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Interaction Order and Beyond: A Field Analysis of Body Culture Within Fitness Gyms

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Abstract

This article addresses keep-fit culture not as a collection of commercial images or as the product of broader cultural values, but as a set of situated body practices, that is practices taking place within specific institutions where these images and values are reinterpreted in locally prescribed ways and, to some extent, filtered. Relying on fieldwork, fitness gyms are revealed to be experienced as places with their own rules, pleasures and identity games. The ideal of the fit body is shown to be filtered from its wider, typically gender- and class-specific charges, transformed into a pure instrument of training, a machine which does not bear resemblance to the organic body of the changing rooms, an objectified utility which is beyond any social role specification. Social roles and their body requirements are both important for individual clients' structural chances to join the gym and locally neutralized or reduced to tension-release mechanisms. Similarly, the cultural ideals of a fit and toned body contribute to the legitimation of the gym; yet the actual capacity to train is less the result of the direct grip of culture, than the outcome of clients' adjustment to playing a particular game of involvement with and detachment from the mechanistic and abstract exercise body. Body definitions are not simply imposed on clients, but continuously negotiated and transformed.
Interaction Order and Beyond:
A Field Analysis of Body Culture
within Fitness Gyms
ROBERTA SASSATELLI
With the same divine faculty which is of children to take seriously their games, we bestow our
magic on the things we play with and then we let them bewitch us. It is no longer a game, but
a marvellous reality . . . another reality, far away from yours and still so ephemeral and fleeting,
where one does not need to think. Here we live of this. Without anything, but with all the time
for us: illegible richness, boistering of chimeras. (Luigi Pirandello,
The Giants of the Mountain)
The lithe and energetic body, tight and slim, with its firm and toned-up bound-
aries is a powerful image of contemporary culture, especially as articulated in
advertising and consumer culture. Not only has the toned body become a
commercial icon, but also the gym has become highly visible as the site where this
body is produced. Gym scenes are increasingly portrayed and glamourized in an
ever widening range of adverts. There is thus the temptation to understand what
happens in the gym as the direct result of consumer culture, as the obvious
response to normative injunctions which have been described as inviting indi-
viduals to joyfully take responsibility for their bodies, to work on them as plastic
matter and to invest in body presentation for their self-constitution (Amir, 1987;
Bordo, 1993; Featherstone, 1982; Frank, 1991; Le Breton, 1990: 125–45; O’Neill,
1985: 91–117; Synnott, 1993: 22–37; Wolf, 1991). This article, however, takes a
different perspective. It looks at the keep-fit culture not as a series of commercial
images nor as the product of broader cultural values, but as a set of situated body
practices, that is, practices taking place within specific institutions where these
values are not just reproduced but translated and, to some extent, filtered.
One such institution is indeed the fitness gym. As I shall show, the fitness gym
Body & Society
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1999 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi),
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is experienced not simply as an ingredient in the search for a perfect body, but as
a place which has its own rules and where a vast array of meanings and identities
are negotiated. Wider cultural values, the ideals of the fit, toned and slender body,
coded as both a conspicuous sign of personal worth and a matter of individual
choice, are indeed mediated and reinterpreted in locally prescribed ways. My
article thus tries to look at the fitness gym from the inside, from the specificity of
its microphysics. This has required a detailed analysis of how the gym realizes its
ascribed cultural goals by focusing on the interaction arrangements which are
locally sustained without reifying the discontinuity of the gym from everyday
reality.
To do so I have adopted a Goffmanesque view of interaction. According to
Erving Goffman, interaction is a domain of social, face-to-face action which is
‘loosely coupled’ with the cultural order (1982: 11), but characterized by its own
forms of fragile and yet indispensable ‘procedural order’ or ‘working consensus’
(1959: 173). The interaction order comprises ‘the conditions and constraints
placed upon the manner in which ends are sought or activity carried out’ as well
as ‘patterned adaptations associated with these pursuings’, rather than the ‘choice
of ends or the manner in which these ends may be integrated into a single system
of activity’ (Goffman, 1971: x–xi, see also 1963a: 7–8, 1982). A Goffmanesque
approach to the gym may thus help to overcome some of the shortcomings of
macro-analyses concerned with either social stratification or commercial
representation. An exclusive emphasis on stratification discounts the fact that the
multiplication of exercise opportunities within the gym, each appealing to differ-
ent social groups, is a means by which fitness exercise is spreading beyond the
new service classes that originally endorsed it (Bessy, 1987).
