Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs are philosophy professors, co-creators of the blog Fit Is a Feminist Issue and co-authors of Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey, in which they describe their quest to be the fittest they’ve ever been in their lives by the time they hit fifty. The book also offers a new approach to fitness that champions strength, health and accomplishment over weight loss and aesthetics. In this interview, we discuss their understanding of feminism and fitness and how their fitness approaches have developed over time.
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Greg: You co-write a blog called “Fit Is a Feminist Issue.” What does feminism mean to you?
Sam: Feminism for me is a commitment to women’s equality with a focus on the values of inclusion and diversity. It’s also about paying attention to intersectional injustice. My feminism is trans-inclusive, body positive, anti-racist, and anti-ableist. That’s not to say I always get things right. I don’t. I make mistakes like everyone else. I try to listen and to apologize when I get things wrong.
Tracy: Like Sam, I think of feminism as a social movement for equality that cares about inclusion and diversity. Feminist analysis recognizes unjust structures of power and social arrangements that privilege some and disadvantage others in systemic ways on the basis of membership in social groups. It’s not just about gender. A true feminist approach has to recognize intersecting social locations such as race, disability, sexuality, economic status, class, and others that generate unique forms of and experiences of oppression.
Greg: The title of your blog is a play on Susie Orbach’s book Fat Is a Feminist Issue, in which Orbach argues that, for many women, gaining weight may be a reaction to a predominately male society’s conception of an ideal woman (e.g. slim, physically attractive, not to be taken seriously as intellectuals or co-workers, etc.). But you’ve flipped that reaction in that gaining weight is bad for your health while being fit promotes health. What led you to focus on a more positive feminist response? How can physical fitness help empower women?
Sam: I’m not sure that “gaining weight is bad for your health” in all cases. Remember, lots of women who start lifting weights gain weight in the form of muscle. Lots of us gain weight as we age. And young girls gain weight as their bodies develop. Don’t get me started on weight gain and pregnancy.
In fact, I think our culture of normative thinness has done a lot more to harm women’s health and well-being. It’s not just eating disorders and damaged metabolism, though there’s certainly that, it’s also that all the focus on weight and thinness puts so many women off physical activity. Women, whatever our size, experience a lot of body shame that serves to keep us off the soccer field, off our bikes, away from the beach. It’s incredibly sad. I like Orbach’s book. It was the first book that made me feel, as an overweight person, that it wasn’t my personal, individual failing. I began to see the pressure on women to be thin as a political issue.
Where Tracy and I get positive is in trying to foster an alternative fitness culture that makes room for all bodies and abilities.
Greg: You’re absolutely right. I apologize for my poor choice of language. I should have said, “Obesity without physical fitness has been shown to be bad for your health.”
Tracy: What Sam said! We do our very best to ease people away from a focus on fitness as weight loss and towards a focus on finding activities that you enjoy and that, for that reason, you’ll welcome as fulfilling parts of your life. In other words, if you find something you like to do, you’re more likely to do it.
Greg: You’ve also co-written a book titled Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey, which chronicles your shared journey to be the fittest you’ve ever been in your lives by the age of fifty. How do you define fitness? Does that definition change with age? Did you have specific goals for your personal fitness journeys?
Sam: I began the journey with the thought of preparing myself for a life of physical activity in middle age and far beyond. I did that because physical activity has always been the fun thing in my life, whether it’s weekend bike trips, canoe camping holidays, soccer with friends. I was also interested in branching out and trying new things. As well, I wanted to be more consistent with my strength training and work a bit on flexibility too. And yes, I tried lots of new things. I tried and loved rowing. Fun! I got a cyclocross bike and a fat bike and did some off-road riding. I rode my road bike from Toronto to Montreal as part of the Friends for Life Bike Rally, a charity fundraising ride for the Toronto People With AIDS society.
Tracy: As philosophers, we realized early on in our discussion that it was an open question which measures we should use for our fittest by fifty challenge. As someone who was tired of equating fitness with the number on the scale, I committed to using a more diverse set of measures and dropping that fixation on body weight. In the end, I set my goals in relation to a particular sport: triathlon. In making an Olympic distance triathlon my fittest by fifty goal, I completely switched to focusing on performance goals. It became all about endurance, speed, and strength.
