Big Ideas: Working out ideas on fitness

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

While there has been a lot of feminist attention paid to the diet industry, and the tyranny of increasingly difficult-to-attain ideals of the feminine body, feminist scholars have done little analysis of fitness – the fitness industry, fitness culture and the discourse and norms surrounding fitness and sport. Our project engages with this rich area of feminist discussion and its broader implications for social equality and ethics.

Our primary goal is to make a philosophical contribution to feminist analysis of fitness culture, with an eye to establishing a framework for a feminist philosophy of fitness.

By ‘feminist philosophy of fitness,’ we mean an approach to fitness that is fundamentally inclusive – invoking gender, class, race, disability, age and sexuality. Our approach is also intersectional, in that we recognize many people experience oppression through multiple dimensions, not just as, for example, a woman or as a disabled person, a racialized person or an elderly person, but sometimes, for example, as a disabled black woman approaching fifty.

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Through this work, we aim to promote a more inclusive discourse around fitness, challenging many of the default assumptions of popular fitness culture – for example, its emphasis on things such as youth, a restrictive range of norms for women, and a valorization of strength for men (but thinness for women). We aim to show how current discourse perpetuates exclusion and oppression.

Fitness is an important component of well-being. But a more inclusive fitness culture has enormous emancipatory potential. Studies have shown participation in physical activity is empowering. Fit, strong, athletic women challenge our culture’s ideals of femininity. To the extent it challenges social norms, this research has moral and political implications for social equality.

We discuss things like fat shaming, body image, the tyranny of dieting, the narrow aesthetic ideal of femininity and how antithetical it is to athleticism, the sexualization of female athletes, women and competition, issues about entitlement, inclusion and exclusion, the way expectations about achievement are gender variable, and the harms of stereotyping. These issues all call attention to significant impediments to women’s flourishing.

Bringing our backgrounds as ethicists and feminist philosophers to bear on questions of fitness, we analyze the ethical, political and social impact and meaning of popular fitness culture and discourse.

Our work makes a scholarly contribution to a number of different fields, including feminist ethics, sports, ethics, women’s and gender studies, food studies, and fat studies. We already reach out beyond the academic community through our popular blog, Fit Is a Feminist Issue, established in September 2012 (with new content posted at least 5 days a week). The blog reaches thousands of people each week and is a lively community for discussion of feminist issues in fitness.

Samantha Brennan is a professor of Philosophy, and Tracy Isaacs is jointly appointed as a proffers of Philosophy and Women’s Studies and Feminist Research.