1
Like the approaches
which rely on commercial images it runs the risk of losing sight of the role played
by the local organization of resources as well as the meanings that participants
actively negotiate in their practices.
Based on an ethnographic study of gym environments, this article describes
how gyms are organized and how their internal organization acquires meaning for
clients. I will consider how time and space are locally orchestrated, how inter-
action during training is managed and how these arrangements both promote and
rely on specific forms of relation with oneself and one’s own body. The findings
here presented refer to fieldwork conducted in two Italian gyms, suitably
renamed ‘Shape’ and ‘BodyMove’. These two cases constituted the extreme poles
of fitness supply within the same middle-class neighbourhood thus helping to
focus more persuasively on what is typical of the interaction rules within gym
environments. For my analysis I have drawn on four different sources: participant
observation, semi-structured interviews with clients, informal interviews with
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trainers and managers, and specialized publications such as fitness manuals and
periodicals.
2
Shape and BodyMove thus offered empirical settings, allowing for a
consideration of interaction, subjective meanings and institutional discourses.
This in turn has facilitated a bottom–up approach, whereby the meanings of the
gym are traced back to its constitutive organization of resources and meanings.
The Gym as a World in Itself
Colonizing contemporary urban environments, the fitness gym is a commercial
institution which offers the consumer exercise opportunities ranging from
traditional aerobics and body building to the latest combinations of dance, yoga
and martial arts. In this sense the gym epitomizes the spreading of disciplinary
body techniques, previously confined to disciplinary institutions or production
organizations, into leisure environments (Ewen, 1988; Foucault, 1975; Turner,
1987; Weber, 1946). It also exemplifies the replacement of public concerns with
individual choice as a rhetoric of institutional legitimation (Defrance, 1976, 1981;
Green, 1986; Grover, 1989; Hargreaves, 1987; Vigarello, 1978, 1988). As a
commercial institution the fitness gym is typically open to everyone who has the
cultural competence and the economic capital to act as a consumer. Yet, its market
openness contrasts with the protected nature of the practices included within.
Fitness gyms are relatively separated from everyday reality as specialized spaces.
Here people who occupy very different social roles overtly care for their bodies
and forcibly display postures and movements which would normally be
conceived of and felt as weird – if not indecent – outside them. Fitness gyms are
thus both open and protected, both separated and connected to everyday life: they
are regions where the body may be prepared for different daily routines and yet
they operate on the basis of local rules which translate, negotiate and filter the
relevances of these very situations.
Entering the front door of a gym, as the noise of the streets recedes, the
newcomer encounters a contained and protected space. Via the use of space, light
and decoration, every gym organizes its own distinctive ways of marking passage
from the everyday world to the exercise world. Shape is a well-known and
fashionable gym. By impersonal signals of architectural details and lights, the
wide and sporty hall with its stylish reception and glamorous windows under-
score the transition to the two-storey training areas. This creates a space which is,
in the words of many clients, ‘very well-known as one of the best gyms in town’.
Such perceptions are fostered by the gym staff: while helping me to get on with
my training, Mark, one of the four machine trainers, maintains that Shape ‘has
been designed to be an enjoyable place, where clients can find professional
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services of high quality’. Compared to the professional, impersonal and high-tech
environment of Shape, BodyMove is for many reasons a very different place. Its
architecture has a somehow improvised and understated character and clients
describe it as a ‘pretty much improvised’, ‘tiny and cheaply set up’ environment,
also speaking of ‘a sense of familiarity’. The passage to the gym consists of a
simple glass door opening to a minuscule corridor from which the aerobics areas
are immediately visible and accessible. Marked by the unavoidable presence of
photographs of the trainers, BodyMove’s passage from the external world largely
relies on the promotion of a sense of communality with the instructors. Louise,
the director of the gym and one of its most popular trainers, insists that the
‘simplicity’ of BodyMove is one its assets: ‘the trainers are competent, they
provide a personal relation with people, a family atmosphere’.
