In Women and Fitness in American Culture I highlight the problematic aspects of the national healthcare agenda and the conversation around American fitness that we see in popular culture. I also highlight the ways in which fitness can help us work toward transforming these conversations and policies. Koritha Mitchell's presentation complements my work in important ways as her arguments about the bigger picture of American fitness mesh with mine, and she extends the conversation to speak specifically to black women's experiences, in all their diversity. At the end of the panel, chair and commentator, Alondra Nelson, remarked that it's about time that we consider health research in the Arts and Sciences. I couldn't agree more, and I hope that my work provides a jumping off point for many conversations, like those begun at ASA by professors Mitchell and Nelson.
Professor Mitchell framed her discussion of Black Girls Run! through a larger picture of American culture and politics, particularly the racism of "know-your-place aggression" seen in its most extremes in the recent Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride cases. These cases are nothing new, and they are not rare. In this climate, Mitchell argues, "exercise has become invaluable"; it is a way to avoid despair and to prioritize self-care while equipping others to do the same. This is particularly important for black women and other women of color who are devalued--body and mind--by American culture and whose lives are often wholly devoted to the service of others. As Mitchell argues, "energy is our most precious resource" and black women deserve to put themselves first. Preserving such energy is the only way to continue to give that energy to our families, our communities, our work, and to social justice.
She also frames her discussion in terms of the national debate about health care and the emphasis in American culture on health and fitness as weight loss. Mitchell's presentation was not the only one at ASA to make a connection between the government initiatives of "My Plate" and "Let's Move" and the limited and limiting representations of "health" and "fitness" that target African American women. (Karisa Butler-Wall presented her paper, "Risky Business: Race, Citizenship, and the Biopolitics of Debt in the 'Obesity Crisis.'") But the problems that plague black women's health are not individual problems; they are structural problems. As Mitchell argues, Americans are sedentary. Americans eat too much salt and sugar. Americans eat too much fast food.
After framing the climate and arguing the importance of self-care, Dr. Mitchell discussed the ways in which The Black Girls Run! chapter that she organized in Columbus, OH, in April of 2011, helps to mitigate these circumstances and transform the experiences of black women individually and in community. The story she tells is one that echoes and extends the stories I tell in Women and Fitness in American Culture. While I weave other voices and stories into my own, I also make it clear that my experience in fitness is limited by my geographical locations, my whiteness, my middle-class status, and other factors that shape women's individual and collective fitness experiences. We need more stories.
We need to take up more space. The work of Black Girls Run! takes place in cyber spaces as well as in real life. Mitchell notes the supportive environment that Facebook offers through its daily activity and the ways in which this organization continues to resist the notion that losing weight is motivation for exercise. BGR! adopts the important ideas that exercise is beneficial no matter what size a woman is and that exercise is punishment if it is linked to weight loss. These are important messages in a culture that devalues "fat" while blaming the individual for structural problems.
Perhaps the most important philosophy expressed through Mitchell's chapter of BGR! is the idea: "I am grateful I can move, so I am moving." This is the basis for feminist and mind/body fitness that I discuss in Women and Fitness in American Culture. Likewise, BGR! is flexible, supports beginners, and operates with a "no woman left behind" philosophy. Everyone crosses the finish line and everyone does the level of activity they are able to do that day. Members support one another on the run and in life; they challenge each other to be their best. And yet, Mitchell argues, there is no flexibility with a culture of excuses. (And she provides fun motivational messages like those on her Pinterest page.) BGR! leaders must be reliable and on time, and must not let weather control their desire to run. Ultimately, building a community presence means being accountable to that community. Strong leaders like Koritha Mitchell, make a difference.
As I note of my own work in the sphere of fitness, Mitchell argues that the work she does with Black Girls Run! makes her work in academia possible. Running is crucial for Mitchell's intellectual self, just as my practice of yoga and cardio/dance are for me. For both of us, this fitness space allows us to interact with people outside of academia, to connect with our community in meaningful ways. For Mitchell, this is an important space of connection since the two activities that allow black women to interact (traditionally, and in Columbus specifically)--church and activities for children--are not spaces Mitchell is involved with. Further, she notes that this work has "really driven home for me just how diverse black women are. If we didn't have racism," she notes, then black women might not have much in common.
Diverse women come together in fitness spaces, and the benefits of fitness communities cannot be overlooked or underestimated. As Dr. Nelson pulled together the threads of the presentations on this panel, she included a slide show with quotes from the Black Panther Party and Audre Lorde. In both cases, the importance of self-care and health as an integral part of the "aspiration and practice" of "the liberation struggle" were highlighted. Her role call of women in academia lost too soon was a sobering reminder that the importance of self-care is both an individual and structural problem and priority, particularly for women of color whose bodies and minds are undervalued and exploited. Health and fitness are issues that cross categories and disciplines and deserve a more thorough look from the arts and sciences, and from interdisciplinary, feminist inquiry, as well as from American studies scholars.