Lia Thomas and Trans Athletes

Lia Thomas’ recent win at the NCAA swim meet has sparked another round of debate about the rights of transgender athletes to participate in sports.

Here is what Sarah Sardinia wrote on Twitter: To all those pushing this false narrative that Trans People have an advantage in sports, and are using Lia Thomas as “proof”, let me lay down some stats here …

1650 yard distance
Lia pre-transition: 14:54.765
Lia post-transition: 15:59.71 (lost 65 seconds)
Male record: 14:12.08 (Kieran Smith)
Female record: 15:03:31 (Katie Ledecky)
She was 40 seconds behind the male record, now she is 56 behind the female

500 yard distance
Lia’s best pre-transition, 4:18:72
Lia’s current, 4:34:06
Female record (Katie Ledecky), 4:24:06
Male record (Kieran Smith), 4:06:32

200 yard distance
Prior to transition 1:39.31
Male record, 1:29.15
After transition 1:41.93
Female record of 1:39.10

See a pattern here?
Not advantage, consistency

There’s a reason that with all the Trans Women competing in sports for years, she is one of the only top ranking ones, because she’s always been one of the top ranking. You can read more here about the data.

To put it another way:

And those images really need to be juxtaposed with the next one, which includes a photo of Olympic champion Katie Ledecky. Katie is 6 feet tall, which makes her one inch shorter than Lia, and two inches shorter than Missy Franklin, who set that NCAA 200 yard record in 2015. There is a lot of talk about how height, and size, and arm span give men natural advantages over women. Swimmers like Michael Phelps have natural advantages, including height, huge feet and flexibility, arm reach, long torsos and relatively short legs. That’s true both among men and women.

Maybe we should learn a a bit more about what this very private athlete has to say for herself. Her experience is not atypical of the gender testing that has gone on for many decades.

The reality is that the vast majority of youth athletes of any gender don’t compete at the elite level. However, even as amateur athletes they face discrimination, so few participate, especially trans girls. A recent Reuters article noted that “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2019 that just 1.8% of high school students in the country are transgender, and the Human Rights Campaign has said that, according to surveys, only about 12% play on girls’ sports teams.”.

Some do do compete as boys or men without too much attention, such as Schuyler Bailar, the first openly trans swimmer in the NCAA men’s first division, and Chris Mosier, the first openly trans athlete to qualify for Team USA and who competed in the Olympic Trials in January 2020. Others, such as Mack Beggs, the Texas high school wrestler forced to compete against girls even after starting to take testosterone, are forced into the same unwelcome spotlight as Lia Thomas. By focusing so much on biology and physiology, the impact is the dehumanization of those kids.

Lots more research is needed on the impact of hormones on performance, and there are legitimate concerns about putting competitors of significantly different sizes/abilities in the same categories when there is a risk of injury. The Christian Science Monitor has done a decent job of trying to summarize the latest research and how it is interpreted. But the bottom line for me and most of the people I know can be summarized like this:

Anyone saying trans girls have an unfair advantage have never seen me perform a sport. Cartoon by Sophie Labelle (

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa.

Book Reviews

Nat reviews Bikes Not Rockets: Intersectional Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction Stories

This awesome collection of 11 short stories answers the question that has always bothered me in science fiction “Why aren’t there any bicycles?”

This is the 5th book in the series published by Microcosm Publishing edited by Elly Blue.

When the opportunity came up to review this book for our blog Sam knew I was the feminist sci-fi reading and writing cyclist who is always on the lookout for a great read.

In the introduction Elly Blue outlines why when we build worlds and tell tales that we must actively engage in intersectionality. If we don’t think about all the axis of identity and oppression then we risk perpetuating the “isms” of the world we live in into our imagined worlds.

I have had the opportunity to go to WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention, the past two years.

WisCon and Functional Fitness

WisCon41 all the feels about disability

It was a wonderful experience but I also learned how some of my favourite genre stories are filled with unexamined ableism, sexism and racism. If we can build any world we want when writing why not create ones that challenge these inequalities?

As a fledgling writer I’ve set aside my apocalypse novel after realizing it was a story about privileged white people patting themselves on the back for figuring out how to live in the apocalypse the way many people around the world live today. Ya. That was an icky realization. I can do better. We can do better!

