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The Stigmatization of ‘Large’ Women in Fitness Gyms

Write By: Valentin Rosca on

Fitness Gyms and The Anti-Fat Ethic

An anti-fat ethic is pervasive in fitness cultures, and perhaps most clearly evidenced in the fitness gym that provides a cultural space in which people manage the twin corporeal purposes of (internal) health and (external) appearance. Contemporary self-consciousness about the body, and the significance of corporeality in the production, reproduction and perception of the self is connected to long-term transformations in the economic, technological and political configurations in society that have contributed to the emergence of consumer culture (Burkitt 1999; Cole 1993, 2002; Shilling 1993; Turner 1996). The emphasis on sport, fitness and leisure in late capitalism is marked by commercialization of the body linked to the shift from industrial capitalism toward a “post-industrial culture” founded on a global economy, service industries, advertising and consumerism (Turner 1996, 3). A focus on the body beautiful, denial of the aging/diseased body, and the value of physical fitness and health, then, reflects the increasing consumerist concern with the body. For Featherstone (1991) the commercialization of exercise, diet and cosmetic fitness practices illustrates the emphasis on bodily appearance and corporeal preservation in late capitalism. Such “self-preservationist” conceptions of corporeality are linked to the idea that the body represents a sphere of hedonistic practices, desire and pleasure (Featherstone 1991, 170). Within consumer culture, the reward for ‘body-work,’ such as diet, exercise and cosmetic regimes is an improved ‘look,’ a more marketable self, the increased potential for self-expression and the experience of pleasure. Specifically, body imagery in consumer culture is associated with the themes of beauty, youth, energy, enjoyment, freedom, luxury and romance. There is a moral value placed on the achievement of such themes and the promise of these pleasures requires a sharpened, more reflexive awareness of one’s own and others’ appearance (Featherstone 1991; Lupton 1996, 1997; Shilling 1993; Turner 1996). The tendency, then, in contemporary Western life, is for people to perceive that their bodies should be worked-on, and worked-out as a means of representing and expressing the individual self. 

 

Fitness gyms are characterized by the promotion and prescription of exercise regimes for improved fitness and health measured and monitored by body weight, shape, size and posture, and the ability to perform specified physical tasks, be that through muscular strength and endurance or cardiovascular efficiency. In the dominant fitness discourse, the fat body tends to be afforded stigmatized status, positioned as the deviant or abnormal ‘other’ against which the socially esteemed fi t and healthy body defines itself; and fatness is identified as a ‘problem’ for the full realization of a host of individual and social goals, from productivity and competitiveness to happiness and fulfilment (Smith Maguire et al. 2009). That said, fitness gyms vary in type and attract a range of people from different socio-cultural backgrounds. Fitness also invests bodies with power and opens up the possibility for practices of the self and challenges to the dominant discourse about fat some of which may have the potential to disrupt or at least complicate the stigmatization of fat bodies. This article discusses the production and reproduction of a cultural distaste for fat in fitness gyms. It recognizes the relevance of the concept of stigma (Goffman 1973) and explores in more detail the socio-dynamics of stigmatization (Elias and Scotson 1994) for understanding how the appearance and display of fat in fitness cultures is denigrated and devalued, serving to classify fat women as the stigmatized ‘other’ in the gym environment and wider social life.

