CrossFit, empowerment, and thinking critically about the way we talk about CrossFit women

Good morning Monday!

First grad school conference presentation: check.

There I am!

There I am!

I had fun presenting what I’ve been working on as of late and what I hope to continue to work on as I figure out what exactly my thesis will be all about. Here’s the gist of my abstract from the weekend:

“CrossFit, which calls itself “the sport of fitness,” has grown from a single website to a fitness empire with over 7000 gyms around the world, leveraging specific narratives appealing to ideologies promoting individual responsibility for health to establish itself quickly even in a crowded consumer fitness industry. What are the narratives CrossFit uses to promote itself and to establish itself as a leader in the crowded consumer fitness industry? How do these fit in with the dominant discourses in contemporary neoliberal society?

These questions are explored using a Critical Discourse Analysis of a Canadian CrossFit magazine, SweatRX. Drawing on discourses of feminine liberation and emphasizing a focus on performance over aesthetics, the representations of the feminine body in SweatRX promote an alternative form of bodily control that is paradoxically oppressive. By constructing the CrossFitting female body as a site of control and offering up identities based on consumption, a potentially empowering and emancipatory practice is commodified into a method for self management and participation in the fitness marketplace. In the context of contemporary neoliberal society, these narratives can remain unquestioned and reproduce dominant cultural ideologies concerning the moral significance of taking individual responsibility for one’s health, diverting attention away from broader social and cultural factors that constrain health. This is an important extension on research demonstrating the shift towards health as an individual’s responsibility and contributes to a growing body of work examining this shift.”

If you’re not a sociocultural nerd, you probably got “blah, blah, blah” from all of that. So here’s what I said:

“For years, women’s participation in physical activity has been widespread. The embodiment of the ideal “fit” woman, however, has changed over the years. CrossFit is a relatively new player in the fitness marketplace and as such, the “strong is the new skinny” and the muscular body type constructed as the ideal CrossFit female contrasts with the previously skinny, then skinny and toned, feminine ideal. Physical activity can be a place of liberation and empowerment for women, but in the past the commodification as well as the focus on the aesthetic benefits of activities have transformed opportunities for empowerment into sites of control. However, labelling any activity as purely emancipatory or empowering will only further limit the opportunity afforded by an activity. My goal was thus not to promote or condemn CrossFit but to examine the ways in which one selected CrossFit media, SweatRX, a Canadian magazine about the sport, represents the female CrossFitter.

I found several themes, some of which maintain the status quo and others which suggest transformation. Firstly, the female CrossFitter as part of a movement with the aim of empowerment and social progress. This is liberating on the surface but simplistic: suggesting that taking up an exercise program is the same as addressing issues constraining women and constraining health turns social progress into something marketable and commodifiable. Secondly, the female CrossFitter as superior (what I call the “Zumba is for dumbasses” theme in my own head) where bulky is redefined as the ideal and any woman who doesn’t strive for a strong physicality is marked as inferior. Then, a sustained focus on aesthetics (training like a beast but looking like a beauty, etc.). A paradoxical call to resist the media and consumer fitness industries in the midst of the promotion of the consumption of CrossFit and its associated products and culture (one article told readers to resist the media “asphyxiating your subconscious, compelling you to be an obedient American consumer”). A reiteration of women’s social roles (as naturally different from men’s)–i.e. CrossFit as the route to help a woman be a better mother, more capable of “tackling dirty laundry.”

It’s not all bad, though. There is a focus on performance, which is where I think there’s hope. Consider the lack of mirrors in a CrossFit gym. I think saying that just because some of the media’s messages might be problematic, CrossFit is problematic, would rob women of a chance to take up an activity where they can focus on what their bodies are capable of–instead of how they look.”

