Black Hustory · Black Present · fitness · hiking · racism · swimming

Exercising while black: a few women’s stories

As a white woman who wants to be a better ally, advocate and collaborator for racial justice, the number once piece of advice I’m hearing is: get yourself educated! Read and learn about the history, politics, economics, etc. of systematic racism. Read about the experiences of people of color as recounted by them. Learning is necessary for white people to acknowledge, be aware of and look for situations where racism harms people of color; these situations are everywhere, and happening all the time. Then, learn how to respond. Learn to be uncomfortable, and accept that others will be made uncomfortable by your responses.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

On this blog, we’ve written a lot about discrimination against cis and trans women, against older women, fatter women, women with disabilities, and women of color.

Today’s post offers you a few sites and stories of African American women, in motion in a racist world.

I am asking you, dear readers, a favor: if you could add any suggestions in the comments about women of color doing physical activities whose stories we ought to know about, we’ll publish them in a follow-up post. Thanks as always.

First up–Black Girls Trekkin’. this is a group “for women of color who choose to opt outside”. Tiffanie Tharpe, one of the founders, was interviewed in the Guardian about the need for support and safety for women of color in the outdoors:

I feel like it’s important for black girls to hike. When I was young I would have loved to have had someone encouraging me to get outside. To not be afraid. I’ve decided to apply for a master’s degree in parks and recreation management, and a friend and I set up a hiking group for women of color in LA called Black Girls Trekkin’. I want to be a model to other young girls.

Here’s a photo from their Facebook page from one of the events they sponsor:

Two black women with a little girl in the middle, hiking with a big group.
Two black women with a little girl in the middle, hiking with a big group.

Second: Outdoor Afro. Founded by Ru Mapp, Outdoor Afro is a national not-for-profit organization based on Oakland, CA. They have local leaders and sponsor events in 30 states, organizing hikes, kayaking, mountain biking and other outdoor activities. In their stories section, you can hear from Taishya Adams about the ways being in the outdoors and organizing and leading outdoor groups has helped her develop skills for community organizing and political action. She says:

As an Outdoor Afro leader in Colorado, I build on their 10-year legacy of reconnecting black people to the outdoors and our role as leaders in it. I believe that human relationships are at the center of our work towards justice, the foundation each of us can build upon.

Taishya Adams, in Colorado.
Taishya Adams, in Colorado.

Third: The Howard University women’s swim team. Howard is the only historically black university in the US that has both men’s and women’s swim teams. The BBC spent time with the Howard women swim team to create a documentary podcast called Black Girls Don’t Swim. The swimmers talk about their early experiences with swimming and the barriers they’ve encountered. One of the obstacles is the harmful effects of chlorinated water on their hair. The team discusses hair care, competing in a white-dominated sport, tips on being a successful student athlete, and how much they love swimming in this video interview, conducting by blackkidsswim.com.

Howard university women's swim team member in the water.
Howard university women’s swim team member in the water.

There’s a long and complex and racist history of the relationships between swimming and black communities all over the world. This article in The Conversation by University of Toronto PhD. student Jacqueline Scott provides a short introduction and starting point for learning about these issues.

Finally (for now), there’s Jacqueline Scott’s excellent blog, Black Outdoors. She writes about all sorts of activities from birding to snowshoeing, has published widely and also been interviewed for her research and her passion for the outdoors. Bonus for Torontonians: Scott also leads 2-hour Black History Walks (currently paused), which you can read more about here.

Jacqueline Scott in front of a mural in Toronto, talking  about Black History.
Jacqueline Scott in front of a mural in Toronto, talking about Black History.

So readers, any suggestions for stories and sites to visit to learn more about women of color in motion on land, sea or air? I didn’t cover much here, so I’d welcome input. We’d love to see them, and will put them together for another post. Thanks!

covid19 · racism

Systemic racism looks like the death of George Floyd, denying the science of masks, and our perspectives on dietary privilege

It is Saturday night as I write this, and two of my favorite communities in all the world are on fire. Sparked by yet another police killing of a black man, George Floyd, fueled in no doubt by frustrations at the dangerously inept federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic, protesters in my former adopted hometown of Minneapolis have been venting their rage at racial injustice. This wildfire has rapidly spread across the country, and we are under curfew here in Portland, as the city braces for a second night of violence. A lack of trust in science and experts has allowed this to happen. It’s fed the flames of division.

