A few days ago, this video came across my news feed and I admittedly jumped for joy. I love seeing the landscape for fitness empowerment and encouragement shift away from sweat being icky and gross. For years, I’ve watched the way the Internet has changed the way we connect around health and wellness, and it gets better every year.
Hence, why I’d sung the praises of the This Girl Can campaign on my Facebook page earlier this week.
Diversity of body sizes and races, representation of differently-abled people, and sweat. I’m in love.
Apparently, everyone isn’t, though. Check out the excerpts from an article recently posted on the Guardian, complete with a few counterpoints of my own:
But there are serious problems here. For a start, why does the campaign undermine this empowering intent by referring to women of all ages as “girls”? Women’s sporting bodies have been subject to a long history of infantilisation, and as the American philosopher Iris Marion Young said, “throwing like a girl” is a common insult that excludes women from feeling strong, capable and respected.
Every so often, I get this same criticism for the title of my blog. “Are you a Black Girl, or a Black Woman?” as if to imply I’m demeaning myself when I refer to myself as a girl.
I think that, in a world of Official Titles and Documents and People Taking Themselves Way Too Seriously, we forget that when we’re among friends, we’re girls. “That’s my girl.” “I’m out with my girls.” Captioning photos from a getaway, “That’s me and my girls from undergrad.” When your homegirl tells you something that leaves you incredulous, you respond “Giiiiiiiiiiiiiirl…” and – get this! – she understands you completely.
The term “girl,” contextually used among adults, is meant to be colloquial, familiar, community. Not only that, but the Internet isn’t adult-only, last time I checked. The youngest person to have ever e-mailed me is 13. I wouldn’t be surprised if young girls are consuming fitness and wellness media at even higher rates than adults, particularly because they have way more free time and much less responsibility than the average adult. Why not use language that would seek to include them?
Throwing like a girl can be an insult, until you take a look at this:
Mo’ne throws like a girl. She throws like Mo’ne Davis. I think she’s okay with that. I also think, considering how the title of the campaign is “This Girl Can,” it’s likely intended to counter the “throwing like a girl” phrase, where using “girl” is intended to imply a failure in effort.
But I’m sleep, though.
By claiming to represent “real” women’s bodies, what does the campaign buy into, and what does it really challenge? The camera pans across a range of exercising bodies that are not normally privileged on television screens – good. But this campaign is not only still all about women’s flesh, though it tries to sell that as somehow radical or revolutionary.
I’m always intrigued by how and when the term “real” shows up in these kinds of conversations, especially when the word “real” showed up neither in the video nor in the promotion for it. Believe it or not, all bodies are real – even the thin ones, even the thick ones – and I’m reluctant to criticize people for acknowledging the diversity in bodies shown for once. It’s a rarity, and that’s a shame. That being said, this campaign is “still all about women’s flesh” the way that birth control is “all about women having sex.”
Fitness is, in part, about flesh. It’s literally about your body and what it can do, and training it to do more. While all these writers might see is bodies and skin, those of us who are or who promote being active see women being active, becoming capable, falling in love with the activity they’ve chosen, becoming better at it through practice, and seeing major boosts in their self-esteem because of it. That’s why the “I jiggle, therefore I am” quote felt so important to me – daily I receive e-mails from women who are ashamed to get out there and enjoy their chosen activity because they’re too embarrassed to wear the necessary gear because it leaves their flesh exposed. (And, while I can’t respond to every e-mail, I read every single one.) That girl might’ve had a little jiggle to her, but she was out there killing it. Those girls in that dance class with the jazz hands and the shuffle? Nuff’ jiggle in that classroom. And we may never know those individual women and their feelings about it, but they were in there killing it. There’s power in the subtlety of that message and what it can telegraph to individual women, and how it relates to each of us and what story it tells us. Why try to smack that down with a petty observation like, “it’s all about flesh?”
This is seemingly without consideration of how such symbolism might have the opposite effect to what was intended: normalising the slender body, accentuating the desirable and undesirable, what belongs and what doesn’t.
The text that goes along with these images is infused with popular post-feminist appeals to individual empowerment – “I jiggle, therefore I am”. This “can-do girl” is happy “sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox” and embracing being “hot and not bothered”. It seems these bodies, jiggly or otherwise, are just another form of objectification in a popular culture already saturated with sexualised images.
