Buckle up my darlings, today I’m rage-writing.
First a little background:
For nearly a decade, I’ve been living in a bubble of the fitness industry elite.
I’ve been surrounded by coaches who are passionate about using evidence-based science, and even more passionate about respecting every person’s body autonomy. We have been preaching the gospel of how empowering it can be for women to strength train, alongside the gospel of how a woman’s body is her business only.
I had started to feel incredibly optimistic. I’ve seen a major shift in the fitness industry toward strength and heavy lifting, feminism has picked up steam with our generation, and I constantly see backlash to any public example of body-shaming.
I truly believed that things are getting better.
Then I started taking local fitness classes.
In an effort to find something to do with my body that feels amazing (since I gave up lifting weights), I’ve been taking a bunch of random local classes.
I live in Syracuse NY now, and options are pretty limited. But determined to keep an open mind, I’ve tried whatever was available– pilates, barre classes, spin classes, and more.
Now, I’ve always been adamantly against “girly fitness BS” classes like this, since they tend to promote a profound misunderstanding of exercise science, but I thought
hey, things are getting better, right?? We have a better understanding now that strength doesn’t mean getting big, and that getting big as a woman can be awesome anyway!
The result of my little experiment has been f*cking horrifying.
While I have about half a dozen blog posts worth of “issues” up my sleeve about this, I’m going to focus on just one here, because it legitimately made my heart hurt.
The automatic emphasis on “getting smaller.”
Every single class I’ve taken has been designed and carried out to prey on women’s insecurities about their bodies. Every single instructor has assumed I was there to shrink, remove, tighten, or burn off something.
I mean, we’re women right? WHAT ELSE COULD WE POSSIBLY WANT?
You guys, I really honestly thought we were done with this.
Have I just been incredibly delusional and buffered by the world of empowered coaches in my life?? Or maybe I just got a series of bad instructors/classes in a row? (Seriously. Hit reply and let me know what you think.)
Either way, I was horrified and deeply saddened by what I was hearing. Cues from the instructors like:
-”Squeeze that outter thigh, nobody likes a saddle bag!”-”Let’s go, we need to burn off last night’s calories!”-”Be sure to point your toes here, you don’t want bulky calves!” (…WUT?!)-and one at the end of class: ”Try not to go ruin this workout with a big meal!”
Setting aside the baffling misunderstanding of exercise science being demonstrated by these instructors, the theme of “let’s get smaller!” was undeniable.
It wasn’t just the instructors, either. When I signed up for my first spin class, the lady at the front desk smiled brightly and said “oh you’ll love it– you burn SO many calories!!” And at a completely different gym, when I introduced myself to the spin instructor and told her I was new, she gave me a cheeky smile and said “Welcome to the fat burning zone!”
Now, I have nothing against these instructors personally. They have all been really nice and I don’t doubt that they mean well. But there’s something really disconcerting about the fact that every single person who meets me in a gym assumes I’m there because I want to get smaller.
Why is this so dangerous and messed up?
I mean… first of all, because I’m not. I do not exercise to punish myself, burn off calories, or fix anything about myself. I’m actually there because I love my body, and I want to use it in a new and hopefully fun/cool way. This is apparently still really unheard of in some parts.
Making assumptions about someone else’s body and goals is BEYOND rude, and talking about her body like you have any right to comment on it is unacceptable.
The idea that all women who go take a fitness class are there to get smaller is incredibly limiting, sexist, and even representative of internalized misogyny. As though the best thing a woman can hope for is to make herself LESS. This idea breeds shame and holds us all back– by taking that stance, you also send the message that being smaller is inherently better, and that anyone who is pursuing some other goal is weird/bad/not working hard enough.
This is all very not ok with me.
Honestly though, this doesn’t even really bother me for MY sake. I’m 100% sure that my body is “enough” just the way it is, and that no matter what my body looks like, I am worthy of love and belonging.
But most other women don’t have the benefit of being body image coaches for a living, and are therefore much more vulnerable to feeling shame and fear about her body.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the urge to stop a class and educate the instructor on what her seemingly harmless comments and cues mean, where they came from, and how they serve to keep all women down, everywhere.
I didn’t, of course. But I wanted to.
Instead, I’ll probably just stop taking fitness classes. This is a real bummer, since some of them are really fun and I like the actual movement part of the class. But I can’t stand idly by while well-meaning instructors methodically inch womankind backwards.
And if not, what on earth can we do about this?
I’m seriously open to suggestions here, as long as it’s not “just don’t pay any attention.” Because honestly, that’s not an option for me.
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