Published: April 1, 2007 By

[1] The experience of fitness by women in our culture is ideologically inflected by assumptions about gender and biology, with the frequent result that many women are active primarily for extrinsic motives—to satisfy our own and others’ ideas about feminine attractiveness—rather than intrinsic ones such as a heightened sense of self-efficacy or competence. A variety of factors acting throughout women’s lives—early training in “femininity,” the pressure of finding time for activity amongst our other responsibilities, the marketing manipulations of the fitness industry in the form of gyms and “wellness” magazines—all act to limit women’s experience of a fully developed sense of their own physical ability. Feminist critique can sometimes inadvertently contribute to these limitations: analysis focuses on the mechanisms of oppression operating within our culture, and advocates individual and collective resistance by women, but stops short of offering many pragmatic solutions. That is the goal of this essay, to move from the theoretical to the applied, and to argue that sometimes-overlooked practices can play a valuable role in promoting women’s emancipation through the development of their physical competence.

[2] From personal experience as both consumer and scholar of our culture’s fitness industry, I have found that many women in both categories are very ambivalent about the relevance of physical activities which involve competition, aggression, and risk (for this analysis, I use the term “women” as the fitness industry typically does, to represent a subset of women that is mostly white, middle-class, and heterosexual). In the broadest terms, women might avoid these activities out of concern that they are not compatible with cultural expectations of femininity; a more specific concern for feminism is the appropriateness of women adopting skills and characteristics culturally constructed as masculine. The objection is that to become more engaged in physical activities—more competitive, more aggressive—is to reinforce the privileged status of masculine behaviors associated with violence and oppression, and to confirm the patriarchally-defined relationship between social and physical power. In this paper I will offer the counter-argument, that the development of the physical, athletic body and the cultivation of a sense of physical power and competence, can be vital components of women’s full equality in our culture. Crucially though, women must be wary of elements of consumer culture, in the form of the fitness industry, which seem to offer us opportunities to develop body and mind together, but which tend more to reinforce the gendered anxiety and self-consciousness which lead us to self-impose limits on what we can do. At the end of the paper, I will argue the importance of seeking out activities that exceed the limits of the fitness culture, offering us more potential to achieve physical competence, and hence a greater sense of our own effectiveness and agency in society.

[3] Men’s ability to oppress women throughout much of history relied heavily on their possession of greater physical power—and hence the threat of rape and violence. However, inequality located in perceived physical difference operates in a more insidious way in contemporary culture, because in addition to, and perhaps more common than, our equation of physical power and the threat of violence, we make a further association between the possession of certain kinds of physical ability—strength, competitiveness, and aggression—and overall ability, or competence. Men who give the impression of physical competence can acquire status not by being dangerous, but by conveying an ability to get things done—from running a corporation or doing research to changing a flat tire or playing golf. Think of the importance of military service for male political candidates, especially if they have proven physically capable not just of violence, but of being capable and hardy in their duties, and stoic in enduring injury.

[4] In western culture, much has been written about male suspicion of the body as inferior to the mind, thus coding the body’s weaknesses and vices as feminine; in response, much first- and second-wave feminist discourse sought to fight patriarchal oppression partly through privileging the female body for its generative and nurturing powers. In recent years, third-wave academic feminism may have rendered essentialized categories of “masculine” and “feminine” unstable; nevertheless, as our everyday experiences and our media constantly remind us, society still values physical power and its seeming connection to overall competence, and still tends to associate this competence with masculinity. All too many women do not have, and do not seek, this physical competence; we see our bodies as having less power to get things done. Uhlmann and Uhlmann point to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus to explain how we—women and men—come to internalize conceptions about the gendered nature of agency. Most people, they have found, unconsciously evaluate male bodies based on “action and an active orientation towards the world” especially as demonstrated through “indicators of strength and power.” By contrast, “the criteria used to evaluate the female body stresse[s] passive attraction”; our society’s assessment of women is based on the “aesthetic value” of the female body, and “suppress[es] its functioning” (98).

[5] In many ways, men no longer need the threat of violence against women’s bodies in order to have a privileged status in our culture as long as women cede to them a physical competence which we feel we cannot or should not claim for ourselves. As violent as our culture seems, fear of men may have less power as an external influence on women’s disciplined adherence to gender roles than does our own internalized self-consciousness about how we inhabit and make use of our physical bodies. But, as I hope to demonstrate in this analysis, we can set aside concerns about violence and aggression, masculine behaviors and feminine ones, and work towards greater freedom through the deliberate cultivation of greater physical competence.

