Feminist Fitness

absIs wanting six-pack abs antifeminist? 

By Javacia Harris Bowser

In January, I announced on my blog, The Writeous Babe Project; on all my social media channels; and even on public radio, on WBHM 90.3 FM, that I plan to exercise every single day in 2014. I haven’t missed a day yet.

When I made this announcement, I declared that I was not taking on this fitness challenge to lose weight, but to gain strength. I declared that I had no desire to be skinny; I just wanted to be strong. I declared that it was time for feminists to take back fitness.

Inspired by Dr. Caroline Heldman’s TED talk, “The Sexy Lie,” I hoped that this challenge would help me see my body in a new way. As Heldman says, I wanted to no longer see my body as a project that needed to be constantly improved. I wanted to see my body as an amazing vehicle with which to move through the world.

But most days I feel like a hypocrite.

Though I’m not stepping on my bathroom scale every day checking my weight, I am stepping in front of my bathroom mirror examining my abs and pinching at the fat around my waist, wishing and willing it away. And so the other day, as I popped in Jillian Michaels’s 6 Week Six-Pack DVD, I wondered to myself, “Is wanting six-pack abs antifeminist?”

I’ve tried to convince myself that it is not antifeminist to want sculpted abs, because a six-pack is a symbol of good health. A six-pack means I’m getting in a good amount of cardiovascular workouts and core strength training. A six-pack means I’m eating a healthful diet. But the truth is a very skinny, very unhealthy person can have a six-pack, too, and it would not mean any of those things. And the truth is that I want a six-pack primarily because I’m sick of choosing clothes based on whether or not they conceal my muffin top.

I honestly don’t know whether or not it’s antifeminist to want a six-pack. But I do know that every time I turn down an opportunity to go to the beach or a water park because my abs and thighs aren’t as firm as I would like, I am being a bad role model to the teen girls in my life who look up to me. I am quick to say things like, “Every body is a bikini body,” and, “If you want a bikini body, just put a bikini on your body.” But I’m slow to practice what I preach, even though I am supremely sincere when I say those things. For some reason, I can’t apply that attitude of body acceptance to myself.

I know that some people, due to genetics, can’t sculpt washboard abs no matter how fit and healthy they are. I’m not one of those people. I had a six-pack in my early 20s. At the time, I was teaching aerobics part time to supplement the academic scholarship that was getting me through college.

I’ll never forget a training session all the other group fitness instructors and I had with the director of our campus fitness center. This woman was not especially muscular or toned, but she was stronger and in better shape than any of us college girls even though she was twice our age. As she demonstrated, with ease, core-strengthening moves that would make a grown man cry, she stressed the importance of having a strong back and strong abdominals and reminded us it had nothing to do with having a six-pack. “If you have washboard abs, that’s great,” she said. “But totally unnecessary. You need those muscles strong because they help you sit up straight and they hold in your guts!” Her words changed the game for me. I started focusing on what my body could do instead of the way it looked and, ironically, the result was a six-pack. But I didn’t even notice I had one until some friends of mine made a big fuss about it after seeing a picture of me in a bikini.

Though I was much smaller then than I am now, I was still not a skinny girl. I boasted thick thighs and a curvaceous frame, both of which I was proud. But the body confidence I had at that time didn’t come from my curves or my sculpted core. I felt confident because I was fit and strong.

These days, I view being fit and strong as a precious gift. In 2008, I was diagnosed with a connective tissue disease that threatens to take away my ability to move through this world as I please. To let this disease know I had no intentions of going down without a fight, a few years ago I started training for a half marathon. So far, I’ve run two half-marathons and plan to complete my third later this year. When I think of this disease and the things I have accomplished in spite of it, stressing over my abs seems quite silly.

And so just as I did in college, I will shift my focus and concentrate on my endurance, flexibility, and strength, so that I can figuratively and literally outrun the things that try to hold me back. And if that isn’t a feminist approach to fitness, I don’t know what is.

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