eating · fitness · Guest Post

When Herbivores Attack: Weight Stigma and the Vegan Movement (Guest post)

by Marla Rose

Image description: Marla, a dark-haired woman hand feeds a black goat with a white patch between its horns. Background of grass, a barn, trees in the distance and a blue sky.
Image description: Marla, a dark-haired woman hand feeds a black goat with a white patch between its horns. Background of grass, a barn, trees in the distance and a blue sky.

Vegans can carry a lot of baggage. No, this is not a fitness brag. I am speaking of baggage of the metaphoric nature. In fact, I can already see the comments in the Facebook share of this post, calling vegans holier-than-thou, obsessive, pushy elitists and a bunch of other variations on this theme. I can predict it not because I’m psychic but because I have seen it play out so many times on social media and comment threads when the “v-word” emerges. Vegans are really not liked much by society at large. As a longtime vegan, I will admit that we have a bit of a PR problem.

I will also admit that we have had a hand in some of this bad PR.

Much of it is not our fault; it is the consequence of our mere presence in a world replete with carnism, which often elicits a knee-jerk defensive response, sometimes even before a vegan has said a word. It manifests as people saying “Mmm…bacon” even if it’s a bizarre non sequitur, which it usually is. It manifests as the many bad jokes we’ve heard a million times, like “Vegetarian is an old Native American word for ‘bad hunter.’” [I won’t even address the idea that there is a single Native American language but, yeah, we’re supposed to laugh unless we want to reinforce the stereotype that vegans are angry and humorless. Ha. Ha.] It manifests as people who expect us to defend PeTA even if we are most definitely not supporters. It manifests as people thinking we’re judging them simply by co-existing in the world as vegans.

Despite this, I wouldn’t change a thing about my decision to go vegan. I believe it is the best decision I ever made and I work hard to buck the stereotype while maintaining my commitment to its muscular ethical basis. I will say, though, that since my early days of standing outside of circuses with protest signs and outside of fast food chains with pamphlets, things have changed considerably in the animal advocacy world. Many of those changes have been really positive. With the Internet, people are so much more aware of the unjustifiable reality of what happens to other animals behind closed doors. Concurrent with that, there are also so many more options in grocery stores and restaurants as access and affordability to plant-based foods continues to increase. I remember racing through Oklahoma in 1995 with a car full of nutrition bars and a sincere hope that I didn’t starve to death with my dog-eared vegetarian restaurant guide book on my lap. Those days are behind us and things are just a lot easier.

What we do have today, though, is something I never observed as a young activist. In fact, I never saw it until social media started becoming widespread. In those nascent days of my veganism, my mentors were primarily older women in Keds sneakers – one of the few leather-free shoe brands back in the day – who would be out, rain or shine, doing outreach for the animals; they didn’t care about anyone else’s BMI, they cared about creating a more just and compassionate world. They didn’t inspire me with their impressive abs; they motivated me with their hearts, brains and spirits.

With social media, there is another breed of vegans: the body-shamers. Thankfully, they are not the norm, but they are loud and seem to be growing in number. These body-shame peddlers may be someone’s first exposure to a vegan and they leave a lasting impression. They condemn and attack vegans and non-vegans alike about weight and size. If the focus of their scorn is a vegan who is not slim enough in their estimation, they claim such individuals are doing a disservice to the animals by not providing a “good example” to the public, as if superficiality and self-absorption were inspiring traits. If those in their sights are not vegan, well, they are losers who deserve to suffer and die. You will hear shamers claim that such individuals are a drain on our health care and a plague on our society. The fact that shaming does not work as a motivator and that weight-stigma itself has proven negative health outcomes matters little: getting their digs in is what matters to them.

The body-shamers may be pushing a diet for any number of reasons. Maybe they have a financial interest in people feel bad enough about their bodies to join their program. Maybe they are “influencers”  looking for followers on YouTube or Instagram. Maybe they are ride-or-die acolytes of a particular dietary plan and they “just want to help,” whether or not their help has been solicited. Or maybe they are simply unkind people who get a cheap little thrill out of making other people feel shitty.

