Feminism from Another Point of View
Stockholm, January 23, 2010. I have gone to see Battle of the Pole, an event advertised as one of several different exercise forms under the name ‘striptease aerobics.’ The event is located in a traditional theatre/hotel in the city centre. Battle of the Pole is held in an elegant hall with gilded walls, large mirrors, sculptures and balconies. At the front is a large stage and on the floor approximately 200 padded chairs, behind the chairs there is space for standing. To the left is a bar and to the right a table with a white tablecloth for the five members of the jury. In the middle of the stage is a platform with a four to five meters tall pole that is held in place by four steel wires. Disco balls are hung on the stage and loud music is pumping out of the speakers. The event is sold out. The audience appears to be in their twenties or early thirties, comprising men and women in equal numbers. They look dressed for a night out, sophisticated and elegant and fit well into the stylish setting. Many are sipping white wine out of tall glasses. They seem to be couples and groups of friends. The atmosphere is friendly, relaxed and well-behaved. Displayed on the stage are the prizes: one trophy for each category, a high heeled shoe with straps made of sparkling stones. Functionaries, men and women dressed in white cotton t-shirts, walk around. Three women in hot pants and training tops come out onto the stage. The audience cheers when they take turns in swinging around the pole. One of them climbs up the pole, turns upside down and back again and then slides down the pole to land on the floor in a split. They leave and the hostess of the evening appears. She does a ‘shimmy’ and the audience cheers again. A male functionary climbs up to polish the pole. The hostess explains that it is important to get good grip and that’s why the pole is going to be cleaned between every performance. The hostess is dressed in a tight dress sponsored by Karen Millen, we are told, and she wears high heels. She then introduces the jury.
Tania from Finland is going to judge technique, execution and choreography. Mariana from France is going to judge fluidity. Kiera from New York will focus on the creative part and Lara from Iceland on technique. The only man in the jury is a well-known Swedish photographer and publisher of sexual images of women for men’s magazines and he will offer a photo session to the winner. He is introduced as the “pride of Sweden and chair of the jury.” When the microphone is passed to him, he says that there is another battle going on at his house, with his girlfriend: “I told her it’s a sport,” he says and brings a narrative to the fore that is repeated many times during my study. This is exercise—not striptease! The hostess joins in to explain that her Dad freaked out when he first found a strip pole in her house but quickly understood that pole dancing was good exercise. We get the point. The first of the 14 contestants enters the stage. First out are ‘the Kittens’ presented as beginners and later ‘the Lionesses’ who are more experienced. The hostess explains the rules: ‘Kittens must at least include 1 inversion, 2 spins, floor walk, 1 inner thigh hold and one split in their program. The Lionesses must at least include 2 inversions, 4 spins, 1 being a back spin, floor work, 2 inner thigh hold and two splits.’ Other than that they are free to create their own choreography. The contestants come from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Russia. They look to be in their twenties or perhaps early thirties. All are women. They swing around the pole, lift themselves up and spin around while holding on with one arm. They walk around the pole, climb up and down the pole, turn upside down on the pole, hold on with their arms while separating their legs and flaunting their groins to the audience. They slide down the pole, some alternately clutching with their legs. The hostess finds the performances ‘lovely’ and regarding one competitor comments that “she was like Spiderman.” There is a combination of references to strength and beauty. The chair of the jury is asked between performances whether he prefers the Kittens or the Lionesses. He prefers his pregnant girlfriend, he answers rather unexpectedly, and thereby presents himself as a family man while giving the show a respectable and heterosexual framing. The audience are encouraged to shout ‘No,’ but don’t seem too bothered.