Elly Blue clearly knows how to get there and has sought out writers who are witty, funny and craft tender, engaging stories with characters I can relate to who take up the challenges in their lives while riding bicycles.

Novel cover art depicting a woman riding a bicycle through space. She wears a helmet and her pants are tucked into her socks. With toe clips, saddle bags and an oner the handlebar bag she clearly has spent many parsecs in the saddle.

Would you like a chance to win a copy of this fantastic book?

Like or comment before my Saturday post goes up at 6am EST and I’ll put your name into the draw.

The book was funded on kickstarter:

And if you are looking for more great stories the buck the norms in engaging ways check out the full catalogue at

fitness · team sports · winter

We Do Us: A Fun Run in the Snow (Guest Post)

Previously I have blogged about the 2016 Mudmoiselle as an example of the “party run phenomenon” and how a completing a winter obstacle course helped me to “find my tribe”.

This year, wearing our red winter finest, Team Freezer Burn made its return to the Polar Rush obstacle challenge (and fundraiser for Sick Kids) at the Horseshoe Ski Resort North of Barrie, ON. Set up along a zipline and golf course adjacent to the resort, the event had participants run the 5km without disrupting the skiers and snowboarders on the hill. The untimed race had wall and hill climbs, slides, and balance activities that were completed individually, or cooperatively if someone needed encouragement or a hand.

Freezer Burn Team members, including the Spicy Chicken and I, Tonya.

Afterwards, our team celebrated with an evening of hot tub soaking, food, and games at the hotel, during which we recounted and laughed about the day’s events into the night.

Over breakfast at Timmie’s the next morning, my roomies and I discussed some of the reasons why we enjoyed this all-lady, team-based activity:

  • It made 2 hours of exercise more fun;
  • Some work (and exercise) indoors, so the outdoor activity was a welcome change;
  • Running as a team, everyone was supported, and no one was left behind;
  • Everyone’s comfort levels were accepted–“You do you,” as my roomie, Jordan, put it.

Together we reflected on how this winter fun run provided a situation-based activity that we felt were different other women-folk event. Jordan compared it to (the often but not exclusively male) relationships that develop while watching sporting events or poker nights, which don’t revolve around exclusively talking for its own sake. While complaining, gossiping, or other types of chit chat over coffee or wine have their place, such socializing often involves sharing about our own separate lives. In contrast, the chat following our obstacle course run involved enjoying memories made together–a life experience that friends, old and new, had shared.

This post is titled we do us because for me it describes our fun run in two ways. First, the team’s vibe was inclusive and supportive, but we also honoured our differences. Based on our various levels of fitness and interests, team members could opt in or out of any obstacle or social activity—with absolutely no judgement. Second, we weren’t just being together—we were doing together, which meant participating in a shared experience, even as we were each experiencing it differently.

This vibe may not be for everyone, but it allowed this particular group of women to have a lot of fun. And winning the team award for Best Costume—that was pretty fun too.

Elan “Red Cheat-Ah” Paulson of Team Freezer Burn, which won Best Costume at the Polar Rush!

Elan Paulson works at Western University, and she is a converted Fun Runner. She thanks Jordan P., Deb V., and Mary Lou G. for thoughts that contributed to this post.

body image · fitness

Treadmills in Sheds? Yes, That’s Happening for Reasons That Aren’t Okay

shed-clipart-shed_tng_standard_feltDid you see the UK Huffington Post article earlier this week that said women are working out in sheds for fear of being judged? Sam and I were working on our book this morning. I’m on the part about the feminization of fitness, which led me to thinking about how form-fitting fitness clothing keep lots of women away from getting active.

Sam has blogged about that before. See her post “No way I’m wearing that: body conscious clothing as a barrier to entry to women in sport.” The irony is that the more absorbed we get in a sport the less likely we are to be concerned about how we look. I can tell you this: the last thing on my mind during the marathon on Sunday was my appearance (well, okay, I didn’t want to be caught sobbing on camera, but that was all).

We got chatting about that a bit (instead of writing) and then she reminded me about the shed story from the other day:

Women are steering clear of fitness for “fear of being judged”, a new Government report has revealed.