It is clear that different modalities of passage from the outside world, both
spatial and symbolic, set the official style or tone of each gym. Gym environments
are nevertheless all constructed as specialized places relatively separated from the
external reality. This is evident when we consider how gym environments organ-
ize time and space within their boundaries and how this organization accounts for
their specificity and separation. Although embodying opposite modalities of
tness provision, Shape and BodyMove are remarkably similar in their internal
organization. Rather than concentrating on their differences – which are certainly
relevant for a comparative perspective on their relative history, success and target
groups – this article focuses on what they have in common. The aim is to single
out the specific characteristics of these spaces which constitute a particular type
of social environment.
The fitness gym is a compound and complex environment. Within the gym
body practices are sorted in functionally differentiated areas. This environment
offers different and distinct spaces for exercise of the body, besides spaces where
the body is prepared for the exercise and for the return to everyday reality.
Certain body practices, such as undressing and direct body care, which are usually
powerful signs of a private situation, are exclusively and rigidly confined to the
changing-rooms. The specific characteristics of changing-rooms surely contribute
to the particular tone of each gym, those of Shape being more comfortable, aseptic
and impersonal as compared to BodyMove’s tiny, improvised and informal ones.
However, the separation of similar spaces says something about the internal
organization of gym environments in general. The specificity of the gym is not
simply due to its physical separation from external reality, but is more funda-
mentally negotiated through changing-room practices. Within its boundaries the
gym offers a space to facilitate shifting, both inwards – into the world of training
– and outwards – back to different external realities. The changing-room is thus
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a remarkably complex space. Due to the simultaneous presence of clients who
enter and exit the world of training, the changing-room is a ‘liminoid’ space where
the cultural de-classification typical of passage rituals is lived individually, each
client being asked to manage the specificity of his or her own shifting require-
ments.
3
However, shifting inwards is more symbolically supported than shifting
outwards, the symbols participants require to go back to their different social
roles being beyond the official definition of the gym. Changing-rooms are indeed
organized to facilitate an institutional passage, marshalling symbols to support a
switch to exercise as the activity which defines the gym.
Functioning first and foremost as symbolic keys for exercise, changing-rooms
help clients to enter its spirit, sustaining its specificity and suspending other rele-
vances. The change from everyday costumes for a purpose-made, gym-specific
outfit is, for example, not simply a material requirement of training. It is also a
fundamental symbol of having entered the gym, of tuning in, of being in the right
spirit to work out, recognizing the specificity of the work on the body that is to
be done. Despite the very different routines that clients may follow within chang-
ing-rooms, these practices are always important for them. Describing their typical
day in the gym, clients recall small details of their changing-room practices as
both necessary and meaningful. Charles, a middle-aged surgeon for years
committed to fitness work-out at Shape, illustrates the symbolic potentialities of
the changing-room, underlining, for example, that it responds to ‘the need to cut
off from the external world’: ‘when I arrive here and take off my clothes I am
already getting away; I then put my shorts and my belt on and there I am, ready
for the gym’. Lilly, a middle-aged clerk who, on and off, attends a training
programme at BodyMove, says that it is necessary to be in the right frame of mind
to ‘enter the spirit’ of the gym: ‘I take it easy, a free afternoon, and I like to go [to
the gym] on foot ... and then undress slowly, get out my outfit, my shoes, dress
up, as if to get ready for the work I’ll have to do.’
Changing-rooms thus index training situations, reducing their potential
equivocality, bestowing the exclusivity of a fitness session on practices which
could be easily classified otherwise. They operate as a ‘segmentation mark’, some-
thing which is particularly important for social actors when the activities to be
undertaken conflict with the normal expectations of everyday life (Giddens, 1984:
377–9; Goffman, 1963a: 39–41, 1974: 560–76). Changing-rooms are thus meant to
strip individuals of their external identities, filtering out social attributes which
could interfere with training and making their bodies equally into an object to be
moulded by a serial and yet personalized training. Their sexual division along the
duality male–female, for example, openly reproduces patterns accepted in the
wider culture only to block their relevance during exercise. Thus, on the part of
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clients and trainers, there’s a tendency to portray men and women’s bodies as
equivalent with respect to their exercise potential, inclinations and capabilities, as
if the training body were a-gendered.
