On a recent Sunday I was doing two things I rarely do: 1. watching pro golf on TV, and 2. complaining loudly at the TV. Why I was watching golf (the 2022 US Open, final round), I’m not really sure. But I do know why I was complaining.
I was complaining because the broadcasters were making comments about the bodies of the pro golfers as they teed off on the first hole. One player was described repeatedly as “baby-faced,” another was “slender,” and a third was “sturdy.” Maybe it was just a lazy start to the commentary, but with all the history and statistics available to discuss, who is served by this body talk?
Televised commentary on athletes’ bodies is a much more prevalent issue for women, one that creates a double standard to boot. As Kathita Davidson notes, descriptions of male athletes’ bodies often reinforce perceptions of strength, athleticism, and performance. In contrast, the descriptions of women athletes’ bodies are often hetero-sexualized in ways that undermine their athleticism. As well, non-binary gendered and intersex bodies are the almost nearly always the subject of controversy and discrimination.
Body talk happens in the media at all levels of game. In the last year, two commentators were fired for making disparaging comments about high school basketball players’ bodies. At the 2021 Winter Olympics, there was pressure to focus on sports appeal and not sex appeal of the athletes. Not long after, an Olympics figure-skating commentator was fired for a degrading remark about a female Canadian figure skater (though it was about her personality, not her physique).
Focus on the bodies of athletes is not only a frequent issue but a problem, as Christine Yu observes:
Aerobic capacity, power, strength, muscular endurance, biomechanics, strategy, tenacity, and good genes—none of which are necessarily visible to the human eye—all determine an athlete’s ability. And yet, especially with women athletes, appearance often becomes the sole focus, even when it has nothing to do with performance. This overemphasis on what athletes look like is damaging on both an individual and a cultural level, and it’s time to reconsider how we talk about their bodies.
Christine Yu, 2020, para.6
The emphasis on appearance and physique can be damaging to men and boys as well. The American Addiction Center has an article of men and body dysmorphia disorder (BDD) that highlights bigorexia, combining the Latin -orexia (an appetite for) with obsession over the big-ness of muscles. This disorder causes pain, distress, and sometimes harmful physical and dietary changes, and men are far less likely to ask for help.
The pro golfers weren’t listening to the broadcasters’ body talk as they teed off at the US Open’s, and they might not have cared about what was said.
Still, thousands of aspiring male golfers were watching and listening to the televised patter about bodies that had nothing to do with the game. By drawing attention to who is slender, sturdy, or baby-faced, the broadcasters invited body comparisons and scrutiny—to no meaningful end.
So, ultimately this post is just a reminder to anyone who gets an opportunity to talk about any athletes in front of a microphone: Focus your comments on athletic performance, not on athletic bodies.
And in the honour of dad bods, and the great “dad bod” discussion, I thought I’d share some of our past posts on the subject.
Oh, and if you’ve been living under a rock and you’re wondering what a dad bod is here’s this from The Odyssey
The dadbod is a physique characterized by undefined muscles beneath a light layer of flab, usually topped off with a beer belly. “The dad bod says, ‘I go to the gym occasionally, but I also drink heavily on the weekends and enjoy eating eight slices of pizza at a time,’” explains Mackenzie Pearson, a Clemson sophomore.
Here’s what we’ve had to say about dads and their bods in the past:
“Of course, the most important thing to know about Brokinis is that they’re all about fun and not taking yourself too seriously. In fact, they’re a response to bold new trends in men’s fashion. We wanted to come up with a bathing suit that’s fun for goofing around on the beach, cottage weekends, bachelor parties and festivals.”
Why I am blogging about men’s bathing suits on a feminist fitness blog?
It’s complicated, but my feminism includes breaking down normative gender for men too. Partly I suppose it’s because I have sons. Partly it’s because of views about body image and gender equality. I wanted for women the body comfort and athleticism that is so easily given to men. Yet, we’re in a world where equality has meant increasing pressure on men to conform to a very narrow body type. It’s all lean muscles and visible abs for both men and women. People of all genders experience pressure to diet and to exercise for the purpose of aesthetic goals.
Also, I guess, insofar as we gravitate towards topics I’m the go-to blogger for posts about men’s bodies and men’s bathing suits. LOL.
So why I am pro-brokini? It’s fun. They make me smile. Men should have the option of being playful too. It’s not all hard muscles and a visible inguinal crease. There are lots of frivolous fashion trends for women, most recently, the nap dress, why not for men too? And to be clear, I’m not just pro-outrageous men’s bathing suits when it comes to young, fit men. I’m a big fan of elderly, larger, furry men in speedos at the beach. Why? It makes room for me in my bikini too. I don’t want to be driven to swimming dresses which are fine if they’re your thing but they’re the sort of thing that for me, once I start wearing them, I have a hard time going back. My feminism includes the sock, the speedo, and now the brokini. Bring it on. Have fun.
