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Liz Margolies, L.C.S.W. Headshot

What If Feminists Stole the National Health Agenda?

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We all develop our interest in wellness at different moments in our lives, and what we are told is good or bad for us is determined by the source of our news and the current state of accepted science. Personally, I have always found most of my information in The New York Times and medical journals, and I often post about it here.

Over the last two decades I have witnessed the shape-shifting health enemy go from fats to carbohydrates to sugar to gluten. I have been consecutively persuaded to wear well-heeled running shoes, run barefoot, and give up running altogether in favor of walking. I began by exclusively wearing cotton athletic wear because it was a natural fabric, only to be told later to throw it all out because cotton doesn't "breathe." I recently read "The 7 Things Not to Wear to the Gym" and then remembered that I hate the gym and don't want to go there in any clothing. Still, it bugs me that a synthetic fabric is the new correct material simply because it is moisture-wicking. And while I love to ride a bicycle, I have no interest in spin classes. Instead, I think I will wait until that trend passes, as it surely will, going the way of step classes, Jazzercise and Zumba.

Recently, on one of my now-approved long walks, I asked myself, "What if we started from scratch and redefined 'health and wellness' in a way that is fad-proof and could withstand the test of time without dictating regular changes in diet, exercise and outfits? What would that look like?" Still dreaming, I added another requirement that the term "healthy body" should conjure up images of a wide range of sizes, shapes and ages. Next, I would make "wellness" more inclusive than it is usually understood to be; my definition would include mental health and good sex. I mean, I shouldn't be considered healthy if I'm unhappy, lonely and not having a satisfying sex life. And finally, becoming and staying healthy should not entail the purchase of any equipment.

Then, last week, a friend sent me a link to Ms. Fit, an e-magazine that took all my wishes and made them true for feminist and queer women, even consciously including trans* women. The editors bettered my personal definitions by also requiring that healthy food be consumed in an Earth-conscious manner; it can't count as good for humans if it is bad for the planet. As the Ms. Fit manifesto states, "our wellness also depends on the wellness of the earth and everyone on the earth."

Ms. Fit starts with an unapologetically feminist, body-positive, LGBT-friendly perspective on fitness and then encourages readers to take better care of their bodies while also loving them as they currently are. As they say, "we recognize that being strong and healthy is an act of political defiance against those who would like to see us weak".

In a phone call with me, the editor-in-chief, Kathie Bergquist, cited research confirming that the key factors to health are personal habits, not the size and shape of a body. In other words, moving and eating well are bigger determinants of longevity than thinness, so it is both shaming and useless to compare ourselves unfavorably with the airbrushed bodies of most women we see in mainstream fitness magazines. If their thinness comes at the price of nutritious eating, it can't fairly be called "healthy." And the shame we can feel when we compare our bodies with theirs is not motivating but often paralyzing.

In the last 18 months Ms. Fit has published six issues, each with a specific focus. The next issue will be called "Stretch" but will go beyond encouraging readers to touch their toes; instead, it will encourage women to stretch their definitions of themselves, to put themselves into new situations and try some mental stretching.

Like a good feminist endeavor, Ms. Fit does not seek to simply expand their readership; they want to "cultivate a community of likeminded feminists and queer people who see our strength and wellness as part of the liberation process." It seems to be working. Their Web analytics show that their readers hang around the magazine, reading multiple articles per visit and, more importantly, coming back again and again. If this is the new wellness community, count me in.