In recent years, obesity has been presented as a major epidemic of the western world. In Norway, obesity is also considered a growing problem and health authorities and medical professionals continuously remind people to exercise to avoid weight gain. Women (in particular) seem to be accused of becoming obese as a result of poor self-control or lack of adequate knowledge about exercise and diet. At the same time, several researchers have pointed to the ways exercise has become a part of consumerism: exercise is primarily performed to achieve physical change, the ‘healthy-looking body’ (Berry 2008; Dworkin and Wachs 2009; Sassatelli 1999, 2007). In Norway, where fitness in the 1990s was characterized by a strong focus on health and functionality, there has also been a shift toward the looks-orientation of other westernized countries (Steen Johnsen 2004). Feminist researchers (Engelsrud 2009; Haravon Collins 2002; Lloyd 1996; Maguire and Mansfield 1998; Markula 1995) have criticized fitness activities aimed at women accusing them of promoting sexual commodification rather than empowering women to be ‘healthy.’ This article takes a critical approach to the growing public interest in obesity, pointing to the negative, ‘unhealthy’ aspects of the current fitness and exercise movement. Large women are often caught between contradictory meanings of the ‘healthy-looking’ body. In this article, we will show how large women deal with obesity in a Norwegian exercise context.
Our approach to research is especially influenced by the phenomenological concept of “the lived body” which transcends perspectives of the body as a physical object (Merleau-Ponty 2002). According to Merleau-Ponty (2004), the lived body reaches out in the world and the lived body is an active, perceiving and experiencing body. The lived body is a subject and an object, visible and viewing; touched and touching—always both at the same time, yet the two sides of the body cannot be reduced to one another. The lived body not only perceives, but also produces a spatiotemporal field around itself. This spatiotemporal field around the subject sensitizes the subject to how much movement is possible in a specific situation. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty so clearly states “. . . it is never an objective body that moves, but a phenomenological body” (2002). From a phenomenological perspective the body is first and foremost a body-subject and a lived body and not an object to be controlled (Svenaeus 2000). Taking a phenomenological approach enables us to sensitize the relation between women and exercise as an experienced phenomenon. Consequently, our questions are: How do women who are defined as obese experience exercise? What are their interests and ‘investments’ in exercising?
The data collection was carried out in a medical context that offered group exercising practice for obese persons in an average Norwegian city. The material was derived from participant observation during the exercise practice as well as interviews with five female participants. The training space was typical and similar to the commercial fitness context. The space was equipped with different recourses for exercising: training machines, weights, training cycles and apparatus designed for exercising different muscle groups. The walls were covered with representations of the skeleton and anatomical outlines of muscle groups. In line with the images and training machines focusing on different body parts, the training program was closely related to this organization of the space. The program was organized as circle training, one exercise per station, accompanied by pop music.
The five women who were included in our study represented a diverse sample in terms of age, weight histories, marital status, education and area of work. One of the women had a university degree, two of the women had a college degree, and two had no formal education after high school. They were aged 35 to 63, years and when we met them they had been overweight for more than ten years. The labels ‘large,’ ‘overweight,’ ‘fat’ or ‘obese’ have different cultural values, and as we already stated our informants mostly used “large” when they spoke about themselves in the interviews. They had in common that living as large and heavy has been more or less their continuous situation. Moreover, all five women portrayed themselves as people that had tried numerous diets and exercise programs in different contexts before attending the treatment program in a medical context. Segregated to a separate training space, the large women already experienced that their bodies were problematic and wrong as judged by others. Doctors had recommended that they participate in this program which they had agreed to follow up for at least one year. In addition, they allowed the physiotherapist to call them if they were prevented from coming.
