Non-disabled privilege and feminist fitness blogging: a WOC perspective

I know all sorts of privilege. As a non-disabled woman raised in a prosperous pocket of the eastern Toronto suburbs, by parents who placed a high premium on education and on travel, I’ve got plenty of non-disabled and class privilege.

Also, surprisingly, I’ve experienced more of what I can only assume is white-skin privilege than I can even understand is possible for an obviously brown woman. For some reason I cannot fathom, most people, even people who see me often, always think I “have a tan.” And yet I most emphatically do not and cannot identify as a white woman because I was born in South Africa during apartheid at a time when my family could not vote because of our racial classification as “Coloured.” So I spend quite a bit of time explaining more than I feel I should have to that no, I don’t have a tan, I’m brown to begin with. (Though to be sure I do have a tan right now, in the middle of summer).

But this post is not about that complicated identity. Instead, I want to write about non-disabled privilege and the uneasy tension feminist fitness blogging and ableism.  We have blogged about ableism before. For example, see here about fitness and accessibility, here about kids and treadmills (and an apology from Sam for ableism), and here about “crazy” talk.

But we’re not perfect, and we do not always manage to get everything right, and so last week, when we posted one of those pithy little sayings on Facebook, which we and many others thought of as inspirational, we set off someone’s able-ism radar. The culprit was this:


The person who challenged us as ableist suggested instead that the saying should read:


And she further suggested that if we were real feminists we would not have prioritized the idea of exercise as “not punishment” over the possibility of perpetuating an ableist message. Ouch. It stings to have your feminism called into question and stings more to think we alienated someone when we were hoping to do some good.

But the conversation didn’t stop there. Other readers, also people with disabilities, said that it is in fact an ableist assumption to think that people with disabilities can’t exercise.

I confess that when I went to post the original on my own timeline, I briefly considered whether it might be ableist. But I decided (and as I said in the comment thread on our FB page, I’m open to the possibility that I was wrong) that exercise is a pretty broad thing and we don’t have to stick only with the default normative assumptions about what “counts” and who can do it. In fact, one of our biggest objectives with the blog is to challenge those defaults about normative bodies, fitness, sport, and yes, exercise.

Nevertheless, the post clearly struck a nerve. And it suggested to me that when the question “is this ableist?” flashes across my mind, chances are someone out there is going to think “yes, yes it is.”  It may not be that everyone thinks it. Heck, the whole thing with these types of “isms” is that most people don’t notice when they’re employing them because we live in a culture where we’re so very conditioned to favour dominant normative assumptions that we don’t notice the potential harms. And as a feminist and a person of colour, I know well that the dynamic that ensues when you try to point out that something someone meant harmlessly is, in fact, sexist or racist or ableist or homophobic or classist or what have you, people get defensive, then aggressive, and then they try to shut you down.

So that’s about the last thing I wanted to do when our post made someone feel excluded even if not every disabled person reading it felt the same way. And as someone who experiences non-disabled privilege, I need to have an open mind when challenged about ableist assumptions. I did, however, attempt to raise some critical questions because I do think it’s important to be able to have these discussions without being attacked for being non-feminist (when clearly everyone is doing their best and no one is intending ill-will–but again, that’s easy for me to say). I said:

Can any disabled people exercise? Are some of the world’s most elite athletes not people whom many would regard as disabled? Does thinking that exercise is not the exclusive domain of non-disabled folks mean someone is not a feminist? Can we have a conversation without being accused of not being “real feminists”?

We do walk this tightrope on a daily basis on the blog. Despite challenging normative notions of what fitness is and who gets to participate in exercise and sport, it’s pretty difficult to blog regularly about fitness and not venture into ableist territory at least sometimes.

Indeed, a disability studies scholar whom I love, admire, and respect has told me that the very idea of our blog, as a fitness blog, is inherently ableist. Again, ouch. I disagree. But I have done my best to pay attention since then.

And though we at the blog may not get it right all the time, we try to be inclusive while recognizing diversity and difference in bodies, ability, sense of identity, and experiences of privilege, oppression, advantage and disadvantage. And that’s why we have a range of women blogging for us, representing a broad, intersectional palette of social locations.

