Strong is the new…? Body Positivity and Self-Love (Part II)

By Cathryn Lucas

** This is part two of a series on embodied fitness practices. You can read the first installation here.**

Runner’s World recently published a feature on Mirna Valerio. For Valerio, who writes about her experiences at Fat Girl Running, running is a practice of self-love and self-care rather than a means to lose weight – as Women’s Health, Women’s Running, and even Runner’s World promote. Doing physical activity because you like it or because it makes you feel good is, unfortunately, a fairly radical practice in US culture today.

As I’ve written about before, I teach physical activity classes at a university, am a personal trainer, and lead aquasize classes at a community pool. Almost all of my students and training clients have primary goals of weight loss and bodily aesthetics. We work hard to break down why these are their goals and how they might think differently about their bodies – perhaps lovingly, compassionately, and proud of all it can do.

However, as I discussed in Part 1 of this series, Western cultural norms promote impossible ideals of thin, white, femininity – what Sharlene Hesse-Biber calls the “cult of thinness.” A perfect storm of racism, sexism, and class based notions of meritocracy promote self-hatred and sustain the multi-billion dollar health & beauty industries. In turn, these industries rely on definitions of obesity and preventable disease to operate.

“Obesity” – A Cultural Obsession

Having been linked to diabetes and heart disease, obesity has become a major health issue of our time. Millions of grant dollars fund obesity research, and hundreds of academic conferences have been held on the subject. Many researchers use weight and Body Mass Index (BMI) as quantifiable evidence of obesity, and most public health initiatives promote weight loss as an appropriate treatment for preventing and/or managing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. We are told that we can selectively eat and exercise our way out of obesity.

The promotion of exercise as a means to reduce health risks firmly links exercise and weight loss to increased health and wellness — establishing weight as a yardstick of health and wellness, equating thinness with optimum health. The fitness industry, then, is ideally situated to help “cure” this epidemic. And it often tries to – capitalizing on body shame, personal responsibility ethos, and the aesthetic motivations of aspiring exercisers. You can “lose big in 2015” with Jillian Michaels, or if BeachBody’s 21 day fix weren’t enough, you can do the 21 day fix EXTREME.

This slippery slope supports meritocratic notions of hard work and success as we come to view obese people as lazy and blame them for any health issues they may face. And, because poor and minority groups tend to have higher rates of obesity, this personal responsibility ethos reinforces existing cultural stereotypes of black and latino people as lazy.

However, there is very little clear evidence that obesity is the cause of health problems. Researchers have found higher incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke in people who are classified as obese, yes, but that that does not explain the cause of these health problems. As the voice of my stats professor echoes in my ears, “correlation does not mean causation.” Or, as J. Eric Oliver writes, “telling most Americans they need to worry about their weight is like telling someone dying of pneumonia that they need to worry about how much they are coughing” (p. 2).

Oliver, along with many other fat studies scholars, argues that broader structural issues converge to create food deserts, schools without sustained PE programs, families who cannot afford to send children to expensive sport & recreational programming, etc. These structural issues directly affect life opportunities and exposure to potentially harmful built environments. Not coincidentally, these structural issues disproportionately affect poor people of color.

Collective Action and Loving Oneself in a World Full of Hate

Scholars and activists have long been critical of this medicalization and individualization of obesity. Officially founded in 1969, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) works to end discrimination against fat people through advocacy, public education, and support. In 1970, Llewellyn Louderback published Fat Power, in which he argued that the rise of fat discrimination and the emergence of the diet industry relied more on polarizing assumptions about fatness rather than medical knowledge.

Around that same time, a group of women in LA organized a chapter of NAAFA. According to Sara Golda Bracha Fishman, who at the time wrote under the name Aldebaran, the LA chapter’s organizing and activist strategies were much more confrontational than the liberal minded NAAFA. The group left NAAFA to found the Fat Underground, and Judy Freespirit co-wrote the Fat Liberation Manifesto with Aldebaran in 1973. The following year, Fat Underground and the Fat Women’s Problem Solving Group interrupted the annual Women’s Equality Day Celebration to denounce the discrimination of fat women among feminist and women’s liberation discourses. The group continued working throughout the 70s and the writings of several members were included in the 1983 anthology Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression.

