The Femisphere: Fitness Bloggers

In a culture that conflates health with a particular body type–often achieved via Photoshop–it’s both refreshing and a relief to read fitness posts that are actually about being healthy. Striving for a certain media-based idea of “perfection” seems to have become the norm when it comes to discussing health and fitness. Not only does this continue to promote unhealthy and unrealistic ideals of beauty, but it can also lead to behavior that is the antithesis of being fit. Thankfully, there are many out there writing about fitness from a feminist perspective, and in doing so they challenge societal norms.

Feminista JonesFeminista Jones

Feminista Jones is a sex-positive feminist blogger/writer and social worker from New York City. She is a Love & Sex columnist with Ebony.com, the Love & Sex editor at BlogHer.com, a contributor to Salon.com and host of the podcast “This Week In Blackness: After Dark.”

Blog: Feminista Jones
Age: 34
Location: New York City
Twitter: @FeministaJones
Blogging since: 2003
When not blogging: Social work administrator
Post Pride:

How did you get started writing about fitness?

I wanted to chronicle my own weight-loss journey, so I started blogging through the process. As my fitness levels increased, I realized I was blogging/tweeting more about it. Once I realized people were following along and learning from what I was sharing, I began to share more valuable information that I figured might help them as it has helped me.

How do you define “fitness?” And does looking at it through a feminist lens change that definition for you?

Fitness is being healthy and comfortable in your own skin and with your own body. With that said, it is a highly subjective concept. I consider myself fit because I no longer have Type II diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. I went from level II morbid obesity to being “overweight,” thus decreasing my risk for weight-related diseases. My physical endurance has increased and I am no longer exhausted by tasks that should come fairly easily to most people. I think, as a feminist, I focus less on outward aesthetic and more on health. A lot of people say that, but I don’t always buy it. Of course image matters to most of us; we want to both look and feel our best. However, I think that my focus on doing it for me, and not to fit some ideal beauty standard, is way more important. I didn’t begin this journey to lose weight to become more attractive to potential partners; I never had a problem attracting partners. I did this because I wanted to be healthier, live longer and look better for myself and my son. I love how I look, but it isn’t my driving force. I focus more on how I feel and how strong I am when I can lift heavier weights and last longer during cardio exercises.

Talk to me about #SexyShred–what is it and why were you inspired to start it up?

#SexyShred is a 4-week health and fitness challenge that happens 3-4 times a year. It focuses on “clean eating” (no processed foods, artificial flavors, colors, additives, preservatives, etc.) and challenging fitness routines. It started when I wanted to break through a weight-loss plateau and wanted to challenge myself to really push beyond my comfort zone. I was tweeting about wanting to do this and came up with the phrase “Sexy Shred” (I write a lot about sex and sexuality and I think healthy is sexy!) and asked if anyone wanted to do it with me. I figured if I could get a few women to join me, we could hold each other accountable. One hundred and six women signed up for the first cycle. I didn’t plan for there to be more, but then men asked to join and people demanded another challenge. We’ve done four to date, with Cycle V to begin in January 2014.

What challenges do you face– especially in mainstream society–discussing fitness with a feminist framing?

I don’t think I face many challenges. During #SexyShred, there are always the detractors. There are people who chastise the women who participate, call them names, hurl insults, etc. It saddens me because a huge part of the focus is on healing internally and increasing pride and self-love. The men and women who participate simply want to be healthier, but the larger women are often attacked and told their efforts are worthless. I get angry, especially because it comes from men who, in other contexts, complain about women being “too fat”! Here these women are busting their butts to get fit, get healthy and extend their lives and they have to deal with hecklers. When I’m at the gym, I deal with ogling that a lot of women deal with, and I sometimes tweet about that. I give out tips to men about what not to do at the gym and what women don’t like. Some men have responded with things like, “Well you shouldn’t wear such tight clothes”, but most men say they didn’t realize women felt that way and some say they’ve learned new things.

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KristaKrista Scott-Dixon aka Mistress Krista

Recovering academic, writer, researcher, coach, life changer.

Blog: Stumptuous
Age: 40
Location: Toronto, ON, Canada
Twitter: @stumptuous
Blogging since: 1997
When not blogging: Nutrition coach / researcher / writer with Precision Nutrition.
Post Pride:

How did you get started writing about fitness?

I started writing in the mid-1990s, when I couldn’t find any decent information for women and weight training. I’d been lifting since the late 1980s, and knew that weight training was important and good for women, but almost all of the commercial mass media information available was terrible. I was at a university and had access to the library, so I was able to get my hands on research studies and material in the field of exercise physiology that told me all the benefits of weight training, and what women’s actual response to this training would be.

I decided that if I had questions, other women must as well. I felt really strongly about the value of weight training for women’s physical, mental, and emotional health. And I decided to cut through the crap. I created my first website/blog in 1997.

How do you define “fitness?” And does looking at it through a feminist lens change that definition for you?