And as I said on the FB thread, it’s inadequate to say “I’m sorry you felt that way” when someone has felt the sting of an “ism.” It’s condescending and dismissive, lacking in true accountability. It’s made worse still when the person doing the calling out is challenged, told their feelings are wrong. We feel what we feel even if people didn’t intend for us to feel that way. That social reality calls for sensitivity and a willingness to see things from someone else’s perspective.

What I am truly sorry about is that we didn’t sufficiently grasp ahead of time the sort of uptake the post might have for someone. And that’s fully a function of reading the message of the post in a way that spoke only to our own experience. If it happens again, and it may happen again, I trust someone will let us know.

Though it’s scary to ask this, I just have to invite our readers to think on this and comment (gently, please): Is fitness blogging, even from a feminist perspective, inherently ableist? What do you think?


25 thoughts on “Non-disabled privilege and feminist fitness blogging: a WOC perspective

  1. I don’t think the idea of a blog for feminists interested in how we can each best enjoy and appreciate our distinctive bodies and flourish in them as best we can is ableist, nor is a blog about the ways in which social forces and structures can undermine those projects ableist. Those are the main things you cover on this blog. I do think that the words and concept ‘fitness’ is ableist, which is why I don’t use it and why I bristle when someone calls me ‘fit’. It’s an inherently evaluative term and one that plays on traditional biologist/teleological notions of how a body is supposed to be, it living up to its proper form. There is just no way of calling someone ‘unfit’ without that word carrying a negative valence, and one that pulls on metaphysical/normative ideas that none of us likely sign onto. The idea that disabilities are compromises or deformations of proper form, that they don’t fit as they should, seems to me deeply at the root of much ableism.

    None of this really has anything to do with the specific content of this blog, which I, as an able-bodied person (so I am sure I have gaps in my perspective that matter), find thoughtful and inclusive. But the name makes me a bit ill at ease, yes. (And it doesn’t really match your content anyhow since I rarely or never see the bloggers here declare themselves or anyone else ‘fit’ or ‘unfit’.)

    1. Thanks for this. I’m relieved to hear that you find our content thoughtful and inclusive. And I agree that “fit” and “unfit” are evaluative, but I’m not sure I would go so far as to agree that they still carry with them the whole evolutionary idea of “fitness” as proper evolutionary form. I have thought about that at times through the history of the blog and (obviously, given that we have retained “fit is a feminist issue”) I think it has its uses. Not all inherently normative/evaluative terms are necessarily a problem — healthy and unhealthy are also evaluative. But I can see how the history of the concepts of “fit” and “fitness” teeter closer to the edge of something pernicious. It’s interesting too to think if these terms can have meanings that are more neutral — whether, following Charles Mills’ question about race and gender, they can be understood horizontally and not only vertically (i.e. with hierarchy built into them). If horizontal understandings are possible (even if not actualized in our current world), then they’re not inherently evaluative and so would not necessarily be ableist.

  2. you have an amazing blog an I enjoy reading it often. I know I am new to blogging and you are quite seasoned, so I guess I haven’t run across issues like this..yet! I have to say that it is clear your intent wasn’t to exclude anyone!! I think to many people like to look for things to get bent out of shape about. Something that is said in a very open ended way that it left to interpretation, people will gladly interpret it in a negative way and almost enjoy pointing it out. Many like to play the victim role. Too little offends too many these days. I won’t bring up the whole “free speech” aspect, but think so long as people aren’t making personal attacks and threats, the words you write are, at the end of the day, just words. Yes they are left to interpretation but that doesn’t mean you need to censor yourself for the people who make take your message in a negative way. That was their choice to read into it like that. Their choice, not YOUR fault.

    1. Thanks for your comment and it’s exciting that you have embarked on a new adventure: blogging! I have to disagree that “they are only words” if your point is that words can’t harm. Words can and do cause real harm. What we say perpetuates all sorts of attitudes and norms, many of which maintain entrenched social inequity and oppression. Having said that, I know that was absolutely not the intent of the thing we posted about exercise as a celebration, not as punishment. But it can be wearying to be on the receiving end of lots of unintended exclusions, and some days it can set a person off. So I get that too. It’s complicated.

