feminism · fitness

Fitness, Feminist Style

Feminism-is-for-Everybody---Women-s-Premium-T-ShirWhat does it mean to pursue and promote fitness as a feminist? With a blog named “fit is a feminist issue,” that’s kind of what we are trying to do. And the blog has evolved and taken on a life of its own, becoming more than Sam or I ever imagined it would be.

I like to think that at least part of the reason for the blog’s consistent growth is that people like the idea of bringing feminist values to fitness, and that’s what’s going on here.

Here are a few ways of doing fitness, feminist style:

Don’t make it about weight loss.  If you want to find stuff on the internet that equates fitness with weight loss, there’s plenty out there. Hardly any non-feminists who embark on a fitness program have the slightest clue that it doesn’t have to be about weight loss.

Whatever else could be the point? All sorts of things–you could want to see what your body can do, discover a new passion, feel a new sense of energy, boost your confidence, meet people. None of these have anything to do with weight loss. Notice that I didn’t say, “don’t try to lose weight” (though I’m tempted to say that too). Maybe you want to lose weight. It’s not necessarily unfeminist to do so (though I have worried about that. See here.). We have choices, of course. But please, if you’ve received one clear message from our blog, let it be that weight loss does not equal fitness.

Find community, and if you can’t, create it. We feminists care a lot about solidarity. Creating and being a part of communities that sustain us, support us, and make us feel good about who we are (as we are, not if we were different) is a solid feminist value.  One of the most unanticipated gifts Sam and I have received from the blog is the community that has grown around it.  We’ve got a whole raft of guest bloggers, regular commenters, and thousands of readers. This is not what we expected! And that’s just on the blog.

Feminist fitness means seeking out those communities in person, too. We don’t have to workout alone on treadmills in sheds. Since starting to explicitly enact feminist principles in my fitness pursuits, I have come to value the power of community in a whole new way. I run with a group of women regularly and feel like we’re out for a coffee date. My lane mates in the pool keep it fun and fresh. Bike class is tough but the camaraderie makes it fun at the same time. There are all sorts of fitness communities that put the focus on performance or fun, not weight loss and looking a certain way. Find those communities and if you can’t, create your own.

Get strong (but not because it’s “the new skinny”). Few things build confidence more than seeing measurable increases in the weight room. It means I’m getting stronger. Woo hoo! Why does that matter? Definitely not because “strong is the new skinny.” That’s an oppressive message because, just like “the old skinny” it tells us we have to be a certain way to attain an ideal. The confidence boost from getting stronger spills over into the rest of our lives, beyond the weight room. Strength is great because we can carry our own groceries, portage our own canoes, lug our own bags of topsoil.  It also helps us avoid osteoporosis as we age.

If you like goals, make them about performance, not looking a certain way. This kind of goes back to why weight loss is not a great goal in and of itself. It plays into assumptions about normative bodies that need to be challenged. Sam wrote about athletic versus aesthetic values. And we’ve seen the variety of athletic bodies in The Shape of an Athlete. Like getting stronger, it feels good to get faster, learn a new yoga move, or finally be able to run a kilometre, then another kilometre without stopping. These are worthy goals that a feminist can get behind.

Think inclusively about activity and fitness; reject and contest messages about the normative body. Here’s where a bit of activism can come in. The images we see representing people engaged in sports and fitness activities mostly represent young, slender, lean and muscled, nondisabled white men and women (though men and women are represented differently). That can send a message that if you’re not a member of that group, you don’t belong. Cultural messaging has a subtle power because it seems so natural that it just slides into everyday thinking. We need to challenge the messages about who “belongs” in the spaces we associate with fitness and athletics–the gym, the pool, the soccer pitch, the hockey rink, the volleyball court. In so doing, more people will feel welcome.

Recognize that fitness is an issue about social equality. Did you know that the gender gap in sports starts at a really early age, where boys are encouraged to be physically active, girls not so much? Given the potential for sports and activity to increase confidence and self-esteem, the gender gap in sports, coupled with the sexualization of women in sport, has broad repercussions for social equality. I hesitate to use the word “empowerment” but I will: fitness is a form of empowerment. And although it’s not the whole solution, it can help take us closer to social equality. Feminist issues are not just women’s issues. They are social issues for all.

Say something! If you get an opportunity (and there are plenty of them) to challenge the dominant discourse about fitness, do it. Debunk the myth that fat=unfit or that skinny=fit. Talk about the truth when it comes to dieting. Find something different to say when people are looking for compliments about their weight loss. I like Carly’s suggestion of “How does that feel to you?” And don’t assume that people who have lost weight are trying to. Remember, “you lost weight, you look great” is not a compliment. Talk about your own experience of pursuing fitness as a feminist.

Add to the list. No doubt there are tons of ways of pursuing and promoting feminist style fitness that I’ve not mentioned. Please feel free to add yours to the list by leaving us a comment.

And for what it’s worth, here’s our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, explaining that people–men or women–shouldn’t be afraid to embrace the word “feminist” and that men have an important role to play as feminists, too.

In solidarity!





4 thoughts on “Fitness, Feminist Style

  1. Sometimes I think I’m a lazy bum because I just haven’t spent time creating community around cycling where I am…just talk to a couple of women at work about cycling.

    But even just talking about bike rides and bike gear is community connection and know in spirit there are more women each year bike riding.

    (I was part of an organizing committee for women cyclists for 5 years in Toronto before we burnt out with organization. There was no new members willing to take up the torch with our efforts. We organized rides, workshops and had a conference every 2 years that attracted 250+ women from southern Ontario.)


    1. I would never consider you a lazy slacker, Jean! What you built in Toronto sounds pretty amazing. But we also need to make space for other people to take the initiative sometimes. You’re a pretty great role model for the cycling lifestyle. Thanks for being a part of our community.

    2. We talk about the idea of community in the yoga classes I teach at the college. About how we each take our own journey in that same room. About how on day one of the semester we all look different, but by finals, we all seem a little more the same. Community is a very important part of sustaining a physically active lifestyle!

  2. So I do need to lose weight, not because I want to look beautiful although that would be a great side effect, but because I need to get healthy. As a feminist myself, that works!

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