I'm Surrounded by Experts! Gym Intimidation and the Ideal Female Body
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19 Sep 2012 15:05

By Eric Troy

You know that one of the biggest, and most ironic, reasons people don't go to the gym is because they don't think they look good enough! This is a serious problem, because it can go much deeper than what a little pat on the back can fix. It really doesn't matter if someone tells you that nobody is judging you, or looking at you, or caring what you look like when you feel like all the eyes in the room are fixed on your flabby love-handles or protruding gut. You can feel the eyes upon you, as the song goes.

I can't solve that problem in a quick blog post nor can I help solve it except on an individual basis, if at all. But some of the sources of gym intimidation are a little less serious and I think that just being aware that you are not alone can help in many of these cases. Before I start with this, though, let me point out that we, on the internet, are constantly reinforcing certain sources of gym intimidation by making derisive comments about this practice or that practice, based on concepts such as manliness or being "hardcore", among others. Most of this we have no business foisting on other people. If you don't have anything better to say than "that makes you a sissy," then, bro, shut the &)*& up and watch out, Moe is about to stick his fingers in your eyes.

People with great bodies are experts

This is, of course, related to the grandaddy source of intimidation that I discussed above; how everybody else at the gym looks so darn good compared to you. You don't have a clue what you're doing but they obviously have it all together. Hence, you've got no business even trying. Associated with this is the idea that the best trainers are the ones with the best bodies.

This myth, that people with fit and attractive bodies are knowledgeable about fitness and fat loss is sometimes called the Body Beautiful Myth. Let's assume that someone's training goals are solely related to improving their physique. It would stand to reason that an expert in physique development, who also had a great physique as a personal goal, would have a great physique. But, the reverse is not true! The physique expert might be expected to have a great body (if they actually pursue one) but someone with a great body should not be assumed to be a physique expert! Some people are just blessed with genetics and a body "set-point" that is different than yours. Some people may not have a clue what they are doing and still look great!

Also, keep in mind that you are often seeing just a "snapshot" of someone at a time when they look particularly slim and muscular (well-defined, etc.). And, if you are older, pay no attention to those buff 18-year-olds; they will be in your shoes when the time comes! A person who is an expert at helping others lose fat and "tone" their body is someone who gets that expertise from helping others and from copious effort and study. You know, the internet is full of fat loss experts. Why? Because so many people think that losing weight makes them an expert! Nope. It makes you someone who has lost weight. All of this is, of course, true for strength training, to some extent. The take home message? Unless proven otherwise, assume that all those people you think look so good are just as clueless as you are.

You will also meet, on the internet and at the gym, many people who have had problems for years maintaining or losing weight and getting the body they want. Sometimes such a person will find success using an extreme method that entails "sacrifices." In the fitness world, the word sacrifice is sometimes a euphemism for obsessive behaviors towards food and exercise. Most of the time, this success is short-lived and the aftermath can be worse than what came before. But a sense of euphoria and control can come with this success that can cause a certain kind of zealotism to be born. It is almost akin to the "manic" phase of bipolarism where such an individual feels infallible and on top of the world. They might view themselves then, as experts, having done the seemingly impossible. And what did it take? Dedication! Anybody who fails to live up to the ideal that this person has constructed in their mind, is deemed, quite simply, not to be dedicated enough. In reality, though, they may be quite fit and accomplished. The success of this kind of dedicated zealot should not be taken to be the norm, nor does it need to be imitated in the name of fitness.

To understand this better, stop paying attention to what you assume someone's success means and find out what they actually do. For instance, people are always talking about "celebrity fitness programs." Well, celebrities often employ "celebrity trainers." And that trainer may have done nothing magical past planning out a menu and putting them through a circuit routine, etc. And that brings us to one of the biggest points:

Not everybody with a great body you see in the gym achieved that body by transforming themselves in some big way. At least some of them may have been very slim and just needed to muscle up a little. Whatever the particular circumstances, the journey is different for each person. For some, it is much easier. That, in itself, should dissuade you from thinking that success makes one an expert. More importantly, for those who did lose a lot of fat, it would have been their diet, that they wrested the most control over. Chances are, once they got their diet in check, and started seeing the pounds melt off, they just went to the gym and did any old random thing. Hit a machine there, or lifted a dumbbell here. Ran on the treadmill. Whatever. This is going to fly in the face of what you just read about kettlebells, or some other thing, I know.

Choose a Gym With an Atmosphere that is Right For You

This does not seem to be obvious to many people. There is more that goes into choosing a gym than what sort of equipment it has, and how clean it is. It may not always be possible to find just the perfect gym, but the atmosphere counts for a lot, as well. Certain gyms attract certain types of people. You know, if you are a maximal strength trainee, you obviously do not want to go to Planet Fitness. At the same time, a gym full of hardcore bodybuilders may not be right for you either, any more than it would be right for a busy mom just trying to stay in shape. And forget about the intensity. What if most of the people are just there to socialize while appearing to work out? That happens, too. If you are the only one there who is there to seriously strength train, or really exercise then this would not be the place for you.


female athlete from 1914

Female Athlete competing in 1914



Even more so, the staff of the gym defines the atmosphere. Are they friendly and helpful or elitist and snobby? What if the gym plays music? Well, this affects the atmosphere. A hardcore lifting club that blasts loud death metal over the speakers may be just right for some, but not so great for others. Even worse, you may not want to work out with Justin Bieber blasting in your ear, either, any more than soft classical music would motivate you to hit it hard.