One of the authors (KSG) participated in the circle training and conducted the interviews. She still recalls the informal and social atmosphere that predominated when she joined the group on her first observation day. With pop music in the background, she observed how the participants were making social small talk before the class started. Some of the participants had placed themselves near the bicycles ready to start warm-up activities, whereas others were eagerly talking to the physiotherapist. They all seemed to know each other quite well. By contrast, the researcher felt quite uncomfortable standing by herself with pen and notebook. In addition, she noticed how several of the participants stared at her, and this made her worry about their reactions when she went about observing and writing notes ‘about them.’ Her mind was filled with questions: “How would they react?” “Would they feel stared at?” “Would they feel provoked?” The strategy made her less visible and more comfortable as a researcher. Moving together changes the focus from visual perception to bodily engagement where the senses, sweating and heart beats contributes to ‘forgetting’ oneself. In this situation she felt more included in the group through moving. She even joined in the small talk during the intervals, enabling her to gain first-hand experience of the exercisers’ reaction to the training. One remarkable experience was the difficulty and intensity of the program. KSG felt exhausted at the end of the first class, and felt that she did not experience any ‘advantage’ of having a smaller body, in doing the program.
Bearing her first-hand experiences with the group in mind, KSG conducted in-depth interviews with five of the female participants at a place of the women’s own choosing. Our intention was to interview the women once again after they had finished the program; meaning after 12 months since this was a one-year course. However, the physiotherapist in charge of the group became seriously ill. The treatment therefore stopped after 10 months and a new group treatment did not start until 4 months later when the physiotherapist had found a substitute. Their expressions and answers were followed up by further questions in order to clarify the content and illuminate the uniqueness of each woman’s experiences. Similarly, KSG would encourage the women to “give an example” when they talked about experiences that needed clarification or expansion of a topic. As the interviews were done face-to-face, both topics and order could be adjusted for each encounter based upon the researcher’s perception as to what seemed most appropriate. This approach brought up several novel topics. For example, the women were eager to talk about their negative experiences with training and physical activity prior to joining the treatment program. The interviews were tape-recorded with the women’s permission and transcribed verbatim enabling quotations to be highlighted in the presentation of the results. Each interview lasted between 1.5 to 2 hours, resulting in a total of 140 pages of transcribed texts. To maintain confidentiality, pseudonyms are used throughout this article. The study was approved by the Research Ethics Committee of Medicine in Norway.
Analysis of the Material
Our analysis can be described as following Kvale and Brinkman’s (2009) idea of research as “bricolage.” In this eclectic form of generating meaning, the researcher adapts mixed approaches moving freely between different “analytic techniques and concepts” (Kvale and Brinkman 2009). Our analysis consisted of several phases. Although the phases overlap and interplay, we will describe this process as a stepwise procedure for the sake of clarity. Our final step of analysis consisted of “meaning interpretation” (Kvale and Brinkman 2009). Meaning interpretation goes beyond a restructuring of the manifest meanings of the text to a deeper or more critical interpretation of the text. According to Kvale, “the researcher has a perspective on what is investigated and interprets the interviews from this perspective (1996). This kind of interpretation goes beyond what the informants have said directly so as to reveal the opinions and relations that are not evident. At this stage of analysis, it was quite useful to have Nyheim Sarkese as a critical reader. As a sociologist with a feminist approach, she focused particularly on Judith Butler`s understanding of gender as a social practice. This made us pay particular attention to the ways the women talked about the training as exemplifying taking action in relation to their weight. Moreover, their repetitive argument that “diets don’t work” could now be interpreted as a decisive move toward a qualitatively different kind of intervention that was proportionate to the problems that they faced. From this perspective, they could be seen as positioning themselves as subjects—or credible women—actively involved in the work of weight management rather than its vilified objects. At the same time, their decision to join a treatment program could be seen in terms of submission, since the women were accepting their doctors’ advice to get professional help with their weight problems. Moreover, they had agreed to join the program for at least one year. In this sense, they revealed a sense of being out of control of their weight loss project, expressing their need to hand over control to a health professional rather than seeing it as a matter of individual responsibility. The position the women obtained in the interviews illuminated some ambiguous and contradictory positions. They were regarded by themselves and others as both subjects and objects of the “war on obesity.” Based on the interviews, we organized the analysis around three main phrases: “Is it inside me or not?” “I want to see results” and “We are not here for fun.”