Most of the contestants are dressed in black hot pants and black training tops. Two have bikini-like suits with sequins. Some have strong eye makeup, in strong colours and with false lashes. A few have shoes with high heels, but most are bare-footed. Two or three have garments that they throw off, one a sequined hood jacket, another a corset like training top and mini-skirt. All have black hot pants and training tops underneath. The dress code is clear. High boots are not permitted. Nude or partially nude performances will lead to disqualification. They are allowed to remove clothing but shorts or hot pants that cover most of the buttocks must be left on. Thongs or tassels are not allowed and “Upper coverage must be of style as sports bra with cross back or halter neck”. The audience cheers when the clothes are thrown off, though the cheering seems rather dutiful. It is the display of physical strength that really seems to wake their enthusiasm. Two women sitting beside me sigh in awe when one of the contestants uses her arm strength to turn upside down on the pole. The show leaves me with a strange feeling. The spectacle, location and the audience’s expectations seem to contrast with the lack of stage experience of many of the performers. The display of groins, high heels, eye makeup and exposure of the dancers seems in turn to collide with the exercise apparel that covers their torsos, the display of arm and leg strength, and the absence of any sexualized facial mimicry. Back home I find a blog written by the chair of the jury’s also well known girlfriend. She comments that the show hadn’t been as “porny/stripy/sexual” as what she had expected. The most talented and serious girls hadn’t at all “shown off,” but exercised acrobatic moves. This is what seemed so contradictory: while on the one hand the erotic and suggestive content was dismissed by onlookers in favour of the display of physical strength, on the other, an aerobics show would not have attracted any crowds, sponsors or acquired this attractive venue. So what was really going on?
Striptease Aerobics and Pole Dancing as Cultural Forms
Striptease Aerobics took off as a new ‘trendy’ form of exercise in Swedish health clubs in 2007. The inspiration came from New York fitness trends and exercise videos sold on the Internet by Hollywood celebrity Carmen Electra. It received plenty of media coverage from the start, partly due to the fact that the first health club owner to take in the new trend was a member of the Royal family, a point often made and an expression of the ‘respectability’ for this new form of exercise. Most articles had headlines such as “do it like the Hollywood stars,” “pursue the latest fitness trend,” or “it’s already big in the U.S., now it has finally come to Sweden.” The homepage of Sweden’s leading striptease aerobics centre describes it as “the most entertaining way to keep in shape while you soften up your body and get the opportunity to fully express yourself.” It tells the story of how the owner walked into ‘Crunch Fitness’ in Downtown Manhattan in New York to obtain private lessons to develop her own skills as instructor. She continues: "We even visited strip clubs for ‘study’ purposes and it was far from the gritty hangouts I have seen on television documentaries on poverty in Sweden . . . Here the women were well-trained and all had their own routines, a bit like Flash dance." The story then takes yet another turn: “Then I believe that one should not glorify the whole industry, but they could really dance! This story reflects some of the points that I will develop in this article. First, striptease aerobics is described as something fun that makes one feel sexy. Second, while it should not be seen as sexual exploitation, some precautions need to be taken to avoid such risks. Pole dancing is culturally associated with striptease, a form of sex work where (usually) women undress before (usually) men to tease and create sexual arousal (Attwood and Holland 2009, Liepe-Levinson 2002). It builds on the tensions between teasing, showing, hiding and the built-up expectations of what is seen and what is not. The spread and acceptance of this new form of exercise needs to be seen in the light of a normalization of striptease and pornography that has taken place since the 1990s. During this period of time striptease and cultural goods and products inspired by striptease spread throughout the world of fashion, music and entertainment.