Fitness is the “power to do.” Which is pretty much 100 percent feminist.

Fitness is about having a capacity, choices and potential–as well as the ability to execute when required. Fitness is not a look, a size, a shape or any one particular ability. Fitness is about manifesting human potential in a holistic, complex, integrated way. The fittest people are able to synthesize their strengths and capacities, deploy them synergistically and use their areas of challenge as opportunities to grow and develop.

In fitness, challenge strengthens us. Challenge and disruption is the stimulus we need in order to get better. In feminism, the same is true. We challenge, disrupt and push the edges of things in order to improve society. Also in fitness, recovery is important. It’s an ebb and a flow. You need a stimulus but you also need the body’s natural recovery and resilience response. Same in feminism–we have learned about the value of community and self-care. That’s our political, social and psychological “recovery” and resilience-building.

In fitness you learn to trust your body, its knowledge and its wisdom. In feminism, you trust yourself, your support network and your community. You trust in the knowledge and wisdom of women and all of those who are truly devoted to social justice.

What challenges do you face–especially in mainstream society–discussing fitness with a feminist framing?

Most of the time fitness is seen as a tool of the white bourgeois patriarchy, as fat-shaming, or somehow basically an apologist for The Man. This is because commercially and in the mainstream, exercise has a moralizing/shaming/guilt-oriented quality to it, because “fitness” has been defined so narrowly and women’s bodies have been commodified.

Almost all of us have some trauma associated with fitness, health and/or nutrition–whether that’s being picked last in gym class, having our bodies criticized or marinating in a toxic stew of media bullshit. Layer that on top of the fact that women’s bodies in general are brutalized and despised, and it gets pretty screwed up in people’s heads. It’s hard for us to imagine how we could use movement, activity, nutrition, etc. to create a positive relationship. So people are rightly skeptical of the whole project. And of course we have to be sensitive to that.

Another big problem is that–if I may be candid–few feminists (like most folks in North America) are highly scientifically literate and truly educated about the science of physiology. So all kinds of claims get made about what is a “feminist” relationship to the body or how things should work, which completely ignore the realities of biology, anatomy, biochemistry, etc. People have said that I am fat shaming because I talk about things like insulin resistance and inflammation, the chemical activity of adipose tissue and the physiological reality that, outside of a particular range of body composition or activity level, it’s much harder to be healthier. I tell people I don’t make up the rules of physiology. The good news, though, is that the range within which women can be vibrant, healthy and vital is much larger than the mainstream would have us believe. All kinds of bodies can be “fit.”

The final issue is that there’s this sometimes unspoken dichotomy in our post-Descartes culture, where focusing on mental and cognitive issues is somehow “superior” while focusing on body issues is somehow “inferior” or less worthy of mention. I call it the floating head problem. I’ve actually heard academic feminists proudly proclaim that they ignore their bodies most of the time, as if ignoring your body is a kind of cultural or political transcendence. That’s not feminist either. Our bodies are us. Our brain is part of our body! And that ignores the rich knowledge, intuition, awareness, wisdom and even pride that can come from kinesthesia and somatic awareness. All that being said, the reception has generally been good.

In a society that seems focused on a beauty culture with a narrow definition of “perfection,” what role does fitness play in that, and how do we separate fitness from the more harmful aspects of the diet/exercise industry?

In a weird way, I’d argue that fitness actually disrupts that beauty culture. When you are getting fit, strong, healthy and powerful you are often not “beautiful” by mainstream standards. You are sweaty. You are red-faced. Your makeup is running and your hair is sticking to you. A fart sneaks out when you squat.

There is this amazing moment when you are really pushing it, when you contact that part of yourself that is powerful–and you feel it literally in your bones. Those moments, cumulatively, are a big “screw you” to the tanned and toned magazine covers. If we attend to those moments of disruption, they really start to add up. A lot of this is just focusing women’s attention to what they’re already doing and feeling.

As feminists know, when we focus on action, not just awareness, magic happens. So all we do is shift that awareness-to-action ratio. If we get women focused on “doing” fitness, in ways that feel good and powerful and strong and amazing and life-connecting to them, then that’s profound. Movement literally changes our chemistry, our feelings and our thoughts. So it’s an incredible force. After all, we call it the feminist movement, right?

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Tracy & SamanthaSamantha Brennan & Tracy Isaacs

 Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs are professors of philosophy engaged in feminist research at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada. Both are avid recreational athletes. Samantha is a parent, a long-time cyclist, a novice rower and a CrossFitter, has a green belt (with stripe) in Aikido, plays soccer and runs around with her dogs.  Tracy is a vegan athlete and yogi with a passion for triathlon.

Blog: Fit is a Feminist Issue
Age: Both 49 (born 3 weeks apart)
Location: London, Ontario, Canada
Twitter: @50FitFeminist, @SamJaneB, @TracyLIsaacs
 Blogging since: September 2012
When not blogging: Professors
Post Pride:

How did you get started writing about fitness?

