us about gender in fitness when I was in a Sport and Social Theory course towards the end of my kin degree. It was probably the most thought-provoking thing I’d heard in my courses that year and it led me to my thesis and a lot of what I’ve figured out for my own health and fitness and for my work in the fitness field. You are doing important work!

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