fitness

What are Women’s Bodies for, Anyway?

 

 

katie sandwina holding 3 dudes
Image Description: This is a black-and-white photograph of Katie Sandwina, a circus strongwoman from the early 20th Century. Here she holds 3 adult men in suits up as balance on her arms and shoulders. Sandwina was capable of lifting over 300 pounds above her head and defeated Eugene Sandow (a famous circus strongman) in a weightlifting competition.

 

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).

Vintage Muscle
Image Description: This is a black-and-white photograph of a woman from the 1920’s, posing with her arm flexed. She has visible muscle in her biceps, triceps, forearms and shoulders. This juxtaposed with her vintage pincurl hairstyle makes for a striking image.

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?

 

Rene Campbell bodybuilder
Image Description: This is a photograph of Rene Campbell, a professional female bodybuilder from the UK. She is in a black bikini and flexes her arms above her head. She is very visibly muscular. Female bodybuilders are often criticized for looking “manly,” “too masculine,” and have even been called “gross” or “disgusting” in reference to their muscular bodies.

 

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.

 

bikini
Image Description: This is a photograph of three women posing for a bikini competition. Each of the women are tanned, with long hair and full make up. They strike poses so as to highlight small waists and curves around their hips and busts. Unlike body building which focuses on larger muscle mass and definition, bikini competitions place emphasis on more slender muscle. This is typically seen as the “physical goal” for women’s bodies.

 

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.

 

Katie (Sandwina)
Image Description: This is a black-and-white photo of Katie Sandwina who is posing in a one-piece jumper while holding a man above her head with one arm. 

 

 

 

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.

Aikido · Crossfit · Rowing · running · training · weight loss

Is it time to ditch exercise?

Exercising, working out, or training? I almost never use the first of these terms and I have a strong preference for the 3rd. Here’s some thoughts about why.

Recently the media reported on a study from the University of Alberta that showed shows like The  Biggest Loser put people off exercise with its extreme depiction of what exercise involves.

From the U of A website: Researchers in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation found that watching a short video clip of The Biggest Loser fueled negative attitudes toward exercise, raising further questions about how physical activity is shown in the popular media.

“The depictions of exercise on shows like The Biggest Loser are really negative,” said lead author Tanya Berry, Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity Promotion. “People are screaming and crying and throwing up, and if you’re not a regular exerciser you might think this is what exercise is—that it’s this horrible experience where you have to push yourself to the extremes and the limits, which is completely wrong.”

Read more about this here.

For me, the word ‘exercise’ has negative connotations, even without The Biggest Loser. At best it sounds dull and joyless. I use the word to describe physio rehab that I do. Those are exercises but that’s about it.

I’ve been active a lot this weekend but, physio aside, none of it has been something I’d call exercise. Saturday mornings I go to Aikido where I practice and I train. The emphasis is on skill development and training seems to me to be the right word. True, I got really hot and sweaty during hajime training but getting hot and sweaty wasn’t the point. Moving fast, without thinking, putting the techniques in ‘body memory’ was.

Saturday afternoon I had a soccer game. We lost against the Chocolate Martinis. (An aside: I think nothing screams ‘middle aged women playing soccer’ quite like the team names. Last week we won against Cougartown.) Was that exercise? I ran fast and played hard but I wouldn’t describe what I was doing as exercise. I was playing. We were competing. Yes, it’s a recreational league but we do play to win. In the end we lost but we had a lot of fun.

And Sunday morning I’ll be at the rowing club for an early morning erg session. Again, there’s a lot of technique involved and I think of it as training, not exercise per se. For example, we did a really challenging drill Thursday night trying to match a pace slightly above our 2 km test pace but with a much slower stroke rate. Tough work and really hard to concentrate on technique. Usually my bike ride home from rowing is much slower than my pace on the way there.

Most weekends I also take my dog out for a 5 km + hike in the woods. Usually we run together. I love being outside and I like the feeling of running on trails in the woods.

So Aikido, soccer, rowing, bike riding, and dog-jogging. But no exercise?

I’d say in one sense that’s right. I do these things because they’re fun, a big part of what I think of as the good life. I spend a lot of time as an academic in my head, with words, books, and ideas but being physical really matters. It’s a key part of who I am.

No wonder inactive people are put off by The Biggest Loser’s participants. Those people are not having any fun. It’s joyless. They are exercising for one reason and one reason only, to lose weight. If that were my reason, I’d have quit a long time ago.

My advice to people who want to be more active is to find something you love, something you enjoy, something you’d do anyway even if you didn’t lose weight. We need to experience more joy in our lives, joy in moving our bodies in ways that feel good.

For you, that might be dance, yoga, walking, or gardening.

For me, I’m a competitive person and I like races and games with winners and losers. I also like skill development and getting better at something, like testing for new belts in Aikido, crit interval drills on the bike, or learning the technique involved in rowing.

It’s clear with cycling, the sport I love best, that it’s not medicinal exercise, taken in daily doses for health related reasons. Instead, at various times I’ve trained and raced. These days more often I ride for fun with friends. I also often commute on my bike and use it for practical transportation.

Even Crossfit–the one thing I do to which the term ‘workout’ really applies–has both a skill building (weight training, Olympic lifting) and a competitive element. It’s ‘as many reps as possible’ or ‘so many reps for time.’ I usually focus on competing with myself but other people there seriously train for the Crossfit games.

If exercise, as a term, works for you, great. But for many of us it misses the mark.  For us, let’s ditch talk of exercise and talk instead about all the fun physical activities that are part of the good life. I think sharing the joy in physical activity is a better route to getting more people moving than in prescribing exercise in medicinal doses.