Sociology

Fitness as Forgoing Femininity

Transition

“No longer can the hero rest in innocence with the goddess of the flesh; for she is become the queen of sin” – Joseph Campbell

I decided to dig up my masters thesis on the representation of fitness and summarize the message here. Looking back at it, I’m beginning to realize it actually might have contain a valuable message I can share here. Keeping with the theme of transitions, this piece demonstrates how the transformation weight loss television genre,1) represents fat as an indicator of femininity and flesh that must be renounced in favor of the masculine virtue of mental strength and discipline; and 2) the representation of the fitness transformation has several characteristics in common with ascetic Christian salvation. I demonstrate these two points through an analysis of the first season of MTV’s program, I Used to Be Fat.

The Confession

In the introduction and opening scenes, subjects of the show are depicted carrying out everyday activities in the private spaces of their homes. Like an all-seeing eye of god, the camera provides the audience with a voyeuristic view of sinful behaviors. As if the camera was not there, close-ups catch the crunch of a chip and wide-angle lenses emphasize the bulging flesh and somber faces.

After a montage of everyday sinful moments early in the episode, the viewer is transported to a private space – usually the subject’s bedroom – where, standing in front of a mirror, the teenagers confess the disgust they see in the half-naked image of themselves. This display not only reveals the fat bodies of the subjects to the camera, but also emphasizes their gaze upon themselves. This marks a sort of seperation from the body where the confessor appears to be confessing to themselves through the objectification of their fat.. At this stage, self-renunciation comes in the form of confessing one’s personal body-loathing. Confession represents an initial break within the subject who has made the decision to seek salvation in fitness.

Penance

In a section entitled “Willpower” in episode one, Gabriella and her trainer begin the first ‘workout’. “Going to blast those calories” says the trainer. Skipping, hurdle running, and boxing, this first workout is represented as the most intense. Years of sedentary living reveal themselves in these initial moments of agony. Inflicting pain throughout one’s body, sweat, tears, and vomit are expelled in the name of fitness.The initial stage of bodily purification is displayed in the pulverization, often to the point of puking. This is the image of a penitent marked by the agony of the first workout.

Temptresses 

By coding production as masculine and consumption as feminine, in each episode, self-production is either facilitated by the paternal figure or threatened by the maternal figure. This involves the figure of the problematic mother which must be confronted and conquered, in contrasted with the figure of the motivational father who acts as a positive influence. In episode one, we learn Gabriella’s mother often left cookies out on the table as a test to her will-power. Throughout the episode, her mother is unsupportive of her daughter’s “selfishness” and thinks her life should not revolve around losing weight. Later we are transported to a restaurant where Gabriella withstands “temptation” when her girlfriends order forbidden foods. She tells her friends she has done a lot of growing up and she is taking back control from her mother.

In episode two, Marci is presented as being “coddled” by her mother who is divorced from her father. A father figure is not present, but her mother is presented as going through a drive-through to get whatever fast-food Marci desires. In the beginning Marci is depicted as often sleeping in late and throwing temper tantrums during workouts. The trainer, wearing army-style boot-camp attire, while using a megaphone during workouts, presents the “tough love” Marci lacks. The trainer also encourages her mother to display more toughness. This is something her mother feels will be difficult, but she is willing to go along. The trainer fills the role of the missing paternal figure by subjecting her to the discipline required to cultivate a mature character.

A similar problem can be seen in episode six, where Daria’s single mother displays a lack of support by buying unhealthy foods and expecting Daria to take care of her brother and help with chores around the house. When Daria signs up for dance classes, her mother thinks she is being too selfish for caring for herself more than her duties at home. The lack of male influence leaves Daria vulnerable to her mother’s temptations which are coupled with the gendered expectation of caring for others. The mother is positioned as the enabler of fat who must be overcome.

Mentors

In opposition to the feminine temptress, the father figure in each episode is represented as an enabler of progress. In episode eight, Tanner is tossed around in a power struggle between his girlfriend and his father. His girlfriend has caused him to indulge in fast food, live a sedentary lifestyle, and distance himself from the positive influence of his father’s wrestling club. His father is constantly depicted expressing his disapproval toward Tanner’s girlfriend. When she breaks up with him, after a temporary lapse Tanner begins making significant progress. This is short-lived since they get back together and Tanner begins skipping workouts and is depicted enjoying pop and chips with his girlfriend.