Women Working Out: Ethnography and the Fitness Experience

woman-working-outMy research interest in fitness cultures and fat bodies has arisen out of a long-term practical and academic involvement in sport and leisure (Mansfield 2005, 2007, 2008). Broadly speaking such research represents an examination of the status, motivations, meanings and significance of women in cultures of fitness, and the impact of their involvement in fitness activities on the construction of their sense of femininity, and it is founded on an ethical commitment to producing knowledge upon which practical solutions to the problematic of gender, femininity and fitness can be based. It is, then, feminist work. At the same time the research has been guided by the principles of figurational/process sociology (Elias 1978; Mennell 1992; Van Krieken 1998) so that the overarching rationale is concerned with understanding the development and structural characteristics of cultures of fitness and the consequences of those characteristics on the self-conceptions and relative power of women in fitness activities. The discussion in this article draws on participant observation and interview material collected in the context of public and private fitness centres in England, U.K., over the past decade that has centred on questions about fitness, female participation and femininities. Along with an extensive collection of participant observation field notes collected in a variety of fitness settings almost on a weekly basis, I have also conducted approximately 60 formal, in-depth, semi-structured or unstructured interviews with women about their fitness experiences. Some of these are one-off conversations, some are based upon a life-history approach and engage women in 4 to 5 interviews about different fitness themes, and my most recent discussions have included focus groups as a method for examining women’s ideas about fitness cultures (Maguire and Mansfield 1998; Mansfield 2002, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009a; Mansfield and Maguire 1999). Mainly, although not exclusively, the women I have exercised with and spoken to have been white, aged between 20–40 years, orientated toward middle-class lifestyles and heterosexual. However, I have conducted a research project with 10 Indian women aged between 50–80 years (Mansfield 2008) and my more recent focus group work has begun to include the views of lesbian women (Mansfield 2009a). 

 

My interpretation of fit bodies and fatness is not simply a description of events and occurrences but a translation of a particular reality in fitness cultures in which I, as the researcher, am involved. In Wheaton’s terms this is critical sub-cultural ethnography and is best described as “the researcher’s written representation of that culture” (2002, 248). I was always mindful of the impact my involvement might have on interpreting and understanding fitness and fatness. Throughout the research the challenge has been to balance my involved position with the subject matter with an appropriate degree of distance from the fitness activities themselves and from my personal politics about fit bodies and fat bodies. A feminist sense of critical self-reflection has been important in this regard to managing my-self in the research setting, in balancing the tasks of sociologist as participant and inquirer and in bringing an appropriate balance of passion and reason to the analysis (Mansfield 2007, 2008). Observations were recorded as field notes; the “symbol of the ethnographer” (Sands 2002, 75). I wrote detailed notes in a notebook immediately after teaching or participating in exercise classes or after working-out in the gym, pool or park so that I could remember as accurately as possible things that were said and done when I typed up the full accounts. Sometimes I had more time to keep field notes and they were more immediate in terms of the time lag between participating and observing and writing, and sometimes there were more opportunities than others to directly type them into a laptop computer. At other times my notes were brief and I needed to recall from memory what I had seen and heard. While field notes and interview material have been invaluable to my analysis in this article, they still remain partial in terms of building a picture of the relationship between fitness cultures and fat bodies. I did not set out to study fat exercisers. Fat was a key issue in all my discussions with women about fitness and the body beautiful although it was never on my agenda of discussion topics. That is to say these women’s perceptions of their body—its shape, size and texture—were orientated toward ideas about fat. I never measured how fat these women were, nor did I judge them in terms of whether or not they were fat. Nevertheless, all those I spoke with defined themselves in relation to fat; losing fat, gaining fat, being and becoming fat, and fearing fat. It has been through a more recent re-engagement with my observation notes and interview material that I have come to see the centrality of anti-fat models of corporeality in the production of fit bodies and cultures of fitness. As I have become more attuned to the critical debate surrounding the so-called global obesity crisis and have become immersed in the work of fat activists and academics engaging in critiques of anti-fat ethics through such groups as Fat Studies in the U.K. (Tomrley and Kaloski-Naylor 2009) I have come to understand further the cultural distaste for fat that is central to the production of fit bodies and a recurring narrative in the conversations that I have had with women throughout my research. 

