That same year everyone applauded SI for including Hunter McGrady, whose fulsome curves defied the usual Swimsuit Issue body-type. Her inclusion was celebrated as a “breath of fresh air,” and I wondered whether anything having to do with the SI swimsuit issue is really a breath of fresh air. I don’t really think so, even if Hunter McGrady claims to be doing this not just for herself, but “but for every woman out there who has ever felt uncomfortable in their body and who wants and needs to know that you are sexy.” The same issue also included Serena Williams, a world-class athlete, to “prove” (to whom?) that a woman can be both sexy and athletic.
So this year we have a kind of repeat of all those themes — you can be curvaceous or in your seventies or have an unexpected “background” (their code for race or for ethnicity) and still we want to objectify you as a sexual object in one of our most popular issues of the year!
The editor in chief of this issue, MJ Day, doesn’t put it quite like that of course. Day says:
“We all deserve the chance to evolve. So in this issue, we encourage readers to see these models as we see them: multifaceted, multitalented—and sexy while they’re at it. The world may label them one way, but we want to focus our lens on all the ways they see themselves and how they own who they are. No matter your age, whether you’re a new mom, partner, sister, entertainer, athlete, entrepreneur, advocate, student, mentor, role model, leader or dreamer—or all of the above—we want to celebrate these women, their evolution and the many dimensions of who they are.”
But in the end, despite all of their many dimensions and talents, these women are just reduced to their sexy-factor. I should note that I am not opposed to sexiness. I and several of us from the blog have been open about our boudoir photo shoots. What gets me with the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is the context. This is a magazine historically designed by men for men. And its main purpose is to cover sports news. What, I ask, do women in swim suits have to do with sports news and for whom are they striking sexy poses? If they want to do it “for themselves” they can do a boudoir photo shoot.
Instead of celebrating the objectification of an ever more inclusive range of women, I can’t help but thinking a more positive step for women would be getting rid of the swimsuit issue altogether. I don’t know any women who would mind one bit, but I predict a huge outcry from the men who look forward to this issue and a subsequent loss of a sure-thing revenue item for Sports Illustrated. As long as we are willing to get on board with the objectification of women for an audience the vast majority of which is straight and male, to celebrate it as something empowering for women, and to congratulate it for “breaking barriers,” we are going to be stuck promoting that idea that women — all women — need to be sexy-to-men to be acceptable. Surely we can promote inclusion without having to piggy back on that relentless message about what makes women worthy.
I know you might have been watching the game. But me, the only bit I’ve watched was the amazing halftime show put on by J. Lo and and Shakira. Did you see it? So good. They performed a medley of their music along with some amazing choreography and wore gorgeous costumes. It was fun and beautiful and I loved it.
But no sooner had I enjoyed it than the commentary began. Do you know that J. Lo and Shakira are 50 and 43, respectively? There was a lot of commenting about that. There was also a lot of commenting about their “sinful” costumes. And should they really be wearing so little clothing? (Sometimes said, sometimes implied, “at their age.”) Isn’t this just the objectification of women’s bodies?
A friend said on Facebook, earlier in the day, about football, that it was a good principle in general to “let people enjoy things.” I think the same thing is true about the halftime entertainment.
There was an awful lot of critical commentary. So many words about women’s bodies. A conservative Christian mother of three took to Twitter to liken the halftime show to pornography and Twitter responded about as expected.
To give you a flavour of the anti-halftime show Christian comments, here’s Rev. Franklin Graham, “I don’t expect the world to act like the church, but our country has had a sense of moral decency on prime time television in order to protect children. We see that disappearing before our eyes. It was demonstrated tonight in the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show — with millions of children watching. This exhibition was Pepsi showing young girls that sexual exploitation of women is okay. With the exploitation of women on the rise worldwide, instead of lowering the standard, we as a society should be raising it.”
This blog’s frequent guest Sarah Skwire had the best response. I laughed during a university meeting reading it.
