Crossfit, Diabetes and Ableism: A Different Conversation

Crossfit is ableist
Crossfit is ableist

People with diabetes (PWD) are in a tizzy because Crossfit tweeted a disparaging joke about diabetes to promote its product. My Facebook feed has been filled with critical discussion and blog post links from people in the DOC who find the Coke bottle image offensive. The fact that I too am writing a blog post is not lost on me, but I’m not calling out Crossfit. I’m calling on PWD.

In my years of participating in the diabetes online community (DOC), I’ve seen this happen time and time again. A media entity – someone who’s famous, a business selling a product, a TV program, etc. – uses diabetes as a punchline. The DOC responds with angry tweets, blog posts, and online discussion via a variety of platforms. In most cases, nothing changes, and everyone goes back to business as usual until the next time diabetes is the punchline. Rinse. Repeat.

Here we are again. Since yesterday, I have seen countless posts about writing letters, blog links, video commentary, etc. People are angry because this image represents a misconception that PWD feel they are regularly trying to correct, the juggernaut of diabetes misconceptions: sugar causes diabetes. This is not to deny that lifestyle choices can be a contributing factor to a type 2 diabetes diagnosis in genetically susceptible individuals, but to misinterpret and distill that to “sugar causes diabetes” fails to capture the fact that diabetes is a physiologically complex disease, characterized by hyperglycemia, metabolic abnormalities, and marked risk for developing specific medical complications. Furthermore, pathogenesis varies depending on the type of diabetes, and as such, not all cases are known to be associated with lifestyle.

Thus, Crossfit falsely reduced diabetes to nothing more than a self-inflicted disease of overzealous soda consumption, so the image is indeed offensive, and the anger it has elicited is warranted. However, based on comparable past occurrences, I’m not convinced that this pattern of responding is effective in that it doesn’t lead to meaningful change. This social media response generates discussion within the DOC, offering the benefit of social support, which is valuable, but that’s an ancillary function. The presumed primary intention seems to be to educate the perpetrator, and in the process, the masses, so they will stop marginalizing PWD, but in light of the fact that this same dynamic is unfolding formulaically again, I’d like to suggest that this strategy is ineffective.

Instead of having the same old hashed and rehashed exchange about how PWD are victimized by misconceptions, can we have a discussion about how marginalizing people with disabilities is part of a larger oppressive system? The fact that we’re doing this yet again, the fact that previous incidents and the ensuing chorus of opposition from the DOC has not prevented this occurrence suggests that this is a systemic problem. As such, a systemic solution is in order.

First, let’s establish that the image tweeted by Crossfit is ableist, so it discriminates against people with a disability, in this case, diabetes. According to Withers (1), “disability is a social construct imposed upon some of us because we are considered unfit or less fit, unproductive or underproductive. Therefore disableism is a form of oppression, because of our social devaluation unrelated to who we actually are, or to our actual capabilities and incapacities as individuals.” I chose this particular quote specifically because Withers uses the term, fit, which under the circumstances, seemed apt. Also, for clarification, although Withers uses the term, disableism, I will use the term, ableism, which is considered synonymous.

Since we are no longer looking at this image as a single non-contextualized episode of disparaging PWD, but rather, indicative of the systemic problem, ableism, then let’s more broadly examine the perpetrator, Crossfit, to identify why they might use an image that is ableist. One could infer that the Crossfit culture, characterized by competition, which suggests domination, thrives on exploiting and marginalizing beings it frames as “less than,” or “unfit.” In fact, this inference proves true when a cursory web search reveals that Crossfit’s recommended diet is essentially a paleo diet, which, in its most popular form, relies on animal products (2). Thus, the CrossFit culture exploits animals through the paleo dietary regimen its adherents follow, so it’s not surprising that they are exploiting people with a disability. At least they’re consistent in applying a paradigm of domination and oppression.

