‘Fuck the Skinny Bitches in the Club’: Running, Fitness Culture, and a Feminine ‘Being-in-the-World’

– By Katie Esmonde

Katie Esmonde is a Ph.D. student in the Physical Cultural Studies program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The hundreds of hours that I have spent running on sidewalks, trails, roads, and fields are perhaps the times when I have been most aware of my body. In contrast to Leder’s (1990) concept of the “disappearing body”, where the body “is largely absent from conscious thought in everyday life” (Allen-Collinson & Owton, 2014, p. 3), running can be characterized by “intense embodiment” or a “[period] of heightened awareness of corporeal existence” (ibid.). Key to the intense embodiment of running is the sense of heightened proprioception, or the “inward-feeling, sense of oneself… often taken to focus on neuromuscular perceptions and/or of the position of one’s body or limbs in space” (ibid., p. 8). These feelings have been a source of great pleasure for me, while sometimes also being a source of pain.

When running, I am much more conscious of how my body works. I think about my breathing—something I am always doing but rarely thinking about—and how my lungs feel as I take deeper and deeper breaths. I can hear myself breathe, and sometimes my breath feels like it is scratching my throat on a cold day or if I am out of breath. My muscles strain and stretch, sometimes overwhelming my senses with fatigue, and other times working together so gracefully that I feel as if I could run forever. I think about my skin; the sweat beads that roll across it, the wind that whips against it, the humidity that envelops it. Thinking about my body, how it feels, and how it moves, can be a real source of comfort and an antidote to anxious thoughts. While running is certainly not always a pleasurable activity, it is through pain that I can come to see my body as strong and capable as it moves through the world; I have also experienced pleasure in this pain.

Where I often run in the city.

Where I often run in the city.

As much as I would like to report that these are the only reasons that I run, it would be disingenuous to do so. Physical activity through purposive exercise is an important component of body work, or activities that one can engage in to promote and maintain personal health and a physical appearance that conforms to dominant standards of beauty (Gimlin, 2007). This bodily discipline is intimately tied to morality and obligation. As Allen-Collinson and Owton (2014) contend, “working up a sweat—in the appropriate context—thus brings with it moral undertones, of not shirking hard work” (p. 16). Physical activity is rarely regarded as a source of pleasure for the sake of pleasure[1], such as the exciting feelings that I described of breathing faster, being outside and moving my body in different ways (Coveney & Bunton, 2003). Instead, exercise is positioned as a punishment for the body for the sins of slothfulness and gluttony, or for its function of better enabling the excerciser to conform to standards of beauty (Dworkin & Wachs, 2009). Bodies are inscribed with how we have come to understand morality; a slim and toned body is the mark of an appropriately ascetic and regulated lifestyle, while a fat body is perceived to be a mark of shame, laziness, and a lack of self-regulation (Lupton, 2013).

These directives for what a “healthy” body should look like are very much tied up in dominant conceptualizations of beauty. While everyone is subject to these messages, women have long been punished more severely for not conforming to these standards (Bordo, 1993). How we experience our own bodies as we move through the world—our “being-in-the-world”—is very much related to how we are viewed through the eyes of others (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). In my experience of “being-in-the-world” as a woman, much of how I understand my own body is tied up in the ways that it is an object that is gazed upon by others. Young (2005) explains,

An essential part of the situation of being a woman is that of living the ever-present possibility that one will be gazed upon as a mere body, as shape and flesh that presents itself as the potential object of another subject’s intentions and manipulations, rather than as a living manifestation of action and intention. The source of this objectified bodily existence is in the attitude of others regarding her, but the woman herself often actively takes up her body as a mere thing. She gazes at it in the mirror, worries about how it looks to others, prunes it, shapes it, molds and decorates it. (p. 44)

In many ways, I experience my body critically through the eyes of others as an object rather than as a subject and a vessel through which I can engage in intentional movements. This has had a profound impact on how I feel when I run, and further, why I run in the first place. Running is certainly pleasurable for me, but given the anxieties that I feel about my bodily appearance, I feel as if running is a necessity because I worry about what my body might look like if I do not run. When running, I think about how others might see me—does my body look like a runner’s body? Should I not be wearing spandex? Do I look embarrassingly tired or physically incompetent?

Because of the amount of time that I spend running every week, I often listen to workout playlists such as those made by users of the “8Tracks” app. The following are examples of the top playlists that come up when searching for a workout playlist:

pic1 pic2 pic3 pic4

These images and words are telling. The messages accompanying these images are clear; excuses are not acceptable, nor is “giving up”. The mind must be dominant by overcoming the weakness of the body; motivation must outweigh fatigue, excessive cold or heat, or pain. The above images represent the bodies that I am expected to envision as I exercise, as it is assumed that it is my goal to achieve this body type (or that it is even possible for me to achieve this body type). These women are frequently headless or not looking at the viewer—they are bodies to be viewed, rather than individuals.

The music continues this theme; many of the songs are by men, singing about women’s bodies. At times, women sing about their own bodies, such as Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” She sings, “You know I won’t be no stick-figure, silicone Barbie doll, so, if that’s what you’re into, then go ahead and move along.” Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” where she sings graphically about her sexual exploits and her body (her rear end in particular) that makes it clear that she “ain’t missing no meals.” She samples Sir Mix-A-Lot’s famous song “Baby Got Back” where he expounds upon the virtues of women who are “little in the middle” but have “got much back.”