After my presentation, a girl asked me what I would change if I was the editor of the magazine. What’s tricky is being friends with people who write for this magazine, fans of people who appear in there, and a freelance writer myself. I know that when I write an article I’m not trying to “normalize gender asymmetries that limit women’s opportunities” etc. etc. I’ve met the editor of the magazine at a trade show (at least at the time–she was also an editor for a yoga magazine). If I was in the hot seat–because I think as an editor you carry a lot of responsibility–I would change the subtle things. I would keep talking about body image but I wouldn’t make it a woman’s problem uniquely. I would watch for the subtle things: using women models to show scaled versions of workouts, showing photos of female CrossFitters in gowns and things instead of in their element (or at least including profiles of males in the same way).

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 10.35.14 AM

While I’m critical of the magazine–it’s a critical discourse analysis, remember–I think it’s hopeful. I think women reading it are able to see possibilities for them to experience things outside what has traditionally been considered acceptable for women. I think CrossFit is the perfect platform for us to work on these things given just how much potential there is in the sport. Ditto for triathlon, for running, for whatever gives us a chance to get away from how an activity will make our bodies look to how it feels, what it does for our health and well-being, who it makes us.

Now that I’ve tried to sum up a lot of pages in the amount of words I assume will be just enough to leave you informed but not make you give up on this post, back to my weekend recap ;)!

14.4: check.

open 14.4

My thoughts when I saw this workout?

grumpy cat

Last year, I cried during the open WOD with toes to bar because I got a TON of no reps. This year, I didn’t have much faith in my ability to get through 50 of them, even though I knew I’d have ample time to try (I love rowing and finished those calories in about 3:15). Luckily, my coaches had some strategy and faith in my ability and I surprised myself by getting through the darn things with enough time to dive into the wall balls. I think I had more no reps on wall balls (I blame my surprise and awe at the fact that I did more toes to bar during the workout than I’ve done in 2014) than I had on the toes to bar. I ended up with a score of 140, which was fine and dandy with me!

I think the Open has been a good experience this year because I’ve surprised myself more than once with where I’m doing well. I’m doing it in an environment where everyone is good enough so long as you’re trying your best. I’m seeing that I am stronger and fitter in lots of ways than last year, even if some things (like burpees) feel a heck of a lot harder this time.

Now that I’ve written you my life story and committed the CrossFit crime of incessantly talking about CrossFit, I think I should at least mention the love your body stuff over at Molly’s blog that I’m keeping up with. Yesterday was about feeling sexy–and I feel like my chat on her post earlier in the week does that one justice--and today is a good one, discussing the ways in which our body carries our life story. My favourite part of the post is when Molly talks about thinking ahead to your 80 year old self and looking back on the story of you and your body. Like she says, at the end of our life, I don’t think wanting our thighs to be smaller is going to be part of that letter. I hope that my letter looks back on a life of using my body to do the things that scare me, challenge me, excite me, and fill me up.



Happy Monday!

CrossFitters, CrossFit haters, exercisers, writers, personal trainers, coaches: I’d love to hear your take on my thoughts on the magazine analysis and on how we can contribute to a message out there that emphasizes all the good in CrossFit without getting sucked into the bad part of health and fitness writing…thoughts? 


4 thoughts on “CrossFit, empowerment, and thinking critically about the way we talk about CrossFit women

  1. Loved this article and what you are writing about. My Master’s Degree is in Women and Gender Studies and I actually came up and taught a class entitled Gender and Media and talked about women and men’s portrayal in all types of magazines, movies, television, etc. and one of the best, most eye opening experiences for all those in the class was looking at health magazines. Can’t wait to hear more about your work!

  2. Hi Cheryl: I had to get in on this because I think you hit the nail on the head when you talked about Molly thinking back from your 80 year old self. As you know I am a senior now but was always overly concerned about looks when I was younger and still fight that thinking even in old age. However it brings us all back to reality when we realize that looks is not forever but health is. More pictures and articles of seniors who have remained active and healthy should put things in perspective I think. I think is would also be motivational for younger people to see that this is not just for a reason or a season but for living life to the fullest right to the end.

    • Lorraine! This is such a good point. YOU are a beautiful and strong person and I think what you’ve said is so important — I wish that there were more platforms for people to hear this. Thank you for adding it to my blog. 🙂

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