Lack of trust in experts has provided the permission structure necessary for white people to disregard the overwhelming research that supports the fact that we are dealing with generations of intentional policies and decisions designed to select who gets to pull on the levers of power. Generations of politicians, religious leaders, and other folks with power have created alternative interpretations of “the facts” to support their preconceptions that they are in power because they’ve earned it and because they are better suited to the work. Whole branches of pseudoscience were developed to justify the white, Euroamerican position of privilege, dehumanizing people of other backgrounds, identifying them as more dangerous, more violent, and less trustworthy. The entire field of statistics was developed to create mathematical models that justified placing white people as more civilized than other races.(1)

More recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we are debating the science of wearing a mask and how to safely reopen businesses. This is not separate from the issues of racial injustice above; rather, it is a direct example of the systemic practices that intentionally disproportionately harm people of color in the United States. Covid-19 is more dangerous for Americans of color–they are more likely to get sick, more likely to die, and more likely to face the economic hardships brought on by this new depression. When Trump and his followers insist on going about their business without wearing masks, they are endangering the health and livelihoods of their fellow Americans of color to a higher degree than for white Americans. They frame it as an argument about the science and about economic policy, but it is really about power and deciding whose lives and livelihoods are going to be prioritized.

And many of us people of privilege are asking ourselves what we can do. In the long run, of course, I will be voting for Biden for president. Although he wasn’t the person I was most excited to support, there’s no question that his administration would be the compassionate and science-based organization we need.

But we need to do more than show up in November; we need to use our positions of privilege to challenge the thinking of those around us when we witness a lack of science-based thinking. And this is when I connect all of this to our world of fitness. Regular readers will know that I’m pretty concerned about the preponderance of pseudoscience in the health and fitness sphere. It is literally harming people every day. But even bigger than that, I believe that our support of pseudoscience, distrust of experts, and tribalism in these non-political spheres of our lives supports these same tendencies in politics and society as a whole. And I believe that this is a very dangerous mindset to allow to go unchallenged.

If we allow ourselves to be siloed to only vegan, only palio, and only organic camps, we are preparing our minds for other types of tribalism as well. If we distrust medical experts when they disagree with our rationales to avoid certain foods, we are making it more acceptable to distrust experts when they explain why we should wear masks. If we believe we are superior because we eschew all grains in our diet while we insist that this is why we are enjoying better health than those around us, then we are more apt to believe that other positions of privilege are due to our own good choices rather than the result of societal supports, generational wealth and uneven distribution of resources. We must challenge our own thinking and the thinking of those close to us, if we are going to change the world for the better for everyone.

Being scientific doesn’t mean we can’t make room for anecdotes. Indeed, the best science is informed by careful observation of anecdotes in search for patterns and plausible explanations. However, we must temper our own enthusiasm for our own perspectives with information and data from the larger picture–this is what science can be very good at that our own minds may not be. It can help us suss out larger patterns than we may be able to discern through our own experiences alone. The data are clear–wearing masks reduces the transmission of disease, people of color are perceived as more of a threat than white people under similar circumstances, there are many ways to eat healthfully, and privilege has life-or-death consequences every day.

We must push back on this unscientific thinking in our own communities, if we are going to help create a more equal world. I will continue to use my position of privilege to attend protests, where I will be perceived as less threatening than my peers of color. I will continue to give money to causes that lift up voices of color in education, politics and business. And I will push back on unscientific thinking and reflexive distrust of experts in fitness, nutrition and health amongst my friends and family. Only through agreement on the scientific truths in our world can we know justice and know peace.

Photo description: Orange and purple sunset over Portland skyrises, the Fremont bridge and Mt. Saint Helens in the background.