  3. I’m an (emerging) disability studies scholar, and I run a Facebook group called Ramp and Stair Exercise Club. I’m disappointed that you and the meme were called out as ableist. One of the things I’m trying to do in my personal and academic work is interrogate and expand what inclusivity means in fitness/movement/exercise. Like the commenter above, I recognize the difficulty with using “fitness” as a shorthand for exercise/activity/movement (which is why I do that <——) given the oppressive history of that word for disabled people. I'm sure your friend who works in disability studies is familiar with the SDS conference dance party tradition. Is that not exercise? Is that not adaptable, non-compulsory movement specific to one's abilities and preferences? Instead of accepting that "fitness" is for a select few, why don't we focus on dismantling the framework of exercise as a narrow set of movements with specific goals or outcomes? Mainstream fitness in the U.S. is a lot of things I wish it weren't–racist, sexist, classist, ableist–but that doesn't mean that 1) we should let it stay that way, and 2) my experience and desire to be the change, as privileged as it might be, isn't worth anything since I choose to and am able to participate in some mainstream fitness activities.

    As far as answering your question (as a white, obese, crip ciswoman blogger), fitness blogging can be problematic because the individualist nature of blogging itself tends to silence, and so a fitness focus privileges an individual body's experience. But most of the people I write for did not know anything about ableism or have ever seen PWD engaging in fitness that wasn't inspiration porn. There is so much to change to make fitness/movement/exercise truly inclusive, and imo, the more voices that challenge the status quo, the better.

    1. Not to mention ageist. And of course I’m right with you on the idea of challenging the default assumptions about what “counts” as exercise and who gets to be “fit.” Your point about the challenges of fitness blogging as related to the individualist nature of blogging is really insightful. Thanks for your comment.

    2. Thank you for this (+ advertising your FB page). I’m a kinesiologist that incorporates both disability studies and fat studies into my work!

  4. I think that I am the disability studies scholar you mention above. I don’t think that I said that the blog’s mission itself was ableist, but rather that the fact that it revolves around “fitness” is ableist. I recall pointing out to you, Tracy, that the notion of “fitness” has a troubling genealogy. So, I concur with much of what Rebecca said above, though I think the terms ‘able-bodied’ and ‘disabilities’ and what they signify are themselves elements of the apparatus of disability and ableist discourse.

    As you know, Tracy, I have had this concern almost from the blog’s inception which is probably why I haven’t followed it closely. I have noticed and read posts here on disability and accessibility (though I had missed Samantha Walsh’s post until now) and recognize that you and Samantha B. aim to be non-exclusionary. I guess one question that could be asked is whether the blog has really captured what it would need to address in order to counter ableism around (broadly construed) feminism and bodies, and feminism and disabled bodies in particular. It doesn’t feel to me like it has — yet. Maybe I’ve missed some stuff that would make me think otherwise. It might be worthwhile to ask yourselves: How is the set of issues addressed here circumscribed and with whose priorities in mind?

    1. Thanks, Shelley. Yes, you’re the one. And sorry I didn’t remember correctly what the criticism was. You’ve completely converted me to using “non-disabled” instead of “able-bodied” when having these conversations (even though that’s far from a cure-all). I doubt that the blog has captured the full picture and depth of what it would need to do to handle the intersection of feminism and disability theory expertly (largely because we’re not experts, rather, we’re learning as we go, albeit it slowly). I’m not sure it ever will–we can for sure do better on all sorts of fronts: disability, race, class, sexuality, age and others, no doubt. We touch on these things and spotlight them sometimes, but we fall into “gender, unqualified” a lot. Both here and in my work, I constantly struggle with what a truly intersectional approach would look like. But there is an argument to be made that because of our focus on “fitness,” disability is closer and more urgent for us to keep closer to front of mind than other axes of oppression, and ableism a much greater risk. That’s exactly why I asked the question today, even though I confess to feeling nervous about asking it because it can feel risky and uncomfortable to have to examine this sort of thing. I can’t even begin to say how much I appreciate all that you’ve taught me over the years, even when I didn’t like hearing it at the time.

  5. To a lot of people with disabilities, exercise is equated with the dreaded words: physical or occupational therapy and it sucks because at some point PT stands for physical torture. No pain no gain is a big fat lie if you have disabilities because we often start from pain and it gets worse so yes, it was ableist.

    1. Thanks for your comment. We don’t actually promote ‘no pain, no gain’ here and definitely don’t encourage people to exercise in ways that hurt them. I take it that by “it” you mean the slogan about celebrating bodies not punishing them. I’m still intrigued by the view that exercise is necessarily an ableist idea as opposed to the view that there may be a more inclusive way to think about it that does not presuppose that disabled people are unable to exercise.