Whatever their reasons, let me apologize on behalf of these vegans. The body-shamers do not represent us. Vegans, like omnivores, come in all shapes and sizes but the bottom line is veganism is based on core values of compassion, justice and equality and is not a platform for abusing people with stigmatizing attitudes. Veganism is a social justice movement and there is no room for cruelty or bigotry. If you are someone who has been demeaned by a vegan for your body size, please accept my apology by proxy. There are many deeply compelling reasons to go vegan but being considered an acceptable size by a body-shamer isn’t among them.

I am proud to be vegan, and these individuals do not reflect my beliefs or what I have dedicated my life to promoting. Please remember that diet culture has its tentacles wrapped around many of us and vegans swim in its murky depths as much as anyone else. Don’t be shy about calling out weight-stigmatizing attitudes when you see them but remember that we are all susceptible to its many displays of bigotry, vegans and non-vegans alike.

Marla Rose is an author, journalist, co-founder of and co-founder of Chicago VeganMania. She lives in the Chicago area. 

body image · fitness · Guest Post · stereotypes · swimming

Learning to Swim and Loving My Body in the Process (Guest Post)

Although I never learned to swim, my whole life I’ve had dreams in which I can swim and I love those dreams and the feeling they give me. Recently, I met a new friend, about my age, and when she asked me if I wanted to go to the spa, and the whirlpool, and the pool, I found myself saying yes. Because I did want to go. I’d wanted to go for decades and had only ever gone to a spa one other time, just after I turned 50.

There’s something about your 50s – it’s like you start over. You look at all the baggage you’ve been hauling around since your 20s and ask yourself what it’s for. As it turns out, most of it doesn’t even belong to you, and a lot of it is stuff nobody needs.

Among my baggage was the idea that I needed to avoid pools because I have an unruly body that doesn’t look ‘good’ in a bathing suit. I knew this to be true because I’d had constant reminders that my body was somehow inappropriate.

In all fairness, had JLo or the Kardashians been the beauty standard during my teens, I might have received more positive attention for what became, by 13 or so, my big hips and big butt and small waist, but among my age group I was merely an aberration.

I could hear snickers when I got up to write at the blackboard in class. I lived in mortal fear of gym and of any social activities that might involve sports or a pool because I would have to expose my body in shorts or, my greatest horror, in a bathing suit.

Although by my early 20s I’d developed a way of dressing to pretty much camouflage what I suspected was my aberrant body, there’s nowhere to hide anything in a bathing suit. The very thought of wearing one filled me with anxiety and humiliation.

As I got older, I became the classic example of the woman to whom people would ‘you would be beautiful IF ONLY you lost x number of pounds.” The amounts varied, since my weight varied and, of course, ‘thin’ ideals were changeable. Sometimes it was 20, sometimes 40, sometimes 60 pounds.

I hope the world has changed and that young women don’t go through this anymore and Irealize I should have told every single person who felt free to comment to go fly a kite, and sometimes I did. My aunts said it, even my mom said it. There was me, and then there was beautiful/acceptable and, to get there, I would basically have to alter my body type.

As I struggled to articulate all of this to my new spa friend, she said ‘if you want a bikini body then just put your body in a bikini.’ This sounded suspiciously wise to me – I was certain I was missing something. I put on my bathing suit.

I loved the whirlpool. When I balked a bit at the pool and said I couldn’t swim, she just shrugged and said it didn’t matter – I didn’t have to swim to go in the pool. I’d never thought of it that way. I gave myself permission to go in the pool. After all, I was already in bathing suit, and what could be harder than that?

And then she said maybe I should try to float, still hanging onto the side of course. I immediately said I couldn’t float and that I had scientific proof of this from my many failed childhood attempts. In my particular case, I said emphatically, it was impossible. Sometimes we believe things for so long that we don’t realize they’re ridiculous and sometimes the way you can tell is the way your friend looks at you when you say them.