4
As the changing-room allows clients to switch to the realm of exercise, to its
rules and its meanings, so the division between different work-out areas facilitates
training by responding to the specific demands of different training modalities.
Within both Shape and BodyMove there is a more or less marked spatial separ-
ation between gymnastic exercise – including aerobics, step-aerobics, callanetics,
stretching, soft yoga, etc. and machine training – either with vascular or weight-
lifting equipment. Gymnastic exercise is based on an active cooperation between
participants who openly share the focus of attention. They are all asked to look
at the trainer, imitating her movements and following her instructions. Through
the simultaneous reproduction of movements, the time of training is collectivized
and the space is all invested by exercise. With machine training, by contrast, time
is individualized and the training space constituted by reciprocal civil inattention.
The continuation of the exercise relies on the capacity of each client to isolate
from others and to focus on a personal sequence of movements.
In both modalities of training, exercise is the officially prescribed focal point.
Participants’ involvement, however, follows different expressive modalities.
Involvement requires a shared focus of attention during gymnastic exercise and
asks for an exclusive and personal focus during machine training. These are clearly
incompatible demands whose respective strength and coherence is enhanced by
the specialized nature of work-out spaces. By segregating incompatible demands,
the separation of machine training from gymnastic exercise allows participants to
enter expressive contexts which stimulate concentration on the exercise as
officially prescribed. A gathering overtly sharing the same lesson in the machine
area would distract other participants from their individual training no less than
a client working on his or her own personal abdominal sequence during an aero-
bics class. The separation of these two modalities of training is thus fundamental
to avoid uncertainty and distractions, to keep interaction ordered and unambigu-
ous, geared to the accomplishment of training.
As shown, the organization of local resources plays a fundamental role in the
construction of the gym as a structuring context where some specific and exclus-
ive patterns of social interaction take place. It is certainly true that the gym’s
perimeters are sustained by wider cultural goals which reach beyond contingent
locality. The care and transformation of the body towards an ideal of fitness and
well-being are their specific legitimating objectives. These objectives are also
promoted by the growing wealth of specialized manuals and magazines and
resonate within instructors’ claims and clients’ narratives of motives. Different
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discourses thus contribute to define the purpose of the gym as ‘improving one’s
own body’ and ‘shaping it up’, at ‘taking care of the body’ and ‘feeling good’.
However, the gym is first of all a ‘social occasion’, ‘bounded in regard to place
and time’ and ‘facilitated by fixed equipment’ (Goffman, 1963a: 18). The way in
which the environment is organized is thus important in its own right. In particu-
lar, the configuration of the gym as a compound environment works to maintain
its unity and specificity.
In effect, it is through the shifting parameters of meaning which cut across the
gym that training is sustained. Careful organization of space and time is essential
to create a milieu where individuals are able to concentrate on training, and forget
their normal duties and everyday social roles.
5
It is precisely thanks to the consist-
ently supported relevance of exercise as specifically prescribed that not only is
training sustained but also the gym as a whole may be perceived as a relatively
straightforward social experience. Through a spatio-temporal organization which
works at the work of the body, the gym is thus constructed as a world in itself, a
domain of action which has its own rules and meanings. As Christine, a
professional in her 30s, says, in the gym ‘one immediately knows what is going
on, there are no misunderstandings’, ‘distracting ideas’ have to be ‘forgotten’
because everyone ‘is somehow forced to work out’; ‘there isn’t much else’ to do
but training as required by the different work-out spaces and/or sessions.
Expressive Behaviour during Training
The gym is constituted as a world in itself to the extent that the client is pushed
and pulled to concentrate on body work-out. This circumstance is both simple
and fundamental. Training within fitness gyms has in fact the characteristic of a
world-building activity. In this, it is a similar form of social action to play and,
although the gym is a relatively serious and purposive affair, like play fitness train-
ing generates meanings which are exclusive to it. It allows experiences that are
perceived as part of a set of meanings different from all others except the ones
deployed when the same game is played at other times (Goffman, 1972).