On the other side of the US, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective produced Our Bodies, Ourselves in 1971, re-printed in 1973 through Simon & Schuster. The 200+ page book about women’s health and wellness from women’s perspectives included sections on venereal diseases, birth control, abortion, pregnancy and childbearing, along with sections on nutrition, movement and exercise, and cultivating healthy relationships. Taken together, the content spoke back to the medical industry about the sexism inherent in its approach to women’s health care. The book promoted self-care and self-love in the face of a society which denigrates womanhood and female embodiment.

The Fat Acceptance Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement pushed for radical reform of the medical industry. However, they often did so from a white perspective – ignoring the experiences of women of color. Black women were speaking for themselves and speaking back to the white feminist movement. Maxine Leeds Craig argues that “black is beautiful” expressed the “spirit of self-love and exuberance felt by a generation that had found a new way to see itself” (2002, p. 23). Black women in the 1960s and 1970s rejected respectability politics, and in turn, valued natural hair styles and dark skin. Black is beautiful challenged narrow conventions of beauty as the sole domain of thin, middle-class, white women.

Like Fat Underground and the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, black women activists formed collectives and working groups. Barbara Smith, a member of the Combahee River Collective posits that the collective provided “friendship networks, community, and a rich Black women’s culture where none had existed before” (1998, p. 172). The group released the now-classic Combahee River Collective Statement, insisting on radical self-love while working on issues of interlocking oppression. The statement was included in the 1981 anthology This Bridge Called My Back edited by Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, and Toni Cade Bambara. The anthology reclaims beauty, acceptance, and self-love within and across women of color’s experiences as they critiqued the white-led feminist movement.

Fitness with a Purpose?

As I discussed in part one of this series, fitspiration conflates thinness with both beauty and health. And, because health has become yoked to personal responsibility, fatness and ugliness both become products of a poor work ethic. As cosmetics magnate Helena Rubenstein once declared “there are no ugly women, only lazy ones” (quoted in Adams, 1994, p. 37). We are inundated with these kinds of media messages telling us that fatness is not only unhealthy, but also unsightly and immoral. As I discussed briefly above, the fitness industry has an investment in these discourses, as most fitness products rely on feelings of shame and disappointment with our bodies.

However, there have been movements within the fitness industry to take seriously issues of body positivity, self-love, and self-care. Shortly on the heels of the disbanding of Fat Underground and Combahee River Collective, step aerobics swept across the country. Jane Fonda’s Workout Book, published in 1981, sold over 1.8 million copies in its first two years (Ellison, 2009), and Fonda became the embodiment of the ideal thin, white body.

For many women, step aerobics classes were a way to sculpt their bodies in the pursuit of this ideal. However, many more women felt uncomfortable in those spaces, and soon, fat women established gyms specifically for larger women. In the US, Women at Large, a private for-profit chain, focused on developing positive workout spaces for large women. While they aspired to provide a safe space, the chain avoided the term fat and refused to participate in broader collective action. Whereas, a Canadian based group called Large as Life focused specifically on collective action. Members earned teaching certifications and began teaching aerobics classes in the Vancouver area. Large as Life member Suzanne Bell then opened a studio for fat women specifically designed to promote self-love and body acceptance (Ellison, 2009).

Throughout the next decade, small scale woman-centered spaces forged body-positive fitness philosophies. In the late 1990s, Dana Schuster and Lisa Tealer opened the Women of Substance Health Spa in San Francisco. The radically redesigned the gym space — no mirrors, no posters of “shredded” exercisers, and classes with specific body-positive curricula. Upon reflection, they say that hiring the right staff of trainers and instructors was both the most difficult and most important part of maintaining a body positive space (Schuster & Tealer, 2009).

