Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The "This Girl Can" Campaign and Rhetorical Approaches to Feminist Fitness

Fitness, fatness, and my personal relationship to each have been intersecting sources of frustration and confusion for my entire adult life (and part of my childhood). This is something that I have written about on many occasions at this blog (see here, here, here, and here, for example).

When I discovered the fat acceptance movement, I thought I had my answer. In particular the Health at Every Size approach to fitness was inspiring. I was refreshed by the notion that I didn't have to hate my body to take care of it, heartened by the idea that movement and energy were more important than jean sizes and pounds lost, and motivated to change the way that I looked at my relationship to myself. I read blogs like Dances with Fat and this Tumblr on the need for fat acceptance and felt this radical departure from the typical barrage of body shaming rhetoric to be awe inspiring.

It was an important step in my growth as a functional, fit human being, and I hope that nothing that comes after this sentence disparages that movement and the work that it does. Body acceptance approaches to fitness (rooted in feminist principles) have been life-affirming and incredibly important to many, many people, and I include myself among them.

But the fat acceptance movement and HAES approaches have not been enough to fully encompass my lived experiences. This isn't to fault them; it's just that I was trying to use them to serve a purpose they were never designed to serve (I'll get back to that in a minute, but I wanted to make sure that we're clear that I'm not dissing these approaches. I love them. I support them. I promote them.)

The truth is this. I believe wholeheartedly that fat bodies deserve the same right to exist in our society and that people who have fat bodies deserve the same rights, respect, and treatment as people with thin bodies. I also believe that you don't take care of your body by hating it and that learning to respect yourself as you are is the first step to any kind of self-care.

But I also know that there are times in my life when I want to change my body. (This does not mean that I think other people whose bodies look like mine need to change them. This is a good example of the "Underpants Rule" coined on Dances with Fat).

The HAES approach didn't leave me much space to deal with that reality. Instead, I felt guilty for wanting to change how I looked, fearing that the tension with my relationship to my own body would be read as giving into (or even used to support) the damaging and conventional societal narrative of fat hatred, self-loathing, and stereotyping.

So I teetered. I bounced back and forth between the desire to change how I looked through motivations that were based in both health and vanity and fully embracing the HAES philosophy. In many ways, the mental script as I did this see-saw act fell into the two camps nicely, and it was then that I realized my personal relationship to fitness and fatness was actually an embodied example of the rhetorical perspectives that I spend my scholarly life studying.

I was stuck between a wholly antagonistic script and a wholly cooperative one. What I needed was some agonism.

Antagonism, Cooperation, and Agonism: Some Quick Definitions

I wrote a post about this a while back, but basically, our contemporary understanding of rhetoric tends to break things down into polar opposites and then force us to choose one approach or the other.

This love for polar dichotomies extends even to the rhetoric we use to talk about those polar dichotomies. You've probably seen this principle at work at every dinner party argument, every comment thread, and most newscasts you've seen.

In general, we tend to seek out echo chambers where we are surrounded by people who agree with us. These echo chambers can be useful because they give us a space to grow and develop our ideas without someone cutting them down. You can think of it like a greenhouse for planting seeds. It's an optimal environment where the temperature, water, and sunlight is controlled, creating a place where the seeds are most likely to take root and grow strong. This is cooperative rhetoric.

But some people never want to leave the green house. These echo chambers become enclaves that are isolated from and distrustful of differing voices.

On the other hand, there are situations where we intentionally create conflict between opposing voices, often pitting these discussions as a "war" or "battle." Think of news talk shows where the different "sides" of an issue are each given a spot in the conversation and spend the time shouting over one another in an attempt to drown out the other side(s) and thus "win" the debate. This is antagonistic rhetoric.

As a culture, we're not very good at handling our beliefs in a way that is neither antagonistic or cooperative. We tend to fall into habits that support one or the other. The solution to this gridlock is the rhetorical practice of agonism.

It is tempting to place antagonism on one end of the spectrum, cooperation on the other end, and agonism in the middle as a reasonable compromise, but that's not how it works.