[6] By “physical competence,” I mean the ability to experience and enact a unity of intention and action, to be and do whatever we purposively want, without being physically constrained by ideologically-imposed concerns about appearance. This idea of competence owes much to Young’s analysis of how women, unlike men, are traditionally taught to separate their intentions and actions through the imposition of a layer of self-conscious monitoring. Young builds on the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who has described subjectivity as experienced through the body, in the simultaneity of intention and action within and upon one’s physical environment. In this view, there is no dualism of mind and body; ideally they act in unity.

[7] However, Young finds that women often—usually—do not experience this unity. From an early age, we learn to be vigilant about how our actions and appearance are perceived by others, and importantly, how they can in turn be acted upon by others. This self-consciousness leads us to “project an existential barrier” around ourselves (Young 155) which splits that unity of intention and action. The barrier might offer some protection, but it tends more to act as a constraint: we might feel safe within its boundaries, but when we contemplate extending our actions—taking up more space, exerting more influence—we become hesitant. We know how to behave in our small, self-monitored sphere, but are not sure about our actions outside of it and the actions that we might provoke in others; consequently, “we wait and react…we project an aim to be enacted, but at the same time stiffen against the performance of the task” (Young 146-47). Concerns about getting hurt or dirty, about acting or being seen to act incorrectly, create self-consciousness and a sense of discontinuity between ourselves and the space outside ourselves, our intentions and our actions. A fundamental mistrust of our abilities prevents us from having what has historically been considered the masculine attitude of “I can” and leads us instead to what has been considered the feminine question of “can I?” or the passivity of “I cannot” (148-9)

[8] As Roth and Basow have pointed out, there is no biological reason for women to have this mistrustful, discontinuous experience of physicality. Male and female bodies may differ in absolute size and speed, but researchers have found that in measurements of relative performance, women and men perform equally in many areas, or if men have one biologically specific area of ability, like upper body strength, women might have a comparable ability in another, like lower body strength. Being female does not, physiologically speaking, signify weakness (248). Thus, Roth and Basow confirm the observations of many theorists that differences that we perceive as sexual—that is biological, essential—are actually gendered: learned, constructed, performed ways of being in the world (249). They add that while many feminists wish we could reduce what we call the tyranny of body consciousness by separating women’s sense of self-worth and competence from our bodily experience, this would actually be counterproductive, and indeed would only serve to reinforce the discontinuity Young talks about (261). Instead, they argue that we must “acknowledge the body’s essential connection to self-worth and acknowledge that all bodies are constructed. There can be no choice, individually or collectively, as to whether female bodies are constructed, but there can, to some extent, be choice as to how they are constructed” (Roth and Basow 261).

[9] McCaughey has made a similar point: because historically the mind/body dualism has relegated the mind to men and the body to women, some feminists think we need to break the tie to the body. But McCaughey argues that it is better to for women to make a claim on both mind and body, to “conceive of the body as an agent, not just the thing that [masculine] psychical agents struggle over” (166). She dispels the worry of some feminists that to actively construct our own bodies through the development of physical competence (McCaughey’s example is self-defense training) we risk turning the body into a “craft object,” a “tool requiring intensive discipline” which, in one interpretation of Michel Foucault’s work, would tend to bring us more under cultural authority concerning gender, rather than less. But, McCaughey suggests, this is a limiting reading of Foucault; discipline is not always used as an oppressive “procedure of power” and power is not a one-way force that always oppresses—it can also be used productively (161). Doing what we can to change the way our bodies are constructed might just create resistance and change the way our culture is constructed.

[10] The solution lies in the deliberate cultivation of physical competence: the unification of intention and action, self and surroundings; the creation of trust in one’s abilities and the removal of self-consciousness and hesitancy. For women, this includes not just feminine physical traits of agility and grace, but also the “masculine” ones of strength and aggression. In fact, my definition of competence, like Roth and Basow’s concept of “physical power” includes the ability and willingness to fight for one’s personal goals and the acquisition of skills, for competition with others and the setting and meeting of challenges, and for protection of one’s self and others.