There has been increasing pressure to create regulations for the fitness industry. So far, most of the arguments in support of regulation have safety in mind and are situated well within scientific discourses about weight loss, health, and biomechanics. While I don’t disagree that trainers should know how to safely instruct movements, I also believe that trainers should be well versed in strategies for challenging harmful cultural messages.

Creating and maintaining body positive spaces are ongoing practices – trainers as well as participants are all immersed in harmful body-denigrating discourses. As Pirkko Markula argues, we must consistently and persistently engage in mindful, active work (2004, 2014). Online forums such as Decolonizing Yoga and The Body is Not an Apology provide articles and space for discussion. And, In February 2016, I will gather in California with trainers from across the US to build relationships, work on our self-awareness, and develop strategies for challenging the interlocking forms of oppression ruling our culture. Stay tuned for a report from the workshop in a few months!

Cathryn Lucas is a graduate student at the University of Iowa and puts theory into practice weekly as a personal trainer and physical activity instructor. Cathryn can be reached at cathryn-lucas@uiowa.edu and on twitter @cathryn_lucas

Works Cited without Hyperlinks

Adams, A. (1994). An uncommon scold. Palmer, AL: Fireside Books.

Ellison, J. (2009). Not Jane Fonda: Aerobics for fat women only. In E. Rothblum & Solovay, S. (Eds.) The Fat Studies Reader. New York, NY: NYU Press

Markula, P. (2004) “Tuning into one’s self:” Foucault’s technologies of the self and mindful fitness. Sociology of Sport Journal, 21, 302-321.

Markula, P. (2014). The moving body and social change. Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies, 14(5), 483 –495.

Schoenfielder, L. & Wieser, B. (1983). Shadow on a tightrope: Writings  by women on fat oppression. Iowa City, IA: Aunt Lute Book Company

Schuster, D. & Tealer, L. (2009). Exorcising the exercise myth: Creating women of substance. In E. Rothblum & Solovay, S. (Eds.) The Fat Studies Reader. New York, NY: NYU Press

Smith, B. (1998). Doing it from scratch: The challenge of black lesbian organizing. In Barbara Smith (ed.), The Truth that Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender and Freedom. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press

4 thoughts on “Strong is the new…? Body Positivity and Self-Love (Part II)

  1. While the article is interesting it sounds more like a social agenda than quality academic inquiry. The main issues are psychological, for the obese party, and socio-cultural, for the critical party who thinks fat is “ugly.” I do strongly disagree with the statement that “…there is very little clear evidence that obesity is the cause of health problems.” What are you really asking? Does obesity itself cause a headache? Maybe. Maybe not. Does obesity cause high blood pressure? There is good evidence that, yes, it does. Does obesity cause Type 2 diabetes? “Maybe” can be upgraded to “probably” based upon the statistics. What is the real point of this academic area? To argue that “fat is okay?” I think that is terribly misguided. You assume that society is encouraging skinniness and self-hatred because of clothing, fashions and cosmetics. Perhaps the industry merely evolved to the response of a population that craved these items. I am guessing that this field is more of a personal agenda to help obese people have some “self-respect” or “self-worth.” Perhaps some people need this psychological crutch. Forming groups for obese people or the politically correct phrase “large people” probably is a beneficial means of helping to develop a positive life. What is needed is a balance in life, too. A person needs a diet of sufficient calories to maintain good health and a lifestyle, and a routine that burns those calories in a 24 hour period. An excess of consumed calories will result in weight gain. If people eat too much and do not exercise, that is hardly the fault of society, and society cannot be blamed for the perception that the “fatty” is lazy. People who are obese (body mass index of over 30% fat) are responsible for their own condition, nobody else can be blamed. There might be pressures that cause this behavior, there might be a genetic defect, there might be abuse, but nobody else can be blamed for the condition of an obese person. Should an obese person be subjected to ridicule and torment? Of course not. Teaching people to accept the idea that “fat is okay” is a tremendous disservice to those who need guidance the most. Psychological guidance to develop and maintain self-respect is one thing, but proper diet and fitness should be part of that training. Obesity is a disease, it is a detriment to one’s health. The focus should be on understanding why a person is obese and how to overcome that influential force.