  6. “To a lot of people with disabilities, exercise is equated with the dreaded words: physical or occupational therapy and it sucks because at some point PT stands for physical torture. No pain no gain is a big fat lie if you have disabilities because we often start from pain and it gets worse so yes, it was ableist.”

    A different take on physiotherapy and OT… My first exposure to these 2 professions and the work they do, is when I worked for 3 years at a rehabilitation hospital for adult spinal cord injured (paraplegics and quadriplegics) in Toronto. For certain what is “exercise” to us, is serious physical effort and daily mobility in wheelchair, etc. when often buildings and surfaces aren’t for physically disabled and easy movement. Quite daunting.

    Nothing to do with ableism or even ageism, but just engaging in kayaking, yachting, etc. does suggest worlds which some people simply can’t afford the experience. I suppose each of us are limited in our perspectives. A long time ago, I gave up constantly talking about cycling in my in-person interactions and my little wee trips even about town, unless someone asks. I have to be crazy to think that people even care. I just hope for people to exercise, move around, no matter how they do it each day.

    Yes, sure this blog feels quite white, Eurocentric….as witnessed by the group friend photos. When tennis player powerhouse, Serena Williams recently remarked that she was worried about her nephews walking the streets innocently, after several highly publicized black deaths, policing and other tragedies. Now, would have any powerhouse Caucasian female tennis superstar even uttered this?? For all her money, Serena hasn’t forgotten reality…right in her own family.

    I’m not saying this as a “victim” because clearly I hope I have led my life and (also write a blog) where it isn’t just about this. As a Canadian, 3 of my closest cycling friends who by coincidence are also long-time cycling community advocates in real life….are Canadian-born Asians like myself in Calgary and Toronto. There IS /can be positive synergy among issues of health, fitness, equity and social justice.

    As for ableism vs. disability…we’ll get this bigger in our face….towards the end of life when we’re frailer. (We will be, even for the healthiest, don’t kid yourself.)

    1. Thanks, Jean. Your reflections are always welcome. You’re right we could be more diverse.

      Age and changing ability is an important issue for sure. That’s how we started out actually, thinking about aging and inclusive fitness.

  7. You mention “we have a range of women blogging for us, representing a broad, intersectional palette of social locations”, are any of those women with disabilities? And if not maybe that is something to consider and an area for growth? I think it’s hard to really be aware of how ableism effects practices of fitness (or exercise/movement) if those voices and experiences aren’t present.

    Though ime one issue with talking about ableism or experiences of people with disabilities is that they cover a very wide spectrum and will mean many different thing to different people. My experiences with fitness and ableism as someone whose disabilities are chronic, invisible, illnesses are very different from someone who uses a wheelchair, someone with cerebral palsy, someone who is blind, or someone who is Deaf, or someone with some other type of disability*.

    *I know many Deaf people do not consider it a disability, though I highly suspect is is an issue in terms of accessibility in fitness activities. I know many activities rely on hearing signals or directions- I problem even I run into with slight hearing loss in my Krav Maga classes which require hearing the instructor call out an instruction.

    I agree with what another commenter said about mainstream fitness being ableist and about fighting against that. To me that is part of intersectional feminism means. I was one of the people on the original facebook thread and commented that the assumption that the original message only applies to able-bodied people is itself ableist, and feeds into a belief that accessibility in fitness is not important. Talking about how fitness can be accessible, about the ways disabled people who engage in fitness are treated by non disabled people, and focusing on the experiences of people with disabilities in fitness/exercise/movement in their (our) own words I think is part of changing ableism within fitness.

    It’s also a somewhat interesting question to me as I have a fitness blog that I started that I have found over time has become more and more about disability issues (as they relate to me and my disabilities), which is likely not just a coincidence. There is certainly a lot of overlap and unpacking to do with regard to fitness and disabilities.

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful comment. I agree that having someone who blogs from a disability perspective would add an important missing dimension. We have had blogging about illness and recovery from it (not the same) in Michelle’s series about her cancer diagnosis and recovery from the double mastectomy, for example, and also various people have talked about injury. But a person who identifies as disabled would bring something else to the conversation. Are you offering? 😊 If so please email us or message us through the FB page.

