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Fitness and Privilege

Two young children, grinning at the camera. One has a plaster cast on her right hand.

Somewhere between 70-95 per cent of people reading this will be right-handed. And a good chunk of them will never have thought of that as a privilege. If you’re born right-handed a lot of things are just made to be easier for you, literally designed to make your life easier. Writing. Scissors. Credit card machines. The fly on your jeans. That’s just how things are.

That’s a privilege. The left-handed people reading this will know how frustrating it can be. Thankfully we’ve moved past forcing left-handedness out of children in their school years, but to deny that you get an advantage being right-handed, even if it seems small, would be a lie.

Anyway, it’s 2019 fast approaching 2020 so Imma go ahead and assume you’ve heard of privilege, as we generation y/z/millenial-ish types mean it. (If not, the dictionary definition of privilege is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.”) I see it as a benefit someone enjoys simply because of their situation, or without personally having done anything specifically to deserve it.

I’d like to talk about how that concept relates to the fitness industry, an area that is absolutely dripping in un-called-out privilege. Basically I’ve had a gutful of this “work harder” “no excuses” “no pain, no gain” and “if you dream of it you can achieve it” #motivational #hashtag #fucking #BULLSHIT. So I’d like to unpack them a bit.

“If you dream it, you can achieve it.”

Nope. Not a thing. This is the absolute biggest pile of shit we’ve come up with so far. I actually cannot believe people allow themselves to say this to each other. What. The. Actual. Fuck.

I could dream all day of squatting 300kg or running a nine-second 100m or singing I Have Nothing. That doesn’t mean I’ll be able to do it. Even if I try really hard and do everything right. It’s just not ever going to be possible for me, so it follows that dreaming of it would only lead to disappointment.

Yes, I get that we are supposed to assume that it only applies to not-impossible goals. It’s just that we are sold impossible goals as normal ones every day. Things that are just as out of reach as 300kg is for me, but insidiously work their way into our consciousness as something we could or should strive for.

Like having a year-round six pack and not being insufferable, looking like so-and-so with their eating plan, “getting back your pre-baby body”, losing a dress size in a week, etc. etc.

Any good trainer or coach knows that nothing is more individual than a person’s goals. Goal-setting is a skill in itself, and the quality of the goal set at the start of a program is crucial in ensuring not only the success of that program, but also future endeavours. Not everyone is experienced in training, or educated in how to properly research training science, or able to access the services of someone who can guide us. Actively encouraging inappropriate goals is grossly irresponsible behaviour on the part of those enjoying this privilege.

So, I fixed it : “If you can dream it, and if it’s a Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely goal for you, then with some work you may be able to achieve it. But if not, that’s OK because your mates like you for your fart jokes not your quad separation and the important part is being happy and giving it a red hot go.”

“You can have the body you want if you work hard enough”

No. No, you can’t. You can have a body that’s something like the bodies in your father’s family, something like the bodies in your mother’s family, just somewhat fitter/stronger/leaner.

This is like that cartoon of the rhinoceros on a treadmill looking at a picture of a unicorn – which is actually bleak as fuck in my opinion. I don’t see why anyone with a soul would print that on a workout top.

We all learned the Nature vs. Nurture concept in high school biology, right? That every individual in a species will be different due to their genetics AND their environment. Diet and fitness culture would have you believe that you can throw your ‘Nature’ out the window and ‘Nurture’ yourself to within an inch of your life, to emerge an entirely different form.


Some people are predisposed to be bigger, smaller, taller, shorter, leaner or chubbier – you can tweak that quite a bit but all the hard work in the world will not redesign your body type from the ground up. Even two people of seemingly identical builds may have put in wildly different levels of ‘hard work’ to get to that point. Even if you can bully your body into some far-fetched version of yourself, drastic changes are often unsustainable and very unhealthy.

Furthermore, lifestyle choices are heavily influenced by privilege, so even the ‘Nurture’ part is an uneven playing field.

Where privilege comes into play here is that due to genetic, social, psychological and financial factors some people will find it relatively easy to achieve certain goals (lower body fat, gain muscle, etc.) and for some it is incredibly hard. The “if you work hard enough” clause is usually put there by the people who think they’ve worked hard (ie: doing some work in the gym), but have no idea how hard it can actually get (ie: overcoming huge barriers before ever setting foot in a gym).

This particular piece of drivel is also a handy way to get people to blame themselves for failure rather than stopping to question the entire system. The industry’s most powerful tool is culpabilising the consumer rather than the product when the product fails to deliver on promises. How many times have you or someone you know restarted a particular diet or tried another “new” diet, only to fall off the wagon, beat themselves up and then start another one in a matter of months? Study after study has shown that the overwhelming majority of people who lose weight on fad diets regain it, and then some more. Yet we keep being sold these things and told that if they don’t work it’s our fault. If you bought a vacuum cleaner that was incredibly unpleasant to use, stopped working real quick and then somehow sprayed extra dirt around your house, would you go back and buy another one?

Yeah I get it, but this one can be particularly irksome when it has a “look at me I stayed up late watching MAFS but I still got up at 7 to go to my personal trainer and then get a $12 bulletproof coffee and a $25 nOuRisH bOwL because #fitspo #bikiniready #sweatisfatcrying” kind of vibe.

What if you have young children who have whooping cough so you haven’t slept all week, you can’t afford or make it to scheduled gym classes and your only option would be to get up at 4:30 to go for a run in the dark before getting them ready for care so you can go and work a long shift on your feet? What’s the hashtag for that?

