Did you see the UK Huffington Post article earlier this week that said women are working out in sheds for fear of being judged? Sam and I were working on our book this morning. I’m on the part about the feminization of fitness, which led me to thinking about how form-fitting fitness clothing keep lots of women away from getting active.
Sam has blogged about that before. See her post “No way I’m wearing that: body conscious clothing as a barrier to entry to women in sport.” The irony is that the more absorbed we get in a sport the less likely we are to be concerned about how we look. I can tell you this: the last thing on my mind during the marathon on Sunday was my appearance (well, okay, I didn’t want to be caught sobbing on camera, but that was all).
We got chatting about that a bit (instead of writing) and then she reminded me about the shed story from the other day:
Another heartbreaking reality was that those who do want to keep fit are choosing to exercise in their sheds, hidden away, out of fear of being laughed at.
The report comes after Public Health England revealed that the number of women achieving recommended levels of physical activity was far lower than men – 31% of females engage in sport once a week compared to 40.1% of men.
The report, which has been collated by the Commons’ Health Select Committee, labels “fear of judgement” as a key factor when it comes to why women’s fitness levels are below par.
Kay Thomson from Sport England said: “Three quarters of women want to become more active but something is stopping them – fear of judgement.
“Judgement about appearance when exercising, ability to be active, confidence to turn up to a session, or feeling guilty about going to be physically active or doing something when you should have been spending more time with your family.”
It’s sad and alarming that fear of being judged about their appearance or their level of ability is keeping women from doing something that can, in fact, create confidence and an alternative body-narrative that isn’t so focused on looks. More than that, getting active is a matter of social equality. If women are so worried that they will be judged harshly that they are either not getting active at all or are putting their treadmills in the shed, that’s a disturbing comment on the way fitness media, fitness culture, and normative expectations of women’s bodies work to exclude, marginalize, and dis-empower women.
The exclusion is well-articulated in the words of this woman who participated in the survey:
She revealed: “When I looked online for information, there was lots about weight loss and running but nothing about running just as an overweight person, the psychological aspects of that and how tough it is when you are constantly shouted at, laughed at and clothes in fitness stores don’t fit you.
“It feels like the whole sport is not geared up for you.”
Fitness activities and physical exercise are not just for people who are already thin, not just for the young, not just for those with athletic builds or natural talent.
We need a more inclusive approach that does not body-shame people and does not perpetuate the idea that only a certain demographic has a right to engage in physical activity. I’ve written before about this idea of inclusive fitness. We are far from that ideal and the UK study presents clear evidence that more needs to be done to deliver a different message:
“I have women who tell me they run on a treadmill in their shed because they just don’t want to be seen in public,” she said. “But that is part of the problem. Because we don’t see many overweight women exercising in public, other women don’t think that exercise is for them.”
“They think it is for all the slim people that they always see out in the parks.”
She added that larger women aren’t able to get hold of sports kits which fit them properly, which presents another barrier: “No woman wants to dress in men’s clothing to go out for a run when there is already the risk of being laughed at.”
In my post on inclusive fitness, I said:
I’m old school about one fairly simple staple in feminist discourse: people begin to believe they can achieve something if they see others like themselves represented doing the thing they want to achieve.
It’s not just in the media that we need wider representation, but also in everyday life. If larger women can’t even find workout gear that fits appropriately, then that sends the further message that such activity is not meant for them.
In the UK, there is a movement afoot to create a more attractive picture of physical activity to a wider group of women:
The Government now hopes to address these barriers and issues by releasing a programme on diet and physical activity which works to examine how women, those with disabilities and overweight people, can be encouraged and supported to be more active.
Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign is also helping to get women moving by showing “real women” working out – in a bid to help others summon up the courage to get active.
It’ll be interesting to watch how this all plays out, and whether the campaign will succeed in creating a truly welcoming and positive attitude towards diversity among those engaged in physical activity.
Meanwhile, I think we can all agree that sheds may be great places to store our gear, but no one should feel so judged that they choose the shed as the place to use their gear.