Horses Sweat, Men Perspire, Women Glow: On the Politics of the Sweat-Shaming Debate

You probably heard about the big debate last week — no, not the politicians going head to head as the Canadian Federal election approaches, but the debate about “sweat-shaming.”

At first, I thought nothing much of it. I read the Any Roe article in The Guardian. In “Why I was sweat-shamed as I waited for my coffee in Starbucks,” she recounts a now famous story:

I was ordering coffee when I noticed a well-dressed woman staring at me.

“You look like you just did a class,” she said, giving me the once-over. I had no idea what she meant so I said nothing.

“Or swimming?” she offered, with a tight smile.

Oh, that. I’d just run 12 miles and the hair sticking out from under my hat was wet. It took me a moment to formulate an answer.

“Um, running,” I mumbled finally. “I just … sweat a lot.”

Coffee in hand, she hustled out of the Starbucks wearing her Lululemon hoodie. Once in her car, she tossed off her damp running cap and sipped on her coffee:

Eventually the caffeine kicked in and it hit me: I’d been sweat-shamed. Sweat-shaming is when someone points out your sweatiness as a way to signal disapproval.

It’s not just a minor dissing:

Like its counterparts, slut-shaming and fat-shaming, sweat-shaming is aimed mainly at women, who are actually not supposed to sweat at all.

Later last week, I tuned into The Current, on CBC Radio One, only to find that they were taking up this issue of sweat-shaming. First, they interviewed Amy Roe herself to get her view of things. What, I wondered, had transformed this story from a passing article that made the rounds on social media one day, to an issue worthy of The Current (a fairly serious news program that looks at important current affairs) a couple of days later?

As it turns out, a debate had begun to take hold about whether sweat-shaming “is a thing.” After Amy, the host  had two further guests. Shireen Ahmed, a sports activist, athlete, and writer and Jonathan Kay, editor of The Walrus, Canada’s excellent version of The Atlantic.

Ahmed took the side of defending the reality of sweat-shaming. It’s a real thing, she argued. As a woman who works wearing a hijab, Ahmed noted that she already stands out. And like Amy Roe, she sweats a lot and the article really resonated with her. She notes that there are some spaces, like gyms and sweat lodges, where sweating is acceptable. And even in those spaces, she says, she has observed that women spend a lot more time than men wiping away their sweat to hide the fact that they’re sweating. Why? Because women have been conditioned to be much more self-conscious about sweating, she says.

Kay stood on the side of “shaming has gone too far.” He thinks that even in our society, which applauds physical activity, everyone, not just women, is subject to a high level of appearance-scrutiny that makes us self-conscious when we sweat. This, for example, discourages people from doing things like riding their bike to work. He points out the tension between the imperative to look good all the time and the imperative to get active. Getting active and fit means you’re going to sweat.

They’re not the only people to enter into a debate about this. In the article, “It’s time to shame ‘shame culture’: All this trivial victimization has to stop” the author says that sweat-shaming, if it’s a thing at all, is not gender-specific. But more than that, “taking offence over every little thing and forcing people to walk on eggshells is a very worrying modern phenomenon.”

In “Stop Trying to Make ‘Sweat-Shaming’ Happen,” the author is clearly fed up:

But who, in 2015, would expect a woman after heavy exercise not to sweat? Yes, there was a time when—as Roe puts it—a woman was expected to “glow” rather than drip, but that was also a time when ladies took perambulations carrying parasols in fine lace dresses.

Sexism may be grindingly persistent, but as far as women sweating after exercise goes, I hope we have made progress. Not so for our 12-mile suffragette: indeed she plans to “transgress” and have another coffee after her next mega-run.

Taking a sarcastic tone in commenting on Amy Roe’s article happened a lot.  In The Washington Post article “Sweat-shaming: A woman’s workout humiliation,” the author cites a blogger who wrote: ‘“Harrowing stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree,” one blogger wrote. “Ms Roe is what we must henceforth refer to as a sweat-shame survivor.”‘

It’s clear to me that even if we live in a culture that is averse to sweat in general, to claim that there is no gendered difference in perceptions of sweat denies the reality. I have a few women friends who sweat more than the average woman, and all of them have told me of occasions in which they were approached. One friend was taken aside by someone who worked at her gym and asked if there was anything she could “do about” the amount that she sweat during her spin classes.  Other than wipe up the sweat after class, there really wasn’t a lot my friend could do. She felt judged and humiliated for something that was not under her control. Would the same conversation have been foist upon a man?

Some critics have said that Roe is taking a random attempt at small-talk and turning it into an offense.

Is the idea of “shaming” being taken too far? I’m not sure I think it is. When I heard Roe on the radio, I actually enjoyed her comments a lot more than I did the article. She’s clearly taking a feminist stand on body control. And Lord knows we could use more of that.

The fact is, women’s bodies are highly controlled and under constant surveillance. The demands of normative femininity are alive and well. And heavy sweating is not consistent with those norms. Most of the time, the women I know who sweat a lot are painfully self-conscious of that fact. It’s yet another of the double-binds that women find themselves in: workout and stay in shape, but don’t let us see you again until you’ve showered and cleaned yourself up.

Do you think sweat-shaming is a thing? Have you ever been sweat-shamed? Is it more acceptable for men to sweat a lot than for women? Discuss.

11 thoughts on “Horses Sweat, Men Perspire, Women Glow: On the Politics of the Sweat-Shaming Debate

  1. I think sweat shaming is actually a thing but that article drove me nuts because what the author cited as an example of it seemed less like sweat shaming and more like an awkward attempt at small talk, and I’m *really* tired of reading outraged articles centered around awkward attempts at small talk.