The music video industry in particular has systematically adopted choreography inspired by striptease. Striptease has become a noticeable part of the entertainment, art and media industries and sexiness has become a part of the desired body ideal (Attwood 2009; McNair 199, 2002). In this context it became possible to promote striptease as an inspiring exercise form. It took off as the exercisers increasingly want to be recognized as desirable subjects in contemporary popular culture, but also as the fitness industry continually searches for new ways to sell physical exercise. Attwood (2009) calls this development “the sexualisation of culture”: porn has turned chic and pole dancing has been repackaged as fitness. In this culture, the sex industry has become more mainstream allowing porn stars to enter mainstream society and ordinary people to circulate their own sexual images through the Internet (see also McNair 1996, 2009; Hubbard 2009). Despite this normalization of striptease in popular culture, Swedish public discourse is generally critical of striptease and, on the rare occasions that striptease is discussed in the press, media coverage focuses on the exploitation of women. In 1999 a new law made the buying of sex illegal in Sweden while the selling of sex remained legal. While many saw the new law as a victory for feminism, critics argued that it victimized sex workers, reflecting moralistic value judgments rather than concern for the lives and experiences of sex workers (Lorentzi 1999; Dodillet 2009). Sex work was understood as one-way exploitation and no clear difference was made between porn, prostitution and striptease (Östergren 2006). The law against the buying of sex hence builds on a cultural understanding of sex work that many Swedish fitness consumers are well familiar with strippers are victims of patriarchy. This also explains why, the cited homepage description of striptease aerobics earlier, emphasized that striptease aerobics should not be confused with the ways that striptease is portrayed in social realist TV documentaries. It is an association readers are expected to make. It cannot be taken for granted, therefore, that the spread of striptease builds on a more liberal view of sexual politics. Rather, it needs to be understood as part of the fitness culture where new, fun, challenging activities are eagerly sought. On one hand sex work is condemned as oppressive exploitation and on the other, it is sold as inspiration for exercise.
Dworkin and Wachs (2009) refer to “commodity feminism” whereby the culture industry has appropriated the concepts of femininity and feminism to capture market shares. In this process the commodities tied to feminist imagery and a feminine appearance have simultaneously come to represent feminism (Goldman, Heath and Smith 1991, in Dworkin and Wachs 2009). Dworkin and Wachs critique commodity feminism as it reflects an “aesthetically depoliticised feminism” (2009). For example, in this process striptease aerobics can be interpreted by exercisers as feminist empowerment, but the connection between feminism and femininity is problematized. This undermines the feminist political struggle by associating it with consumer culture (see also McRobbie 2009). Striptease aerobics can, nevertheless, be argued to actually empower the exercisers. In postfeminist consumer culture consumers are offered ways of understanding beautification of the body and engagement with consumer practices as empowering. The practices and cultures of lap and pole dancing can also be taken to symbolize sexual liberation, economic freedom and feminism (Attwood and Holland 2009, see also Hubbard 2009). In her research, Merl Storr (2003) examines home parties where women buy sexy lingerie, erotic fashion and sex toys. While Storr finds that the parties have a postfeminist character, they do not only celebrate traditional “womanly abilities” but new kinds of “womanly values” which emphasize the primacy of pleasure and the centrality of active (hetero)sexuality in women’s selves and lives (2003). In this article, I will discuss how three instructors of striptease aerobics make sense of exercise, gender and bodies within commodity feminism and how embodiment is constructed through this particular form of fitness culture.
My research is based primarily on participant observations and ethnographic interviews (for more on this type of interview, see Clifford and Marcus 1986). I align my research with a cultural studies approach that builds on an interest in lived experiences, discourses, texts and social context (Marcus 1998; Saukko 2003). Qualitative participant observations and interviews offer ways of reaching people’s negotiations between the ways different cultural definitions of gender, bodies and dress are expressed contextually (see also Sassatelli 1999). Media texts do not necessarily convey exercisers’ thoughts about gender and fitness. During qualitative interviews meanings are changed and alternated. When the women negotiated with cultural representations of gender and fitness, they often ended up contradicting themselves. The three instructors I interviewed for this study have middle-class backgrounds and an ‘urban’ lifestyle. In other words they are typical of Scandinavian fitness consumers (Engelsrud 2009). I detail each instructor’s background hereafter. Anette is 32 and works in marketing for an international sports brand. She has a background as a semi-professional in a team sport and has a lifestyle in which fitness and sports culture play a major role. She also runs her own centre where she teaches different classes. In addition to providing instruction in striptease aerobics, Anette jogs and strength trains. According to her, striptease aerobics only complements, but cannot replace other training.
