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Fitness Culture, Deconstructed: No, You Don’t Have To ‘Burn It To Earn It’

A group of people standing on dark concrete with their arms extended upwards
Debora Cartagena
Fitness culture defines exercise with a narrow lens - leaving out room for the play and movement that suits every body differently.

Gyms and fitness spaces have long been spaces for white, heteronormative and able-bodied people. The inclusive fitness movement aims to break down that fitness culture to make movement accessible to all bodies, and to celebrate movement for reasons other than changing your body to look like something it’s not.

How comfortable do you feel in gyms, fitness studios and exercise classes? With COVID-19 in our midst, we all may feel a little iffy about spending time indoors with people breathing hard — but what about even before the pandemic? 

If they want to dance, we want to connect them with the people who are dancing.
Joy Cox

In and outside of gyms, we get inundated with messaging about what we should look like and how physically fit we should be. This fitness culture tells us that unless we exercise a certain way and achieve a certain ideal — of thinness, whiteness and heteronormative gender presentation — we’re doing it wrong.

Host Anita Rao talks withIlya Parker, owner of Decolonizing Fitness, and Joy Cox, co-founder of a forthcoming inclusive fitness app, Jabbie, about their work to make fitness accessible for all bodies. 

And Natalia Petrzela, associate professor of history at The New School, joins to discuss the history of fitness culture as we know it.

Cox on when physical activity became “fitness”:

As a kid, I rode bikes with my sisters, we played jump rope, we did dancing, we did all of these things. And it wasn't until I got older that I started to realize that those activities that I used to participate in have now somewhat transitioned into this more structured idea of what's known as exercise or fitness. And those ideas and ideals are attached to these standards. They're attached to how your body is supposed to show up in the world. They're attached to you as an individual morally. So if you're moving your body, it makes you a certain type of person. You're a good person if you're moving your body.

Some people are going and seeing a fitness instructor more than they're seeing their therapist.
Natalia Petrzela

Petrzela on when the drive to be fit took hold in the 1950s:

With the rise of a service economy — where more and more people were sedentary — and with suburbanization were kind of white middle class folks for whom leisure was considered aspirational but also took effect on your body. You start to have the idea of like, oh, you need to exercise regularly, taking shape. … That big push in the 1950s, that was huge. Because it really kind of sanitized the idea of regular exercise and made it virtuous. Like if you're a good citizen, you exercise. And they spoke of this in unapologetically fat shaming ways. I mean, JFK gives this big talk about the “soft American” and how an American who is physically soft is a national liability.

Parker on how to be inclusive as a trainer:

We create this culture where we're fearful to say: Hey, we actually don't know a lot. ... I'm very vulnerable with my clients when I say: Hey, I don't know this thing, I've never worked with a person who moves in the way that you do. I want to learn, but guess what, I have resources, so I can actually patch you in with someone else that may be more appropriate for you. … I know it's a capitalist notion, and we want to try to maintain as many clients as we can, and we don't want to lose folks. But we have to understand that we are doing damage when we're literally trying to work with people when we have no clue. … So that's what I'm really trying to work through with creating a culture of vulnerability and openness and willingness to grow and learn together.

It's had a huge impact ... being discounted and devalued because my muscles don't show through my skin.
Ilya Parker

Thank you to Bri Sikorski, D’Arcee Charington, Matthew Ney and Daniel Cantwell for their contributions to this episode.

Plus, we asked listeners for their favorite songs to move to. Thanks to everyone who contributed! Check out the playlist here:

Please note: This conversation originally aired February 26, 2021.

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Kaia Findlay is the lead producer of Embodied, WUNC's weekly podcast and radio show about sex, relationships and health. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.