|1. You are in a fitness class. The instructor is lean and muscular. Do you think:
|2. At the gym, a woman with what you consider a perfect body walks past. Is your first thought:
|3. You finish your squat set and a woman takes the rack once you are done. You notice that while she is about your size, she is squatting 50 lbs. more with perfect form. Do you think:
|4. Your friend has been hitting the gym and is looking fantastic. While telling you excitedly about how much fun she’s having, she flexes for you. You say:
If your answers were truly, authentically “a”s, then you can stop reading now since I’m not going to tell you anything you don’t know. But if you were honest with yourself, there’s a good chance that your answers were mostly “c” (oh, and if you answered “b”s, well, hey, I’m cool with that too). One of the first books I ever read as a budding feminist was Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. In it, Wolf talks about how women are under tremendous pressure to measure up to a mythical, normative ideal, and how this constrains their choices and self-perception. Years later, in art crit class, I read the words of art critic John Berger in Ways of Seeing:
“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This not only determines the relationship of men to women, but of women to themselves.” (italics mine)
To put these two pieces together, as women in North American culture, we know that we are under surveillance, as are all women. We are perpetually evaluated to see if we meet particular standards. Most of us do not. Yet, instead of living outside of these boundaries, we attempt to stay within them. We place our bodies under careful watch, but more importantly and more insidiously, we place other women under surveillance too. We know that there are tangible risks for not measuring up, and there are rewards for meeting the standards. But we also choose to punish others who we feel have succeeded better than we have.
“Oh my god, Becky, look at her butt. It is soooo big. She looks like one of those rap guys’ girlfriends… They only talk to her because she looks like a total prostitute, OK? I mean her butt — It’s just so big. I can’t believe it’s so round. It’s just out there. I mean, it’s gross.” —Sir Mix-A-Lot, Baby Got Back
When a woman attacks another woman, all she really proves is that she hates herself. –Erica Jong
This punishment may be as harmless as a snotty thought about fat ankles popping into your head when a beautiful woman walks past. It may be subtle, and manifest itself in sly put-downs, concerned worrying to a friend about how much weight she is lifting and don’t you think your arms are getting bulky? It may be more overt, taking the form of social ostracism and open hostility to women who are deemed too perfect. In any case, it is a common reaction. Why is this so? What if, I would like to ask, what if instead of putting other women down and being our own worst enemies, we supported other women in our everyday lives? What if, instead of muttering “slut” or “nice fake tits” at the cute girl in the locker room, you said “hi” and smiled? What if, instead of discouraging your lifter friends, you made a date to join them in the gym so they could show you the ropes?
If you have been into training for a long time, perhaps you know what I am talking about. You feel apologetic around other women, as if you’re letting them down or buying into the beauty myth. Maybe you feel the need to justify yourself, or hide under baggy clothes. Maybe people ask you if you have an eating disorder just because you prefer fruit and cottage cheese to greasy hamburgers for lunch. Part of the problem is that North Americans seem to feel an instinctive distrust of people who are perceived to know too much about fitness (or anything, really — we aren’t always much on book lernin). Being fit is viewed as incompatible with being smart, or being a nice person.
Sound familiar? It’s the old dumb blonde versus smart ugly librarian routine all over again. Women can only be stereotypes, not people. So here’s my challenge to you: start looking at fit women as potential allies and friends, not competitors and enemies. Success is not a finite pool, and just because someone is doing well doesn’t mean that it’s taking away from you. Who knows, you might get some good squat tips or a date out of the deal.