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Guide Body Language: Sisters in Shape, Black Womens Fitness, and Feminist Identity Politics

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The woman leaves with an eating plan—some combination of complex carbohydrates, ample amounts of low-fat protein, plenty of fresh vegetables cooked without salt or butter , fruit and natural fruit juices though not after p. In general, Sisters in Shape encourages women to eat. Fear of food is a problem for a number of the women who participate in Sisters in Shape—the residue of previous unsuccessful diets, eating disorders, and disordered eating that affect so many women of all ethnicities in the United States7—and these women often associate eating with negative body feelings and being overweight.

Thus, nutritional counseling and education are crucial to overall health and can help women with poor eating habits, including those who simply fear food. Some women have the time and resources for plans that include five days of cardiovascular workouts and three days of weight training with a personal trainer; others do between three and five days of cardio coupled with one day of personal training and another day of weight lifting on their own.

The combinations are virtually endless.

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Some women try to take advantage of all the group exercise classes, while others prefer to run on the treadmill or ride the stationary bike; still others try to strike a balance between individual and group exercise. The same goes for weight training—some women train regularly, up to three times a week with Melanie or another Sisters in Shape personal trainer ; some who have the financial resources choose to do so in their own homes; some lift just as often but less frequently with a trainer; and some choose to strength-train only in the group exercise classes.

Each Sisters in Shape woman also keeps her own exercise and eating log in which she records her workouts and her meals as well as any other notes she wishes to make.

On the surface, this personal account appears to be a simple means of record keeping, but the exercise and eating log goes well beyond that, as it also functions as a discursive space in which Melanie and the Sisters in Shape member interact. If the woman has a regular personal trainer—most likely Melanie—they read through the book together whenever they meet, discussing the entries, and the trainer records the weight-lifting session in the book.

The trainer may also write notes to the woman—what to eat more of, what to consider in terms of aerobic exercise, when to rest, and so on. In essence, the log is both part of the real face-to-face community and part of the structure of the Sisters in Shape imagined community. At the same time, because virtually all of the Sisters in Shape women keep logs, they can also imagine themselves in common practice with other group members. Even at the most basic levels, Sisters in Shape understands discourse as crucial to body wellness and overall health.

Commonalities such as these—shared understandings of the Sisters in Shape nutritional guidelines, the commitment to keep exercise and eating logs, and similar goals for living a healthy life—foster a true sense of group identity and bolster the Sisters in Shape imagined community.

FS: Publications Received

In addition, Sisters in Shape has a monthly newsletter and a website with a guest book that serves, to some degree, as an interactive forum, and both further contribute to the maintenance of Sisters in Shape as simultaneously an imagined and a real community as Anderson [] has argued with respect to the rise of nation-states, print culture and print capitalism were fundamental to the creation of the nation as an imagined community.

For these women—as well as for the core members—the Sisters in Shape newsletter allows them to perceive themselves as part of a larger community of black women striving to live healthy lives in a culture that often renders them silent and invisible.

For the women of Sisters in Shape, both the real and the imagined are fundamental to their sense of themselves as a distinct and unique community. Sisters in Shape as a real community provides the social underpinnings for the major lifestyle changes these women seek to make, while Sisters in Shape as an imagined community offers a constant, everyday sense of belonging, a group identity predicated on their own empowerment, strength, and choices for healthy living.

Not surprisingly, the Sisters in Shape imagined community also eases the challenges of new eating practices and new exercise regimens, especially for women whose families, friends, coworkers, or other communities simply do not understand their choices. These real and imagined communities are also fundamental to Sisters in Shape as a social movement—the process through which a group of people first comes to understand its experiences and interests as collective as well as culturally, socially, and structurally determined and constrained and then begins to develop a political analysis that it seeks to share with others whom it sees as embedded in similar circumstances.

At the same time, my definition follows in the tradition of new social movement theories that implicitly prioritize social change based on identity and culture over political economy, although such theories obviously see the two as mutually constitutive e. Within this context, I use the term activism to refer to the actions and interventions that groups and individuals within groups undertake to articulate and share their political analysis to bring about the alternative future they desire.

In their work on the production of normative gender through sport, Shari L. Dworkin and Michael A. For the Sisters in Shape women, I believe that the answers to these questions can only be yes. Though the Sisters in Shape membership totals in the hundreds, I know only forty to forty-five of the most regular members, having interviewed about twenty-five of the women at least once during my fieldwork.

The following demographic sketch comes from direct interview questions as well as from information gleaned from shared conversations with these women both on tape and off , information passed along by other women, and information provided by Melanie. It is not a statistical representation of all the Sisters in Shape members; nor is it a statistical representation of Sisters in Shape core members.