She said that instead of thinking about the water as something threatening, maybe I could think of it as something that was there to support me. The water would help me – the water wanted me to float. I didn’t really have to do anything. That was interesting to me. It would be particularly helpful, she added, if I didn’t think about it too much. That made me laugh since I’d had a psychiatrist in my 20s who spent a lot of time teaching me that thinking is different from feeling.

The sensation I felt, the first time I full-body floated, still holding onto the side of the pool, is still hard to describe. It was very emotional – suddenly, the body that I felt had betrayed me on so many occasions, the body I spent a lot of my life exasperated with and pointedly ignoring, was both weightless and present. I could feel the water surrounding me and holding me up. I became aware of my arms and legs and hips as wonderful, positive things, floating there in the water. Maybe even beautiful. I had the feeling that I had in my dreams. It was not a thinking feeling, but just feeling. So, for the last month or so, I’ve been working in the water to learn to actually swim – I feel I’m almost there but I’m not in any hurry.

The sensations that come with moving my body in the water are new, and exhilarating, and have started to feel natural. I love every minute of finding my balance, letting go of the ledge, working out how to propel myself, bobbing along in my very elementary way, perfectly quiet and peaceful. Well, not perfectly quiet. Sometimes I giggle. Out loud. I move my arms and my legs and the water responds to me. For perhaps the first time in my life, I feel my body is perfect.

Sally is an art historian, professor, department chair, Italophile, film buff, heavy metal AND country music enthusiast, and fitness newbie.

fitness · Guest Post · running

Running and the ties that bind (guest post)

Image description: Alison Conway (right) and Karis Shearer (left) dressed for outdoor running, with light jackets and hats, outside on a beach with water and mountains behind them. Alison is giving a 'thumbs' up and both are smiling as they look directly into the camera for what is clearly a selfie.
Photo credit: Karis Shearer. Image description: Alison Conway (right) and Karis Shearer (left) dressed for outdoor running, with light jackets and hats, outside on a beach with water and mountains behind them. Alison is giving a ‘thumbs’ up and both are smiling as they look directly into the camera for what is clearly a selfie.”

by Alison Conway

Haruki Murakami is a contemporary novelist, famous for his blending of America crime noir conventions and Japanese culture. My first Murakami read was The WindUp Bird Chronicle, which I highly recommend for anyone interested detective fiction and/or the legacy of WW II in Japan. But the work by Murakami that captured my heart was not a novel, but a memoir titled What I Talk About When I Talk about Running.

I came back to running at age 50 with all the enthusiasm that anyone setting out after years of double-shifting full-time work and childcare brings to her new hobby. Which is to say, a lot. Reading about running is almost as much fun as running itself, with hearing about other people’s running following close behind. Murakami’s prose reads like running shoes hitting the pavement, carefully measured in its pacing, but also graceful, poetic.

Murakami claims, “I am no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary—or perhaps more like mediocre—level. But that’s not the point” (10). To be an ordinary runner is a wonderful freedom. I run and race for myself and have only my hard-earned, middle-aged personal best times to show for my efforts, times which will soon slip away from me as I approach my sixties. “I’ll be happy if running and I can grow old together,” Murakami writes (172). I take perverse pleasure in thinking of myself as racing toward the grave.

But running, for me, isn’t about simply enjoying exercise in middle age. I train for races, and I spend a lot of time thinking about them. “Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits; that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life,” says Murakami (83). Pushing myself, physically, reminds me to push myself in other areas of my life, especially those where I might feel insecure. Indeed, the mind games I play when heading to a finish line are the same games I play when dealing with difficult situations at work. Avoiding negative self-talk, keeping in mind that the pain is temporary: these strategies help me keep moving forward.

Where Murakami and I part ways is in the company we keep while running. Murakami likes to run alone, and I like to run with other people. I particularly like to run with women friends. On our runs, we can process the challenges we face at work and in our personal lives. Kinship grows as the miles pass, as well as the confidence that we’ve got each other’s backs. When I run down the street with my friends, I feel secure in my pod. And I am proud of the company I keep.

