Those of you who know me or follow my blog will know that I have major issues with the “women’s fitness” industry. Although I love working with women and I love empowering people to discover the benefits of health and fitness, I detest the people and slogans who are intent on telling you, my sisters, all about how insecure and intimidated you are and why you need to hide from your male comrades in pink weight-rooms filled with hydraulic machines. Don’t even get me started on “women’s kick/boxing” classes. (Do you want to know the difference between men’s and women’s combat sports? Being a female combat sports athlete means you need to work twice as hard for half the respect and maintain supreme mental focus and a super-effective strength-training regime just to keep up with everyone else in the gym. Still want to do “women’s kickboxing??”)
I think what irks me most is that competitive sport and even simple recreational physical activity was once a right that was denied to women. Like so many other things that we enjoy today due to the courage and persistence of our fore-mothers, we tend to take this for granted today and even slide back into a sort of complacent inferiority complex because it’s “easier.”
Perhaps because I am a fighter, I am a little more aware of how the right of women to participate in sports and physical activity is much less than guaranteed. Only very recently did women win the right to box in the Olympics, despite conventional boxing being one of the oldest sports in the world. Women continue to face social and cultural stigma when it comes to athleticism, albeit some more than others. There was a lot of speculation recently about the MMA debut of Ann Osman, the first muslim female to compete in the cage, because of her attire – grappling shorts and crop top. Fortunately, for the most part she has reported enjoying support from her family and positivity from the public in her native Malaysia, a muslim country. But the fact that it was an issue in the first place should serve as a reminder that participation in sport and physical activity is not something that we should take for granted.
Even ancient history is peppered with legends of women who had to defy social and moral codes in order to compete as athletes. One story tells of a Mongolian woman who competed in – and won – wrestling competitions by disguising herself as a man, giving rise to the custom of competing shirtless as a way to ensure that women could not wrestle. The ancient Greek Olympics excluded women from participating or even spectating at events, and when the modern Olympics began in 1896, women were again banned from competing.
Although times are changing, thanks in part to high-profile female athletes, pop culture and social norms continue to re-inforce stereotypes which encourage young girls to be acquiescent, pleasant, obedient, and passive, denying them the encouragement which their male peers receive to be active, assertive, competitive and brave.
I am disappointed that today’s “women’s fitness” industry, which is uniquely placed to challenge these social norms, to inspire young girls and to strengthen the bodies and characters of women by empowering them with opportunities, instead revolves around making money by re-enforcing stereotypes of insecurity and inadequacy.
If you need an example of this, I was once in a “women’s gym” that, for legal reasons, shall have to remain unnamed. I was told that the weights on machines were designated by coloured stickers rather than kg’s or pounds because “we women have trouble remembering numbers” (?!?!) and that I should coach clients to perform lat pull-downs within a limited range of motion because “this is a women’s gym.” Huh??
The “women’s fitness” industry as it stands today exists to benefit gym owners and purveyors of supplements, bizarre exercise machines and fad diets. (No, that amazing ab-swinging twister-machine won’t melt your fat away while you writhe around in front of the TV and allow your credit card to be debited in just eight weekly payments of $99.95.) In my opinion, there are few gyms and coaches in the “women’s fitness” industry who truly present fitness for women.
I continue to meet many women who have been programmed by society to have a tragically low estimation of their own physical potential. It is truly sad to meet someone who has effectively been blinded to the possibility of her own physical prowess. It is almost impossible for this unconsciously self-imposed limitation not to find its way into other areas of life. I’m not saying that all women should pursue the realisation of their full physical potential. To do so is an endeavour requiring extreme commitment and it is not for everyone. But I do believe that every woman – and man – should know what is possible for her if she wanted to achieve it. Then, whether or not she pusues that goal is a choice. But to deny someone the chance to choose their goals by crippling their ability to dream or imagine is truly wrong.
I would like to see a movement which empowers women through fitness, instead of manipulating them for financial gain. I would like to see an industry that can help women to understand the applications of physical activity in creating optimum levels of health through all stages of the female life cycle. I would like to see an industry that can assist female athletes with the most current knowledge and training methodology that takes into account the different needs, abilities and responses of the female athlete’s body, rather than having all of our exercise science based on male studies and the assumption that women will just fit in with that. I would like more knowledge available in the industry about the female metabolism and optimal body composition for performance, rather than a perpetuation of socially generated “ideals” and out-dated diet and exercise methods cast off by the body-builders in the eighties.
So please, next time you see some health and fitness marketing that is targeted to your demographic, stop to consider what their real message and agenda is. Are they presenting you with knowledge that empowers you and opportunities which will help you to reach the goals you have defined for yourself? Or are they merely seeking your weekly direct debit by playing on insecurities generated by social expectations?