feminism · fitness

Serena Williams and the multiple ways of policing black women’s bodies

I didn’t watch the US Open women’s finals match. Maybe you didn’t either.  But we have all been witnesses to the explosions, accusations, blaming, denials, excuses and dismissals of charges that Serena Williams was unfairly and too severely penalized for her behavior during her match with Naomi Osaka. Osaka won the match, 6-2, 6-4. If you want to read more about the details, that will be easy– you can’t be on the internet without tripping over at least five articles about the match and the reactions to the match.

Full disclosure:  We here at Fit is a Feminist Issue loooove Serena Williams. Why? She’s strong and graceful, arguably the best tennis player in history, and one of the best athletes in living memory. We are in awe of her abilities and accomplishments.

We also love her because she is a woman who not only endures but in fact flourishes, despite constant attacks on her person.  By ‘person’, I mean her actual body.  Some men in charge of tennis in France criticized Serena’s catsuit, claiming that it failed to respect “the game and place”.

Mina blogged about it: Let Women Wear What They Want

I have to show that fabulous catsuit to you, just in case you didn’t see it.  Or even if you did. It is functional as well as fab– it has compression fabric to help prevent blood clots, for which Serena has a susceptibility.

Serena Williams in a black compression catsuit, about to hit a tennis ball, on the clay courts of the French Open.
Serena Williams in a black compression catsuit, about to hit a tennis ball, on the clay courts of the French Open.

Serena’s body has been analyzed, objectified, criticized and condescended to for years. In a New York Times article from 2015, tennis coaches and top female players spoke about how they were glad that Serena was accepting of her body type. Yeah, well, this body type had won Wimbledon 6 times. I blogged about it.

Repeat after me: athleticism is beauty; athleticism is beauty…

This time Serena is being policed for arguing with an umpire and reacting strongly (breaking a racket and calling the umpire a thief for penalizing her one game for a previous code violation). And things have gotten ugly.  I mean really ugly. Australian cartoonist Mark Knight’s racist depiction of Serena brings to mind early 20th century distorted images of African Americans. Here’s the link if by some chance you haven’t seen it.  It’s horrifying and racist and misogynist.

In addition to the racialized misogyny that Serena lives through, there are other aspects of racism that this match highlights.  I cannot speak to them here, but I point you to this article from the Washington post about rules, policing, black people, and Serena.  In short, it says this:

  • Serena broke some rules.
  • Lots of tennis players break rules.
  • How and when and how much of a penalty is meted out is a matter of discretion for authorities.
  • An authority gave out a very harsh set of penalties based on his discretionary choice to Serena, a black woman.
  • Authorities commonly give out very harsh penalties (including death by shooting) based on their discretionary choices to black people.

The article ends this way:

Rather than fool ourselves about the universality of rules, we should question the vast and often unchallenged use of discretion in both sports and criminal justice.

Thinking about the ways our bodies and our behaviors get policed is necessary for finding ways to change the rules and change the unjust ways power and discretion are meted out.

Thanks for reading.



feminism · fit at mid-life · fitness · media

Sam and Tracy on Daily Blast Live! Resonating with journalists everywhere!

Image description: Low angle urban street shot of Tracy, standing in workout clothing, Sam, in workout clothes with a black tank top that says FEMINIST, on her bike, standing with one foot in the pedal. Stop sign and building in background.
Image description: Low angle urban street shot of Tracy, standing in workout clothing, Sam, in workout clothes with a black tank top that says FEMINIST, on her bike, standing with one foot in the pedal. Stop sign and building in background.

Sam and I did another TV thing the other day, and it was great to have an opportunity to visit her in Guelph, where she’s heading into her ninth month of the big new job! We had to be in the same room to Skyped in to do a taped interview for Daily Blast Live! It’s a TV show that is syndicated across over 40 stations in the US and also shows on YouTube and Facebook. We’ve learned a couple of things about TV and interviews in general since the book came out and we’ve done some media. One is that TV interviews are super brief and you have to get to the point really quickly. Here’s our Daily Blast Live segment, which was only a 5 minute interview to begin with and then got edited down to about 2:30.