 

FAT FEMALE BODIES IN THE FITNESS GYM:

Fitness, ‘Other’ Women and Stigma

woman-runningThe fitness ideal varies from fashion and fi lm ideals as Markula (1995) points out, by virtue of the desire for tight/toned muscles. Fit female bodies are a type of stylized corporeality and are defined and characterized by lean physiques and the omnipresence of fat stigma. For example, one of the respondents in my own research (Beth) clearly identified the character of idealized female fitness. Therefore, while thinness may not be the only requirement for such female bodies, fat is the problem. Few authors have focused specifically on issues connected to fat bodies and fitness cultures although, as previously noted, there is a wealth of literature that contributes to an understanding of the complexities of body image in sport and fitness. There is a developing body of scholarly work focusing on fat, overweight and obesity which addresses the politics of fat as well as providing a critical account of the construction and mediation of the so-called global obesity epidemic (see, for example, Gard and Wright 1995; Monaghan 2008; Rich et al. 2009; Solovay and Rothblum 2009; Tomrley and Kaloski-Naylor 2009). The discussion that follows hopes to make a contribution to such literature by examining the processes by which fat is stigmatized in fitness gyms. Goffman’s (1973) work on stigma is initially useful in understanding that fat people are effectively marginalized from the exercise endeavour and from social life more broadly. For Goffman (1973) there is a stigma associated with the disfigured, the blind, the paralyzed or those with absent limbs (bodily stigma), those with mental impairment and people considered to have impaired personal characters (mental and moral stigma), and those of racial or religious minority groups (tribal stigma). Different types of stigma influence and can be influenced by human relationships in many different contexts. All human beings are identified and represented by their bodies regardless of physical and mental impairment. While Goffman did not discuss fat bodies in his Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, he shed some light on the ways that being fat in contemporary western societies leads to judgments of inadequacy, undesirability and stigma. Like the disfigured, the blind, the epileptic, the amputee and the ex-mental health patient in Goffman’s (1973) study, those who are fat tend to be perceived as socially abnormal, inferior human beings. Being fat constitutes both a bodily and moral defect that is connected to oversimplified and inaccurate stereotypical notions of fat people as lazy, unhealthy or unhygienic.

 

Of particular importance to Goffman’s (1973) examination of stigma and the self was the ways in which bodies are central to personal interaction. For Goffman, it is commonly the visible and physical signs of abnormality that serve as a basis for the production and reproduction of the stigmatized self. Interchanges between people with so-called bodily defects and those considering themselves as normal result in what Goffman refers to as “interaction-uneasiness” (1973, 30). The stigmatized fat person may be defensive or withdrawn, the ‘normal’ person may react with embarrassment, guarded references to the defective characteristic may be made, common words such as fat, big, large and overweight may become taboo in face-to-face exchanges, and the ‘normal’ individual may react by overzealous acceptance or rejection of the stigmatized individual. As will be discussed in the final section of this article fat bodies in fitness gyms are most often connected with feelings of shame and embarrassment. Whispered conversations, raised eyebrows and shakes of the head characterize reactions to fatness and, indeed the word fat has become somewhat of a taboo in the sense that people are unsure whether to use it as a description since it is wholly associated with a pejorative characterization. Being or becoming fat or looking at others who were deemed to be fat tended to elicit feelings of alienation from the body, and discomfort and isolation from slim/normal people. The gym was commonly thought of as an intimidating place for those who were not well versed in the fitness regimes and those who did not look good/fit. Fitness gyms are sites where bodies are on display and such visibility presents an opportunity for fat bodies to be labelled as different and inferior. To some extent, negative emotional experiences connected to fitness cultures are associated with demeaning and patronizing attitudes of key personnel in the fitness industries as well as the negative attitudes of fitness gym members who hold stereotypical views of fat and, without always meaning to, reinforce the stigma attached to fat bodies.

 

