Taking Gender to the Gym, or, Making Fists with Feminists
My weight loss journey began on a treadmill, an elliptical machine, a stair-master. I ran, pumped, wheezed, sweated exclusively in the cardio sections of every gym I visited. Girlish bodies with high ponytails, bright tank-tops, dark sneakers, sleek leggings filled these spaces. My body looked enough like theirs that, in the beginning, I understood this to be my place.
The weight room belonged to boy bodies, boy builds, boy hands. From the treadmill, I felt boy eyes watch my girl shape. Like racehorses fitted with blinders, the girl figures ignored the weight room gaze, looked straight ahead instead, kept pace with themselves or each other. For as long as I could, I did the same.
In Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Judith Butler links the enactment or performance of gender to assembly, activism, and protest. She explains that it is sometimes in the precise adherence to gender norms that we find ourselves turning these roles on their heads, exploring gendered disturbance, disruption. Butler writes, “...That ‘turning’ of the aim happens in the midst of [gender norm] enactment: we find ourselves doing something else, doing ourselves in a way that was not exactly what anyone had in mind for us” (31).
From the gendered, girl-safety of my positions on the cardio machines in each gym, I watched the musculature of boy bodies take shape, lift weights. I observed. I envied. I learned. To take up boy-space, this is the walk: shoulders square, taut, pulled back like a ready bow. To take up boy-space, this is the position: arms held inches away from the body, loose, long, freely swinging. To take up boy-space, this is the gaze: intense, focused, furrowed, angry if necessary.
I burned calories with girl after girl, wiped glisten all over my bright tank-tops. My high ponytail revealed a half-shaved head, a small androgyny I began to worship. The spirit of this buzzcut propelled me across the gym. I touched the back of my head like a talisman. After weeks of watching, I picked up my first set of weights. I never really put them back down. In this middle of all my feminine adherence, I broke the cardio / free-weight barrier. I did myself in a way that even I could not have had in mind. In the midst of doing all that girl, I found out that I could do boy, too.
Trying to happily marry feminism and fitness is frustrating at best. Feminist scholars have consistently turned to theoretical powerhouse Michel Foucault, critiquing his notions of bodily control as they pertain to power, punishment, and what he comes to name “docile bodies.” In Discipline and Punish, Foucault writes “...discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bodies” (139). So much of modern, Western, women’s weight loss rhetoric connects diet and (self-)discipline (read also: self-control, willpower).
Western women are told -- time and time again -- that a good body is a thin body. A thin body is a controlled body. A thin body is the opposite of glut. Good bodies practice exercise routinely. Good bodies run miles and miles in all weather. Good bodies do not sweat, they shine. Good bodies are tame, efficient, gracefully fall into place.
Cressida J. Heyes masterfully modernizes the famed philosopher in “Foucault Goes to Weight Watchers” when she writes:
Foucault argued that as disciplinary practices seep into the minutest habits and strategies of (self-)management proliferate, we do not cease to act, or feel repressed—politically or psychologically. Quite the contrary: with the intensification of power relations comes the increase of capabilities [capacités] often interpreted by a liberal political tradition simply as the increase of autonomy (136).
Through this lens, “docile bodies,” then, becomes a deceptive term. A body may be well-controlled and powerful. In the instance of women’s changing bodies, I’d like to believe discipline and autonomy are not mutually exclusive. I have, at times, felt like a fraudulent feminist for taking up less space in public places. How could I be an advocate for women, in their myriad shapes and sizes, if I was a willing participant in a patriarchal culture of thinness, of lessening myself? This interpretation of Foucault gives me the flexibility to be small and strong.
I take Heyes’s reading one step further when I confess: in my own journey, the slow act of disappearing has empowered me to show up, to occupy space — emotionally, intellectually, socially. As I have gained mastery of my body, I have gained agency. I choose to eat the foods that make my body run fastest, lift the heaviest pieces of iron, breathe most steadily. I choose to drink water because it keeps my head clear. I choose to sleep enough hours to thank my body for her efforts. No governing law, no outside entity manages my body -- I do.