[11] As much as women agree on the importance of struggle—consciousness-raising, ideological protest, personal and political action—they remain troubled by a recommendation to fight in less abstract ways, to achieve not only political and relational strength, but actual physical strength. There is a concern that the willingness to use physical power can only result in violence. There is a conflation of physical power, competitiveness, violence, and patriarchal oppression: physical power is something men have used to dominate women (and other men) and, basically, no good can come of it. The route to liberation is through feminine, maternal nurturance. Lenskyj cites as one model the lesbian sporting league, which promotes “projecting a feeling of safety or security…avoiding situations that generate unequal relationships and [which] may sabotage the goal of cooperation, providing women with choices regarding participation, avoiding a success/failure approach to challenges, and promoting shared decision making and collectivity” (365). Castelnuovo and Guthrie offer the example of an all-woman dojo, where martial arts are taught in a cooperative way, and neither men, nor competition or dominance are allowed (72). While one feminist principle that we can all agree on must be that we can choose for ourselves which approaches to personal and political activism we wish to take, my concern about the previous examples is that they might run the risk of reinforcing an essentialist understanding of gender as either masculine/bad or feminine/good.

[12] Instead, I argue that 1) physical power, even when used aggressively, is not inherently violent or patriarchally oppressive and 2) as long as we insist on imposing a fixed, negative, meaning on the capabilities of the human body, gendered or otherwise, we are erecting unnecessary barriers to realizing our full potential. If both sexes do not free themselves from culturally-imposed bodily stereotypes—if men feel inhibited about certain physical capabilities like crying, if women feel we are bad feminists if we study kickboxing—then we persist in privileging the masculine behaviors we dislike, through fear of them in men, and by reinforcing discontinuity and a sense of physical vulnerability in ourselves.

[13] This is why I prefer the word “competence” over “power,” as the latter term is weighed down by a history of ambivalent and threatening significations which should not hinder us, but do. “Competence” conveys the combination of strength and skill, and the ability and willingness to use them, without the linguistic baggage of “power.” It also allows us to make the connection between physical ability and that previously-mentioned ability to get things done in a more general sense—to go from developing trust in one’s body as effectual, to feeling that one’s self is fundamentally, autonomously capable. This definition may have as much to do with specifically ideological theories of gender as it does with the seemingly more apolitical concept of “self-efficacy” used in social cognitive psychology. Self-efficacy is a term coined by psychologist Albert Bandura to describe the set of beliefs individuals have about their ability to learn new skills and apply them to challenging tasks. A strong (and realistic) sense of self-efficacy helps “determine how much effort [individuals] will expend on an activity, how long they will persevere when confronting obstacles, and how resilient they will be in the face of adverse situations” (Pajares 1). Since self-efficacy is influenced by one’s experiences of success or failure, and through the observed, vicarious experiences of others, we can see how, on the one hand, women in our culture may have developed a weak sense of self-efficacy regarding physical ability; on the other hand, we can also see how physical self-efficacy, or competence, can be acquired. And significant to my argument here, beliefs about self-efficacy in one area of ability can be used “to develop beliefs about [one’s] capability to engage in subsequent tasks or activities” (Pajares 1). That is, the woman who feels a strong degree of self-efficacy from mastering physical challenges will feel herself able to face professional and social challenges with equanimity and assurance.

[14] The process of developing self-efficacy in the form of physical competence is best begun in girlhood, before we become separated from immediate physical experience, and learn to distrust ourselves, and each other. As Brown and Gilligan have observed, both girls and boys start off experiencing “relational knowledge” through the body, through its feelings and sense (125). However, Brown has found that by the age of seven or eight, girls have learned to monitor themselves, and their behavior, to impose cognition over feeling and doing in order to make the choices that gain approval: they “offer and retract their desires, reconsider or dismiss their feelings and thoughts in ways that cover over their initial reactions” (47). By “protecting” girls from the physical violence we associate with masculinity and promoting their “natural” feminine characteristics, we make the performance of good emotional behavior of primary concern. If girls try to assert their own desires, we label this aggression and disapprove of it, but this does not mean that the aggression goes away; rather than being allowed to voice or otherwise physically enact their aggression, girls instead learn to distort it to fit the appearance of the behavior that is rewarded, that is the formation and performance of intimate relationships. As Simmons has found, girls learn that their own physical and emotional desires are “utterly expendable” (70). Aware that they have to manipulate the appearance of their own behavior and actions, they suspect the same in others (Brown and Gilligan 102). Brown has found a great deal of what she calls “relational aggression” in adolescent girls, which she attributes to this sense of disconnection and mistrust; her studies reveal that girls sense that they are being silenced, coerced, and made powerless, and they feel anger and frustration as a result (166-69).