Agonism functions when we oscillate back and forth between those two opposing viewpoints. We are practicing agonism when we spend time shifting between a cooperative mode and an antagonistic one, when we spend time alternating between believing our own argument and doubting it and then between believing the voices of those with different perspectives and doubting them. Agonistic practices operate in a never-ending loop of criticism and support. We never have to choose one pole or the other, and we don't find a happy middle between them; instead, we spend time accepting (if temporarily) the tenets of each and then rejecting (if temporarily) the tenets of each, using the knowledge that we've gained to sharpen our own understanding. The effect is that our own views come out changed, even if they don't fully match either of the perspectives that we used to hone them.

Fitness Campaigns and Rhetorical Approaches

There are many efforts to make people healthier. These are supported by governments, medical professionals, and educational institutions. We've placed an emphasis on health as a cultural value and justified it through fiscal, psychological, and moral arguments (especially when it comes to collective health practices).

Those efforts are then co-opted by profit-driven companies to sell diet products, fitness wear, and gym memberships.

The result is that there is a conglomerate of efforts aimed at motivating people to exercise, diet, lose weight, and/or be more health conscious. Often, these efforts manifest themselves as PR campaigns, and it is in these campaigns that we can clearly see the three rhetorical frameworks of antagonism, cooperation, and agonism at work.

Antagonistic Approach: Special K and the Battle with Your Body

Just about every mainstream fitness campaign is going to fit into this category, but I think the Special K example is particularly interesting because it operates under a guise of feel-good, body-positive rhetoric.

The Special K "Gains Project" features the slogan "What will you gain when you lose?" and promotes weight loss through a series of ads aimed at showing the way life can be improved once weight loss is achieved. Their efforts have been award winning and praised for focusing on the mental and emotional impact of fitness rather than the physical.

Here's an example of one of those ads:

In this video, the focus on "pride" and "confidence" rather than a number on a scale carries overtones that align with the HAES and body acceptance movements, but the slogan of "What will you gain when you lose?" and the fact that the advertised product is a low-calorie food designed to fit into a weight loss plan demonstrates that "pride" and "confidence" are things that you get only after you have lost weight.

This commercial makes that point even more obvious:

As the voice over and text promises viewers they can "lose up to 6 pounds in two weeks," it's made clear that the women are not getting on the scale and seeing positive words like "joy" and "shine" in place of their weight; they're seeing those words because the number on the scale has gone down. They only get "pep," "pride," and "spirit" because they've managed to lose weight. Before, they didn't have these things.

By setting up a rhetoric in which you have to lose weight to gain positive qualities, the Special K campaign actually puts people (and it's not really all "people" since all of the characters in the ads are women) at war with their own bodies. What's keeping you from joy and pride and hope? You! Fight it by literally eliminating parts of yourself until you reach this target feeling (by reaching a target weight).

 Even in a campaign that feels light and positive, the dominant message of self-loathing and body shame is lurking just below the surface. This antagonistic approach of pitting women against their own bodies is pervasive, and one that we see particularly clearly in most "fitspo" messaging (an approach that is bad for you if health is your actual goal). 

The Cooperative Approach: The I Stand Campaign

With messages like the ones above so prevalent, it's no wonder that the HAES campaign moved radically to the other side of the equation with their "I Stand" project. This project by Marilyn Wann was sparked by her anger upon seeing a fat-shaming (and very antagonistic) billboard campaign aimed at children as part of the Strong4Life campaign. 

In an explanation for her campaign, Wann had this to say:

It [the Strong4Life billboard] shows a fat girl (an actor!) in a striped shirt, with this slogan over her belly: ‘It’s hard to be a little girl when you’re not.’ This is not a health message, it’s a hate message. I decided to put a photo of me in the place of that girl, with a slogan that tells children of all sizes I’ll stand up to their bullies, even if it’s a big hospital system (or the first lady) who does it.
She did this by creating a truly inspiring campaign of cooperative rhetoric. As she identifies in this statement, her audience is people who feel like their bodies are not accepted or acceptable, people who have been shamed, harassed, and bullied by the typical antagonistic rhetoric surrounding weight loss and health. With the "I Stand" campaign, Wann attempts to create a safe space where people can hear a message they very rarely hear: their bodies are fine as they are.

