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How feminist is fitness culture?

by | Feb 12, 2020 | News

It is difficult to get coffee, go for a walk or scroll through Instagram without bumping up against fitness culture. Brands like Lorna Jane, Lululemon and Running Bare can be found in almost every major shopping centre. This is good. Right? Brands such as these encourage women to take care of their bodies; to be active and healthy. But what happens if the implicit promise to transform the body is never fulfilled? Who gets excluded from this culture and what does this mean?

Prescriptive female body ideals of the 1990s – waifish-thin frame, visible bone structure, hollowed belly and razor-sharp cheekbones – have been replaced by a more athletic archetype – six-pack, sculpted booty, toned upper body (but not too bulky!) presented with a smile. Women are encouraged to aspire to these physical results with the promise of liberation and empowerment. Lorna Jane Clarkson, founder of activewear business Lorna Jane, claims that the company’s mission is ‘to empower every woman to live a life that you love through Active Living and the daily practice of Move Nourish Believe’.

shutterstock 85119454

Fitness culture promotes strength but sees the female body as something that can always be perfected

If you identify as a woman, the kind of representations of fitness culture you are offered are pretty narrow (and pretty, and narrow): young, white, slim, able-bodied ciswomen with ponytails and big smiles, wearing leggings and holding a kettlebell.

At the same time, the language associated with these images uses feminist rhetoric and suggests an emancipation from decidedly harmful representations of women: ‘Strong is the new skinny’ or ‘fit is the new fashion’. These phrases suggest that the age of skinny/fashion is gone and that we are now entering a new phase of society where women can be muscular and athletic.

Fit woman with ropes

Muscularity matters

In a way, this is true: muscularity, in particular, has long been framed as something that a woman should not have. The issue with these kinds of phrases, however, is that their aims do not extend beyond error-correction. Telling women ‘you don’t need to look like X anymore: you can now look like Y!’ remains uncritical of the fact that women are still being told what to do with their bodies, apparently for their own good. And importantly, they are being told that they should want to change their bodies.

Much of mainstream fitness media addressing women can be examined through the theoretical lens of a postfeminist sensibility. In a recent article in the European Journal of Culture Studies, Rosalind Gill, a professor of sociology and media studies at the University of London, argues that post-feminism is a “sensibility” that is characterised in the media (and social media) as a means to sexual and financial liberation. Furthermore, it is characterised in ways that suggest the fundamental issues of sexual and financial have somehow already been resolved.

US researchers Brooke Erin Duffy and Emily Hund have gone further exploring how, partly through social media, women are no longer constrained to being merely a consumer; they are encouraged to be entrepreneurs and brands in their own right as a way of exercising their empowerment.

Fitness before and after

Before and after

In fitness culture, this manifests itself as the imperative for women to transform themselves physically. Other research from Sarah Riley and Adrienne Evans, has revealed how the proliferation of before and after posts on social media carry a sub-text that all women’s bodies are inherently flawed and can be corrected through constant self-surveillance and discipline in the form of exercise and diet – and, failing that, cosmetic surgery. Exercise is framed as an empowering and pleasurable personal choice, but it is underpinned by the promise of a future ‘perfect’ self that never comes to pass, and therefore requires even more work.

I am not arguing that anyone who engages in fitness (like myself) is not a feminist. It is vital to remain critical of any culture (especially when linked to consumerism) that claims to offer itself as feminist to ‘all’, and yet continues to reproduce normative bodies and identities in its media representations.

The way women’s fitness culture presents a natural ideal of fit femininity must be questioned in order to tease out whether alternative ways of being fit, healthy, strong or even gendered are being concealed.



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