[15] Instead of seeing the institutional, systemic forces at work, however, girls tend to see the problem as relational—their own fault—more reason to monitor and control (Brown 165). As much as girls are taught to be other-focused, in order to do this they have to develop a high degree of self-absorption, always checking themselves to see if they are focusing on the other appropriately; and of course early on, girls learn that what pleases the other is not only regulation of emotion and thought, but of body as well. The whole product has to be nice, as defined from outside, and contained so as not to impose on the other (168). Consequently, as McCaughey has observed, being feminine, a good girl, means “cultivat[ing an] inability to defend moral and physical boundaries” (33). The body and mind are not something the girl owns, they are only things she uses to be pleasing to others; internalized constraints on the mind constrain the body and vice versa in a self-perpetuating cycle of discipline that fundamentally de-skills the female self. Society does not seem to want girls to become self-assertive, skilled, or strong: “women’s size or strength is far less relevant than the social investment in a female body that does not exert coercive force” (95). Conditions are changing for girls, but slowly: for example, Adams, Schmitke, and Franklin have found that “…women athletes no longer have to downplay the masculine, competitive components of their participation in sports. They can indeed revel in their athleticism and publicly display it as long as they continue to exude traditional notions of femininity, particularly their heterosexuality” (21, emphasis added). This apologetic for their participation in sports suggests that even while girls today have more freedoms of both body and mind than past generations, they are still under pressure to monitor their behavior for the approval of others, which could create a potentially unhelpful degree of self-consciousness.

[16] The result is disorientation: a disconnection between a girl’s, and later, a woman’s, mind and body, desire, skill, and the force of will to embody it. Even when we prove our intellectual and physical competence, we tend to doubt it, to be skeptical of it, to be uncomfortable inhabiting it. Consequently, this discomfort leads us to search for comfort, what we tend to call wellness—and various segments of consumer culture thrive by exploiting our desire for this goal. We do not know how to create unity of body and mind within ourselves, but are convinced that we can get well by pursuing, usually for a price, external means to this end.

[17] So we join gyms.

[18] Thanks to feminism and Title IX, women in recent decades have increasingly been able to find the same kind of enjoyment in athleticism and physical training that men have always had available to them—the same enjoyment of strength and capability. Many women have had experience with sports from a young age, in high school and college, and seek to continue that out of school. Nevertheless, in the average gym, women’s experience of fitness and wellness is still often overshadowed by gender conventions that discourage us from exploring our full potential for strength and competence, while keeping us focused on bodily discipline through concern with our appearance. As women raised to mistrust ourselves, to be on guard against our own behavior and bodily experience, we are drawn to the gym out of a desire to improve our self-esteem or self-concept, and are consequently set up for a continuing cycle of frustration. Our culture has created a fixation on the apparently worthy goal of individual self improvement—but for many women this type of “competence” takes the form of bodily improvement through unforgiving discipline of the self, without asking what the self really wants or needs. Society seems to need our bodies to be “better,” and we try to shape our wills to that desire regardless of how that may affect our selves: body and mind are not necessarily pursuing the same goal for the same reasons. Gyms are set up to profit from this conflict by at once offering the services we need for the bodily discipline, without providing much to exercise the mind and psyche. Why should they, when their customers do not usually ask for that? We come to the gym alone, determined to achieve self-improvement as a solitary, bodily imperative, and that is what the gym gives us for our monthly fee, plus extra for lockers, trainers, and intensive workshops.

[19] Often, even the trainers at the gyms, supposedly there to promote their clients’ well-being, are under pressure themselves to focus on bodily performance as only a means to looking a certain way. Trainers and clients both end up pursuing odd diets and extreme training regimens in the hopes of achieving what they might call wellness, but which is all too often a narrowly defined ideal of external appearance—and which pits one’s mind against one’s body, rather than promoting their working in concert. Gym staff and members will say, and mean it, that they are there to promote wellness: healthy heart and lungs to avoid disease; good muscular development and flexibility, which allow one to have the strength and balance to perform daily tasks, or which lays the foundation for further fitness challenges. And yet, for most people (in particular, women) who participate in fitness, the idea of “health” is commingled with “losing weight”; as a 2004 Self Magazinepoll of 600 women found, 76% always or often think about their weight, and…86% say they “routinely avoid pleasurable activities…until they see a slimmer version of themselves in the mirror” (Micco 124). The internal, long-term benefits are hard to perceive, whereas getting back into one’s favorite jeans is very tangible. In fact, one popular training program at my gym is called “Buff Brides” wherein women set their fitness and wellness goal as their wedding day—looking good in the dress and then the honeymoon bathing suit; the program has had a reality show tie-in on MTV.