That initial reaction sparked an entire campaign using this kind of cooperative approach, and the results are truly radical in the face of so much antagonistic promotion of body hatred.

Every message takes an overt stance against shame and fear and promotes acceptance of all bodies repeatedly. Many of the images chosen portray fat bodies in ways we rarely see them. For one, they're fat bodies that actually have heads and faces, which can be a rare portrayal in itself. Many are also shown in poses of action and movement, happily demonstrating strength and power, a message that directly counters the Special K-promoted belief that we can only feel these things after weight loss.

An Agonistic Approach: This Girl Can and Tension without Hatred

The "I Stand" campaign goes a long way toward promoting body acceptance and providing people who are truly happy with their bodies a space in which they can feel affirmed and supported.

But what about people who do not want to be at war with themselves but would like to lose weight (be it for health, vanity, to fit into their clothes better, whatever)? They are left with the work of agonistically moving between these two rhetorical approaches to fitness and health. They can spend some time listening to the antagonistic approach (and they won't have to do much work to find it; it will seek them out in the form of billboards, commercials, and well-meaning but tone deaf acquaintances at every dinner party). The message that they need to lose weight in order to be healthy and that they can only do so by fighting against their current selves is entrenched in society.

Then they can actively seek out the alternative approach put forward in campaigns like the "I Stand" project. The message of body diversity and fat acceptance is not mainstream, but it's certainly much more prevalent than it once was. By moving back and forth between these two perspectives, taking what works and leaving what doesn't, wrestling with the tensions between the two (and there are many), we can begin to come to an agonistic understanding of the interaction between fitness and fatness, health and relationship we have with ourselves.

That agonistic endpoint is nicely (and fairly uniquely) captured in the new "This Girl Can" campaign from the UK's Sport England. The creators cite statistics showing that many women are intimidated by working out as their motivation for producing an advertisement that encourages a range of fitness activities for a range of bodies. They did not use models for the ad, instead opting for images of every day women to demonstrate the accessibility of fitness.

If you haven't seen it yet, here it is:

What I love about this ad is that it isn't shying away from the physical challenge of fitness. These women are exhausted and sweaty. But they're still having fun. I also love that it shows so many different kinds of fitness. Not into yoga? Fine! Hit that punching bag. Don't want to be alone? No problem! Here's a dance class. Hate the gym? Go run through an open field.

In some other spots for the campaign, that notion of challenge and tension is even more evident. Some of the women featured briefly in the video are given more intimate explorations of their own. One of these is titled "Julie vs. Inhibitions":

Julie talks about having to battle her inhibitions in order to take advantage of the fun and fitness offered in a public Zumba class. She is having to tackle a part of herself in order to accomplish this particular fitness goal, and the video tackles that without making Julie's conflict one of war. She isn't defeating herself the way the antagonistic fitspo memes tell her to; she's working through that tension to arrive at a better understanding of herself and fitness. 

That message is summed up perfectly in this spot "Kelly vs. 'Mummy'":

Here, Kelly is a single mom of three kids who struggles to find time to go to the gym. The video shows her working out in her living room with the children including doing sit-ups with a baby sitting on her chest.

I'm particularly interested in the title: "Kelly vs. 'Mummy.'" It's clear that this is not a battle. She is not stopping her role as 'Mummy' to take on her role as fit Kelly. She has to find a way to blend the two, and that blending is not a simple compromise; it's full of tension and conflict, but it is rewarding and valuable.

In the behind the scenes look at Kelly's video, we see Kelly's weight loss transformation in before and after photos and hear her talk about the gradual nature of fitness motivation.

Kelly's discussion of how just starting fitness and then continuing to do "a bit more and a bit more" will cause your body to push you further is a great example of the agonistic approach that this campaign embraces. It is not cooperative. There is a struggle between you and your body in this particular fitness endeavor, but it is not one of hatred or war; you are not "losing" yourself to become someone new. Instead, your body becomes part of the motivation, and that tension is a productive one rather than a destructive one.

