It was the third week of my weight training class, and I was struggling a bit on bicep curls when the coach came up to me and suggested, “Why don’t you try that with lighter weights so that you don’t build muscle?” I wasn’t sure how to respond other than nodding politely and ignoring him. Why would I even be in a weight training class if I didn’t want to build muscle? Is it really that hard to believe that a woman would want to be strong?
From the very first class, I felt like my weight training coach was giving me mixed messages. On the one hand, he was saying “Women aren’t as strong as men,” and on the other hand he was saying “Women don’t want to be strong.” This frustrated me to no end. Which was it? Was I biologically doomed to weakness and inferiority, or was it that I shouldn’t even try to get stronger in the first place, that I somehow craved weakness? Why was he so convinced of and vocal about my weakness when it was his job to help me get stronger, not to push me down?
Equally infuriating was the fact that he assumed I was there to manage my weight. Like any other women on the planet, of course I’ve struggled with body image, but why should he assume that I’m working out to manage my weight? Did it ever even occur to him that I was there because I like being strong, or maybe that I was actually enjoying myself?
I love a good yoga class, a game of pickup soccer, or a long run with a friend. Exercise can be fun, exhilarating, or a great way to clear your head and de-stress. Exercise can be silly or about cultivating calm and mindfulness.
And feeling strong is amazing. It’s empowering to feel good in my body, to know that I’m healthy, independent, and capable. Also, as a feminist, there is something pleasantly subversive about being the only lady in the weight room. But why should cultivating strength as a woman be subversive?
We live in a society that highly values fitness and physical appearance. But cultural attitudes about strength and fitness are very different for men than they are for women. While women are encouraged to Burn More Calories, men are encouraged to Build More Muscle. It’s no secret that far too often when women say they want to get fit, what they really mean is that they want to lose weight.
This is a culture of “Body Panic,” where magazines, ads, TV shows, and our peers constantly bombard us with images of ideal bodies, and messages that we need to constantly be monitoring our own bodies, working towards the ideal, slender body, which always seems a bit out of reach. For women, Body Panic is really about weight and appearance, not about strength, even though it’s often referred to as “fitness.” The ideal women’s body in our culture is unrealistically slim, but not necessarily healthy or strong. Bodies that are strong, visibly muscular, or large are all gendered as masculine, while attractive women are slim, small breasted and narrow hipped to the point of looking prepubescent, and thin to the point of emaciation. In our culture, the media constantly tells women that “fitness” is primarily about maintaining an ideally feminine body—petite, and powerless.
Not only is the idealized women’s body weak, we’re also taught not to think of exercise as fun. Exercise—like dieting—is a way to punish our bodies when they are out of line, too big, not good enough. Exercise is part of what Sandra Bartky labels the “tyranny of slenderness” in her essay about how women discipline their bodies to try to achieve the aesthetic of fragility and femininity that is so sought after in our culture.
The media tells women that exercise is about shaping our bodies into desirable objects, about chasing after the downright unhealthy body ideal, and we internalize this message. Studies have revealed that women generally see “health” and “fitness” as synonymous with how closely they measure up to the “ideal” clothing size, body shape or weight. We are conditioned to think that a “healthy” body is a slim body, and to disregard anything other than the surface level, the aesthetic value of our bodies.
This is an unfortunate misconception, as weight doesn’t correspond with physical fitness or health. The intense focus on weight as an indicator of fitness is absurd. Muscle weighs more than fat, so by skipping the gym and skipping meals (both of which would be not-so-great for your health), you can lose weight. (Of course, you would be losing muscle and gaining fat… but the scale would tell you that you were doing great.)
This attitude towards fitness is dangerous. A study conducted by Wright, O’Flynn, and Macdonald in 2006 showed how this mode of thinking leads to “continuous self-scrutiny, dissatisfaction and critical evaluation” and “self-loathing.” Susan Calvert Finn, a health professional, states that exercise is often viewed as punishment and as inseparable from weight loss. She notes that just as women’s pursuit of the “ideal,” “fit” body can lead to eating disorders, it can also lead to the development of exercise disorders. In short, the way women are conditioned to think about exercise is hurting our health, fitness, and self-esteem, when physical activity should do the exact opposite.
Exercise can be oppressive. It can be about conforming to societal norms where women are weak and small, nothing more than objects to be looked at. Exercise can be about self-objectification and making our bodies desirable. Exercise can be about the heterosexual male gaze. Exercise can be about never quite measuring up. And that negativity, the idea that we’re just not good enough is what the media sells to us.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Studies have shown that men have a very different relationship towards fitness. In Wright, O’Flynn, and Macdonald’s study, the young men interviewed rarely conflated weight and appearance with fitness. For them, fitness wasn’t about an external beauty ideal, it was about the activities they enjoyed and valued, such as involvement in school sports programs (not to say that the culture of male athleticism isn’t problematic, as anyone keeping up with the Steubenville rape trial knows, but that’s a whole other can of worms). Fitness doesn’t have to be about dieting, or weight loss, or self-objectification, or the pursuit of the ideal body.
Exercise can be empowering if we approach it with a different attitude, because strength and self-love are subversive attributes—especially in women. Strong, powerful, empowered women are dangerous, and threaten the very foundations of the systems that keep women down.
The devaluation of women’s strength and the idealization of unhealthily small feminine bodies may stem from an aesthetic preference, but the problem runs much deeper than the surface level. It creates weak, unhealthy bodies, and poisons our minds with self-loathing.
Women should be empowered to get in shape for more than just aesthetics, and instead of being constantly told that we should want to get thinner and thinner, women should be encouraged to cultivate strength. Every aspect of our lives is interconnected, and physical strength is not separate from emotional, intellectual, or social strength. In The Frailty Myth, Colette Dowling shows that the frailty myth has had lasting and profound physiological, psychological, and emotional effects. If we believe our bodies are never good enough, what about our minds? If we are taught that we are physically frail, what about our spirit and our intellect?
The way that women’s bodies are represented, talked about, and looked at matters. The way that we are taught to think about, regulate, discipline, and adorn our bodies matters. Our bodies are fundamentally a part of who we are as complete human beings. You can’t love and value yourself if you hate your body, and you can’t be empowered to realize your full potential if you are constantly being told that you are weak, even as you are trying to make yourself stronger.
The frailty myth is powerful, but not unchangeable; we can un-learn it, and we can overcome it. Dowling astutely notes;
“Women clearly feel stronger when their bodies are stronger. They no longer need men for protection. They are their own warriors, capable of defending themselves, capable of standing up to anyone, capable of going wherever they want.”
This is not to say that I’m not personally guilty of exercising for the wrong reasons. No one is unaffected by the cultural messages that we get, which tell us that fitness means weight-loss, and weight-loss means beauty, and beauty means value. But we all have agency, and we can all resist the tendency towards self-objectification, self-loathing, and viewing exercise as punishment. Self-love is a constant process, but it is one of the most important struggles we can engage in. And exercise can be part of practicing self-love.
Exercise can be healthful, physically and psychologically beneficial. It shouldn’t be about punishing, policing, and regulating our bodies; it should be fun. So, if you hate running, don’t do it! Try Zumba, or swimming, or go on a long walk, or play a sport. We can all exercise because we love our bodies and want to treat them right, not because our bodies aren’t good enough, or sexy enough, or feminine enough. We can exercise because we know that we are not weak, or fragile, or inferior, and we want our bodies to reflect our spirit and our intellect.