Are You Having Fun Yet?
Research shows that fun can be both negative and positive for women exercisers.
Posted Feb 28, 2018
Have you attended a class where the instructor hollers: “Are you having fun, yet?” And almost always these exhortations come in the middle of a, particularly exhausting exercise bout. Regardless of your actual feeling, you might have felt compelled to answer, yes, or at least, thought that you should have had fun. Why do we need to enjoy exercise? Reflecting upon these questions, several fitness researchers have found fun a serious feminist issue.
In my own early research (Markula, 1995), I discovered that most exercising women enjoyed the results from exercise, not the actual workouts. They took pleasure in ‘fitting in their jeans better’ or having more toned arms. It was evident that looking better made women feel better. There is nothing particularly new about this: ‘looking good, feeling good’ is a well-established advertising slogan for all types of beauty products that now also include exercise.
From a feminist perspective, it is generally acknowledged that selling beauty is oppressive to women when its premise is the narrowly defined, thin, toned, and youthful looking body ideal. As this ideal is quite impossible to achieve, most of us have to spend our lives battling to get even close to it. Such an unachievable mission must, for sure, be frustrating, not fun. In other words, exercising for a better-looking body can re-enforce body dissatisfaction, not well-being. Therefore, from a feminist perspective, enjoying the small victories in the fight against bulge, flab, or sagging is to accept the ideal body as a necessary, yet elusive, target in women’s lives.
However, the pleasures for looking better after exercising can make us tolerate the gruelling, boring, or tedious workouts and there is no denying that looking better can make one feel great. This only becomes a problem, when good looks translates only to the thin and toned ideal model body.
Does anyone actually enjoy workouts? In their study, Tanya Nieri and Elizabeth Hughes (2016) explored a Latin-inspired group fitness program, Zumba that ‘prioritizes fun over work,’ promotes enjoyment, and encourages personal modifications of the moves in ‘a party-like atmosphere’ (p. 136). The emphasis is on the process of exercise—the playful, often sexualized, pre-choreographed routines—not the outcomes of exercise. In addition to fun, Zumba classes do promise the familiar ‘fitness returns’ (such as ‘burning tons of calories’ or toning). To find out if women really did have fun in such classes, these researchers interviewed 41 racially and ethnically diverse adult women participants, most of whom, 26 women, identified as Latina.
Most Zumba participants felt that other types of exercise are boring, stressful, painful, or monotonous. For example, one participant described machine workouts this way: ‘I don’t know how people can work out on the machines. That’s not fun’ (p. 138). Another said: ‘I’ve done the Stairmaster machine, and that just gets so boring and hurts your knees’ (p. 139). If working out with machines was boring and lonely, group fitness classes, these participants explained, were stressful because their exercises were rigid, awkward, and difficult to follow. Zumba, devoid of such aspects, was fun. One participant reported: ‘I can’t say that every other workout that I’ve done, whether group fitness or individual is fun. There’s something fun about the Zumba experience’ (p. 138).
Indeed, Zumba was all about having fun. In Zumba class, the participants did not feel like they were working out, they were moving, naturally, with the music without the pressure to follow the instructor precisely or worrying about making a mistake. The participants had permission to ‘go crazy,’ express themselves through dancing, being ‘sexy,’ and ‘goofy,’ but still push themselves to their physical limits. Zumba was ‘fun hard,’ one participant described. As another participant summarized: ‘I don’t think that everyone that goes there (a Zumba class) is that serious. They know it’s something more fun, more relaxed. Everyone is in a good mood. It’s not like people are competing with each other anything like that. Everyone is sharing in that sense of fun’ (p. 139).
Zumba provided an enjoyable workout for the entire body without the coordination needed in other group exercise classes or dance classes. The fun of Zumba gave the participants a sense of freedom for self-expression, freedom from following the instructor, and freedom from self-restraint in a relaxed atmosphere. The researchers concluded, that these experiences of fun were liberating for women: the focus was on enjoying the process, not the outcomes (technically correct performance or a specific body type) of exercise in a non-competitive environment where women moved and used their bodies ‘for their own pleasure’ (p. 143).
Nieri and Hughes concluded that Zumba classes with their emphasis on fun over work can be considered a form of feminist action. At the same time, the researchers acknowledged that the ultimate goal (weight loss and toning) did not necessarily differ from other women’s exercise forms. For example, 25 women reported weight loss as the major benefit of Zumba. One participant specified: ‘I wanted to lose weight and I hated running, I hated other exercises. So, Zumba was fun for me because I love to dance’ (p. 138).
In addition, the participants emphasized the ‘femininity’ of the sexy dance moves that, as the researchers put it, aligned with, not departed from, ‘the traditional gender structure.’ While the women in some ways felt free ‘to violate structured gender norms’ (p. 135) (e.g., the process rather than outcome orientation, pushing for physical limits, engaging in creative expression in a community of women), the researchers concluded, ‘their experience did not translate to an explicit challenge to the gender structure’ (p. 135). They explained: “The women did not challenge the imperative to engage in body work through exercise of the dominant ideology that women’s bodies require modification” (p. 143).
