Changing our relationship to our bodies

// 1 December 2010

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parkourbrazil.jpgWomen’s messed-up relationship to our bodies has been exhaustively documented.

Jezebel has up an interesting post which looks at how some of their readers have shifted from viewing their bodies in negative ways, towards, as one commenter put it, viewing their body as a tool.

Primarily the stories focus on sport and exercise as a means to achieve this – and acknowledges the “exercise privilege” inherent in that as a statement. But there are also stories like 14KgoldNYC, who talks about the body as a tool to perform music (in this case, singing).

One reader, Slaybelle, says of her experiences with roller derby:

It wasn’t until I started playing that I really switched my view of my body from this thing I inhabited to a machine that I used.

And another reader talks about her “Slayer training”:

So almost a year ago, I was watching Buffy-and this is pretty cheesy. I’m not really a competitive, sportsy person. But I am a rookie feminist. And I was watching an episode of a show (a flawed, imperfect show) about a girl running fast, being super fucking strong, and generally being a super-hero. And I thought, I want that. I can do that. I can be a Slayer. And so I started doing Slayer training every day. I started thinking about my body as an amazing gift that I should be training to the best of my ability to be strong, to be fast, and to be healthy.

doubledutch.jpgMeanwhile, Jenn at Reappropriate revists the issue of women steering clear of all strength training in the gym, out of a sort of gender-panic fear of acquiring giant ‘unfeminine’ muscles. As she amusing observes, this sees “boys flock to the free weights and benches while girls congregate at the cardio equipment, running like over-sized hamsters on their wheels”. (My gym seems less extreme than this, but even so, there normally are a lot more men in the weights section – what are your experiences?)

She talks through mostly how extremely unlikely this is to happen, as well as why strength training is important:

Building muscle is extremely difficult, as any strength trainer will tell you. Even men, who have the benefit of testosterone, struggle to bulk up. What makes a woman think that a few sets on the bench press will magically build the kind of physique that any Mr. Universe would envy?

(Of course, we’ve visited this territory before, with musings about the gender implications of push-ups, evidence that negative body image is preventing school-aged girls from exercising, failures of the sports bra market, etc.)

Photo of woman jumping (parkour) by Marco Gomes, photo of women cartwheeling through skipping ropes by seo2, both shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Jennifer Drew // Posted 1 December 2010 at 8:51 pm

‘Even men, who have the benefit of testosterone, struggle to bulk up.’ No testosterone is not a male hormone because it is present in women’s and men’s bodies. I thought that particular myth had been roundly dismissed as a lie years ago.

Fact is most men are not as strong as they consider they are and women are stronger than they are led to believe.

Furthermore women’s bodies are not machines – neither for that matter are men’s bodies machines. We are human and our physical and mental bodies interact – they are not separate.

Jenn // Posted 2 December 2010 at 6:31 am

Jess, thanks for the link back, and for the great links to your previous writing!

sianushka // Posted 2 December 2010 at 9:14 am

As an ex ballet dancer, i understand seeing your body as a tool rather than an object. a tool that allowed me to do amazing things (that i can’t do now).

but it is a balance as well i think. i became quite obsessive as a dancer, and trained every day and altho i was very fit, i also still had a difficult relationship with my body because i saw it as something i had to push further and harder, almost as if it was something apart from me that needed moulding and improving.

members of my family have also had ‘exercise addiction’ which has been linked to their issues with food.

so, although seeing your body as something that can allow you to achieve great things through strength and power, it is easy for that to slip in to being just as detached from your body as if you see it as an object in other ways.

Lindsey // Posted 2 December 2010 at 2:37 pm

I’m so grateful for the existence of Shockabsorbers. Silly name, awesome support bras for big breasts.

The gym I go to is not so completely divided on the equipment, maybe 2/3s women in cardio, 3/4 men in weights, but it is very rare to see a man go to either step or combat aerobics classes. Spin (cycling) and pump (aerobics with weights) seem to appeal to men more (at this particular gym). I wonder if who the teacher is affects this. Although step aerobics is led by a man and pump led by a woman, I have only ever seen men lead spin classes, and the classes have quite a hardcore “feel the burn” atmosphere and are advertised as “fat burning”. This doesn’t appear to put women off, and the staff are always helpful and inclusive, but I think it has masculinized this class in a way that other classes haven’t been.

Kristel // Posted 2 December 2010 at 2:51 pm

I would love to do more strength/weight training at my gym, but the guys do dominate that area, talking and laughing (and showing off to one another) and draping their sweaty towels everywhere. You can watch them smirk when any woman goes near! I know I shouldn’t let that put me off, but I’m afraid it does. If I’ve got a day off I go mid-morning when it’s quiet, but of course that can’t be a regular time.

Jess McCabe // Posted 2 December 2010 at 2:56 pm

@Lindsey – I second the shockabsorbers recommendation, not to sound too much like an ad for them, but seriously they’re very good.