My mother Toni worked night shifts at a hospital for my entire childhood. She spent every day looking after my sister and me. Exercise was not the only sacrifice she made for us - she barely slept. She poured every spare dollar and minute into our education and sports. If you want to come at me suggesting that Toni, or anyone like her, doesn’t train because they are making excuses, then you’d better come ready to fight.

On the flipside of that, my 60-70 hour work week used to leave me very little time for training. So I would go for long distance runs at 2am in the north of Paris because #noexcuses. Is that admirable or is that going too far?

Answer: THAT IS FUCKING LUDICROUS DO NOT EVER DO THAT. Questions of safety aside, under-sleeping and overtraining at that time lead to health issues that took me a long time to rectify.

As for the astonishingly common message that you can “always” find funds for personal training, or the latest fitness app or super food, because it’s simply a matter of ‘wanting it enough’ to shift money priorities around…. Give. Me. Strength.

How anyone could be sheltered enough to not even grasp the theoretical concept of poverty is beyond me. As if low-income earners didn’t have it hard enough.

Wouldn’t it ‘always’ be just as easy to give out these products and services for free? Well no, that’s just as unfair because these people earn their living from it (some of them very fairly).

But repeating the message that everyone else is ‘prioritising’ their health and you’re not is their way of trying to make guilt sell. And that’s pathetic.

“I’m exhausted”, “I legitimately can’t find the time”, “I’m injured”, “I have a physical/mental condition”, “I can’t afford it” “I don’t feel welcome/equal/safe there” are all valid reasons to deprioritise organised exercise until you can find something that works for you.

One of the best forms of exercise is walking. For as much time as you have to spare, as many times a week as you can, walk at the speed that feels right to you at this time.

“no pain no gain”

Some people find mild to moderate pain incredibly uncomfortable or distressing, others enjoy it. Some people have existing injuries or conditions meaning they are already in chronic pain. Some associate pain with past trauma. Some people have jobs or duties that cannot be carried out if they are in pain. Insisting that everyone should “push through” pain and wear it like some sick badge of honour is a crock of shit.

You can get fit and strong while experiencing minimal pain. It is not a necessary part of the process. Again: pain is not a necessary part of training or fitness. Neither is it ‘proof’ that you worked the hardest, or that you’ll get better results.

Of course at certain levels of performance some pain, even intense pain, is going to be inevitable. But that is for athletes of an established training age who have a good base of fitness and are willing and motivated to go through it. Even then pain is a byproduct to a result - it should be minimised, not sought out for its own sake.

Another crock of shit: talking about pain as a universal experience. One person can never talk to any other person about their pain and be sure to be understood. It’s too subjective. An example of this is that Michael Phelps’ body produces less than half of the lactic acid of his competitors’. So he might be casually winning Olympic medals in less pain than Toni climbing a long flight of stairs. Who knows? Being ‘better’ at tolerating pain is like being better at seeing the colour green. We have no way of comparing experience.

If someone says their pain means they can’t do certain things, like training, then that is that. It’s not up for discussion, it isn’t to be compared to other cases of a similar condition, it isn’t an indication of their strength or personality - it just doesn’t require any other input AT ALL. Every individual is the sole expert in their own experiences.

These are just a few of the more egregious privilege-denying tendencies in #fitspo. There are many more points of privilege in fitness, including:

  • being thin, or otherwise considered conventionally attractive. And/or fitting into conventional ideas of your gender (You could ask women in weightlifting about their experiences in gyms if you want to lose faith in humanity. Or non-binary folks, generally.)

  • being without disability.

  • having the time to exercise when you prefer.

  • having a schedule compatible with local facilities (usually tailored to the weekday 9-5).

  • having enough money to afford membership/equipment/babysitting/transport/extra or different food, etc. Gym classes and PTs that cost more are often more enjoyable/supportive/require less internal motivation, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to charge so much for them.

  • having enough money to afford clothes/shoes etc. Gear that costs more is often more comfortable, durable and flattering, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to charge so much for them.

  • never having been discouraged, bullied or humiliated while exercising.

  • never having been harassed or assaulted while exercising.

  • having a social, cultural and/or family group that supports exercise.

  • having relatable role models and examples of your age, gender, skin colour, sexuality and abled-ness to follow.

  • not having a history of eating or exercise disorders, or other mental health concerns that impact training opportunities.

  • being co-ordinated, body-aware and able to learn new skills. Movement literacy is determined by genetics, epigenetics, adequate nutrition, emotional, mental and social support, and being able and encouraged to play, experiment and form new skills from infancy to adolescence. It is only marginally influenced by the stuff you do once you’re in charge of your shit. That’s why this is a privilege.

  • being educated in how to understand and analyse fitness, diet and science jargon.

Each of these may represent only a minor setback, but if you lay them down end-to-end then you end up seeing that some of us are starting the race a long way back from the start line, and being told by those up the front that this shit is easy.

There’s nothing wrong with making the most of your situation or privilege. It’s not your fault you got a good hand and you’ve done nothing wrong. You can and should be proud of what you’ve achieved. However, in my opinion, it is our responsibility to check our own privilege(s) before talking to others about their situation. That means being aware that not everyone gets the same deal, and understanding that repeating the same messages that may have worked for you may be inappropriate to others.

Oh, and also that you don’t have to listen to that trash.

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