In class, my thoughts come quicker. My written responses are sharp, precise. I am not tired. I am humming with energy. I do not skip breakfast. I eat antagonism, snack on every memory in which men have harassed me, wash the day down with a dose of unfortunate legislation penned by male officials that tell me how best to have this body.
I am fueled by anger. Unclench the muscles in my jaw. Pull air deeply into two, good lungs. I am readier to speak up, speak out, speak back.
Recently, a dear friend -- the one who whispered, "Do it, Geen" when I first expressed a nervous desire to cross the gendered gym divide -- lovingly asked why I found empowerment in being small. The answer is easy, can be found in the leading actresses of my favorite romantic comedies or the glossy pages of every magazine I have ever thumbed through in the check-out line. The answer is complicated, too, can be found in the way a five-year-old peer asked, "Gina, did you know that you're fat?" on our way to Kindergarten gym class, in the way my father discouraged me from joining the track team in junior high, naming me, "too big" for speed.
Whittling my waistline is protest, proving these early non-believers wrong. Running my first 5k is my way of reclaiming "fat" -- fat girl can, fat girl will, fat girl is fast girl. Strengthening my back, shoulders, biceps, thighs is my way of displaying agency -- see what I've opted to do to my body. (You might choose to get a tattoo, piercing, new haircut, different wardrobe as an expression of control, this powerful decision-making. I choose to get bigger muscles. Neither way is wrong.)
The answer that links empowerment and my desire for smallness is "too big" for this post, perhaps "too big" even for my twenties or my tenure at graduate school or this large lifetime of mine.
To be clear, my way of having a body is not the only way of having a body. Bodies bigger, smaller, more able, and less able than mine can be empowered, powerful, pulsing with potential and kinetic energy. Having a body is hard business. This essay is not prescriptive, but descriptive.
Here is my body -- have yours however you'd like.
In “Getting to My Fighting Weight,” Ann Cahill describes her feminist weight loss journey, one that resonates quite firmly with mine. Maybe it will resonate with yours, too. She writes:
I realized that maximizing my ability to move, quickly, effectively, strongly, was entirely conducive to my feminist aspirations and activities. I wasn’t aspiring to skinniness or frailty, just the opposite: I wanted to bring strength and vigor to whatever struggle I chose. I wanted to get to my fighting weight (147).
I am smaller now, certainly, than I was six months ago. But I am stronger, too. My body is not cleaved, “before” and “after.” She is “now” and “still to come.” I struggle to love her now, and I imagine I will struggle to love what’s next — she who is still to come. This now body just happens to be readier for assembly, readier to march, to protest, to fight the patriarchy, the one that demands she be small, stay silent. My body is docile because she is disciplined, but my body is powerful because her new size makes her emotional, psychological, interpersonal, and physical strength entirely unexpected.
Spoken word poet and body positive activist Sonya Renee Taylor recites:
The body is not an apology.
Do not give the body as communion, confession,
do not ask for it to be pardoned as criminal.
The body is not a crime, is not a gun…
To this, I add, the body is a weapon. A tool. A useful machine. She fights regimes with fists firm as ripe fruit. Her spine is licorice, sweet and roped. She is knot and noose, may save or kill anything of her choosing. Save kindness. Save empathy. Save belly laughter. Kill scales. Kill perfectionism. Kill unholy opinions. The mirror says, “Look at me.” The girl with the girl-boy habits, half-shaved head, thick curls, fat ass, and feminine muscles knitted tight like masculine brows replies, “No. Look at me.”
Butler, Judith. Notes Toward A Performative Theory Of Assemby. Cambridge, MA, Harvard
University Press, 2015.
Cahill, Ann J. "Getting To My Fighting Weight." Hypatia, vol 25, no. 2, 2010, pp. 485-492.
Heyes, Cressida J. "Foucault Goes To Weight Watchers." Hypatia, vol 21, no. 2, 2006, pp.
126-149. Wiley-Blackwell, doi:10.1353/hyp.2006.0009.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline And Punish: The Birth Of The Prison. New York City, NY, Pantheon
Taylor, Sonya Renee. "The Body Is Not An Apology." 2013,
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