(1) I recommend you read the Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould, if you are interested in learning more of this fascinating and frustrating piece of pseudoscience history.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found discussing uncomfortable realities, picking up heavy things, and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.

aging · beauty · fitness · normative bodies · objectification · racism · sex · stereotypes

Women’s bodies and football and racism and being a babe at 50

I know you might have been watching the game. But me, the only bit I’ve watched was the amazing halftime show put on by J. Lo and and Shakira. Did you see it? So good. They performed a medley of their music along with some amazing choreography and wore gorgeous costumes. It was fun and beautiful and I loved it.

But no sooner had I enjoyed it than the commentary began. Do you know that J. Lo and Shakira are 50 and 43, respectively? There was a lot of commenting about that. There was also a lot of commenting about their “sinful” costumes. And should they really be wearing so little clothing? (Sometimes said, sometimes implied, “at their age.”) Isn’t this just the objectification of women’s bodies?

A friend said on Facebook, earlier in the day, about football, that it was a good principle in general to “let people enjoy things.” I think the same thing is true about the halftime entertainment.

There was an awful lot of critical commentary. So many words about women’s bodies. A conservative Christian mother of three took to Twitter to liken the halftime show to pornography and Twitter responded about as expected.

To give you a flavour of the anti-halftime show Christian comments, here’s Rev. Franklin Graham, “I don’t expect the world to act like the church, but our country has had a sense of moral decency on prime time television in order to protect children. We see that disappearing before our eyes. It was demonstrated tonight in the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show — with millions of children watching. This exhibition was Pepsi showing young girls that sexual exploitation of women is okay. With the exploitation of women on the rise worldwide, instead of lowering the standard, we as a society should be raising it.”

USA Today weighed in, Empowering, not objectifying. Amen. Thank you USA Today. Argument: They’re adult women and this is about choice.

This blog’s frequent guest Sarah Skwire had the best response. I laughed during a university meeting reading it.

Sarah wrote. “I gather some women had bodies on television last night. This, of course, never happened when I was a child. Certainly not during prime time, when we watched clean and healthy shows like Wonder Woman, Buck Rodgers, Logan’s Run, Three’s Company, Baywatch, and Love Boat which never sexualized women’s bodies, or made scanty outfits a central point of their plots, or exposed young children to sexual situations..

When I was a child, women in entertainment all dressed like Edith Bunker.”

Why so much policing of women’s bodies? Did it make a difference do you think the women’s bodies in question weren’t white? Did it seem especially sinful/sexy and in need of control because they were brown women dancing? Was race a factor?

Read Dear White People: The Super Bowl Halftime Show Wasn’t Too Sexy, You’re Just Racist if you want to hear the arguments.

On Facebook Kristin Wolf had this to say:

“White people:
I see your posts about how their bodies and their dancing made you uncomfortable.

Did you notice the Latinx kids in cages singing BORN IN THE USA and LETS GET LOUD surrounded by an illumined Venus symbol? Did you notice the foot work? Did you notice the rope Shakira tied around her body while belly dancing? Can you think more deeply about what that image meant? Did you notice bilingual songs and two of the hottest Raggaeton artists as guests? Did you notice the 🇵🇷? Did you notice that sex work is legitimate work and the pole wasn’t about you?

Y’all save your righteous anger for the weirdest stuff. I wish y’all were as uncomfortable about kids in cages as you are about brown bodies.

STOP POLICING BROWN BODIES.”

So there’s sex and there’s race, but there’s also an age angle. So much talk of their age. Did you know J.Lo is 50? Did you know Shakira is 43?

The New York Times had this to say: “Well, on Sunday Ms. Lopez showed the world what 50 looks like — at least her version of it.” Read The Power of 50.

But that prompted a lot more spilt ink about being 50 and looking like J. Lo.