Sarah wrote. “I gather some women had bodies on television last night. This, of course, never happened when I was a child. Certainly not during prime time, when we watched clean and healthy shows like Wonder Woman, Buck Rodgers, Logan’s Run, Three’s Company, Baywatch, and Love Boat which never sexualized women’s bodies, or made scanty outfits a central point of their plots, or exposed young children to sexual situations..
When I was a child, women in entertainment all dressed like Edith Bunker.”
Why so much policing of women’s bodies? Did it make a difference do you think the women’s bodies in question weren’t white? Did it seem especially sinful/sexy and in need of control because they were brown women dancing? Was race a factor?
“White people: I see your posts about how their bodies and their dancing made you uncomfortable.
Did you notice the Latinx kids in cages singing BORN IN THE USA and LETS GET LOUD surrounded by an illumined Venus symbol? Did you notice the foot work? Did you notice the rope Shakira tied around her body while belly dancing? Can you think more deeply about what that image meant? Did you notice bilingual songs and two of the hottest Raggaeton artists as guests? Did you notice the 🇵🇷? Did you notice that sex work is legitimate work and the pole wasn’t about you?
Y’all save your righteous anger for the weirdest stuff. I wish y’all were as uncomfortable about kids in cages as you are about brown bodies.
STOP POLICING BROWN BODIES.”
So there’s sex and there’s race, but there’s also an age angle. So much talk of their age. Did you know J.Lo is 50? Did you know Shakira is 43?
The New York Times had this to say: “Well, on Sunday Ms. Lopez showed the world what 50 looks like — at least her version of it.” Read The Power of 50.
But that prompted a lot more spilt ink about being 50 and looking like J. Lo.
From the New Yorker article THE SUPER BOWL HALFTIME SHOW, AND THE AGELESS COMFORTS OF J. LO : “Magazines and Web sites regularly publish articles that promise to reveal the secrets to Lopez’s continued youthfulness (how does she look so good at fifty?), and her ability to maintain a firm-skinned foxiness is a key part of our fascination with her. (I can’t purport to guess how she does this, though I would imagine that a punishing exercise regimen and diet, and access to top dermatologists and perhaps plastic surgeons, form at least part of the answer.) But Lopez’s still-point-of-the-turning-world quality goes beyond her physical appearance. There is something reassuringly unchanging about her presence, too. “
A friend lamented that J. Lo’s existence, looking that amazing, puts pressure on the rest of us 50 somethings to look like that too. It’s not realistic, said the friend, to expect the rest of us who aren’t J. Lo to chase that standard.
That’s the worry, right. If she can do it, why can’t I? It didn’t help that a personal trainer chimed in and commented on my friend’s status said yes, we could all do that if we wanted to. It wouldn’t even take much time or money. He said we just needed dedication, commitment, a gym membership, and an hour a day. I remain skeptical about the hour a day part. I’m also skeptical that any amount of exercise would do it.
Tracy asked then, “Is there not an age where we can stop thinking about whether men think we look hot in a bikini? It may be that the Christie Brinkley photo shoot, rather than addressing ageism, just raises the bar for older women (like: why don’t you look like Christie Brinkley in a bikini?).”
Do you you find J. Lo’s looks at 50 inspiring or worrying? If the former, you’ll want to watch the video below.
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.
I don’t love Walmart. I don’t love Cosmo Magazine. I really don’t love what Walmart has done with Cosmo Magazine in 5000 locations in the good ole’ USA. Sam brought this article to our attention on our contributor discussion page and said, “Blog fodder. Do feminists agree with conservatives on this one?” I swear sometimes she says stuff just to get me riled up enough to write a blog. . .oh. . .wait.
So in a nutshell, Cosmo will not be available at the checkout where all the precious minds of little girls might get polluted with its sordid sexual content. Dawn Hawkins of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (Formerly known as Morality in the Media) claimed it as a victory of her organization’s own making, referencing #metoo as the inspiration for this action. Walmart made a vague statement about it being a “business decision” in which it “consulted” with unnamed entities. Cosmo isn’t being banned. It’s just being moved.
