Participation in physical fitness and sport yields tremendous benefits for individual and social well-being. Yet media surrounding sport and the fitness industry presents both domains as almost exclusively for young people who already appear to be “fit” (i.e. muscular men, slender women) rather than as pursuits for all. Feminist scholars have long argued that social inequality is the result of exclusive social practices that systemically shut out members of oppressed social groups and privilege members of dominant social groups. We argue that similar exclusions in fitness and sport exist and offer an alternative way of representing these pursuits to a broader audience.

Towards a Feminist Theory of Fitness, builds on the momentum of our well-established and widely read blog, Fit Is a Feminist Issue, to engage feminist scholars, the general public, and public policy in conversations designed to promote a more inclusive attitude toward fitness than what is represented in today’s popular media and scholarly research about fitness. The project moves beyond the auto-ethnographic approach taken on the blog, where we engage critically with cultural attitudes and assumptions about fitness and sport. We propose to undertake discourse analysis of popular media – blogs, television, news sites, magazines, radio – and engage in secondary interpretation of primary empirical data (from Statistics Canada and from researchers in the field) about fitness and sport. Applying our expertise as feminist theorists, we investigate three central questions:

  • What features must a theory of fitness have that makes it distinctively feminist?
  • In what way does contemporary fitness culture and discourse perpetuate oppression and social disadvantage?
  • How can a feminist theory of fitness tangibly promote an inclusive fitness culture,  empowerment among systemically disadvantaged social groups, and social equality, and move us beyond the popular feminine aesthetic in the West, in which thinness is highly prized?

Our objectives are both scholarly and practical. With respect to scholarship, we aim to  contribute to the feminist analysis of fitness culture with an eye to establishing criteria and a framework for a feminist theory of fitness. By feminist theory of fitness, we mean a theory that is fundamentally inclusive and that invokes gender, class, race, disability , age, and sexuality as significant categories of analysis and as dimensions of social and political inequities that may lead to systemic disadvantage. In pursuing this objective, we will take as our primary guides our first and second research questions, about what a feminist theory of fitness looks like and about the ways in which contemporary fitness culture perpetuates oppression and social disadvantage. More practically, our project has great potential to influence discourse and culture surrounding fitness.

Specifically, the inclusive fitness approach that we develop and defend supports an important direction in fitness promotion in Canada at the level of government and non-profit initiatives, particularly but not exclusively directed towards women and older Canadians. Answering our third question, we will demonstrate these tangible ways in which our research can have a social impact. We will challenge many of the default assumptions of popular fitness culture, e.g. its emphasis on youth, a restrictive range of norms for women, a valorization of strength for men and thinness for women – and develop and defend the claim that current fitness discourse perpetuates exclusion and oppression. This shift in attention and values has implications beyond theory and into public policy for Canadian fitness promotion.

Professors:

Samantha Brennan

Tracy Isaacs

Summer research assistant 2013:

Aviva Schiller

Activities

Special Issue International Journal of Feminist Bioethics, Call for Papers, http://www.ijfab.org/cfp.html, Vol 9, No. 2: See How She Runs: Feminists Rethink Fitness, The deadline for submission for this issue is April 1, 2015. Guest Editors: Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs

Research Presentations

Tracy Isaacs, Keynote Address, Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy, Trent University,“Food Insecurity: Dieting as Ideology, as Oppression, and as Privilege,” October 2013.

Samantha Brennan organized a panel at the Canadian Philosophical Association on public health ethics and obesity in May 2014. She gave two research presentations, “Public Health Ethics and the Problem of Childhood Obesity,”Canadian Philosophical Association, and “Fat Stigma and Implicit Bias in the Philosophy Classroom,” with Kristin Rodier (University of Alberta) as part of that panel.

Samantha Brennan, “Feminism, Philosophy, and Fitness,” Keynote Address, Canadian Society for the Study of Practical Ethics, Social Sciences and Humanities Federation Congress, Brock University, May 2014.

Samantha Brennan, “Inactivity, Gender, and the Obesity Crisis,” Ontario Council of Universities panel, Tackling Ontario’s Challenges: Health, September 2013, Glendon College, York University. Ontario Research Chairs, Modern Health: Epidemics, http://www.glendon.yorku.ca/cousymposium/english/programs/health/program.php

Public Outreach

Fit is a Feminist Issue, a popular blog written and edited by Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs,

http://fitisafeministissue.com/

“Miss Piggy’s Feminism: Redefining Human Relationships through Martial Arts,” forthcoming in Jim Henson and Philosophy, edited by Timothy M. Dale and Joseph J. Foy, Rowman and Littlefield.

“Fitness Is An Issue For Feminist Bioethics,” Impact ethics blog, http://impactethics.ca/2013/11/12/fitness-is-an-issue-for-feminist-bioethics/

Samantha Brennan, Spin cycle – Armstrong, doping and the lies he told, Western News, January 2013.

 

Media

Western News, http://communications.uwo.ca/western_news/stories/2012/October/professors_redefining_fitness_feminism_and_50.html

Ms Magazine, http://msmagazine.com/blog/2013/10/29/the-femisphere-fitness-bloggers/

 Spry Living, http://spryliving.com/articles/blog-we-love-where-fitness-and-feminism-collide/