How Cultural Narratives Defend Gaining Weight
Media representations of health and fitness are often framed within obesity epidemic, fear of fatness and moral panic discourses (Boero 2007; Bonfiglioli et al. 2007; Saguy and Almeling 2008; Saguy and Riley, 2005). However, a growing body of critical literature (e.g., Bovey 2000; Brabazon 2006; Campos et al. 2006; Evans-Braziel and Le) challenges morality-based fears around fatness and overweight at cultural and individual levels. Such literature argues for the revaluing and politicization of fat bodies: one can be “fit and fat” and/or not all women’s fitness needs to focus on thinness. Moreover, this scholarship is important because it deconstructs taken-for-granted assumptions associated with fitness and fatness so that healthy and empowering forms of physical activity for women can be located. How can we further deconstruct and understand fitness and morality narratives surrounding women’s bodies to make healthful representations of physical activity more likely and more frequently connected to positive self-related views? The purpose of this article is to use feminist post-structuralism (Gavey 1997; Henriques et al. 1998; Hollway 1989; Weedon 1997) to explore the impact of media representations of fit bodies on women’s exercise participation. To first provide a context for women’s exercise experiences, we outline how the media constructs women’s fitness. We then discuss our post-structuralist theoretical position before presenting the case study method to examine one woman’s experiences with a pursuit to become fit. We then explore the links between subject positions constructed by media discourses and personal/ individual identities in relation to exercise through our findings. We conclude by discussing the implications of what we learned about how subject positions can be constructed against fitness and health-related media discourses.
CONSTRUCTING WOMEN’S EXERCISE THROUGH THE MEDIA
Previous literature on media representations of fit feminine bodies typically find three interrelated themes: the ideal, fit feminine body is characterized narrowly as thin, toned and young; the ideal fit body is intertwined with the notion of health, and the responsibility for obtaining such a body is left to the individual women. We will now discuss each of these themes separately to provide context for individual’s exercise experiences. To illustrate our discussion, we provide examples from women’s exercise and weight loss narratives within a special interest section (i.e., ACCENT) in a Midwestern U.S. newspaper (i.e., Cedar Rapids Gazette, Iowa) (McGannon et al. 2008).
ACCENT: THE IDEAL FIT, FEMININE BODY
Several feminist researchers have demonstrated that a ‘perfect body’ is closely connected to fitness and ideal femininity. Such body shape emphasizes thinness and tightly toned muscles (Bordo 1993; Choi 2000; Duncan 1994; Krane et al. 2004; Lloyd 1996; Markula 1995, 2003). In addition, gendered exercises (e.g., aerobics, lifting light weights) are often promoted as the means to achieve the ideal. For example, the ACCENT section in a local newspaper revealed a particular vision of feminine exercise with such tag lines as ’Benefits of belly dancing,’ ‘Dance-based fitness classes are back’ and ‘Tomorrow: Ballet-inspired styles are graceful, feminine and tutu cute.’ Through these texts, women’s fitness is closely aligned with dance which is established as a feminine style of exercise. In addition, images accompanying exercise articles (re)produced similar understandings as they drew upon appearance, weight loss and heteronormative discourses. For example, an article title “Give your arms, shoulders a lift: Ladies work out an upper body routine” pictured a young, white, blonde woman wearing a tight leotard. She demonstrated ‘proper form’ holding light weights and is shown from the side, revealing her flat stomach and large breasts. Here fitness was equated with weight loss, appearance, youth and ‘feminine’ forms of exercise (e.g., lifting light weights). Women are also positioned as helpless and unsure of how to exercise properly within these discourses, thus reinforcing particular notions of ‘woman’s exercise.’ In addition, the body ideal emphasizes a young, white, middle-upper class and heterosexual femininity. Women’s exercise is often sold at the promise of ‘landing a man’ or being in a successful relationship with a man if results are achieved (i.e., doing it right, achieving appearance goals) (Hollway 1983; Weedon 1997). For example, in the ACCENT column an article titled “Raise the bar with Smith Machine” was accompanied by a picture of a white, blonde and youthful woman, wearing a form-fitting leotard, squatting, buttocks lifted on the Smith Machine.