[20] Many members come to the gym unsure of what they ought to do there besides get healthy, and lose weight. For many of us, in fact, our earlier experiences of fitness—high school PE—have often been negative, so that in adulthood, we may approach working out as a chore, a continuation of the self-scrutiny of childhood, with little intrinsic enjoyment to be had in itself, with the only positively-reinforcing reward being the payoff of lost weight and improved appearance. Indeed, many of us never had the chance to learn how not to throw like a girl, and were well-conditioned to be suspicious of those girl-athletes who seemed too good. Women often say they want to become fit and strong—and yet worry about “bulking up” if they lift too much weight. An abundance of athletic ability is too often seen as an excess which will somehow affect the femininity (and heterosexuality) that we obediently police in ourselves. As Dworkin has found, while many women find that working out at gyms gives them a sense of greater self-esteem, they nevertheless impose limits on what they can, and are willing to, achieve in terms of development of physical strength: “women in fitness…may find their bodily agency and empowerment not limited by biology but by ideologies of emphasized femininity” which they impose on themselves (337). The female gym members Dworkin studied were all concerned not to do too much of the wrong kinds of training for fear that their feminine appearance would suffer. As Bartky has observed in her work on Foucault and femininity, in our modern culture we no longer need power to be localized in any group or individual in order to insure that women are disciplined; “the disciplinary power that is increasingly charged with the production of a properly embodied femininity is dispersed and anonymous” (81)—women are both prisoners and guards in the panopticon of gender.

[21] Thus, since so many of us have such strong internalized skepticism about the appropriateness of combining athleticism and femininity, physical power and competence are unlikely goals. And the fitness industry, made up of individuals who are themselves both produced by and productive of conventional ideas about gender and ability, cannot be counted on to give us opportunities to achieve genuine competence. Gym members often enjoy the classes which their gyms provide, like indoor cycling or step aerobics; within the narrow set of skills taught in the classes, they can easily become quite adept, and find pleasure in the accomplishment. Collins and Frederick and Shaw have found that for many women aerobics classes can be satisfying outlets for stress, and a fun way to work out compared to previous experience of fitness; some of the women Collins has interviewed claim that just having the stamina to get through the classes is empowering. Some gym chains, most notably Curves, have become quite successful because they try to provide women with a gentle introduction to this sense of empowerment. Curves is marketed specifically to women of larger size who might feel self-conscious and alienated by mainstream gyms; though the Curves workout is limited to repeating the same circuit of weights and cardio, it can provide an important shift in fitness level and ability which will allow participants to seek out more challenges if they choose.

[22] However, while any kind of exercise is better for one’s overall well-being than remaining sedentary, the sheltered and segregated environment of Curves points to one significant drawback of the gym workout as experienced by too many women. Frederick and Shaw have found that women participating in the average gym workouts sometimes feel oppressed by the cultural forces at work around them, manifested in the unforgiving presence of mirrors, the necessity of exposing one’s shape and ability, the injunction to improve one’s body, to have to perform repetitive movements delivered by instructors who represent a physical ideal that the women suspect is unhealthy (72). At worst, Collins argues, female gym participants are being deluded by aerobics and gym culture—Collins refers to Mikhail Bhaktin in suggesting that the empowerment the women feel is actually only a form of carnival that the culture provides as a diversion from real critique and protest. At best, because the women keep going back, it is a form of “making do” (106); gym members know that fitness culture is problematic, but try to get what benefits—physical and ideological—that they can from it.

[23] Collins optimistically states that this makes the aerobics class a site of struggle, with potential for resistance. While I agree that physical training is central to greater sexual liberation, I would argue that if the gym is a site of struggle, it is only as a starting point; participating in aerobics classes might give a woman the foundations for physical competence, but she cannot achieve it through step aerobics alone. Competence comes from acquiring skills that are both physical and mental; in general fitness classes do not offer skills of this nature. How much skill can one get when one is stepping or grape-vining to nowhere, cardioboxing with no-one? For a woman who has spent decades thinking of herself as unfit in all kinds of ways, to take a fitness class at a gym, to be able to do it, to even get good at it, can be wonderfully encouraging. But the fact that traditional classes like aerobics or step are now nearly non-existent in gyms, and that they are being replaced by an ever-changing roster of “fusion” classes, suggests that once mastery is achieved of the finite set of skills, there is nowhere else to go and boredom ensues—the carnival ceases to divert.