How does naming this image as ableist, and contextualizing Crossfit’s ableism within a paradigm of domination that also creates animal victims change how we might respond? Instead of playing this never-ending game of whack-a-mole, perhaps we should consider closing the carnival where the game is open for business. In other words, by appealing to Crossfit to elevate its level of respect for PWD, PWD are engaging in a socially constructed game of assigning hierarchal value to beings. It’s inherent to the Crossfit culture to delineate who’s fit and who’s unfit, and instead of recognizing that everyone loses when beings are valued as fit or unfit, the current PWD response strategy presumes that PWD want to be recognized as fit. Responding to Crossfit with complaints is essentially saying, “We have value, place us higher on your culture’s hierarchy.” This completely overlooks that the hierarchy itself is a problem.

Is there value to responding to them? Obviously, I can’t say for certain, but I’m inclined to think not, partly because of the aforementioned point that ableism cannot be deconstructed by engaging in their game of assigning value to beings. Beyond that, there is the matter of how Crossfit representatives will respond, if they respond, to the complaints that are currently being directed against them. Like most cases of oppressed person(s) expressing opposition to being oppressed, I’m inclined to think that if the current deluge of complaints is on their radar, Crossfit representatives will roll their eyes, and come to the conclusion that PWD are too sensitive, and can’t take a joke, basically invalidating the opposition offered by PWD. It’s the same response that women receive when they point out sexism, and people of color receive when they point out racism. It’s the same dismissive, apathetic response directed at vegans who point out the systemic violence against animals, a response intended to silence and further marginalize an oppressed group and their allies/advocates. Publicly, maybe Crossfit representatives will completely ignore the complaints, which would be my guess. Maybe they’ll acknowledge a wrongdoing, but even in that best case, yet highly unlikely scenario, what has been accomplished? PWD are assigned value on the fit-unfit hierarchy, which reinforces ableism, and grants the Crossfit culture the privileged power to define who is fit or unfit? What kind of outcome is that?

It also seems that many PWD are now engaging in the seemingly never-ending type 1 diabetes (T1D) versus type 2 diabetes (T2D) debate, grounded in the current clinical assumptions that T1D has an environmental triggered autoimmune origin, while T2D has a combination genetic, lifestyle, and some research indicates, also autoimmune origin. Basically, the understanding of causal factors and pathogeneses is as clear as mud, which reflects the incessant mudslinging within the DOC. For anyone reading this who isn’t familiar with the DOC, let me assure you that this debate is as utterly exhaustive and unproductive as it sounds. That being said, as this debate pertains to the Crossfit image, PWT1D are more represented in the DOC, and as such, PWT1D have more power to control the debate about the Crossfit image, so some PWT1D take offense to the image because their diabetes wasn’t caused by drinking Coke. The implicit, and sometimes explicit suggestion is that Crossfit isn’t altogether wrong, but they should have specified T2D. Of course, this throws PWT2D under the bus by blaming them for a disease that, as much as it’s linked to lifestyle, is also linked to multiple systems of oppression – racism, classism, capitalism, consumerism, carnism, etc. which have intersected to create a society of food deserts, racial disparities in health care, government subsidized animal-based food products that have been linked to disease, as well as other societal problems contributing to the T2D epidemic. The end result is that PWT2D feel further victimized. Furthermore, this debate is also inherently ableist in its presupposition that one type of diabetes should be granted more privilege than another type, which only reinforces the very ableism everyone is blaming Crossfit for perpetrating. It’s a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.

That being said, do PWD want to continue with these case-by-case responses that never result in substantive change, or do PWD want to change the self-reinforcing, interconnected systems of oppression that perpetuate ableism? The more constructive, yet challenging response to this instance of disparaging PWD is perhaps less satisfying in the short term, but intended to get to the root of the problem.

Instead of contributing to this wave of responses to Crossfit, I suggest learning about and discussing ableism, and how it’s interconnected to other systems of oppression, like sexism, racism, heterosexism, speciesism, etc. We can more effectively identify strategies for advancing social justice for all beings, including, but not limited to people with disabilities, by reconceptualizing what it means to have diabetes in an ableist society. Otherwise, we are participating in the system without fully recognizing the harms it inflicts, as is the case for all unexamined systems of oppression. Rather than using words and actions to better position ourselves on any given hierarchy, we can identify the hierarchies on which we’re positioned as privileged, and then use words and actions to deconstruct those hierarchies. We can be role models for the hard work of changing a system, not by pointing fingers at and engaging with a company that’s exploitative towards all “unfit” beings, but by living values of justice and compassion towards all beings. If we don’t want others being ableist towards us, we can practice not being ableist towards other beings, including animals, who are victimized in countless ways for being perceived as less able. The fact remains that while it’s easy to call out Crossfit for being ableist because we feel victimized, until we reflect on how we are victimizing others because we perceive them as less able, we are only reinforcing the very system we should be working to deconstruct.

