At first glance, it seems that fitness and feminism could not possibly be related. We all know that we should exercise and be a healthy weight – this is based on science, right? And science is not political, so fitness can’t be political.
Well, I’m not so sure. I have a complicated relationship with fitness, coming from the pressure to conform to ‘healthy’ body ideals. For much of my life, I would have been borderline ‘obese’ according to the BMI scale. Societal pressure to be thinner comes from all sides, and like most people I’ve struggled with self esteem as a result. I’m also angry and frustrated at unequal media coverage and pay for women athletes. And I don’t like being told that I should stick to cardio, and leave the weight room for the boys.
The fitness industry, worth £4.3bn in the UK alone, is guilty of telling women in particular that they need to improve their body. We’re told on a daily basis that we should try (and pay for) this fitness product or that workout, all to lose weight. And don’t even get me started on ‘Beach Body Ready’. Mainstream fitness discussion prioritises a thin body ideal, and marginalises people who don’t conform.
This realisation has already begun to impact companies. At the end of 2015, Women’s Health magazine banned the term ‘bikini body’ from their front cover. Their editor-in-chief acknowledged its ‘shaming, negative undertone’. And ‘any body – every body – is a bikini body’.
What does all this mean for those of us who love to work out, and like the feeling of eating nutrient rich foods? Feminism can have a role here. It can help us break down the gendered and appearance focused expectations of health.
To begin with, we can consider our motivations. Fitness doesn’t have to be all aboutgetting thinner – it can also be empowering. Everyone can have different goals when it comes to fitness. From running a mile to running a marathon, achieving these goals is a great way to boost self confidence. I don’t know about you, but after a tough workout I feel like a total badass. And a lot of women have taken up self defence classes to feel more safe when out and about.
A second step is to try to move beyond moralising food and lifestyle choices (this is something I still find really difficult).The moralisation of decisions contributes to many people’s low self esteem. By telling people that eating cake is or watching TV is ‘bad’, we also tell them that natural human emotions of desire and enjoyment are bad. When we recognise that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ decisions, it is easier to focus on what matters – feeling good and feeling happy. Sometimes, this can mean choosing wine over weightlifting, or sleeping over spinning, and not looking back!
The image obsession within the fitness industry goes beyond fat-shaming. A google images search for ‘fitness’ reveals that the ideal body is not only thin, but white, able-bodied, and cis-gender. And there are large gaps in the level of fitness involvement between poor and rich communities. This further marginalises already marginalised people from getting involved in fitness. This matters – children living in the poorest parts of the UK can expect to live 20 years fewer than those living in the richest part.
For sure, cost plays a role here: gyms where I live in London frequently cost upwards of £50 a month. But being more inclusive about the way we talk about and think about fitness in general would be a big step. We only have to look at the coverage of Simone Biles’ phenomenal 2016 Olympics to see that racism plagues even the highest levels of sport. As feminists, it is vital that we care about including all marginalised people in our movement, as otherwise we’re not making a different where it is most needed.
There is so much more that this blog post could cover, and many issues that I intend to discuss in future posts. For now, I hope this has been interesting and informative. My goal was to demonstrate why I have started this blog on feminism and fitness, why I think feminism is important in fitness. If you agree or disagree, or have another angle that I have not considered here, let me know in the blog!