Exercise and the queer body

By Costa Maragos Posted: April 1, 2016 10:00 a.m.

Dr. Claire Carter hopes her research will lead to a “greater understanding – both within queer communities as well as within broader society.”
Dr. Claire Carter hopes her research will lead to a “greater understanding – both within queer communities as well as within broader society.” Photo by Trevor Hopkin - U of R Photography.

As Saskatchewan celebrates its fifth annual Gender Diversity Awareness Week, Dr. Claire Carter is shedding light on an under-examined research area relating to exercise and the queer body. She’s been awarded an Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for her study, “Implications of Exercise on Gender Identity, Body Image, and Community for Queer and Trans* Women.”

Dr. Carter is Assistant Professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies. She’s focussing her research on queer exercise spaces, like gyms and sports teams, and questions how these sites engage with – promote and or resist – the heteronormative ideal of the thin, fit female body.
We spoke with Dr. Carter about her research project.

What makes this research project important for you?

Our bodies are central to our identities, how we experience the world and feel about ourselves. As a queer woman, I have noticed changes within the queer community about what it means to be ‘queer’ and who is visible as ‘queer’. There has been increased representation of queer and trans people – which is great – but not everyone is being represented and so it is important to me to hear how representations of certain bodies and identities impact the community as well as our societal ideals of gender and body size.

What will you specifically look at in this research?

My research unpacks two assumptions: that queer sport spaces are ‘safe’ and more inclusive, and that queer and trans* women don’t struggle with their body image.

I am looking at queer sports spaces – in particular lesbian/queer women’s team sports (basketball, soccer, softball as well as queer positive gyms) in Toronto and Vancouver; what the dynamics are on various teams and how individuals experience those spaces in terms of gender identity and body size.

Sports have often been perceived as ‘safe spaces’ for queer women. In fact often women in sports have felt pressured to enhance their femininity to ensure they are not read as gay, but there hasn’t been a great deal of research on how queer individuals actually experience those spaces. In recent years many teams have changed from being lesbian or women focused to being more inclusive of trans* and genderqueer individuals.

What are some of the body image issues specific to queer and transgender people?

From my pilot project, I found that queer and trans* women struggle with their body image in both similar and different ways to cis (cisgender) and straight women. Like straight/cis women, queer and trans* women negotiate their level of exercise, body weight, and muscle mass in order to be able to be read as queer, trans*, and/or a particular gender identity (female/male, androgynous, butch, femme or genderqueer).

What are some examples of this?

A straight/cis woman might worry about looking ‘too masculine’ if they lift weights. A trans* woman in my study restricted the amount of exercise she did as gaining muscle would jeopardize her ability to be read as female.

Whereas a ciswoman might seek to lose weight as part of her desire to be read as female (due to Western society’s equation of feminine with thinness). A queer individual in my research talked about wanting to be thin to maintain a more androgynous body type, gaining weight would mean curves and would jeopardize their ability to pass as androgynous.

There was overwhelming recognition of the importance of queer community spaces – for many, queer sports teams and community spaces were transformative spaces, spaces in which some folks came out, spaces to meet people, be accepted, and be comfortable in their gender.

However, there were also stories of struggle – of being frustrated by the lag between having a trans* and genderqueer inclusive policy (for a team/league membership) and everyday language that reinforced binary gender norms and/or history of the team being a ‘womens’ space. 

So I am interested in how teams are negotiating these changes, supporting their players and thinking through what changes to their policies could mean for their space as a whole.

What are you hoping will come out of this research?

I’m hoping for greater understanding both within queer communities as well as within broader society. An understanding of the pressures and limitations we impose on people based on strict gender norms.

We are often afraid of something we don’t understand, and for various reasons, many of us (particularly those of us in dominant social positions) aren’t open to learning from and accepting difference. Embracing gender and body size diversity will benefit all of us, not just those of us who are marginalized in various ways – but everyone.

Most people feel restricted and/or frustrated with the boundaries imposed on them by gender (and body size) norms, but often feel they are personally to blame for not fitting the dominant gender ideal.

I also want to highlight the complexities and nuances of queer spaces and communities; we often get a simplistic representation of queer people in popular media (white, middle-class) that doesn’t reflect the diversity of interests, experiences, and needs, specifically of queers of colour and Indigenous queers, and Two-Spirit people who are often invisible within popular representations of the queer community.
Dr. Claire Carter was awarded a Social Sciences and Humanities Research (SSHRC) Insight Development Grant  For her study; “Exercise and the Queer Body: Implications of Exercise on Gender Identity, Body Image, and Community for Queer and Trans Women.” This project builds on an SSHRC-funded pilot study in 2013. Dr. Carter’s research in this area has also received funding from the U of R President’s fund and Faculty of Arts Deans Research Award.

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