Happy Saturday to all of you taking the time to read this morning! For this month’s post, I decided to collaborate with my friend, Jaclyn, who has been mentioned in some of my other posts here and here.
We begin our reflection with this question from 1909, posed by a girl’s Phys. Ed. teacher:
“Who would suggest that the delicate, anaemic, hothouse plant type of girl, afraid of sun, wind, and rain, timid, nervous and clinging, … will make a better wife or mother than the strong, full-blooded, physically courageous woman, a companion for her husband on the golf links and a playmate with her children?” (Verbrugge 2002, 58).
The suggestion being that women who were physically fit would make for better wives and mothers. In other words, the purpose of a woman’s fitness was not necessarily to benefit herself, but rather, to benefit those around her. The statement came at a time when cultural values were shifting away from the image of delicate femininity to what was referred to as the “New Woman,” who was seen as active, modern, vibrant and wholesome (55).
Some might look at this and laugh. Sure, this was over a hundred years ago. But things have changed. Right?
We’re not so sure. In various chats over the last few months, we’ve noticed a staggering degree of negative comments and attitudes towards women who choose to pursue weightlifting. (Each activity receives its own negative commentary, but we’re going to stick to what we’re most familiar with.)
Jaclyn compiled a list of some of the highlights:
“Don’t get too fit”
“You’re not going to become one of those bodybuilder chicks, are you?”
“Don’t get too muscular though, you won’t look feminine anymore”
“You’re not going to be one of those chicks that looks like a man—that’s gross”
…and one of our all-time eye-rolling favourites: “Okay, but don’t get too bulky because men don’t like that.”
Tracy, while newer to weight training, has experienced some similar cautionary comments:
“Okay, but don’t work out too much.”
“Don’t get too jacked/ripped.”
“Don’t be that person.”
These comments not only come from a place of misinformation, but they perpetuate damaging assumptions about women and heteronormativity. We discussed the possibility of comments like this coming from a place of concern for health. But Jaclyn noted that these comments aren’t exactly along the (more concerned) lines of: “You’re not going to become one of those bodybuilder women, are you? …Because I hear that involves the use of drugs which can have a negative impact on your mood, fertility, and general health or because overtraining can cause physical/mental burnouts.” Nope.
For the most part, comments like these instead seem to implicitly “fit shame” (the flip side of fat shaming) or “police” individual behaviors that threaten societal ideas of what it is for a body to be feminine (i.e., slender, with only “feminine muscle” or femininely acceptable muscle.) See Sam’s recent post about the new popular aesthetic of a slender woman with a larger bum.
All of this not only perpetuates the damaging assumption that bodies are either feminine or masculine (and that this strict binary only allows for bodies that fit within a certain standard), but it reinforces the messages that women’s bodies are always bodies-for. In other words, women’s bodies are always bodies-for-other-people but never primarily for themselves. In the case of Jaclyn’s experience, she is (implicitly, though often explicitly) being told that her body is a body-for-men when people say things like “Okay, but don’t get too bulky, because men don’t like that”. This comment, which she frequently encounters, involves multiple problematic assumptions: first, that all men are only attracted to the stereotypically “feminine body”, second, that all men are only attracted to women, third, that her sexual orientation is straight. While we will not address these and other assumptions in this post, it is important to note the amount of troubling assumptions at play in the “bodies-for” message that women in fitness often encounter.
We didn’t even touch on assumptions around motherhood and aesthetics more broadly (i.e., What if she doesn’t want to be a mother? What if she wants to have large, bulky ?).
And certainly, while much has changed in women’s favour in the last century or so, there’s a lot that hasn’t changed. The prevailing comments in response to women’s fitness pursuits aren’t always explicitly about how this will affect her as a housewife, mother, or golf partner, but the fact is that we still encounter this “bodies-for” messaging everywhere. Looking ahead, we wonder how much things will change a hundred years from now. Hopefully, for the better.
Jaclyn is an aspiring fitness blogger, living in London completing her PhD in philosophy of neuroscience at the University of Western Ontario.
Tracy is a freelance writer living in Toronto and completing her PhD in political philosophy.