Honestly, do I care? I hate Cosmo. I mostly hate it because it over promises on the sex tips. Here’s an example, “7 Best Sex Positions for Female Orgasm“. It says these tips will “guarantee to help you orgasm”. But you know what? That’s bullshit. I’ve tried every one of them. I want my guarantee! They get me every time and dash my hopes. But you know what else is in there? This gem about the fight to include women’s choice into Obamacare. There’s also this one about my current favourite teen that isn’t related to me, Emma Gonzales, and the photoshopped picture of her ripping up the bill of rights.
When Sam asked if feminists agreed with conservatives, I will confess to having a trauma trigger. It all goes back to a time in 1990. I was a young impressionable law student and I read Catharine MacKinnon. For those who are too young to remember, these were troubled times in the feminist movement (I mean, when aren’t there troubled times). There was a general agreement that pornography, as conceptualized by the patriarchy, was not great for women. It was not about our pleasure, it was not about our agency, it was not about our actual bodies. It was about our function and that function was to arouse and get off men. That’s objectifying. That’s an impoverished view of women and women’s sexuality. But in the hopes of doing something about it, feminists teamed up with the “moral majority” of conservative evangelical politics. They argued for an end to the scourge using legal tools and in the process, did a terrible disservice to a lot of women, including me. In this discourse, sexuality became even more of a source of shame and, as happens, marginalized sexuality took the brunt of it. Somehow the mainstream porn industry continued to thrive while it was harder for alternate voices to get in there and change any of these narratives. Things didn’t get better for women as a result of this unholy alliance because it got hijacked by the more powerful partner in the endeavour. (This is an admittedly uncomplicated summary).
Meanwhile I wasted 10 years of my life not doing fun sexy things that I wanted to do because I thought it would make me a bad feminist. Did those well meaning white lady anti-porn feminists mean for any of this to happen? Of course not. But you can be sure that the folks like Ms. Hawkins would be pretty pleased that I stayed away from all that perverted hanky panky I was trying not to think about.
So, back to beleaguered Cosmo. I wish it was not such a trashy mag. I wish it portrayed more real bodies. I wish the sex advice was better. But other than that, it’s not the worst. They have stopped putting diet advice on the cover. There is a lot in the magazine that speaks to women’s agency. That it reports on celebrity gossip is not a thing that should banish it to the back shelves. I’m curious if that trashiest of trash piles the National Enquirer can still be found eye level with the kidletts? Likely. The hypocrisy is beyond the pale.
A brief perusal of the website of the NCOSE indicates that its main focus is on enforcing and strengthening obscenity law, educating young people about the dangers of overconsumption of porn, prohibiting the exchange of sex for money and somehow “stopping the demand for purchased sex”, I guess through the punishment of being caught (?). While their goals are around the protection of women and vulnerable young people, their tools involve repressing the material, not educating or empowering the victims in the ways I think are helpful. Their aims are also decidedly not sex or sex work positive. I guess that’s where we differ, me and Ms. Hawkins. Cosmo is imperfect, but it is somewhat educational. It reflects reality. NCOSE targeted Cosmo because it is a somewhat sex positive liberal trash mag. I will take that over a sex negative conservative mouth piece of a shameful president any day of the week.
And that’s odd because just yesterday Susan and I were watching women’s snowboarding on television and looking on in awe as Italy’s Michela Moioli won gold in women’s snowboard cross. Such athleticism. Such remarkable young women. So much talent and skill.
Also, aside from ponytails peeking out from under helmets I had to look at the screen and listen to see whether I was watching the men’s or the women’s event.
I briefly allowed myself the thought that one advantage of the women’s Olympic events is that with all the gear sports announcers stay away from comments about the athletes’ bodies. Hah! So naive. So wrong. Silly me.