Another heartbreaking reality was that those who do want to keep fit are choosing to exercise in their sheds, hidden away, out of fear of being laughed at.

The report comes after Public Health England revealed that the number of women achieving recommended levels of physical activity was far lower than men – 31% of females engage in sport once a week compared to 40.1% of men.

The report, which has been collated by the Commons’ Health Select Committee, labels “fear of judgement” as a key factor when it comes to why women’s fitness levels are below par.

Kay Thomson from Sport England said: “Three quarters of women want to become more active but something is stopping them – fear of judgement.

“Judgement about appearance when exercising, ability to be active, confidence to turn up to a session, or feeling guilty about going to be physically active or doing something when you should have been spending more time with your family.”

It’s sad and alarming that fear of being judged about their appearance or their level of ability is keeping women from doing something that can, in fact, create confidence and an alternative body-narrative that isn’t so focused on looks.  More than that, getting active is a matter of social equality. If women are so worried that they will be judged harshly that they are either not getting active at all or are putting their treadmills in the shed, that’s a disturbing comment on the way fitness media, fitness culture, and normative expectations of women’s bodies work to exclude, marginalize, and dis-empower women.

The exclusion is well-articulated in the words of this woman who participated in the survey:

She revealed: “When I looked online for information, there was lots about weight loss and running but nothing about running just as an overweight person, the psychological aspects of that and how tough it is when you are constantly shouted at, laughed at and clothes in fitness stores don’t fit you.

“It feels like the whole sport is not geared up for you.”

Fitness activities and physical exercise are not just for people who are already thin, not just for the young, not just for those with athletic builds or natural talent.

We need a more inclusive approach that does not body-shame people and does not perpetuate the idea that only a certain demographic has a right to engage in physical activity. I’ve written before about this idea of inclusive fitness. We are far from that ideal and the UK study presents clear evidence that more needs to be done to deliver a different message:

“I have women who tell me they run on a treadmill in their shed because they just don’t want to be seen in public,” she said. “But that is part of the problem. Because we don’t see many overweight women exercising in public, other women don’t think that exercise is for them.”

“They think it is for all the slim people that they always see out in the parks.”

She added that larger women aren’t able to get hold of sports kits which fit them properly, which presents another barrier: “No woman wants to dress in men’s clothing to go out for a run when there is already the risk of being laughed at.”

In my post on inclusive fitness, I said:

I’m old school about one fairly simple staple in feminist discourse: people begin to believe they can achieve something if they see others like themselves represented doing the thing they want to achieve.

It’s not just in the media that we need wider representation, but also in everyday life. If larger women can’t even find workout gear that fits appropriately, then that sends the further message that such activity is not meant for them.

In the UK, there is a movement afoot to create a more attractive picture of physical activity to a wider group of women:

The Government now hopes to address these barriers and issues by releasing a programme on diet and physical activity which works to examine how women, those with disabilities and overweight people, can be encouraged and supported to be more active.

Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign is also helping to get women moving by showing “real women” working out – in a bid to help others summon up the courage to get active.

It’ll be interesting to watch how this all plays out, and whether the campaign will succeed in creating a truly welcoming and positive attitude towards diversity among those engaged in physical activity.

Meanwhile, I think we can all agree that sheds may be great places to store our gear, but no one should feel so judged that they choose the shed as the place to use their gear.

aging · athletes · body image · disability · equality · fat · fitness · inclusiveness

Guest Lecturing in “The Body”

I just got back from guest lecturing in a Women’s Studies class called “The Body,” taught by our friend and colleague, Wendy Pearson.  Here’s the course description:

How we understand the body, whether through scientific investigation or through its representation in media, literature or art, has material effects on how people’s lives and experiences are shaped. We will examine social and scientific constructions of the body, including concepts of beauty, health, fitness, sexuality, and questions of representation.

The course will also consider how our relationship – both personal and cultural — to our bodies shapes our sense of self and both prescribes and proscribes certain possibilities for how we may live our lives. We will look, for example, at the way in which only certain very fit bodies qualify as athletic or at the ways in which the relationship between musculature and class identity has changed since the early 20th century. We will examine particular social problems, such as our society’s difficulty with understanding the disabled body as sexual, the current cultural obsession with children’s body size, and the psychiatric and medical response to people who feel that their bodily sex does not match their gender. We will consider changing definitions of beauty and how that affects the ways in which different people understand themselves. We may also look at questions of representation, the various ways in which bodies and body parts are represented in the media and the issue of why some forms of representation of the nude body count as art while others are considered pornographic.