“Let’s say someone wants to squat 500 pounds. It’s a big goal, but not unachievable. Lots of people get to 500 pounds these days.” (1)
“If you keep your bodyfat percentage too low, you’re not going to build as much muscle. If someone is trying to stay around 8% bodyfat, your body is going to want to partition more of that energy towards fat storage.” (2)
I love lifting weights. I enjoy the exertion, the challenge, and the self-confidence that it brings. I’m not alone–women are a growing number of the competitive lifters around the world. Women participate in competitive physique, strong”man”, weightlifting and powerlifting. And this reflects a boom in interest amongst us non-competitive folks, too, likely at least in part fueled by the popularity and accessibility of crossfit in the last decade.
And yet, the mostly male-dominated media space has not caught up. When lifters are discussed, there is an overwhelming tendency to treat “lifters” as synonymous with “men.”
And to be perfectly frank, it’s starting to piss me off. Every time a guy says “someone” and what they really mean is “men,” I want to yell, “HEY, I’m SOMEONE, too!”
I want to see myself in the programs put out there. I want trainers to give me potential solutions to the challenges I face in reaching my goals. I want to know that my needs and concerns have answers. I want realistic metrics to which I can compare myself and help with goal setting. In short, I want representation.
Instead, there’s an endless parade of articles and other media around men’s insecurities and challenges–how to get 6-pack abs! Build your squat to 3x bodyweight! How to get to 12% body fat and stay there!
The physiology of someone born with female parts is different than the physiologies of people born with male parts. We have more essential levels of fat–requiring higher body fat levels in order to function healthfully. Our hormone profile changes how we respond to lifting, with only 5-10% of the testosterone of a typical adult man making building muscle a potentially slower process. Our smaller joints and bone structures change the size of our muscular potentials. Estrogen is protective in many ways, making women and other people who produce more of it, more resilient to higher-rep lifting, possibly meaning we require shorter rest periods. Some research on Olympic level athletes suggests that our abilities to recover even changes throughout our menstrual cycles. And none of this gets into the nuances of lifting around pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, hysterectomies, mastectomies and so many other experiences shared by so many people with a uterus.
But I’m not asking that every article, interview, podcast and blog post dig into all of these caveats every time they want to offer me 5 new ways to do push-ups. No, I just want the language used to be inclusive. I want pictures of strong people of all genders doing the work. I want it to be clear that I am a potential member of the target audience. So many trainers complain about how women are afraid of lifting weights, that we’re afraid of the barbell, that we’re afraid of the results we might get. But if 90% of the images we see are men on gear working on showing off that 6-pack, why should we expect a majority of women would be drawn to that? (To be clear, I have no problem with lean, muscular women with six-pack abs, I just recognize that they are a subset of the population.) We need to be represented in order to imagine it as a real possibility.
So in absence of another solution, I propose a simple test to determine if women are being acknowledged as people who do serious strength training. Blog post, podcast, article or interview, let’s call it the Hundtoft-Bechdel Test (3) which asks that fitness experts:
one. Directly mention women and/or include them in images. two. And ensure that any goals and/or metrics referenced include those appropriate for women and other people born with a uterus.
So, back to the quotes at the top: “Let’s say someone wants to squat 500 pounds. It’s a big goal, but not unachievable. Lots of people get to 500 pounds these days.”
This may be true for men who lift seriously over time. It is not ever true for women. I just checked the current raw powerlifting records for women, and the drug-tested, open world record for squat for women is 502 pounds. So women are excluded by the speaker and he fails the Hundtoft-Bechdel Test.
“If you keep your bodyfat percentage too low, you’re not going to build as much muscle. If someone is trying to stay around 8% bodyfat, your body is going to want to partition more of that energy towards fat storage.”
The second speaker also fails the test, since an 8% bodyfat is nearly unattainable even by the most competitive female bodybuilders. It is certainly not a “walking around” level of leanness for most women, when it might be for an especially disciplined, genetically gifted, and/or possibly just highly neurotic man.
In comparison, a recent article on Nerd Fitness (on the Star Wars workout) passed the test easily. Images of women. No metrics of success that are gendered at all. Steve Kamb did a great job of using entirely neutral language so that any reader can see themselves in the article.
Another win goes out to a great podcast, Stronger by Science. In their recent discussion on gut health and training nutrition, they interviewed a female expert and used gender-neutral language throughout. When it was appropriate to specify male vs. female metrics, both were included.
A quick search of recent Bodybuilding.com training articles finds some sort-of wins and some straight up losses. For example, this article on shoulder exercises does a good job of using gender-neutral language, but fails due to exclusively using men in the images.
