It says so much about society today that the socially prescribed, “ideal” male body is large and muscular, while the “ideal” female counterpart is small and thin. It’s sexism in its most basic, physical manifestation: the idea that man is active and powerful, while woman is passive and weak – a narrative both perpetuated and reinforced by the fitness industry.
It is frustrating to see the continuous misrepresentation of what women are capable of and should aspire to.
The fact that cisgender men, because their bodies produce more testosterone, can lift heavier weights faster than cisgender women, does not mean that these women are somehow less capable, and should not aim for similar results from the same fitness training. And yet, that seems to be the underlying logic of most mainstream fitness advice: bodybuilding and strength training for the men, endless cardio and starvation for women.
When we need help, we like to turn to the experts. But what happens when the so-called “experts” give advice that is based more on society’s internalised misogyny than on actual, scientific fact?
Whether you prefer your Hiddleston or your Hemsworth, society has likely conditioned you to see both body types as attractive, or at the very least acceptable expressions of male physicality. When it comes to female bodies and muscularity, that range of acceptability is much, much smaller. Women like Gal Gadot are more or less the “ideal” – some muscle definition, but still reassuringly svelte. When we get to women with the awe-inspiring definition of Serena Williams, however, we quickly end up with labels like “masculine”; and by extension the absurd, misogynistic notion that somehow a strong, athletic body is “unnatural” for a woman.
There seems to be an unspoken prejudice, a consensus of sorts, that physical strength and power are a privilege reserved for men, and that the hard work and dedication that go into a bodies where every muscle has been engineered to precision is something only men have a right to. It is a chilling testament to the prevailing sexism in the fitness industry that women everywhere are still afraid of realising their own potential, afraid of looking “bulky” and becoming unattractive to the men who feel threatened by this physical embodiment of a challenge to the sexist status quo.
To illustrate this, I’ve compared the Fitness sections of Men’s Health UK and Women’s Health UK below. Men’s Health is the best selling men’s magazine in the world, with a global digital and social readership of 21 million men. Women’s Health has a global average of 25 million readers across digital and social. With such large readerships, the impact of the respective messaging is not to be underestimated. These were the top three headlines at the time of writing:
Men’s Health UK
What Happens When I Train in the Cold?
Put your exercises on ice. Brave the plummeting mercury and you can fire up any fitness plan
How I Built My Body: Darren “the Gorilla” Till
UFC Octagon warrior challenges you to build fight-ready fitness from the ground game up
5 Reasons We Love SAS: Who Dares Wins
Plus a special forces workout that gets weapons grade muscle
Women’s Health UK
12 Celebrities Health Transformations – How They Reached their Happy, Healthy Weight
And in turn built a body for life
11 Expert-Approved Post-Pregnancy Workout Plans for New Mums
Sweat safely – no gym required
Try a Coach’s 5 Favourite Stretches for after Running
Help your muscles recover and prevent injury
Where men predominantly get actual, specific exercise advice, the women’s section starts with an article consisting of celebrity photographs, where eight out of twelve captions focus on how much weight that person lost. Similar articles recur throughout the section, often without a single direct explanation of an actual fitness routine or exercise, in direct contrast to the Men’s Health content, which has notably less fluff. Not only are these empty pieces not actually giving any fitness advice, but the underlying narrative is also deeply sexist.
Adele has always been, and will always be, a phenomenal musician – utterly regardless of her weight. But when the media repeatedly shows you not only Adele, but other successful, accomplished women being reduced again and again to a number on the scale in the name of “fitness”, it’s no wonder that for so many women, fitness and weight loss have come to mean the same thing. Weight quickly becomes a value judgement. After all, if even Adele’s extraordinary accomplishments don’t count for more than her weight, why should any of ours?
Success for women is linked all too often by the fitness industry to not eating and reducing the number on the scale.
While Till “the Gorilla” celebrates his 50 sprints, Jennifer Hudson celebrates dropping from a size 16 to a size 6. As men are encouraged to be and do more, beating personal bests and gaining muscle, women are are so often encouraged to starve and take up even less physical space in the world.
But here’s the thing: Contrary to what all the weight loss propaganda sold under the guise of “fitness” tells women – the number on the scale is actually not a very accurate indicator of health or fitness. Being thin does not equate being fast or resilient or strong.
When you suddenly stop eating, it’s not just fat that goes, it’s muscle.
Muscle that you want to keep at all costs, because the more you have, the more energy you burn even when you’re sedentary. When you force yourself to go to the gym after eating only a leaf of lettuce, your body will be too tired to train effectively, and that overexertion will cause more muscle loss, and you’ll be left wondering why nothing is changing.
Before I got frustrated and started reading fitness advice for men, that was me. It was only once I started that the disparity became clear. Food became fuel for training and recovery, no longer a source of shame. Exercise was no longer a form punishment but a way for me to enjoy becoming gradually faster and stronger. Overall, fitness no longer had to be founded on self-loathing, but was a form of self-empowerment. Balancing cardio and lifting heavy meant there were actual results. Mostly, though, it made me angry at the fact that the pointless gender segregation of something that should be universal meant I had to turn to men’s magazines to get those results in the first place.
There is a long way to go, but things are slowly improving.
Even while Women’s Health has a permanent subsection entitled “Celebrity Workouts” with titles like “Myleene Klass: How I Lost 4 Stone With This ‘Diet’” (the Men’s Health equivalent is an actually fitness themed subsection titled “Injuries: Prevention, Treatments and Discovery”) there are several articles that give me hope, mainly (and somewhat ironically) one with the title “10 Body Transformations Involving Zero Weight Loss.”
Our bodies are capable of remarkable things. Let’s celebrate them by moving, in defiance of all the sexist bullshit, not because we hate ourselves but because it feels good to grow stronger, move faster and become fitter!