Recently, I was introduced to the work of Victoria Pitts-Taylor, author of The Brain’s Body. Pitts-Taylor is interested in the social brain, furthering the work of feminist materialism, which “explores biology as both agentic and entangled with social meanings and cultural practices” (19). The chapter that got me thinking about women running together is titled “Neurobiology and the Queerness of Kinship.” Here, Pitts-Taylor examines how scientists talk about the role oxytocin plays in forming bonds between mammals. Most commonly associated with mother-infant bonding, oxytocin, Pitts-Taylor reveals, appears in a wider range of bodies than science tends to examine: “Across species of mammals, varieties of social arrangements may reflect different underlying patterns of oxytocin receptors and related circuitry” (105). It is the bonding activity, rather than genetics, which establish kinship ties fueled by oxytocin, Pitts-Taylor argues: “Being biologically related does not have to mean genetically related; it can mean having a biological investment in another, in the form of an intercorporeal tie to another, that is the product of interaction, intimacy, or companionship” (117).

Back to running. Running, various studies show, produces oxytocin.[i] My theory, based only on subjective experience, is that the production of oxytocin in a group already primed by social context to value friendship and community contributes to a feeling of kinship among the bodies that run together. My sense that I belong to a pack or a pod when I run with women may, in fact, reflect a mammalian truth rather than my propensity, as an English professor, to think metaphorically. I like to think of my running friends as my “other” family; it may be that science proves me right in claiming kinship with them.

Works Cited

Murakami, Haruki. What I Talk About When I Talk about Running (2008). Trans. Philip Gabriel. Anchor, 2013.

Pitts-Taylor, Victoria. The brain’s body: neuroscience and corporeal politics. Duke University Press, 2016.

[i] Trynke, R. de Jong, Rohit Menon, Anna Bludau, Thomas Grund, Verena Biermeier, Stefanie M. Klampfl, Benjamin Jurek, Oliver J. Bosch, Juliane Helhammer, Inga D. Neumann,  “Salivary oxytocin concentrations in response to running, sexual self-stimulation, breastfeeding and the TSST: The Regensburg Oxytocin Challenge (ROC) study,” Psychoneuroendocrinology, Volume 62, December 2015, 381-388

Alison Conway is a Professor of English, and Gender and Women’s Studies, at UBC, Okanagan. Her favorite workout is running the streets and trails of Kelowna BC.

Guest Post

Finding my Inner Femme with Circus (Guest Post)

As far as I can recall, I’ve always been a tomboy. I don’t think I really had much of a princess phase, except for Princess Leia and Wonder Woman. I was also a short Asian-Canadian teenager in the 90’s, where pale skin and waiflike looks were in. So I’ve never really thought of myself as one of the pretty girls, which is fine (ok, so my teenage Ani DiFranco soundtrack is also coming out here). It means I don’t worry much about my clothes, hair, or eyebrows, and the only makeup I own is probably expired (does makeup expire?). Cool, less effort.

When it comes to sport, it also means that most of what I do hasn’t asked too much of my appearance. Sport taekwondo has me covered up in a loose white uniform and padded up with protective gear. And rock climbing, well, I don’t know how good anyone looks in a climbing harness, much less when you’ve been living out of your car camping out at the crags.

Still, I’ve always loved Cirque du Soleil, and the awesome athleticism of aerialists. I took the odd drop-in class in things like aerial yoga and hoop, but most of the places I found that offer those kinds of things are places primarily for pole, burlesque, and other types of sexy fitness. Which I certainly have no problem with in their own right, but they are really really not for me. I did wushu for a few years in school, and loved the acrobatics and aesthetic – but even if there was a school I could find to train at, I don’t know if these 38 year old tendons would take it well any more.

