The Simple But Terrible Reason Women Struggle With Fitness (And How To Fix It)
This is why it’s hard for women to build a lasting relationship with physical wellness.
There’s a lot of science behind why people don’t stick with their habits. Taking on too much too quickly, or making a big change that isn’t sustainable, often leads to dropping a new habit (or worse, burnout).
Rather than springing up overnight, we know that habits are typically built little by little, with small improvements in performance and health leading to big gains over time.
But knowing how to build a habit doesn’t necessarily mean that we will. One of the habits that many of us battle with is becoming “fit” — and maintaining that fitness.
For women, there’s something more to this story. More than simply the science of willpower and habits, women struggle with fitness because it is a proxy for one of our most scrutinized, vulnerable parts of ourselves: our bodies.
Ideally, women would enjoy living in their bodies just as they are. Ideally, showing up to a fitness studio would be a logical, rational extension of our desire to be healthy, or healthier. Ideally, women could rely on the science of habit-building.
That’s far from the truth, though. Instead, for most women, our bodies are a proxy for our shame. We are taught that our unique figures are not “normal,” and therefore showing our bodies — with all their wonderful quirks — feels more like exposing a secret than getting healthy.
Fitness experts have noticed this trend, and the myriad ways in which shame impacts women. Shannon Arens, who oversees the LinkedIn San Francisco Fitness Center, says,
“During the assessment phase or initial conversation with a woman, you learn a lot about her motivation to work out. I would say the most common motivators are external. Meaning that she doesn’t want to work out to make herself feel more energetic or to improve her sleep, but to change something about her body.”
The science of habit-building doesn’t account for this. Finding wellness, even a little at a time, can be tough when women are striving to meet the expectations of a world that seems to want our wildly different bodies to fit into one narrow definition of “perfect.”
Fitness instructor and professional dancer Candace Tabbs has seen this firsthand. Tabbs says, “I have felt myself and seen in other women the insecurities and hesitation around entering spaces that project that they only have room for certain people.”
And, unfortunately, there’s more bad news: there are many women that never even make it to a fitness class. Yoga and meditation instructor Jess Geevarghese says,
“I also believe there’s an invisible majority of women who don’t even attend class, because they are too ashamed — afraid of being judged, not feeling good enough or strong enough.”
This shame, though experienced privately, is not an isolated event. Instead, it echoes a trend in our culture: women’s bodies are the subject of much speculation and subjugation, no matter the industry. Perhaps the issue simply arises in a more obvious way in the world of fitness, where bodies are so easily on display.
One ayurvedic practitioner, Regina of Wolf Medicine Magic, highlights a deeper source of shame for women: patriarchy, and the industries that profit from women’s futile struggle to satisfy that narrow version of a “perfect” body. She says,
“To me, in this country fitness isn’t an effort to stay healthy, keep cancer and diabetes at bay or live a long life; it’s money. It’s an industry that makes millions off of people feeling flawed.
“The shame is everywhere — sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it’s overt, but no matter what, it’s pervasive and at this point, just a part of everyday life. It is my belief that when women stop buying into the self-hatred hype, the patriarchy will fall apart.”
The many sources of the deep shame that stand in the way of women building a positive relationship with fitness may seem like an impossible barrier. But there are small ways for women, both individually and collectively, to fight back.
1. Notice your self-talk.
On an individual level, notice the way that you think about fitness, and talk to yourself about it. Do you find your thoughts about a workout filled with “should’s”? Take a step back to observe whether your “should’s” are related to a negative feeling about your body, or whether they’re motivated by something positive (striving to feel physically or emotionally better, for example).
Professional coach Melanie Doebler often hears clients talk about the things they “should” do. And yet, this type of self-talk doesn’t lead us to the outcomes we want. According to Doebler,
“In a variety of situations, we often find ourselves saying, ‘I should do this,’ or ‘I really need to do that.’ When you hear yourself say should or need to, stop. Substitute the word WANT for should or need to, so that it becomes ‘I WANT to do this,’ or ‘I really WANT to do that.’ Then, ask yourself if that is indeed true. Do you really WANT to? Why or why not? Your motivation — or lack of motivation — is inside the answer.
“This can be an especially effective technique when it comes to diet or exercise. ‘I should exercise’ is not very motivating for most of us. In fact, it can feel punishing. But saying ‘I want to exercise because….’ becomes something we can often get behind. The language itself is more positive and empowering and tying something that we think we should do to a compelling want and why, is motivating. Get clear on what you really want and why you want it, and you’re on your way!”
2. Think of fitness — in whatever form — as an exploration.
If we want to apply the science of building habits little by little, imagine fitness as an exploration, a form of self-inquiry, rather than a specific milestone or achievement framed in terms of “failure” or “winning.”
Little by little, explore how fitness feels. Experiment with the feel of a particular studio or instructor. Have a bit of fun with a new pose or a new exercise. After all, fitness can be an interesting way to get to know yourself, and what you like — rather than what other people expect of you.
Jennifer Jones, owner of yoga studio and co-working space New Love City, explains, “I do my best to make [yoga] approachable, make it fun, remove ‘achievement’-reinforcing language from my classes and gently remind that it’s not that big of a deal, honestly. Bodies want to move — be patient with yourself on the rest of it. Just show up for yourself and start by starting.”
After all, she points out, “the entire point is to have a respectful and curious experience with your body.”
3. Join or support studios and groups that acknowledge the impact of shame on women and their relationship with fitness.
Luckily, there are individuals and organizations that specifically recognize the messaging that women are receiving, and work against those messages. The Movemeant Foundation, for example, was founded to counteract the negative messages that young women hear about their bodies.
Charina Lumley, COO of Movemeant, says, “So much of our existing cultural dialogue is that of objectification and perfection. ...But we believe we’re on the precipice of rewriting that script — of aligning a woman’s value with her capabilities, not her appearance.
“At Movemeant Foundation, we simply start by showing success in a yoga studio or on a basketball court. We give that woman a chance to see herself as more than just one dimension. Then we start to see that her self-worth begins to take bigger, better shape academically, emotionally and mentally and she’s no longer living under the construct of ‘pretty as perfection.’”
By focusing on fitness as a vehicle for confidence and positive self-image, Movemeant is working to counteract the dominant narrative of shame and unworthiness that many young girls and women feel.
Finding the fitness instructors and enthusiasts who believe in countering the narrative of shame — and believe in embracing women’s bodies, and their exploration of fitness, however tentative — is critical.
As Candace Tabbs points out, “What you get in a class is more than just a sweat session. It is a relationship between fitness professionals and participants and between participants, themselves and their ideas about health/wellness. Shame hinders women from developing these relationships. But we (fitpros, owners and fellow participants) have the power to create space that supports people.”
Little by little, we can begin to move toward that vision: first by naming what’s holding women back, then by exploring our own relationship with shame, and working to counteract it.
And in the process, maybe “wellness” will begin to be more about feeling well than feeling judged. Through exploration, perhaps our most vulnerable selves — our bodies — will become more like an old friend than someone else’s version of “perfect.”