Athletic Privilege and Me

IMG_9103 - CopyI wrote a blog a couple weeks ago about my first official 5K and in it I discussed the fact that I benefit from athletic privilege and I got some questions about what that means.  Recently some stuff has happened that brought it into sharp relief.  About 4 weeks ago I woke up with a pain in my back.  I thought nothing of it and assumed it would work itself out.  Fast forward a week and the constant pain was pretty intense and I could not lift my right arm.  Thankfully I happened to be in Austin where I have a team of amazing healthcare providers (Dr. Robin and Dave I’m looking at you).

It turns out that while ignoring the pain and “working through it” I managed to slip some discs and a tendon and tear some muscles. I wasn’t able to lift my right arm until four weeks later (a few days ago.)  I had to ask for help with day to day tasks, I couldn’t do my own hair.  The pain caused me to cancel things that were really important to me because I just couldn’t deal with the thought of having to leave the house and I’d only been in pain for a month, there are people who live with chronic pain their whole lives.   Things are getting better for which I am very grateful, and this has really reminded me a lot about my athletic/ability privilege:

There are a number of ways that this privilege shows up in my life:

First, by luck of the gene lottery I have some natural athleticism and good natural proprioception and kinesthetic awareness.  I build muscle, in particular Type 2 muscle, very easily.  Second, I was able to be an athlete growing up. Being an athlete in your youth can make athleticism easier to maintain when you’re older.  Also, I got the confidence of athletic achievement.  When I first worked on loving my body for what it does for me and as I live day to day, I didn’t and don’t have to negotiate any disabilities and I had all of that athleticism to fall back on.  Finally, there are social pay-offs that come to me because I am athletic that can negate some of the fat prejudice that I would otherwise face.

So I have privilege.  Of course I also deal with bullshit – like the fact that people suggest that I can’t be an athlete unless I’m thin and plenty of other fat stigma/oppression crap, and yes I’ve worked very hard to develop my athletic skills, but that doesn’t negate my privilege  – like the fact that I get social approval for the hours of work that I put in to physical fitness because I enjoy being an athlete, but I would not receive that same approval if I had spent those same hours becoming a bad ass knitter (and that’s bullshit).  We all have privilege in some ways, typically we didn’t ask for it and we can’t give it away, but we can acknowledge it and we can try to use it to make things better.

Ways that I think we can do that include:

Being loud and clear that, while it’s not a bad thing to be, or talk about our experiences  as, athletes, and while neither of those things are healthist or ableist in and of themselves, being an athlete/exercising/being physically fit etc. doesn’t make us any better or worse than people who aren’t those things for whatever reason, or who choose different hobbies than we do. (In general I think it’s a good idea to avoid feeling good about ourselves by cultivating a belief that we are better than others.)

Being proactive about making sure that the businesses and events we go to, and the events that we coordinate, are accessible to people who have limited mobility, disabilities, and less athletic privilege than we have.

Seeking out information from, and listening to, people whose experiences are different than ours (and who want to discuss these things) to see what we might be able to do to make things more accessible, and to better avoid healthism and ableism.

If you have more ideas, leave them in the comments!

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34 thoughts on “Athletic Privilege and Me

  1. When I think about all the years I wasted dieting, and specifically all the exercise I did with the hopes of “getting thin,” I want to punch my younger self. As a child I love moving just for the fun of it. I loved swimming, riding my bike, roller skating… I wanted desperately to take lessons in figure skating or dance or even gymnastics, but was told by my aunt and grandmother I was “too fat.” I was, mind you, about 5’2″ and 120 pounds.

    If they’d capitalized on my interest in athletic endeavors, instead of putting me on insanely strict diets and making me feel like a freak, I think my life would’ve been very different. But as frustrated as I get by that, I like my life now.

    When I was 26, I was already ‘sick’ but it was early in my illness, and I still had more energy and a lot less pain than I do now. I worked out three to four times a week and followed diets religiously. I’d lose about 20 pounds and plateau. It happened over and over. A few times I managed to get to the elusive 25 pounds lost mark… but it was rare. Exercise, which I began doing because it made me feel good (even though with my pain all I could do was the boring ass treadmill), became a tedious, exhausting thing that didn’t do what I’d be promised it would (aka help me lose weight). Oh, I still did it… but I grew to really hate it. And then I hurt my knee. It was one of the first signs of the fibromyalgia I didn’t yet know I had. My thigh muscles were so tight, they were pulling on the knee cap.

