Exercise: Questioning the Myth of the Fit Female Body
“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).
Myth of the Fit Female Body
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 “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
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
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
Is Resistance to Power Futile?
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).
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