As a child, sports was always part of my weekly routine. I enjoyed trying out and pursuing a variety of different disciplines, mostly gymnastics and tennis. Doing sports was pleasantly uncomplicated. I was having fun developing skills, improving my body’s abilities and strengths, and I was getting the excitement of competing at a small-scale, ‘no pressure’ amateur level. Growing up, though, I found it increasingly difficult to retrieve the same feeling of satisfaction that sports once provided me. It was when I recently joined the Women’s Boxing Club that I finally found that wonderfully fulfilling way of doing sports again. It dawned on me how challenging it can be, as an adult and as a woman, to find a sport club that is genuinely about learning a new discipline, with the multitude of benefits it entails. Yes, I was moving to different countries fairly often, which made it hard to sustainably join a club or a team. But I’d argue that there’s more to it.
The dominant discourse around ‘sport’ changes as you grow up. Sports changes from being ‘a fun and empowering activity’ to a depressing ‘public health discipline’. Even worse, and especially if you’re a woman, physical activity becomes merely a tool to (try to) improve your appearance.
Governing healthy bodies
Much social science research has drawn on Foucault’s concept of (neo)liberal governmentality to better understand the contemporary shape and discourse of health promotion (Ayo, 2012; Crawshaw, 2013; Mik-Meyer, 2014; Thompson & Kumar, 2011; Warin, 2011). In a nutshell, the act (or the art) of ‘government’ is understood by Foucault as a nexus of practices, institutions, techniques and discourses that construct our expectations of how society and individuals ought to behave and lead their lives. He famously refers to this as the ‘conduct of conduct’ (Burchell, Gordon, & Miller, 1991). Governmentality is liberal insofar as it promotes a society of free individuals operating in free markets. However, there are expectations as to how an individual is to enact and make use of this ‘freedom’. The individual is presented as dual: free to enjoy certain rights, but disciplined into enjoying them in a particular way. This discipline, it has been argued, is reflected in public health messages that tend to emphasise strongly – or even solely – healthy lifestyles as a matter of individual responsibility. Citizens are encouraged to become ‘food smart’, active, responsible ‘entrepreneurs of themselves’.
While it can be argued that of course people are responsible for their actions, there are fundamental issues associated with a discourse strictly limited to individual responsibility. For example, the fact that it neglects, and actively draws attention away from, structural determinants of ill-health and unhealthy lifestyle, including socioeconomic inequalities. This sort of discourse, in turn, can have ostracizing effects on precisely the population groups it is supposed to encourage and help.
Another, perhaps more mundane and definitely subjective consequence (which I don’t intend to generalise here), is that this responsibilisation tends to take all the fun out of sports. Which is a bit counterproductive frankly. Responsibilising citizens into getting physically active may be a good thing in itself, but the way it is done is just so tragically unimaginative! Fitness centres that pop up on every street corner. Sure, many people genuinely enjoy going to the gym, and the fact that they are becoming increasingly accessible is great, but isn’t this trend the quintessence of making sports merely a means to an end, rather than an end in itself? Personally, I always struggled to go to a gym on a regular basis. Children can play, but adults have to go to the gym.
You’re here to lose weight, right?
Wright et al. (2006) have investigated the way in which discourses on healthy lifestyles, nutrition and physical activity were taken up and appropriated by a sample of young men and a sample of young women. Their interviews showed that, when talking about physical activity, the young men would mostly talk about skills, strengths and generally fitness as providing the muscular capacity and stamina to enable them to do things. In the female group, however, physical activity was very often associated with desirable body shape and appearance (Talleu, 2012; Wright, O’Flynn, & MacDonald, 2006). It is true that pressure to conform to physical appearance standards is also increasing amongst men. However, weight loss is still rarely stereotyped as the one and only, obvious reason men work out. I’m not sure I can say the same about how society makes sense of women working out. Of course, there is nothing wrong with working out as a means to lose weight and it is really not my intention to imply any judgment about anyone’s motivations, reasons and goals. What I do bemoan, is the all too common assumption that the only reason an adult woman can possibly work out must be because she wants to look more attractive (subtext: for men) (Maguire & Mansfield, 1998). My point is that women’s sports is too often conceptualised in an androcentric way. This ingrained assumption that female physical activity is reducible to weight loss and toning is only reinforced by the gendered ‘healthism’* trend (whose advocates abound on social media platforms like Instagram and Youtube: #fitness #healthybody). In turn, ‘feminised’ versions of sports facilities targeting purely aesthetic goals are booming (Craig & Liberti, 2007). This goes from sexy women’s sports clothing trends to your famous ‘get-a-nice-booty-like-Beyoncé’ fitness class. Of course, I’d be a hypocrite to deny my own motivation to be, and to look, fit. That’s not where the problem lies. All I’m saying is that ‘women working out’ cannot be systematically reduced to ‘wanting to look good’. Body shape is – if anything – only a small part of a much wider ensemble of motivations for working out.
It’s time to challenge these assumptions and redefine physical activity, not just as an obligation to remain healthy, and certainly not just as a tool to become prettier, but as the fun and empowering leisure it used to be when we were kids! Such possibilities exist. I am incredibly lucky to have found a club that enables me to do exactly this. A sports club that does not buy into limiting gendered stereotypes, and that does not believe in adjusting the workout to conform with feminised, patriarchal clichés. And it feels amazing. Not only does the club reject gendered stereotypes, but it also provides an opportunity for women to get involved in a sport discipline that is strongly male-dominated, boxing. And if people asked me why, ‘as a woman’, I like boxing, I’d say it’s pretty much for the same multitude of reasons any man would enjoy it.
*Healthism: “A discourse in public health practice, [which links body shape to good health and] in which individuals are held to be morally responsible for the prevention of illness by knowing and avoiding the risk factors associated with ill-health. Individuals thus have a duty to monitor their own well-being constantly and to mediate and invest in choices and practices that are health enhancing and can prevent illness.” (Wright et al., 2006)
Abrahams, A (2017). Why do people presume I’m at the gym to lose weight? The Pool. Retrieved from: https://www.the-pool.com/health/fitness-honestly/2017/18/amy-abrahams-on-not-losing-weight-at-the-gym
Ayo, N. (2012). Understanding health promotion in a neoliberal climate and the making of health conscious citizens. Critical Public Health, 22(1), 99–105.
Burchell, G., Gordon, C., & Miller, P. (1991). The Foucault Effect. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. The University of Chicago Press.
Craig, M. L., & Liberti, R. (2007). “’Cause That’s What Girls Do” The Making of a Feminized Gym. Gender & Society, 21(5), 676–699.
Crawshaw, P. (2013). Public health policy and the behavioural turn: The case of social marketing. Critical Social Policy, 33, 616–637.
Maguire, J., & Mansfield, L. (1998). “No-Body’s Perfect”: Women, Aerobics, and the Body Beautiful. Sociology of Sport Journal, 15, 109–137.
Mik-Meyer, N. (2014). Health promotion viewed in a critical perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 42(15 suppl), 31–35.
Talleu, C. (2012). Gender equality in Sports – Handbook on good practices. EPAS Council of Europe.
Thompson, L., & Kumar, A. (2011). Responses to health promotion campaigns: resistance, denial and othering. Critical Public Health, 21(February 2015), 105–117.
Warin, M. (2011). Foucault’s progeny: Jamie Oliver and the art of governing obesity. Social Theory & Health, 9(1), 24–40.
Wright, J., O’Flynn, G., & MacDonald, D. (2006). Being fit and looking healthy: Young women’s and men’s constructions of health and fitness. Sex Roles, 54(9–10), 707–716.