As demonstrated through previous literature, such constructions of fitness, exercise and femaleness make specific kinds of selves and ways of being—sites of subjectivity or subject positions (e.g., ‘feminine women’ are small and graceful and need help with their exercise) —while subordinating others (e.g., ‘feminine women’ can be large, strong and muscular and knowledgeable about their exercise). The ‘improper bodies’ in fitness media tend to be positioned as imperfect and depart from ideal femininity by being too fat, too muscular, too thin, too old, and/or not white and heterosexual (Day and Keys 2008; Evans-Braziel and LeBesco 2001; Krane et al. 2004; Markula 1995; Tischner and Malson 2008).
ACCENT: RISKY BEHAVIOR/RISKY BUSINESS
Several researchers demonstrate that news stories tend to generate fear surrounding fatness and/or lack of weight loss by positioning exercise and women’s bodies within risk of life-threatening disease (Boero 2007; Murray 2008; Saguy and Riley 2005). This fear of illness further legitimates constructions of ‘women’s exercise’ as a weight management tool, as it is not solely about appearance and vanity, but about being healthy and disease-free. Saguy and Riley (2005) called this a risky behaviour framing, whereby news stories on obesity positioned inactivity as immoral and something to be feared. Therefore, fat, overweight and/or sedentary bodies are read as evidence of wilfully ‘catching’ preventable illness and thus, being ‘fat’ is constructed as a moral failure. Such articles around obesity continue to position women as weak, flawed, at risk and in need of fixing. They assume an ethical duty by drawing attention to preventing further cases, even if this might worsen stigma associated with ‘fat’ bodies. Framing obesity and inactivity as risky behaviour also implies the need for individual education and action, with women, positioned as ignorant, irrational and in need of expert help.
Additionally, lifestyle behaviours such as exercise are portrayed as under one’s control or should be controlled with ‘help.’ Therefore, women can (and should) personally control their body weight and appearance via adoption of such behaviours (Bonfiglioli et al. 2007). In the following ACCENT story “Fine-tuning: Fitness routine makeovers for 2005—Tips from a pro” depicts that by not exercising women risk a life-threatening disease:Goal: she would like to lose another 17 pounds, which would put her at a healthy weight for her height. She hopes that in reaching her goal weight, she can lower her blood pressure and cholesterol levels enough to go off medications. “When I was younger, it was all about how I looked and today it’s about health . . .” Another story excerpt entitled “Pre-diabetes should not be disregarded” uses scientific research and medical authority to legitimate risk-claims of overweight and fatness and attributes these into a failure of an individual to follow proper diet, adequate exercise and exercise self-control. Both article excerpts position exercise primarily as a form of weight control and the means by which women can literally exercise individualized control over their health. Using a feminist post-structuralist lens allows us to extend understandings of how such representations of exercise and women’s bodies may have implications for self-related views and subjectivity.
THEORETICAL CONTEXT: FEMINIST POST-STRUCTURALISM
In this article, we draw upon feminist post-structuralism as informed by cultural theorist Chris Weedon (1997). Central to our analyses and discussion of the personal story/case are the following ideas: 1) self and subjectivity are constituted in language and discourse (i.e., the self is a discursive accomplishment); 2) language and discourse are therefore of interest in understanding what people hold to be true about themselves and others and 3) exploring the self as a discursive accomplishment requires a consideration of how power (i.e., social processes) allows for the acceptance and validation of some forms of self-related knowledge over others. Weedon’s ideas are grounded in Foucault’s (1978) concept of discourse whereby language is always located in discourse. Discourses not only “systematically form the objects of which they speak” (Foucault 1978) but they have material/concrete implications for bodies and embodiment (Markula et al. 2008). To understand the role and impact of discourse in women’s everyday lives, Weedon places primacy on understanding how discourses offer competing and (potentially) contradictory ways of giving meaning to the world and how we view ourselves. Some scholars name these subject positions of options that individuals take up (Davies and Harré 1990; Hollway 1989; Weedon 1997; Willig 2000). These positions are conditions of possibility for constituting subjectivity (selves, identities, understandings of the world) and vary in terms of the power they afford people (Weedon 1997). Philosophers/discourse theorists Davies and Harré’s explanation of a subject position parallels Weedon’s ideas. Earlier we noted that a “fat is bad; thin is good” doctrine permeates fitness and exercise discourse. Such discourses are further reinforced as factual via the use of rhetorical strategies (e.g., statistics, quoting of experts, metaphors) within scientific, medical and morality discourses. By constructing “fat,” “thin” and “fit” within such discourses, the primary subject position (i.e., storyline, image and identity) in relation to those categories available for women is that of a flawed, undisciplined woman whose body is unhealthy and in need of fixing (McGannon and Busanich 2010; McGannon and Spence 2010). At the same time, the meaning of “exercise” emerges within scientific discourse primarily as a disciplining and weight loss tool for bodies—whether fat or thin—that women can and should use to take control of, and fix, their flawed selves. Women positioned within such discourses may experience shame, loathing, fear and guilt in relation to their bodies—regardless of their size and regardless of whether or not they are exercising (McGannon and Spence 2010).