The other thing we’ve learned is that, especially for the women who interview us, the book really resonates with the interviewers in a personal, non-journalistic way. Even in the parts that they kept, this interviewer was enthusiastically committed to our book and its message. But throughout the five minutes we were chatting with her, she expressed a personal identification with the book and its message several times.

This particular interviewer didn’t turn to a sad personal story. But we have had many an interview where at a certain point the person asking the questions switched from her journalistic role to her own life, her struggles with body image, fitness, dieting, and weight loss. It’s never a happy story. At least so far it never has been.

We don’t feel great about the sad stories, but it’s not as if it’s news to us that many (most?) women have a vexed relationship with their bodies, workouts, and food. So it’s encouraging when our feminist fitness message resonates with anyone, even the journalists who are interviewing us.

Here’s to feminist fitness!

athletes · feminism · fitness

How To Run Like A Girl

running legs in wildflowers
Woman’s feet running through a field of wildflowers

A big hello to Fit Is A Feminist Issue readers! I know that some of you may have heard from me before about mountain biking, compare-despair or the fraught issue of women’s wear and tennis, but this is my official “introduce-myself” post. I’ll be posting regularly on the first Saturday of the month for a while. And in between, when stories like Serena’s catsuit and Alizé’s sports bra are too provocative not to comment. I’m thrilled to be a small part of this thoughtful and inspiring community.

So without further ado, who am I? I’m always tempted to say, “Nobody” in honour of Richard Wright’s haiku or Elizabeth Dickinson’s short poem. Maybe that’s because I’m a writer (though I hesitate to say that after mentioning such giants). I write non-fiction, fiction, poetry (for friends only) and plays. I’ve performed a couple of solo shows I’ve written and I’m working on an ensemble play. I’ve also ghostwritten other people’s books and edited a lot more besides. Recently, I’ve been translating 17th century French fables and wrapping them in commentary. Before all that I was a lawyer.

I made the switch from lawyer to writer when I contracted what I call adult-onset athleticism. That’s my way of describing a person, like me, who may participate in none or some sports when young, but does not identify as or take ownership of their athlete-self until they are an adult (something which is true for a lot of women). As an aside, for me, in my 40s I did perhaps contract a related case of mid-life extreme athleticism, but I’ll talk about that in another post. It was at twenty-eight that I discovered the thrill of running (and then swimming and cycling and later cross-country skiing and other things). I started to understand how to train to get faster and how to go longer distances than I imagined possible.

This shift in my self-perception was profound enough to spin my life off in a whole new direction. I quit being a lawyer. After a short detour through human rights work, I restarted my career at the bottom, working in publishing jobs. Eventually I went out on my own as a freelance editor and writer (Devil-Wears-Prada style assistantship was not my cup of tea). All of which was really a return to what I’d always loved as a kid.

Quite a few years later, I wrote a book about the transformative impact of sports on women’s lives (I’m working on a second, related one). I interviewed more than one hundred women for Run Like A Girl: How Strong Women Make Happy Lives—ordinary women who had experienced the way their physical strength became psychological strength.

Our sports are a mirror and microscope. Whenever we test the limit of what we thought we could do (whether that’s a first step or 100 miles, on our feet, our bike, our skis or however), we see more deeply into who we are. We also have the opportunity to experience in our bodies and minds how we respond to the challenges life throws at us: to practice our grit and grace; to practice our resilience; to practice ease and flow.

In other words, I’m a believer. Fit is a feminist issue. And I’m a feminist who wants to keep running like a girl as long as I can. As you can tell, I love that expression. There’s so much juiciness in the idea. A couple years back Always did a whole campaign around it. For me, running like a girl captures that ageless girl-spirit that powers so much of the lightness we are capable of in life. The clean-slate optimism of “let’s go” meets the seasoned wisdom of “I can.” Up for the challenge and wise enough to find balance in the effort. Oh, and in case it’s not obvious, when I say running, I mean it as a proxy for any active physical engagement you fancy, however you like to move.

