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.

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