Even dressed in snowboarding gear that’s that not enough though for some male sports commentators to keep their focus on athleticism and performance.
“After Kimwon the gold medal in women’s halfpipeon Tuesday, Barstool Sports commentator Patrick Connor, who also appears on San Francisco-based KNBR, appeared on the “Dialed-In with Dallas Braden” show on Barstool Radio’s SiriusXM channel and made a series of inappropriate comments about Kim. “She’s fine as hell,” Connor said. “If she was 18, you wouldn’t be ashamed to say that she’s a little hot piece of ass. And she is. She is adorable. I’m a huge Chloe Kim fan.”
Almost two years ago I split up with my husband. We had been together for over 15 years, and had been living in England for two, when I made the difficult decision to return to Canada (partly for work, partly to help support my ailing mother). After six months of draining and expensive transatlantic commuting, he left me. Or, rather, the relationship fell painfully apart, as distance, time, and sheer exhaustion broke its back.
Losing my long-term partner was hard for loads of reasons, but perhaps the worst of all was knowing I’d need to get back to dating again. I wasn’t done being in love, being cared for, or having sex – but to be honest, I barely remembered how to get myself these things.
I was an awkward kid with some body dysmorphia issues, and through my teens I was fat. I hated when people looked at me, and I did not like putting myself on the line for fear of teasing, bullying, humiliation – all the stuff I’d been trained in middle school to expect when I allowed my vulnerabilities to show. How I managed to date at all, let alone find a loving partner of many years, still seems slightly miraculous to me.
Almost a year on from the break-up, I met somebody. He seemed wonderful and at first I was over the moon. But it was short lived: he had lots of mental health issues, and they intervened before we could really get started. Needless to say I was disappointed; quite apart from the fact that I genuinely fancied him, I also thought I might have had a narrow escape!
I thought I might be able to avoid online dating.
Naive, I know. What do you do when you’re over 40, a smart professional woman with a bunch of impressive degrees, a nice house and a proper salary? If you’re lucky you live in a big city and have the chance to meet folks at great bars, restaurants, or local cafes. Or maybe there are lots of prospective partners at your gym/in your cycling club/amongst your friends’ friends.
Maybe you’re one of those people who routinely gets lucky on public transit.
Nope, me neither.
I live in a small city where the majority of the population is a) my colleagues, largely partnered; b) my students, and therefore off limits; c) folks who generally don’t share my values. (My university, and the town it’s in, are both pretty darn conservative. I am not.) Which means the in-person decks were stacked against me from the start.
This is the story of what happened when I decided to embrace the inevitable and head online. It is not meant to be a “use this site, but not this site!” how-to guide by any means; rather, it’s about self-care during the online dating process, especially for women.
Because holy cow, does online dating ever require self care.
STEP ONE: Match me. No, really.
I started with Match on the advice of a friend. It’s relationship-friendly, so that was good; I’m more into relationships than hookups. It wanted a lot of information from me, so I gamely gave details. I tried to include fun, flirty photos and information, but let’s face it: I’m a brainy geek with a cycling habit. It’s all relative, and, relatively speaking, my profile probably made me a niche product at best.
The site kept prompting me to “like” and “wink” at men’s profiles (I am straight, and shopped for men only), and it kept encouraging me to send messages to them to boost the chances of a reply. I did that – a lot. I got nothing – literally NOTHING – in return. I started to wonder what was wrong with me. Did these men get my messages, look at my profile, think “ew! brainy cycling geek! RUN!” and do just that? With no positive feedback (heck, no feedback of any kind), plus the irksome website constantly prompting me to make my profile more seductive and my images more enticing, I grew more and more sure (despite, once more, I repeat, no actual, real-world evidence) that I was simply the most undesireable woman on earth, and was just going to have to accept that.
Result? I felt like utter shit. Every single day.
How’d I get through this? Well, for one thing, I sought the help of friends. This might sound like an obvious strategy, but it didn’t seem obvious in the moment.