IS IT INSIDE ME OR NOT?
Certain experience of discomfort and dissatisfaction seem to characterize women’s negotiations with the choices during exercise sessions. Even in cases where they had quit after a short-time membership, they spoke vividly about the gaze of other members as an uncomfortable and painful memory. Negative experiences, nevertheless, in a Norwegian context, encompasses ‘normal’ cultural meanings. ‘No pain, no gain’ and ‘not giving up exercising,’ despite emotional strain and anxiety is consonant with dominate cultural ideas. (Dworkin and Wachs 2009). One woman said: “Sometimes I felt sick before going to the fitness training. I couldn’t stand the idea of being stared at.” In the beginning, she tried to suppress her negative experiences: “I decided not to care. But it did not work. I felt sick and miserable and decided to quit.” Another common expression was: “I really felt like a failure. I have pain in my knees, in my back, in my groin.” Even though our material stems from exercising in a medical context the experiences are ambiguous and intertwined with strong sensations and emotional memories. Discomfort and comfort were changeable and led to fluctuating emotions in our informants’ talk about the training. They indicated that their bodies hurt as a result of the training. Training was unpleasant, wearisome and tedious at times, but still they continued to do it. This finding may be linked to a perception that losing weight demands both willpower and discipline, and that tolerating discomfort is seen as a sign of control over one’s own body. From a phenomenological perspective the body is first and foremost a body-subject and a lived body and not an object to be controlled. However a large female body, may, if we borrow an expression from the Swedish philosopher Frederik Svenaeus (2000) be experienced as ‘unhomelike’ in the world and its limitations and size attain a thematic, explicit focus that may be reinforced by the bio-medical knowledge upon which the treatment program is based.
Exercising and dieting without success affected the participants in the study and contributed to the production of shame and self blame. One woman explained: “It was really depressing. It is so depressing when you realize that this is not something I will be able to go through with. I wouldn’t make it this time either.” She explained that she started worrying about her mental strength and figured that she must be “mentally weak” because she could not lose weight without regaining it soon after. Significantly, these understandings are also evident in the interviews with the other women. Dominant expressions concern the way the discourses about ‘eating less, exercising more’ are presented by the health authorities and the medical professionals. One woman said: “They think it is just about eating less and then you will become thinner. But here is something inside your head that blocks.” In a similar vein, other women blame their “heads”: It is inside me, I think it is placed between my ears, inside my head, like a mental block, because I know what to do. I know what’s wrong, but still I am not able to lose weight. There must be something wrong with me . . . with my head. To use expressions like “mental block” and “something wrong with my head,” locating constant worries and feelings of shame and failure “inside me,” can be understood as the dualistic and hegemonic language that both phenomenology and feminist theory have criticized. The idea of representing women as “mentally blocked” can be traced back to the early nineteenth century (Johannisson 1996). Medical technology and power have contributed to legitimizing specific models of illness applied to women. When our informants used the expression “mental block” about themselves, this expression clearly does not only stem from “inside” the women, but refers to specific labels that have defined women within the history of medicine. That this feeling is closely linked to cultural norms of masculinity and femininity was not part of the women’s interpretation of their experience—for them, “it is just me” that has a weaker mental state. Body shape becomes a sign of each woman’s ‘inner’ personality—be it either ‘mental weakness’ or ‘strong motivation.’ Being slender and well-trained is associated with self-discipline and control, whereas being fat has negative connotations: laziness and lack of self-discipline.
