Each time I walk into a classroom, a battle rages inside me. Whether it’s at the university where I’m a Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, or at the gym when I teach yoga or MMA cardio classes. In both settings, the internal battle usually goes something like this:
“I’m a feminist. I believe in body-positivity. This is what I want to instill in my students: in a desk, on a mat, or in boxing gloves. I believe this to my core. Speaking of my core, I’m not so happy about how mine looks. Because I’m trying to be body-positive, I’ll try not to say anything about this. Now I feel guilty because I’m shaming my body. I teach others not to shame their bodies and now I’m doing it myself. Damnit!”
As a person who experiences thin privilege, I cannot imagine what it’s like to go through the world—academic classrooms or fitness classes—through the lens of a fat person who is shamed and degraded in virtually every setting. As a person who has a long history with eating disorders, I do know the internal shame that still rages, that raises an angry—albeit thin and nicely sculpted—fist at the feminism that guides the rest of my life. Are fitness and feminism mutually exclusive? Will this internal battle ever end?
Even as a professor and fitness instructor, I’m still no expert. I can profess the theories, but living into the reality of feminist fitness is hard in our society. So, here are a few reminders that help make my fitness a bit more feminist for when that internal struggle is raging inside.
Feminist Fitness is Intersectional.
Feminism, for all its good contributions to women’s empowerment, has also been guilty of doing harm. Specifically, much of feminist history has been the history of highly educated, straight, white, wealthy women. This means that the perspectives of women of color, LGBTQ women, and poor women have often been ignored. Intersectionality refers to paying attention to these intersections—the intersections of race, class, sexuality, and all those other “isms”—in addition to gender. This is important in the fitness industry. When you’re supporting a gym, a fitness program, or even fitness apparel, notice who is in power. Who are the leaders? Who is making the money? How is it marketed? Most importantly, whose perspectives are missing and how can you work to change this?
Feminist Fitness is Body-Positive.
How many times have you taken a group fitness class where the instructor shouts about getting “tank top shoulders” while you’re throwing hooks, or getting a “bikini body” while doing squats? Want to know how to get a bikini body? Step one: have a body. Step two: put on a bikini. Much of fitness culture proclaims that there’s a specific type of body that’s “fit” and if you don’t have this type of body, you’re either shamed or told how to achieve it. This is ridiculous. There are myriad types of bodies that are fit and the way a body looks is not indicative of its fitness abilities. It’s tough in our culture, but honoring and affirming your body—whatever your size—is a revolutionary act.
Feminist Fitness Rages Against Fat Shaming.
Part of being body-positive is creating an environment where all types of bodies are welcome. Even with the pain that comes with a history of eating disorders, I still have thin privilege; I can buy clothes in my size at any store, doctors address my illnesses rather than my weight, and people typically don’t judge the food on my plate or in my grocery cart. All of these things cannot be said for people considered fat. The fitness industry is one of the very worst at fat shaming because it equates size and shape with health and wellness. Here’s some feminist news for you: body shape and overall health are not always linked. If you want your fitness to be feminist, don’t fat shame women.
Feminists Can Exercise for Reasons Other than Weight Loss.
While the weight loss industry wants us to believe that skinny=healthy, this is not always true. What is more, many people choose to exercise for reasons completely unrelated to weight loss: to relieve stress, have fun, be social with friends. Don’t assume that everyone gathered at the gym is there solely to lose weight or change their bodies. As much as possible, try to exercise out of self-love rather than shame and weight loss.
This isn’t a list you can easily check off and happily move on with a feminist fitness regime. As you might imagine, living into these reminders is difficult, especially when society, the weight loss industry, and the fitness industry typically tell you otherwise. No matter how much I believe it and teach it—both in academic classrooms and fitness classes—embodying a feminist approach to fitness is hard. I try to surround myself with those who feel similarly, who will boldly proclaim that all types of bodies are beloved and worthwhile, no matter the size or shape. I hope you can do the same!
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber holds a Ph.D. in Art and Religion and is author of seven books that address the intersections among gender/sexuality, the arts, and religion, along with numerous fun articles about women’s issues, travel, and feminist fitness. She is a part-time professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, a professional artist, and the founder of the Holy Women Icons Project. She was a professional dancer for a decade and now finds embodied joy by teaching yoga and running distance races. After fifteen years of service to the academy and church, she and her wife decided to make a drastic change. They quit their jobs, sold their house, bought a camper, and hit the road for a year of volunteer travel with their toddler. Along the way, they discovered a new way of living simply, meaningfully, and sustainably. Now, they divide their time between traveling throughout the continental United States in their camper and creating an intersectionally ecofeminist retreat center in their tiny house on the Big Island of Hawaii. For more on Angela’s work, check outwww.angelayarber.com, and for more on her family’s wild adventures, check out www.searchingforsustenance.