Fitness Is A Story We Should Tell Differently: An Interview with Courtney Marshall

Courtney Marshall is an English Ph.D., activist, and fitness instructor. Vital interviewed her to find out more about her unique experience and how she sees the relationship between narrative and health.

Thanks for agreeing to chat with Vital, Courtney. Could you tell us about your background and what you do?

I used to be an English and Women’s Studies professor at the University of New Hampshire, and in the fall of 2015 I resigned to work as a community fitness instructor. This fall I’ll begin an exciting new position teaching English at Phillips Exeter Academy.

As a community-accountable fitness instructor, I teach free fitness classes and personal training sessions throughout New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine. I also write about feminism, antiracism, and fitness on a Facebook page, “Wrong Is Not My Name: Black Feminist Fitness.” I’m currently working on a book about African-American women and the racialization of fitness entitled Ain’t I An Athlete?.

You have a background in the liberal arts, which we’re willing to bet makes you fairly unique in your current field. How does your liberal arts background help you do your current work? How does it benefit your clients?

I started my career as a scholar researching African-American women’s literature and prison history, and I kept coming back to an image of someone being both kept out of and penned into a set of stories about freedom, democracy, and crime. When I started to look around my gym, I saw those same stories. As a fat black woman, I felt like a perpetual outsider.

Things started to click for me after I lost my first hundred pounds, and I was still fielding unsolicited weight loss advice from strangers. There was something about me that didn’t register as “athletic” to other people. At the same time I was feeling happy and confident while women who were much thinner than I was were complaining about their thighs. It was then that I realized that this whole thing was about stories. For me, fitness and movement are all about stories. When we’re young, fairy tales and media mold our notions about beauty and strength and assign value to thin bodies.

The beauty is that we can unlearn those stories. I changed what I read and listened to and that made all the difference.

I started out exercising to lose fat, but then it shifted. I enjoyed exercising while being fat. I unlearned the story of fat black womanhood and then wanted to share this liberation with others. That’s when I decided that my commitment to black women, to poor people, and to other fitness outsiders would animate my work.

I’m still a bookworm, but now I read narratives about fat liberation and support fitness initiatives focusing on underserved populations. Rather than only writing about prisons, I teach Zumba in a correctional facility. I feel like I’m constantly challenging the canon of the health and fitness industry. I’m resisting the narrative that cardio belongs to white women and strength training belongs to white men. My dream is to go broke spreading the good news of black feminist fitness and being of service to other gym outsiders.

What role do you see the fitness industry playing in healthcare? Are there issues your clients have that the medical-industrial complex is failing to address?

The biggest thing I see is the gap between people “knowing” what they should do and actually following through with making these actions sustainable. In the past I’ve been diagnosed with scary ailments like diabetes and hypertension, and I was told to eat better and exercise. I read lots of books and articles and watched educational videos. However I couldn’t make the jump to making and working towards sustainable goals. I was so caught up in the end result that I couldn’t see how my everyday actions could get me to a different place. I felt alone and vulnerable. I felt like every diagnostic test was another chance to be lectured by the medical staff. I would have liked it very much to work with other people who had the same conditions. We all know what we’re supposed to do, but why is it so hard to do it?

I think it’s hard because fitness and health get discussed as an achievement that can only happen after a long period of time. The end result can seem far away and it requires perfect compliance to a rigid protocol. The language of deprivation, punishment, and sacrifice abounds. Who wants to do that?

It’s so interesting to me that even the “promise” of health benefits isn’t enough to keep us engaged. That’s what’s so funny to me about weight loss and fitness culture. Having a muscular or thin body is portrayed as the best thing ever, but despite a culture of fat shaming and fat oppression, the promise of a socially acceptable body isn’t enough to keep us exercising.

Personally, I chose not to focus on the language of sacrifice and instead enjoy the new activities I was learning and the new friends I was making. I always gave myself permission to quit (a direct refusal of the #noexcuses mentality) and permission to change my mind.

It sounds like fitness helped you discover new things about yourself, expanding your professional and personal identity in really positive ways. But by the same token, do you perceive ways in which the fitness industry is itself complicit in perpetuating and reinforcing unhealthy or unrealistic body images?

I see it every day. As a participant in group exercise, I constantly hear people (usually women) make derogatory remarks about their thighs, upper arms, stomachs, everything! It infuriates me! I feel that everyone has the right to feel however they want to feel about their bodies, but when they are so negative about fat, where does that leave me as a fat woman with whom they want to connect? Over time I’ve gotten more isolated in fitness spaces because I refuse to participate in that kind of talk. I don’t regale people with how my tough workout means that I get to eat dessert. I don’t “earn” food by exercising. I’m also really critical of systemic oppression, and I call it out when I see it. That is often in opposition to the idea that the gym is meant for small talk. There’s just so much body hatred.

I had an instance where I was working for a gym and was asked to provide information for a class flyer. I provided numerous pictures of people of various races, ages, and body sizes to advertise for my class. My picture was rejected in favor of a photo depicting white muscular people doing a highly advanced move. This happened a few times and when I brought it up I was told that while my concerns were really important, they wanted to go with the other photo. I was also pressured to use my own weight loss experience to advertise for a class devoted to weight loss. I will never allow myself to be used to guilt another fat person. That lack of solidarity is unhealthy!

I recently joined the Body Positive Fitness Alliance so that I could get some support and information on how to change gym culture for myself and for the folks I work with. It was there that I really learned about the insidious nature of fitness advertising. Representation matters, and when we are bombarded with only one type of person in fitness discussions, it’s telling us that that we don’t belong. We do.

Thanks very much for telling us about your story and experience, Courtney!


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