    Fast forward 11 years. I’m now 37, and my health has deteriorated to a point where I am lucky if I can grocery shop without wanting to cry. Some medical professionals would blame my weight… but even IF it’s my weight, I’m not really sure what good blaming something does when I was unable to change it following all the damn rules and exercising three to four times a week over 10 years ago. I sure as hell couldn’t change it now, unless maybe if I was willing to amputate my stomach, and uhm, no. I’m just not. My body doesn’t like surgery, and I don’t want to cut into my life expectancy that way… especially when, with the risks involved, I could be making my quality of life even worse than it is today.

    So, I struggle through the pain… and my message to people who are young and healthy, but happen to be fat is this… enjoy what your body can do right now. Don’t live for the false promises of diets that give you hope of a thin future, and don’t wait to enjoy life because you feel you don’t have the “right” to do something fat… whether that’s dance, swim, put on a bathing suit or some other dream you have. Just get out there and do it.

    If you are lucky enough to find an activity you like, don’t worry about how you look to others while you do it. Just enjoy it, and make the most of it. Life is too short and full of too many unpleasant surprises to waste time on “I’ll do this when I’m thin.” You just never know what might happen.

    1. Thank you for writing that – you are speaking for me, too. I have wasted too many years trying to be thin, and now I have chronic pain and still am not thin, and your advice is SO good. I am glad for everything athletic I ever did despite seeing myself as “fat” and just wish there’d been more of it.

    2. I’m sorry you’re having pain issues. I’m still in my 20s and in spite of my greatest efforts (bulimia, gastric banding, general self loathing), my body is generally healthy and strong. After discovering the body acceptance movement I’m finally starting to appreciate the fact that my body can do so many things instead of hating it because it will never fit into a size 8.

  2. I don’t know whether my nerves are usually raw on the subject, but I wasn’t athletic when I was a kid, and eventually, I was living in a society where adults as well as children were expected to be athletic. (_Aerobics_ came out in 1968, and I swear that before that, it was considered eccentric for adults to exercise. The past is another country.)

    I was bad at running. Since then, I’ve come to the conclusion that I was so tense that my legs didn’t move easily and my breath was constricted, but at the time it was more as though I had a personal defect. It wasn’t something other people hammered on much (I shudder to think how much worse these issues could be for men and boys), but it still hurt.

    Sensible, moderate exercise seems to be good for me, but self-hatred for not being athletic makes it hard for me to get around to it, since the easiest time to notice that you aren’t athletic is when you’re exercising.

    1. You are very right about how it has turned into “exercise” and a form of punishment. In the past kids just played, like they do now, and adults didn’t bother with going to the gym or anything like that. Being bigger didn’t carry the stigma it does today, many famous politicians in the 50’s and 60’s were quite large fellows. Besides the decreased stigmatism, women especially shied away from certain activities as muscles were (and still very much are) considered “manly”, and for a long time there were no sports teams for girls.

    2. My acupuncturist told me something of interest. She follows blood-typing eating, etc, and apparently O types do well with plenty of aerobic exercise, but she thought ABs (me) do better with more contemplative exercise (gardening, yoga, walking), something I had figured out for myself. It bothers me that it’s not exercise if you’re not huffing and puffing — bullshit! I actually heard some “expert” say housework isn’t exercise. If he doesn’t think so, he can come over to my house and do some non-exercise for me.

        1. And here is the problem with blood typing, right? Not everyone falls neatly into the blood type categories.

  3. Exercise should be done for the sake of enjoyment, not because of societal pressure. I swear that people are taking on a very utilitarian view of humanity, and I think while fat people always have taken the brunt of this whole “if you don’t fit the mold, you’re useless” there will probably be more insensitivity to physically disabled people and people who just aren’t cut out for vigorous exercise. I mentioned on yesterday’s thread how I’ve had bad experiences with insensitive adults not understanding my limitations. And for goodness sake, will someone explain why Americans love the First Playground Bully Michelle Obama? She is nothing more than D.C.’s Gwyneth Paltrow. I am so glad I am not a child in this decade because even my skinny, athletic 10-year-old sister is worried about getting fat due to my fitness-obsessed father’s concern-troll approach to weight. Personally, I love swimming, but I would have had an even better time if I wasn’t too busy trying to “burn off fat” and please my “weight-conscious” parents (Mom is more relaxed now, but still.) My motto is, do what you love, but don’t do more than you can handle.