“Anaconda” was one of my favourite running songs to listen to while it was popular on these playlists. Despite being divisive amongst feminists, “Anaconda” was seen by many as a strong and much-needed expression of black women’s bodily and sexual agency, as well as a celebration of a black woman’s body on her terms rather than through Saartjie Baartman-esque objectification. In this mesmerizing ode to Minaj’s figure, she admonishes thin women, singing “fuck the skinny bitches in the club”. While this is perhaps empowering to many women who feel that their own bodies are devalued in society, particularly black women whose bodies are often simultaneously fetishized and treated as grotesque (hooks, 1992), I remain uneasy about this sentiment[2]. Not only would I use caution when attempting to empower some women’s bodies by putting down the bodies of other women, but further, these lyrics are continuing to put an emphasis on women’s bodies as bearers of value. The message that all bodies are beautiful is conveyed in songs like “All About That Bass” and to a lesser extent “Anaconda”, where the bodies of “skinny bitches” are deemed undesirable. However, one might ask, why do bodies need to be beautiful? While I enjoy listening to many of these songs, the message is still the same: how I look is one of the most important things about me. I am further reminded of this when I receive unsolicited comment on my appearance while running from strangers (either verbally or through car horn communication).

Young (2005) described how women’s bodily movements are hampered by the patriarchial society in which those bodies move, through the objectification and assumptions of fragility to which women’s bodies are subject. I experience this while running, and these feelings have a profound impact on how I see and experience my own body. However, this does not imply that the intense embodiment that I described at the beginning of this paper are not ‘real’; rather, these feelings of objectification and weakness are also intertwined with feelings of pleasure, pain, and strength. I experience my body as sentient as well as consumed.

The narrative of dominance that is so pervasive in running—dominance over nature, over other runnerpic6s by outrunning them, over my body in the past through striving for a personal best as well as my body in the present through striving for a better, harder body—is deeply alienating to me despite my ambivalent engagement with this narrative. Perhaps a renewed focus on the material, specifically, my interaction with the material, can serve as an important personal antidote.

Latour (2005), through his use of actor-network theory, advocated that scholars “trace the social and non-social elements that have been tied together to distribute bodily capacities and potentials in specific ways” (Blackman, 2008, p. 122). Following Weedon’s call for an emphasis on the nonhuman (in press),

Contra the modernist notion of humans simply overcoming natural or technological obstacles, my aim has become to recast the conventional hero figure, the super-human athlete, to afford due attention to the too-often unsung ensemble of intra- and supra-human materialities with which these athletes always share an ecology. (p. 4)

Seeking out the interconnections and interdependencies of my running body, rather than understanding and experiencing my body as independent and dominant over nature as well as dominated and shaped by the gaze, can be one strategy amongst many that can allow me to experience a different “being-in-the-world.” This “being-in-the-world” is not centered on how I appear to others, but rather, on how I feel as I move through the world while inextricably connected to it.

Nonetheless, I must admit: I cannot simply reject the dominant understandings of the body and physical activity, nor would I suggest that developing a different personal understanding of my body is the solution to structural and institutional inequality. Nicki Minaj will continue to sing about the skinny bitches in the club—or more importantly, this will continue to make sense— irrespective of any semiotic reversal I might perform.

But, in the meantime, I will continue to run in a world where my body is disempowered through the gaze and empowered through action and feeling; I am limited to changing myself in this space, as dismantling white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is outside the scope of this paper (as well as my abilities). While this approach still lends more weight to the mind—it is difficult to imagine any other outcome, particularly when only words are available in this medium—my body nonetheless can be understood, seen, and felt in multiple and at times conflicting pleasurable and painful ways.

 

Works Cited

Allen-Collinson, J., & Owton, H. (2014). Intense embodiment: Senses of heat in women’s running and boxing. Body & Society, 1-24.

Blackman, L. (2008). The body: The key concepts. New York, NY: Berg.

Bordo, S. (1993). Unbearable weight: Feminism, western culture and the body. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Coveney, J., & Bunton, R. (2003). In pursuit of the study of pleasure: implications for health research and practice. Health:, 7(2), 161-179.

Dworkin, S. L., & Wachs, F. L. (2009). Body panic: Gender, health, and the selling of fitness. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Gimlin, D. (2007). What is ‘body work’? A review of the literature. Sociology Compass, 1(1), 353–370.

hooks, b. (1992). Black looks: Race and representation. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Leder, D. (1990). The absent body. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Lupton, D. (2013). Fat. New York, NY: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). The phenomenology of perception. London, UK: Routledge.

Young, I. M (2005). On female body experience: “Throwing like a girl” and other essays. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Weedon, G. (in press). Camaraderie reincorporated: Tough Mudder and the extended distribution of the social. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 1-24.

 

[1] An emphasis on the pleasures of physical activity can also be problematic when used in an effort to encourage conformity to public health physical activity directives.

[2] I am also uneasy about being uneasy. Given that I have only experienced the world as a middle class, heterosexual, cissexual, able-bodied white woman, I cannot understand the experiences of those that might find more comfort in the song or those sentiments than I do.

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