Maguire, J (2002) 'Body Lessons: fitness publishing and the cultural production of the fitness consumer', in International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 37/3 - 4: 449 - 464.
This article extends Bourdieu's work on the connection between bodies, consumerism, health and fitness, and social class, and grounds the analysis in a study of the main themes of fitness texts.
Health and appearance represent body dilemmas that have become central to consumer culture, and for the lifestyles of the middle classes. Thus, 'fitness is a quintessential leisure field' (449), but also a kind of general answer for the dilemmas of living -- 'exercise makes you feel good and look good' (449). A whole cultural field has developed around the notion of fitness, involving social setting such as health clubs, professionals, a particular market for consumers, and 'a discourse that represents and constitutes fitness as an esteemed mode of caring for the body' (450): it is this discourse that can be detected in the various exercise magazines and manuals. These magazines and manuals must somehow 'articulate an incongruous relationship between the character of fitness activities and the tastes and values of participants' (450), which Bourdieu terms'"elective affinities"... between the logic of fitness production and the logic of tastes that shapes fitness consumption' (450). Specific texts help to achieve this elective affinity, by codifying expertise, enabling a variety of forms of participation (reading about as well as doing fitness), and a way for consumers to monitor their participation. Reading about fitness helps to extend the actual practice of working out into a whole lifestyle.
The publication of fitness texts has grown dramatically in the USA between the 1970s and 1990s, although the themes remain fairly constant. The body is still seen 'as a consumer project, as a source of calculable rewards, and as a motivational problem' (451). Such texts serve not only to inform consumers, but to persuade and motivate them to adopt fitness 'as a regular lifestyle activity' (451). It has brought great commercial success to well-known fitness advocate such as Jane Fonda. In the same period, lifestyle magazines in general increased in sales, but health and fitness magazines did better than most. Similarly, press coverage of physical fitness 'has increased more than sixfold in the US since the mid-1980s' (452).
The consumers of such exercise texts are 'overwhelmingly middle class, with a relatively high proportion of professional and managerial workers... Furthermore, women outnumber men (nearly two-to-one in 1988)' (452). Bourdieu can be used to predict what these different social groups expect from fitness:
(1) Middle-class groups tend to regard 'the body as a project to be managed and improved through education and self-improvement as an integral aspect of self-identity and social mobility' (452), especially for those who are aware of the importance of bodily appearance and presentation in career terms -- 'ones "body-for-others"' (452). [as in Bourdieu's emphasis on 'bodily hexis'].
(2) Women came to see their physical development as 'part of a new, empowered lifestyle', especially for white, middle-class women entering the labour market (453). Physical exercise could lead to bodily empowerment.
(3) Those interested in health care and health promotion, whether this be inspired by debates about demedicalisation, or as a result of politicians who have tried to make people personally responsible for looking after themselves .
(4) Those interested in consumerism generally as an aspect of their identity, but who have to rely on 'consumer guides... or preferences of style leaders such as sports stars and celebrities' (453). These lifestyle consumers require constant 'educative and advisory texts that repeatedly remind consumers of their option to purchase' (453).
Exercise manuals clearly develop these themes, in which 'fitness has been constructed as a consumer lifestyle' (454). The themes are shared between commercial magazines and educational guides prepared by the authorities responsible for public health. The aim seems to be to persuade people not to see exercise as limited to the occasional workout, but to become a whole way of life, with the widest possible appeal. In the process, of course, the opportunities for consumption, of exercise facilities and more general goods, are strengthened, and motivation increased. The commercialisation of exercise can be seen from comparing modern exercise manuals with classics like that written by Charles Atlas (who promised you could get a massive body with only a few simple exercises with no apparatus)-- modern fitness takes place surrounded by 'props and space... [provided]... by sporting goods manufacturers and health clubs' (455). Products appear much as they do after placement in Hollywood films.
In order to overcome one obvious drawback with regular fitness regimes -- their boredom -- even health authorities encourage 'a culture of expectations for fun, immediacy, novelty and variety' , which inevitably means consumerism and a 'culture of instant gratification' (455). More generally, lifestyles becomes important to both social identity and mobility, especially where it touches on leisure. Leisure has come to centre increasingly on 'improving, decorating and displaying our bodies' (456).
In order to cater for those interested in investing in their bodies, a whole discourse of calculability has become publicly available, from advice on how to measure body mass index and heart rate, to calorie counters. These enable people to become 'empowered' by calculating health risks and thus gaining definite forms of profit. At the cultural level, this appeals to 'anyone located in a seemingly uncontrollable social world and out-of-control environment, for whom the body represents a vestigial realm of individual control and competence' (456). Of course, some consumers use this to balance risks, even to justify unhealthy practices which can be remedied by exercise.
Another 'profit' that is promised is an increase in self confidence, a particular appeal to the new middle class who lack both economic and cultural capital. Fitness helps us to develop 'mastery of one social presence... confidence in and as a body' (457). This also appeals to women, who are addressed 'in the appropriate language of self-actualization' (457). Finally, fitness increases one's awareness of one's body and how it works -- 'and experience of embodied authenticity made less common by the sedentary nature of working and commuting' (458). Hence the esoteric pleasures of the 'pump', or the 'burn'.
A major problem for the professionals, however is motivating people to persist with fitness regimes. Despite all promised benefits, the returns to exercise can be slow, reversed by ageing or illness, and can appear to be far too much like hard work rather than leisure. The advice offered by exercise manuals here involves 'an education in the production of habits through discipline' (459). There are similarities here to the constant striving towards self-improvement, common among the new middle-class. The relationship with suitably motivating instructors is important. The sort of discipline necessary for sustained exercise is also likened to the classic time management skills and habits of punctuality already found among middle-class groups. The responsibility is placed firmly on the self-disciplined individual, a link with Foucault. Self-reflection, inspection and fearless confession are also required. [The connection with study skills manuals seems irresistible here]. Finally, individuals are encouraged to shape their own behaviour through providing themselves with frequent rewards, typically more shopping. Nevertheless, despite all these efforts the actual practice of exercise tends to be a minority interest in the USA, and the discourse itself offers a much easier alternative, to adopt a suitable healthy lifestyle and avoid the 'lifelong process of work on the body' (461).
In conclusion, there is both a booming fitness industry and an epidemic of obesity in the USA, partly because the notion of lifestyle tends to dominate over the notion of health in fitness texts. There has also an assumption that people will be rational in their pursuit of the obvious benefits of exercise, while there is a chance that excessive consumption is beyond mere rational calculation -- 'structural conditions... ['commuting, desk jobs, fast food and television remote controls']... favour inactivity for a significant proportion of the population' (462). Nevertheless, fitness texts promote the myth that leisure, and consumption, offer a 'realm of freedom to make the most of oneself, and less than that is, in many ways, a costly [decision]' (462).
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