But here’s the good news. A circus school, just 10 minutes from home, opened in December, offering classes on aerial apparatus for all ages. I talked a friend into doing a drop in introductory class with me, and was hooked. The instructor at The Rising is an aerialist and former gymnast, and doesn’t seem to care if I’m a scruffy dog-hair-covered tomboy who probably couldn’t do a sexy hip thrust if my life depended on it. In fact, my general willingness to hang upside down like a monkey from things has turned out to be an asset after all. It also turns out that many many years of a sport where I get kicked by people has helped to desensitize my legs so they don’t get bruises from the apparatus.

doing an arabesque pose on a static trapeze

But most of all, what I’ve found interesting is that it’s helped me find a little sense of femininity through strength. A lot of really pretty poses are things that require non-trivial arm and core strength to do gracefully. And while I’ve always found muscles attractive on other women (I know, I know), this is one of the first times that I’ve started to approve of the way they look on me too, and of the cool tricks they can let me do.

hanging sideways from a strands of silk

Obviously I’ve only just started, and who knows where I’m going to run up against the limits of my gendered comfort zone. But so far I’m loving doing something that I’ve always admired, and finding that these muscles let me do pretty things after all.

fitness · Guest Post · running

Competitive streak (Guest post)

I work on the campus of a research institute with lots of scientists working round the clock to get out their next, hopefully highly-cited, paper, knowing full well that their career hinges on being faster, better, more hard-working than the person next door.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of these people aren’t just competitive in research, but in all aspects of their lives, including fitness. One colleague of mine referred to it as a “cesspool of incredibly fit people”. Personally, I’ve left research in favour of a career in research management. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a competitive streak of my own.

I exercise quite a lot, swimming, running, and bouldering mostly. I love hiking, kayaking, and surfing, although I don’t do much of the latter two these days, mostly for want of a large enough body of water nearby. I enjoy all of it immensely most of the time.

The problem is: I’m not good at any of it, or at least not what people generally define as “good”. I’m not strong, or fast, or well-coordinated. And I constantly compare myself to others.

The reason I mentioned my workplace before is that I sometimes go running with a group of colleagues at lunchtime. Our campus is located outside the city on a hill in the forest, which is perfect for that. Most of them are faster than me, in fact I’m frequently the slowest member of the group by some distance.

I boulder with a group of people a couple of times a week. Most of them can do harder routes than me, even the ones who have started bouldering later.

And in the pool, I compare myself to the people who are faster, not those who are slower. Every so often, I come home from exercising feeling frustrated and bitterly complain to my husband.

Why can’t I be better at sports? What’s the point of doing it if I won’t ever be any “good”? I like the social element of exercising in a group, but I can’t seem to stop comparing myself to others. And so my competitiveness sometimes gets in the way of my enjoyment.

I sometimes wonder if this is related to the way society expects women to give 150% in order to be considered “successful” (or even adequate). Or is it just my own personality? Am I intrinsically competitive, or have I been socialised to be that way, through the environment I grew up in and the academic training I’ve received?

As usual, the answer is probably “a bit of everything”. The thing is, in sports I don’t owe anyone anything. As long as I enjoy doing it, it shouldn’t matter if I’m any “good” at it. And yet.

So I’m interested: how do others cope with their own competitiveness? Does it affect your enjoyment of exercise if you work out with people who are better than you?

Bettina is a political scientist-turned-science-manager and feminist from Germany, where she now lives after stints in the UK and Spain. She enjoys sports, reading, food, and travelling.

Picture of Bettina in a green running shirt after completing an 8k race on New Year’s Eve 2017, during which she couldn’t stop comparing herself to other runners, but had fun nevertheless.
fitness · Guest Post · hiking · winter

Pack up your snowshoes and trek it all away (Guest Post)

Image description: Long-haired blond woman (Wendy) with sunglasses, ski style hat, pink and black plaid ski jacket, smiling. In the background a medium sized black and brown dog standing in the snow, looking toward a footbridge, trees, blue sky with clouds.
Image description: Long-haired blond woman (Wendy) with sunglasses, ski style hat, pink and black plaid ski jacket, smiling. In the background a medium sized black and brown dog standing in the snow, looking toward a footbridge, trees, blue sky with clouds.