This happens not only through the organization of different spaces within the
gym, but also thanks to specific patterns of interaction during training. Expressive
behaviour – a basic dimension of interaction comprised of both verbal and bodily
signals aimed at underlining participants’ involvement in the ongoing interaction
and their reciprocal positions – plays a crucial role. Training within fitness gyms
not only promotes an official and clear focus of attention, the exercise, but also
requires a nearly continuous involvement in it. In a typical training scene, partici-
pants appear as entirely engrossed in the exercise. In such circumstances their
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postures, glances, facial expressions underline that what they are doing is indeed
just and only training.
As suggested, within gymnastic exercise this requires the bodily demonstration
of a continuous attention to the trainer, reproducing his or her movements and
following his or her directions. Trainers continuously stress the exercise, cease-
lessly underscoring the process of training by counting repetitions, giving instruc-
tions about sequences and highlighting difficult passages. Witnessing an aerobic
class, for example, one cannot avoid noticing the trainer’s stream of directions
matched by participants’ displayed collaboration in simultaneously reproducing
his or her movements. Each of these signals works within the exercise as an indi-
cation of what is punctually to be done while, summoned up as a complete show,
they encapsulate the exercise, making clear that what is happening is actually a
training session. A similar double function is accomplished within the machine
areas by the built-in characteristics of the machines, that is their ever more
sophisticated devices for quantifying and analysing performances, as well as by
certain forms of ‘self-talk’ such as each individual’s strained grunts (Goffman,
1981: 78–123). Individual body demeanour is particularly important in machine
areas because, unlike in gymnastic exercise, trainers do not dictate the official
focus, but introduce each client to the activity by means of a personalized induc-
tion. Clients’ facial expressions, their capacity to express and mobilize their own
involvement, thereby become fundamental to confirm their own individual
sequences as the officially prescribed focus. During relaxation intervals between
exercises which could easily give way to distracting or disruptive episodes,
participants’ continued self-absorption is typically underlined by an expression-
less, absent face. While remaining on their machine or moving toward the next
one, clients may glance around focusing on anything in particular, and they
assume inexpressive, or even hostile, expressions or cast a distracted smile, avoid-
ing eye contact.
Both during machine and gymnastic forms of exercise, when distracting
episodes take place they tend to be short or located at the margins of the work-
out spaces and they may even be directly monitored by trainers. In both modal-
ities of training, trainers and gym staff have the authority to enforce appropriate
behaviour, and may even ask participants to leave the training scene. A direct
disciplinary intervention is, however, exceptional within the fitness gym, and
would clearly be defined as an unfortunate incident. The exercise interaction
arrangements are in fact essentially based on the tacit, continuous cooperation of
participants, on their endorsement of a specific form of expressive behaviour and
on their reciprocal surveillance.
Expressive behaviour is thus crucial as it encapsulates the exercise situation: to
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use an expression made famous by Goffman, it helps to ‘frame’ the activities
taking place within work-out spaces as fitness training. The notion of ‘frame’ is
important here. Goffman used this concept to indicate the ‘principles of organiz-
ation which govern events – at least social ones – and our subjective involvement
in them’ (1974: 10–11).
6
Frame is thus a set of ‘organizational premises – sustained
both in mind and in activity’ (1974: 247), a ‘context of understanding’ and a
‘membrane’ which orientates our perceptions within it (1974: 39, 1972: 71). As a
framed activity, training is not only the product of the local availability of special-
ized spaces which facilitate its accomplishment, but also of ‘transformation rules’
which define what is proper and must be given weight within a training session
(1972: 27ff). The rules of expressive behaviour during training in fact operate as
transformation rules which block, select and transform some properties of every-
day interaction and some attributes of individuals. Establishing what is relevant
and what is not, these rules try to ensure that during training individuals are
clients, ceremonially equivalent and formally equal. They shape expectations so
that each client is expected and expects to concentrate on the exercise of his or her
own body, moving it, observing it, exposing it to the gaze of others as prescribed
by the demands of the exercise.
