1. Visual media makes men large, and women small; men limitless, women limited
If you Google search “Men’s Health” magazine covers, a couple trends you’ll notice are that men are wide. Men are broad and you meet them square; in other words, power positions. If these men are not square to you, they’re angled in such a way that they can’t even stand sideways without taking a hands-on-hips stance; an image so large the magazine’s ads sometimes can’t get out of the way.
If you Google search “Shape” magazine covers, you’ll notice these trends: if our model stands square to us, she tilts to get smaller; perhaps a hip that’s “too wide” is covered by an exposing opened blouse, or a white long-sleeved shirt is juxtaposed to black swimsuits to make waists look smaller and complexion “perfect.” If our model is in a sideways power pose, it’s done to cover the waist, or with upturned bent wrist (as opposed to a flat, strong, overturned wrist like our male counterparts). Maybe her back is to us to accentuate her butt, looking longingly over her shoulder, mouth agape, as if she has a secret only she knows (and we want to find out).
Male-centric magazines publish ab exercises and strength exercises; exercises we should all do as challengingly as we’d like. Male movements use dumbbells 30+ pounds (the big dumbbells), or show barbell movements with no less than 135 pounds (the big plates). These exercises are squats and deadlifts; bench-presses and curls; weighted dips and weighted ab work. These images condition men to believe they should be lifting more, even if they’re not ready for it.
Women’s magazines use smaller weight plates, smaller dumbbells, and are more calisthenics (bodyweight) centric. We get conditioned that women should be lifting less.
Workout programs written in these magazines frequently give men the leeway to exercise in the 3-8 repetition range (the “strength” range), while keeping women in the 8+ repetition range (the “toning” range), as anything less than a “lighter” weight will result in “bulky” muscle. This gives women the impression that there are exercises and challenges they should avoid, because of a body image they’re conditioned to not want. And with language like this, of course we’re being conditioned.
2. Media verbiage defines us
Men can be ripped, shredded, chiseled, peeled, rock-hard, massive beasts. They can be powerful. They can work hard. They can sacrifice. They can go to battle. They can wage war. They can unleash on the weights, drink protein shakes, and scarf down sweet potatoes.
Women can trim, tone, accentuate, and slim their waistlines. They can have defined shoulders. They can look good in dresses and bikinis; they can always drop a pants size. Women can drink smoothies, antioxidant shakes, green teas, fat-burning elixirs. Their butts need work, their cellulite needs to disappear, their double-chins need erasing.
I’ve never been exposed to language that made me feel I was never good enough.
3. Visual media; the old and new, male and female body (and sexualized female exercise)
American men used to be slim, clean shaven, and smoked cigarettes. Then, men stayed thin, grew a moustache, and smoked cigarettes. Eventually, men started getting bigger, with varying degrees of facial hair, and dropped the cigarette.
Male exercise is dominant; we throw things, smash things, lift things. We don’t do exercises that are provocative. We become utilitarian, like our forefathers; with arms that can strangle pythons and wrestle bears.
Women used to have a normal body composition; then their breasts grew; then their legs thinned; then their waists disappeared; they moved from the home, to the office, to almost any job anywhere. But somewhere along the line, their clothes were lost somewhere.
In fitness, women seem to always need to squat; women always need to lunge; they always need to work their hip abductors and adductors; they also must work these muscles in ways that arch their backs, or puts them on the floor with their legs open.
Given the conditions above, it’s no wonder women feel uncomfortable working out in public.
4. Effective exercise apparel leaves little to the imagination; and only women can wear them
Skin-tight pants and form-fitting shirts are very fitness-friendly clothes; every Olympic athlete wears spandex-like, temperature regulating clothes, so why not us?
Men are conditioned that these clothes are female-centric, and should be avoided. If any of you have seen my Instagram, it’s not uncommon to catch me squatting in just compression shorts; I hate shorts, I hate shorts, I hate shorts, but of course, you’ll never see me working out in my underwear in a big box gym.
Women, on the other hand, are lucky enough to be in the socially-acceptable department of wearing form-fitting (or very little) clothing. But of course, we have to ruin that by designing clothing that just barely cover the socially unacceptable parts.
Conclusion ? It’s amazing we even have women in fitness.
As a man, I get a lot of positive reinforcement every day. I’ve been told I can get fit because I want to; I can get bigger because I can; I can wear clothes because they’re stylish, and not because it’s making my chest look bigger or my waist look smaller. The ads I see are of other men working with their hands, of beautiful women throwing themselves at me longingly, or that I can be a literal superhero.
If I were a woman being bombarded with mixed requirements of my gender, I’d be too frozen to accomplish anything. If I were shown every day that I should be smaller, thinner, or be told that parts of me should disappear, I wouldn’t want to get out of bed. If I were told that I can in fact work on these things, but then given limitations on the options necessary, I’d avoid trying. If I were told that the acceptable exercises I’d do in these few parameters also sexualized my body for all to see, you’d never catch me signing up for a gym.
Luckily, a magazine like “Muscle and Fitness Hers” is stepping up to the plate and giving women powerful imagery; Instagram accounts like GirlsWhoPowerlift show that women can both be strong, noticed, and not sexualized.
At the end of the day, we’re exposed to things that give us expectations that aren’t exactly reality. Airbrushed abs and Photoshopped figures are standard and may never go away—it’s my job as a fitness professional to build a culture that doesn’t perpetuate this. But how?
First, exercise is an outlet and there are no “male” or “female” exercises. All of my clients do the same exercises unless otherwise specified for their unique wants or needs.
Second, my verbiage is the same across the board. I’ll probably slip-up and cuss in front of you (sorry, Mom) and refuse to use the word “toning.”
Third, exercises are not provocative unless someone gives them that connotation. A banded bridge, or a barbell hip-thrust, or rope pull-throughs are done by Olympians, professional athletes, and both Berta and Jim Bob.
Finally, I got rid of mirrors. It’s my job to create a welcoming environment, and it’s one reason Freedom Fit Gym is a space people feel comfortable in (without the horse-and-pony show).
What can you do to help steer fitness in the right direction?