Sassatelli, R. (1999) 'Interaction Order and Beyond: A Field Analysis of Body Culture within Fitness Gyms', in Body and Society, Vol 5 (2 - 3): 227 - 48
The popularity of working out in gyms could be seen 'as the direct result of consumer culture' (227). However the actual setting of the gym also has an effect -- 'these values are not just reproduced but translated and, to some extent, filtered' (227). The gym is a confined place which has its own rules and 'interaction arrangements which are locally sustained' (228). Goffman on interaction is the way forward here: 'interaction is a domain of social, face-to-face action which is "loosely coupled" with the cultural order... but characterised by its own forms of fragile and yet indispensable "procedural order" or "working consensus"' (228). Such interaction may be responsible for the popularity of fitness exercises, especially beyond the new service classes.
Field work was undertaken into Italian gyms, and supplemented by participant observation, interviews with clients and with trainers and managers. Fitness manuals and periodicals were also examined. The overall approach was 'bottom-up... the meanings of the gym are traced back to its constitutive organization of resources and meanings' (229).
The spread of the gym can be traced to the growth of disciplinary apparatuses as in Foucault. Gyms are separated from every day reality which permits a special kind of interaction with others and with one's body. [There is a frontstage and backstage region, familiar to all tourism students -- see MacCannell]. As you enter, you undergo a transition, assisted by the trainers and the environment. Once inside, there is a special way of organising time and space. For example, different body practices occur in different spaces (changing clothes, aerobics, working out on machines).
The changing room in particular is 'a "liminoid" space' where people undergo 'passage rituals' in both directions. Passage inward is particularly 'symbolically supported' ( 231). Changing clothes indicates a symbolic change towards 'tuning in, of being in the right spirit to work out, recognising the specificity of the work on the body that is to be done' (231). There is an element of role stripping, although some identities remain, such as gender ones (which are minimised in the actual activities inside). Gym activities are spatially separated, but also require different forms of social relations -- gymnastic exercise requires cooperation and synchronisation with the trainer. Working on machines is more individualised and features 'reciprocal support inattention', an ability to isolate oneself from others (232). Spatial separation helps symbolise these different 'expressive modalities' (232), and prevent confusion and ambiguity. As a result, the whole gym is 'constructed as a world in itself, a domain of action which has its own rules and meanings' (233).
However, this world has to be sustained, by particular types of interaction, especially 'expressive behaviour... comprised of both verbal and bodily signals aimed at underlining participants' involvements in the ongoing interaction and their reciprocal positions' (233). Training requires that participants are engrossed, which in turn means that 'postures, glances, facial expressions underline that what they are doing is indeed just and only training' (234). Exercisers indicate they are paying attention to trainers, while working on machines can also involve 'certain forms of "self - talk" such as each individual's strained grunts' (234, citing Goffman again). There is also the 'expressionless, absent faces... a distracted smile, avoiding eye contact' (234). Somehow, participants know that this is required.
Activities within gyms are therefore framed in the Goffman sense, restrained by 'a set of "organizational premises -- sustained both in mind and in activity" (1974: 247)' (235). Activities are also subject to '"transformation rules" which define what is proper' (235), which can be found in the rules of expressive behaviour. There are also 'meta-communicative messages' (235) which define a frame, and guide the actor in attempts to understand what is going on. Thus participants understand that this is a training session by developing concentration on the trainer, absent stares and the rest. That all participants understand this helps reinforce the definition of the situation, and also organises involvement -- when successful, participants 'typically feel natural and at ease, submerged in the reality of the exercise' (235) [are we actually gaining anything by transcribing these pretty banal observations into language approved by Goffman?]. Participants clearly value a chance to focus on the activities and take a rest from normal demands.
This effective and natural participation also helps people actually continue with their workout programme, develop involvement and keep going. Beginners often lose concentration and feel ill at ease, embarrassed or shamed. It is particularly important to learn how to manage 'glances of the body as related to training', not being afraid to sweat and not feeling the need to wear designer clothes (237). Trainers who behave according to expectations are also valued.
There is a whole regime of glance management, designed to filter out distractions as neutralise proximity to other bodies. It is acceptable to closely watch the instructor's body [the technical focus helps overcome some of the unconscious sexualised anxieties referred to by Patton?]. Other participants are sometimes looked at, and so is one's own body. These activities are 'promoted as an officially prescribed glance' (238). Occasionally, unwanted eye-contact is made, and this is managed by diverting the eyes or exchanging 'a signal of mutual support' (238). These lie outside official prescriptions and require 'justification strategies' (238): participants sometimes politely compliment each other, ask for advice, or comment on their own performance. All of these justify glances by reference to the exercise, denying 'pressure from external body definitions' (239) [that is, from the world outside the gym]. This is maintained by referring to the specifics of the task, including referring to bodies as machines. [Compare this with the way in which bodies are desexualised in medical encounters]. Reference to the external body is often described in terms of pollution -- the aches of the muscles. Such reference also offers participants 'a possibility of control' (239).
Some pauses in enforced definitions are also possible, as long as these can be negotiated. For example, accidental glances can lead to justification which refers to the world outside -- one example has a participant saying 'I am just not a professional dancer', to explain her distractingly poor performance at aerobics (240). Other kinds of informality can be seen in Goffman's terms as 'role distance'-- an activity which projects 'a self beyond the locally attributed identity' (241). Irony can also be used 'in the form of consciously out-of-frame reference to a different, even contrasting external body' (241). Again this hints at some self outside the one which is being locally attributed. Irony expresses some distance 'from the body ideals which training is geared to' , and from the 'docile mechanical body of the exercise' (241). Participants can see this exercise body as 'a pure instrument, a neutral machine... a pure and universal utility' (241). The fit body has meanings added to it by advertising in the outside world, including gender, race and sex, but these are classically filtered out by training: irony enables a more personal adjustment to the gap between one's body and the culturally defined ideal. These tactics are possible only in the informal world of the training regime. Participants can both take the exercise seriously and see it as a function of the particular location and activity. External and cultural meanings are not allowed to be relevant, although they are always there.
The same considerations apply to 'the creation of local identities, those identities which are attributed to participants during physical activities in the gym' (242). Again, these local identities are abstractions from the real complexities, permitted by the instrumental notion of the body in the gym. This instrumental body is the one that is mastered, providing feelings of accomplishment and competence. There are some implications for outside identities as well. There are also risks, and that explains the presence of informality and the ability to partially detach from exercise. This separation according to context means that body ideals and the wider culture do not simply determine personal identities -- individuals negotiate them 'through locally specific interaction rules which require the active contribution of all participants' (243). [This is clearly argued in the case of exercising in the gym, but is it a general argument? Would we find similarly locally specific interaction rules in clubs, classrooms, sexual relationships?].
The ability to create a local reality is what makes exercise in the gym meaningful and manageable. The gym offers a certain filtering mechanism for the usual ideals and their connections with gender and class. Clients clearly participate in dynamic and 'always highly contingent adjustments to an articulated set of local rules of interaction' (244). Definitions of the body in the gym are 'continuously and actively negotiated and transformed', as participants 'play a particular game of involvement with and detachment from the mechanistic and abstract exercise body' (244). The docile exercising body is itself 'enacted as opposed to being imposed on or chosen by the participants' (244), as the ironic distancing indicates. Nevertheless, this body can be used 'as a conspicuous sign of personal worth' (244) [we don't hear very much of this however].
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