[24] Of course, gym workouts—fitness classes, cardio machines, weights—can have a valuable role in one’s overall physical practice. Finding room for an hour at the gym amidst a busy professional schedule is easier than getting out of the office for a three-hour hike; athletes at all levels of ability supplement sport-specific training with gym workouts, especially in bad weather, or as alternative forms of exercise in case of injury—gyms provide convenient and time-efficient means for working the body. And, despite my own obvious prejudices, I know men and women who claim to enjoy the more repetitive offerings, such as the treadmill—what some find dull, they find meditative. My concern is not (only) to critique what people do at the gym, but to examine why we do it and suggest alternatives. What are the valuable options we reject, and the potential within ourselves that we leave undeveloped, by looking no further than what the fitness industry offers us?

[25] As several researchers have found, people who choose such individual, non-competitive, low-skilled activities as aerobics classes or treadmill workouts as their primary or exclusive form of exercise, tend to do so for extrinsic reasons such as concern about weight and appearance; the majority of this group tends to be female. But the degree of adherence to these regimens is poor: people will not sustain a program of fitness through extrinsic motivations alone (Segar, Spruijt-Metz, and Nolen-Hoeksema 184-5). What tends to increase adherence, and satisfaction, are activities which have the intrinsic appeal of being skill-based, social, and competitive, and which contribute to greater feelings of personal self-efficacy and connection with others. These are also activities which we tend to categorize as masculine, such as games and team sports (Kilpatrick, Herbert, and Bartholomew 7). Despite the proven appeal and intrinsic rewards of these activities, however, women exercisers are too often caught up in our extrinsic motivations—anxieties—to look beyond aerobics and other gym-based workouts. We might gain enough competence at these artificial skills to start to feel delight in using body and mind together, to acquire a taste for more; but without a more complex challenge—real roads to cycle, real mountains to climb, real people to play with, even struggle with—we cannot experience true competence through this route.

[26] Just as gym culture can divert us from achieving physical competence, so can another aspect of the fitness industry, the deceptively helpful-seeming women’s fitness magazines. Under the guise of giving us what we want, they promote an experience of fitness that is individualized and isolated, and meant to get “results” in terms of appearance rather than skill. Fitness classes at gyms are usually purely functional, to burn calories and “sculpt” muscles, but where we can “work at our own pace”; the exercises promoted in magazines are similar. The “competence” that we are encouraged to acquire is defined as looking and feeling great!—which, from much of the magazines’ content, seems to mean being happy with how we look to others in our bikinis. Every issue features an amazing! new workout that will blast calories and give the reader a firmer everything. But look critically at the workouts. Recent studies have found that weight training as done by average gym-goers, especially women, is not particularly effective either for building muscle or burning calories, because most exercisers use weights that are too light (Heaner); nevertheless, in the magazine workouts, the models (who look slim and toned—like models—but never formidable) use weights too light to really build muscle. And the suggested cardiovascular regimens such as the new-old treadmill, elliptical trainer, or power walk, are designed to do nothing for the body, less for the mind, other than burn calories.

[27] As Duncan and Markula have separately argued, women’s health and fitness magazines are part of the larger cultural tendency to pathologize women’s relationship to their bodies. Markula suggests that the magazines profit from unbalancing women’s minds with conflicting messages about self-improvement through self-denial and consumption, thus at the same time promoting the internalized policing of women’s behavior (Duncan 50; Markula 166). The magazines may genuinely believe they promote wellness, but since they are just “links in a set of power relations” they are nevertheless “advanc[ing] women’s oppression by normalizing a certain body shape and encouraging certain attitudes toward health and the body” (Markula 174). Thus the magazines present advice which seems to, but does not, expand our bodily experience through acquiring new skills and taking on new challenges. Rather, along with the highly-disciplined and joyless diets, the magazines are only telling us how to make ourselves smaller: to take up less space with our bodies other than what has been accepted—by our culture, by us—as desirable.

[28] In recent years, many women’s fitness magazines—again, with good intentions—have regularly featured articles extolling the virtues of trying skill-based activities, of working out with others, but the focus of both the images and copy is still overwhelmingly on the individual body: in ads, the individual woman who has the power to seduce men with her appearance; in the editorial text and images, the individual woman who is pursuing the work of self-improvement as a worthy personal goal, but whose efforts are largely physical and aesthetic. As McCaughey explains, a focus on individualism may not, in itself, be the problem. Some feminists argue against the development of strength and fitness because defining “corporeal boundaries…only privileges the atomistic, individualized self that has historically been male and oppressive” (167). But McCaughey points out that it is sexism “that has excluded women from the value of individualism”: “individualism can make the body whole” rather than needing to be filled by men, literally or symbolically, making women “proprietors, not property” (168). McCaughey is right, that developing one’s individual self, uniting body and mind, can be a liberating practice; the resulting sense of competence and autonomy can then promote an individual woman’s ability to be a productive member of society in the sense of contributing to collective well-being, rather than being produced by society as an object alienated from a communal whole. That form of individualism is a tall order, and one that is lacking in the magazines. The magazines, and the larger fitness industry, will tell us what to buy to salve our individual discontent, but not how to question social norms or protest for change: “the kinds of individual ’empowerment’ that can be purchased through consumerism seriously reduce women’s abilities even to identify their collective interests, [leading to] a radical turning inward of agency toward the goal of transformation of one’s own body, in contrast to a turning outward to mobilize for collective action” (Dworkin and Messner 350-52).