Now that the challenge is over, I continue to care about these three measures, running and weight training several times a week, as well as maintaining my flexibility and balance with regular yoga. I also care about mental health and see my physical activities (done with the right attitude of self-care) as contributing to my overall sense of well-being.
Greg: What led you to pursue fitness in your own lives? What struggles did you face along your journey?
Sam: It’s what I do for fun. I like being fit and active and getting outside. But yes, along the way, so many struggles. I faced a lot of family illness and death during the “fittest by fifty” challenge. Both of my partner’s parents died during our two-year challenge and my own father became ill with cancer and died the following year. In a post called Death Changes Everything, I wrote:
“So I’m saying goodbye to my 200 km ride on Sunday, I’m canceling my registration in the August duathlon with my daughter. We’re canceling camping reservations, canceling conference travel, and saying no to some research and writing commitments where previously I’d said yes. Sorry everyone. But plans change.
(I’m keeping the Friends for Life Bike Rally but that’s it.) Luckily, for me, and the ‘fittest by fifty’ project, fifty isn’t an end. My fitness story is about the journey.”
Tracy: As I approached fifty, the very simple motivation for me was that suddenly my groceries just started to feel heavier and I just felt like I was losing energy. I was also sick of the whole weight loss equals fitness thing and wanted to let that go, which I successfully managed to do during the challenge. It has been a great freedom for me to move past that. And it’s changed my self-conception, in that I now think of myself as an athlete with a strong, capable body that can do wonderful things that give me joy. And I can carry my groceries.
“I’m extremely proud of the work we’ve done on the blog to promote a more inclusive approach to fitness that can make it an achievable part of the lives of ordinary people (like Sam and me). It’s the most useful and practical application of my years of philosophical training that I’ve undertaken.”
Greg: You’re both professional philosophers who have authored other books on ethics and political philosophy. How does physical fitness fit in with your other philosophical views?
Sam: For me, it’s connected in two ways. First, I have views about inequalities that affect women. See my paper Feminist Ethics and Everyday Inequalities. In that paper, I defend caring about small inequalities that affect women’s lives like how much time we have for physical activity—because these inequalities are connected to big serious inequalities like who runs for political office and runs corporate boardrooms. Small inequalities also matter because they add up over time. Second, I write about children’s rights and family justice issue and I’m interested in how the how the “war on childhood obesity” has morphed into a war on fat kids. Instead, I think we need to focus on childhood inactivity and pay attention to the “play gap” between boys and girls.
Tracy: As a feminist philosopher whose area of expertise is collective responsibility, much of my work attends to contexts of oppression, which I define as unjust inequality. The gender gap in fitness and sport, the overwhelming focus on thinness as a feminine ideal, and the sexual objectification of women in sport are just three of the most obvious areas where unjust inequalities arise in relation to women’s participation in fitness and sport. It’s also rare to find critical perspectives on fitness culture and media and attitudes about fitness, and so many people could benefit from these.
I’m extremely proud of the work we’ve done on the blog to promote a more inclusive approach to fitness that can make it an achievable part of the lives of ordinary people (like Sam and me). It’s the most useful and practical application of my years of philosophical training that I’ve undertaken. It’s been rewarding to see the reach and influence that our consistent efforts (as well as those of the other regular contributors to our blog, Fit Is a Feminist Issue) have yielded. It’s helped set at least a few people free from oppressive attitudes and unhappy fitness routines that they dreaded, in favour of a more inclusive approach that promotes joy.
Samantha Brennan, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research at Western University in Canada and an editor at the Feminist Philosophy Quarterly. She lives in London, Ontario. You can find her on Twitter @SamJaneB and on Instagram @samjanebrennan.
Tracy Isaacs, Ph.D., is Associate Dean (Academic) in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and a Professor in the Departments of Philosophy and of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research at Western University. Fit at Mid-Life is her second non-fiction book. She lives in London, Ontario. You can find her on Twitter @TracyLIsaacs and on Instagram @tracyisaacs1.
Together, they are the co-founders of Fit is a Feminist Issue, a popular blog offering feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health, and the co-authors of Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey. You can find their blog-related content on Twitter @FitFeminists, on Instagram @fitisafeministissue and on Facebook @feministfitness.