Let me reiterate here that my experience online thus far had been entirely isolating and a painful trigger for every ugly fear I’d ever nourished as a young woman about my physical inadequacy. No number of degrees, salary points, or QOM victories in my pockets could make up for the way Match’s structure encouraged me to locate my self-worth in being “liked” or “winked at” by random guys on the internet.
I’ve not hit a lot of glass ceilings in my life, but every morning when I woke up to check my empty message box I felt the painful banging.
Because, as I think we all know by now, the patriarchy is alive and well and breeding like rabbits on the web.
So reaching out to friends was tough – not obvious, but essential. I felt like I was admitting failure, but Sarah and Hillary, to whom I turned for support, sat me down and walked me through the ways in which the site was designed to infantilize users and create unreasonable, heteronormative expectations.
We talked about strategies for creating super-cute winky-winky profile images, sexy but not too OTT; we worked on profile language that would be clever and inviting but not confusing or intimidating for guys not in on the geek culture that feeds me. We talked about the pros and cons of listing/not listing my doctoral degree, or my salary. (Match asks for info on education and salary. Thanks, Match.) Most importantly, we talked about all of this as a strategy, not as reality. We talked about the problems inherent in the structure of the online game, but also about why we were playing it – what results we wanted it, for better or worse, to yield. We talked about the difference between the perceptions we were creating, the reality we were living, and the injustice of the two not being able to match, and still earn a Match.
In other words, we had a genuinely feminist conversation (over killer burgers and fries, y’all – because internet dating requires sustenance), and that conversation really buoyed me, lifted me up out of the sense of despair and identity confusion the online experience had been germinating for me.
The changes Sarah and Hillary helped me make to my profile did not improve results, but the time we spent together helped to improve my attitude tenfold: I was reminded I could remain firmly feminist, my whole, powerful self, and still do this, if this was a route to a relationship and a relationship was what I wanted. So when my paid three months on Match.com expired, I decided to take a risk and head for Tinder.
STEP TWO: is that a dick pic I see before me?
My goodness, yes it is. I was in theory prepared for the onslaught of purely sexual interest I knew would arrive with Tinder, but I wasn’t prepared for how bad it would make me feel. Once again, I was hit in the gut: a year ago I’d never have believed that an excess of interest in my body would feel as wrenching as *no* interest in my body, but there it was. Being asked for sexual favours, for photos of breasts or “pussy”… let’s just say Donald Trump was simply citing the zeitgeist, not saying anything particularly shocking.
The result? God, I felt degraded. SO. DEGRADED.
Not because I don’t love my body, but because I unabashedly do! Because my body is so much more than its parts, isolated and fetishised; it is rich, dense, historical terrain. It is the sum of my achievements, written in its scars, in my (I think really sexy) laugh lines, and in all the ways the sun and the light and the rain colour my skin so I need not wear makeup (which makes me itchy – I’ve never liked it).
This problem was trickier to solve than the one Match had thrown me. Being asked to forget that my body is MY body and nobody else’s, being encouraged to turn it into free, animated porn on demand was possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face head-on (sorry). I was socialised as a “good girl”; I’ve been programmed to please everybody all the time. But I couldn’t do this. I did not want this.
On Tinder, I had to face the shocking disjuncture between two versions of “good”: the “good” girl who tries to please the men around her, and the “good” girl who wants to take proper care of herself.
And then, of course, there was the spectre of the OTHER girl inside me: the girl who knows “good” is total bullshit, one of a million ways our culture tries to keep us from our most powerful selves, and our most powerful desires.
Ironically, I came to terms with Tinder when I realised that nope, I didn’t want to be anybody’s pussy shot – but likewise, yup, I really did want to have some hot, random sex, and that there was nothing not “good”, not healthy, not wonderful about that.
So I swiped with abandon. I chose to be as direct and clear as I could be once a conversation started. No, I won’t invite you over if we’ve not met yet. Yes, I’m up for lots of things but safety comes first, including having an in-person conversation with you, and insisting on condoms every time. If you get demanding I’ll be leaving; I far prefer to share. Honesty is rule #1.