Camilla is in her late 20s and works in her family’s business during the day. She has practiced fitness since she was 16 and prefers classes such as aerobics. She too teaches classes in striptease aerobics in the evenings. She became interested in striptease aerobics when she came across the exercise videos by Carmen Electra. Camilla thought it was a form of exercise that really suited her and then qualified as an instructor. Maria is around 30 years old and trained as a professional dancer. She teaches many different classes and her professional career is completely focused on dance, health and exercise. For a couple of years she has been teaching classes in striptease aerobics. Maria has also trained as a school teacher and has, what she calls, lots of experience in how to talk to young girls. Maria asserts that knowing dance makes it easy to pick up striptease. From her point of view, it is based on jazz dance with exaggerated curving and straightening of the back.
Constructing Gender Through Striptease Aerobics
Fitness can be seen to reflect the cultural gender order: it appears to make the gender differences between men and women natural as it is often constructed around gendered ideals of beauty, sexuality and health. Fitness practices illustrate the pervasiveness of gendered beauty ideals when men build big, muscular upper bodies and women build thin and toned bodies. At the same time exercise has served to empower women, because through fitness practices women can build strong and muscular bodies (Dworkin and Wachs 2009; Heywood 1998). The striptease aerobics instructors also refer to such gender differences when they talk about their fitness form. The informants speak of striptease aerobics as something that combines exercise, sexiness and fun. Camilla likes striptease aerobics because of the combination of high intensity, aerobic training, and dance. She repeatedly describes this form of exercise as ‘sexy’ without explaining what ‘sexy’ might mean. Sexiness, or this particular form of sexiness, is understood as something feminine and the sexiness is contrasted with men and men’s training. Both the movements of the body and the way of exercising are referred to as feminine. As pointed out by Smith Maguire (2008) fitness has to fight against boredom, the inherent idea that exercise is considered something like a necessary evil, plainly boring. Anette explains: “Men are much simpler and easier satisfied when it comes to training,” but women are in need of more varied forms of exercise to motivate them. Men are understood as simple and straightforward, women as more complex beings, but also more sensible. This sentiment might constitute striptease aerobics as empowering in a postfeminist sense (Storr 2003). Women collectively need special training because many exercise forms are modelled on men and better suited to their minds and bodies. It also reflects the cultural association of men with large, muscular bodies and women with agile, slim bodies. In my previous study with aerobicizers, many liked yoga because of the long and flexible muscles it helped develop and avoided exercises that were perceived to result in small, rounded muscles associated with men (Petersson McIntyre 2009). A guy can go in and lift iron and enjoy watching his muscle do a biceps curl and feel it grow. But a girl, we don’t have the will or lust to look at ourselves in that way, it just feels ridiculous. We need this kind (striptease aerobics) of training to gather energy to go and lift junk because we know it’s good for our bodies. Because this is exercising just for fun. Camilla too thinks that men exercise to get bigger muscles, and that women want slimmer muscles and desire to burn fat. Camilla: It’s more rewarding. You have fun, learn to know your body more and it’s . . . I think that it’s important that you . . You get to know your body better.
Pleasure for Oneself
MTV is a continual point of reference for both Anette and Camilla. They situated fitness in a larger sphere of popular culture where exercise is not just understood as a way of improving one’s body, but it is placed in a larger context of music, film and fashion. They also thought that many Swedish fitness consumers had seen strip dance on MTV and that the desire to look and feel like one of those dancers has direct impact on the popularity of striptease aerobics. When I asked Anette what she likes so much about striptease aerobics, she mentions MTV right away: [I liked] to be able to let loose, the feeling of being in the middle of an MTV music video, to move to the music from the coolest clubs, to feel gorgeous, and on top of it all your body is getting good exercise. It triggered me into challenging expectations, but I admit that I wasn’t really feeling comfortable with all the movements. To “feel like you’re in an MTV music video” can be interpreted as a desire to be at the centre of the latest trends in contemporary popular culture. The fact that fitness and fit bodies are given meaning in relation to the popular culture illustrates that improving one’s physical condition alone is no longer an adequate reason to exercise.