If that isn’t feminist, then what is?

Castle Peak with sunburst
Running into a sunburst sky at the summit of Castle Peak in the Sierra Mountains, California
fashion · feminism · fitness

Let Women Wear What They Want

serena williams' catsuit at the french open
Serena Williams in a kick-ass catsuit at the French Open

The powers-that-be in charge of the French Open, aka French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli, deemed the catsuit Serena Williams wore back in June as a fashion choice “gone too far”; one he considered did not “respect the game and place.”

Oh please, seriously?! After I picked myself up on the floor from the outrage of the headline alone, I read the whole story. Apparently Serena wore the outfit because she wanted compression for her legs, because she’s been having problems with blood clots since she gave birth to her child. Also, because she felt like a superhero in the catsuit, along the lines of a Wakanda warrior (a reference to the movie Black Panther, which, if you haven’t seen it—go see it. It’s feminist film candy about strong, smart women saving the day). The headline reminded me of the kerfuffle around Brandi Chastain’s sports bra in the 1999 Women’s World Cup, when she tore off her shirt to celebrate her incredible goal (a soccer tradition practiced by the men) and was roundly criticized for indecency.

Should players be able to wear whatever they want at the French Open? There are probably outfits that should not appear on the court—one’s birthday suit, perhaps, or an offensive item in the hate-speech category—but a full coverage catsuit? The outfit literally covers more skin and is less revealing that any number of other sports outfits we see regularly in world-class level sports. I won’t stray into my pet peeve about women’s vs. men’s outfits in beach volleyball. Not to mention that Serena has worn far more outrageous (and fabulous!) outfits over the years.

Is Bernard’s outrage because the French tennis boys don’t want strong women to feel like superheroes? Well, I could see why that might be threatening. But it certainly doesn’t disrespect the game. In fact, doesn’t it take the game even more seriously by suggesting that it takes a superhero to play?

Tennis is hardly known for its forward thinking. Wimbledon, for example, insists on using “Mrs.” on its leader board. So it ends up with silliness like, Mrs. Williams, for Serena Williams, who did not take her husband’s name. They call that a “courtesy” tradition. More like discourteous, refusing to address women as individuals separate from their husbands. And remember when the former Indian Wells CEO, Raymond Moore said this, “If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport.”

Coming back from my run this morning, I was struck by the stark contrast between the Serena Williams controversy and this advertisement for a portrait session in a photography studio I passed, because all girls should want to look like Disney princesses.

princess photo offer
Window of a photography studio, offering girls a “princess dress” photo session (and that’s my reflection, in my running not-a-princess outfit

I’ve been annoyed by this poster every time I’ve come back from my runs lately, thinking about all the implicit gender socialization in its message. I wonder how Bernard would feel about Serena in a white tutu? Less threatened, I bet.

I can’t help thinking that when men police women’s bodies in the way of Bernard, that it’s their own lack of decorum and respect that they are protecting themselves against. Don’t let a woman wear a provocative outfit, because then I can’t help but be provoked (into wanting her/hurting her). Again, I don’t actually think that Serena’s outfit was particularly provocative on the scale of sexy-world-class-sports-outfits. Her catsuit was strong and insouciant and utilitarian.

Exactly what a woman wants to wear when she’s competing in her sport. The same reason I love a running skirt.

What do you think?


Mina is a writer, performer, fableog-ist, citizen, traveler, enthusiast and author of Run Like a Girl: How Strong Women Make Happy Lives and other books. She’s working on a new book about the transformational impact of sports on women’s lives. http://www.minasamuels.com

feminism · fitness

Let’s talk about body hair and feminism

Image description: Intuition razor with green handle, white trim, four blades, surrounded by a white moisturizing "solid" to provide shaving lubrication.
Image description: Intuition razor with green handle, white trim, four blades, surrounded by a white moisturizing “solid” to provide shaving lubrication.

Body hair, like make-up, is one of those issues where feminists often feel conflicted (based on my conversations with friends and my own experience as a feminist). On the one hand, we see the pressure for women to have smooth bodies as a dimension of normative femininity that makes us spend time on “the beauty project” instead of (arguably) more important things.