I’m not entirely sure how I got to this place; it’s in many ways the opposite of where I started. I began with Match in the firm belief I wanted a relationship, and felt instantly like I was back in junior high school, alone in the hall with my baggy clothes and self-loathing. I had, then, to find my way back to myself; I did that by reaching out to my network of feminist comrades. Next I lived through the experience of being sexualised and objectified, then realised with a fair bit of humility that I wasn’t going through anything that MOST women haven’t been through, pretty much daily, for, um, thousands of years. I remembered that together we’ve grown much, much stronger – and that I, too, am strong, proud of my beautiful body, and excited to honour it whenever I can.
That, I think, is when I realized that I can honour and celebrate my body by owning my sexual desire, and by asserting both my desire as well as my body’s human rights in equal measure online. The web dating world looks at first glance like either a grammar-school gym or a pussy-grabbing free for all, depending on your particular patriarchal filter, but it doesn’t actually need to be either.
Because man, are there ever a lot of strong women out there on the internet! Let’s own our needs, lusts, and urges, ladies, and not be afraid to assert our hard-earned power.
When I started working with a trainer, I really didn’t think much about why I was doing certain things in the gym. Most days my goal was to execute the drills as required and not make a fool of myself in front of all the other gym goers.
As time went on, I realized those who train seriously aren’t really paying attention to who else is doing what except to make sure no one is moving into a working area to avoid collision or to negotiate access to a piece of equipment.
Working out in a gym where lifters practice has been quite different for me from your average commercial gym. It’s not that people are working harder in a performance training gym – anyone who hauls their butt to a place filled with tools to make their bodies move hard gets my respect – it’s that people there look differently.
Talk to any woman and they will tell you about the look. We’ve all had it happen one time or another. Some describe it as being undressed or stripped; some will say they are being measured and found wanting, either in body shape or what they are wearing. In fact, there are some gyms that address forthrightly the need to keep eyes to self to avoid making their female customers feel uncomfortable or unsafe in their workout spaces.
Perhaps working with a trainer has, over time, insulated me from looks; that is, it’s not about whether I meet an ideal of womanhood, or if I am wearing the latest gym fashion (plain tee shirt and capris over here), but whether or not I am performing the exercise properly.
I learned very quickly that form is the beginning and the end, the be all and end all of working out. Without paying attention to form, you risk injury, or you overlook the first signs of a problem, or you fail to get maximum benefit from a particular action in the program.
I’ve recovered twice from new injuries, recovered from a couple of relapses, and a recent trip in the gym and in every case, the focus on form is what has helped me get back on track and strengthen those areas that need support.
Here’s the thing: focusing on form invites scrutiny. Intense scrutiny. Muscles are being looked at and being poked at. How you move is being looked at: the start, the execution, the finish.
That level of scrutiny without the baggage of the “male” gaze is a different experience all together. Having worked with a male trainer and a female trainer, each applying the same level of intensity to the gaze, has been hugely helpful in unpacking some of my earlier, less positive gym experiences.
Yes, there is judgment. After all, by training with someone whose expertise is movement, fitness and workout programming, I am inviting scrutiny and critique. And there is the key difference.
Most times women don’t want the look. They just want to do their work in the gym and get their fit on. And my friends have told me they can always tell when the look is not of appreciation for their great skill at the bench but for their other physical attributes.
When you train though with a trainer, you invite the gaze, and it is one with a specific purpose. There is more power for me in that relationship because I am working collaboratively with someone to acquire new skills and techniques, and to improve. When the gaze is uninvited, the power is all in the eye of the beholder, with none in the object of the gaze, and that is not a good thing.
And I have found, for me, when you train in a gym where most people are aiming for huge goals, the appreciative look feels differently. I think it is because I have had to learn how to look critically myself so I can replicate the movement, and when I am waiting my turn, and I see someone else execute a move beautifully, all I can think of is “wow, I want to learn how to do that.”