During the late 1970s and1980s fitness emerged as a field on its own right and health clubs became places not just for exercise, but for an investment into one’s self. From then onwards fitness turned into an individualistic and sometimes narcissistic project of improving one’s own body (Bauman 1993; Featherstone 1991, 2001; Giddens 1991; Smith Maguire 2008). Fitness and training have since then been construed as pleasurable experiences, as ways of getting time for oneself, to relax and simultaneously improve one’s body capital in an ever more competitive society (Featherstone 1991, 2001; Smith Maguire 2008). Exercise has become a means of improving one’s strength and energy, appearance, and professional and private life. Exercise is also advertised as a way to improve oneself (Dworkin and Wachs 2009; Featherstone 1991, 2001; Smith Maguire 2008). Striptease aerobics could also bring out a woman’s inner sexiness as one might learn to look like someone famous by experimenting with the limits of acceptable feminine sexuality. Anette liked the way striptease aerobics felt “challenging.” In the context of post feminism “challenging” can be interpreted to convey new ways for women to act as sexual subjects. At the same time Anette felt confused as to whether some of the choreography really was challenging in the right way.
Adapting to the Swedish Market
This ambivalence is articulated even more clearly when Anette explained how she first decided to offer classes in striptease aerobics to Swedish fitness consumers. She felt convinced that the classes that she had participated in while in New York would need some adjusting. She replaced certain movements, particularly those that explicitly expressed the essence of striptease: getting undressed. She created a version of the moves that she called “different—with a higher tempo, faster and less sexy, and more about exercise.” She also made 18 years the age limit to participate in the classes. According to Anette, the age limit signals that she keeps a serious business that is not in any way connected with ‘real’ striptease: "It might give the wrong associations (to allow all ages) and attract many young girls for the wrong reasons. The average age during our classes is between 30 and 35. They (the participants) are strong, independent women in the middle of their careers and in the middle of life. They do it for fun, with a sense of humour, and that’s exactly what I was looking for when I started it all up." Anette also stressed the importance of locating her classes in a health club, not in a night club or bar, which she found more common in other countries, like in the U.K. All the instructors are really high educated, are managers in high positions and have gone to college. It can’t be the ‘bimbosilicon-girls,’ you have to have a sense of humour, be a little sexy, and have a big smile and a lot of ‘come on’ spirit. Anette did not think the New York style striptease aerobics would suit the Swedish market without modifications. Therefore, when new cultural influences, often through transnational corporations, spread all over the globe, they also need to be adapted to local markets in order to become successful (Brembeck 2007).
Empowerment or Exploitation: Ambivalent Readings
On one hand striptease aerobics celebrates an active female sexuality, and on the other it builds on repeating a body language developed to entertain an audience and arouse sexual excitement in onlookers. These contradictions are not limited to striptease aerobics. Katherine Frank (2007), however, criticizes research on striptease for an inability to move beyond the divide of exploitation versus empowerment. Theorists of striptease have long been caught up in either pointing out the sex industry as the most obvious example of male oppression or assigning the dancers as the Striptease aerobics has a complex and complicated relationship with dressing and undressing, with revealing to and concealing the body from the gazes of others. The interviewees emphasized the dressed body to keep within the boundaries of what they thought was culturally acceptable exercise. However, in striptease aerobics the participants must look, and above all, feel sexy. The clothes that can be pulled up or down, spun around and thrown around the head must conceal and reveal the body in the right way. The dress becomes an integral part of the ways this particular form of exercise is represented. As opposed to conventional striptease the dress code during these classes is more loose-fitting, comfortable and un-erotic. Compared even with regular aerobics where dress is mostly very tight fitting, striptease aerobics apparel was comfortably loose (Petersson McIntyre 2009). ‘Keeping the clothes on’ can also been seen as a way of displaying ‘sexiness’ within the realm of heterosexuality. Anette, for example, instructed her participants: “you will not have time to look at each other, and no one will look at you.” The participants are expected to interact with their own reflections in the mirror and not with the female dancers beside them. In this sexually charged situation where a group of women perform eroticized movements together, focusing on yourself becomes a way of maintaining heterosexual order.
