The Sometimes Complicated Relationship Between Fitness and Feminism

Body-positivity is key here

by Sarah Hansen

I’m just going to say it: Sometimes I don’t like the way my body looks. And I feel like a bad feminist because of that. Simply put, I work out to make my body look different. I want to lose weight. I like to work out. I feel better about my body when I work out. And as a body-positive feminist, I have a hard time admitting that this is a reality for me, in part because I don’t want to be judged as a bad body-positive feminist, and also because weight loss is not an important part of everyone’s journey to self-love.

But even though it's nice to think that everyone only works out to feel good, it's also hard to deny that looking good is still a major goal for many women working out. Or, as actress Kaley Cuoco was recently quoted as saying in Women’s Health, “As much as you want to love your inner self… I'm sorry, you also want to look good.”

But does it have to be an either/or situation? Can we actually love our inner selves and still want to lose weight or make our bodies look a certain way?

Women are taught from a young age that our bodies are inherently not good enough as they are. We see this in advertising, in the way our mothers criticize their own bodies, in the countless frequently unrealistic portrayals of the female body on television. And it's just not external pressure either; sometimes negative body images begin at home. Like when my stepmother put me on a diet when I was nine. Or the way my mother used to pat her stomach and say she needed to lose weight. It's a vicious cycle that exists in all realms of our life. Just like it's big news when a celebrity or character loses weight (even bigger news when the show puts weight loss in a contract), it's also common enough to hear female friends and relatives greeting each other by saying, "You look great! Did you lose weight?"

A friend of mine who writes about fitness told me, “Whenever I look in the mirror, I am definitely comparing myself to a model type person and thinking I should eat fewer carbs or whatever, instead of saying, 'Yes, this is what a body looks like.'”

Another friend told me, “Fitness should not be anti-feminist, but I feel like it is.”

Nowadays, with the rise of social media and fitness inspiration (fitspo), there is a new type of pressure advocating that the best way to “find yourself” will probably involve changing your body, and that a good body—and the accompanying happiness—is something we should all try to "earn." There's an interesting dynamic at play here between being a self-loving feminist and wanting to change your body—whether that be weight loss or muscle gain or whatever other goals you’re setting—to look a certain way, because there's an underlying level of guilt that goes along with it, a strange push and pull of wanting to be a better feminist by taking care of yourself, but also feeling like "self-care" looks an awful lot like trying to achieve one of society's "perfect bodies." 

So the real question becomes: How do we go down the exercise rabbit hole without subjecting ourselves to our patriarchal society’s expectations of what a woman’s body should look like?

All bodies are good bodies. You do not need to lose weight to have a good body. All bodies are real bodies. You are perfect at whatever size you like best. I preach this loud and proud to my friends, to my niece, to my mother, to my girlfriend. Honestly, I truly believe it. I also believe in giving a big middle finger to society’s standards of beauty, and I think it’s completely true that anyone can be healthy at whatever size they are.

And yet even as I genuinely think all bodies are good bodies, I still find myself tearing apart my own appearance worse than anyone else ever would.

I know I'm not alone in this conundrum. I know other people have the same paradoxical issue. But still, I know that I need to change how I think about fitness in terms of feminism. Here’s how I’m trying.

Manage my expectations when I work out

I like to work out. Rather than noticing weight loss when I work out, though, I notice other positive side effects of regular exercise: I sleep better when I work out. I’m happier, in general, and I’m way less grumpy in the mornings. I feel more confident even when I haven't lost weight.

So it can feel strange for me, with all these good benefits that weight loss still plays a role in my fitness journey. Who am I trying to be better looking for? Strangers on the street? The kids who terrorized me in high school for being a pudgy, freckled nerd? My girlfriend? 

Sometimes I do fantasize about my girlfriend melting into a puddle over my six-pack (she rolled her eyes when I admitted that). As a lesbian, I get to inhabit the unique world of being a woman and being attracted to women, so when she criticizes her own appearance, I cannot believe the words coming out of her mouth. To me, she is gorgeous and literally without fault. But still, she can hold onto a part of her body and frown and say, “I need to work out more. I hate how I look.” 

Perhaps because I can see the absurdity in striving for a perfection she already has when I look at my girlfriend, I can work toward believing the same things about myself. Things like the fact that no body needs to be “earned.” You already have a body. It is a real body. If you love your body and you don’t want to exercise, then... don't. If you hate your body and still don’t want to exercise, then... don't. If you love your body and love to exercise, that’s great, too. But if you’re like me, and you want to change your body, you need to start thinking of exercise as more than just a tool to change your body—it's also about changing your mind and how it views your body. 

Change is slow. The best thing you can do for yourself is set realistic goals for what you would like to achieve. Nothing is worse than being too hard on yourself and thinking you’re not making progress when you’re busting your ass. Progress takes many different shapes and forms—just like our bodies. 