Research suggests that women’s participation in fitness and exercise is extremely complex with women resisting the current body ideal in varying degrees (Brabazon 2006; Haravon Collins 2002; Krane et al. 2004; Markula 2003; Markula and Pringle 2006; McGannon and Spence 2010). How and why this is the case may relate to women literally exercising agency via the tactical usage of discourses to negotiate a new and different subject position. For example, in their study of women self-identifying as “large,” Tischner and Malson showed that women actively rejected imposed subject positions of “lazy gluttons who sit there all day” (2008). Additionally, women were able to renegotiate the meaning of surveillance in relation to their bodies, playing an active role in the politics of visibility. Resistance to dominant discourses was accomplished by women positioning their larger bodies as members of a community that is nourished, accepted and an advocate for other large women within health and wellness discourses. Women can (and do) negotiate new subject positions by refusing the current dominant ones and taking up alternative physical activities (e.g., recreational physical activity or sport). Feminist post-structuralist scholars such as Weedon (1997) therefore advocate that the power/discourse nexus can be confronted and resisted by taking up a new or different subject position within discourse. Research on larger athletic women’s experiences of their bodies as healthy, fit, powerful, strong, empowered and capable—as opposed to flawed, unfeminine or weak (Chase 2008; Krane et al. 2004; Scott-Dixon 2008)—further underscores the notion of positioning within discourse as a source of understanding how women might resist, change or transform disempowering discourses. Using Weedon’s (1997) feminist post-structuralism, therefore, allows us to understand how women may experience exercise against the backdrop of dominant discourses that morally position the self and exercise primarily within weight loss, appearance and risk of illness discourses. We identified several research questions. First, do women internalize fear and guilt of dominant discourses, and if so, what are the effects for women’s subjectivity and lives? If women can and do resist dominant discourses, how do they do so and what are the effects for their subjectivity and lives? In order to answer these questions, we go on to explore how an individual woman constructs a subject position through exercise. In the following section we introduce our method: a critical feminist case-study (Reinharz 1992; Stake 2005) that explores the lived exercise experience of one woman, 52-year-old ‘Vivian’ or ‘Viv,’ through personal narratives.
Vivian’s narratives were drawn from nine interviews that occurred weekly during a 10-week exercise intervention conducted by author Christina Johnson (Johnson 2005). Viv’s narratives were drawn from a case-study project that was constructed in keeping with the feminist goal to end sexist oppression (hooks 1984). Vivian and Christina were co-participants in a service outreach project for a seminar course in Christina’s doctoral coursework. Vivian was recruited from a convenience sample as a representative of a population of interest (peri- and post-menopausal women). The broader goals of the service project were to understand and promote physical activity in the community. Vivian’s case took on the characteristics of an intrinsic case study (Stake 2005). As is typical for intrinsic casework, Vivian’s case was previously identified for Christina. In this instance, Vivian and Christina were paired by a faculty supervisor. A description of Vivian’s experience was not directed toward theory building or describing abstract phenomena. Instead, Vivian’s case was taken on because “[the researcher] wants better understanding of this particular case” (Stake 2005). The case-study approach is fitting within a feminist post-structuralist analytic framework for a number of reasons. Weedon’s feminist post-structuralism also forms the grounds for a theory of individual consciousness by providing analytic insights into the interconnectedness of language, discourse and subjectivity. To the extent that an individual takes on a system of meanings and values, she is said to have adopted a particular subjectivity or subject position. Although a case-study approach to gathering narratives does not exclusively promote a feminist post-structuralist analytic strategy, narratives drawn from case-studies can be used in that way. Vivian’s narratives stemmed from an in-depth examination of her attitudes, beliefs, and values with regard to physical activity. Her accounts went beyond physical activity, as she indicated the interconnectedness of exercise with other areas of her life. By examining Vivian’s narratives from a feminist poststructuralist perspective, it is possible to examine what Weedon terms, “subjectivity in process” (1997) in which certain types of subjectivity are adopted, reiterated and enacted while others are resisted.