Sam and I shared the three-hour class tonight. She took the first half to talk about “Obesity Panics” and the trouble with framing obesity as an illness and its prevalence as an “epidemic.”

When I arrived shortly before the break, the packed room of 180 keen students was challenging her claim that there is something wrong with obesity being considered a disease.  I got there just in time to hear Sam say that unlike cancer, obesity isn’t something you “get.”  It’s something that the charts say you “are.”

After the break, it way my turn. My topic: “Fitness and Normative Bodies.”  By the time Sam was done with them, they were afraid to say that there was a relationship between fitness and fatness.  So hesitant were they to draw any connection that when I asked them about what measures or indicators they might use to judge whether they were physically fit or whether they’d made any progress, not a single person said anything about body weight or even about body composition.

We had a lively discussion about the impact of subtle forms of exclusion in fitness media and representations of fitness culture, in which only a narrow demographic of youthful, lean, toned, nondisabled, people, mostly men and mostly white are depicted.  When women do appear in fitness media, there is a very narrow range of acceptable body types that pass muster.

I saw heads nodding (not nodding off!) when I said that engaging in physical activities that challenge us can be a real source of confidence and empowerment.

It took some convincing, but after hearing both of us I think the majority of the class was at least willing to entertain the idea that there is a pernicious form of exclusion going on in fitness culture. Though sometimes subtle, it makes it very difficult for people who do not fit the normative ideal body type to feel as if they belong.

This then becomes an equality issue, given that health, well-being, confidence, and a sense of your own power are all desirable social goods that can benefit everyone.

I ended by talking a bit about Olga Kotelko, who took up track and field at the age of 77 and had over 750 gold medals to her name by the time she turned 95 (at which age she died).

Olga Kotelko, who began her 18 year track career at age 77 and had 750 gold medals to her name by the time she died at 95.
Olga Kotelko, who began her 18 year track career at age 77 and had 750 gold medals to her name by the time she died at 95.

The upshot: a more inclusive fitness culture that doesn’t preoccupy itself with the narrow demographic who occupies “the normative body” would have enormous social and political benefits that extend way beyond physical fitness.

Thanks, Wendy, for an opportunity to talk to your class. What a fabulous idea for a course and what fun it was to be there!

advertising · athletes · body image

A picture is worth a thousand words?

Tracy and I have written before about the need to change the range of images we associate with “fitness.” See her post Inclusive Fitness and my post No more headless fatties, why not use images of active fat people complete with heads instead?.

Stock photography images of women are pretty revealing whether it’s women laughing alone with salad, women trying to drink water badly, or women using laptops awkwardly. The stock photo images of feminists aren’t great either. Of course.

Now things might be getting better as  Getty And ‘Lean In’ Reimagine Stock Photos Of Women.

See also and Getty Aim to Change Women’s Portrayal in Stock Photos

To try to remedy the problem, Ms. Sandberg’s nonprofit organization,, is to announce on Monday a partnership with Getty Images, one of the biggest providers of stock photography, to offer a special collection of images that it says represent women and families in more empowering ways.

“When we see images of women and girls and men, they often fall into the stereotypes that we’re trying to overcome, and you can’t be what you can’t see,” Ms. Sandberg said in an interview.

Here’s some from their collection that portray physically active women:

womanjumping photo woman running photo woma standing photo woman hiking across snowy rocks with poles

The Lean In images are still pretty limited terms of body size and shape. It’s still the case that none of them look anything like me. But there have been other developments on the stock photo front this week. The Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity recently took positive steps to improve the images of obese people in the press.

