How Black women's engagement in improving health and fitness raises questions about feminism and the construction of black female identity
Sisters in Shape, Black Women's Fitness, and Feminist Identity Politics
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Kimberly J. Lau
Elli Köngäs-Maranda Professional Prize, American Folklore Society, 2011
In her evocative ethnographic study, Body Language, Kimberly Lau traces the multiple ways in which the success of an innovative fitness program illuminates what identity means to its Black female clientele and how their group interaction provides a new perspective on feminist theories of identity politics—especially regarding the significance of identity to political activism and social change.
Sisters in Shape, Inc., Fitness Consultants (SIS), a Philadelphia company, promotes balance in physical, mental, and spiritual health. Its program goes beyond workouts, as it educates and motivates women to make health and fitness a priority. Discussing the obstacles at home and the importance of the group's solidarity to their ability to stay focused on their goals, the women speak to the ways in which their commitment to reshaping their bodies is a commitment to an alternative future.
Body Language shows how the group's explorations of black women's identity open new possibilities for identity-based claims to recognition, justice, and social change.
"In Body Language, Kimberly Lau adeptly draws the reader into the Sisters in Shape culture, whose central players emerge as multidimensional beings. The author’s personal and extended connection with the group provides rich detail as to its origins, day-to-day activities, and impact on Black women looking not to embody familiar health statistics. The ‘discursive’ focus of the text is novel, and explores the reworkings of identity and body that Sisters in Shape enable through talk and action."
"Lau has authored a theoretically nuanced ethnographic study of Sisters in Shape (SIS), technically a consulting firm of personal trainers located in Philadelphia.... Lau describes the ways in which the discourses of self-esteem enacted by SIS members engage women to improve personal fitness as well as family and community health.... She also listens carefully to the women as they integrate spiritual, social, and health goals and negotiate familial and cultural expectations. The future orientation of SIS fitness discourse provides a potential way of reimagining identity politics as situated knowledges, accommodating postmodern critique and lived experience. Summing Up: Highly recommended."
"This engaging, thoughtful book interweaves theory, history, and the heartfelt by using the reflective words of the Black women who participated in the program [Sisters in Shape].... Readers will be inspired by the narratives as the participants share their challenges not just around weight but issues of oppression and the search for community. Their stories are largely triumphant as the author weaves a story of women countering a culture of competition with the strength of community support.... Overall, the reader will come away with a more feminist view of the pathways needed to attain greater health and well-being for Black women, body and soul."
"Firmly situated within the ongoing feminist discussions of identity politics, Lau’s book calls for both theoretical and cultural activism.... While much work has been done in recent decades on popular cultures’ topdown effects on women’s body images, Lau’s book offers a rare insight into body image in the context of ethnographic cultural inputs.... [F]olklorists who study the intersection of culture and health will find many telling examples of how and when cultural pressures affect lifestyle choices, for good or for bad."
Kimberly J. Lau is Professor of Literature and American Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of New Age Capitalism: Making Money East of Eden.