What it Means to Be Fit & Feminist

// Photo courtesy of Gesina Kunkel, Unsplash

By Hannah Bodily

“I don’t want to be too bulky,” an old teammate once remarked to me, bemoaning the rigorous Olympic weightlifting regimen that has thickened the glutes, quads and hamstrings of ski racers for generations. 

At the time, I wrote off her internalized misogyny as some flaw that I had managed to overcome. I relished the power trip of locking eyes with a bug-eyed, 30-something male at the gym before racking up his body weight and squatting it for my warm-up. I swore that my athletic victories soothed the sting of being “bulky.” I denied the desire pushed on women to be toned, yet supple enough for molestation by the male gaze. I sang the praises of feminist ideals in athletics, and I was a hypocrite.

After post-workout showers, I stood in the bathroom mirror and looked at myself until I was satisfied with my self-loathing. Measuring in at 5 feet, 3 inches and 140 pounds of muscle, agility and athletic success never looked the way it did in fitness magazines. Those women were toned. Their muscles were quiet and slipped demurely into running shorts as easily as evening gowns. 

I went jean shopping before the jeggings craze, and the pit of my self-loathing only deepened. My thighs were the widest part of my body and I routinely sized up, settling for a fist-width of loose fabric in the waist just to get them on. Anything with sleeves was out of the question. With my biceps, even the women’s flannel– which was and continues to masquerade as utilitarian fashion– busted at the seams every time.

It’s the word fitness, and its disassociation from functional fitness, that haunted me as a teen female athlete— and still does. I would furiously comb through pictures of female professional ski racers, looking for this warped idea of an aesthetic reward to look forward to. Disappointment came swiftly. In place of sharpened abs, they had a barrel of muscle and no dainty curvature in sight. It should have been enough for me that our muscles allowed us to push against the strictest laws of physics, to do what so many have claimed to be impossible, but it wasn’t.

Maybe if it was just the silly comments from adolescent peers– I once heard a boy at a competition claim he’d never date a girl who squatted more than him– or the pseudo-fitness pedaled by lifestyle magazines, we might have had an easier time brushing it off. No matter how well you prove yourself against the metric of athletic success, be it the Olympics, the World Cup or Wimbledon, there will be droves of mediocre men waiting to critique your body composition online.

Though painful, I know that my experience with misogyny and athletics pales in comparison with women like Serena Williams. The misogynoir leveled against her, a muscular black woman dominating a predominantly white sport, has been staggering. She has been caricatured as an “ape throwing a tantrum,” penalized for wearing medically sanctioned, life-saving garments; ridiculed for her figure on much needed vacations and criticized for not bearing it all with poise and composure after a disappointing match. Where she has persisted, I would most certainly have faltered. If we fail to change the unreasonable expectations placed on female athletes at the highest levels of competition, what hope do we have for the little girl on the playground whose thighs are already “too big,” who is already inspiring the scorn of boys who put her down because they can’t beat her, and who is already tempted to trade her strength for unattainable standards of beauty? 

I’m beginning to push back against the façade of ideas surrounding fitness, and not just for the sake of letting female athletes be athletes. The barbs of aesthetic fitness hurt everyone. I’ve been in circles of athletes belittling fat people who are equally undeserving of armchair critiques of body composition. Nobody can ever “look” fit, because true, equitable fitness is born from functionality, not appearance. 

I’m advocating for a utilitarian rebrand of fitness, one that serves our passions and not our patriarchal, Eurocentric ideals of what the human form should be. To be fit is to have the physical means to do the things you love to your own personal satisfaction, not to squeeze yourself into an arbitrary mold of someone else’s design.

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