Emphasizing the Ironic Representations of Femininity
The fact that striptease can be interpreted as ‘challenging’ representations of femininity was important for all three instructors. Maria, similar to Camilla and Anette, explained striptease as a choreography that helps the participant to know and use her feminine side in a somewhat ironic matter, as a way of experimenting with femininity. Striptease aerobics is a type of stage performance. Camilla understood the ‘performativity’ and being on stage as “good.” For Maria, the performance aspects, the playing with representations of femininity, is what makes striptease possible: "If I would say in class that today we are going to learn how to be sexy so that you will be able to go and be sexy at home, I think that people would get uncomfortable. But since I exaggerate everything and share my own weaknesses they feel, ‘Oh God, we are just having fun!’ I can curve my back and pout my mouth and do ‘ridiculous’ moves. You allow yourself to do what’s a little . . .; you might have seen it on TV and wondered what it would be like? And now you can try it, it’s completely legit! It’s in a gym. We do the moves. I’m fully dressed! There’s nothing . . ." As a performance, striptease aerobics can be seen as a cultural site where gender is created, but also challenged. As a concept, performance is often associated with transgression (Carlson 1996). Katherine Liepe-Levinson (2002) points to the theatrical and performative aspects of striptease and sees exotic dance clubs as sites where hegemonic gender roles are both upheld and contested. Exotic dance is not simply a site of exploitation of women and men, but a site of agency and resistance. Theatrical performances can be used to make a mockery of social norms, because the safety of the stage makes it possible to break the otherwise strictly held rules. Stripping has been also been interpreted as transgressive and carnivalesque, a form of inversion, or mockery of social norms and gender roles (Liepe-Levinson 2002). For Maria, exaggerated performance became an ironic representation of femininity that revealed the performative aspects of being a woman.
Magdalena: Are there any moves that the participants don’t like to do?
Maria: No, but some can hesitate. I have included a move where we stick our finger into our mouths and look cute, or a bit dim, if I may say so. Some don’t like it. But I tell them already in advance that I only have three rules; to have fun, to be as vulgar as possible and to put on an obscene facial expression. But we don’t grab our groins. We might put our hands on our bottoms and shake a little. My classes are all about dance and play and you could of course make it more like porn if you wanted to. But I don’t think that people are very in to that. Sometimes I make a joke. I pull my hand along my legs but always stop at my thighs shout ‘oh’ and give my hand a slap with the other one and I say that “we are not slutty strippers, we have class.” It’s really funny to say the words class and stripper together; everyone thinks it’s really funny, that we have class, when really we are being very slutty.
Maria not only plays with conventional representations of femininity, she also creates a performance of class and gender: you are ‘classy’ when you so clearly are not. The participants appreciate it too: it is okay to be ‘slutty’ as long as one maintains a middle-class respectability by pretending not being ‘slutty.’ The ‘sluttyness’ also illustrates the borders that cannot be crossed in this context. To ‘grab your groin’ would be taking it too far and, according to Maria, “people would not like it.” The instructors carefully maintain the difference between striptease and striptease aerobics. This enables the ironic display of femininity in striptease aerobics and aligns this practice with the ideals of gender equality characterizing Swedish society. However, the performance of femininity originates from popular culture where women usually are exposed to the sexualizing male gaze. The ironic performance does still illustrate that striptease aerobics is far more complex than women learning to look attractive for men as it illustrates how gender is constantly negotiated and renegotiated in an interplay of consumption and popular culture. When the instructors characterized striptease aerobics as a performance, they signalled that they would not engage with it ‘off stage,’ it is not ‘real life.’ At the same time it would be a simplification to say that striptease aerobics only becomes culturally possible when it is construed as something other than getting undressed. The fact that striptease has become a form of exercise illustrates the current borders for culturally acceptable gender performances that are constantly challenged and renegotiated by consumers within fitness culture.
