Health, Appearance and Fitness Practices: How Class and Gender are Represented in Four Young Women’s Understanding of Their Fitness Practices

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Dorney, Karima Jade
Fitness Practices , Healthism , Health , Class , Body Image , Gender , Feminism
This thesis presents results from a qualitative study of how young women make sense of their fitness practices. Fitness practices related to diet and exercise are culturally linked to both appearance and health and tend to focus more on changing or maintaining the outside of body (appearance) rather than the inside (health) (Carlisle Duncan, 1994; Dworkin & Wachs, 2009; Smith Maguire, 2008).Young Canadian women are inundated with messages from both the public and private sectors about the imperative to be healthy. Many of these messages suggest that getting healthy will change our lives for the better. Four university-educated, middle class, white women; the demographic which is most marketed to by the fitness industry (Rhode, 2010; Smith Maguire, 2008) were recruited to take part in a study about how they understand their fitness practices. My research involved a focus group and individual follow-up interviews with each of the four participants. Discussion topics included participants’ perceptions of the ideal body that applies to them and what participants saw their motivations and influences for their fitness practices to be.The data arising from the group shifted the project’s focus from “fitness” toward broader questions about what it means to be “healthy” in today’s culture. In the context of pervasive neoliberal notions of health, my analysis explores some lines of intersection between social class and fitness/health as they relate to discourses of physical capital (Bourdieu, 1978, 1996; Shilling, 2003, 2004) and healthism in today’s society (Crawford, 1980, 2006). My analysis reveals that many young women are negotiating a paradox in that they engage in fitness practices, despite their knowledge of feminist body image critiques. The desire to build and convert physical capital and the intense pressure to appear “healthy” in the midst of a supposed “obesity epidemic” are strong motivators for the women’s fitness practice routines. The young women in my study are reifying a socially constructed hierarchy of bodies which favours thin bodies over fat bodies.
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