bodypanicBody Panic:  Gender, Health, and the Selling of Fitness

This book provides the body of research pursued by authors Shari L Dworkin and Faye Linda Wachs. Dworkin, an Associate Professor of Medical Sociology in the Dept. of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the U. of California at San Francisco, has previously co-authored Built to Win:  The Female Athlete as Cultural Icon.  Wachs is Associate Professor of Sociology at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona.

As graduate students, Dworkin and Wachs, gym rats in their own right, found it difficult to miss the gender differences in popular health and fitness magazines.  So began a 10 year investigation of a number of such publications, analyzing, from a feminist perspective, gender, media, bodies, and fitness.    Consumer culture and healthism inform their analyses of text and image in these magazines.

Body Panic:  Gender, Health, and the Selling of Fitness is an academic read on a thoroughly engaging topic.

The authors studied, analyzed and coded 7 women’s and 7 men’s health and fitness magazines, including:  Shape, Women’s Sports & Fitness, Men’s Health, Exercise for Men Only, Living Fit, Ms. Fitness, and Fitness Plus.   They looked at cover models, workouts, advertising, and feature articles.  Surprisingly, even to them, they found there to be much more similarity between representations of women and men than differences.   That is, though nuanced differently, men were objectified in much the same way as women and, over time, had the same ‘idealized body’ expectations placed upon them.   These similarities are seemingly driven by consumer culture and a culture of ‘lack’ where we just don’t measure up to the ideal and must purchase our way to a successful body.

Healthism, introduced in the first chapter, is a new concept for me and one which has given me much pause for thought.  Dworkin and Wachs use this concept throughout the book in their analyses of consumer culture, bodies, and social inequality.  Healthism was first discussed by Robert Crawford (Healthism and the Medicalization of Everyday Life, 1980).  Both health and disease, within the framework of healthism, exist  at the level of the individual – problems and solutions with respect to health are an individual responsibility.  Thus a moral laxity in those who are not healthy is implied.  This hits home for me.

This notion of healthism is pervasive in fitness and health media.  Those who are obese, who smoke, consume fast foods, are inactive, who do not properly care for their own health and fitness are considered to be lacking in morality.  Those who participate in the consumer nature of healthism – from gym memberships and workout clothes to spa treatments and wrinkle creams from diet plans and supplements to aesthetic services and cosmetic surgeries – are good and moral and responsible.  Healthism, of course, obscures larger more insidious collective factors related to health, like socioeconomic issues, government policies and other structural contributions to health disparities.  Clearly the consumer culture driving our current fitness industry is accessible only to a privileged segment of society.

The confessional is another concept they apply to the discourse surrounding fitness and health which intrigues me and I want to further explore and better understand this notion.   It is so relevant to the neoliberal agenda of our culture and the blogging world in which I have begun to participate in earnest:

“Whether a media figure makes public announcements on television about his or her HIV status, patients make weekly statements to a mental health practitioner about their relationship problems, or a woman or man shows us or declares how much he or she ate or exercised (or should have), the practices of seeing, telling, listening, marking, defining, judging, and changing behaviors is well integrated into the fabric of contemporary U.S. culture.  Media in fact become a popular forum in which to structure everyday confessionals for the reading public and to lay out the parameters for redemption (e.g., cutting calories, hitting the gym).”

Dworkin and Wachs include a discussion of hegemonic masculinity(the forms of masculinity seen as the norm; perceived to benefit everyone, they only really benefit the privileged class) and healthism as it relates to men.  They elaborate, based on their analyses of the magazines, how masculinity is fortified by muscular size particularly when paired with a ‘small’ feminine woman.  Portrayal of national and military power, and particular sports also serve to reify  masculinity in the magazines.   Though representations of men in the media are more objectified than in the past, such objectification is somewhat counteracted by hegemonic masculinity.

The discussion of fit motherhood in this book was also quite interesting to me.  In particular, the notion that fitness is now the ‘third shift’ in the lives of many women, at least those privileged to feel the pressure of a third shift.  Women in the workforce come home to parenting and household responsibilities after their workday.  This is their second shift.  Along with these responsibilities are the pressures to “get back their body” after childbirth and so fitness/workouts become their third shift.  Fitness magazines are not acknowledging the responsibilities women have in the paid workforce, but they are focusing on a woman’s responsibility to be fit and active as a new mother, for the sake of her child and family. Single mothers, lesbian mothers and the responsibility of fathers in active family life are nonexistent in the magazines.

Social justice, the authors point out, embraced within a framework of consumerism has become the ‘norm’.  There has been an abdication of public responsibility for providing and protecting our abilities to participate in health and fitness practices.  Instead, the individual has this responsibility and it can be executed only within a space of privilege.  With a narrow range of prescriptive options based on a consumerist lifestyle, perpetuating our belief that we are free to choose, fitness magazines simply provide the audience, and the means of reaching the audience, for advertisers.

“ In short, the magazines offered bodily and consumption-based solutions that relied on tropes of gender and nature to solve complex, global structural social problems.”

Like our ‘buy in’ to charity – we buy pink ribbon festooned stuff  and pay to participate in  costly walks/runs/bikes and call this altruism – our ‘buy in’ to healthism allows an avenue for women to be successful and worthy by becoming the right kind of objects and men to be likewise through appearance and sexual prowess.

Dworkin and Wachs raise many additional research questions at the end of Body Panic; areas for additional research to tease out the complex ways consumption-based individualism intersects with social justice, gender, and representation.

Of late I have been spending quite a bit of time thinking about how I think about fitness and health issues, so this book has provided me with so much more depth in my deliberations.  The diet industry and the focus within the health and fitness industry on weight loss, fitness fashion, body size and the wonderful concept of fat acceptance, the misleading notion of self esteem continually boasted by fitness and diet programs, reality television as it feeds individualism and consumerism, para-militaristic fitness boot camps, the lack of solid public policy and public funding in this area, inequities related to disenfranchisement — the complexity often overwhelms me, but I will continue to struggle.

Dworkin and Wachs have added a valuable piece of research to our understanding of the making of bodies in today’s fitness culture.

If you are in the business of fitness, you need to read this book.