From the New Yorker article THE SUPER BOWL HALFTIME SHOW, AND THE AGELESS COMFORTS OF J. LO : “Magazines and Web sites regularly publish articles that promise to reveal the secrets to Lopez’s continued youthfulness (how does she look so good at fifty?), and her ability to maintain a firm-skinned foxiness is a key part of our fascination with her. (I can’t purport to guess how she does this, though I would imagine that a punishing exercise regimen and diet, and access to top dermatologists and perhaps plastic surgeons, form at least part of the answer.) But Lopez’s still-point-of-the-turning-world quality goes beyond her physical appearance. There is something reassuringly unchanging about her presence, too. “

A friend lamented that J. Lo’s existence, looking that amazing, puts pressure on the rest of us 50 somethings to look like that too. It’s not realistic, said the friend, to expect the rest of us who aren’t J. Lo to chase that standard.

That’s the worry, right. If she can do it, why can’t I? It didn’t help that a personal trainer chimed in and commented on my friend’s status said yes, we could all do that if we wanted to. It wouldn’t even take much time or money. He said we just needed dedication, commitment, a gym membership, and an hour a day. I remain skeptical about the hour a day part. I’m also skeptical that any amount of exercise would do it.

We’ve worried about this before here on the blog. A a few years ago Tracy asked Because if Christie Brinkley can pull it off, so can anyone, right?

By the way, she’s still at it now at 65. See Christie Brinkley, 65, lights up Instagram with holiday swimsuit photoshoot.

Tracy asked then, “Is there not an age where we can stop thinking about whether men think we look hot in a bikini? It may be that the Christie Brinkley photo shoot, rather than addressing ageism, just raises the bar for older women (like: why don’t you look like Christie Brinkley in a bikini?).”

Do you you find J. Lo’s looks at 50 inspiring or worrying? If the former, you’ll want to watch the video below.

Here’s J. Lo’s workout routine to get in shape for the show in case you want to start training.

fitness · Martha's Musings · racism · sexism

Link Roundup: Caster Semenya and the IAAF decision

There’s been a lot of discussion at Fit is A Feminist Issue on the recent CAS decision concerning Caster Semenya. Following our blog post yesterday, we’ve heard from a number of commenters who have helpfully shared links to stories. I thought it would be useful to look at what else has been written about Caster Semenya. If you have any other articles, commentaries etc you think will add to our understanding of the issues this decision presents regarding women in sport and the construction of “female” in modern society, please share in the comments to this post.

First, let’s look at what testosterone is and isn’t. Much has been made of the fact that Semenya has higher levels of the so called “male hormone” than usual for women. The IAAF sees this as a disadvantage to other women and this was the foundation of their argument for establishing a discriminatory policy. The New York Times has an interesting opinion piece from two researchers on what they call the myth of testosterone. I thought this quote was illuminating:

“The problem with trying to flatten athleticism into a single dimension is illustrated especially well by a 2004 study published in The Journal of Sports Sciences. The study analyzed testosterone and different types of strength among men who were elite amateur weight lifters and cyclists or physically fit non-athletes. Weight lifters had higher testosterone than cyclists and showed more explosive strength. But the cyclists, who had lower testosterone than both other groups, scored much higher than the others on “maximal workload,” an endurance type of strength. Across the three groups, there was no relationship between testosterone and explosive strength, and a negative relationship between testosterone and maximal workload. Though small, that study isn’t an outlier: Similar complex patterns of mixed, positive and negative relationships with testosterone are found throughout the literature, involving a wide range of sports.” Bottom line: there are inconsistencies in how testosterone enhances or detracts from performance in different sports.

The CBC posted a great overview focusing on the challenges researchers face in trying to establish what the effect and advantage extra testosterone offers to athletes, especially women. There is a lot of disagreement about what the advantage means, and a key part of the legal argument put forward by Semenya’s legal team was the lack of rigour used by the IAAF in setting its standards. The CBC referenced a recent editorial in the British Medical Journal that cited several problems with the IAAF’s own methodology, and most damningly they said the IAAF’s results could not be reproduced:

“… the authors noted the criticisms of an analysis commissioned by the IAAF which found that women whose serum testosterone levels were in the top third performed significantly better than women with levels in the lowest third. Those results, Tannenbaum and Bekker claim, could not be independently reproduced, and the data does not reliably mirror the source track times of athletes from the 2011 and 2013 world championships.”