woman-squatting-gymGoffman (1973), then, provides some insights into the production and reproduction of stigmatized identities that are relevant to understanding experiences of fat women in fitness cultures. However, the focus of his work is on face-to-face interaction and his analysis tends to be restricted to the realm of individual, personal experience. His study of stigma focuses on situations where the ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ meet. However, stigma is not solely constructed through face-to-face relationships and in the case of fat cannot be fully explained by the simplistic and dualistic differentiation between slim/normal people and fat/abnormal people. All human beings have some experience of corporeal shape and size and the complexities of physicality cannot be understood in simple dichotomous terms. There are multiple and nuanced meanings of fat that cannot adequately be accounted for in Goffman’s face-to-face situational explanation. Moreover, the production and reproduction of superior images of lean physiques in fitness cultures, and concomitantly the emergence of a cultural distaste for fat, is connected to the long-term development of global fitness cultures characterized by a network of interdependencies between personnel in the sport, health, fitness, medical and physical education industries. Contra Goffman, stigma, prejudice and marginality are not simply rooted in the personality structures of individual people. Broader aspects of cultural, social, political and economic structures of power influence the lives of stigmatized people such as those who are considered to be fat, overweight or obese. Processes of stigmatization, like systems and practices of representation happen in the context of specific power relations between and within human groups. Some people have a greater degree of power in constructing corporeal meaning than others. Examining relations of power is central to understanding stigma, marginality, fatness and femininities. In another account of stigmatization, Norbert Elias was particularly concerned with the relationships between more and less powerful groups. For Elias, stigmatization is a process that concerns the ability of human beings to label outsiders as inferior while constructing more favourable images of established groups. An introduction to the fundamental principles of his account of power and its relationship to the socio-dynamics of stigmatization will help to further the discussion in this article.

 

Corporeal Power, Established-Outsider Rleations and Stigmatization

Throughout his work, Elias was concerned with the centrality of power in human relationships. As he put it power is “a structural characteristic of human relationships—of all human relationships” (Elias 1978, 71). His ideas centre on understanding the relative power balances or power ratios between people. He emphasized the processual character of human relationships explaining how those relationships change when distributions of power change (Elias 1998). Elias argues that in order to understand human behaviour and emotion it is necessary to consider how and to what extent people are bonded to others and how those bonds shift and change over time and in specific social contexts. In other words, consideration must be made of the needs through which people become interdependent. Such needs include those associated with physical, emotional, intellectual and material well-being (Elias 1998). Relationships, and therefore balances of power, develop between people because they have varying degrees of value to each other; a “functional interdependence” between each other (Elias 1998, 116). Some balances of power develop in situations where people value others highly. It is also possible that balances of power develop out of relationships whereby people place little or no value between themselves and another human being. For example, exclusionary actions connected to marginalization and stigmatization emerge because the stigmatized ‘other’ is not valued or is de-valued. Following Elias’s line of argument, it may be said that the degree to which people depend on others is characterized by reciprocal relationships that involve varying degrees of inequality. Uneven balances of power (power ratios) between people impact on their behaviours and emotions. Some people are able to withhold what others want and operate a power of constraint. Some people are able to exert influence from a position of relative inferiority and are able to shift the balance of power in their favour operating an enabling power or a power of resistance or agency. Such constraining-enabling balances of power are reflected in tensions and conflicts characteristic of social life. Power, then, is relational in character and is best understood in terms of who has more and who has less power in specific social conditions. Moreover, power balances are at least “bi-polar” and more usually “multi-polar” (Elias 1998, 116). One of the consequences of Elias’s conceptualization of power was his theory of established-outsider relations (Elias and Scotson 1994). Here he sought to explain power tensions between dominant and non-dominant groups and his ideas are significant  in understanding the unequal relations of corporeal power invested in different female physiques in fitness cultures. Drawing on Elias’s ideas, the stigmatization of fat in fitness gyms involves the monopolization of corporeal power, networks of gossip about bodies within communities of exercisers and the making of group charisma and group disgrace connected to perceptions and emotional understandings of the female body beautiful. The discussion that follows examines these aspects of the socio-dynamics of stigmatization that primarily serve to reinforce the negative images attached to fatness and fat women in the fitness gym. 