    1. I have noticed a lot more insensitivity to disabled people and people who have limitations that don’t allow them to be a Super Exerciser (cape included). Sadly, I only see it getting worse before it gets better.

      1. I think this attitude ties into the one that says if you are not working for a living you are a lazy ‘taker’ and a drain on society. Being unfit and fat also makes you a drain on society.

        Maybe we should all have crystals implanted in our palms that turn black when we reach a certain age and then we can all be humanely killed.

        /angry sarcasm

        PS I don’t always feel like being physically active, but I have learned enough about other people’s health problems to be grateful for the health I have.

        1. Yes, I was on your train of thought. What I was trying to get at was society wants everyone to be youthful, able-bodied, thin, and working long hours at a job and then spend free time exercising. People are being guilt-tripped if they want to actually relax and there’s just so much pressure to be an energizer bunny. It’s fine to be active and encourage activity, but there is a problem when someone starts questioning the dignity and purpose of another human being. Compassion is lacking in this world.

          1. Very much agree. If our only value for anything is the money we can make off it, what is the point of living?

  4. I’m pretty sure if I hadn’t grown up in a place where exercise was used as punishment, I would be more athletic now. Even so, I recognize my able-bodied privilege.

  5. Ragen, I am sorry to hear of your injury and I’m glad your recovery is going well. I’m so glad you were able to find good doctors to listen to you and to take care of your injury. All good wishes and a tray of comforting things (should you want them).

    I know this is not an advanced social justice space (please know that I do not mean that you personally are not advanced in social justice—you may or may not be), but I really want to thank you for writing about privilege and/or the lack thereof.

    A person can be part of a privileged group(s) and also be part of a marginalized group(s) of people. Being aware of our privileges and the many ways (both seen and unseen), that we benefit helps us to be a better ally and to understand intersectionality. To understand that intent is not magic, and just because someone does or says something all the time or finds someone who “doesn’t mind”, does not mean it’s not a racist, gendered, anti-gay, ableist and/or sizeist slur. To understand that what was said and/or done was supporting Rape Culture, Diet Culture or of using a validity prism and other bullying tactics. (This is not meant to be a full list, and of course the order is not meant to create a hierarchy of marginalization. No oppression olympics here).

    This is a wonderful blog and as a teaching artist whose whole life has been in musical theatre and educational theatre in some form or another… I think what you’re doing is absolutely fabulous! You weld a mighty big teaspoon indeed, and I thank you for it.

    1. I still don’t understand why taking pride in athleticism and athletic accomplishments is bad.

      Also, there are people who aren’t natural athletes and movers who have no natural gifts but who still accomplish athletic things.

      I get that it’s not reasonable to expect that everyone else be able/want to do the things you can/want to do. I get that being able to move is a gift for everyone. I’m just not sure I understand why we should feel guilty if we can.

      1. Hi Em,

        I’m looking at the original post and the comment that you posted under and I can’t find anywhere that it was suggested that people should feel guilty about athletic achievements or that they shouldn’t take pride in them. I won’t speak for the other commenter but what I’m saying is that one can be proud an an accomplishment and still acknowledge one’s privilege in that area.

        I can be proud of my dance championships just like a bad ass knitter can be proud of an amazing outfit that they created. We can both have spent the exact same amount of time, energy, and difficulty on our accomplishments and both be just as proud of them, but I will receive social approval and standing for my achievement because I happened to choose an athletic endeavor that the knitter will not because our society values athleticism above other hobbies.

        So while I feel tremendous pride in my accomplishments, I still acknowledge that society is screwed up in this regard and that even understanding that my accomplishments took hard work on my part, they – and the reactions to them – are partially based luck and the circumstance of an unfair system of reward in our society that prioritizes athletics over other hobbies and accomplishments.

        Again, for the most part we don’t ask for privilege, and we can’t give it away, but acknowledging the broken system can help to start dismantling it.

        I hope that helps,


        1. Thanks Ragen. So, you don’t think that having privilege means that any accomplishments a person privileged in that area are less meaningful? Isn’t that what acknowledging privilege is? Acknowledging that because one has advantages (economic, racial, etc.) that one had an unfair edge that cheated someone else out of an opportunity? So, in essence privilege means one cheated, even if one didn’t mean to or ask to. Because we live in a messed-up society, the privileged ones (like me in many areas) are cheaters. So whatever a privileged person has accomplished means less because that person has taken away the opportunities that others might have had in a different system.