On the other hand, many of us (a) like smooth skin and/or (b) feel self-conscious when we’re not smooth even though we don’t really care and if we knew no one else did we wouldn’t bother and/or (c) consider shaving or other hair removal rituals as just part of our everyday habits of self-care or perhaps even pampering.

It’s a fraught feminist issue because when a woman appears with underarm hair or leg hair, it’s a radical move that can even have professional implications. As Britni Dela Craz writes in Elle, about how much time she spent before an important professional moment considering the extent to which different clothing choices would show her thick black leg  hair (she is a freelancer who usually works from home and doesn’t worry about it so much):

As I crowdsourced ideas and solutions and posted photos of myself in various professional outfits on Facebook, I wondered how many men had lost hours of prep time for their job worrying about their body hair. I wondered how many men had to balance their desire to look professional with the autonomy to allow their body to do what it naturally does — grow hair. I was enraged that, hours before a career-defining interview, I was worried about leg hair.

Lest you think this is a completely Western fixation, the website Feminism in India has also published about the severe pressure on women to rid themselves of body hair or be shamed for it. Maryam Monsoor writes:

Societal beauty standards are brutal. Perpetuated and reinforced through the media, they are almost always harmful for women. The stigma around body hair is one such beauty standard that has been extremely disadvantageous for women, who are expected to be hairless all the time.

This expectation leads to shaming and policing of women with body hair so much so that people are disgusted at the sight of hair on a woman’s body. It also results in women feeling uncomfortable wearing shorter sleeves if they have hair on their arms or underarms. Women end up shaming themselves for having body hair – going through the full body wax and other painful measures to free themselves of their hair. When it comes to facial hair, it has to go off! From the upper lip, to the eyebrows, to sideburns to the chin to the nose to the forehead.

She points out that men are free to have both facial and body hair. That’s true, although there is a growing trend among men also to shave or wax themselves smooth. There is more pressure on women. Men can definitely get away with having more body hair than women, and facial hair on men is completely acceptable whereas there is enormous stigma against facial hair on women.

The body hair issue extends to pubic hair, which goes in and out of fashion. I remember when we first started going to nude beaches I was kind of shocked at how many women and men were completely waxed or shaven down there. My preference has always been to have at least some pubic hair — I’m not a pre-adolescent after all. That said, sometimes for travel purposes I find it easier to get it all waxed off than to try hitting just the “right” amount. And for some reason, grey pubic hair had more of an impact on me than grey head hair. Normative femininity and its prizing of youth? Yes, that plays into it. Young. But not too young.

When all the talk of swimsuits and body comfort came up last week, and then carried into this week’s posts about different options and the way the swimsuit industry walks that line between body shaming and trying to design suits that we’ll actually wear, body hair came up for discussion among the blog’s author group.

Different ones of us had different issues. Without naming who’s who (because I didn’t get everyone’s permission), opinion ranged from someone not liking her own leg hair despite it going against her sensibilities (I’m right there with her), to someone not being able to shave because it irritates her skin, to someone being less hairy as she ages and hardly having to shave, to someone hating shaving so much she had her pits lasered and is now annoyed that it’s growing back.

For my part, I have less leg hair than I used to but I still shave it. I have an Intuition razor with the built in shaving lube thing that I use for regular touch ups in the summer. In the winter I am less inclined to give my legs regular attention. I have a different razor (with shaving gel) that I use for my arm pits, where the hair seems to grow faster and I hate even the slightest stubble.  And I only deal with pubic hair when I’m expecting to see some action or spending a lot of time on the boat or at the beach wearing swim suits or skinny dipping.

What’s interesting to me is that though we are all feminists, no one took a strong stand against participating in this particular beauty practice. Sam condemned it, saying it feels required, not fun and occasional like make-up (though even make-up feels required for many). But as required, the social and even professional consequences of not conforming can be serious. And that’s precisely what makes it a feminist issue. And yet we acquiesce.  Of course we are picking different battles in a world where we can’t pick all of them.