By Wendy Boucher

I’m 48, I have a phenomenal seven-year-old girl, I’m a Western science student, and my boyfriend of 2 years dumped me via email in October. The day after Christmas he tagged me in a Facebook post stating that he hoped I got coal for Christmas, quickly followed by a post announcing his new relationship (complete with loved up pics).

What did I do, you ask!?

Did I send a poisonous rebuttal? Cry in my ice-cream bucket? Call my girlfriends and formulate a plan to photo shop hearts around a pic of me and my super cute 38-year-old guy friend – who has a crush on me – and post it on my Facebook page? Nope. None of the above.

I threw on some lipstick, packed a light lunch, a big bottle of water, my iPhone, and… my snowshoes. My German Shepherd cross, Kyah, was down for the adventure so we dropped my girl off at her dad’s house, and drove to FanshaweConservation Area. It is there in the wilderness, trekking the 21k loop around the lake that I always find me. My independence. My strength. My love for myself. And I lose the marionette strings that those who hurt me have attempted to control me with – including social media passive aggressive shots.

The first 5 km found Kyah and I taking selfies amongst the many snowy footprints of other hikers. The scenery was a massive contrast to urban London, and the sun painted the snow silver. I was still frustrated but felt the anger begin to drift into apathy.

The second 5 km saw my spirits lift considerably. I saw far less signs of human life along our path which made me realize that not many people can walk this far. I am one of the elite winter hikers. I shout out, “I am woman”. My best friends are my strength and my loyal canine. Hear us roar.

Image description: Black and brown dog on a long leash on a snowy trail with low brush on either side. In the centre foreground a blue metal snowshoe, left foot, extending forward to take a step.
Image description: Black and brown dog on a long leash on a snowy trail with low brush on either side. In the centre foreground a blue metal snowshoe, left foot, extending forward to take a step.

When I reached the 10 km mark (which means I continue the 11 km to my car, or turn around and trek 10 km back to my car) I had been hiking for 2.5 hours. I was committed either way. I thanked my fitness level, the mental endurance I learned from 10 years of adventure racing, and the fact that emotional pain drove me to this awesome place of a natural endorphin high. I found myself singing “Let It Go” as I trekked amongst a long corridor of evergreens. I was the Snow Queen of the Fanshawe forest.

The third 5 km discovered the power within me. I found no prints in the snow, was forced to load myself onto my snowshoes, and my dog lead the way with her keen sense of smell. She guided me through the woods sniffing out the trail with her 300 million olfactory receptors. She became my compass as well as my social support. My strength was waning but my spirits were jubilant. “You’ll never see me cry… the cold never bothered me anyway.”

Sadly, everything but my strength fell apart after that. My water bottle was plugged with ice, my phone died, my dog began to limp from the ice between her toes, my snack was a cold solid rock (I totally forgot that everything outside freezes at -15 – and I am outside), and I was still 5 km from my car. I began to think.

Remember what happens when you work out? You tear your muscles, just a tiny bit, all over and this is what makes them stronger. Your tiny muscle fiber tears heal, and you get larger muscles. So, when you heal – you are stronger. So maybe in order for us to become emotionally stronger, we have to hurt a tiny bit all over. So maybe we need to think of emotional pain as the post-workout-aches, take an ibuprofen, and in a few days we will actually will be stronger, look fitter, be healthier, and be a better version of ourselves.

As I was thinking, I cut off the trail opting to take a country highway back to my car. I didn’t want to die in the woods as darkness was quickly approaching and my time in the cold was nearly up. A silver Audi pulled up alongside my popsicle self and that of my icicle dog. The man and his fiancé that I had spoken with an hour earlier in the woods recognized Kyah and I and recalled that I had told them where our car was. He jumped out and told me that I was a million miles away from my car. He helped me with my backpack, threw it in the trunk, and like a big brother, escorted me to the front seat of their toasty vehicle. We are all Facebook friends now. He has since told me that his motto is “leave no hiker behind”. Wow. There are amazingly helpful and unselfish men out there. My faith has been greatly restored by this one.