Because when someone is working hard and doing great work, it doesn’t matter what they look like or what they are wearing. What only matters is the beauty and power of their form.
— Martha Muzychka is still learning all the ways to be strong and fit.
I confess I’ve got mixed feelings about women’s sports raising money by selling calendars featuring naked athletes.
When I teach philosophy and get my students to write argumentative essays, I ask them to choose a thesis and argue for it. But I don’t have time for that today. There’s no thesis here. Just complicated thoughts which I thought I’d share. I haven’t worked my way to a conclusion. Have you? Feel free to share in the comments below.
On the one hand, first thought, they’re beautiful. Wow. It’s Christmas soon. Who could I give this to?
Second thought, and look at all the body positive messaging.
“For me, the shoot was about sending a message to women to embrace their curves. We are all naturally self-conscious about some aspect of our bodies, and people can be so judgmental. But at the end of the day, your own opinion is the only one that matters.” – Nana Bruise You
Third, but how diverse are the bodies of the women in the calendar? They all look pretty thin, young, and mainstream beautiful to me.
Fourth thought, I’ve worried about the options women have when it comes to funding the sports we love. See my thoughts on naked rugby calendars here.
Fifth thought, maybe there’s an important difference between derby and rugby though. Roller derby has always played with women’s appearance and made a thing out of being tough and sexy and wild at a wide range of sizes. That’s not just true for the calendars. It’s true for the sport itself. You can’t enjoy derby without making your feminist peace with miniskirts and fishnets.
Sixth, and it is for a good cause. “Proceeds go toward supporting junior skaters in the northwest, providing skates and gear to children in need. ”
Should we care about looking cute while working out? This week’s posts on monitoring fitness fashion, and past posts debating running skirts, show that this question evokes strong responses. Style, on and off the court, has become part of the branding process for professional athletes like Williams’ sisters. But for everyday women fitness style may have different meanings. I’m ruminating on these questions as, for the first time in many years, I’ve decided to take a group fitness class. Looking at my five-year-old faded, black Lululemon work-out top, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is undeniably in great shape after regular wear (good buy!) and on the other hand it is greying and looks/feels kind of depressing. The prospect of shopping for something new isn’t terribly appealing, but I like the idea of having something bright and kind of…fun, so I’ll probably go shopping.
My thinking on fitness and fashion changed after I interviewed 47 women about their bodies for an academic project on being fat. Prior to this time I thought of fitness clothing as frivolous, and felt special disdain for spandex, sports-bras-as-tops, and short-shorts, because they seemed to trivialize women’s athletic endeavors. But the women I interviewed, who, in the early 1980s, established fitness classes “for fat women only,” felt frustrated by fitness clothing for different reasons. In the 1980s it wasn’t easy to find fitness clothing over size 14, let alone cute fitness clothing in those sizes. Even today, MEC, Lululemon and Lolë, for example, top out at size 12 and “XL.” Athleta, owned by the Gap, goes to a size 2X, and Old Navy’s to a 4X. Size diversity, it seems, continues to elude most of the mainstream fashion industry.
In any case, Large as Life (LAL), a fat activist group based in Vancouver, started the first fitness class for fat women in Canada when they hired a “fitness instructor from the YMCA, a little skinny thing,” in fall 1981. Initially, only a handful of women joined the class. After a few weeks, LAL hit upon the idea of training fat women to teach the courses. Members of the group took a certification course through the YWCA. Once large instructors began to teach, the program grew considerably. New classes were formed as demands in particular areas of the city warranted. By the end of 1984 LAL was operating fitness classes from ten different community centres across the Lower Mainland. Different iterations of the class, run by the group, and later as a business by a former LAL member, lasted into the 1990s.