It is at this point in the article that a shift in voice is necessary. Many feminist theoretical positions advocate recognizing the diversity of voices and experiences among women (Mohanty 1988; Trinh 1989). A movement within qualitative research toward reflexive and reflective writing arose in parallel to the recommendations of feminist scholars to recognize multiple voices and multiple experiences, (Fine 1992; Fine et al. 2000; Lincoln 1997). Correspondingly, I (Christina) find my own voice intricately interwoven in our (Viv’s and my own) narrative. To the extent that feminist post-structuralist work seeks to examine the ways in which individuals enact and articulate subject positions (Weedon 1997), my (Christina’s) own position as author becomes very important. Following my growing feminist ideals (Tierney and Lincoln 1997; Wolf 1992) we had agreed that Viv would play an active role in our project and voice her own experiences. Each of our sessions lasted approximately one hour. We focused largely on Viv’s progress maintaining an exercise program. Viv and I often talked about other topics such as work, stress, religion, musical activities and her personal relationships. Viv did not view physical activity in isolation from the rest of her life. Her views on exercise were embedded in her day-to-day practices, even if actual physical movement was not part of her day-to-day life. Because Viv’s talk about physical activity was deeply interwoven with talk about other topics, I transcribed Viv’s narratives verbatim and examined them as a whole. Although Vivian never discussed reading ACCENT (a section from the local paper) directly, she was a self-proclaimed ‘news junkie’ and an active consumer of news information via newspapers, television, and Internet sources. Because of this, my choice to focus on ACCENT as a cultural site of analysis in conjunction with Viv’s personal narratives is appropriate. By juxtaposing some of the narratives that emerge from ACCENT, particularly the ideal fit, feminine body and risk narratives, with Viv’s own narratives, I explore the ways in which Viv took on certain subject positions and resisted others (Weedon 1997).
Vivian: The Ideal, Fit, Feminine Body
Viv seemed to be glaringly aware of the idealized fit, feminine form and often referred to my shape in that way. Frequently, her comments of, ‘Look at you, strong-skinny, marathoning, martial-arts girl’ left me feeling both flattered and vaguely uncomfortable. Viv’s adoption of a vision of her ideal self reflected exercise narratives evident in ACCENT and many other cultural contexts including Hollywood movies, television and print media (Evans-Braziel and LeBesco 2001). During our early sessions, Viv and I talked about movies frequently. Viv compared our “walking adventures” to the latest James Bond picture that she and her partner had seen: It’s so sexy. Its like a teenage boy’s wet dream, the way Bond is tough, and sporty, and always right, and always . . . always gets the girl. We could be like Bond girls . . . out here adventuring through the streets. Viv overlooked that neither of us outwardly appeared like the more recent Bond girls. While Viv’s talk centred on what counts as sexy; she offered a thoroughly entrenched notion that where she was at the time was not sexy, and perhaps not even adequate. Viv frequently stated, “I want my body back” and referred to herself as a “worn out, but tough old broad.” During a later session, Vivian declared, again, “I want my body back” and flashed a picture of herself at age 18, thin, smiling, and standing on a mountain top with her hair blowing in the wind. She continued, “This is my goal . . . look at me, I was beautiful, powerful, I could do anything, I could climb mountains . . .” and then broke into a chorus of “Climb Every Mountain.” When she finished, out of breath, she gasped, “Life was so perfect then. Look at me now.” I read Viv’s futilely narrow vision of perfect self—18 years old, before the decades had exacted a toll on her body—against her physical form at age 52. Viv had begun to indicate a clear distinction between her vision of a perfect self which looked very much like popular media portrayals of ideal femininity and her actual, transgressive self. She had developed a subject position as being the owner of a flawed body. Much like Davies and Harré suggest, she “inevitably [saw] the world from the vantage point of that position” (1990), the position of a woman with a flawed body.