[29] The editorial staffers of women’s fitness magazines deserve credit for trying; articles on body/mind wellness are now common in women’s fitness magazines. But the advice the magazines—and the fitness industry in general—provide on achieving wellness through a reduction in body size and the limitation of food and physical competence is an instance where the positive elements of modern individualism are actually being used against us by the marketplace. We like to think that what we are doing is individualistic, but we are actually participating in a group pathology fostered in girlhood. We pursue wellness out of a belief that there is something wrong with us which we need to solve on our own, through solitary self-improvement, even though at the same time our standards of what is right or wrong with our performance as individuals, measured most visibly by our bodies, is something that has to follow socially determined rules. It is possible that some of these socially determined rules can have real benefits—improving one’s consumption of fruits and vegetables is certainly a healthy change to make—but the underlying pressure to monitor and control oneself, or charge oneself as guilty of moral failing, can easily become malevolent rather than beneficial (Duncan 58; also see Spitzak’s Confessing Excess: Women and the Politics of Body Reduction).

[30] If women do start to enjoy the experience of working out (the key word is enjoy, to find joy in the doing, rather than taking a grim and penitential satisfaction in having burnt off one’s caloric sins), it is usually because we have managed to find some activity that leads to physical competence. One obvious example would be yoga—the practice has always had the explicit goal of creating unity of body and mind (not to mention spirit): the combination of breathing, challenging physical postures, and a well-developed philosophy are all designed to get practitioners to let go of exactly the kind of inhibiting self-monitoring that is so easily exploited by the fitness industry and the larger marketplace. Unfortunately, yoga is not always immune from these cultural or commercial forces, nor is it the perfect refuge from them. We see yoga teachers turning their philosophy into a business, trademarking their style of teaching, books, and apparel; and gyms and magazines selling yoga as yet another kind of workout, the basics of which are easy to learn, and the more advanced practices and ideas either never touched upon or offered without adequate instruction. Yoga has great potential as a skill to be mastered; indeed, those who have managed to get past the marketing of yoga as a fitness product find that it is a way of life that promotes a unified experience of body and mind with endless pathways for exploration and learning. The only drawback to yoga as a way out of disunity is the same for other paths to physical competence: that it is so often available to us only as a product (at my gym, ClubYoga™), and that we have been taught to see ourselves as bodies needing products for individual self-improvement, makes it difficult for many of us to find what we need within the practice of yoga.

[31] I suspect that many of us inadvertently discover that we can reach the same mind/body connection that we might deliberately look for in yoga, through the pursuit of other activities which require a woman to struggle for competence, to fight against one’s internalized sense of constraint to achieve physical mastery of skill—to achieve that unity of action and intention that truly brings body and mind together. These are practices which take the woman out of the gym and the realm of women’s magazines, practices which in fact exceed, or even contradict, the version of wellness that most of us are accustomed to and see as most convenient to pursue. I am thinking of activities like rock climbing, cycling, kayaking, and especially, because of personal interest, martial arts—or anything requiring skill, endurance, and the overcoming of fear and fatigue. These are activities that do not feature commonly as fitness products precisely because they exceed the limitations of a class at the average gym, or a regimen in a magazine that can yield a better beach body by June. These activities do not lead to quick aesthetic results; nor do they require meeting rigid, highly gendered, aesthetic standards imposed by external judges, as in gymnastics, ballet, or bodybuilding. Rather, the activities I am advocating for here are ones that require the gradual, often painstaking acquisition of skill, and then continuing opportunities to practice and improve, activities which can certainly be aesthetically pleasing, social, or competitive, but which are undertaken as internal challenges to the self, rather than for approbation from external judges.

