Profs take philosophical approach to fitness
New book challenges barriers women face in modern fitness and beauty culture
As professors of philosophy, Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs never set out to be fitness experts.
In fact, up until a few years ago, they didn’t consider themselves especially fit.
But looming milestone birthdays — the ones marking a halfcentury of life on Earth — made each reconsider their athleticism and set both women on a course to become their absolute fittest by age 50.
That shared goal, dreamed up in 2012, inspired Brennan and Isaacs to write about their fitness adventures on their blog, Fit Is a Feminist Issue.
It documents the two-year lead-up to their 50th birthdays and their (sometimes angry) takes on modern fitness culture.
Six years later, both women, who have been friends for 25 years, have surpassed their fitness goals.
Brennan has cycled from Toronto to Montreal, achieved two new belt levels in Aikido and took up rowing as a new sport. Isaacs has completed seven triathlons, five half-marathons and one full marathon. They have also cowritten a book about their athletic accomplishments.
“Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey” combines their personal stories with scientific evidence, feminist reflections and how-to advice for both women and men who don’t want fitness to fade away in their middle years.
The Star recently spoke with Brennan, dean of the College of Arts at the University of Guelph, and Isaacs, associate dean in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Western University in London, Ont., to find out what feminist philosophers can teach us about fitness.
What makes being fit — or the struggle to get fit at midlife — different than any other life stage?
Brennan: At mid-life, a whole bunch of women are ready to ditch the baggage about caring too much about what other people think. So it’s an opportunity to try new things — or to take up things, like running, that they haven’t done in a long time. For lots of people, mid-life is an opportunity to re-evaluate and figure out what you really want to be doing. Fitness is one aspect of that.
Isaacs: Also at mid-life, a lot of us have settled into a bit of a rut. We’ve got our routines and we’ve been really busy with children and family and getting our careers going. But mid-life is a time of life where we can say, ‘Hang on a second, what about me?’ We are more about listening to ourselves and doing what we need for ourselves.
Is this journey to fitness at mid-life especially true for women?
Brennan: A lot of men never stop being fit. Data from StatsCan on men’s participation in sports and activity vs. for women is pretty striking (According to a 2010 Statistics Canada report, about one-third of Canadian men and one-sixth of Canadian women regularly participated in sport). Women, not surprisingly, have a period of time where they tend not to pursue fitness because of children, family, caring for elderly parents — the family burdens that fall to women.
Isaacs: Whereas men often continue playing hockey once a week or playing soccer or baseball. There is also a higher proportion of women who simply do not think of themselves in sporty, athletic terms.
In many ways, the name of your blog — Fit is a Feminist Issue — sounds like a mantra. What does this phrase mean to you?
Isaacs: The name is a play on a book called “Fat is a Feminist Issue” by Susie Orbach. We think all the body image stuff and all the messaging about thinness is very much a feminist issue. That feminine ideal is one of the sources of oppression.
Brennan: When you constantly monitor your weight, constantly monitor how you look, it’s life-consuming, it’s not healthy and it doesn’t lead to healthy behaviours. We want to celebrate fitness as something separate from that, something that feminists can endorse, which is that interesting, joyful movement improves people’s quality of life. We’re really interested in separating fitness from weight loss and thinking about the good things that exercise and physical activity can bring to your life.
You make a case in your book that fitness inequity starts at a very young age, that the proportion of women who don’t think of themselves as being athletic starts in girlhood.
Isaacs: Or that they are even physically capable (of being athletic). Girls are taught early to take up less space, to remain in the background.
Brennan: Some kinesiologists talk about physical literacy, the basics of movement, and you can lose it if you don’t start being physically literate early. And that’s why it can be hard for women to pick up sports later on. There is also something called the protection paradox, a hypothesis as to why Canadian kids don’t move very much. It’s when parents are so worried about their children being hurt that they keep them home where there isn’t much to do other than watch TV and play video games and, as a result, end up hurting them because the kids are inactive.
What are some of the biggest roadblocks women face in their fight for fitness equality?
Isaacs: There are a lot of barriers that are myths. So things like, ‘If I go into the weight room, I’m going to bulk up like Arnold Schwarzenegger.’ That’s a barrier that is a myth.
A lot of the other barriers are also esthetic. The whole norms of femininity are still a huge, huge feminist issue.
Like beauty norms and beauty practices and feminine comportment, and what we’re supposed to look like and how we’re supposed to act. And this inflects the whole discourse around fitness, which is why it’s so tied up with weight loss.
When you think of all the mental, psychological and intellectual energy that women are expending as they obsess about reaching this feminine ideal — it takes all the joy out of it.
At the ages of 53, you are both at mid-life. You have experienced all the benefits you talk about in your book. What is your fitness advice for women of any age? Should they wait until mid-life to figure this out?
Isaacs: Don’t wait! These are attitudes anyone can embrace at any time. We need a culture shift, and for a culture shift to take hold, we need a critical mass of people to go against expectations.
If there is one thing I’d like for women, especially, to take away from the book is to separate the idea of fitness from weight loss and instead equate it with excitement for these activities as part of your life.
That is the big change I’ve experienced.
Tracy Isaacs, left, and Samantha Brennan are co-authors of a new book called “Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey.”
In their new book, Tracy Isaacs, left, and Samantha Brennan explore how girls and women are discouraged from developing physical literacy.