 

FATNESS, FITNESS AND FEMININITY:

Monopolizing the Female Body Beautiful

woman-who-lost-weightIn relationships between established and outsider groups, effective stigmatization is principally founded on the ability of one group to monopolize some kind of power resource (Elias and Scotson 1994). In fitness gyms power is invested in the appearance of the body beautiful, ideals of bodily perfection and in the attainment of optimum physical measures of health and fitness. People who are overweight, fat or obese are stigmatized and relatively excluded from fitness gyms because they are perceived by the ‘fi t,’ and often by themselves, as being unable to match up to socially constructed ideals of appearance and performance. Arguably, such ideals are rooted in the dominance of traditional views of white, heterosexual and middle-class femininity and masculinity, and are associated with established notions of physical capability in fitness cultures (leanness, muscular tone, endurance and skill). As Hargreaves explains in terms of sport, sporting culture glorifies the “commodified, glamorised, ultra-feminine image of flawlessness” (2000, 186–87). Such corporeal ideals dominate fitness cultures and reinforce desires connected to bodily perfection and fat-less bodies, thus, maintaining the internalized anxieties and exclusionary behaviour that surround fat. What is principally at issue in understanding the predominance of particular images of femininity in fitness gyms and the stigmatization of fat is the relative capacities of those involved in fitness cultures to ‘control’ ideals of the female body. Bodies represent a symbolic resource in the production and reproduction of femininities. The exercise behaviours, physical appearance and corporeal capabilities of fitness gym users as well as key personnel involved in the fitness industries, and the way fi t and fat bodies are mediated and consumed are connected to the ability to secure a preferred definition of the fi t female body. I have argued in this article like others have done that there is no singular definition of the female body beautiful. However, in cultures of fitness lean/slender women through their appearance, performance and knowledge exert more influence over the production and reproduction of female body ideals than fat women.

 

In other words, particular power ratios between and within groups of slim and fat women serve to construct and reconstruct female body ideals that provide the foundation for the marginalization and stigmatization of fat women. Take the relatively large power ratio between fitness instructors (specialists) and new clients (non-specialists) as an example that illustrates how those ‘who know’ (instructors) about the body hold a relatively high capacity to ‘control’ idealized notions of female beauty and performance. Observing such relationships and listening to their dialogues revealed that there is a particular power relationship between the specialist and no specialist that develops by virtue of the “functional interdependence” between them (Elias 1998, 116). The instructors’ primary role is to teach people the correct use of equipment, the purpose for which particular exercises are intended, and the appropriate frequency, duration and intensity of activity for achieving particular performance and appearance objectives. Instructors also act as monitors in the gym checking that people are exercising in the right way to achieve a ‘good’ or ‘fi t’ body. Fitness instructors are constantly vigilant of exercise behaviours and correct mistakes in bodily performance. While clients tended to be more dependent on instructors for acquiring body knowledge and structuring their exercise behaviours it should be recognized that instructors do not have an unlimited “capacity to compel” female clients to use exercise as a means of acquiring an idealized physique (Elias 1998, 122). Instructor/ client relationships are reciprocal, yet unequal, ones. The superiority of an instructor over a client is never total, and does not remain constant. In terms of the female clients at the gym, not all were equally dependent on instructors. However, new female exercisers who did not meet established appearance criteria were deemed to have not yet learned the correct exercise techniques and were perceived as being the least knowledgeable group of clients. They appeared to be relatively dependent on fitness experts for their body and exercise knowledge. This is not to say that such clients always sought the advice of fitness instructors for some were quite reticent in showing their lack of expertise but fitness instructors were certainly adept at approaching clients who appeared confused when using exercise equipment or who were adopting incorrect techniques. In the fitness gym, there is a hierarchy of those who know how to achieve female body ideals. Along with instructors, established participants, both female and male, held the tacit knowledge needed to achieve established markers of successful performance and appearance. In other words, at the top of the hierarchy of body knowledge were those who looked good and demonstrated their superior knowledge and ability in executing particular exercise techniques. Specialist body knowledge signified instructor status. 

