CrossFit and women’s bodies: It’s complicated

Let’s note that CrossFit doesn’t exist in isolation from the cultural forces that shape women’s desires to look a certain way and to embody a certain kind of athletic aesthetic. It might be that “strong is the new skinny” but if “strong” is a look rather than an ability there are a whole new set of problems that come out of the woodwork. Bodies vary and not everyone who gets strong builds muscle mass. Not everyone who builds muscle loses fat. Elite athletes aside, there a lot of different kinds of women’s bodies doing CrossFit.

Part of the problem is that at the elite level the fittest looking bodies of CrossFit (here’s one blogger’s list) has lots of overlap with the top athletes of CrossFit.  That doesn’t mean though you’ll get that body as your reward for CrossFit training no matter how dedicated you are. Two words: genetics and diet. You might just get fitter, faster, and stronger than you are now and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Fit and Feminist asks what happens when  the pursuits of “skinny” and “strong” collide. She writes, “Now, I support the general idea behind the phrase.  I would prefer that women – and men, really – work to cultivate their bodies’ abilities rather than fight against them in an attempt to meet our culture’s incredibly fickle beauty standards.  But I also have some issues with the execution, which, as I and many other fitness writers have argued, merely exchanges one unattainable physical ideal for another one.  I mean, I might have a shot at attaining a visible six-pack, while nothing short of a life-threatening wasting disease will give me a thigh gap, but the effort required for me to get visible abs is so tremendous that I might as well not even consider it a possibility.  Plus, it elevates one body type (muscles) at the expense of another (skinny), which is not exactly my definition of body-positivity.”

But it’s not irrational in a world where women are disproportionately rewarded for what we look like, rather than what we can do, to care about what your body looks like. Even if you’re a feminist committed to changing those pressures and expectations, it’s hard not to care. Let’s also note that CrossFit isn’t just a community (or cult, as some claim), it’s also a business. And sexy bodies sell. Given the incredible strong desires women have to look a certain way, it’s obvious that those desires explain some of the popularity of CrossFit.

It’s why Precision Nutrition’s Lean Eating program (reviewed here) teaches body acceptance and intuitive eating but seems to advertise its programs largely through before and after pics of Lean Eating body transformations (even though most of the Lean Eaters I did the program with changed their attitudes far more than their bodies.) I’ve gained back the weight I lost doing the Lean Eating program but I’m eating better and I feel like I have a lot more tools in my bag to figure out how to use food to nourish my body, get stronger, fitter, and faster. Ultimately I don’t think the program’s strengths lie in body transformations so much as mind transformations. But the former sells and the latter doesn’t.

CrossFit is much the same. The reality of women who do CrossFit is pretty varied. Within the two CrossFit boxes I’ve attended (currently taking a break due to my injured knee) there’s been no emphasis on body transformations or weight loss and lots of emphasis on strength and physical conditioning. I’ve never worked out in such a positive environment.

(I’m still angry though at the treatment of Chloie Jonsson.)

Now given that CrossFit is a massively popular program, growing at an incredible rate, it’s no surprise you’re going to find a range of experiences. Here’s some recent posts that express that diversity:

“I decided that it was time to REALLY celebrate what my ugly body CAN DO rather than focus on what it looks like…or doesn’t look like. So I asked my friend Emily, the amazing photographer at Southern Star Photography, to take some pictures of me DOING the THINGS I have NEVER, EVER…EVER in my entire life…not even as a kid (with the exception of the cartwheel) have been able to do until now. So here you go!  Today I am celebrating what my body is capable of doing because of the lifestyle changes that I’ve made and the hard work I’ve done in and out of the gym.”

“I’ve met lots of amazing looking women at CrossFit, it’s true. But these images do not do justice in anyway to the range of women who actually do this activity. The images are almost all young and lean, able bodied and white. Now I’ve only been to two CrossFit locations and I’ve been doing it for less than a year but what I’ve seen so far is a lot more diversity than I see in the images about CrossFit.

These images aren’t advertising, of course. Instead, they are the collections of photos from CrossFit community members and fans. But insofar as they do perform some work as promotional material for one of my favourite physical activities, I worry they are doing that activity a disservice.

If you’ve been thinking of giving CrossFit a try and find the super fit, super lean images off putting rather than inspirational, set the images aside and come see the reality.”

“CrossFit, as it grows in popularity, continues to evoke passionate opinions and intense commentary.  There are the CrossFitters who fall in love with a sport that means more than exercise.  There are the naysayers who believe it is dangerous and do their best to crucify it at every turn.  There are the enthusiasts and the detractors, both groups vocal and emphatic.

 For women, however, the opinions and judgments and commentary surrounding CrossFit take on an additional layer of complexity.  Those women who choose to participate in CrossFit are often discussed and dissected, as though somehow a science experiment open to any who wish to poke and prod and examine:

 Is it feminine to be a CrossFitter?  Are women who CrossFit pretty?  Are they too muscular?  Are they bulky?  Are they too manly?  Are they attractive? “

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