The Rebel Girl: Fitness or Exploitation?

Against the Current, No. 39, July/August 1992

Catherine Sameh

IT’S AMAZING HOW the basic elements of sexism–things we learned when we first became feminists–surface again as immense and insurmountable barriers to real liberation for women. Like the objectification of women’s bodies, power differentials in relationships with men, and who does the housework.

Sure, the older, more crass displays of sexism have eroded. But newer, subtler ones keep popping up in this period in women’s lives that we don’t seem to know what to call. I know too many young, feminist activists to believe we are in a post-feminist vacuum. And while a backlash does seem to be upon us, it is precisely because the women’s movement has markedly disfigured the precious face of patriarchy.

Within this contradictory context, phenomena like the fitness craze take root and thrive. You know those amazing ads. Nike, Reebok, Jansport–the list goes on–take a little feminist jargon, mix it with some slick shots of very fit and beautiful women with no fat on their bodies in the act of sport, and come out hundreds of thousands of dollars richer and the seeming champions of feminism.

In Vogue there’s a four page (many are that long) ad. A woman’s teary face is pictured on page one. The next page is all text, waxing eloquent critique of how women are accused of being too emotional if they care about things and too insensitive if they don’t.

The third page, all text, fights back. “Somewhere in the middle of all these assumptions and all these labels is the way you really are…nd, through time, you have learned to move [your heart] and bend it and shake it…Listen. Your heart is beating. This means you are alive. Your body is moving…The world and all its labels are calling to you. You’d love to answer. But you’re moving so fast you can’t hear a thing.”

And need I say? “Just do it.” The last page features a strong, beautiful woman running–thin, tall, makeup intact.

These ads are everywhere–in all sorts of women’s magazines, on billboards and television. They are so compelling because they reach women’s anger at having to meet oppressive standards of femininity and brilliantly tap into popular culture’s absorption of women. And so maddening because they sublimate newer, rigid standards–less oppressive perhaps, but oppressive.

One Reebok ad shows three women doing bench aerobics: “I believe fluorescent light in dressing rooms should be banned. I believe in the magnetic properties of chocolate. I believe six hours a week is a small price to pay for sanity.”

Six hours a week! The woman who spends six hours a week in aerobics either (a) is well off and doesn’t work; (b) works and spends the rest of her time at aerobics; or (c) works, has kids and spends any free time at aerobics. Whatever the case, this woman should take at least three of those hours to work on something other than her body.

I’m not anti-fitness. Better women in tennis shoes than high heels. Nor do I think fashion is irrelevant. But let us take aerobics, ride bikes, run and eat well because we want to feel good and have balanced lives–not because we are obsessed with our weight, or are compensating for lack of control over our lives, or are striving for the new, mythic image of women.

That image is what these ads are about: She is new in the sense that she accepts feminism on some level, and may even be adamant about it. She even looks somewhat androgynous much of the time, with short hair, little or no makeup, and muscular definition. She is fed up with sexism and wants control of her life.

The problem is that she is supposed to buy a fancy bike, expensive running shoes and a sexy outfit to work out in and “get out while [she] can,” with the market as her pathway to freedom. Furthermore, these ads are not about promoting a little exercise, but rather encourage an obsession with one’s looks, with an end result few women can ever achieve.

© 2020 Against the Current

July-August 1992, ATC 39