          It seems that I’ve been misunderstanding the concept, though, based on your post and response. Because I thought that it was very much something to feel ashamed of.

          Again, thanks!

          1. Speaking for myself, I find that when someone has the good fortune to excel at something (athleticism, math, height, maleness) and then acts as though they are somehow a more important human being than others, that is when they have gone from being proud of what they have to being arrogant and using their privilege to make others feel like crap.

            It is vastly different to say ‘hooray for me’ than ‘I can do this and you can’t, so I am better than you’.

            I don’t think there is anything wrong with my height (5’2″), but I hate it when people tease me about it.

      2. Em, I will accept your question in good faith as you addressed it to me, but please know that you have put forth straw arguments, which Regan has kindly addressed below. It is important not to put words people did not say into their mouths—that is misappropriation of a person’s lived experience. Nowhere in the original or in my post did we say people should not take pride, and that accomplishments are bad. Also, we did not say anyone should feel guilty. That you immediately interpreted it that way shows a defensiveness at being asked to check your privilege. That’s a defense mechanism because you may feel uncomfortable at being asked to examine your privilege and the way it intersects and impacts with other marginalized groups of people. We can all be simultaneously part of many privileged and marginalized groups of people.

        Privilege granted and/or conferred by an individual/group/society/culture used to uphold systemic systems of oppression against marginalized groups of people should be acknowledged. It must be acknowledged in order to bring an end to the discrimination faced by those othered. It is working towards equality and acknowledging that all people deserve to have their full humanity, body autonomy and agency respected, and not be judged as “less than”.

        As one example, I was born into a culture of thin-privilege. Thin people are granted advantages and access in this world that those marginalized due to their size may not be privy to. Fat people are discriminated against in a myriad of ways due to the privileging of a select body-type over fat bodies. It is a radical act just to go about living one’s life in a fat body. At any moment a person may be verbally and/or physically harassed and/or assaulted as they go about just trying to live their life. Notice how that statement does not only apply to fat people, but to other marginalized groups as well. That is what intersectionality is about. Understanding the interconnectivity between privilege and oppression, and the many ways they interact and impact upon and in our daily lives.

        Of course people should strive to succeed and enjoy their talents and have success, and to be proud of their accomplishments. That is not exclusive or antipathy to understanding the ways in which such abilities and talents are granted /conferred privileges above others. Such understanding brings empathy and with that comes a better ability to listen and to change…

        I hope that helps to clarify.

        1. Thanks. I am not trying to be defensive or make an argument. Just asking questions because the way you and Regan are talking about privilege does not match the way that the concept was originally explained to me.

          1. I am just trying to clarify, because the concept has been a hard one for me to grasp. It seems, based on both of your answers that it is something a lot less…I’m probably saying this wrong…shaming/damning than it was explained to me. I just want you to know that I didn’t dismiss it as I heard it originally (which seemed to me more difficult to hear than what either of you are saying). Social topics have never been my strong suit.

            1. You’re welcome. If you’re further interested, please know that there are wonderful privilege-101 type sites online and if you read some advanced feminist and social justice blogs you’ll get a better understanding of what it means and how it ties into intersectionality.

  6. I had a very active life as a youngster. I swam, rode, skated, climbed trees, walked, and generally just did whatever I fancied doing, without ever being limited by my body. It wasn’t until puberty slammed me into the ‘Young Woman’ mould that my mother started worrying about my weight (I was sturdy, not fat) and I was put on the first of many, many diets. None of them, of course, worked. I still enjoyed swimming and riding, etc., so it was a really difficult learning experience for me when my older daughter aged SIX started complaining of sore back, sore shoulder, headache, stomach-ache, and generally being physically incapable of exercising. It took many years before I could accept that this was genuine inability, not laziness. It’s all the more difficult because this was MY CHILD, having all this pain, unable to run or climb or dance without feeling sick and dizzy and sore. Doctors were useless. We eventually came to terms with her limitations but it’s been very hard and intensely frustrating for both of us.