The irony in a video with diverse bodies “normalizing” slender bodies isn’t lost on me. I’m at a point in my life where I’m annoyed by terms like “normal” in reference to human bodies – primarily because, when you talk to actual humans outside of your girlfriends, you realize that humans are anything but – but, if you were to define “normal” as “usual; standard; common” then guess what? The “normal” body in the UK (where the video’s creators are based) is the overweight one.
This literally isn’t about desirability – it’s literally about women centering their desires and aspirations for fitness and happiness, and achieving it though active living. There are some feminists who believe that any time there is flesh involved, it’s because of men. Some of us like looking at our own skin. And some of us need to show skin in order to properly compete in our chosen sport. Perhaps it’s time some of us shifted our understanding of what it means when women show skin.
The clips repeat familiar music video formats where highly mobile, athletic female bodies are performing for a male audience. This sits uneasily with our concerns about the objectification of the female body. Research has shown that physical activity in the pursuit of desirability is something women eagerly “work on” under the auspices of the male gaze. So sweat is now sexy and the moving body is an opportunity for others to reflect back desirability.
This is sorely lacking in historical context, and running high on irony. If we were being completely honest with ourselves, we’d realize that much of women’s dismissal of efforts to get fit and healthy has a lot to do with the male gaze. Women are to be thin, silent, attractive, always available. Anything that interferes with that – like fitness and being sweaty – is often frowned upon, unless the man is highly active himself. At that, her body would ideally be catered to what men want – browse through the bodybuilding.com forums for long enough, and you’ll see men criticizing women’s bodies for being “too lean,” “too fit,” and how they “can’t wait for her off-season body to come in.” Never mind the fact that she’s a serious athlete who competes on stage for a living. They’re incapable of appreciating her for what she does – how does she look, bro?
There is nothing that a woman can do that won’t be fetishized in some way and – guess what? – that is neither the fault of nor is it the burden of women to fix that. Women are scantily clad during gymnastics because excessive fabric is a danger to her as she flips in the air. Women are scantily clad during swimming, track, and elite running because extra fabric slows her down. To any person who wants to see a woman as an object instead of as a competitor, an athlete, or a committed human being, she will always be an object. If we let that serve as the guiding principle for women to get the job done physically, we will be competing wearing muumuus. *
Is it a legitimate concern to discuss women working out to get a man? Absolutely. But that literally had nothing to do with the rest of the essay, and that’s a shame. It’s literally the most salient point in the entire essay.
But, since they didn’t give it more than a sentence, neither will I.
It does not involve a stretch of the imagination to think about how women’s self-reference to “sweating like a pig” through exercise can shift into denigrating terms (“fat pig”), that are used against them if they don’t conform.
This is less about the words than it is about how each of us have internalized emotions regarding our bodies and what we were told as children. I have an aversion to being called a “brick house” because I recall being told, as a teen, that eating certain innocuous foods would result in me being “as big as a house.” No matter how much of a compliment “Brick House” has become, and no matter how much I forgive the person who said that to me as a minor, I’ll always remember that and the feeling in the pit of my stomach when I hear it.
Like my girl Crissle says, “words have meaning.” That being said, there’s always “what was meant” and “how it was received.” While good communicators are adept at keeping both in mind when they speak and listen, I can also recognize that the ability to do this (when it comes to something sensitive) is a part of evolving and making peace with your self-image. A part of growth is about shifting how things are received, as a form of letting go. Words don’t always mean you harm.
So goes it with “sweating like a pig.” If that triggers you, I can completely empathize. I also think it’s worth considering that, again, colloquial terms aren’t intentionally pejorative with an intention to cause harm.
All in all, this gave me a mighty headache. There’s maybe one part of this video that gave me pause, and my girl Roni covered it quite clearly:
My only criticism of the video for the campaign is this frame.
I just don’t get why they had to go there. Why does it have to be about “looking hot?” I guess they want to appeal to younger women but I think the campaign would be better off keeping all focus away from the idea that these women are doing whatever they are doing to look hot. They should do because they love it and it makes them happy.
I’ve resigned it to an attempt to counter the belief that being “hot” is very narrowly defined, and an effort to expand that. Happiness is hot. Radiating self-love is hot. Doing what you love, and loving what you do is hot. Enjoying your journey is hot. And yes, even the grunt you make when you finally lift 10% above your max is hellahot. I can get with that.
*I’ve yet to have someone explain to me how this is any different from “she was asking for it” in a way that made sense. The mere idea that women’s dress invites men’s attention implies that women who are covered from head to toe never invite men staring… and a quick Google search will teach you all about how ridiculous that is.