When the classes began, finding fitness clothing in plus sizes was a major quandary. Some of the women I talked to crafted their own clothing. One woman I talked to modified yoga pants by sewing an elastic at the ankles. Another hired a seamstress to make her custom leotards. Others worked out in sweats and men’s t-shirts women were happy to work out in sweats and homemade clothing because they were not interested in leotards. Fitness clothing had a negative association for some participants in LAL’s classes, including one woman who described aerobics leotards as “little chu-chu spandex things” and another who explained, succinctly, “I didn’t wear spandex.”
Those who were interested compared notes on the availability of fitness clothing in fitness stores, as well as which stores across the border might sell Danksin’s “outsize” line of leotards. Noting the dearth of options in the Vancouver area a LAL member, Suzanne Bell, decided to start her own plus-size fitness clothing line. Bell took great pleasure in displaying, and flaunting, her big, beautiful body. As she told Radiance magazine in 1992, “…people notice me when I walk into a room. They can feel it: I really like me.” Bell wanted other women to feel how she felt, and to profit from it. Photographs of the era show women wearing coordinated leotards and tights. There is a wide range of styles in colourful fabrics. Bell’s customer’s recalled her fondly and explained that it helped them to “get into” exercise in a bigger way. One woman recalled a particularly treasured pink leotard set: “I had gotten to a stage where I was exploring my body and being bolder.” Fitness and fashion facilitated pleasure for the women I talked to. Having felt their femininity devalued and excluded from the fashion industry, it was exciting to find clothing that fit and allowed one to express their personal style.
For me, these conversations with self-identified fat women led to a reconsideration of the meaning of consumption. Where in the past I read consumption as a sign of a frivolous approach to fitness, aerobics for fat women only pointed to the ways that it could also be empowering. Women in sport are often sexualized, and even everyday women (i.e. readers of this blog) may feel unfairly monitored at the gym and on the streets. Buying cute fitness clothes isn’t an end in itself, but the fact that someone chooses to wear an outrageous outfit shouldn’t be taken as a sign of her lack of commitment to fitness. If we buy into the narrative that clothing tells us something fundamental (i.e. bad) about the gender identity or sexuality of the wearer, than we’re buying into the idea that external appearance matters. Consumption can offer a meaningful outlet for self-expression, a sense of security and a way to express community membership (I’m looking at you armies of cyclists-in-tunics). The meaning of fitness clothing for individual participants is not determined by popular culture images of femininity. I think fitness clothing can be feminist not because of what it looks like but because of the way we use these products.
Jenny Ellison is a Research Associate at Trent University. Her academic research analyzes visual and discursive constructions of the body, and the ways that diverse groups of women have responded to these messages. More posts on fatness, feminism, fitness and the 1980s can be found at her website. Or, follow her on Twitter @thejennye.
It’s got me thinking about the difference between pictures of strong women that show us as agents and pictures that show us objects. The Lean Eating program has participants get themselves photographed, and often participants choose photos that demonstrate their strength and their power.
Some of them work and others don’t (for me) and I’ve been thinking about photos and the relationship between strong and sexy and how the mainstream media sometimes gets it so badly wrong.
“So, the most recently released image of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises kind of got me worked up. The moment I saw it I think I said something to the nature of, “If I have to see one more woman posed with her behind in my general direction, looking smouldering-ly over her shoulder, I’m going to punch someone in the face. And you two [my Tor.com officemates] should be worried, since you’re the closest people at hand.” My co-workers generally prefer a non-violent environment, so I decided to work through this the only way I know how: with lots of photographic evidence.It’s not that we all haven’t noted how prevalent titilation is where women in the media are concerned, but this pose in particular is everywhere. And why should that be?
Well, it typically does a good job of showing off all of a lady’s assets for one. And I’m sure if an actress isn’t quite so curvy, showing off her posterior (wow, how many synonyms for “butt” will I have to use in this?) sounds like a good way of ramping up sex appeal. It’s also a pose that tells you, in no uncertain terms, “I’m here for you to objectify me. It’s okay, you don’t have to feel bad about it.””