Fit Femininity

Exploring the intersection of culture, gender, and exercise.

Watch Your Back!

Body surveillance.

I'm in a department store changing room and cannot help hearing two women who want to share the adjoining changing room that has enough mirrors to also see one’s back. They continue chatting, and after some time assessing the garments they are trying on, they start to talk about exercise. ‘You know, my friends who start exercising, their legs become big in the back, like really visible. I don’t like that,’ one says. The other agrees that such big muscles certainly do not look good. From my own three mirrors, I could see that I was definitely among those unattractive exercisers. Curious — I thought that hamstrings were ‘safe,’ not among those muscles of which size women had to watch out for.

Studying my back from the mirror also reminded me of my exercise class, where the instructor tried to inspire us through a difficult and tiring upper back exercise. She introduced us to a new concept: the upper back love handles. Apparently, one gets these underneath the shoulder blades and they can hang over one’s ‘bra line.’ Oh dear, I thought, I never realized to watch out for such an unattractive scenario of hanging flesh. In fact, I did not realize to watch out for my back at all as it was not something that one immediately notices in a mirror.

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The two incidents added further details for body surveillance in addition to the usual gazing for any extra weight, flabbiness, or wrinkles. Some researchers have also confirmed women’s need for continual and detailed body assessment. Already 20 years ago, Carol Spitzack noted that the women in her study felt exposed to their own critical gaze as well as others’ gaze. This happened whether one was thin or fat, attractive or non-attractive, but in either case it was often unpleasant: As if the body was always exposed to someone’s criticism. Spitzack also found that the feeling of being continually gazed intensified with age as there were more flaws to watch out for.

While Spitzack’s research focused on dieting, we have noted similar trend among exercising women. However, the gaze has become more detailed with exercise. In my research, women invariably identified several ‘problem spots’ that were particularly resistant to any training: the underarms, the abdominal area, and the thighs appeared persistently too ‘flabby.’ My current students identify exactly the same spots as needing particular attention. These are also among the areas where the female body stores its fat and thus, they also mark us as females. Therefore, we seem to detest and reduce some of the spots that most visibly identify us as women and prefer a figure more akin to an adolescent (but added with visible breasts and fat lips as one my students sharply observed). I must note that upper back and defined hamstrings have not so far been identified as ‘problems,’ but must now, obviously, be added to the list of things for careful surveillance.

Why such a focus on having to have a body that looks a certain way? We live in an era of women’s liberation — why can’t we look any way we want? Why do we even care what other people think of our bodies? This is a complex issue. Several reasons for women’s acceptance of and continued work toward the current cultural body ideal have been suggested. One reason is that thinness is closely connected to health and obesity is deemed as causing diseases or even diagnosed as a disease of itself. In this popular equation, the detailed intricacies of a healthy level of thinness (or fatness) and its actual correlation to the prevalence of illness are often ignored. Being thin is invariably equated as being healthy. Nevertheless, flabby thighs or underarms, while obviously unsightly for many, are not often specified as unhealthy. Instead of physical health, exercising women make a connection to psychological wellbeing: being thin and toned makes them feel better about themselves. Thus, a good looking body increases one’s self-esteem. Why is our self-confidence dependent on the looks of our bodies; not, for example, our competence as professionals, mothers, or exercisers? According to Spitzack, detailed body gazing is also to do with an acceptance that women's looks matters the most in this world.

To further understand women’s engagement in body work and body criticism, many researchers draw from French philosopher Michel Foucault’s famous work on Panoptic power arrangements. Panopticon was originally a design for an ideal prison where the prison cells where arranged around the guard's tower. However, the prisoners could not see into the tower although their cells where entirely exposed to the guard's gaze. The prisoners, thus, could not know whether the guard was there or not, but learned to internalize their invisible, controlling gaze and thus, assumed a type of self-surveillance for proper behavior. While most women’s lives in current westernized society could not be directly compared to imprisonment, according to Foucault, individuals in modern society are effectively controlled through a less concrete, but nevertheless existing, societal invisible gaze. Foucault asserted that such a gaze guards the ‘normality’ in society.

Exercise researchers demonstrate that a certain ideal feminine body shape (thin, toned, young) has become 'normal' in our society and thus, women’s work toward maintaining such a body shape is also deemed as a requirement for normal ‘femininity.’ Indeed, when I asked exercising women why they needed to keep such a close eye on their bodies, they did not point to a particular individual, but instead, said it was ‘a societal gaze’ or it was ‘in the society.’ Spitzack also found that women in her study had internalized the need for constant body reduction. Women with bodies closer to the ideal felt the gaze only intensify due to closer public scrutiny. Exercise can also intensify the gaze: as we begin to know our bodies better, we also pay closer attention to more body parts that appear to deviate from the ‘normal’ ideal body. Some women report that the mirrors in the exercise studios encourage further detailed body scrutiny. As the self-surveillance intensifies, there is a need to watch the body more and more closely: now we are to detect flaws in our backs — a previously invisible area of the exercising body. As the gaze becomes more penetrating, women have to confess to more and more bodily flaws and engage in an increasing number of curative body practices: dieting, exercising, beauty treatments.

It is very difficult to entirely ignore the judgmental gaze. Even as a researcher of women’s body issues, my first reaction was to quickly exit my dressing room before the women next door could see my ugly hamstrings. Spitzack also noted that often certain freedom is connected to following the gaze: when one loses weight, one is free to achieve all the things one always wanted; when one exercises, one is free to buy any clothes one wants. The ideal body makes one feel happy and liberated. This is particularly true for women whose bodies, Spitzack asserted, are still desired for visual impact and thus, more fully open for gaze than men’s bodies that are still under less scrutiny.

So what now? If we dutifully survey our bodies for all the flaws, confess these flaws, and then engage in curative practices, will we feel happy about ourselves? There always seem to be more flaws and more detailed scrutiny. Some of the old body problems seem to persist for ever. Women’s body work takes a lot of time, costs more than men’s body work, and there is more and more of it. This means endless work and not that many results. Women never seem entirely happy about their bodies. It is estimated that about 90% of women are dissatisfied with their body shapes. If the continual body work does not guarantee happiness, we, of course, do not need to accept the ideal body shape as normal — it is actually quite abnormal. Some studies estimate that about 5% of women are born with the type of thin and tall model’s body we often see in women’s magazines. Many exercising women already openly question the need for such a body. In addition, while resisting the gaze is very difficult, we might not need to follow it so dutifully. Besides, I really need my 'ugly' hamstrings. Perhaps there is space for thinking that our bodies are also needed for doing things, not only to be looked at. What is the type of body one needs to maintain to manage the everyday tasks? Could having a good posture be considered beautiful even if one has big hamstrings and a BMI of 29? Changing the body ideal and entirely ignoring the ubiquitous, invisible societal gaze is very difficult. Meanwhile, we can keep challenging it — I will, at least, keep my hamstrings strong.

Works cited:

Spitzack, C. 1990. Confessing excess: Women and the politics of body reduction. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.


Pirkko Markula, Ph.D.,
is a professor of socio-cultural studies of physical activity at the University of Alberta, Canada.

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