Viv further took on the position that her body was inadequate. In her repeated comments about my physique, she acknowledged my body as more perfect—at age 24, I had never experienced major injury, illness, or weight gain. And Viv, although quite agile, reiterated her self image as weak and at risk for injury with the following comments: When we walk outside in the winter, it’s nice, you know? The temperature is right for me . . . in the summer it’s too hot, you’re going to die of heat stroke if you go out in that humidity crap . . . But the ice in the winter. I’m going to fall and break a hip if we keep this up. I’m 52 years old. Ladies my age break! But, we’re [walking] together, I’ll grab your arm. That’s why I don’t do this alone. I’d fall and die in a snow bank. However, Viv’s characterization of herself as a transgressive body deepened as our story wove on. She struggled to find a comfortable place for exercise. In subtle ways, she used her struggle to resist dominant exercise regimes. A simple solution for Viv to resolve her exercise conundrum would have been to invest in mainstream approaches. She could have purchased a gym membership, visited one of the area’s free indoor tracks, or joined the legions of mall-walkers in the area’s two major shopping centres. Yet, in response to my question about finding a place indoors to exercise, she expressed conflict as follows: I’ve got a friend, mother of three, full-time job, full-time husband, family . . . she’s got it all. She goes down to the track at the rec centre and walks for an hour every day. Her kids in a jogger out in front, and one trailing behind. And I say, why can’t I have that? [Int: Why can’t you?] (Laughing) Because I can’t! I just can’t. [Int: Are there other . . .] I can’t go with those old ladies at the mall. I’m not an old lady. I can’t be part of ‘mommy-time’ at the track. (voice takes an edge) I just can’t. And the gym . . . that’s nothing but a meat market. Nobody wants an old broad on the treadmill. [Int: So . . .] So I’ll just trudge along. Venture out when the weather’s nice. Feel guilty when it isn’t. At first, Vivian’s resistance to mainstream exercise and her dedication to “wanting her body back” appeared irrational to me; she wanted desperately to gain fitness and lose fat, but rejected available fitness contexts as not suiting her needs. Her emotions spanned guilt, anger, fatigue and a sense of futility that deepened the more she discussed exercise. By looking more deeply, however, Viv’s resistance to mainstream exercise practices indicates to me that her discontent with her physical self was outweighed by her discontent with the cultural, social and physical resources available to her. Her repeated comments of “I can’t . . . I just can’t . . .” when discussing contexts in which other women exercise can be read as a form of resistance to the cultural norms that romanticize one’s relationship with exercise and exercise equipment and enforce those norms by reminding women, repeatedly, of the ways in which their bodies transgress from a narrow image of perfection.
Viv may not have been able or prepared to articulate resistance to the dominant portrayals of women’s fitness. Media sources like ACCENT almost exclusively provide the message that women’s perfect bodies must exercise to fulfil their moral duty of achieving slenderness, gracefulness and occupying as little space as possible (Bordo 1993; Choi 2000; Duncan 1994; Krane et al. 2004; Lloyd 1996; Markula 1995, 2003). Further, when women exercise, sources like ACCENT provide evidence that women are weak, silly and at risk of injury. In Viv’s case, these ubiquitous discourses about women’s fitness left her with little choice about how to view her physical activity in relation to her self. Moments of resistance, like Vivian’s in which exercise is refused, cannot be accounted for in the news media. Because of this, women who refuse dominant exercise practices like walking on indoor tracks, joining fitness clubs or even walking the interiors of shopping malls, are silenced. Further silenced are women who choose to exercise for reasons other than attaining and maintaining the physical markers of ideal femininity. At worst, the subject positions of women who do not choose traditional fitness practices are denied by the media. At best, women—both those who do not exercise and those who do—are portrayed as faulty, flawed and in need of fixing. Following the analytic suggestions of Weedon (1997) and Hollway (1983) Viv’s narratives demonstrated an internalization of the discourse that ideal selves were women who ascribed to traditional exercise practices and thereby developed toned, slender bodies. Further, Viv’s adoption of a subject position as flawed and transgressive comes through in her repetition of “I want my body back.” Finally, the incongruence between her internalized vision of perfect and her positioning as transgressive led her to considerable distress.
FEAR, GUILT, INADEQUACY
By repeating “I want my body back” I saw Viv’s investment in the moralizing body ideal discourses that accompany news coverage of physical activity. She did not, or perhaps could not, articulate that women’s exercise was constructed in the media and consumed by women in very troubling ways. Instead, Viv seized the power to resist exercise itself. Such resistance was not consistent; at times she seemed very much to want to exercise, while at times she refused. During our meetings, Viv walked along, with acquiescence. In separate instances, she described feeling “guilt, guilt about everything” and said, “I’m the most happy when I’m moving, feel better about myself, can do my day without guilt for that one day. But that’s only if I can get out the door and get moving that day.”In ACCENT, products and expert advice are rhetorical strategies that reinforce women as flawed and in need of help. The same products and services are offered as a means to fix or control slothful and flawed bodies to be desirable to the opposite sex. These solutions in ACCENT target a class of women who have both leisure time and money by recommending gym memberships, products and services with the aim of achieving an idealized self. Viv’s reality did not look so simple.
