Fitness Is An Issue For Feminist Bioethics

Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs remind us of the importance of fitness, not for our looks, but for our health, and not only for when we are young and energetic, but for all time.

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Fitness matters to our health.  Feminists have had rather a lot to say about eating disorders, obesity research, ethics and “healthism,” and the politics of size acceptance but the language of “fitness” has yet to be examined through a feminist lens.

Through our blog, Fit, Feminist, and (almost) Fifty we have grappled with an expanding range of questions about fitness and feminism, many of which have connections to health research and to bioethics.  Through guest posts and now a special issue of International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics  we are inviting other feminists to join in the conversation.

WomanRunningHere’s one question we have been thinking about lately: Why the gender gap in physical activity? What does this mean for women’s health?  Consider that fewer girls than boys achieve the recommended number of hours of physical activity per day. The inequality in sports participation and in the number of hours available for fitness and leisure activities continues into adulthood. We tend to think of this as a private matter, as something girls and women choose, but insofar as it affects health it is a matter of public concern. Just as feminists care about a fair distribution of work in the home, if we care about women’s health we ought also to care about time and opportunity for women to pursue physical activity.

A study by the government of Canada published in 2013 reports that Canadians are less active in sport than they were in previous iterations of the same study and that participation rates have declined across age and gender but that women continue to participate at much lower rates than men in every age bracket. (See Canadian Heritage Sport Participation 2010 Research Paper, February 2013.  Published by Statistics Canada.

Inequality in the home is obviously part of the story but we also think that current fitness discourse plays a role in perpetuating exclusion and oppression. 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 the almost exclusive purviews of young people who already appear to be “fit” (that is, muscular if they are men, slender if they are 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’ve argued that similar exclusions in fitness and sport exist. We’re inviting other feminists to join us in offering an alternative way of representing these pursuits to a broader audience.

Questions of interest include:

  • Is there a role for medical professionals to play in women’s fitness?
  • Do the norms of femininity and feminine socialization conflict with fitness?
  • Doctors often worry about the suitability of women’s bodies for exercise. How should feminists think about the role medical professionals played in making women’s effort to exercise a matter of serious health concern?
  • Pregnant bodies have often been the source of medical policing when it comes to physical activity. Women are told to be sure to exercise, but not too much, and in this way, not in that way, for fear of damaging their unborn child’s health. What critical perspective does a feminist analysis of prenatal fitness bring to bear?
  • What should we make of the coercive nature of health claims? Is ‘healthism’ something that ought to be of concern to feminists?
  • How should we define fitness? Is a feminist account of fitness possible? What would a feminist account of fitness look like?
  • How do we balance the benefits of fitness against the dangers inherent in sport?
  • Is fitness an inherently ableist notion, making troubling assumptions and presumptions about disability, normality, normal function, and fitness?

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Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs are Professors in Philosophy and Women’s Studies and Feminist Research at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada. Brennan and Isaacs are also members of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy.

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