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Functional fitness is feminist fitness

November 7, 2009

Alliteration is the best.

Many years ago, not so long after I had first ‘discovered’ feminism, I encountered an idea in Susan Brownmiller’s Femininity (which is required reading of all people who click over to this blog so go ahead and get started) that blew me away. It was so obvious- like looking for lost keys and then discovering them in your hand. I felt stupid for never having thought of it before.

One of purposes/side effects of most of the trappings of femininity is to erase functionality.

There are some obvious ones, of course. High heels, super tight and/or short clothes. And there are some slightly less obvious ones. Lots of aesthetic rituals turn functional parts into decoration (and really, that might be a stretch, but I can see it.)

And it occurred to me, while people-watching at the gym the other day, that women’s fitness is all about femininity too and therefore all about illusion in place of function.

Whether it’s laying on a mat and doing useless crunches until your abs seize in the hopes of attaining that ‘perfect’ flat belly or spending hours using machines to work muscles in ‘problem areas’, what most women do in the name of fitness has nothing to do with being able to actually, you know, do stuff.

And I don’t mean that the option is working out with an eye towards body composition or you workout to increase your fitness. It’s not either/or. Nor do I think there is a correct way to go about functional fitness. But I guess I’ve always thought the point of working out was to expand your world – go farther, run faster, be able to do more without getting tired. And I find it disheartening how many women don’t seem to feel that way.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2009 8:34 pm

    Their goals may be different than yours, or maybe they’re similar, and they think they’re working towards that, just as you feel like you’re working towards whatever you’re working towards. You’d probably consider me one of those women, as I do the high reps/low weights, only classes, never machines or free weights. But you know what? I can walk 8 miles up and down the side of a mountain, then go on with my day, not hardly tired nor sore. I can pick up and carry much heavier things than I used to, and I never feel even a twinge in my back (I was starting to-one of the main reasons I joined gym). I also used to twist my ankles very easily (see walking on mountain-uneven, rocky, rooty ground), and now they are strong from having to do stretches standing on one leg. It’s extremely hard for me to wear myself out except in the gym (as long as I’m not very deficient of sleep or caffeine). But truthfully, I have no goals, other than to keep depression from overwhelming me, and to lose weight. I enjoy my gym classes, it’s become kind of a treat for me, and not everyone feels that way about their exercise. Believe it or not, I even have some muscles! I can feel them, though there’s still a bit too much flab to see them. I like the way my body is changing (at 40!) and I’m enjoying the process. What more would I want?

    • November 9, 2009 10:41 am

      Why wouldn’t someone lifting high rep/light weights be increasing their general (functional) fitness level? My problem with the high rep/low weight thing is when women are told that it builds a different quality of muscle or it’s the only way to get stronger without looking like she-hulk. Of course it’s functional though. And since so much of what you’re doing is having a positive effect on your body and how it moves, then, again, of course it’s functional.

      My point is only that the dominant paradigm surrounding women’s fitness is that it is first and foremost about increasing one’s ability to be decorative not their quality and enjoyment of life.

      • November 9, 2009 10:36 pm

        If one were more cynical than I, one might say that about everything directed or marketed to women, no? Now that I think about it, I can’t think of much that isn’t, other than non-profit work by feminists or community activists.

  2. Runner permalink
    February 18, 2010 10:47 am

    I agree completely. (Rant warning!) Often, the way they’re talked about, men’s exercise focuses on ability while women’s on vague “fitness.” I started running TO BE ABLE TO RUN. When I wanted. Fast, too. And for far far longer than it takes to sprint to a bus about to leave so that I can sit down on the bus I did make and be calm. I weight train to feel my body BE ABLE TO. Be able to lift heavy things easily. Be able to push. Shove. Move. I love my abs because they lift me up. And down. Without thinking or straining.

    I love feeling my arm muscles under my skin. I love feeling my quads engage hard. It is because then, I embody strength. Literally. Nothing makes me feel like a woman like being strong. And I know that’s not how it’s “supposed” to be, but it is how it’s really supposed to be.

    After having read other FA blogs, I now think that my sense of being my body and seeing it as functional first and foremost has lifted me above much of the emotional morass that many serial dieting women seem to have fallen into. I never bought the sexist base idea of that I had to be pretty and thin to be someone as a woman, and that has saved me many headaches. What gets you somewhere in life – and makes you YOU – are other things, all function-related. Primarily your brain ability and function, but also your body ability and function. I am something that is both above my body – above age, gender, physical looks – and my body at the same time. They meet in my body’s ability. Screw Inner Beauty indeed – what you want is inner strength. And preferably outer as well.

    So I can count calories and calculate protein/carb/fat percentages in my diet without spiraling into depression. I can increase the number of calories I eat in a day because I am worried I’m not eating enough for my activity level. And I can do it while losing weight. Or not. Whatever. And I can say fuck calorie counting today and move on with my day another. And eat pizza and enjoy it. And eat beet salad with great relish right after. I can hear people ramble on about their miracle diet and try to hide my eyes glazing over with boredom rather than whatever feelings of anguish diet talk seems to induce in a lot of FA people. (If they’re that on fire about it, my judgement is that the odds are 99% that it’s a crock of shit. But I’ll pretend to listen to be polite, they’ll notice it’s shit without my help eventually.) I can skip a workout and feel good about it. I just did the past two days and it was the right decision. I didn’t feel quite right and indeed, today I woke up with a cold. I can live in the sort of world you live in too. I really believe that the root of self-acceptance of all kinds, particularly as a woman, is to cherish your own ability and your strengths. To KNOW that you can make your way on your own mental and physical strength. (And pleasure… which is a whole other, but related, topic. Whom are you and your body to please, anyway, right?)


  1. Damn, I wish I’d said that. « Exceptionally Fat

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