I Want to See Results
The women’s interest in results took up considerable time during the interviews. Results were measurable effects in the visible body shape and synonymous with losing weight. All but one of our informants lost weight while they participated in the training program. According to the physiotherapist a ‘normal’ loss of weight is from 5 to 15 kilos. The defined weight loss was described as “a result” that has motivated them to continue with the program. The values of losing weight and thereby obtaining results were emphasized in various expressions like: “I wanted to see results, and that’s what I got here. And that is what kept me going here.” Although the women placed great emphasis on the importance of seeing results from the training program in measurable weight loss, they were also anxious about developing bulging muscles. As a cultural idea our informants expressed gaining muscles as unwanted and unpleasant: “But I don’t want muscles. And anyway, you’re supposed to have long muscles.” This informant expressed a definite perception of how the body is supposed to look. It must be both slender and firm – with little body fat and long, slender musculature. The feminist sociologist Pirkko Markula (1995) identified the dominant ideas of postmodern aerobicizing female bodies that aim at being “Firm but Shapely, Fit but Strong, Strong but Thin.” By using this striking title to her article, Markula addresses how narrow ideas of the female body appear to be central and unavoidable components of exercising in a fitness context. Because an obese female body can be seen as a failure or even as an offence against cultural ideas of the body, health and gender, these ideas have a considerable impact on obese women. Several aspects of the results indicate that this includes avoiding the development of prominent musculature. The guidelines of the program are also based on the assumption that this is the sort of change that is to be affected. One woman described the goals of the program as: “How to get small muscles and large muscles and no muscles. How the body reacts to different things. So then I wondered if I should use 30 kilos and do 50 repetitions or 50 kilos and 20 repetitions.” As a result, they stuck strictly to the program and did not increase the weights appreciably. Moreover, measurable weight loss alone was not considered to be a satisfactory result by the women. The women also desired a feeling of freedom, engagement and the feeling of “a kick.” When they had developed a taste for measurable results they became occupied with the idea of losing even more. One of the women expressed that she would not be satisfied until she had taken off 30 kilos, because: If I really want to reach my ideal weight and get into . . . how should I put it . . . liberating form so that nothing is weighing me down, then I do have to lose 30 kilos. So I have a long way to go really. But it’s in here (points to her heart). I really, really want to lose weight so that I can feel free.
Simone de Beauvoir (2000) has argued that freedom is a central phenomenon that women must fi ght for, and to achieve freedom (even if it is always limited) from today’s cultural western ideal by gaining a critical distance from the limiting body ideals perpetuated in the worlds of media and medicine. Our material indicated that the exercises that large women are performing are not adapted to who they are and what they feel during moving. Even if they are training in a separated space, their practice follows mainstream ’normal’ ideas about exercise and little attention is given to their personal experiences and abilities. Since achieving results is important, making great efforts tends to be a key aspect of the exercise and a prerequisite for attaining the various physiological effects. Efforts were confirmed by encouraging the women to continue “giving their all.” By “giving their all” the potential for good health was communicated as obtainable. The instruction played on the present potential for improvement, the will to stretch oneself and “go for it.” It seemed that attempts to ignore discomfort created fatigue, irritation and alienation. However, to experience and display oneself as functioning well, and being presentable, gives social advantages and credibility as a modern successful woman. Health becomes synonymous with the individual self-presentation that can be exhibited through the body, whether this is an individual physiological goal or a firm body. However, as Sassatelli clearly states, achieving this “result” depends on spending one’s spare time in making oneself physically desirable (2007). Interestingly, in Norway these kinds of norms are not quite new ones. On the contrary these ideas have a long and manifest significance in sport and outdoor life in Norway, as core activities and often as a collective phenomenon. However, in Norway (Steen-Johnsen 2004) traditional activities have decreased and activities like aerobic and fitness training have become increasingly important due to the symbolic power of commercial fitness practices. In this context, we find it especially interesting that the women talk a lot about how they should exercise to lose weight and at the same time get a more slender, well-trained body. In addition, because achieving training results is central, pushing the body is regarded as a necessity. When physical discomfort or pain is felt, it is interpreted first and foremost as a sign that the body is still too heavy or in bad ‘shape.’