Transformation rules have important cognitive and affective functions, some-
thing which has been underlined by Gregory Bateson (1954), an acknowledged
source of inspiration for Goffman. Bateson considered ‘framed activities’ as
domains of actions marked by ‘meta-communicative’ messages: a message which
‘explicitly or implicitly defines a frame’ in fact ‘gives the receiver instructions or
aids in his attempts to understand the messages included within the frame’
(Bateson, 1954: 161). A meta-communicative message thus guides the evaluation
of the messages contained within the picture it has encapsulated. Participants’
involvement in the official focus of attention during training, their strained grunts,
their concentration on the trainer’s movements, their tense faces and sweaty
outfits, all contribute to reinforce the message, ‘this is a training session’. The prop-
erly expressed involvement of a participant in the official focus of cognitive and
visual attention is thus a signal of the reality of training: it tells ‘others what he is
and what his intentions are, adding to the security of the others in his presence’; it
also confirms ‘the reality of the world’ inside, and ‘the unreality of other potential
worlds’ which might be obtruding (Goffman, 1972: 37). Furthermore, as Goffman
also recognizes (1974: 345 ff), frame organizes more than meaning; it organizes
involvement, too.
7
Thus, if clients become involved in the focus of attention as
prescribed by training, they typically feel natural and at ease, submerged in the
reality of the exercise. Especially after training, it is commonplace to hear clients
making comments on body work-out as producing a valuable sort of experience.
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This experience is defined as ‘concentration’ on the physical activities, a heightened
perception of one’s own body as defined by the exercise and a liberation from all
external pressures. Training is described by assiduous clients as furnishing a sort of
protected recreation of oneself, a worthwhile moment ‘rescued’ from the normal
demands of everyday life when one ‘can and must only think of moving one’s own
body’ according to the demands of the exercise. Training is thus a domain of action
where clients may be brought to concentrate on their own movements with very
little need to address them reflexively. In Bateson’s words, we may say that the
working of expressive behaviour as a meta-communicative device creates a rela-
tively clear communicative space, freed of the need for communication on the
nature and relevance of the actual exchange. The exercise frame is organized so that
participants can sustain training without the need to question what is going on and,
as I shall show, with only limited departures from it, the importance of which lies
in the way they help reinforce the frame.
The implicit meta-communicative value of the organization of expressive
behaviour is crucial not only for participants’ actual experience of training, but
also for their longer-term capacity to continue a work-out programme. Clients’
capacity to trust and endorse the rules of expressive behaviour which operate
during training partially accounts for their concrete participation in the exercise.
Enthusiastic and assiduous clients reconstruct their successful initiation to train-
ing as a process of re-framing which led to a deeper sense of involvement in the
activity and to a more sustained participation. Barbara, for example, a young
university student who has followed a regular step-aerobics programme for more
than six months, is able to put her story in eloquent terms. She explains that
during her first days of training she did not feel engrossed: she felt ‘useless’, she
‘really could not follow’ and kept ‘losing concentration’; while ‘everyone looked
so good’, she just felt ‘out of place’. She comments on her initial difficulty of
leaving aside normal, outside expectations, both related to body ideals and to her
local performance. To this she now imputes some of her initial flaws: ‘at the begin-
ning I tried much less, instead of thinking of the exercise I just tried to hide ... as
if people were there to look at me rather than looking at training’. In some
measure, this alienated her from the action, making it difficult to endorse it,
producing embarrassment and shame instead of involvement. In order to enter the
exercise she needed to take seriously, trust and endorse the continuous indexing
of the activities in the exercise area as a ‘training session’. Also, thanks to the
encouragement of Patty, a lively step-aerobics instructor, Barbara has ‘thrown’
herself ‘into’ the proceeding of the exercise: ‘I said to myself: “come on”, now I
look at the mirror, I want to see if my movements are fine, I follow each step of
the trainer, I do just everything, I sweat, I really put myself into it!’ As other
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assiduous clients have also reckoned, Barbara is convinced that it is this chance to
‘be involved’ which has ‘helped’ her to ‘train regularly’.