Guilt and Conflict
Vivian sought solutions. Since she feared the ice on the sidewalks, and found the indoor track was not a realistic option, Vivian purchased a set of winter spikes she could wear over her shoes for traction. She did not wear them. I read this as another form of resistance. Although the newspaper/ACCENT narratives suggested that by purchasing a product, exercise problems could be solved, Vivian had not yet found resolution. Despite the promise of resolution in the daily news, Viv’s lack of resolution solidified into a sense of futility and frustration mixed with unreasonable goals. In our penultimate session, Viv stated, What is IT all about? What’s the deal? What is it? I just can’t figure what it all means.What it means. Why we exercise, why we work. Why it’s all so futile. Maybe that’s it, futility. Futility. That’s all there is. No fairy-tale castle, no happy ending.
Yet in an email follow-up from her last session, she wrote,
These are the things I know from our time together . . . and the fact that I feel better . . . maybe even a little hopeful . . . that I REALLY WILL get rid of 60 lbs before too much longer. (Oh yes, during our time together my cholesterols got in the right order and the blood pressure came down to 110/70. . . . just in time for the new guidelines!) And near the end of 10 weeks, Viv said: I guess when we first started [walking], I was borrowing your energy. You asked me last time about doing things for outside reasons. I guess I do. I walk because you’re here to make me. I couldn’t do it on my own, so, I borrowed your body. Don’t worry, I’ll give it back. I just keep thinking, like “(singing) Someday my prince will come” only its “Someday my clothes will fit!” It’s the Disney version of exercise, right? Everything will turn out OK in the end. For now, I’m borrowing your body, but I’ll get my own body back. I want my body back. By this time, Vivian had conceded to exercise but she had not yet begun to critique the ways in which exercise was framed. But she had ceased to resist the practice of exercise. It did not feel like a victory to me. Although she was willing to walk, Vivian’s concession seemed as if she had been “strong-armed” (ACCENT February 21, 2005) into the activity and I had been the agent in charge of assuring her compliance. My own guilt, first for my inability to help her toward her goals and second for my contribution to her mounting sense of frustration and futility, was deeper than ever. Toward the end our time together and without suggestion from me, Viv had begun logging her progress. In doing so, Viv engaged in the self monitoring practices/process encouraged by the dominant discourses about exercise. Such monitoring was a source of great guilt for her but it also marked her growing acceptance of dominant exercise practices. Although she talked about not keeping the log because she found herself angst-ridden over it, she insisted that it was the “right thing” to do: Guilt . . . its everywhere, isn’t it? I don’t walk, the calendar is blank and I think to myself, “Oh my god, what have I done?” It’s like that scene in The Hours where she steps into the river and drowns herself. Its like my mind just closes in on me, and I can’t function. So, I’m breaking the rules. My new motto is this: an inch is as good as a mile. For my meagre little 10 minutes of walking, this week I put a big fat W on the calendar. And I refuse to feel guilty about it. So that’s better, right? To walk a little and not feel guilty? Do I get to not feel guilty? Vivian’s guilt indicates the power of discourse. Women who have failed at sustaining an exercise program, experience real emotional consequences such as guilt. This leads to an internalization of the self as inadequate and flawed (Weedon, 1997).
Vivian: Risky Business/Risky Behaviour
On numerous occasions, Vivian expressed fear of exercise, reiterating a popular media discourse that exercise is inherently a risky behaviour. Repeatedly, Viv expressed fear of icy sidewalks. She spoke from the limited subject position of a weak woman—a subject position I had yet to experience—and so, I gave argument. When she repeated her sense of being at risk when exercising, I pushed for solutions. I was stymied when another element of risk and fear surfaced.