1: Withers, A. J. (2012). Disableism within animal advocacy and environmentalism. In A. J. Nocella, J. K. C. Bentley & J. M. Duncan (Eds.), Earth, animal and disability liberation (pp. 111-125). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

2: There are vegans who adhere to a veganized paleo dietary regimen, but it’s my impression that Crossfit adherents can be quite committed to the conventional animal-based paleo regimen. In fact, when GustOrganics, a New York City restaurant that had been very popular with Crossfitters, switched to an all vegan menu, the restaurant actually received hate mail according to its owners.

10 thoughts on “Crossfit, Diabetes and Ableism: A Different Conversation

  1. I don’t have a specific comment to make, I think you stated everything perfectly. Thank you for bringing the ableism debate to the table. (Tableism? Couldn’t resist a near-pun.) Just wanted to show some love for this post! :)

  2. I completely agreed with the paragraph about type 1 people attacking type 2’s. I couldn’t agree with you more! You’re a talented writer who is very eloquent.

  3. Thank you for a wonderful post!! My first response was to be extremely offended because coke doesn’t cause type 1. After stewing for a while, I decided that the root of my anger was that a large organization made jokes about dying from a chronic disease. No disease should be joked about, ever, let alone used as a reference for dying.

  4. “However, based on comparable past occurrences, I’m not convinced that this pattern of responding is effective in that it doesn’t lead to meaningful change. ”
    Have YOU ever participated in this pattern of responding?
    After reading your article, I wonder what you think of the Gay Online Community (GOC) achieving their victory of marriage equality without making the struggle about Ableism? Being gay was once considered a mental illness and a disability by mainstream health professionals, after all.

    1. Yes, I have submitted responses to entities who have disparaged or misrepresented diabetes in the past. I was very active in the DOC for years. I am less active now because I’ve been pursuing other social justice work which has given me a new perspective that helped me to reframe this Crossfit image as a manifestation of a systemic problem, not another isolated incident of ignorance. In my experience responding to past incidents, and observing what unfolds, there have been rare occasions when the entity expressed some contrition, or made an effort towards a conciliatory action, but in most instances, that is not the case. Furthermore, it does not appear that these past efforts have meaningfully addressed the root issue, ableism. I wouldn’t say that being unresponsive is the solution; I said “this pattern” doesn’t appear to be effective, and based on the response I’ve received, it seems that others in the DOC are also frustrated with this pattern of responding. A more critical examination of the problem that contextualizes the issue is warranted. It would be to our advantage to examine critical disability theory literature to understand ableism, learn more about activism that is rooted in these ideas, collaborate with and support other disease/disability communities, and base action in theory. More broadly, it is in the interest of deconstructing ableism, to support and understand other social justice movements, as well as how they are structurally similar with intertwined historical roots.