Episodes centered on the figure of the father have a very different dynamic compared to the previously discussed episodes where the threatening mother/ feminine are highly represented. In episode four, Mackenzie’s father becomes the central motivational figure in her life. Wanting her to attract a husband, he insists on the importance of losing weight in order to attain this goal. Going along with this goal, she eventually expresses that it is too much pressure. After a meeting with the older brothers, her father partakes in one of her workouts. In this section, titled “motivation,” he challenges her to see if she can do 100lbs on the chest-press machine and exercises along-side her. Although her father set a highly gendered goal, the goal can be attained by subjugating the feminine compulsion to excess through the exercise of masculine will.

Salvation

After submission to the gaze of the camera, the fit ‘self’ is revealed in its newly acquired masculine character. In each episode, this image of glory is contrasted with a montage of flashback scenes, marked by a dreary grey tint, depicting the subject’s past. Free from the constraints of maternal ties, similar to Kant’s (1784) enlightenment subject that is free from the tutelage of unreason, the subject takes full control over their body and their life. The representation of independence is most boldly stated in the trope of ‘the move’ to college. The summer comes to a close and a final weigh-in marks the “moment of truth.” Having lost a significant amount of weight, moving away from home to go to college marks a decisive renunciation of the tutelage of the flesh.

In the ultimate test of autonomy, subjects are depicted coming home from college after three months. In this time, the independent work they put into their bodies is revealed in a final display of transformation. Family members gather around and greet the young adult in a dramatic scene filled with surprise and tears of happiness. The subject’s new thin appearance signifies their reason and the will to work hard for the attainment of salvation in the name of fitness.


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9 comments

  1. A very interesting topic for a thesis. My experience was rather the opposite of the subjects on the MTV show. My mother was very fit and an extremely healthy eater, something she insisted that I be. She was also a very loving, coddling mother in terms of attempting to make my life as perfect as possible. She would step in to fight my battles and go above and beyond to make sure my needs were met. This is perhaps because she battled 10 years of infertility before finally having me. Unfortunately, she died when I was 20 after battling a systemic illness. Finding myself in a state of forced autonomy gave me a feeling of zero control. I made poor decisions in a few realms of my life. One of those realms was in my way of eating and in the ceasing of my normal level of activity. Though I still managed to find success in life, I struggled with the grief of losing my mother for years, and with my weight. A year ago, after some personal epiphanies and health scares, I began a diet and fitness program, along with counseling through a non-surgical bariatric doctor. I’ve lost 100 pounds and am now extremely fit. For the first time in, I feel like I’m in control of myself in all facets of my life.

  2. This is very interesting reading. I’m a lifetime obesity struggler and for the first time I feel I’m winning and I identify with many of these stages and see a lot of them in stories ive heard along the way. Often there is a mother felt to be at the root of the problem and support and understanding coming from male family members. At one point i very clearly was in that tough masculine mindset which has now softened and left me more feminine, more emotional and sensitive than ever. I feel the toughness was needed to pull me into a new determined way of thinking with no space for soft feminine qualities but when the time was right and healing had begun it was ok to shed the toughness and really feel like a woman for the first time, to be content in a more open, emotional and vulnerable form. Its far more complex of course women are very strong and to define strength, resilience, determination etc as masculine traits and emotion and vulnerability as feminine is unfair but I do think your observations are very interesting and in many cases spot on. I have food for thought to dine on today, thank you for that Im sure it will help me to make sense of the newly emerging me who sometimes confuses me.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. I agree with your statement that, “women are very strong and to define strength, resilience, determination etc as masculine traits and emotion and vulnerability as feminine is unfair.” My study is a discursive critique of weight loss television, therefore demonstrating how fitness is problematically represented in this gendered way. Discourses always frame and constrain complex realities, shaping the way we think about ourselves and the world.

      1. Indeed I was refering to a general tendancy including my own reference to these qualities beimg seen or felt to be masculine or feminine. I enjoyed your piece immensely and reblogged it to share further and have been thinking about it all day. I like when what I read follows me around I usually learn lessons from that type of persistent literature.

    2. That one gained something, is like the whole world gained from it.
      – but i also think many others are gaining from your writings, very interesting. 🙂

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