Other articles in the days following the CAS decision have focused on highlighting the human rights issues arising from the decision to require Semenya to reduce her natural testosterone levels with medication. Jacqueline Doorey writes: “But as self-identity and gender politics continue to evolve, finding the science to back that up is getting harder. And the repercussions of using testosterone levels to classify athletes can test arguments around inclusion and fair competition — as well as possibly infringe on basic human rights.”

We also need to consider the history of policing women in sport. Slate has an excellent overview of Semenya’s battle with the IAAF and offers additional analysis of the background to sex testing and performance for elite women athletes. One of things I liked about the Slate post was how it captured all that Semenya has endured: “Although Semenya is not the first athlete to have her identity as a woman challenged, she has endured this obsession over her eligibility in the women’s category longer than any athlete in history. All along, she has continued to compete and excel, earning five global 800-meter championships even as she was likely reducing her testosterone levels under the former hyperandrogenism rules.” Slate sums up what commenters generally have been saying: Semenya is a target because she is female, black and successful.

Trans athlete Rachel McKinnon explains the future implications for the decision in a concise and clear interview with Newsweek. McKinnon begins with the model of femininity as thin and white and the idea that women who do not meet that ideal are not feminine enough or are not women at all. She highlights the exceptional success of Usain Bolt and how he is celebrated for his exceptionality, yet women like Semenya who have equally exceptional success are suspect and deemed not women. She also takes on the idea stated by some athletes that these policies will protect women in sport, noting that Semenya is in no way protected by this even though she is a woman.

The Economist has weighed in as well, chronicling the start of the IAAF’s campaign against women like Semenya. The Economist looks beyond the immediate concerns of Semenya to consider how the IOC will use this ruling to include not only intersex athletes but trans ones as well:

“Only a few runners will have to make immediate career choices after the court’s decision. But the precedent set by the IAAF’s ruling could affect female athletes in every sport. It is by far the most prominent and detailed ruling that the court has delivered regarding biological sex, and it is a potentially far-reaching one. From now on, the CAS will almost certainly use testosterone levels to determine who should be allowed to compete in women’s events. These tests will apply not only to intersex athletes, but also to trans women, who were born male but identify as women. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had already introduced a testosterone limit of 10 nmol/L for trans women in all sports in 2016, replacing its previous requirement for athletes to have undergone genital-reconstruction surgery. It is now considering reducing the limit to 5 nmol/L. This rule change has not been tested at the court, but after Wednesday’s precedent it looks likely to stand.”

The Economist also highlighted an aspect not covered in some of the other posts I read: that the decision now sets a sliding scale on determining femaleness, adding an extra layer of murkiness to the whole issue. As a side note, it is worth registering to read this article as it also covers significant cases and the challenges in research related to impacts of elevated levels of hormone levels on performance including intersex and trans athletes.

It was also heartening to see that negative or limiting opinions and beliefs could be changed. The Guardian published Madeline Pape’s commentary on how she used to think high testosterone was the issue but how now, with information and consideration, she came to a different point of view. Pape was herself an internationally ranked track athlete until injury sidelined her sports career. She says:

“As a sociologist, I have now spent several years immersed in this issue, interviewing elite track-and-field stakeholders from around the world including athletes, coaches, officials, managers, team staff and media personnel. In their accounts I have seen so many echoes of my own experience in Berlin: an astounding lack of information, an absence of alternative viewpoints, a fear of the unknown, weak leadership from national and international governing bodies, and a stubborn refusal to dig a little deeper and reflect critically on where their views come from and what biases might be underlying them. The path of least resistance is to turn away from information and perspectives that might undermine one’s investment in the simplistic notion that sex is binary and testosterone is unfair (at least in women).”

The Nation contributed a stinging rebuttal of the CAS’s decision. It’s a fabulous piece of writing, and includes this gem from Katrina Karkazis, senior visiting fellow at the Global Health Justice Partnership at Yale University and one of the co-authors of the NYT piece referenced earlier: ” [This decision] endorses discrimination against women in sport and allows sports governing bodies to require medically unnecessary interventions for continued eligibility, violating women’s bodily autonomy and integrity. This neither protects nor benefits women’s sport. (…) my fear is that [the CAS decision] will foster the already circulating erroneous representations about the science of sex biology, intersex, and the relationship between testosterone and athleticism.”