    That said, I think this is a legit issue, one where the norms of femininity crash face-first into the physical reality of bodies. I’m thinking specifically of hair, and how long hair takes a lot longer to dry than short hair (whether from sweat or a post-sweat session shower) and yet long hair is still considered the default for a lot of women. I personally deal with it by wearing my hair in a wet ponytail or bun most of the time but there are lots of environments where that is considered unacceptable.

    I also don’t think people are more accepting of guys who sweat a lot either, and I have known men who were really self-conscious about the amount they sweat. There’s a lot of squeamishness around bodies, hygiene, smells, etc. in U.S. culture, and while I think the ways in which it manifests differs based on gender, I do think it’s still there for everyone.

    1. I had a similar reaction to the article (wondering whether the woman in the Starbuck’s was just making small talk) but I enjoyed listening to the author talk on the radio. There it became clear that while she thinks it’s a thing, she is really making a larger point about how women internalize messages about our bodies and remarks from people can actually trigger those feelings of shame. In the end, she sort of rose above it but I really do see it as more about her and her reactions and the larger point about the policing of women’s bodies.

      1. “remarks from people can actually trigger those feelings of shame”

        This is an interesting point that I wish would have been more elaborated on in the original post. As it was I felt like I had just read a lesser xoJane post, lol.

        I actually have a lot of thoughts regarding women and sweat, but not so much about shame as much as it is hearing women talk about how they don’t like to do it, which is why they don’t exercise. I used to feel the same way, but now I really enjoy a good, healthy sweat. Would be curious to hear more about this from others.

  2. I think the Woman at Starbucks was just striking up conversation. She herself had probably just finished a class and was looking for an opportunity to say so.

    As for the spin class comment- that’s unreasonable. You are there to sweat.
    If it’s a body odour issue, which it can be, people need to be more direct. Good hygiene is expected in group classes.

    After that-embrace the sweat. I do a lot of hot yoga and am forever sweaty and red. I don’t glow!
    I really couldn’t care less what the person at the grocery store thinks. If they are scornful perhaps some of that is feeling like they should be sweaty too.

    General sweatiness is harder. I find as I age I am sweating more. I do try to minimize that. But beyond antiperspirant there’s not much I can do. We all sweat.

  3. It would seem that public shaming has gotten out of control–or at least it has FINALLY come into the light. It’s exhausting hearing about all of the “___ Shaming” that occurs, but really, if it’s not addressed it’s not going to be fixed.

    Personally, I think sweating is great. It’s the body’s natural reaction to heat. I find it upsetting when bodily functions such as that are discouraged and shamed. If you couldn’t sweat, there would be serious problems.

    I try to wear my sweat as a badge of honor: yes, I’m soaked. But I worked really damn hard to look like this!

    I very much appreciate your candor.

  4. Caitlin makes a good point (several, in fact!) when she says that sweating in general is looked down on, seen as dirty or unhygienic, maybe even coarse or uncivilized, as it were. It’s also contextual– it’s one thing to be seen as sweaty in a Starbucks obviously post-workout; apart from the woman in the article (who may well have just been chatting), people aren’t disapproving. It’s another to walk into the office dripping and soggy.
    As someone who sweats a lot, I strategize about how best to deal with activity in regular clothing. Riding my bike to meet someone for lunch, I will be quite soggy, so I’ve found active clothes that are quick-dry and don’t show sweat so much. Now that I’m in Sydney and walk or ride to work and errands, I’ve got the same problem. And I admit to feeling a base level of embarrassment about it, even though it is simply not under my control. And I’ve never worked in a place that had easily accessible showers; and changing in a train station bathroom stall isn’t fun– trust me on this…
    Of course one can adjust clothing– I’m an expert at this– but it seems like the sweaty body is something that is accepted only in sporty contexts (and as people have pointed out, not always then).
    Thanks for writing this– it’s given us a lot to think about.

  5. In middle school I would get sweat marks so easily, no scent, but the visual was there. I took pains not to raise my hands in class because I heard about other girls who were getting made fun of for it. I wore clothes that wouldn’t show the spots as easily. And what did all of this stressing do?? Make me sweat even more! I finally had my doctor write me a prescription for anti-perspirant. I would put it on in the evening every other night with a layer of cling wrap. The chemicals paired with the hair-shaming driven practice of shaving my armpits created an extreme amount of itchiness and discomfort…all so I could stop my body from doing something natural and healthy, because I feared being made fun of for it.
    Did it work? Yes. Do I regret doing it? I don’t know, probably not. I do know that after going off of it a few years later, it must have destroyed my sweat glands in that area or my hormones shifted, because I rarely ever get anything but dry under my armpits.
    As I get older, I realize how silly and superficial all these worries are. I only shave when I actually feel like it (not when my worries about what people will think tell me to). I feel sad that the girl I used to be had to get bad sleep and have armpits that itched like hell in order to appear “feminine.” As the years go by I am starting to see how precious the time we have here on earth is…do we really want to spend it going through unnecessary pains to be accepted, which ultimately continues the cycle of anxiety? I sure don’t.

  6. I think I was unaware that I might be sweat shaming without even realizing it…my awareness has been lifted, thank you Tracy!

  7. Maybe a better way of looking at this, is promoting cycling to work…. both men and women, don’t want to look as if they’re sweating much or at all, by the time they sit at their desk and start to work after cycling.

    I honestly think there is a large contingent of women who won’t cycle to work because they will look messy and sweaty when they enter a workplace building. They want their work colleagues to see them in their best.

    Meanwhile I walk and in out of workplaces with mismatched colour cycling clothing (I won’t cycle in dress and ruin it.) with tousled hair.

    Instead of using the term “shaming”, how about normal living and normal physiological responses?

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