The language of women’s fitness is dominated by our bodies – and the algorithm.
Before everything shut down, before anyone was worried about wearing a mask (and in fact, being wary of the ones that were), many of us were lifting weights at the gym. For a lot of people, fitness, rather than remaining neutral and healthy, becomes complicated. It’s easier in the gym, to replace the focus of changing (or diminishing) the body with an accumulation of strength instead. Fitness models, who were once lycra clad and cardio obsessed, have slowly shifted to feature a new archetype body: the ‘gym girl’ instagrammer, with tiny waist, round booty, with heaps of (attractive) muscle. Where the focus once was to diminish or make smaller, the language surrounding current fitness trends now features those of growth and expansion: grow your glutes, build upper body strength. There’s a muffled call for the rejection of the scale, and rather a desire for the weight of our dumbbells to go up, rather than the numbers on the scales going down.
Of course we exercise with our bodies in mind. Of course, even weightlifting isn’t free of being gender specific. We isolate body parts that are attractive to the eyes of others; we have strong legs, or we grow our glutes. Work out plans are adorned with peach emojis. The package of fitness comes from mainly one angle: white girls, wearing gym shark, with resistance bands and workout plans available to purchase. However these girls encouraged us to wander into the weights floor, surrounded by men. They encouraged us to take up space. USA weightlifting reports that women membership rose 125% between 2012 and 2016. Our goals shifted slightly, we turned our attention to performance rather than aesthetics. We saw other women lifting heavy on the weights floor right next to us.
But then the gyms closed. We struggled at home, exercising for a whole host of reasons: for good mental health, to burn off some energy, or because it feels good to sweat. We hunted for home workouts on YouTube or Instagram. There, we found videos of smiling instructors, armed with a free workout plan, promising radical and speedy transformation. With these videos, however, there comes an algorithm – an algorithm that understands and pushes forward the language that attentive viewers are looking for. Gone is the language of the gym, muscle names, language that brings the body and its mechanisms into harmony: Latissimus, deltoids, sounding like Greek gods.
New language is pushed forward and amplified by tech. New language works – it’s a very important part of intricate ways of pushing a video further. It works hand in hand with the faceless machines that match key words to watcher, that knows your age and demographic and location and even more so, knows your secret desires, obsessions, and insecurities. But this language is mostly formulated from how our bodies are ‘wrong’. It’s stamped all over neon thumbnails: get shredded abs, burn belly flat, round your booty, do this one video EVERYDAY for two weeks to lose weight, grow your booty and NOT your thighs. The fitness industry relies on a language to keep making money: love handles and thigh gaps can sell a whole host of products, and when that dies down, they bring us hip dips and saddle bags. This language is rhythmic, and sells well. It often rhymes. Language formulated, like a lot of language is, to sell us things: click on this video because I am selling you an acceptable body.
Unfortunately, the other reasons why we exercise don’t sell, and they can’t be condensed into a bright thumbnail or catchy title. The masses want change, and the makers of these videos want the masses: so the language of the body prevails. Who has the time to read these titles? Do this workout when you’re stressed, or when you’re sad. Do this workout because you don’t feel right if you don’t. Do this workout so you can annoy your friends by saying how strong you’re getting, where you can wave measly flexed arms in their faces .
These small satisfactions can still be gained by doing these workouts, regardless of what they’re called. Doing deadlifts or donkey kicks produces the same sort of endurance, like taking a bite of bread that you’ve baked yourself. But the package they come in, skinny girls, who have made huge wealth from this, in jewel toned workout clothes, makes it harder to ignore the wider, overarching reason we exercise: to look better. Because our bodies feel unacceptable if we don’t.
Their titles have an urgent rhythmic quality. Full Body Fat Blast, said over and over again, is like poetry. They lend themselves well to alliteration: waist whittler, booty blaster, summer shred challenge. A summer body without the summer, without the beach? And yet, confined to our homes, we have an urge to make the most of the situation. That if we do enough ab crunches at home, this all would have been worth something. We want to emerge victorious, with our best bodies, transformed and surfacing into a transformed world, like leaving a cocoon. Slick with muscle, glittering with ‘extra’ time. The comment sections on these workouts are filled with young people wanting to kick start their transformation in the time away from school. They too become armed with this language before they can formulate their own tentative relationship with their bodies, to choose the language they use to describe it.
It’s not the fitness girl’s fault that the language of fitness has evolved in this way. This language was created in the rumblings of diet culture in general, a long living beast that shapeshifts into different forms; skinny teas, and diet pills. If they want to be in business they have to get as many clicks as they can, and most people are looking for quick results and dramatic promises: do this, and you can look like me. In some videos a disclaimer exists, buried at the bottom of the description: “Please note that all of my videos are titled according to SEO best practices for content discoverability…As an example, targeting fat reduction is not scientifically proven but a video title might suggest otherwise.” These women navigate an industry darkened by a history of restriction and insecurity, balanced only by the women they help and inspire to be active every day. People get results. They get what they want. There’s videos documenting their experiences on each work out plan, hundreds of people with their measurements on screen, standing proud in their new, smaller body. Their happiness is clear, it reaches through the screen. It’s a very seductive idea, the ability to make yourself smaller. It’s a call we respond to, even if we don’t know why. The creators of these plans publish blog posts advising against dangerous diets. They talk about body positivity, they champion the results of all their followers, of all body types. They smile throughout the burpees, they chat about their day, they tell us about what they got at the grocery store. They tell us we can do it. Get through it. They feel like our friends, as our legs shake, as it hurts. They bear virtual witness to millions of us in pain. In an isolated world, their happy chatter fulfils two longings: for activity, and attention. It’s not a bad thing to want results. It’s just complicated, and the language of fitness orbits around this one, ultimate goal, which has always been (and maybe always will be) losing weight. It eclipses all other language, all other reasons.
However, in these online rooms each video brings thousands of us together. In a world where we’re shut away from each other, the welcoming chatter of these online comments brings a friendly solidarity to an otherwise solitary activity. The comments are full of stories of redemption, or triumph. I started working out after a bad time. I started following your videos after I recovered from my eating disorder. They’re adorned with emojis, stars and flowers, amusement in reactions and memes and jokes. These online spaces allow us to connect, and we take comfort in the fact that we are shielded by the walls in our homes. We’re hidden from the eyes of men, from them trying to talk to us, we’re protected from looking stupid, from worrying about doing something wrong. Not all bodies are welcome in the gym, but at home, in a twenty minute video with a hundred thousand others, we welcome ourselves onto the mat, we thank our bodies for what they allow us to do. We feel the rush of endorphins after we finish, the pure, chemical happiness of a job well done, and of our bodies being the one to do it.
Is it wrong that this language makes us want to change our body? It calls to question our self-love or inner-happiness. We’re hypnotised by this language, the language of machines and money, but also, it brings us back to moving, to trying to do a difficult thing, and doing it with others from across the world. We’re in this together.
Who’s doing this in quarantine? We join a world that is staying inside, generating energy in the eerie quiet. The language of fitness isn’t neutral, but it creeps forward carefully. The language of fitness makes millions, but it encourages more and more of us to move our bodies. You did excellently, the instructor says. Maybe this is the only language that matters. Well done.