These are the key articles I had time to follow up on, read and analyze this weekend. If you have others you think can add to the discussion and amplify the issues I’ve highlighted, it would be great if you would highlight them in the comments! Also helpful might be any themes you think I’ve overlooked and might be worth exploring in future posts.

athletes · body image · fitness · gender policing · inclusiveness · Martha's Musings · Olympics · racism · sexism · stereotypes

Women, sport and sex tests: Why Caster Semenya matters a great deal

Many years ago I had the good fortune to work with a board full of fabulous women representing a wide diversity of interests, experiences and backgrounds. One of the women had competed in the Montreal Olympics. She described for us one day what it was like to be subjected to a sex test. Her emotions were palpable, especially the anger.

In fact, we should all be angry, for the women athletes in the past whose physical embodiment was questioned and for the women athletes of today and in the future. The policing of women’s bodies, from what they wear to how they are portrayed, is widespread in all aspects of society, not just sport. However, women who excel in sport and wish to compete at the highest levels are subject to scrutiny that goes above and beyond the sort leveled at all athletes when it concerns drug enhancements. This kind of scrutiny has now been enshrined with this week’s decision from the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland in which they ruled against middle distance runner Caster Semenya’s appeal of the IAAF’s move to enforce new regulations regarding athletes differences of sexual development (DDS). In particular, the IAAF says female athletes who have higher than usual levels of testosterone must take drugs to reduce those levels to even the playing field.

Semenya’s career in track has been dogged by constant allegations that her achievements in the sport are unfairly won. Curiously, US swimmer Michael Phelps, whose body produces less lactic acid, is deemed to be exceptionally fortunate to be born with this genetic advantage.

And yet, no one is suggesting Phelps should take drugs to enable his body to produce more lactic acid so his competitors have a more equal opportunity.

We cannot forget that along with the sexism this decision against Semenya perpetuates, it is also supporting a racist assumption on how black bodies perform compared to white ones. Acclaimed tennis champion Serena Williams has been constantly challenged on her accomplishments and her body size, shape and presentation. This CNN article gives a great overview about the biases against Williams, including the assumption that her excellence erases her female identity.

The belief that Williams and Semenya are so good at what they do, they cannot possibly be women is one that has long been used to attack women who excel in sport. But it seems particularly pervasive in its use against black women. Semenya’s body naturally produces more testosterone than is usually found in women. Yet the research is unclear how natural testosterone affects performance compared to artificial hormones used to enhance performance:

“What’s clear is that there is solid evidence that men who take excessive doses of testosterone … do get a competitive advantage clearly in sports related to strength,” said Bradley Anawalt, a hormone specialist and University of Washington Medical Center’s chief of medicine.The problem, said Anawalt, is that attempts to try to quantify that competitive advantage in naturally occurring levels of the hormone are “fraught with difficulty in interpretation.”

The CAS decision was meant to clarify and instead muddied the waters even further. They upheld the IAAF decision but said they should take more time to implement. They agreed with the concept of the rule DDS athletes should reduce their testosterone, but were concerned about the effects on athlete’s bodies. They said it was fine for the IAAF to apply this rule to athletes racing under 1000 metres but athletes running longer distances were fine.

The Semenya case has implications that are far-reaching. We know women have been over-medicated, often to their detriment. We know that chemical castration has been used to manage pedophiles. But Semenya is neither depressed nor a criminal. She is an athlete performing her best with the tools she was born with.

That the IAAF and its head Sebastian Coe have created an environment in which Semenya can be neither her best or herself is untenable. I am glad Canada’s Minister for Sport has called out this decision. We need to have conversations about sexism, racism, and transphobia in sport; more importantly we need action. Follow #HandsOffCaster or #LetHerRun, among others, on Twitter; sign this petition; become informed; and make your views known and heard.