  7. I’ve always been active, I like walking and swimming, riding bikes, yoga, all sorts of stuff, but I hate exercise. I’ve always hated the idea of going to the gym and setting aside time specifically to “work out.” Because of the way I feel about organized exercising most people around me treated me like I was lazy, especially since I hit puberty I’ve always been bigger. Until very recently I enjoyed being active, I enjoyed health and I never really saw the privilege it afforded me until it wasn’t there anymore.

    Being sick is horrible enough, having something chronic to deal with is a whole pile of no fun and being fat while being sick is incredibly sucky. Everyone has an opinion about how losing weight will magically make you better (Seriously, the next person to tell me to eat Kale and I’ll be all better is gonna get a fist full of Kale to the face). People assume your illness isn’t legitimate because you’re fat, they assume your illness was caused because you’re fat or has been made worse because you’re fat. I never understood how truly unpleasant it is to not just be chronically sick but also be chronically sick and also be fat.

  8. Thank you, Ragen. Thank you so much for acknowledging this. I tried so hard as a kid to do the things other kids were doing- riding a bicycle, playing tag (i.e. running), jumping rope, and I just couldn’t. My proprioceptive sense has been terrible since I was a toddler (used to bang into walls walking down hallways unless I kept a hand on the wall). My muscles are hypotonic. They’re too loose due to a fault in motor nerve control; I’m floppy all over and will never be toned no matter how many weights I lift. About the only form of movement I’m good at and enjoy is swimming, and since I was diagnosed with epilepsy that has been severely curtailed. I have to have someone in the water with me or a lifeguard who knows what to look for watching.

    Yet I still get people telling me “Oh, you just need to try harder!” I’d like to see them pass calculus while taking large amounts of brain-numbing, sleep-inducing drugs. (Which I did, and there was much rejoicing afterward!)

  9. I wish I had athletic privilege! It’s a gift. I was always a sedentary kid, with a nose stuck in books. I guess that was reading privilege – and it has served me well. However, kids who aren’t athletic are punished socially. It wasn’t until I hit 30 and a friend convinced me to go to the gym with her that I found exercise I liked – up until then, I thought anything to do with exercise had nothing to do with me.

  10. This is an incredible post with incredible comments. I never thought of myself as athletic, even though I took horses seriously enough to consider a career as a riding instructor and trainer. Due to intense riding with the resultant, inevitable falls, I damaged my back, and even that would have been fine if I hadn’t suffered medical negligence. With everything that I am now reading, I am beginning to suspect the negligence was predicated on my weight. That said, I am now severely disabled, so I get to be chronically unwell and fat, a joy forever, as inkspots87 pointed out. I miss all the physical things I did so much! I used to go climbing, swim, canoe, and ride my horse, none of which I can do now. I know I still have white privilege (nothing to sneeze at) and small fatty privilege, but I wouldn’t mind regaining my athletic privilege! And it is a privilege to have an agile, mobile body.

  11. I have a disability that makes it very difficult to perform certain forms of movement, so this post is very timely for me. I intended to write more about this, but I’ve just been triggered by a comment on another blog where a woman was commenting on how her food portions are almost bigger than her husband’s, and how this is “not cute for a lady”. The sexism & fat-phobic attitude has me shaking with anger. I hate this world.

  12. Although I have never been athletic and have loathed nearly all exercise all my life, I now find myself even less able. It certainly has given me perspective. This has been an interesting discussion on the concept of privilege. I take from it the value of understanding when one does have privilege. It is a multi-layered concept. We go through life with a set of privileges and stigma. My guess is that few people are in a situation with purely being privileged or purely being stigmatized.

  13. Hello! I just want to let you know how much your blog and activism has helped me personally. I have been struggling to love, let alone accept my body for a while now. I actively try to wear things that I feel comfortable in, and I am very conscious of the ways in which I am critical of it. Today, I woke up feel bummed an stressed about a bunch of things in my twenty-something life of instability and chaos, and loving my body was not fitting on the agenda very well. So, I decided that I wasn’t about to spend my day moving through communities of body shame without some ammo to keep me feeling strong and grounded – and that’s where you came in. I read through your most recent posts and am about to enter my day with some validation of knowing that my body is fine and amazing as it is, and that other people’s unspoken fears and judgments around it don’t actually mean much. So I have to run, or else I’d keep rambling to you, but I just wanted to let you know that you are helping this young, impressionable gal move through her day with a bit more kick-assery than she would have without your posts.

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