Rather, it is an attempt to convey some sense of who these women are in terms of their ages, work, levels of education, class backgrounds, sexuality, and family and relationship status and to give further depth to their discourse. The Sisters in Shape women range in age from early 20s to early 60s, though most are somewhere in their late 30s to late 40s. While family background is often a greater indicator of class status and class background than work and income, all three class, family background, and work seem fairly interrelated among this group of twelve women, who are solidly middle class and, in one or two cases, might be considered upper middle class.

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Other Sisters in Shape members have careers as television news reporters and news anchors, lawyers, nationally recognized musicians, public health educators, accountants, social workers, software engineers, journalists, music promoters, foundation directors, public relations specialists, business owners, beauticians, sales clerks, and office workers.

A rare few do the unpaid domestic labor of childrearing and housework including several who are partnered with NBA stars who play for the Philadelphia 76ers. One of the cornerstones of the Sisters in Shape program is its financial accessibility, as the group offers a sliding scale for fees and services including membership dues and personal training sessions. Nonetheless, Sisters in Shape still seems to attract mainly middle-class and upper-middle-class women, along with a small number of working-class women, all of whom have the luxury of time in addition to the benefit of disposable income.

While I was living in Philadelphia, my fieldwork was consistent with more conventional understandings of what constitutes such research: I participated in the daily life of an emerging grassroots health and fitness project for black women, which I knew about through my personal relationship with Melanie. Those weekend fieldwork visits quickly began to fit a set structure— dinner with Melanie on one of the first nights I was in town, followed by a full day of participant observation and interviewing on Saturday, and then dinner with Melanie on Saturday night or breakfast together on Sunday morning.

Sisters in Shape class which might be Brazilian samba, kickboxing, or yoga , followed by interviews from to a. A bit self-conscious about my lack of rhythm and my inability to shake my butt while walking and shimmying my shoulders, I admit that I found the samba classes particularly difficult, though not without their hilarity. I also participated in a number of non-exercise-based Sisters in Shape events, including some of the semiregular seminars devoted to specific topics such as using herbs for overall health or boosting metabolism through nutrition. Participating in this event was not only thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining—in addition to talking, Marsalis also played a few tunes on his trumpet—but also important because it helped me establish an organizational identity as someone central to Sisters in Shape.

The core Sisters in Shape members ensured that the event ran smoothly, and my participation mostly helping Melanie in whatever capacity she needed was both central and visible. Moreover, many of the Sisters in Shape women also understood that my flying to Philadelphia from Salt Lake City specifically for this event showed a serious commitment to Sisters in Shape generally.

Similarly, my regular presence at the annual Sisters in Shape Health and Fitness Explosion has granted me honorary core-member status. In addition to participating in the organizational life of Sisters in Shape, I conducted ongoing interviews both individual and smallgroup with approximately a dozen Sisters in Shape core members over the course of five years. In a few instances, I also conducted onetime interviews with general Sisters in Shape participants.

These exceptions aside, talking with the same women over an extended period of time as opposed to continually talking to more and more Sisters in Shape members allowed for a fuller range of discourse around their experiences with Melanie, with Sisters in Shape, and with issues of embodiment, activism, and spirituality, especially as their attitudes, ideas, enthusiasm, understandings, and expectations changed in accordance with the ways that health and fitness factored in their lives.

While Body Language draws most heavily on these interviews with the core members, not all core members interviewed are represented in this work; nor are all the women represented here core members. Overall, however, the experiences of the women not represented in Body Language are consistent with those quoted and described throughout the book. Additionally, I have tried to represent textually the overlapping dialogue that occurs in conversation, specifically the ways in which many voices often interrupt and intersect to make meaning, to move conversation, and to elaborate on ideas.

Body Language depends largely on texts—records of shared conversations, interviews, and discussions—and at times I provide extensive excerpts to convey the rich contexts within which the Sisters in Shape women perform and theorize their own particular collective and individual identities. I also include my own participation in the interviews or make note of my discursive presence in order to remind the reader that these conversations did not always arise spontaneously, that I asked particular questions to elicit the stories and ideas being shared, that even before I sat down to give meaning to these stories, I guided and helped shape the process.

Articulation: Theoretical and Methodological Foundations Throughout Body Language I attempt to convey the multiple ways that the Sisters in Shape women disrupt the hegemonic images and discourses that seek to define them. Within this context, articulation theory provides an especially apt framework for my project. This awareness guides me away from traditional ethnography, at least as an overarching mode of scholarship. Even after the discursive shift and the turn toward increased self-reflexivity since the mids, ethnography continues to exist in a field of expectations—expectations that have long overburdened it and have connected it on the deepest levels with an imagined commitment to some sort of extensive cultural translation.