A friend reported that one summer she had had it. “I’m going to stop shaving my legs,” she said. “It’s nothing but a pain in the butt,” she said. A few weeks later I asked her to report back. The result: “I couldn’t handle standing in the ATM line-up, conscious of everyone staring at my hairy legs.” She went back to shaving.

Do you have a considered position on your body hair that you’d like to tell us about?

body image · feminism · fitness · health · philosophy

Body image: the blog’s most popular topic

Image description: Pic of Sam (left) and Tracy (right) both smiling (photo credit Ruth Kivilahti) with text "Episode 69 Body Image with Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs" and "PURPOSEFUL STRENGTH" and a quote "The difference is the treatment from etc external world. There are some kinds of oppression that larger people cace that smaller people don't but I think the internal stuff we all share." Borrowed from Sarah Polacco's Instagram.
Image description: Pic of Sam (left) and Tracy (right) both smiling (photo credit Ruth Kivilahti) with text “Episode 69 Body Image with Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs” and “PURPOSEFUL STRENGTH” and a quote “The difference is the treatment from etc external world. There are some kinds of oppression that larger people cace that smaller people don’t but I think the internal stuff we all share.” Borrowed from Sarah Polacco’s Instagram.

Body image continues to be the blog’s most popular topic among readers. It’s been like that since the beginning. Over three years ago Sam blogged about “Why a fitness blog cares so much about body image.”

For one thing, our readers care. But also, body image and fitness are inextricably tied together in many people’s minds. Especially as feminists, we are keenly aware of the way mainstream fitness narratives usually include thinness or at least weight loss narratives in central ways. It is highly unusual for someone to think of fitness independently of dropping pounds or getting leaner or needing to look a certain way (even if that way isn’t necessarily realistic or healthy — see “She May Look Healthy But…Why fitness models aren’t models of health”).

What’s interesting too is that Sam and I have very different personal body image stories, though we agree (as we frequently do) about the bigger picture of why it matters, why it’s a struggle for many women, and why we need to continue to give it attention on the blog.

We shared our latest thoughts on body image with Sarah Polacco for her amazing podcast, Purposeful Strength. You can find her podcast on iTunes, and if you’re interested in hearing our discussion of body image, check out Episode 69, out just this week. Here’s the iTunes link, but you can also find it on Soundcloud and no doubt other platforms.

cycling · feminism · Guest Post · traveling

Guest Post: Feminist Biking in Italy (or, Feminism 101 in Lecce)

When I found myself on a bicycle trip through Italy with my mom (about which I wrote last week, the last thing I thought I’d be doing was discussing the basics of feminism over dinner with an eclectic bunch of strangers. But there I was, at a little pizzeria just off the main square of the fascinating Baroque town of Lecce, debating, discussing, and explaining the social construction of gender norms, structural injustice, affirmative action, #MeToo, and consent, with a rather unlikely audience.

As I wrote last week, I’m new to biking and to biking culture. I’ve never been on an organized trip of this sort, I’ve never biked long distances (alone or with others), so I’m not sure what it does to people and how (and whether) it can transform them. When a bunch of random people who haven’t chosen to be together are thrown together, does this make them more open to ideas that they’ve never encountered? Are people less closed and closed minded when they’re biking with strangers of different stripes?

Probably not, but the following events have at least compelled me to ask such questions.


(Image description: Baroque cathedral in Lecce)

On every night of the trip but one, there was an organized dinner where all fourteen participants ate together. On the one night where we were on our own, I found myself at dinner with my mother, a 71-year-old spitfire feminist lawyer, a retired successful businessman, his son (who’s my age), and our southern Italian bike guide.

Typically, I don’t socialize with businessmen (or women, for that matter). We just don’t run in the same circles. But during this trip, on several short rides, I found myself biking alongside the businessman. Attempting to make conversation, I asked him why very wealthy, successful business people keep doing business and making more money, even when they probably already have more money than they could ever spend.

He tried to explain it to me. I didn’t really get it. He joked with me about being a philosophy professor who teaches ethics. We implicitly agreed that we just aren’t interested in the same things.