Together with the ‘benefits’ and the ‘results’ which they obtain for their bodies
in the long run, all regular clients stress the importance of the actual ‘context’ of
training for sustained participation. They prize ‘concerned’ trainers who are ‘able
to convey enthusiasm’, they appreciate a gym where other participants ‘do not
want to play silly’, they relish training for its ‘relaxed’ and yet ‘serious’ and
‘concentrated’ atmosphere. All these features contribute to make fitness training
engaging in itself, a genuine ‘diversion’, something which draws participants into
its own rules and relevances and then allows them to forget, partially and momen-
tarily, other external relevances. The clients who tell stories of successful initiation
to training both at Shape and at BodyMove thus seem to have understood differ-
ent signals framing the exercise, making it into a relatively distinct, clear, safe and
absorbing domain of action. In particular, they have learned to reinterpret glances
at the body as related to training. As Amy, an articulate mature student, says, the
perfect gym for her is one where she ‘can sweat without feeling ugly’ and where
there is no need to mark one’s own social position by ‘showing off labelled
clothes’.
Body Definitions and Local Identities
In reinterpreting glances at the training bodies as connected to the process of exer-
cise, clients master a complex set of practical and implicit rules of glance manage-
ment. By glance management I refer to how glances are passed and exchanged, as
well as how they are handled when resorting to verbal justifications. The rules of
glance management operating during training help the neighbouring bodies to be
filtered out, defined by the exercise and, to some extent, made neutral and innocu-
ous. These rules are loaded with meanings: they help to sort out body definitions,
prescribing how the body must be properly understood during training, which
attributes and qualities have to be blocked out, which can be left in the back-
ground as still of use to the exercise itself. In order to understand which body
definitions are sustained and how this contributes to training, it is thus important
to look in some detail at the rules of glance management at work.
During aerobics classes, which are often crowded both at Shape and Body-
Move, it is evident that training itself requires a continuous attention to the body
postures and movements proposed by the instructor. Clients stress that it is
important to pay attention to the instructor’s body and conceive of this as a
‘normal’ demand of training, as part of the officially prescribed exercise arrange-
ments. Thus James prefers BodyMove ‘when there are less people’ since ‘it’s easier
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to follow the trainer’s movements’, ‘keep[ing] one’s eyes on her’ and thus ‘concen-
trat[ing] on body movements much better’. When an overcrowded class makes
this difficult, it is another client who is looked at. Glenys, also a keen customer
of BodyMove, maintains that ‘instructors always ask [you] to watch them’, yet ‘if
there are lots of people’ it is ‘necessary to look at those [clients] in the first row’.
Clients also look very often at their own bodies in the surrounding mirrors. This
is again felt and promoted as an officially prescribed glance. Jane, one of the most
popular trainers at BodyMove, during her step-aerobics lessons never forgets to
encourage the group, suggesting that ‘it’s important to do even the smallest move-
ment with precision and the mirror is there for this, it helps you to understand
what you’re doing with your body!’ Although it may happen that some indi-
viduals do not feel at ease with it – like Eleanor who prefers ‘to avoid looking’ at
herself in the mirror because she would feel ‘vain’ – at least at the interaction level
this modality of glance is prescribed and does not require any particular justifi-
cation.
On the other hand, when following their neighbours’ movements, clients may
nd themselves coming across their reciprocal glances. When eyes repeatedly
meet, participants tend to rapidly divert their eyes, or they exchange a signal of
mutual support and even openly justify their behaviour. Similar expressive
routines underline that looking at another client is not a straightforward and
indisputably permitted modality of glance. Being not explicitly entailed by the
exercise, this is an equivocal glance which can refer to external notions of the
body. George, an athletic shop manager, after having repeatedly met the eyes of
one of the two young newcomers during his favourite body-sculpt class, turns to
the trainer and comments ‘you can tell that there are new people, but they are
good! When I started, I didn’t keep your pace’. Similar justification strategies are
not only meant to re-establish a threatened ceremonial order, they may also be
actively sought after in order to stress the cooperation between participants.
Andrew, a pensioner who has recently joined Shape, usually takes a central posi-
tion in the stretching group and pursues eye contact with his neighbour which he
then justifies with comments such as, ‘Oh, goodness me, I just cannot any more,
how can you go on? This is impossible, I always lose my balance!’ The exercise
is thus confirmed as the working of participants’ ceaseless cooperation, something
which, as suggested, is even more evident in machine training areas. During
machine training, no less than in the gymnastic areas, participants are prone to
justification when eyes repeatedly meet. Here as well they mention training, by
furnishing or asking for advice, or by commenting on their own performance,
thus reclassifying the meaning of their glancing at others’ bodies.