Recharging the Meanings of Women’s Sexuality
Maria promotes a healthy lifestyle by lecturing to young girls and women about topics such as anorexia nervosa, which, in her experience, is very common in the dance world. She has also studied sexology at the university and is, according to herself, interested and open-minded about issues relating to human sexual interaction. Striptease aerobics made sense for her against this context. Maria made the sexual content of striptease into a site for empowerment where women can oppose the beauty ideals by gaining sexual confidence and by taking control over sexualized representations. Maria engaged in further interventions to help young girls build up their confidence. She saw a risk in striptease aerobics but believed that it can be balanced by teaching classes about beauty ideals. Maria shared an episode with me where a group of high school girls asked her to come to their school and teach striptease aerobics for a health and physical activity class. Maria then demanded to include a discussion about beauty ideals in the program because she was afraid that young girls will use her classes as a way to learn striptease. She did not promote such a body ideal: "Sometimes I get asked if I can teach striptease, like for working at a club. Well I’m not interested in teaching that, but at the same time, if I don’t someone else will and at least I get the opportunity to include my ideas. I can’t control the world."
Storr (2003) examines home parties where women buy sexy lingerie, erotic fashion and sex toys. She argues that such parties enable women to transgress social taboos in the comfort of their homes. They are, nevertheless, also means of constructing and enforcing heterosexual femininity. The classes in striptease aerobics offer similar space for heterosexual women to have fun together and behave as sexual subjects and objects in ways they otherwise would not do. Storr envisions the parties as a space where women can take pleasure in the simple fact of being heterosexual women and where they can have fun on the condition that they are willing to follow the rules of heterosexuality (see also Holland and Attwood 2009). All three instructors were very careful to point out that they would like men to participate in classes and that participants could pretend to perform for a boy- or a girlfriend, regardless of whether they were a man or a woman. At the same time, it is necessary to strictly conform to the acceptable behaviours of heterosexual respectability. As a result, Maria created a form of striptease aerobics that allowed women to act both as sexual subjects and objects, play with accepted representations and transgress borders for accepted behaviour. In their discussion of pole dancing in the U.K., Holland and Attwood (2009) conclude that in a climate where women are encouraged to be actively sexual, yet have inherited a tradition which provides them with little idea of how to manifest this, the pole may stand in for women’s sexuality and give them a means of articulating it (Holland and Attwood 2009). Striptease aerobics, thus, becomes a mixture of objectification, power and negotiation of femininity, exercise and pleasure.
For a pole dancing contest to take place in one of Stockholm’s most attractive venues, it had to undergo a process of re-signification. While still associated with women’s objectification and the sex industry, pole dancing can also represent a challenge and transgression for female sexuality. A cultural frame of reference where it could be understood as an exciting, trendy and challenging form of exercise aligned with gender equality in Sweden made pole dancing an acceptable practice. The narratives of the three striptease aerobics instructors were also structured around finding an acceptable, new femininity. They clearly distinguished between striptease as exercise that women perform for their own benefit and striptease as entertainment where women get undressed for a male audience. At the same time, the appeal of striptease aerobics is its potential to ‘challenge’ acceptable femininity. Thinking of striptease aerobics as performative separated it from real life and in this context, ‘stripping’ could be understood as something other than being ‘a stripper.’ The instructors navigated the contradictions of empowerment and objectification through strategies that understated the sexual content, emphasized the ironic presentations of femininity and recharged the meaning of women’s sexuality. Striptease aerobics emerged as a space for the construction of feminine identity where women experienced empowerment though the performance of active sexual subjectivity and staged a desired femininity defined through culture. The commodity feminism in Sweden might have created a space where women want to deal with these contradictions even through there are many other exercise forms where participation requires less negotiation.