While we walked in the park one sunny Saturday morning, Viv constructed a fear of finding a dead body—“a woman raped and murdered”—in the trees, and potentially becoming the next victim. Vivian’s fears, whether rational or irrational, reinforced her investment in a discourse of risk. She had come to see her body as flawed and herself as a victim—of broken bones on icy sidewalks, of heat exhaustion or of a random act of violence. By coupling the risky business of exercise with the risk of sedentary behaviour, Viv emphasized a fear of becoming a victim of cardiovascular disease. She constructed an explicit fear of lethal fat: “. . . what gets me out the door [to walk]? It’s the big guy . . . you know the one, Mr. Grim Reaper . . . with the cape and sickle. I could stroke out at any minute, I’m heart disease waiting to happen. I work in the hospital, I’ve seen it happen, I know what fat can do and it’s scary. So, fear. Fear motivates me.” Viv’s fears indicate her investment in the complicated, contradictory discourses found in ACCENT and similar media sources that exercise is risky but sedentary behaviour is equally risky. Viv adopted a position accepting that she was at risk by exercising and by being sedentary. Viv’s fears could be seen as a form of resistance to exercise and all of the potential subject positions that accompanied exercise (Weedon 1997). She expressed and was hindered by a fear of icy sidewalks and corpses in the park. Because of this, fear provided a reason to avoid exercise. The fear and the paralysis that flowed from it were grounds for an array of secondary emotional consequences including guilt and frustration. In the end, Vivian’s fears were reinforced when she succumbed to injury. Having suffered chronic shoulder pain from a torn rotator cuff, she elected to have surgery to repair the tear. Although her walking nearly ceased after the surgery, her reflections did not: . . . Just futility. Think of the bullshit they start feeding you when you’re a kid. Just keep going, and it’ll all be OK. But here I am, 52 years old, going to die of a heart attack with my arm in a sling. I kept going, and it’s not OK. Viv’s tirade on the “bullshit they start feeding you when you’re a kid” could be understood as a rejection of mainstream discourses on women’s bodies and exercise and the available subject positions for women to make meaning of exercise experiences. Vivian’s disillusionment transcended her exercise experiences. She expressed a sense of powerlessness about her hobbies and her job. She and I even reflected on our sense of powerlessness about our national political situation—which at the time, we agreed, seemed to be using a rhetoric of fear and the threat of a repeated terrorist attack to paralyze the voting populace. Yet her sense of futility, frustration and fear about exercise and weight loss were most evident in our conversations. Viv met her mantras of “I want my body back” with reassurances of “An inch is as good as a mile,” “so I can do my day without guilt” and 10 minutes of walking is better than no minutes.” Yet, she did not see the progress promised to her in the fitness pages of the local paper.
FROM EXERCISE TO MOVEMENT
Viv joked, “What gets me to exercise? The M&M’s (candies) in my desk drawer. They helped me get through the day, but now they’re threatening to kill me if I don’t go for a walk.” Even in jest, Vivian reproduced a narrative in which food is lethal, and eating certain kinds of food is bad, and therefore the responsibility of women to police and control. And, although exercise might be risky, fat is fatal. Viv showed sparks of resistance to dominant fitness discourses first by refusing exercise. Later, she began to critique how exercise was framed by insisting that she would not allow herself to feel guilty, even if she only walked for 10 minutes. She marked her calendar in exactly the same way as if she had walked for 30 minutes. It was much later that spring when Viv and I finally settled on a new means of resistance. Viv decided to reject exercise and the discourses associated with it, and instead to move. In a follow-up to our sessions, she composed an email as follows:“Thank you for instigating the movement that brought me my little Guilt-Away diddie: AN INCH IS AS GOOD AS A MILE. Thank you for the experience of talking about movement (notice I didn’t say exercise) while moving. How holistic. And what a luxury . . . oneto-one mutual pontification . . . how could the citizens of [the town] have guessed as we, I, huffed and puffed our way through their sleepy little neighbourhoods and parks that movement is fun . . . “
Viv made a number of discursive moves in this passage. First, she reinforced her claim on the mantra, “An inch is as good as a mile.” I take this to mean that Viv rejected the idea that her exercise efforts were failed if she did not achieve 30 minutes of daily physical activity. Second, she abandons the term “exercise,” and instead claims the term “movement.” The word “exercise,” for Viv, connoted structured, planned and measured physical activity. For her, exercise and the subject position of exerciser was fear-laden and destructive. Movement did not carry the same connotations. Finally, Vivian indicated her belief that the people around her, the “citizens of [the town]” might find it novel to see movement as enjoyable. That Vivian would find it novel to think “movement is fun” speaks to the power of the dominant exercises discourses that promote exercise as a means to achieving a slender end. For Viv, “movement” was not fraught with subtexts of risk, romance or transgression. Further, the novelty that Viv expressed about movement and fun indicates the strength and entrenchment of fear discourses: one, we should fear fatness since fatness is risky and lethal via diabetes or heart disease, and two, that we should fear exercise practices—since we are almost certainly exercising improperly and will hurt ourselves with our shoddy attempts. In the end, Viv forced me to recognize that “movement” was safer and more desirable for her than “exercise.” In her resistance, she reframed the act of walking away from a risky, romantic exercise designed to help the exerciser recoup a lost or non-existent perfect self. Instead, Viv restructured exercise as movement. Movement, for Viv, and more recently for me, was at least fun, perhaps less dangerous, and felt notably more whole.