To the Women: THEY do NOT Get to Decide What is Beautiful

All this practical stuff leads me to something that is more emotional. In so many fitness gyms there are established "insider" groups. Although men are certainly not immune to assigning power to those guys who have some kind of movie-star ideal of the chiseled physique, physical prowess can often trump appearance. The lesson being, you can't fool guys with a "show body" if that is not accompanied by capabilities that at least come close to matching that ideal. Otherwise, the power goes to the man who may not have as perfect a physique, but can obviously outperform the other. It is a balancing act for sure, and does not always work like a Swiss Watch, but "all show and no go" is usually not a continued source of power in male culture.

In female culture, you either have to be "all show" OR "all show and all go." You know, this is a complex social problem, and one I would never dare to write deeply about. Far be it for me to think I understand these problems. But I do see some of the writing on the wall, as it were. Something I understand is something you may not realize. There are people in the "fitness industry" who have a vested interest in telling you how you should look, and how you should WANT to look. The internet is inundated with flashy photos of muscled athletic looking women lifting weights, for instance, and usually the caption to these images are designed to sell an ideal to you. There is often a prideful and self-delusional game behind these practices. Health is not a commodity any more than beauty but the female body is commodified, and it always has been. What is ironic is that, while many women rightfully complain about this, it is other women doing it, as much as any man!

springboard-divers-1920.jpeg

1920 Olympic Medalists in Springboard Diving
Aileen Riggin and Helen Wainwright



As much as I love strength training, I am tired of it being bastardized by huxters to make a quick buck. When any kind of physical activity becomes a product instead of an individually assigned goal oriented activity, then certain body types which represent an idealized athletic form become a representation of that activity for everyone, even though they represent very few people who may pursue that same activity. To any woman, or man, out there in the fitness industry who is engaged in telling women how a beautiful woman looks, you seem to misunderstand beauty. If all women looked the same, then we would not know what beautiful is! We would have no concept of it. It is the differences that make beauty. Beauty is unique; it is not a commodity.

It is beyond me why anyone thinks a photo of some muscular fitness model (and they are usually models) would motivate more women to go to the gym. It's people who look like this helping to keep them away. But, I can understand how this kind of thing could come about. The female psych seems to be at war with itself. On one hand there is the ideal female athlete body, and on the other hand there is the wider cultural ideal female body. Female athletes may be quite proud of their physical prowess in the athletic arena, and understand how their physique goes along with that prowess. That drive may come with its own pitfalls, of course, but the point is that the ideal female body is a function of social context. Therefore, those same athletes who accept their bodies in the athletic arena, may also feel dissatisfied with their bodies in the cultural environment outside of sport. Yes, it is possible to accept your body in one context and wish it were different in another! The athletic body that is appropriate in the field may not be the culturally ideal body.

So what happens? You can see it happening all around you. Instead of rejecting the idea of a culturally ideal body, athletically prone women themselves seem to be trying to redefine what the ideal body is. Hey, if I only like the way I look in one social environment, why don't I try to convince more people to be a part of that social environment, and to convince the rest of society that this is the new cultural ideal! In case it seems like I am assuming too much, and perhaps being insulting, can you think of any other reason to try to convince others that they should seek to look the way you do besides your own innate discomfort or feelings that you have been judged?

This may be a gross oversimplification of a very complex social issue, I know, but you cannot deny it makes sense. What these "athletically prone" women do not understand is that they have idealized the athletic form beyond what is realistic. Not only does the female athlete's body evolve to fit the function for their sport (see a female shot putter and compare that to a track and field athlete) but female athletes are under great pressure to stay within a certain physical ideal that corresponds with their performance needs. What so many see as healthy, may only be healthy on the surface. Underneath there may be great struggle; disordered eating and body dysmorphia. Selling this "ideal" is selling a bill of goods!

The world is full of interesting and beautiful women, you just have to open your eyes and stop seeing the opposite sex with the cultural blinders you have been conditioned to where. I will never let another person define for me what is beautiful.

The subject here is an aspect of sport and exercise psychology, as well as social psychology. However, since it involves cultural constructs and ideals, it relates to a new and emerging area of sports psychology called Cultural Sports Psychology. It is a fascinating area which challenges many of the preconceived notions of traditional approaches to the psychology of sport. For more indepth reading see Cultural Sport Psychology by Robert Schinke and Stephanie J. Hanrahan.

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This page created 19 Sep 2012 15:05
Last updated 08 Jan 2014 16:57

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