Try to think of exercise as self-care

Tess Holliday, a plus-size model and all-around amazing feminist, wrote on Instagram, “I stay active for me, & only me. It’s not about proving anything or trying to lose weight, it’s about what makes ME happy!”

I think it’s time to rethink exercise as a form of self-care and self-respect. In order to do that, it’s better to change the end goal of a fitness journey from “having a beach body” to “feeling good about yourself.” Those are not mutually exclusive, but they do not have to go hand in hand. 

A recent advertisement by Reebok featuring model Gigi Hadid caught my eye because it attempted this “exercise as self-care” idea. In a blog post about Hadid’s workout routine, it begins by describing how unbelievably busy she is, as in “a day of work on set entails a full photography crew, hair and makeup artists, stylists, agents and security guards, in outfits and styles that are not her own… The boxing ring offers a welcome sanctuary from the noise she is surrounded by every day.”

Now take boxing ring and change it to yoga or SoulCycle or a hiking trail or whatever is your favorite mode of fitness. Reebok is onto something here with their attempt to rebrand fitness as a sanctified practice that can have a hugely positive and restorative effect on your life. 

We should realize that exercise can be amazingly selfish in that good, self-care way, like taking bubble baths or reading books on the couch. You have to carve out time for yourself. You have to do something that will only benefit you. Think of that ol’ feminist mantra: the personal is political. You cannot think positively of women without thinking positively of yourself as a woman. After all, what’s more feminist than self-respect?

And in order to think of fitness as self-care, we need to get rid of the metaphor of exercise as pain, like that “no pain, no gain” slogan. Fuck pain. If you’re in pain, you’re not having a good time. If you’re not having a good time because you’re hurting yourself, you’re not engaging in self-care. And yes, there’s a difference between pushing yourself and hurting yourself. We should only be trying for the former.

If you hate to run, don’t do it. If you hate going to the gym, don’t do it. If you want to work out, find the thing that makes you feel great. Don’t settle for exercising in a way that will change your body the fastest, because what will keep you exercising after you achieve your goals, whatever they may be? Absolutely nothing. Self-care exercising means thinking of exercising as a long-term thing, not a fast fix. 

Focus on myself

Here’s an example of how I have tried to get past that tiny voice inside my head about how bad I look. Last winter, my neighbor invited me to barre class. I had my eye on barre for a while, because I was excited about it being geared toward women (though the classes are open to men, it does seem that 99.99 percent of the clientele is women). Exercising in a class full of women without any kind of male gaze is my dream. 

Barre class, if you don’t know it, is like the lovechild of pilates and ballet in sticky, ankle-high socks. You basically do tiny movements that make your body shake and you tuck your pelvis a lot. That’s it in a nutshell. The women in my class were nice, though only brand-new people ever spoke to me. Still, I never felt judged for being the only woman there with tattoos and back fat. And yes, I was regularly the largest woman in my class. And yes, I noticed that each and every class. 

The problem with me and barre was that I found that the large mirrors surrounding me made it difficult not to see myself in a room full of women who were very slim. Let’s put it on the record that no one ever said anything about my size. But I was thinking it the entire time.

And then maybe six or seven classes in, when we were bent over the bar I noticed a tiny muscle bulging in my arm that I had never noticed before. That tiny baby muscle made me realize that my body had been changing the entire time—and I had been too busy thinking about my muffin top. I wasn’t enjoying the exercises because I was self-conscious of how I looked doing them. I was self-sabotaging.

It took me so long to realize that everyone is only looking at themselves in a workout class. I was the only one looking at me. And when I looked closer, instead of fixating on how much I wanted to change my body, I could see the smaller changes already taking place.

We’re all missing the smaller changes—both physical and emotional—that are happening to ourselves when we’re so fixated on how our bodies look.

Realize there are no bad bodies

Ultimately, we need to change the way we see “good bodies” versus “bad bodies.” We have to celebrate how our bodies feel when we exercise, because if we’re only seeing how our bodies will look or change, we’re missing all of the positivity that working out can actually bring. 

We need to look in the mirror and see ourselves. And we need to accept what we see. And if we don’t like what we see, we should make it our duty to unpack why we don’t like it. I’m not sure who said it first, but this quotation comes to mind: "The first thought that goes through your mind is what you have been conditioned to think; what you think next defines who you are." So next time I look in the mirror, and I don’t like my appearance, I’m going to try to stand there and consider what that means. Do I not like that I eat Taco Bell way more than I should? Do I not like that I can’t run a half-marathon? Size should not be our issue. Size cannot be our issue because it reduces “health” to “thin,” and we’ve proven over and over again that’s not true.

As feminists, we are responsible for engineering a new way of thinking, so that exercise and fitness and health can fit into all of our intersectionalities. We need to reconsider own versions of what a healthy body looks like and make sure that our definitions include women of color, women of varying abilities, and the many gender expressions that exist in the world. We need to promote body-positive fitness inspiration always. We need to break out of the vicious cycle of self-hate and -criticism and start being generous and loving with the way we view all women's bodies—even, and especially, our own.