WE ARE NOT HERE FOR FUN
In contrast to tradition of Norwegian sport and outdoor life which is regarded as pleasurable in itself, it was unusual to hear women’s exercise discussed in terms of enjoyment and pleasure. Pleasure was regarded as a reward after exercising. During exercise lessons it was common to hear the instructor motivate them to endure the lesson with sentences like: “You will soon be finished.” The tendency to take a position where pain and negative experiences resulting from the exercises must be tolerated seemed to be a normal attitude. However, the heavy bodies of our informants meant that their skeletons were subject to great strain during exercise. Their willingness to forego pleasure in order to follow the difficult program appeared to be having some negative consequences. One participant said: “I find that I hurt a lot in the afternoon and evening, but I think the reason is that I’m still very overweight and it puts a strain on my knees.” Despite the knee pain, she thought the training was beneficial: The fact that you actually exercise your whole body, you go through all the muscles in the body. I think that is very important, not least because of all that about burning up fat. And you have to make a bit of effort to get it going, as it were. One aspect of the physical discomfort is tolerance. Some of the women had experience with alternative forms of exercise. One had completed a course in Mensendieck gymnastics, and had very positive experience of this kind of exercise, which she found very suitable for her. She mentioned that the slow exercises, in particular, are comfortable. She took these courses for almost three years. I didn’t lose weight, though. But it was nice finding the muscles. Feeling how they worked. And it was a very gentle pace and very pleasant, really. It suited me then, in a way . . . It was nice. So I did that for several years.
The only problem with the gymnastics she liked was that one did not lose any weight. Comparing this program with that of the overweight groups where training with weights is uncomfortable for the body, the participant said: “It was awful in the beginning. I could hardly manage anything. I had to push myself. That was heavy-going. It was a strain.” She found pushing her body both alienating and disagreeable. She talked about how the training put her in a sort of position outside herself, in contrast to the more comfortable exercises which suited her. She gave her reasons for deciding to persevere as follows: “The others keep going, so I must also keep going. That helped to motivate me . . . And if I don’t carry on I’ll be really round.” This example shows that pushing oneself is understood as necessary for losing weight. However, the discomfort of pushing oneself is moderated by being part of a group, which made it easier to continue the training. By witnessing the efforts of the others exercising in the same room, seeing that the others “can stand” physical discomfort and persevere, she wanted to do the same. This seems like another kind of social construction of how to be a ‘good’ woman, along with the others perpetuated by the media and the medical world. From the descriptions of the participants, “pushing oneself” was interpreted as a culturally positive value. Our informants stated that they take advantage of each other’s desires to “be fit”: I have the impression that everybody who goes to our course is very serious and really give it all they’ve got. They really want to be fit, is my impression. They’re not coming here for fun, in other words. They aren’t. To exercise in a challenging and strenuous way helped form a positive perception in the group that one is serious about losing weight and “getting results.” With regard to their own efforts, the women performed exercise in a “resolute” way and were “never slack.” One participant says: " Sometimes I think I can’t face [attending the program] . . . And there are mornings when I really don’t feel like it. But then you get dressed and go and it passes . . . No, I have never been absent unless I’ve been sick. Then . . . and then I know that [I have to] . . . get dressed and stop messing around . . . I have to get tired, because if I don’t get tired, then there’s no point my being here. And when I go home I have a very good feeling—that I’ve done it today too . . ." This excerpt from the interview indicates that even though this participant dreaded the exercise program, she was determined to work hard in order to get results in return for her efforts. The cultural idea of exercise engages in an agreement to lose weight. The women seemed conscious of this requirement. One of the main messages in this treatment program was, as shown previously, the importance of “focusing” and “keeping up the pace” of the training so as not to gain weight again. In the earlier excerpt, the good feeling after exercise might refer to the feeling of a good conscience as a result of doing one’s duty once again. Another woman talked in a similar way: “If I don’t exercise I get so fat. . . . But the feeling after [exercise] is very good.
Then I feel better in a way. I guess I can say that I feel more cheerful.” She talked about the training as something she ought to do—a sort of duty which is not fun at the time, but which yields positive results afterwards: both physical (her body is not “as fat”) and psychological (she feels better mentally). By becoming aware of how the others see them as overweight women, the women adopted an external perspective on themselves, which made them feel uncomfortable and ashamed of themselves. Moreover, it enhanced their view of themselves as fat and unattractive. According to Merleau-Ponty, the feeling of shame is closely connected to sensing the gaze of others. The objectifying gaze of others is a tacit premise that works directly on the bodies’ kinaesthetic and emotional self-awareness. To normalize these bodily states the continuous work to change one’s appearance moderates the tension between self and cultural ideas.