In part because such a translation is neither possible nor desirable, I have turned instead to articulation as a method of analysis and writing that foregrounds the discursive project and the social construction at the heart of all ethnographic work. The very word articulation is rich for any ethnographic project concerned with discourse and the body. Articulation also refers to the act of joining, and in this sense articulation serves as a valuable discursive hinge between the women of Sisters in Shape and me, between my discourse and theirs.

Cultural studies scholars have drawn on these multiple meanings of articulation to develop a theory of cultural practices and productions— including identity formations—as implicitly negotiable and contested e. Hall ; Grossberg ; Slack ; Clifford ; Nelson Indeed, their definitions clearly resonate with each other in focusing on the ways in which new identities emerge out of articulatory practices of linking distinct but not definitive elements see, e.

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Hall ; and Grossberg ; that is, both Laclau and Hall consider how identity categories join and hold together a range of meanings and associations that have a determinative power despite the lack of any inherent connections between such categories and the elements that constitute them. The various meanings articulated with black in the United Kingdom are specific to that historical context, and their absence in the Jamaican context during the same period underscores the ideological dimension of articulatory practices S.


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Hall [] Thus, in his theorization, the construction of subjects operates like a language insofar as the referent is arbitrary, not real, even if the effects of such constructions—such as black identity—have material and political consequences in the world. If articulation is simply a process by which subjects are constructed through discourse, then the political work of creating and maintaining those conjoinings falls away. By grounding the discursive in the metaphoric, Hall clearly establishes articulation as both theory and method—theoretically, articulation is a way of making sense of categories and identities through a deconstruction of their recombinant elements, while, methodologically, it is a way of analyzing the discursive practices that hold the elements together under particular social, historical, and political contexts.

As is the case with language, the work of articulation is largely naturalized, and social intelligibility demands a certain degree of participation in shared meanings, even as individuals may contest and negotiate specific articulations.

Body Language: Sisters in Shape, Black Women's Fitness, and Feminist Identity Politics

The theoretical understanding of articulation as metaphor reveals the lack of inherent meaning associated with any identity. Methodologically, articulation enables an analysis of the political and ideological motivations joining cultural meanings to identities. Slack also extends articulation beyond theory and method and points to the ways in which it might operate on epistemological, political, and strategic levels by focusing attention on structures of knowledge, power, and action Integrating all of these aspects, James Clifford reads the multiple articulations and related rearticulations and disarticulations that hold together Kanak politics in New Caledonia with global indigenous politics, an emergent Native Pacific, and issues of authority, mobility, independence, and interdependence.

At the same time, it forces us to locate ourselves within our research and urges us to embrace the necessarily subjective positions from which we also re produce our ethnographic subjects. As Clifford has pointed out, ethnographic subjects often make demands of the ethnographer, demands that the ethnographer is incapable of satisfying given the enormity of their scope—demands for an entirely different social ordering, for instance. Articulation offers a paradigm for doing and writing ethnography as a deeply political and, I hope, transformative process and project, one that participates in the larger cultural negotiations for visibility and recognition through engagements with dominant epistemes and other structures of power.

It highlights the fact that my ethnographic project relies on their discursive work—namely, the Sisters in Shape invocation of a specifically embodied language to articulate, disarticulate, and rearticulate themselves as local theorists making political and epistemological claims that intervene in, disrupt, and call into question a range of dominant articulations as well as feminist theories of gendered and raced bodies. As is the case with identity, feminist theories of experience and subjectivity have been largely polarized, with a view of experience as irreducible and thus foundational for group identity, on the one hand, and a belief in its fundamentally discursive construction—and, thus, its inadequacy as evidence for grounding historical or theoretical claims—on the other.

What the Sisters in Shape women suggest through their embodied subjectivities, however, is that experience is constituted through discourse even as it exceeds it. By performing the everyday ontologies of their interlocking raced and gendered identities, the Sisters in Shape women contribute a useful response to this question of agency.


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  • Standpoint theory has been crucial in challenging hegemonic feminist theories and epistemologies by drawing from a greater diversity of experiences and by developing more nuanced accounts based in intersectional analyses; at the same time, it has been criticized for collapsing diverse experiences into a singular identity position. While many theorists have argued against identity politics in this context, Wendy Brown offers one of the most sophisticated critiques based on her understanding of the relationship between identity-based claims to justice and ressentiment.