The current article discussed news stories and a personal story/case study (i.e., Viv) within the context of Weedon’s feminist post-structuralism to explore how news media discursively construct exercise and fat phobia and the implications for women’s subjectivity and exercise participation. Our presentation of these original research examples highlights the complexity of this process, particularly with respect to how dominant health and fitness discourses may enter into, and impact, real women’s everyday lives and exercise practices. The media example revealed that ACCENT news stories reinforced broader cultural narratives that construct exercise and women’s bodies in a narrow manner (e.g., as gendered, as linked to weight loss and appearance, as a tool to achieve an ideal feminine body), creating a limited subject position for women as irrational, ignorant, weak, flawed and at risk with respect to exercise. The ACCENT narratives also suggest that women’s flawed and at risk selves can be fixed by purchasing a product, joining a gym, or consulting an expert (e.g., doctor, personal trainer, exercise leader). The news stories achieve this result by tacitly assuming that women want to exercise—and if they don’t, they should feel guilty and even ashamed. Viv’s story reveals that the process of reiterating, consuming or resisting the aforementioned discourses and subject positions by women is not straightforward. When taking up the subject position of a flawed and at risk woman within dominant health and fitness discourses Viv experienced fear, failure and futility in relation to her body and exercise. However, Viv’s exercise—or lack thereof—emerged as a conscious form of resistance. Viv (re)constructed the notion of ‘women’s exercise’ as ‘movement’ by repositioning her physical activity within discourses of fun and freedom outside of notions of fear or futility.
Overall, Viv’s narratives revealed the difficulties of challenging dominant discourses that construct and frame exercise in particular ways because such discourses are ubiquitous and often taken to be the truth (Markula and Pringle 2006; McGannon and Spence 2010). Moreover, such discourses are politically charged by the ideologies of consumerism and economic interests (e.g., the diet and fitness industry). Social and institutional practices (e.g., the way health and fitness are marketed and promoted) and the broader health and fitness discourses have to change for women to experience new and different views of their physical selves and experience the benefits of physical activity more often (McGannon and Spence 2010). Apart from larger institutional changes, Viv’s and Christina’s individual resistance practices highlight the power of individual action in the process of resisting dominant discourses and reconfiguring the discourse/ power nexus. Such resistance points to women becoming politically aware and literally actively resistant, questioning the limits of ‘natural’ identities and practices in exercise formed through the games of truth that may disempower women (see Markula 2004). Thus women can challenge/resist dominant discourses by consciously embracing their shape as fit and feminine regardless of weight/size, building a muscular body apart from appearance aspirations, changing the meaning of the term ‘exercise’ to movement, and enjoying the freedom and fun that comes from movement apart from appearance, reconfiguring dominant discourses of femininity (Haravon Collins 2002; Markula 1995, 2003, 2004; Markula and Pringle 2006). Finally, as a means of challenging and changing dominant discourses and associated practices at cultural and individual levels, this article points to the value of research employing feminist post-structuralism. Using feminist post-structuralism as a theoretical tool allowed us to focus on the specific and nuanced role of language and discourse in constructing exercise and female subjectivities, allowing for feminist consciousness to be raised at individual, social and cultural levels. While our research only modestly contributes toward this endeavour, future research can continue to contribute toward resistance of dominant discourses and use feminist post-structuralism to study media texts (e.g., television, magazines, film, websites) to learn more about how women’s bodies are (re)presented, and the implications for psychological and behavioural experiences for recreational (non)exercisers. These types of analyses can further contribute toward the broader goal of media literacy and raising feminist consciousness by deconstructing what is taken for granted in the realm of women’s physical activity and fitness, and how this impacts health. Opening such a window and dialogue is something that both researchers and practitioners can benefit from in order to promote physical activity—at cultural and individual levels—in ways that lead to more healthful outcomes for women.