The masculinised workout – about recreational sport, the gendered body and gendered measuring in the public sphere

posted Sep 22, 2011, 8:19 AM by Wendy Hein   [ updated Oct 3, 2011, 11:57 AM ]

It’s been a long and eventful summer and I hope everyone’s enjoyed themselves. Maybe you still have bit of a tan (for those of us from Northern Europe this can usually be assessed by whether you can still see your swim-wear marks, lovely feeling that!); or maybe, like me, you were bitten alive by mosquitoes and you couldn’t stop itching which has now left a lasting visible mark too. Well, welcome back to the trot of everyday life which I’m sure is agonising for some, for others it comes as a relief.

For me this time is quite exciting as it’s back to school in a more literal sense. I recently started my post as lecturer in Marketing at Birkbeck, University of London, where I will continue my research, and will also teach consumer behaviour and public relations. It’s already been an exciting month filled with new impressions to reflect on. But before going into any of these in more detail, the turbulent summer has left a lot of experiences unprocessed that may be worth sharing. Plus, this gets back into the habit of writing more regularly, another big bonus of having a blog. I have been mulling over a number of thoughts/ideas/experiences for weeks whereas my new experiences may require further grounding, also keeping in mind that my audience may become more demanding from now on... ooh, pressure.

Therefore, while I could write about my summer in Germany where news of economic ups and downs were contrasted with reports of German birth rates as rather fixed to the bottom (and here I could comment on German industries, technology, engineering and cars seemingly privileged over what some described ‘softer’ and social issues, which may possibly be also reflected in how a lot of Germans approach marketing, sadly appearing to dismiss a wealth of socio-cultural and philosophical history) it may be more difficult to be either critical or uncritical of your own country – which may be a good methodological question for ethnographers. Instead, let me start with a lighter topic.
With the rugby world cup in full swing, all eyes are yet again on sports. One particular phenomenon receiving more attention these days is the growing participation of women in the sporting arena. In this context we could certainly look at female sports supporters in this context, or female athletes (consider this year’s football world cup in Germany for example – congratulations Japan!) and female sports managers, not to mention educators. In addition to these, some research has focused on females participating in recreational sports practices, such as surfing. My own attention was recently drawn to more mundane exercise routines of individuals. I used to be keen about exercise but writing and research has a tendency of grounding your bottom for long periods of time which doesn’t always work in favour of your figure. Nevertheless, after seeing several training groups around London parks and craving movement and fresh air, I was excited to participate in a session. You may have come across these before – the recent film ‘Bridesmaids’ puts a humorous slant on this and other scenarios. Doing some casual research of sports communities (which often have a hefty price tag attached – again, watch ‘Bridesmaids’), I came across diverse running and walking groups, some as obscure as ‘military pilates’, ‘buggyfit’. And I thought tag rugby was tough... Equally tough yet ‘motivating’ was our group training then, which had us running, stopping, jumping, kneeling, rugby tackling, pulling, burpeeing – you name it. Looking at it from an outsider perspective, it reminded me of a dog course at times, although it certainly had its militant moments too. Of course, the gentlemen performed very differently to the women – not just in an athletic sense. The competition was different for the boys compared to the girls. For while the guys were already running up and down the field before the instructor shouted ‘go’, the girls were often equally feisty, but rather appearing to do the exact number of twists and pulls. Me on the other hand, I would have liked to have taken my own time – I did all my 20 reps but was often the only one left on the field, like the last one picked for the team. Instead of being a good workout for body and soul, the training turned into a weird mix of peer pressure and power display, somewhere between exercise and cheating.

What had been perceived as a call for a pleasant training, including my naive expectations of a feminine spirit of boys and girls doing aerobics (which is a nice example of women carving out their own space in sports in the 80s), appeared to had turned terribly masculine. Out there in the park, women and men participated together which was nice for a change. However, women and men were certainly not performing equally. The muscle groups, the mentality, the strength, the competition – women seemed to be training their masculinity as well as their bodies (and learning to cheat too!). I felt a little deprived since workouts had generally been a feminine practice to me which gave me a warm fuzzy feeling, but it appeared that this space and practice had been masculinised. Instead of men learning to ‘do’ femininity, I had to do once again as the guys did. Never mind you say, I’m used to it at this stage and I can always go back to yoga or ballet... but will that give me the ‘power body’ I need to compete in this fierce world, and am I running the risk of producing a feminine body pleasant to look at? And who is looking? I don’t want to be a ‘body’; I want to be valued for my insightful thoughts, no?

The story continues. The importance of sports for public life, clearly losing its recreational relevance, and the display of the results of the ‘trained body’ became more apparent when I learned from a friend in finance that his high-profile investment firm regularly engaged in sporting competitions between employees of other finance companies. In fact, rumour has it that some athletic employees were taken on in the company on short-term contracts so they could represent the firm at these sporting events – clearly reinforcing the importance of beating the competition. Let me get this straight, not only did his job demand several hours of his day for his profession, after his working hours he had to train for a ‘social’ sporting event and couldn’t even enjoy good food and drink. To me, this seemed to go beyond the call of duty.

I also wondered about the women’s participation when these guys were out there running their guts out for the company. Answer: the company did not have any female employees – how convenient. Surely any woman would have been a liability for winning the office cup. Considering this in a broader context, it seems clear again that women and men may be able to participate jointly in certain practices and exercises, but that performances are often still ranked according to our bodily strengths and other certain measures where men tend to outperform women. The fact that one appears to be over-privileged and even the fact that certain performances have to be measured resulting in one winning over the other, the fact that there seems to be constant competition when the winner is often clear from the outset, seems to be forgotten. Why can’t we have more inclusionary practices, or even beyond that, why is it that women have to learn ‘masculinity’ and men can lead a perfectly comfortable life without learning ‘femininity’ (or at least not displaying this in public life)? More fundamentally, why do we have to measure everything and who decides what to measure? Can we not exercise for our health without having to feel inadequate for not running as fast as the other? Can sport not be part of our daily experience that enriches our lives, as something we share as a social or individual activity? And who decides what is measured? Why are body strength (where a man generally tends to be built differently to a woman), profits and sales ranked higher than compassion, empathy and care for one another?

Translating this favouring of one over the other further into relational, political and economic contexts brings me back to one of the many reasons for why German women may not decide to have children, particularly if we consider the gendered economic landscape in Germany which is filled with cars and engineering. Do you really think children are any good as a performative measure? And what about social care, caring for the elderly, the disabled and raising children? Hold on, wasn’t there another topic in the German media during the summer that these professions attract insufficient staff and are underpaid and undervalued? Who is going to care for an ageing society? And if you look at the UK, wouldn’t it be great if we could all do this voluntarily – who exactly is doing this work these days and who will be out of a job? If you ask me, as long as we cannot acknowledge the masculine and feminine as equal and stop our obsession with measuring according to predetermined masculine standards, gendered discrimination and the exclusion of women from a public world that continues to be masculinised will continue, as may be reflected in women’s positions on executive boards and differential pay scales. In short, there’s a lot more to be done to achieve equality. Here’s something to think about during your next workout. Oops, that turned a bit heavy in the end – but maybe it had to be said.
P.S. Ending on a more marketing-themed note, you can connect these sporting ideas with a nostalgic or retro-marketing topic a la Brown, and here’s a good playlist to get you into the spirit: . Thank you fellow blogger.