 

woman-runningIn the specialist-non-specialist relationship the rules of the workout were logged in personal exercise programs and embodied in the exercise regime. In these relationships clients work out according to dominant biological and social markers of female fitness. Instructors were consistent in advocating cardiovascular type exercise such as walking, jogging, rowing, cycling and stepping for 20 minutes, three times per week, as a way to improve the efficiency of the heart and lungs and achieve weight (fat) loss. And all exercise programs included muscle sculpting regimes intended to improve strength, posture and aesthetic appearance. Such advice reflects accepted guidelines and professional conduct in exercise testing and prescription advocated by experts in the field of exercise programming. It also reinforces messages and images about the desirability and superiority of lean and toned female bodies mediated in various ways through the wider fitness and health industries. Fitness instructors, then, have a relatively high degree of control over the overall network of processes that shape the gendered rules of gym culture. It appears that instructors and established participants spread particular messages about what counts as the female body beautiful. Moreover, instructors teach techniques for achieving preferred body ideals. So, they keep in motion a set of corporeal rules that permeate the actions and emotions of those who work out. Fat women are not totally excluded from the fitness gym environment. Some instructors and clients wish to advocate a more positive view of fat and a more inclusive approach to fat exercisers. One instructor Fiona, for example, knew of “larger women” who wanted to work out. She wanted to encourage them to participate at the fitness gym. But she explained that “larger ladies” were intimidated by the culture of slimness saying: “look . . . I speak to these women and they really want to come at times when they don’t have to be embarrassed being fat . . . I can understand that . . . I’m embarrassed when I am heavy.” She continued by explaining the intimidation that can be felt by those who do not fi t the ideals of the female body beautiful and said “It’s a scary thing . . . to have your body visible . . . especially when it doesn’t really look good.” Fiona’s comments illustrate the complexities of inclusive/exclusive strategies about fat exercisers and highlights the relatively low potential for fat women to exert an influence over what counts as acceptable female beauty. At the same time Fiona offered support to those who were overweight she noted that she would advise them to work out at “less busy times . . . times when the fi t and gorgeous people are not in.” And in her mind fat women welcomed her approach as one that countered their own anxieties and embarrassment at coming to the gym. But Fiona’s comments reflect the cultural distaste for fat in the fitness gym and her strategy of inclusion quite literally pushes fat women ‘behind the scenes’ of the fitness gym. There appears to be a great deal of uncertainty regarding the acceptance of fat bodies in the fitness gym. The desire for inclusion in the exercise activities is opposed by feelings of intimidation and anxiety about displaying fat bodies. Harnessing Elias’s (1998) ideas once again, this example illustrates that one of the consequences of corporeal power is the disadvantage that results from strong disagreements, confusion and tension in values of ‘outsider’ groups. In his words: "If groups formed by weaker players do not have strong inner tensions, that is a power factor to their advantage. Conversely, if groups formed of weaker players do have strong inner tensions, that is a power factor to the advantage of their opponent. - (Elias 1998, 124). As will be discussed further on in the article, anxiety, shame and embarrassment surrounded the imagery and appearance of female bodies that are fat and such feelings serve to limit the potential opportunities for collective resistance against the anti-fat ethic.

 

