Female Bodies and the Fitness Industry: The Way CrossFit Is Changing the Landscape

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by MICHAELA HULSTYN

Female Bodies and the Fitness Industry: The Way CrossFit Is Changing the Landscape
Anyone who watched the women of CrossFit compete in this year’s Games will have undoubtedly noticed that our expectations of female body types have changed. Gone are the days when active women were expected to be skinny, maybe “toned,” and definitely not “too bulky.” On-screen we saw serious muscle and strong bodies ready to take on any feat of athleticism. An overly excited feminist such as myself imagined crowds of impressionable young girls watching these women move big weights (and win prizes for their achievements equal to those of their male counterparts!). Then again, would they inexplicably move in packs and flock en masse to the live-feed on ESPN2? Hey, a girl can dream…

Progress: CrossFit makes great strides in putting the focus on what women can achieve, not how they look.
In this sport, the human body is treated as essentially functional, which means that CrossFit allows for success for lots of different body types. While traditional gymnastics would necessitate a slight and flexible body, and great Olympic lifters might benefit from shorter limbs and similar body proportions, both ex-gymnasts and former weightlifters do well in CrossFit. There are also a variety of ages represented at the Games each year (and not just with the Masters competition). Valerie Calhoun was 17 when she competed in 2012, while Carla Nunes Da Costa was 37 this year. This sends a message of inclusion, suggesting to women of all body types and ages that CrossFit could be for them, too. While that might not seem like a big deal, it’s a giant step away from the fitness industry that sends messages like “Defy your age!” and “Blast belly fat!” to women who exercise. In this sense, CrossFit makes great strides in putting the focus on what women can achieve, not how they look.

Are We There Yet?

Are We There Yet?
But is there still progress to be made in this rapidly growing sport in terms of the messages it sends regarding women and their bodies?

For instance, the old-boys’ club mentality still rears its head every now and again alongside the presentation of images of strong women. In last year’s Games, Reebok ran an ad that offended a lot of women (and men, for that matter). The ad featured closeups of women’s body parts, and ended with the message: “CrossFit: Turning Sevens into Tens.” There were multiple problems with this video that were not representative of CrossFit’s “functional fitness” mantra. But the biggest one for me is that the video wasn’t saying CrossFit could turn any “seven” into a “ten.” Women were the only ones being objectified for men to rate and compare.

This aesthetics-based message doesn’t match up with the atmosphere I’ve experienced with CrossFit.
Now, some might say that I missed the joke, and that this was meant to be tongue in cheek. Or that this is old news, since it didn’t air in the most recent Games. Reebok isn’t the first company to make a marketing blunder when it comes to perpetuating stereotypes about women. (Remember the controversy over The Children’s Place “My Best Subjects” shirt that said girls were good at shopping, but not at math?) But unlike The Children’s Place, Reebok is still profiting from this message, selling a t-shirt with the phrase “Turning Sevens into Tens” on their website. They call this shirt the “Her Coach Quote.” Of course, the “His Coach Quote” doesn’t exist. My experience with CrossFit leads me to believe that the “Sevens into Tens” is not unlike the “My Best Subjects” message – a likely misstep and an anomaly in the company’s overarching philosophy.

This aesthetics-based message doesn’t match up with the atmosphere I’ve experienced with CrossFit. At my gym, women occupy leadership positions and are supported as athletes, competitors, coaches and operators of facilities.

The CrossFit community that I know builds their female clients up, celebrating their accomplishments as individuals, not as body parts. What’s more, the average female athlete in this sport measures her progress by a more reliable set of numbers: her Fran time or her Clean and Jerk max.

Is CrossFit the Great Equalizer?

Is CrossFit the Great Equalizer?

[W]hile progress has undoubtedly been made in the representation of strong women with this sport, we need to acknowledge that it is not immune to problems like the objectification of women and the minimal presence and visibility of women of color in the fitness industry.
A discussion of the representation of bodies on-screen should also consider the question of race. Elisabeth Akinwale, who placed 10th, writes on her blog of the “minimally visible presence of black women at the CrossFit Games.” Akinwale describes her experience of what she calls “whitewashing” when she was featured in a fitness magazine that did a profile on the top ten moments of the 2012 games – two were the women’s clean ladder and the Double Banger. The magazine featured these events, but ran photos of athletes other than Akinwale for each. She writes, “Coincidence that they chose to feature white women’s photos for that piece? Perhaps. But when it happens in a publication that routinely under-represents women of color I tend to call that whitewashing… I don’t want to disparage the accomplishments of any of the women who were featured in the piece, however I despise unearned privilege and I despise entities that refuse to portray the full spectrum. In my opinion they successfully distorted the already minimally visible presence of black women at the CrossFit Games.”

Indeed, while an athlete like Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, who is often called “popular” or the “fan favorite” got lots of screen time this year, Akinwale got considerably less, even though she placed higher. (This article, for example, first cites Leblanc-Bazinet’s “striking good looks” as the explanation for her celebrity status.) Don’t get me wrong — Leblanc-Bazinet is a strong, beautiful (bilingual!) woman, but this discrepancy tells us something important about the way women are viewed and evaluated in this sport.

While positive new messages on body type like “Strong is the New Skinny” have been directed towards active women thanks to CrossFit, these other insidious ones still exist. And while progress has undoubtedly been made in the representation of strong women with this sport, we need to acknowledge that it is not immune to problems like the objectification of women and the minimal presence and visibility of women of color in the fitness industry. What could CrossFit do to address these issues, and further advance its support of healthy, strong and diverse female bodies? Given its growing popularity and high rates of female participation, CrossFit is in a great position to continue overturning stereotypes and empowering women along the way.

This article was published on the Dear Kate blog on September 6, 2013. Click here for the original text.

Michaela HulstynMichaela Hulstyn is a Redwood City, California-based intern coach at NorCal CrossFit and a PhD candidate at Stanford University.
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