Collins, L.  (2002)  'Working out the Contradictions. Feminism and Aerobics' in Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Vol 26, No 1: 85 - 109.

[A very useful analysis this, showing how women can resist aerobics as a  'disciplinary apparatus'. The sample is a small one of mostly middle-class educated and white feminist participants, so no claims are being made here of typicality, but merely of possibilities. Reading this, I think there are wider possibilities raised as well -- such as how male rugby players manage the contradictions of hegemonic masculinity].

Aerobics is universally supported for women, but some feminists see it as maintaining dominant ideologies of powerlessness and sexual identity. At the same time, other feminists, including the author, are keen participants. Aerobics classes therefore display 'double messages' (86), of conventional femininity together with an empowering fit new muscular body. There is a connection with wider sociological analyses of agency and structure, and how actors can resist dominant meanings in a range of other activities  [Fiske is cited here, and he provides lots of examples with shopping, media, consumerism generally]. There is particular focus in this study on the strategies that women use to manage the contradictions in order to permit participation of the kind they find acceptable.

Ethnographic interviews were pursued with 10 women who were both feminists and aerobics enthusiasts. Open questions were pursued at first, and then more pointed and personal ones about some of the contradictions involved. Interviews ended by asking respondents to imagine a fully  'feminist, empowering aerobics class' (88).  [This last question takes on particular significance in the ability to resist current practice, as we shall see]. Collins recognises her own input to these interviews as a feminist and as an aerobics instructor.

What are the pleasures of aerobic exercise for women?

(1) Women gain control over the physical body, build their strengths and encounter physical challenges. In this way they can experience their bodies as free from male domination and sexual stereotypes. At the same time, though, aerobics classes can stress the need for women to change their bodies to appear attractive to men.
(2) Stress release is an important pleasure, with exercise seen as equivalent to therapy, and as an anti-depressant and confidence raiser. Women can realise that other women do not have perfect bodies, and that they do not always have to dress in a feminine way. They can experience camaraderie with other women. However, there is a danger that  [as with all recreation], aerobics can be a way of helping women fit more complacently back into their every day life --  'an aerobic exercise class may only rejuvenate the women and thus prepare them for further exploitation' (91). The same paradoxes are discussed in Bakhtin's work on carnival as temporary and licenced bodily release. There is a danger that the aerobically fit body can become the tightly-controlled and self regulated body [as in Hargreaves on disciplinary apparatuses].
(3) Aerobics can display both plaisir and jouissance. In this case plaisir stands for productivity and conformity, while jouissance involves an evasion of social control. Some participants report this feeling in the form of feeling fluid or organically connected (see page 92). However, Collins argues, jouissance can be followed by plaisir -- feeling good about yourself can also lead to deeper conformity.

Most participants agree that conventional sexual identities are present in the aerobics class as well, that being attractive for men was stressed, that the clothing can be sexualized, the instructors can be conventional women, and that fat people can suffer mockery. The respondents  'felt alienated from their bodies and from the class when the workouts were rigid and patronising' (94). Regimented practices made them feel objectified and oppressed -- they had experienced actual direct disciplinary pressure as well as the indirect ones. There is therefore a balance of pleasure and pressure. Because the women continued with their aerobic exercises, Collins argues that they must have developed ways of coping with the oppressive aspects and the conflicting demands.

These coping strategies turned on a 'feminist apologetic' in this case, quite unlike a common reaction among female sportspeople who feel they have to be ultra feminine to compensate. Strategies included:

(1) Distancing oneself from the oppressive elements. Sexist music was tuned out and ignored (none of the women actually challenged musical choices). Such strategies illustrate a practical way of compromising with the oppressive situation, which may be the only realistic option in societies saturated with patriarchal practices.

(2) Rejecting feminist critiques of aerobics as invalid, over general, and as ignoring  'the significance that aerobics has to its participants' (97)  [a perfectly valid methodological critique in my view]. As examples, the repetitiveness of aerobics classes can be seen as a form of meditation, enjoyable, avoiding the need to take decisions, ritualistic and thus empowering and enjoyable. Given that women were often expected to minutely control the movements of their bodies, repetitive movement can be  'a safe way to rediscover, and perhaps even to integrate, the body' (98). The confined space in which aerobics classes often take place can be seen as a retreat, refuge , a private space -- although one woman at least said she decided simply to skip the class and go outside.

(3) Asserting agency. Again, none of the women wanted to establish their own feminist aerobics class, but preferred instead to work within the existing structure to maintain as much control as possible. For example, they would selectively participate rather than blindly follow the instructor. They stress that they are working their bodies for themselves rather than as a result of pressure. They stress the non-oppressive reasons and try to ignore the conventional sexist ones -- e.g. by refusing to take part in fat-reduction regimes. Some women discovered the power to negotiate the class having conformed fully at first. The problem is that these forms of resistance again involve becoming part of the overall disciplinary intention -- for example  'it is hard to separate an individual's desire for a thin, fit body from the imposed desire of institutions such as the aerobics industry or patriarchy' (102). Collins notes that none of the women could produce a fully coherent narrative to reconcile these two possibilities, and all of them recognised the dangers. Nevertheless, Foucault could be right that this is really a form of voluntary subjugation, internalising the gaze while operating under the illusion that it is a private choice. The same dangers arise from considering  'hegemony theory'-- choice can appear to be individual, or it could be manipulated by social pressure and constraint

(4) Making do. This involves a compromise, recognising that there is no perfect way to do aerobics in an imperfect world [and there are of course hints that much everyday life offers the same kind of compromises]. A particular technique here is to insist that 'essentially' aerobics is liberating, but it is contaminated by all sorts of cultural values which are added on [compare this with views that rugby is a pure game contaminated by professionalism and excessive coaching]. The women attempt to focus on the physical activity, rather than the activities of the instructor or the dress codes or choice of music. Collins points out that this claim to operate with an essentialism is problematic, of course. However, making do is a common technique that women use in wider society: women get on with what they've got rather than waiting for some perfect solution. For some respondents, even rejecting some of the claims of patriarchy was a triumph.

Collins clearly feel sympathy for this pragmatic approach, but worries that it may be excessively likely to end in compromise and acceptance rather than resistance. She ends the article by suggesting that these contradictions remain, and that at least the women are aware of them rather than offering  'a position of uncritical acceptance' (106). [I noticed that prompting the women to consider a perfect feminist aerobics class might also help them to be critical -- this is an old argument, developed best in Marcuse or Adorno, perhaps, that a Utopian ideal can at least stop the premature closure of possibilities and the claim that the existing system is all there is. I was also reminded of the argument in Gintis and Bowles that the education system is a similar site of contradiction, with both liberating and repressive possibilities constantly in tension].

Feminist awareness does not lead to a completely different practice and alternative, but it does guard against complacent acceptance. Collins appears to believe that only ownership of the aerobics industry, and possibly the other ideological state apparatuses, would deliver real liberation. Overall though, the reactions of the women studied indicate 'the way women often must live their lives within a hegemonic society that attempts to prescribe body standards and beauty ideals' (107)  [and the same applies, no doubt to other forms of resistance as well -- working-class people, members of ethnic minorities, those wishing to resist red-blooded heterosexual masculinity, and so on].

back to key concepts