The Good the Bad and The Ugly: Gym Gossip and The Stigmatization of Fat Bodies

Several researchers have explored the significance of women’s talk to female kin and friendship networks in leisure experiences (Coates 1996; Green et al. 1990; Green 1998; Hey 1997). As Green (1998) argues, women’s talk as ‘friendship’ represents a key site of leisure and a mechanism through which feminine subjectivities are produced and reproduced. Women’s and girls’ talk includes discourses that simultaneously reflect traditional ideals of femininity and embrace “contradictory or counter discourses of difference” (Green 1998, 183). While, in common parlance, the word gossip has come to refer to derogatory talk about other people’s misfortunes closer investigations of gossip reveal it to have both negative and positive functions (Elias and Scotson 1994; McDonald et al. 2007). Drawing on Elias’s ideas about the socio-dynamics of stigmatization it can be argued that gossip tends to stigmatize outsider/other images of feminine beauty and physicality such as those associated with fat bodies. Gossip surrounds various corporeal issues but fat women, in particular, are gossip-worthy because they are widely considered to transgress the norms of fitness and health. Becoming fat however temporarily and whether through excess eating and drinking, illness, injury or pregnancy is also a source of gossip. Fat women can be discredited by defamatory comments about their bodily appearance and performance or what Elias and Scotson (1994) refer to as ‘blame gossip.’ At the same time ‘praise gossip,’ in the form of glorification about the body beautiful and regard for physical capacity in the fitness gym, upholds the dominance of slimness, muscular tightness and physical ability (Elias and Scotson 1994). In their observations about gossip, Elias and Scotson note “What is gossip-worthy depends on communal norms and beliefs and communal relationships” (1994, 89). In the fitness gym, the community of exercisers gossip about bodies. The gym is a place where bodies are worked on, looked at and talked about. It is possible to hear gossip flowing at the gym. The women I interviewed gossiped about their own and other bodies. They discussed their appearance and performance. They talked about how they felt and exchanged information on exercise techniques, training regimes and diet. Issues of the body dominated these women’s conversations. All gossip reflected a shared interest in idealized images of the female body. Blame gossip was characterized by negative comments and emotions about bodies that did not reflect established markers of the body beautiful. Praise gossip, on the other hand, was reflected in conversations that supported and upheld superior collective images of female beauty. The mutual reinforcement of such images was reflected in gossip both at the gym and in other social contexts outside of the gym. It was the slender, muscularly toned and petite body image that was praised, whereas the un-shapely, fat or large body was the source of ridicule and critique. Eva revealed such praise and blame gossip when she said: “Oh I like to look . . . fi t and healthy and toned and petite . . . really fi t and skinny. . . . I wouldn’t want to be large or fat . . . I’ve been large, I hate it . . . no one likes fat.” 

 

woman-stretchingGossip about female bodies was not simply focused on ‘bad,’ ‘ugly’ or ‘fat’ bodies. Blame gossip and praise gossip are equally important in the construction of preferred images of female physicality and the stigmatization of fat bodies. Derogatory comments about bodies that did not match up to stylized versions of (heterosexual) femininity served to consolidate and strengthen both superior images of the body beautiful and inferior images of fat bodies. Referring to the bodies of celebrity women in this regard, Fiona commented on a newspaper story about a former member of the popular singing group ‘The Spice Girls.’ She said: “Look at Mel C (Sporty Spice), I don’t think she was happy putting on weight. And she was criticized. And Madonna looks so fi t and healthy and so she is respected for that.” Fiona’s statement also alludes to the superior status afforded to those who have achieved the ideals of female beauty, just as the following comment by Beth reinforced the inferiority of ‘overweight’ and ‘out-of-shape’ bodies. She made an exasperated comment about her sister: "I couldn’t get like that. OK, she has just been pregnant but she is still about 14 stone and it’s awful. She’s awfully fat . . . it cannot be good for her [health] . She says she can’t do exercise but I think it’s a bit of an excuse and she’s just going to eat more and get bigger. I actually spoke to her husband about it and he did say she couldn’t exercise yet. But it will be good when she can." This comment demonstrates that blame gossip is focused on negative feelings and perceptions about bodies that are not acceptably slender, petite and muscularly toned. It also reflects the distaste for fat that I have previously alluded to. Beth illustrates the common-sense belief that physical activity is good for one’s health, and the assumption that fat is unhealthy. Such gossip was not exclusively about ‘other’ women. Women are at the same time the subject and object of their own gossip. Self defamatory comments were a key feature in the flow of blame gossip and were linked to internalized, seemingly automatic expressions of anxiety surrounding the body. Grace noted that “If I relapse, if I don’t look good, I just panic . . . and I saw this girl in a magazine with the most perfect bum and legs and I was like, if I do this (exercise and diet) I can look like that.” Eva and Anna also alluded to feelings of self-repulsion and self-blame at putting on weight that is singularly connected to becoming fat. Eva said “I’m certainly not relaxed at going over 8-and-a-half-stone. I went over to 8 stone 7 pounds and couldn’t shift it (the fat). It’s awful.” Anna noted: “I get really pissed off with myself sometimes. At my fat arse and thighs. Horrible.” These comments also indicate that such unfavourable images of the female body, evident in the flow of gossip at the gym, become incorporated into the self-image of women who feel that their bodies are outside preferable ideals.


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