Sam posted to Facebook about the idea of setting a goal to be the fittest she’s ever been by 50 and Tracy said she liked that idea. We talked lots about what “fitness” means and what it means to be our “fittest by 50” (we’re still talking about it).  Tracy suggested we blog about it. We both originally thought we’d just talk about our fitness experiences as feminists but pretty quickly it became clear we’d hit a nerve. We now have a smart and engaged Internet community of readers and guest contributors to the blog and plenty of people who “like” our page on Facebook. We have lots of terrific discussions and it’s really motivational for us.

How do you define “fitness?” And does looking at it through a feminist lens change that definition for you?

As feminists, we spend a lot of time on the blog detaching the idea of fitness from a particular feminine aesthetic.  We challenge the idea that you need to be slender to be fit.  We also take issue with the preoccupation within fitness culture and discourse on people who are youthful and nondisabled.  We promote a more inclusive picture of fitness and sport, and think of exclusions within fitness culture, media and discourse as important equity issues that have spillover effects into other areas of life and society.

What challenges do you face–especially in mainstream society–discussing fitness with a feminist framing?

The biggest challenge is always convincing people to separate their fitness goals and pursuits from wanting to look a certain way and, especially, from using weight and BMI as sole or even primary indicators of success. We are much more about finding activities you enjoy and doing them because you love them.  This message is not the norm—it is difficult within mainstream fitness media to find a fitness message that does not put weight loss (and restrictive dieting) high on the priority list.  And yet extensive research shows that diets don’t work.  So we think it’s important to deliver a different message that encourages people to accept themselves and think of being active as a way of treating themselves well.

Our fitness writing has had a very positive reception for the most part. From the blog comments, it’s clear to us that most people see that it’s a fresh perspective on things. We have had surprisingly little anti-feminist backlash, despite having “feminist” right in our blog name.

In a society that seems focused on a beauty culture with a narrow definition of “perfection,” what role does fitness play in that and how do we separate fitness from the more harmful aspects of the diet/exercise industry?

Combating that narrow definition of feminine “perfection” is something we spend a lot of time talking about on the blog.  We take a strong position against restrictive dieting for weight loss and have a recurring theme in the blog of focusing on performance instead of attempting to achieve a particular “aesthetic.” Sam has a post, for example, on athletic rather than aesthetic values, and Tracy has posted about “fitspo” as having a negative rather than positive impact on motivation. We think that a focus on enjoyable activity as part of an active lifestyle is the best way to approach fitness.

Below are more feminist fitness/body-positive bloggers to check out. Leave us your favorites in the comments!

A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss

Feminist Figure Girl

Fit and Feminist

Girls Gone Strong

Go Kaleo

Spikes and Heels

Screen shot 2013-10-29 at 11.24.22 AMAvital Norman Nathman is a former teacher and lifelong learner turned freelance writer. Her work, which places a feminist lens on a variety of topics, including motherhood, maternal health, gender, and reproductive rights, has been featured in Bitch magazine, The New York Times, CNN, and RH Reality Check. She blogs regularly at The Mamafesto, and her first book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality, will be out in January 2014 from Seal Press.

Comments

  1. “Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.” Kahlil Gibran

    I wrote a book titled Finding Center: Strategies to Build Strong Girls and Women. The last chapter, “A Beautiful Girl~~A Beautiful Woman” develops the premise that inner beauty lasts and physical beauty diminishes as we age. Beauty that lasts does not live on the outside. Acquiring and keeping a spark is what the life force is essentially about and then, of course, passing it on. I develop six behaviors that beautiful woman exhibit. The first is that a beautiful women acknowledges how those who came before her have changed her life. I describe how much of the freedom women enjoy today was earned the hard way by women who came before us. I think you would find the materials in Finding Center relevant to your work today.

    Maureen D Mack
    Author of “Finding Center: Strategies to Build Strong Girls and Women”; New Horizon Press, Far Hills, NJ

    • Maureen, I appreciate what you are saying but take issue with “physical beauty diminishes as we age.” My body is stronger, and more beautiful. Each wrinkle is earned. I am also beautiful on the inside.

      • Ane; I understand what you are saying. The point of view I was writing from is the “industry” version of what beauty is most often associated with younger women. I applaud your sense of confidence and your commitment to maintaining a strong core both on the outside and inside. Maureen

  2. I’m a big Go Kaleo fan, so glad you included her.

    Another terrific blog is “This is Not a Diet — It’s Your Life.” (http://thisisnotadiet-itsmylife.com/) She talks about choosing health over a particular look or arbitrary ideal, and she’s very sane and calm. A great voice.

  3. I’m also a big Go Kaleo fan, so I’m happy to see she’s on the list!

    I would also suggest Nia Shanks over at “Lift Like a Girl” (http://www.niashanks.com/). She preaches moderate eating and lifting heavy for women. She offers sane and simple advice for women looking to get fit. Very practical.

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