One thing I didn’t get around to mentioning in the post was the classes at my gym – I find it quite comic, but they really advertise a lot of the classes as being very macho, but my experience of going to these classes is they’re mostly women. I go to a boxing type class regularly, which is almost all women, for example.

On the website, they seem to go to ever more silly lengths to make them seem macho – one class recently was highlighted in the newsletter, and they illustrated with a picture of a spartan warrior! Another class involves using kettlebells, and is actually called the Iron Man class. Sooo silly. None of this seems to put off women who want to go to the classes, but not sure it really attracts men all that much either. I wondered whether the very notion of going to a gym class has been somehow gendered in a feminine way, and that’s why they’re going to all these lengths?

Hannah // Posted 2 December 2010 at 9:32 pm

@Kristel it’s exactly the same at my gym! I used to do free weights a lot more but in the last few months a big group of blokes who go every single day for a couple of hours basically take over that area and leave no free space, which I think puts other people off venturing into ‘their’ area. And if you talk to most women about working out, someone will always mention ‘not wanting to do weights in case they bulk up’.

Personally, I can really identify with those whose body image has improved dramatically since participating in something physical and discovering their own strength and fitness. I started running a couple of years ago simply to get fit and it has had a huge impact on me. But I also think it’s really important to acknowledge what sianushka has said here – it can so easily go the other way.

Lindsey // Posted 3 December 2010 at 12:01 pm


I guess the first few things that come to mind when people hear “gym class” are aerobics and yoga, which are typically feminized (though both led by men at my gym). There are also associations with school PE classes, where again aerobics might be offered as a “girly” alternative to team sports that are generally seen as more masculine.

I wonder also if it’s easier to disguise how unfit you are in the weights area. It’s a much bigger taboo for men to appear physically weak, and getting out of puff on a treadmill exposes this much more than pulling a lever which looks the same no matter what the weight is set to. Getting out of puff in the middle of a class would expose you even more.

Mobot // Posted 5 December 2010 at 10:37 pm

Interesting… for the last couple of years, I’ve started to cultivate new and positive ways of seeing my body due to playing sports (specifically, roller derby, but this has also led to other physical activities I otherwise wouldn’t have tried).

It’s exciting as a woman to participate in something that teaches me to use whatever I’ve got to my best advantage, in an idiosyncratic way, as opposed to changing my body to fit certain criteria. It’s also exciting to see my body in a number of different ways at once – tool, weapon, something that allows me to take up physical space in the world…

It’s not just a different way to objectify yourself either – my experience of the (emotionally and psychologically demanding) sport I play is that what my body can do is of no use without the full backing of my mind. In a sense, that’s a bigger hurdle to overcome. I’ve never had a particularly unhealthy relationship with my body, but learning and *believing* that I can be aggressive, assertive, strong and phsyically skilled has been quite the journey! Public scrutiny and control of women’s bodies and our actions/feelings/minds cannot be separated. Jennifer Drew, I don’t see anyone here implying some sort of Cartesian mind/body dualism as you suggest.

polly // Posted 6 December 2010 at 12:08 am

I see the point about men hogging the weights at the gym has already been made – but I’d like to reiterate it. I’m not put off by the idea of ‘bulking up’ (this is actually pretty hard for men to do, which is why many gyms do a roaring trade in illegal steroids, but it’s even harder for women because of their lower testosterone levels) but I usually can’t be arsed to go and shove a lot of narcissistic fools out of the way.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 6 December 2010 at 11:11 am

I think some of this is regional- or perhaps gym-ional- in that I went from one gym where men never went to pilates and stood around the weights bulking up without any cardio (not healthy- these guys could barely walk), to one where men used to make up about a third in pilates type of classes. Similarly, there was always plenty of women on the weights in that gym, and the gym very much encouraged weight training for women and men as part of its inducation training. Now, that I am gymless, I really miss the weights…

nick // Posted 7 December 2010 at 1:36 pm

Re classes . I go a boxercise class , which women outnumber men . I also go to a circuits class which men outnumber women. I dont really know the reason for this . You dont get as much rest time in circuits so maybe people think its harder than boxercise …..a good boxercise class really does make your arms ache ……..

as for weights ………..yes I would use the weights , with some cardiac work in between. I dont like it when anyone hogs any equipment. I guess men just using the weights are trying to achieve the ‘perfect mans body ‘ …broad shoulders, big biceps, pecs and some kind of six pack ………..I dont think I’ll ever get there …… middle bit sagging a little……

Andie // Posted 7 December 2010 at 1:56 pm

Kristel and Hannah, it was the same at my gym too. But talking to the staff about it proved a big help. They have put up notices about how it’s not healthy to do nothing except weights, they keep an eye on that area and generally make it more inclusive.

Politicalguineapig // Posted 8 December 2010 at 12:24 am

At my gym, it really depends on the time of day and the kinds of machine. I guess ’cause it’s a YWCA, not a YMCA. The one thing that really annoys me is that the guys always set the machines to really unrealistic weights.

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