      I’m not clear how the LGBTQ rights question is pertinent to the diabetes issue. However, I would say that my understanding of the history of the LGBTQ rights movement is moderate at best. I’m a documentary junkie, so I’ve seen several on the topic, and I have a particular interest in the effects of HIV/AIDS on the movement, but my knowledge of how the rights movement was affected by the historical classification of homosexuality as a disability is limited. My impression is that the LGBTQ community is still fighting to disentangle themselves from that misconception, as evidenced by the continued practice of the dangerous “reparation therapy.” While being LGBTQ is not a disability, having HIV/AIDS is, so I think LGBTQ rights and disability rights are closely linked. Has the LGBTQ community been more sensitive to ableism than communities in other social justice movements because of these issues? Or have they structured their efforts to present as able-bodied, to counter the misconception that being LGBTQ is a disability? I don’t know. The answer to the question might depend on who’s being asked. To further complicate the relationship between LGBTQ righst and disability rights, until the dust settles from the recent SCOTUS ruling on LGBTQ marriage, I’m inclined to think there will be some lingering issues for LGBTQ couples having full spousal rights when one or both partners have a disability. Perhaps they have the legal protection to proceed as heterosexual couples do, but they’ll still encounter individuals and businesses that discriminate, which is still structural oppression. It’s my understanding that there are also continued adoption issues, depending on the state, so if a parent or the adopted child has a disability, then LGBTQ rights and disability rights become entangled. All of that being said, a rights movement can be structured to be inclusive for all, or conversely, it can be structured to be exclusive. I’ve heard stories about people with disabilities not being accommodated at protests or activist meetings, and otherwise being structurally excluded from participating in activism. The same is true for leadership of different social justice movements. Depending on the movement, people of color, women, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ people are not fairly represented. It is imperative that these movements collaborate, or at a bare minimum, learn about each other, so they are building inclusivity for all into their respective movement. While that doesn’t mean that gender equality is advanced by “making the struggle” about disability rights, for example, it also doesn’t give the gender equality rights movement a free pass to disregard disability rights. In fact, that movement is best served by incorporating practices that include people with disabilities. Although marriage equality was achieved without making LGBTQ rights about ableism, to paraphrase you. in the future, I think all social justice movements will be best served by developing practices that are more inclusive and recognize the relationship of all social justice movements.

      1. ” I think all social justice movements will be best served by developing practices that are more inclusive and recognize the relationship of all social justice movements.”

        Really? Why does it seem like you’re belittling the movement of people standing against things like the Crossfit CEO comments. You describe them as being in a “tizzy”, which sounds rather condescending for someone who seems to choose their words so carefully.
        Was Rosa Parks in a “tizzy” about seating arrangements on her bus ride?
        That just doesn’t sound right, does it?
        what about that incident several years ago, where Vegan activist Steve-O, from “Jackass”, stormed out of an ADA fundraising breakfast because they served bacon? He said something like “serving meat at an ADA function was like serving alcohol at an AA meeting”. It looks like there is a hierarchy of social justice causes, such that Veganism trumps fundraising for ADA, and can even allow some broad exaggeration that maybe meat causes Diabetes, just like Coke causes Diabetes.
        Did you take Steve-O to task for that comment, back in the days when you used to respond to events like that online?
        As far as the Gay Marriage comment, you read and wrote a LOT into it, but I was just admiring their recent SCOTUS victory , and noticed they didn’t expand it to an anti-ableism movement, yet they won that battle, so maybe you can just sit back and let us win this battle, without the disparaging observations of how many times “here we go again”. Because we WILL go again, and the harder they hit us, the louder we’ll become, sort of like the skin on a drum.

        1. I used the word tizzy because it captured the dizzying energy of posts that appeared in my news feed. My first thought was to say “up in arms,” but I’m purposefully trying to avoid using words and phrases that suggest violence. I also felt like much of the response was reactionary, which is generally characteristic of angry internet exchanges.

          I’m not belittling anyone. I’m presenting a different way of examining this issue that is intended to deconstruct ableism. As I stated, the anger is warranted, and there is value to expressing it. I think a response grounded in theory that contextualizes the issue is ultimately going to be more constructive. That’s my opinion based on the research I’ve been conducting on social justice.

          The narratives I’ve read about Rosa Parks indicate that she wasn’t in a tizzy. Are you suggesting that anyone who takes an action against an injustice is immune to being in a tizzy because Rosa Parks wasn’t?

          I’m not familiar with the incident with Steve-O, and if it happened several years ago, it happened before I was vegan. Since becoming vegan, I see ableist comments about diabetes in the vegan community. As I’ve gained confidence as a vegan activist, and started learning more about ableism, I’m starting to call people out on those comments.

          I still don’t understand the point you are trying to make about how marriage equality was advanced without making LGBTQ rights an overtly ableist issue. Discrimination against PWD is an overtly ableist issue because diabetes is a disability, whereas being LGBTQ is not, so the comparison seems illogical. Thanks for inviting me to “sit back,” but that’s not in my nature. You do your thing, and I’ll do mine. Let me know what you accomplish with Crossfit.

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