Fit is a feminist issue
On Sunday, I marked the one-year anniversary of this blog. In that time, I have been continually awed and humbled by the response my little corner of the internet has received. I’ve met some amazing people who share my passion for fitness, athletics and feminism. I’ve learned so much from people who have disagreed with me and taken the time to explain why. I’ve found myself in a cohort of fellow bloggers who blow me away each day with their compassion and generosity. I’ve also found that writing about my own issues has helped me work through them in a pretty effective way. (Blogging: cheaper than therapy!) I guess you could say that this blog has changed my life.
I started writing and editing this blog because I had been getting deeply into fitness and athletics for a few years, and I was seeing all of these things around me that were just ripe for some serious feminist analysis. (Or in the words of my new favorite tumblr, PROBLEMATIC.) Yet I would read all kinds of feminist blogs and books about feminism and zines, and there was just this big silence on these things I cared about deeply. Sometimes I’d see something about Title IX, or maybe I’d see something about rape culture and pro sports, or maybe a rant about the horribleness of the diet industry. Conversations about the body focused heavily on sexuality, and “women’s health” pretty much was synonymous with “reproductive health.” I read writing about bodies, about eating disorders and fat acceptance and masturbation and self-care, all of it essential and important and so critical to helping me understand more about other women’s experiences, but very little of it spoke to my experiences and my passions as an athletic woman who loves to slam iron and drop theory with equal aplomb.
I suppose I can understand why most feminists stay as far away as possible from anything having to do with fitness. I mean, take a look at the fitness magazines that line the checkout aisles in any given supermarket. It’s all “flat abs” and “sexy abs” and “flat and sexy abs”and “sexy flat abs” and “sexy flat abs in five minutes!” That shit is like “The Beauty Myth 2: Electric Boogaloo” and always leaves me cutting major side-eye as I prepare to pay for my groceries.
Maybe it’s even more insidious because it dresses up another set of damaging and restrictive beauty standards in this patina of health, and who doesn’t want to be healthy? But now it’s no longer enough to just be thin; you’ve got to have what a recent fitspo image described as “abs of steel that can set off airport metal detectors.” It’s not enough to be skinny, because what if you are skinny fat? It’s not enough for women to eat like proverbial birds. We have to spend an hour a day in the gym, too. We have to do yoga and we have to do so while wearing overpriced yoga pants. We have to lift weights, but not too heavy because we are still supposed to be small. We just don’t get to jiggle now.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Feminists talk a lot about empowering women and girls, about instilling in them the belief that we all have the power to change our worlds and our lives. Well, nothing has empowered me quite like taking up sports and fitness. As I’ve worked to develop my physical strength, my emotional and psychological strength increased in lockstep. When I saw that I could set goals for myself – big, ambitious goals – and actually achieve them, it changed the way I saw myself. My entire life, I’d told myself a story about who I was, how I was weak and afraid and easily pushed around, but as my body became stronger and faster, I realized I had to rewrite that story. My new story of myself had to incorporate the fact that I could now do things like finish a marathon or deadlift a hundred pounds or do thirty push-ups or run a mile in less than seven minutes. It’s hard to think of yourself as a weak coward when you know you are capable of doing things like that.
That kind of confidence is not left behind in the gym along with sweaty towels. It follows you through the rest of your life. It’s easier to call someone out on their racist and sexist bullshit or to yell at harassers on the street when you know you are strong. It’s easier to ask for a raise or pursue an advanced degree when you’ve willingly done scary, hard things.
But when you’ve internalized the social messages that you are weak because you are a woman, well, just existing in the world becomes a lot harder than it needs to be. And when you pursue fitness simply so you can fit a new definition of “sexy,” you are continuing to buy into a system of thought that says women’s highest value lies in how they look to others.
I think it is critical that we feminists engage with fitness and athletics in a way that takes these things seriously and recognizes their potential to change lives for the better. It doesn’t have to be about hating yourself and your body, nor does it have to be about embracing fascist beauty standards. It can also be about loving your body and wanting to take the best possible care of yourself. It can also be about rejecting the social equation that says to be a woman is to be weak and in need of protection. It can be about redefining yourself as a creature of strength and power.
It doesn’t get much more feminist than that.
PROGRAMMING NOTE: I have joined Women Talk Sports as a contributor. I’m very excited about this opportunity, as it means I’ll have the chance to reach an even wider audience with my fit-and-feminist-y ways. For right now, I will be double-posting both here and at WTS, but in the future, I will be phasing out updates on this blog and focusing more on my blog over there. If you want to follow me, I’ll be at womentalksports.com/fitandfeminist. And of course, you can always like Fit and Feminist on Facebook!