T-Nation fairs not even as well as that. There are many examples to pull from, but here’s a training article that even the title (“The V-Taper Workout and Diet Plan”) excludes women as a target. The “V-Taper” is a shape of shoulders and waist that is specifically identified as a desirable male attribute (think comic book Superman with his wide shoulders and impossibly narrow waist). Notably, the author never acknowledges that he’s writing for a male audience. Major fail.
Not surprisingly, women lifters and authors consistently do a better job including women. Some female trainers are directing their business at other women as their primary market, and so they explicitly include women in their media. However, there are also female trainers and bloggers who do a good job of inclusive, but not female-centric language. A standout example is Meghan Callaway.
Women lift weights. We like to track our progress and gauge our success against other lifters. We want to know reasonable goals for goal setting and to see ourselves represented in media aimed at folks who strength train. Representation matters, and it’s well-past time for fitness authors, podcast hosts, and trainers to make a more consistent effort to represent women equally in their spaces.
(1) Maybe not an exact quote, but definitely the gist from a recent interview with Dr. Mike Zourdos on the Iron Culture podcast, which incidentally, is an awesome podcast! But I know they can do better with representation.
(2) Not going to link to this one, as the podcast I was trying out became so fat-phobic in a rant that I don’t want to encourage others to listen to it.
(3) Named in homage of and to give credit to the Bechdel Test which gives a simple way of identifying if women are present in film.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found reading about strength training, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .
Says Wright: “Some have made comments about why we don’t include “Mom Bods,” but that answer is pretty simple in my opinion… This calendar is about the dogs; the Dad Bods are just included to make it comical and unique. I can’t imagine a Mom Bods & Rescue Dogs calendar would be very well received by the public. This was just a bunch of regular guys who are friends or clients of mine who were up for poking a little fun at themselves and helping me out for a good cause. It wasn’t meant to be a body positivity thing, it was meant to be a dog thing with a funny twist,” the photographer explains.
So her answer is that it wouldn’t be seen as gentle or funny. Instead, it would be seen as political, as a body positivity thing. I’m not so sure. And why would a body positivity/mom bod calendar be a bad thing? I’m still mulling.
What do you think?
It’s like I love this ad for Southern Comfort but when I wrote about it here I wondered if we could even imagine a version with an older woman with a non-normative body.
Over time, here on the blog, there are things that become, for each of us, our topics. I’m our go-to person for writing about men and body image. I’m not sure why. It might be that I am the parent of two 20-something men and I watched how these issues affected them growing up. Certainly it’s true that I didn’t get the egalitarian world I wanted, one in which women got the body comfort traditionally available to men. Instead, men got normative thinness and body shaming. They even got Spanx. Ugh.
Exhibit A: They’re even body shaming Jason Momoa. I love this response.
Writes Bret Williams who makes the case for men wearing leggings alone, sans shorts: “I’m not advocating for everyone to totally ditch shorts for good if they don’t feel so inclined (not all women love the tight all over look, either). I’m just saying that the stigma that surrounds a leggings-only outfit for men should be lifted. That dismissive attitude does exist. Go to any gym or athletic event and you’ll find tons of guys rocking compression leggings as a base layer, but most (if not all) of them will also be sporting a loose pair of shorts on top. That doesn’t always make sense for performance— you’ll get the same compression benefits and comfort whether you layer it up or not.”
It turns out that men who just wear compression shorts or tights, without baggy shorts over top, often go for a strategically placed towel instead. Here’s the Rock defending his well-placed towel. Short version: He says he sweats a lot. Others aren’t convinced about that account.
From Jezebel. “Men’s compression tights have recently been called the “must-have” piece of clothing that, according to Esquire, will make every workout better.” The benefits reportedly include increased blood flow and reduced muscle fatigue. (A recent study cast doubt on that latter claim.) The Rock himself has launched multiple pairs of branded Under Armour tights that promise an “ultra-tight, second-skin fit.” But it seems “second-skin” fit feels like “first skin,” judging by the Reddit threads debating whether it’s acceptable for men to wear compression tights without taking secondary measures to cover up their “junk.” Quora threadsinquire, “Are running tights for men immodest?” and “Is it ok for men to wear leggings in public?” Most commenters recommend embracing the tights-only look, wearing shorts over them, or using compression shorts underneath.”
I don’t care if men want to wear shorts or strategically placed towels. It’s the cover up your messy body parts body shaming that gets me for people of all genders. I especially hate the version of this shaming that says it’s okay to wear revealing things if you have a perfect body but imperfect bodies should be hidden.
This week, I was going to post about my new bike and commuting with it, but I’m afraid this is going to have to wait until another time (though spoiler: I’m loving it). Something happened to me this week that really annoyed me, and I need a space to vent.