Kyah and I gratefully welcomed the warm drive back to our car. She was curled up on my lap licking her paws as the angel-couple and I chatted about our hikes.

Image Description: Left wrist with an electronic activity tracker watch showing 10:55; Total Steps 24,935; total distance 17.87 KM; Outdoor Walk: 15.03 KM.
Image Description: Left wrist with an electronic activity tracker watch showing 10:55; Total Steps 24,935; total distance 17.87 KM; Outdoor Walk: 15.03 KM.

Sure, I didn’t do the whole 21k trek, and I didn’t do it all alone. And yes, the powers-that-be had to send me help when I needed it. But guess what? I’m smiling. I made new friends. I’m healthier. I’m leaner. And I have a great story to tell. All because I channeled a bit of emotional pain and used it to fuel adventure, kick-start fitness, and promote a healed mind.

Get out there and tear some muscles.

Wendy is currently a student at Western University and studies Biology and Psychology. Her passion is ecology, animals, and outdoor fitness. Summers are spent mountain biking, paddling, backcountry camping, and hiking. Winters are spent snowshoeing and bird watching. Wendy has a seven-year-old daughter who helps keep her young and fit at 48. 

fitness · gender policing · Guest Post · martial arts

The MMA Fighter and the Troll (Guest Post)

Once upon a time there was an Internet troll who thought that he had found some magical fairy dust called testosterone that would make him stronger, faster, and smarter than any woman in the world. So he thought he could just claim that he could beat any female MMA fighter out there who was in the same weight class as him. Luckily for us, some fine folks set up a match between him and Anna McCauley Dempster, an amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter out of Oregon, to take place on January 6th.

Anna McCauley Dempster, a young blonde athletic-looking woman, throwing a knee with an elbow guarding her face across her body.
Anna McCauley Dempster

Now, while it seems obvious that this particular troll is just asking to get knocked out, as he attempts to channel the ghost of Andy Kaufman, much less extreme versions of the claim he makes are pretty common. Lots of people do think male fighters in general have an advantage over female fighters, even correcting for things like relative size. Weirdo internet trolls aside, most people with any kind of experience doing fight training, in mixed gender contexts, will know that there are women who are better fighters than many men they train with. But that doesn’t mean the playing field is level.

On a personal level, I’m as committed to both feminism and martial arts as anyone I know, but hesitate at the thought of genderless divisions. I suppose I do agree with the view that male fighters have an advantage, but I hesitate to say that it’s just a simple physiological fact (e.g. more testosterone). I know, I know. Testosterone is advantageous, and that’s why it’s used as a performance-enhancing substance. Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) is banned by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).  But it can’t be the whole story. After all, “Bigfoot” Silva, who has acromegaly, naturally has testosterone levels that are well below average, but has had to fight for many years without TRT.

One thing I think we can’t rule out, though, to explain differences in ability, is the role of gender socialization. Spend some time hanging out with kids, especially when they’re doing physical stuff, and take note over time of how differently little boys and little girls are treated. A lot of what we supposedly know about hardwired differences between male and female brains can plausibly be chalked up to what Cordelia Fine has called neurosexism. Could something like that be going on with physical ability? Well before puberty and many of the more significant developmental differences, lots of people don’t seem to expect little girls to be as physically capable as little boys, much less encourage them to be physical in the same ways. It seems weird to think that kind of thing wouldn’t affect them as they get older, even if they’re active athletes.

But I think that if we want to encourage people to be athletic, and to take part in athletic competitions, we need, as a sporting society, to sort out just what we think the important differences are to make competition fair. Not everyone’s gender identity fits neatly into a binary, and many trans and intersex athletes have been subjected to a great deal of discrimination. It just doesn’t seem as though gender segregation along a binary is doing the trick these days, and maybe it’s time to consider whether there are any viable alternatives.

Still. In the meantime, while we figure out the deeper issues behind gender and sport, you can tide yourselves over by watching Anna McCauley Dempster beat up a troll.