As a response to being controlled by the weight, the “inner picture” of an acceptable body does not harmonize with what our informants saw when they look in the mirror. They often questioned how their large bodies relate to their personality. Culturally inappropriate bodies are at stake in negotiations about “who am I.” Being large can contribute to a perception of the body as an appendage to the personality. The body is perceived mainly as problem. Hurtful comments about their body as “outer objects” were commonplace. Insecurity and loss of attractiveness, however, did not stop the women from still hoping to get back the old body, the one they had before the children arrived. Their concern with changing the shape of their bodies was perceived as an important value. Questions that might be posed in line with such experiences are: Who is changing? What does it mean to like or not like one’s body? Obviously, no outer relationship between “me and my body” exists and as Merleau-Ponty (2002) might have said: I belong to my body and the body belongs to me. Not like other things belongs to me, and not as a thing I can manipulate as an object outside me. Moreover, living with a large body, certainly made our informants critical of their bodies, the body became a “thing” that they did not like. Since the body belongs to the person and the person to the body there is, however, no way of escaping this ‘reality.’ The visibility of the large body might function as a confi rmation or manifestation of the undesirable side of living with a body that ‘nobody’ appreciates. Drawing on de Beauvoir’s (2000) description of “the narcissist,” we might say that the women who participated in this study were striving to become someone else, unsuccessfully. All the plans to change gained an important place in their lifeworld. They continuously lived with that idea that they one day would reach stable weight. Our data indicated that the large women developed a somewhat self-observing relationship with their bodies. From Merleau-Ponty’s perspective, the lived body is always subject and object, visible and viewing, touched and touching, yet the two sides of the body cannot be reduced to one another. Therefore, phenomena are always determined through their relationship with one another. De Beauvoir (2000) might argue that the women may seem to be at risk of alienation when they focus solely on body change instead of experiencing the exercise. The responsibility for changing one’s body shape diverts attention from the discomfort and pain when they exercise. Remaining in a professionally controlled training program may lead to a feeling that they cannot continue the training on their own. In other words, their feelings of not being good enough are reinforced and their perception of themselves as ‘the other’ further internalized.
Managing the pace of the exercise program was a struggle for many interviewees. While struggling with intensive exercise to change their bodies into the ‘healthy’ ideal, they did not have an opportunity to dwell on the excessiveness of such behaviour. As Haravon Collins so clearly puts it, being objectified is bad enough, but being ordered around is blatantly oppressive, particularly when the instructors assume that all of the participants are there for the same purpose: slimming down and shaping up (2002). Although some experiences of strain and effort may be part of ‘normal’ exercise, being under constant pressure can be counterproductive for obtaining good health. For example, while bio-medical sources state that exercise produces favourable effects on health when measured by a number of physiological variables, other research shows that excessive exercise can result in ill health (Kenttä 2001). In addition, exercising relentlessly reduces the chances of exploring movement from one’s own perception of the situation. The actual moving and the flow of movement seem to be undermined and not promoted. Instead, feelings of loneliness and vulnerability were viewed as ‘something wrong’ rather than valuable experiences that might create awareness of space and one’s own bodily history. In spite of the fact that the exercising caused pain and discomfort, the interviewed women kept up with the program. Our material shows that the potential to enjoy exercise could help women to resist the western individualization processes. But this possibility is deferred in favour of a continuous pressure or obligation to obtain a thinner body shape. The interviewed women felt pressure when they were constantly told to push even further, make greater efforts, keep at it, and give what they could. These values may shed light on why the feelings of loneliness and vulnerability arose during exercise and why these feelings increased with a lack of opportunity to discuss the difficult experiences with others. Instead, the women were expected to deal with these feelings on their own. Although the feelings were suppressed, during exercise, the women’s movements became visible and ‘naked’: heavy sweating and breathing were exposed and expressed. On the one hand these bodily reactions helped to affiliate the obese women to ‘normal’ women who exercise. On the other hand, it is exactly these expressions that contribute to stigma against body size. Sweating and being out of breath are often connected with fatness and this intensified the sense of the judging gaze of others by the large women, particularly, as the large women are culturally accused of becoming obese as a result of poor self-control or lack of adequate knowledge about exercise and diet.
