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?


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