Thus, put into a larger perspective, Zumba promoted the thin and toned ideal body, but, the researchers insisted, the participants might have resisted it when they used their activity to fulfill other needs. The researchers concluded that although Zumba may involve resisting the exclusive focus on the ideal body, it did not dismantle it.
Even if Zumba participants did not challenge the feminine body ideal, they had fun while conditioning their bodies and thus, they enjoyed their exercise class. While a positive experience for the individual exercises, Zumba did not change the larger imperative of building an ideal body. As not everyone, me included, might have had equally positive experiences of self-expression and fun in Zumba classes, it must also be remembered that there are other ways to enjoy exercise.
In her feminist work, Jaana Parviainen (2011, 2018) examined the role of fun and enjoyment within the larger frame of the commercial fitness industry.
Zumba belongs to so-called standardized group fitness class formats: homogenous pre-choreographed classes designed to ensure a unified class format worldwide. This standardization, Parviainen added, has offered an opportunity for international business expansion previously unbeknown to such services as group fitness instruction.
In this business model, standardized fitness brands, as fitness franchisors, design pre-choreographed classes that individual instructors, as franchises, buy a license to perform and sell to customers. Getting a license requires attendance at a short certification course. These licenses have to be continually updated with new versions regularly offered by the franchisors. Thus, instructing a standardized class does not require highly educated, knowledgeable fitness professionals, but instructors who ‘perform’ the brand by, for example, embodying the fun party attitude of Zumba.
Instead of Zumba, Parviained used the Les Mills International (LMI) workouts, another global group fitness franchise, as an example. She pointed out that production chains of LMI are managed by males while many instructors are women. Similarly, Zumba, although now a trademark owned by Zumba Fitness that currently licenses the instructors, was originally created by Alberto Perez. This gender imbalance, Parviainen continued, is likely to limit how female instructors and female clients can influence fitness services.
Unlike Zumba, LMI routines are not necessarily designed as ‘a pleasant experience’ but can include repetitive and complicated routines. To attract clients to such classes, the instructor leads the exercise with energetic encouragement. The LMI instructors become entertainers who also market ‘the LM brand through their well-shaped, muscular young or well-preserved bodies’ (p. 536). In this performance, fun, and enjoyment become a part of the work towards the ideal body and clients learn to imitate the instructor’s well-rehearsed performance of joy as a necessary aspect of being fit. As Parviainen summarized, ‘body work’ in the LMI classes requires the capacity to produce inspiring movement, affection, and energy in addition to an ideal body shape.
While the LMI workouts might be exactly the type of exercise that the Zumba participants found boring and repetitive, the use of fun in these classes is similar: to attract clients to perform relatively simple exercises that do not require any previous skill. Parviainen, rather cynically, concluded that fun and enjoyment are used to make a profit in the standardized group fitness business. The enticement of having to fun masks the commercial interest in selling a uniform product designed to attract a maximum amount of clients instructed by low paid instructors without extensive knowledge. The clients and instructors have very little to say how these classes are designed and for what actual goal. Ultimately, these classes sell the ‘glorious’ ideal body shape as the reward of exercise that should be fun.
This research confirms that fun is definitely a feminist issue. Enjoying exercise is deeply tangled with the ideal fit feminine body shape when we only enjoy being thinner and more toned as the result of exercise. Although we find a Zumba class fun, its format does not challenge the ideal body as the ultimate goal for the commercial fitness industry that sells its services to larger markets of women consumers.
Obviously, having fun does not erase the social pressures created by the ideal feminine body, but is one way to ‘make do’ or cope with the process of building it.
So do the joy-killer feminists now condemn exercising for fun as oppressive? Not exactly, but they do declare the endless quest for the narrowly defined fit feminine body limiting women’s potential. If fun in exercise classes is used to further promote such an idea, it becomes a part of the bodywork towards the oppressive ideal. We can keep enjoying exercise but can think of other reasons than a new body shape for a pleasurable workout experience. It can be, perhaps, learning a new skill; or becoming more aware of one’s body, or functioning better in work life; or being pain-free; or being stronger for skiing or other favorite hobbies. Not everyone has to find enjoyment in the same exercise modality. If one enjoys creative self-expression in a dance improvisation class, another prefers ‘boring’ and ‘repetitive’ exercise machine workouts to gain strength. But let’s have fun building more rewarding exercise goals than the ideal body shape!
Markula, P. (1995). Firm but shapely, fit but sexy, strong but thin: The postmodern aerobicizing female bodies. Sociology of Sport Journal, 12(4), 424–453.
Nieri, T., & Hughes, E. (2016). All about having fun: Women’s experiences of Zumba fitness. Sociology of Sport Journal, 33, 135-145.
Parviainen, J. (2011). The standardization process of movement in the fitness industry: The experience design of Les Mills choreographies. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 14(5), 526 - 541.
Parviainen, J. (2018). Embodying industrial knowledge: An epistemological approach to the formation of body knowledge in the fitness industry. Sociology of Sport Journal DOI: https://doi.org/10.1123/ssj.2017-2018