We emphasize that women defined as obese did not want to lose weight solely for the sake of health, but were also struggling to become ‘normal’ women. The result of exercise is given priority, not the expressive and kinaesthetically subjective body. However, if large women are seen to make a visible effort to become smaller, this can provide them with credibility as ‘normal’ women. However, exercise with a focus on effort may contribute to an objectification of the body. As de Beauvoir argued (2000) when the body’s subjective experience is considered secondary, the body, due to a lack of freedom and human transcendence, becomes objectified. The women in our study certainly described their training as something they ought to do: a duty which is unpleasant, but which yields positive ‘physical’ and ‘psychological’ results afterwards. It was obvious that they emphasized the effects of training. The measurable effect also receives most focus in the medical context where the training results are regarded as the only valid knowledge. While our analyses strongly indicated that participating in exercise increased large women’s credibility as ‘normal’ women, it was rarely possible or realistic that they would attain the ideal slim, hard, fit and energetic body. Therefore, success measured through the reduction of body size is problematic. On the one hand, obese women are portrayed as lazy, unethical and acceptable by others in the world of media and medicine. Women are, thus, expected to be responsible for their choices and actions. On the other hand, women who are defined as obese exercise in space that is segregated and ‘sheltered’ from official public spaces with other ‘normal’ women and thus, are already judged as ‘abnormal.’ Doing exercise moderated feelings of shame and marginalization, but our informants do not experience true empowerment. Living in a patriarchal world but surrounded by critical voices we propose that women defined as obese should resist the traditional and mainstream ideas about exercise and give more attention to their personal experiences and abilities. Aware that we may be putting yet another requirement onto large women, this position is in line with advocates of size acceptance in the U.S. (Bernell 2000; Shanker 2004). Currently in Norway, there are no programs yet that aim to build on large women’s (and men’s) embodied experiences. Neither are the culturally shaped ideals about femininity problematized by linking them to the ideals of improvement through hard (individual) work. From a sociological perspective, women are no longer defined, as they traditionally were, by responsibility for and caring toward others, which can be considered oppressive. Instead women receive praise for ‘caring about themselves’ and taking responsibility for their own health. However, for obese women, taking care of themselves in a medically orientated exercise context is not particularly enjoyable. On the contrary, an oppressive sense of duty overrides ideas of individuality and expressivity that are characteristic of late modernity.
In this article, we have shown that large women who exercise to lose weight experience repetitive fluctuations of weight, but still hope to find the perfect training program. However, the type of exercise that has been chosen for them provides little opportunity to go beyond a gendered framework. Due to collective cultural norms there seems to be a mutual agreement that slim, well-toned bodies represent the ideal ‘normal’ woman. In this medical context, to be considered a woman who wants to change and who accepts being instructed toward a changed body size, achieves a more credible feminine identity. However, the routine of the training program prevents the exploration of personal kinaesthetic experience and reflective subjectivity. The large women seem to be ‘forced’ to (re)produce the idea that they should work to change their bodily appearance. The article illustrates how women, who are defined as obese, express the importance of getting visible results from the training. They had nearly no fun and instead of enjoying the exercise experienced pain, discomfort and dissatisfaction. They, nevertheless, persisted with their exercise program. This article demonstrated that public training programs offered to women defined as obese engage them in an attempt to obtain an impossible body ideal. These programs are necessarily not suitable for large women. Rather, these programs can result in the participants’ constant dissatisfaction and ill health.