      As you rightly point out, “disability” is not a lot catch all. There is a range of experience within any identity (as my own experience as a woman of colour attests) and that’s why “token” contributions aren’t good enough. Meanwhile, realistically we can’t be all things to all people. It’s an evolving thing (blogging) and we do what we can, little by little, to be more inclusive and cast a wider net without erasing people’s experiences. It’s a tall order.

      Thanks so much for your comment.

  8. Dear Tracy,

    I’d like to pick up on some of Jean’s and ebay313’s remarks. I think that their remarks (and others above) are indicative of subjects that could be brought into the blog in order to expand the way that disability and ableism are addressed on it.

    First, I think it is a very good idea to bring on board some disabled women who have (among other things) a critical analysis of disability, ableism, oppression more generally, and how these relate to sports and the “fitness-industrial complex.”

    In my view, the blog should aim to go beyond a “I can do this, you can do that, we can all do something” approach, which seems to be how inclusion with respect to disabled women is currently construed on the blog. I have a few suggestions. These may seem to go far afield of your current repertoire of posts, but I think they might offer a more representative approach to disability and ableism on your blog, addressing the concerns of many disabled people.

    The cost of fun and fitness is very relevant to ableism (and ageism). Almost half of disabled people are unemployed (and many seniors, some of whom are disabled, live on limited pensions). I think that a more inclusive approach would address the issue of how poverty and unemployment condition the extent to which disabled women can engage in many of the activities discussed here, purchase many of the items mentioned here, etc. Samantha Walsh mentioned some of these issues, but there could be more work in this area on the blog.

    Eugenics. I think the issue of the troubling genealogy of fitness and “fit” should be addressed. It may seem to some people that the negative connotations of “fit” are relics of the past, but to many disabled people, there are daily reminders that this is not the case. To many of us, the recent mass attack on disabled people in Japan on the basis of their “fitness” to live, as horrendous as it was, is only one event on a continuum of attacks on the lives of disabled people. Sometimes, posts on the blog seem to implicitly promote a hierarchy of so-called human function which is of course racist as well as ableist. I think that critical posts about the notion of fitness could be used to counter this unconscious bias.

    Charity. The distribution of social resources to disabled people has been and still is largely situated under the rubric of benevolence, empathy, and kindness, rather than social justice, equality, recognition, reparation, etc. Disability studies scholars have done a significant amount of analysis and critique of the social, economic, and discursive role of charities in the subordination and continued oppression of disabled people. To be sure, not all organizations with charitable status should be described in this way. But I think that if the blog wants to address ableism in the world of sport, it would do well to take a more critical approach to charities, including the idea that charities should be promoted as a means to address social issues, why some social issues are addressed through the activities of charities and not other social issues, which sorts of charity runs should be avoided, etc.

    p.s. thank you so much for your very generous remarks to me yesterday.

    1. I’d like to correct my remark that “almost half of disabled people are unemployed.” I should have said that most studies indicate that *more than two-thirds* of disabled people are unemployed.

      My apologies for incorrectly stating this in my earlier comment.

    2. This is great guidance for what we could do differently/better to open up our contribution to the issues of fitness/disability/ableism. Thanks so much. We have talked about poverty but not the intersection of disability and poverty. Thank you, Shelley, for taking the time to comment in such a thoughtful way.
      p.s. you’re welcome. thank you!

  9. I want to encourage readers and listeners of this blog to check out the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog, which I co-coordinate and at which I frequently post, including posts in Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post to the blog on the third Wednesday of each month.

    The Discrimination and Disadvantage blog is here:

  10. To be sure, not all organizations with charitable status should be described in this way. But I think that if the blog wants to address ableism in the world of sport, it would do well to take a more critical approach to charities, including the idea that charities should be promoted as a means to address social issues,

  11. I remember as a kid one of my step cousins telling me that his favorite baseball player was Jim Abbot . He told me without irony that he wished he had been born missing a limb so he could be like his “hero”. Forget the fact that I could not pitch a baseball to save my life but that aside I had never experienced an able bodied person telling me they wished in some way to be “like me”. We were only twelve and I thought the kid was crazy but I did research Jim Abbot and found his story inspirational. Perhaps I am not as sensitive to “ableism” as some are because for me my disability is not as “all encompassing” as perhaps something as potentially debilitating as having a lack of mobility might be. In any case it is always important to remember that we each have unique experiences not just in regards to abiliy but in regards to gender,color or even sexual orientation and the myriad of experiences that lead to being “othered”.

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