Mansplaining apparently never gets old. When I prepare a post I always double-check it hasn’t already been written, or what the other fit feminists here think about a topic. Lo and behold, when I checked for “mansplaining”, a post from Sam came up from 2014: Men explain things to me: The Gran Fondo Edition. Five years later, enter the bouldering edition!*
I’ve written before about how bouldering is a social sport that is a lot of fun in a group, and it is. Even if it so happens that you show up at the bouldering gym alone, you will usually end up chatting to someone about a problem that you’re both working on. And most of the time it’s nice. On Monday, however, it so happened that I just wanted a bit of quiet time figuring stuff out for myself. It’s been really busy round here, we have visitors at home (whom my partner was taking care of for the day), and I needed a bit of space. So maybe it wasn’t the best idea to engage in an activity that usually provokes chats. Maybe I should’ve just gone for a run. But I wanted to boulder, so off I went.
Oh boy, did people talk to me. And by “people”, I mean men. Out of an admittedly small sample of n=3, 100% of the people to give me unsolicited advice on problems I was working on were male. I got so pissed off I left earlier than I normally would have, or else specimen no. 4 would have had a “CAN A PERSON NOT HAVE SOME SPACE IN HERE?!” thrown at them. I didn’t want a hypothetical specimen no. 4 to suffer thusly.
The most blatantly mansplainy exchange was this:
ME: *works quietly on a boulder problem, chickens out before the end because doesn’t want to slip and bite the wall* RANDOM GUY (RG): But you almost had it, you just have to step up on the last bit! ME: But I didn’t want to. If you slipped there, it would be really nasty. RG: Hm, OK. But have you tried this problem? *points to problem next to the one I’d been trying* ME: No, I haven’t. RG: You should, it’s a fun one. ME: OK, sure, I’ll give it a whirl. RG: Try it, and then I’ll show you how. …
I mean, seriously???!!! I hadn’t asked him for help, I hadn’t asked him what problem to do next, and I certainly hadn’t asked him to “show me how”. The conversation went on like this for a bit as I tried my hand at the problem (he wasn’t wrong, it was kind of fun, just not with a random guy watching and doling out “helpful” advice). Eventually, I sort of bowed out and scampered off to the other end of the gym. Yes, I enabled this guy by agreeing to do the second problem. But what does one do in such a situation? Is there a way of shutting mansplainers down without being rude? Or should one just be rude?
Interestingly, I have hardly ever encountered unsolicited advice-giving from women. Mostly, they either don’t say anything, or they wait till you ask. On rare occasions, they have said something along the lines of “Have you tried doing this or that? It might not work for you, but it did for me!” As in, not just telling me what I “just have to do”, and waiting a while until politely offering a possible solution, while being aware of the fact that it may not work for me.
Often, I’ll have an exchange with someone and a witty reply will come to me after the fact. This time, I’m still stumped. What would you have done? How do you all deal with this sort of situation?
*Others have written about this too, notably Kim in her post “Why I hate spin“.
This article in Odyssey about how women runners at Rowan University were forbidden from running in only their sports bras seems like it should be a spoof in The Onion. It’s real. The university’s response was half-hearted, though ultimately the no-sports-bras-in-practice policy will be rescinded.
So there I am browsing online sales on the internet looking for my favorite brand of Spanx tights. They’re wonderful black tights. They fit. They feel good. And they last.
Whatever awful things you have to say about Spanx shapewear, I likely agree. I bought some once to fit back into my work clothes for a conference right after Christmas after a heavy over eating holiday season and I thought they were dreadful. I never wore them again. Yes, I got into my suits for the purpose of interviewing people for jobs but I could barely breathe. Ugh. But I like their tights.
But while browsing for tights, I came across Man Spanx. New to me.
There are have been lots of videos and articles about men trying on their girlfriends’ Spanx underwear.
But now men can have their own because there are Man Spanx, promising you a trim, lean, athletic physique without working out. As they say, “See an improvement in your physique without even hitting the gym with SPANX men’s shapewear.”
There are trimming undershirts and high waisted underwear that tame bellies. Sigh.
I love the motto, “Half fries, half salad, once in awhile” in this radio spot,
There are lots of reasons to start small. Tracy, here on the blog, has been a big advocate of doing less. I’ve written about aiming for a 2/3 vegan diet because a fully vegan diet seems too much and it’s better overall, if it’s sustainable, to just eat fewer animal products.
In general, lots of public health agencies push a moderate message because it’s more likely to be motivational.
But I worry it’s gendered. We send men the moderate message, while women strive for perfection. We tell men that the “dad bod” is hot but there’s no such equivalent as the “mom bod.”