Resistance to Exercise: Questioning the Myth of the Fit Female Body
Kerry R. McGannon, PhD, Research Associate, Alberta Centre for Active Living

“Burn fat faster: losing flab isn’t about magic potions and mega-selling diet books. It’s about intense effort…” (Runners’ World, Nov. 1999).

“…this is what 24 hours of flawless fat burning looks like. Apply often enough and you’re sure to develop the lean, fit body you want” (Men’s Fitness, June 2001).

The Myth of the Fit Female Body
  The conventional wisdom about physical activity is that a healthy and fit body is linked to an idealized “look.” If you perform the right exercises with the right amount of effort, you will achieve both this “look” and good health.

Women are especially vulnerable to a “tyranny of slenderness” (Bordo, 1990) that emphasizes afit and healthy body that is small, slim, and toned. However, most women’s bodies will not fall within these narrow confines. Moreover, studies show that the health benefits of physical activity (e.g., reduced risk for coronary heart disease) are not linked to a particular look. Rather, people can benefit from a physically active lifestyle regardless of their weight classification and appearance (Blair & Connelly, 1996).

Although the “fit female body” is a myth, many women will exercise hoping to achieve it. This belief could have negative psychological and emotional consequences (e.g., anxiety, guilt, shame) (Markula, 2001). My own involvement in exercise has led me to believe that exercise can be a double-edged sword for women—some become empowered, others feel powerless, and still others experience both empowerment and powerlessness. How does a supposedly “normal” and healthful practice such as physical activity, promoted as something women should do to better themselves, become linked in a negative way with how women view and experience themselves?

The Panoptic Power
Foucault’s notion of the body as a site for the operation of different forms of power is useful in analysing how a “fit body” gains importance in women’s lives, so (re)producing the myth of the fit female body. Foucault (1979) argues that the body is subtly disciplined through practices that regulate its existence (e.g., the school, the hospital). These regulatory practices produce “docile bodies” that willingly obey regimes of power in society—individuals internalize the control mechanisms through body discipline. This internal repression, which is the result of these disciplinary practices, means that people are governed and controlled by themselves, rather than by visible and openly repressive sources of power.

Foucault’s “panopticon” analogy illustrates this power arrangement (Foucault, 1979). In a circular prison, the invisible guard in the centre sees all the inmates. Each prisoner is disciplined by his or her awareness of the guard (and the guard’s power), not by the guard’s actual presence.

Applying this analogy to exercise and the fit female body, exercise practices (e.g., aerobics, weight-lifting) and the way(s) in which the media and fitness industry promote these practices (e.g., linking the practices to weight loss and appearance) represent effective forms of disciplinary power over women. The exercise discourse (i.e., the various ways “exercise” is talked about) therefore invisibly persuades women to control their bodies and appearance in the service of society (Markula, 2001).

When women exercise to mould their bodies to the ideal, they willingly take on the responsibility to control their bodies. This practice of self-control is further perpetuated when women feel good about themselves as their bodies approach the ideal (Markula, 2001). Ironically, while society’s standards define this ideal body, by pursuing that ideal, women keep the myth of the ideal body alive. Thus, even the enhanced self-esteem that results from a “better body” serves the ultimate purpose of the powerful (e.g., the media, the fitness industry)—to oppress women.

The panoptic power arrangement ensures that women are so occupied in obtaining the “healthy look” that they have little time to wonder why they are doing it.

Is Resistance to Power Futile?
The conclusion above is
depressing! Is this power over women so entrenched that whatever women do to better themselves (e.g., exercising) all serves some invisible power (e.g., the media and the fitness industry)? The invisible power of the panopticon certainly shapes the thoughts and behaviour of women in relation to their bodies (Markula, 2001). However, if this “power grip” were complete, women would never question the ideal body and would passively exercise solely to attain that ideal.

Research suggests that, in fact, women’s relationship with the ideal body is contradictory. For example, Markula (2001) concludes that women do aerobics for reasons other than improving their bodies (e.g., increased energy, social opportunities). Similarly, my research shows that while women do exercise to conform to the ideal body, they are also aware of the futility of this quest (and participate for reasons besides appearance) (McGannon, 2002).

Popular cultural discourse (i.e., ways of speaking) about the fit female body is oppressive. However, women can give different and alternative meanings to the ideal fit female body. Exercise does not have to be a vehicle for oppressive body discourses. Women can resist these discourses by

  • rejecting the dominant ways of speaking about women’s bodies in relation to exercise and fitness;
  • opposing appearance-related reasons for participating in exercise; and
  • resisting exercise practices that perpetuate this myth (e.g., non-functional “body shaping” exercises).
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