body image · fitness classes

“Strippercize” and Other Sexy Fitness Activities: What’s the Problem (or not)?

doll pole dancerWe had a great session at the Canadian Philosophical Association. One of our panelists had to cancel, but that still left Sam presenting on women and cycling, me presenting on fitness culture and exclusion, and our colleague and friend Char presenting a feminist analysis of “strippercize.”

I loved Char’s contribution and it got me thinking about just what, if anything, feminists have to be concerned about with respect to strippercize and pole dancing. While her talk is still fresh in my head, I’m going chime in a bit, summarizing some of what she said and giving my own two cents.

What is strippercize? It turns out to be a lot more stripper-like than I thought. I thought, before today, that it was really all about pole dancing. But it’s actually only partly about pole dancing and quite a bit about getting sexy.

The Carmen Elektra 5 DVD set that Char talked about included instructions to put your finger in your mouth in a seductive way, mimicking fellatio. It also had an “advanced” section that teaches women how to play the sexy librarian.

This is all packaged as a fitness video. And it’s the packaging as a fitness practice that raises this feminist’s eyebrow. Sure, lots of feminists might have criticisms of stripping or other forms of sex work in itself. I’m not as critical of it as many — it can for some be a legitimate income-earning choice and we should care about the working conditions of the women who choose it.

I also think that a simple “how to” about stripping wouldn’t be out of line. If you want to learn how to dance in an erotic manner, then you’ve got to learn somehow. A DVD seems like a good place to start. So the issue here isn’t the standard feminist objection to stripping.

Rather, it’s the mixing of activities meant to get us “in shape” with the whole idea of being sexy. We’ve posted quite a bit on the blog (links coming in a later draft–sorry!) about how refreshing it would be if there were at least one domain where women could be free from the expectation to be attractive and sexy for men.

Strippercize pretty much eliminates the possibility that the women who do it are engaging in this activity for themselves. Somewhere not too far away is the idea that if I engage in this activity and learn these moves, not only will I get an awesome body but I will be able to entice my man (with the moves? with the new body? It all gets melded together).

The fact is, much like the elusive “yoga body,” the stripper body you imagine getting from the DVD is not easy to come by just through the DVD.  A lot of it is about genetics. And a lot of it is about hours in the gym. And eating in that fitness model way. And so on.  So that’s misrepresentation.

It’s a misrepresentation that is not unique to stripper-themed workouts, however. That alone is not what makes them irresponsible. As I mentioned above, stripping is usually about pleasing men.  And so packaging fitness pursuits in this way alienates us further from doing these things for ourselves.

Of course, sexual empowerment is a wonderful thing, and there is nothing sexier than a confident woman who is comfortable with her sexuality.  But our bodies are not only sex objects.

Developing our bodies’ strength, grace, power, and endurance contributes greatly to our sense of confidence and well-being.  Tying that development so closely to sex appeal strikes me as promoting the idea that our sexuality is our greatest asset.

An astute commentator on Sam’s Facebook post about this makes this excellent point:

What bugs me about the exercise fad is that it reinforces the virgin-whore dichotomy by denigrating actual dancers-for-money (wives and children are supposed to do it for a: their self-esteem/body image and b: their current or future hetero hubbies/boyfriends — but certainly never consider it the well-paying and very safe job that it can be).

I would shout out “sing it, sister,” but the commentator was a man!

Now I can already hear people saying that at least where pole dancing is concerned, it takes the strength of an athlete and the grace of a dancer to do it well.  Pole dancers who do it well are truly impressive in their skills. Caitlin, from  Fit and Feminist went pole dancing and amazed herself with what she learned she could do. I have the utmost respect for Caitlin and I believe that she and lots of women can discover that they are strong through pole dancing.  But I also notice that (unless she’s under-reporting) Caitlin has not turned to pole dancing as a regular feature of her athletic life.

The fact is, there are other ways to empower ourselves.  And as women we do well to focus on activities that (even if media and culture manages to sexualize them) do not have sexuality at their core. There are lots of other ways for women to get strong and, more importantly, for women to BE strong.

And as Sam pointed out to me when we were chatting about this later over email, there are also lots of ways to be sexy that don’t necessarily have to do with appealing to men. But these instructional DVDs and pole dancing classes aren’t usually packaged to promote alternative, non-heterosexist ideals of sexuality or sexiness.  Being eye candy for men hardly presents us with a robust account of women’s sexual agency.

The most alarming thing I heard in Char’s talk was that there are pole dancing classes for little girls! And that sometimes mothers book pole dancing parties for their daughters’ sweet sixteen! And that there is even a pole dancing doll that is marketed for little girls.

Why is the targeting of little girls so much more disturbing than targeting what we think of as a more age-appropriate audience?  I think it’s because it shines a spotlight on what we would like to deny, namely, that little girls are sex objects in training.  But that should also help us see what is disturbing about this kind of focus for adult women, even as an account of what it means to be a sexual being, and certainly as an account of what it means to be physically strong and confident.

Sexy is good.  But this trend in fitness mixes an already fraught endeavor (i.e. getting into “good shape”) with learning how to be sexy for your man (or generic men). So while it may be fun and can certainly be challenging, the cultural messaging about women’s sexuality is just not, in the scheme of things, all that empowering.