Final Thoughts

I don't think the antagonistic approaches to fitness are going anywhere any time soon. I think that the dominant conversation surrounding fitness and fatness is going to be mired in the rhetoric of war. We're going to continue to hear that our bodies are our enemies and that we must hate them to make progress.

That's a heartbreaking and damaging message, so we have a few ways to counter it. The cooperative approach of body acceptance is an important part of untangling the mess left after a lifetime of antagonistic messages regarding fitness.

But this agonistic approach is the one that I personally respond to the best. I know that tension will always exist in my relationship to my body, and the act of lived experiences (like having a baby and breaking an ankle) have only made that more obvious. The state of my body and what it can do changes over time in different circumstances; that means there is a constant flux in the way that I can enact fitness in my life.

The only way that I can adequately address that fluctuating tension is to have an approach that embraces it and reacts to it. For me, that's an agonistic one.

Pete, harmishhk, Virgina (Ginny) Sanderson


  1. Oh my gosh this was very well-written! Thanks to Sally @ Already Pretty for linking to this post! I have had a somewhat similar experience with these various kinds of motivations. I have to credit the HAES movement (among other things) with helping to really shift my experience with depression. Before HAES, my depression flares would come with horrible, demeaning internal self-talk - looking in the mirror and questioning my right to even go out in public. I still deal with depression, but it no longer manifests in that way. I can look in the mirror and see things I'd like to change of course, but the feeling around this is very neutral.

    I did feel a little stuck with HAES when it came down to, "yeah, but I'd still like to change a thing or two..." But now I feel like being healthy doesn't need to be an out-there goal - it's just something I can do, and thus be, in any given moment. I go running sometimes and I used to always qualify it, like, "Well I went for a run, but I actually walked quite a bit too". Like I couldn't "claim" being a runner until I met some certain threshold. Who says?! Now I just say I went for a run, even if I only ran 2 minutes and walked 28 minutes. And I will say, "I am a runner".

  2. I've done that same thing! "Well, I squared 100 pounds, but that's not enough, so I'm not really a weight lifter." "I go to roller derby practice three days a week, but I'm not on the playing team, so I can't call myself an athlete." Those labels seemed so far removed from me, and HAES definitely helped me overcome that. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  3. Fantastic. I really enjoyed this and whole-heartedly agree. It is interesting that I never understood accepting HAES to mean you wouldn't want to make changes in your life. To actually create Health at every size one must embrace changes to improve health, whatever you decide that to be. Why would one's size not be allowed to naturally change also as muscle ratio, activity level, eating habits, etc evolve? Tension is a part of life and necessary for growth. I just had a HAES friendly summit for women, including Linda Bacon as a speaker, but possibly in all this I missed something! What you are saying makes complete sense to me as a former competitive athlete, who is now fat and at various time in shape or out! You also remind me how much I miss the rigors of academia for my mind. ;-)

  4. Thanks so much for reading. I was looking at your social media for the Brave Body Love summit, and it looks amazing!

    I do think that HAES has room for those kinds of nuances, and I think that the HAES approach is definitely a very valuable movement and an important switch from our mainstream practices.

    I think that there's also more room for that kind of discussion of tension when it's coming from someone established as a member of the community, but I think it's harder for somemone who's struggling with the issues themselves (you know, battling against mainstream narratives, maybe just getting started in a body positive philosophy) to navigate that because so many HAES communities are (rightly) critical of fat and diet talk. I've seen a lot of people who also feel like their feminist principles are at odds with desires for weight loss or body composition changes because it's so hard to untangle the changes we want to make for ourselves from the changes we want to make becuase those standards have been imposed on us.

    I hope I didn't come across as discouraging a HAES approach because I fully support that movement and have found it immensely helpful for myself. Rhetorically, though, I think we can embrace that tension more fully in a way that directly challenges mainstream narratives rather than just creating an alternative discussion.

    Thanks for reading!