[32] Of crucial importance is that these activities allow female participants to acquire characteristics that have been gendered as masculine—aggression, strength and power, competitiveness, risk-taking. Aerobics or amazing abdominal workouts never call upon these qualities, skills in themselves, and yet, because they are qualities that exist within us—channeled elsewhere into relational aggression against others and ourselves—these are exactly the characteristics we need to experience in order to feel complete. In combination with persistence, agility, physical and mental endurance, and often the support of others, we can lose ourselves in the experience of the activity. In fact, often one simply has to lose one’s self—or rather, lose one’s attachment to self-doubt and self-monitoring—in order to focus on doing the activity well and safely.

[33] The element of risk—exposing oneself to danger, or even what might look like violence—is perhaps the final element that makes such activities so valuable as paths to physical competence. In order to achieve competence we have to learn our own limits, and then figure out how to exceed them. This means pushing oneself through grueling training, doing more than what is comfortable, and experiencing what it means to sometimes fall short of the goal, and to sometimes get hurt. Again, these are mental and bodily experiences that the fitness industry does not offer to women, which indeed, it tries to protect us from. These are experiences that we have been taught to avoid, or at least not to seek out: so many of us were raised (as boys often are not) to avoid getting knocked around and knocking others around, to think of these experiences as bad behavior, that, if observed in us by others would result in judgment of us as being unladylike, unattractive. Thus, in order to protect us, contain us, and teach us to contain ourselves, our culture has taught us to keep part of ourselves separate from the immediacy of physical experience, the simultaneity of doing and being—learning what “I cannot” feels like, but then realizing that “I cannot” opens up the possibility of “I can.”

[34] Fighting to achieve competence in any physical discipline is not easy. As much as one might fight to achieve a goal, one is also fighting against her own training, the weight of expectations about gender and behavior. Let me focus on the specific example of actual fighting, such as we might learn in martial arts or boxing. As McCaughey found in her study of women’s self-defense, women’s first hurdle is overcoming our “proclivity to be nice” and a learned “physical hesitancy” (91): we’ve too long “experience[d] our bodies as fragile encumbrances rather than as tools with which to get something done” (92). For some women, sparring—fighting with a partner—could bring up uncomfortable associations with the past, of being the victim of another’s physical assault. For others, sparring could be psychically disturbing precisely because we have never had that kind of physical contact with another. It is a very intimate activity that goes past all the codes about personal space that we have in the everyday life of our culture (Denfeld 21). Then there is the fear: the adult martial arts or boxing student may initially be deeply fearful of hitting too hard, because, lacking confidence in her skill, she is at once afraid of doing the wrong thing and looking wrong, or of hurting the other person, of hurting the partner’s feelings. She is also deeply afraid of being hit: it will hurt, it will mean my partner does not like me. Many women find this mental, emotional challenge the hardest part: acquiring skill and equanimity in other areas of martial arts is a necessary foundation, to help them balance body and mind, to help them deal with tension and fear.

[35] The fact that this fear exists is a deeply disturbing discovery. The fundamental lack of trust of others, and more importantly, a lack of trust in ourselves that is so insidious and often hidden from us, comes right to the surface in the practice of fighting. But the fear is also the opportunity. It can be exhausting to fight—the physical and mental effort are surprisingly draining—but this is where the progress happens, because we get so tired that we can no longer keep up the effort to monitor our appearance and behavior, to be self-conscious about whether we are doing the right thing or not. We get stripped down to bare, immediate experience—what can’t I do? what can I? Gradually we learn, we get better; we can get over the barrier between action and intention, and in that freed-up space, add skill, power, self-trust: competence.

[36] I would argue that women can learn what many men seem to have learned as boys, to enjoy the possibilities offered by fighting, and to be tremendously helped and healed by them. While martial arts and other activities demanding both skill and all-out exertion make many women fearful of unleashing uncontrollable aggression in others and themselves, these fears are exactly what we need to overcome in order to feel fully integrated in body and mind—to assume the wholeness and agency we need to establish equality. As long as our society allows men to find trust in themselves through the entitlement they feel to take pleasure in the physical (and of course, it is the extremes of this sense of entitlement that can lead to physical violence), they will have the advantage. But there is nothing stopping women from taking ownership first of their fear, then of their own power. One of the fundamental lessons of gender studies is that gender is only a construct, a set of practices that we come to embody—but those practices can be deliberately replaced once we identify the means to do so. If we learn distrust, we can learn trust. If we learn to diffuse and divert our energies into consuming and imitating the models of the fashion magazines and the media, with their emphasis on keeping women small in size and ability, we can take ownership of that energy, and its source—our self—and focus it on those practices that unify body and mind, regardless of whether that makes us good girls or not.

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