There’s a lot more to say about this topic. But right now my plane is boarding and I want to hit publish.  So if there is more to say, please say it in the comments!


10 thoughts on ““Strippercize” and Other Sexy Fitness Activities: What’s the Problem (or not)?

  1. This is something that many belly dancing instructional videos have in common with the pole dancing/strippercizing videos. But there are also many that are solely focused on teaching the dance for the purpose of teaching the dance. Not to mention the issue of people assuming that belly dancers are strippers.

    When I took belly dance classes, I loved moving my body in new ways and learning that I actually could do the moves.

  2. I almost didn’t comment on this because honestly, I have been pretty worn out when it comes to conversations about pole. I did want to say, though, that i have continued with the classes and will in fact be taking my fifth class tonight. Next week I will switch to a strength-based pole tricks class. I’ve come to really enjoy the classes, everything from the strength-based stuff to the more campy, burlesque-type sexy moves, and I also enjoy the atmosphere, which is really woman-friendly and body-positive (in a way that I have experienced in no other place in my life) and I like spending time in the company of other women in which the environment is supportive and non-judgmental and fun.

    However, I have not written about it on my blog since that initial post, and I have stopped sharing this with all but a handful of people in my life because dealing with the responses I get has been exhausting and I am tired of feeling as though I have to defend myself and my credentials as a feminist because I also happen to enjoy doing pole. So it’s easier for me to not talk about it at all.

    1. Sorry that I misrepresented you. Had no idea you were continuing!
      I can understand your hesitance about getting into it. Part of me (that I didn’t mention in the post) feels a bit like I have no right to comment on something I have never experienced myself. As I hope you are aware, I have nothing but respect for you!

      1. No worries, Tracy. I know you didn’t do it deliberately, which is why I spoke up. I also have a lot of respect for you and know that you come at all of your writing and thinking from an intellectually honest place, so it’s all good. I’m just sharing why I have pulled back on writing about pole despite the fact that I enjoy it quite a bit. That’s all.

  3. I feel weird as a man even saying anything about this (so I understand your hesitation to speak about it, Tracy). But my two cents is this: I’m not at all sure about this “phenomenon” in any “global” way. But I think for some women, it could be empowering, depending on their past and what parts of themselves they might become connected to, in the process. For other women, it could very well be a negative experience. I don’t think there’s a universal or global answer to this. But I hate the thought of it being taught to young girls!

  4. I read this last night and I hesitated because like Caitlin, I’m starting to get very worn out by discussions about pole, and especially about pearl-clutching with regard to the sexual aspect of pole dance (and other dance, to be honest). I feel it’s for one thing, a historic (nobody worries about teaching little girls ballet although that was a very sexualized art form, especially in the beginning) and I feel that the “sexual” = “bad” meme (that you appear to further in this post) is ultimately really negative.

    I’ve been taking pole dance classes for almost 3 years now and it has been hugely positive in terms of body acceptance and body celebration. I think this isn’t despite the sexuality of pole, but because of it. It’s not a bland “fitness” activity soley; it’s also an art form. Pole has allowed me to branch out into circus aerials and ballet, despite being a somewhat clumsy person throughout my life. It is mindful movement, just as a much as yoga. Like circus, pole is “fringe” and has a cultural association with the illicit. This is partly because it’s non-standard and suits travelling shows and clubs in a way that gymnastics (stripped of most artistic aspects) does not. And it’s beautiful.

    I sorry to say this, because I really enjoy this blog, but I feel like the analysis of the sexuality of pole dance in this post is a bit reductive and unfair. Chiefly, because the artistic aspect of dance and aerials is missing. I encourage you to check out Claire Griffin-Stewart’s The Pole Story here for another viewpoint. Or look at performances by Natasha Wang or Danielle Romano to see how it can an art form expressed beyond the stripper cliche. Romano in particular is known for choreography that is weird, disturbing and emotionally evocative rather than just “sexy” in a standard way.

    1. Thanks for your response. I appreciate that there are different views about the pole and that my post doesn’t engage with the many forms of pole dancing. My post actually isn’t focused in the pole as much as on fitness classes that mimic strip routines more generally (not just the pole part). But as I said to Caitlin, maybe I can’t speak credibly unless I try it myself. Not sure when or if that will happen.

      So I appreciate both of you being willing to contribute an alternative view based on your experience.

      I still think the marketing to children is an issue, and it raises some interesting questions when we think about why that is uncomfortable. Is only about age appropriateness? Not sure.


      1. Again – just my 2 cents. Pole dancing has a very highly sexualized and risque component. Young girls who pole dance will thereby be exposed to all of the problems against which you and Sam are railing in this blog – women looking at fitness only to appear a certain way; women looking at fitness only to look sexy; sexiness defining their self-worth as individuals; the resultant eating disorders; etc. Adult women can choose to pole dance to re-connect to their lost sexuality; to establish personal identity; to become comfortable in their own skin; etc. There is a would of difference! Okay – that’s my 2 cents – male perspective only.

  5. Weird –pole dancing for little girls? It’s like belly dancing for little girls.

    There’s no need for pole dancing for that age. Gymnastics will do it better for a wider range of athletic skills: my 11 yr. niece is in competitive gymnastics…parallel bars, backward handsprings, etc.

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