Profs take philo­soph­i­cal ap­proach to fit­ness

New book chal­lenges bar­ri­ers women face in mod­ern fit­ness and beauty cul­ture

The Peterborough Examiner - - Arts & Life - ME­GAN OGILVIE Toronto Star

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 life­con­sum­ing, 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.

RUTH KIVI­LATHI

Tracy Isaacs, left, and Sa­man­tha Bren­nan are co-au­thors of a new book called “Fit at Mid-Life: A Fem­i­nist Fit­ness Jour­ney.”

RUTH KIVI­LATHI

In their new book, Tracy Isaacs, left, and Sa­man­tha Bren­nan ex­plore how girls and women are dis­cour­aged from de­vel­op­ing phys­i­cal lit­er­acy.

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