(Image description: ancient ruins found underneath main square in Lecce)

But at dinner that night, he asked me what I do. And he was interested in hearing more than the 30-second stock answer. So I told him. I talked a bit about a book I’m writing (on microaggressions and medicine) and about some of the classes I teach (feminist philosophy, medical ethics).

Surprisingly, the feminism part piqued his interest.

His questions kept coming; they were genuine. “Why focus on women?” “Can’t we just have ‘humanism’”? “Why affirmative action? “Is it wrong to just hire the ‘best candidate’?” And many other standard objections that arise when people are first exposed to such ideas.

I’ve been having conversations of this sort long enough to be able to distinguish between two different types of interlocutors: those who’ve made up their minds about what they think before the conversation begins, who push on only to have more ways to disagree with you, and who who just get a kick out of getting you riled up; and those who ask questions because they really want to learn about ideas that are different from their own. Though up until that point I would have pegged him for the former, during our conversation, it became very clear to me that he was the latter.

Had he been the former, I would have quickly and politely ended the conversation. It’s too easy to make yourself vulnerable and to get too invested in an argument, only to continually run up against a cement wall. But as the conversation drew on, it became clear that he really wanted to understand how gender is socially constructed, what the implications of that are, and why the claim “but I just worry that my 6 year-old-grandson, because he’s male, will have it so much more difficult than his twin sister” is problematic and misguided.

Everyone at the table was chiming in. The scope of our discussion expended. We talked about cultural differences regarding conversational norms and touching (in Italy, in Germany, in the United States), and why it’s dangerous to just assume that everyone wants to be hugged and that hugging is always a benign gesture.

After several hours, the pizza got cold, the wine (for those of us drinking it) had dried up, our muscles were tired from the day’s biking, and we realized that we needed to get up early to peddle away for another day. The dinner was lovely; the conversation was heated, but not aggressive. We all agreed that we’d enjoyed the evening and we walked back to the hotel together.

Over the next two days I thought a bit about how unexpected it was to have such an animated, extensive, genuine, and lovely conversation with such an unlikely interlocutor. He’s a thoughtful guy and we sure had plenty of hours left on our trip to do some good thinking on our bikes. I assumed he was thinking about some of what we’d said, I hoped so, but I didn’t really know.

During some of the subsequent social interactions with those who were out for dinner that night, we joked around about touching, hugging, and consent, but not in a way that ridiculed these issues. On the contrary, the jokes were sincere and well-intended attempts to go over some of the conceptual terrain that we covered that night. It felt to me that I’d gotten some ideas across and people were working them out for themselves.

Then we biked some more.


(Image description: author and her mother in the close by town of Alberobello)

But it wasn’t until our dinner on the last night that I realized what a difference our conversation had had. The entire group plus our two guides were seated at two long tables. I was sitting next to the businessman, now friend, who was positioned at the head of the table. We were chatting and he mentioned that we should thank our guides for a wonderful week. I agreed. I assumed he would take the lead on this. He’s a good public speaker and would have done a great job.

But he pulled me aside and said, “But you know, I’m a man, and most of the people on this trip are women. And you know, I wouldn’t want to just speak for them. I don’t really feel right speaking on behalf of everyone. You should do it.”

I looked at him, astonished. Proud.

I thought to myself, “Wow, I came here to bike. Not really to make friends. Not to convert wealthy businessmen to feminists.” What he said was on the one hand, a tiny gesture; but on the other hand, indicative of careful self-reflection and mindfulness of the impact of our small actions, like speaking for others.

Do I think people really change their minds and beliefs on the basis of one conversation in a small Italian town over delicious pizza? Definitely not. Will I ever see this person again, let alone become friends them? Probably not.

But this experience made ponder how intense biking, when are aren’t immersed in the habits of our daily routines, might make us reconsider our long-held beliefs, and maybe even change our minds.

Not only can a biking trip change one’s attitude or expose one to foreign ideas, but I’m coming to see that it can also reestablish faith in the openness and receptivity of other.