Loughborough University
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Gender, power and identities in the fitness gym: towards a sociology of the 'exercise body-beautiful complex'

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posted on 2011-01-17, 09:43 authored by Louise Mansfield
This thesis examines the ways in which female bodies are central to the production and reproduction of gendered social inequality, and the formation of feminine identities in the fitness gym. Ethnographic methods were utilised to investigate the patterns and relations of power that underpinned the production and reproduction of feminine body ideals and feminine identities and habituses in a fitness gym in the South-East of England. The potential usefulness of harnessing feminist and figurational concepts for understanding gendered bodies in the context of sport and exercise is also explored. Some of the theoretical and methodological links between feminist and figurational perspectives are explored in this thesis. A feminist-figurational approach is presented as a useful way of understanding the complexities of female body image and feminine identification in the fitness gym. Central in this regard has been an examination of the unequal relationships between, and within, groups of people in exercise and fitness settings. The task of producing a relatively high degree of adequate knowledge about gendered bodies in the fitness gym has also involved consideration of several concepts related to Elias's (1978,1987) theory of involvement and detachment including: the personal pronoun model, the use of developmental thinking, the interplay between theory and evidence and the adequacy of evidence. Feminist and figurational ideas about gender, power and identities have been of use in making sense of the relationships between workingout, female bodies and femininities. Elias's conceptualisations of power, establishedoutsider relations and identification have been particularly helpful. Evidence from participant observations and interviewing revealed that several mechanisms serve to reinforce, challenge and negotiate a variety of images of the female body-beautiful in the fitness gym. These include: the insecurity and emotion that surround the acquisition and maintenance of an ideal physique, the monopolisation of corporeal power, the construction of group charisma and group disgrace, the formation of gossip networks, and the corporeal logic of the 'exercise body-beautiful complex'. The findings also reveal that female bodies are central to the formation of feminine identities and habituses. Feminine identities are founded on both different and shared characteristics of the female body-beautiful. Some female exercisers also share some characteristics with other women, specifically in the context of the fitness gym. Linked to a desire for a high status body Image, there is a tendency for white, western, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied women, who go to the gym, to share a preference for cosmetic fitness activities, and an emotional tie to aspirations for a slender, muscularly toned physique. The exercise histories of the women in this study indicated that the inculcation of feminine conduct and bodily preference happens over time, and in relation to a range of corporeal experiences including: physical education, sport, exercise, dance, dieting and adolescence.



  • Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences


© Louise Mansfield

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Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.

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  • en