In an effort to reduce stigmatizing portrayals of overweight and obese persons in the news, we have created a Media Gallery that provides a collection of brief, professional video clips and images that depict obese individuals in a variety of settings. These images and video clips provide a non-biased representation of adults who are overweight and obese, and are intended for use as background and b-roll video footage for the news media. Our Media Gallery can help promote accurate coverage of obesity-related topics in news reporting and challenge harmful weight-based stereotypes.


photo of obese people doing varius activities

See New stock photos of obese people offer a respectful portrayal of being fat [20 pictures]




accessibility · disability · inclusiveness

Fitness and Accessibility

vanc010I went swimming at the Y the other day. The swimmer two lanes over from me has been lane swimming at the Y on a regular basis for years. She has no arms or legs and she is a strong swimmer who makes her way up and down the lane for a good, solid half hour or more several times a week.

The Y pool is always equipped with the machine that helps her in and out of the water. It does not need to be special ordered or brought out of storage when disabled people require assistance. In other words, the Y does not just accommodate, it does what it can to be accessible.

The difference between accommodation and accessibility is enormous. Accommodations are case by case and require those who need them to step forward, case by case as individuals, and make (what are regarded as) special requests.

An environment that accommodates disability is designed to be enjoyed first and foremost by non-disabled people. If my fellow swimmer needed to call ahead and arrange the means to get safely into the pool every time she wanted to go swimming, that would be an accommodation. Instead, the lift is always there. The pool is accessible.

Another example: when airlines provide wheelchairs or other types of mobility assistance for passengers who need assistance in airports, that is an accommodation. The people must make arrangements ahead of time and are dependent upon the airline staff to meet them and get them where they need to go. Moving sidewalks, which also provide important assistance for people who cannot walk the long distances airports often require, are examples of accessibility. No special request needed.

Accommodation is better than nothing, but it’s not ideal. What we ought to aim at and what many jurisdictions are starting to recognize, at least on a policy level, is a commitment to barrier free accessibility for all community members.

Aiming at equity with respect to accessibility recognizes that access requires a structural and systemic analysis. Feminists are aware of this type of analysis since they regard gender inequity as involving systemic, deeply entrenched relationships of unequal power. For example, when I was at the recent Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities, a motion was gaining support for Congress to supply daycare for scholars who needed it. Having daycare facilities would make Congress accessible to those scholars, mostly (but not exclusively) women, who have young children.

Physical accessibility of our spaces is not simply about wheelchair access, but that’s a start. Moving sidewalks in airports are great examples of making the space manageable for people who might otherwise be unable, for whatever reason, to get cover the frequently long distances between parts of the airport.

When we look at our workout facilities, gyms and yoga studios, how accessible are they? It’s safe to say that in the majority of cases, they cater to non-disabled people. One of my yoga studios, for example, is on the second floor of a building where the only way up is by a long staircase. As a simple matter of fact, this poses an immediate barrier to anyone who might like to try yoga but who cannot easily manage that many stairs.

Is this a fault or a flaw? The point of this post is to make a first stab simply at drawing attention. Whether it’s a fault or a flaw, it’s most definitely a fact. If we value the kinds of lifestyles that encourage or at least enable people to be active if they choose to (and maybe this value is itself worth examining), then it’s worth thinking about how the facilities and institutions that are designed for this purpose might exclude people with disabilities.

Mobility issues are not the only barriers to access. Our world default setting assumes that people are sighted and able to hear, that they understand English, even that they are a certain height that enables them to reach elevator buttons, taps, and so forth.

And access is not only about physical access. Another thing I like about the Y is that they recognize financial need and make memberships available at a reduced cost to people who are unemployed or underemployed. They have access to the same benefits as any other regular membership. In this sense, the Y does far better than many other clubs. Indeed, in some places, exclusion is a positive value, re-packaged as “exclusive.”

I owe thanks to philosopher, Shelley Tremain, for prompting me to pay more attention to disability and ableism in general and my blogging about fitness in particular. Her expertise and willingness to engage in discussion has influenced my thinking on these matters a lot. The editor’s introduction that she wrote for a special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly on the theme of feminist disability theory was especially helpful in showing me that a structural analysis of disability is required for an adequate understanding of it and of ableism.

For some more of my recent reflections on disability and fitness (early days, pretty rudimentary reflections), check out:

Fitness, inclusion, and Intersectionality

As Summer Approaches, Tracy Takes Stock

[photo: stairs at the Robson Square Courthouse, Vancouver, BC; from pinterest]