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    • We clearly have different philosophies on research and scholarship. In my work, I examine what is at stake in medical discourses and how medical authority is wielded to create cultural ideas such as meritocracy and bootstrap individualism. Structural racism and sexism, along with unending cycles of poverty create situations out of which people can never climb, no matter how hard they may try.

      Those issues, combined with profit driven corporate investment in food ways and recreational spaces, directly create situations from which obesity emerges. Unhealthy, processed food has become the most readily accessible, marketed, and affordable food options in and outside of grocery stores. Due to the actions of corporate/municipal partnerships, some neighborhoods don’t even have grocery stores. In these “food deserts,” fast food is the cheapest and sometime only accessible option for food – there are literally no other options. Not coincidently, these are overwhelmingly low-income, predominantly black or latino neighborhoods.

      In turn, I look to see how the people who experience these hardships speak back to those in power. In this case, it is women (mostly white, but some women of color) who speak back to a fitness industry that promotes impossible body ideals and unhealthy fitness practices. These women accept themselves as they are – which is radical position in our culture today. They participate in physical activity in spite of the barrage of negative cultural messages. They work in their bodies rather than on their bodies, and they revalue their bodies for what they can do instead of what they can’t do. They are happier and healthier as a result.

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  2. Always an interesting topic, Cathryn. Is this related to a dissertation? I’m curious what you think about the history of this stuff? Late 19th, early 20th century physical culturalists linked body aesthetics with certain notions of “disease,” inner “character,” and/or sin in interesting ways as well. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, for instance, had a host of measuring, calibrating devices–like the “Universal Dynamometer”–in his Sanitarium that he used to examine the physiques of afflicted visitors and detect any “deviations from the normal type.” “By preserving conscientious efforts to comply with every requirement of health, purity, morality, and laws of nature,” he wrote, “we will accomplish wonders in securing healthy children with good dispositions, brilliant intellects, and beautiful bodies.” Furthermore, he claimed, if “beauty desired” in an unborn baby, then “let the mother be surrounded with beautiful objects; and let her mind dwell upon such objects.” And, of course, Bernarr Macfadden is always a fun example of this stuff, too, with books like: Power and Beauty of Superb Womanhood; Health, Beauty, and Sexuality; or even, Physical Culture for Babies; etc. Just yesterday I was reading an old boxing manual from 1888, and the author claimed: “Fatness and softness are merely sensuous expressions, or symptoms of disease.” There’s phrenologists claiming knowledge of inner character or disposition based on skull shape. There’s studies on “degenerate” or “feeble-minded” families like the Jukes or the Callikaks, which indicated that such family members looked the part. There’s “beautiful baby” contests at county fair across the country. There’s eugenics. And, more recently, there’s books like, Help Lord — The Devil Wants Me Fat! Etc. What’s your take on this older stuff? Related to this newer stuff, that you’re talking about?

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    • Hi Adam! These are all really wonderful points and a great collection of resources from the turn-of-the-century. I was originally planning to make those connections in the blog post, but as you well know, blog posts are tricky things! I decided to stick with the more recent stuff because the dominant modes of femininity and body ideals are more similar to today. Womanhood changed a lot in the 1800s and when heterosexuality emerged in the early 1900s, that changed the frame for understanding bodies. I think “early” physical culture is fascinating, and they are clearly working on and against dominant modes of understanding bodies at that time. As you mention there was so much cultural meaning invested in the phrenology and eugenics, and that, unfortunately, is not too different from the medicalization of obesity today (across contexts, of course, but the connections are there). I’m very much interested in writing about it McFadden and others. I do plan on continuing to blog about fitness and the contestation over bodies, and I’ll probably contend with early physical culturalists next as a way to continue to link movements together across contexts.

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