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Exercise motivations shape young women's self-objectificatioin

by Steph Anderson

I am not a runner – or at least I wasn’t. I grew up hating running for all of the obvious reasons: panting, chafing, blisters, short shorts. Frankly, I would have rather spent an hour at the dentist than run 2 miles. So when I completed the New York City Half Marathon this past spring, I was elated and honestly amazed that my body even had the capacity to run that far. I also felt more connected to my body than ever before.

Yet, one of the first comments a friend said to me after the race was, “Wow, you just burnt so many calories – you get to eat whatever you want today!”

Huh? I just pushed my body beyond its limits and she’s impressed with my burnt calorie count? I didn’t sign up for the race so I would lose weight (in fact, a number of people who train for marathons gain weight). I trained because I wanted a challenge, to experience what some have called the runner’s high, and to see if I could finally make peace with my ultimate nemesis, running.

But her comment got me thinking. Why do most women and girls run?

Look at any magazine stand and the fitness goals sold to female runners would tell you its about visible changes to our bodies: “Check Off Your Perfect-Body Bucket List!” “Slim Down Shortcuts (‘tis the Season to Get Sexy!)”, “Look Hot, Stay Cool.” These taglines more often than not surround a picture of a woman mid-stride with her long hair flowing behind her, chiseled abs glistening, and an ear-to-ear smile. Tyranny of the thigh gap, anyone? Even if I had long hair, I certainly wouldn’t run with it DOWN, let alone wearing underwear-length spandex shorts. And who smiles when they run? I more often look like Shrek fighting his way to rescue Princess Fiona, while trying to ignore Donkey’s never-ending commentary. The point is that the images available to us communicate that running – and exercise more generally – is about changing how our bodies look, not about changing how we feel in them or what they are capable of accomplishing.

If so many of us exercise as a means to change how our bodies look, how does this affect our relationship to our bodies? We’ve discussed in many blogs that women often self-objectify, or come to see their bodies as objects, when they look at themselves from the outside. Research shows that self-objectification is bad for us: women who self-objectify are less satisfied with their bodies, have lower self-esteem, and have more symptoms of disordered eating. If we think about exercise as a project in which we seek to conquer, tear down, and rebuild our bodies, do we end up seeing ourselves as objects? If so, how does thinking this way shape our experiences with exercise more generally?

Researchers Ivanka Prichard and Marika Tiggemann[1] had similar questions. They wanted to know how self-objectification was related not only to the activities we choose to do (i.e., aerobic classes, weight training, yoga), but also to the actual reasons we exercise. Do women who do aerobic exercise, like cardio training, self-objectify more than women who do more holistic forms of exercise, like yoga? Does it matter why women choose to exercise? For example, if women exercise to lose weight, do they self-objectify more than women who exercise to feel good in their bodies?

To answer their questions, these researchers asked 571 Australian women to complete a questionnaire about their participation at fitness centers. These women answered questions about the types of exercise they do, their reasons for exercising, and also completed a self-objectification scale.

What did they find? Perhaps not surprisingly, Prichard and Tiggemann found that women who spend more time doing cardio-based exercises tend to self-objectify more than women who spend more time in yoga-based exercises. However, they found that these relationships depended on the women’s motivations for exercising. So, women doing cardio self-objectified more only when they exercised to lose weight, get toned, or improve their attractiveness. Women who had more holistic reasons to exercise (i.e., to feel good in their bodies or be healthy), self-objectified less, regardless of their exercise activity.

What does this mean? Well, first it means that some activities may focus our attention more on our appearance than others (i.e., cardio compared to yoga), which can in turn cause us to self-objectify. However, how we think about exercise is still really important. Instead of focusing on how many calories we burn or inches we lose from exercising, we should try to focus more on what our bodies are capable of and how we feel in our bodies once they’re in motion. Trying bench press for the first time, mastering that new swim stroke, or playing soccer with friends can make us feel really good. Exercise doesn’t have to be something we feel we should do so that our bodies can look a certain way; it should be something we want to do because it’s fun and enjoyable.

I just did the crazy thing of signing up for a marathon (yep, a full one this time). My goal is to embrace my body along the journey. It is going to hurt and the training will definitely be hard. My muscles may burn and my joints may scream, but deep in my pounding heart I know that for me, running is not about winning a race to a perfect body; it’s not about being “allowed” to eat a bigger lunch. As I stride toward the finish line, I want to really and truly feel my body in action. I want to feel the pride of an athlete who has really tested what her body is capable of – not what her body looks like. Because after all, being connected to my body isn’t a look, it’s a feeling.

[1] Prichard, I., & Tiggemann, M. (2008). Relations among exercise type, self-objectification, and body image in the fitness centre environment: The role of reasons for exercise. Psychology of sport and exercise9(6), 855-866.

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