The justification strategies enacted during training, when customers’ eyes
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meet, reveal that glances at the body can and must be justified with reference to
the exercise. The definition of the situation is precisely one of ‘physical exercise’
and it is the exercise which has to be confirmed if the specific interaction is to go
on. Distractions from the focus of attention prescribed by the exercise frame may
only be tolerated if rapidly drawn inside its boundaries, if and when the body
which is looked at is confirmed as defined by the ongoing physical activity. The
ambiguity of the glance at the body during training, however, underlines a pres-
sure from external body definitions. The justifications adopted in fact testify to
clients’ capacity to recognize the definition of the body within the exercise as
distinct from other definitions. The analysis of similar justification strategies thus
says something of the body definitions at work during training, of both those
definitions which are prescribed by the exercise frame and those which are kept
outside it.
When justifying their glances at the others, clients contribute to specifying
which body characteristics are considered as relevant during the ongoing activity.
While working out, the body may not be adequate to the task, it may not ‘have
enough energy’ nor ‘keep in rhythm’, its movements may ‘not be coordinated’. A
similar notion of the body is sustained not only by expressive ceremonies, but also
by trainers’ advice and by clients’ explicit narratives of motives. Both Shape and
BodyMove trainers usually refer to the body as a machine, ‘something which has
to be kept oiled’ and a series of ‘levers’ linked to a composite external ‘shell’. Simi-
larly, clients, such as Charles for example, maintain that everyone ‘has’ to go to
the gym, because the ‘body is like a scaffolding with muscle layers: if you train
regularly, your muscles are always ready to perform appropriately in whatever
situation’.
The specificity of the exercise body as a tool and a machine is first obtained by
neutralizing the body of the changing-room, confining the organic body within
it. Instead of ‘making mistakes’ as the training body indeed does, the body of the
changing-room may be obscene or polluting. While shifting, clients comment on
their physical sensations, the ‘ache’ felt after all their ‘efforts’, the ‘pleasure’ of
nding oneself ‘with relaxed nerves’. The body of the changing-room is of organic
matter, clean or dirty, made of sweat, pain and pleasure, its shortcomings being
those of an undisciplined organism.
8
From a perspective internal to the gym, the exercise body offers to the indi-
vidual a possibility of control, while the changing-room body highlights the limits
of such control. During training participants are asked to work on their bodies as
an instrument of the self. Contradictory notions of the body, whereby the body
is a measure of the self, its organic source and worth, must be kept at bay as they
would offset the definition of the situation. However, changing-rooms also
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contain other body definitions. While shifting, clients are in fact much closer to
their external social realities than they are supposed to be during training. The
organic body, prepared to return to everyday reality, yields to the individuals’
social bodies. By washing themselves, dressing up, doing their hair, individuals
demonstrate their cultural competence to return to their social roles. In their
specificity, these practices say something about each individual’s social body,
about their own specific embodied roles and body presentation requirements.
Thus, George comments on the ‘necessity of taking a shower if one has to go back
to the office’ and Glenys maintains that she ‘prefer[s] to come in the evening’ since
she does ‘not need to dress up’ to go back to her ‘family’. I have already suggested
that, as opposed to inwards shifting, outwards shifting finds space but not much
symbolic support in the changing-room, in that a particularly conspicuous dress
can obtrude excessively in the preparation for the exercise with the actor risking
ceremonial exposure. Outwards shifting practices remain personal and multifaced
preparatory activities supported by personal external anchorages. These external
anchorages are not completely anonymous though, they re-emerge in the form of
projected social roles during training. Here the individual social body may func-
tion as a tension release mechanism which helps interaction to proceed smoothly.
Indeed, the implicit rules of glance management during training not only block
out body definitions incompatible with the demands of the exercise, they also
reintroduce external notions of the body in specific patterned ways. They trans-
late external body notions for a temporary relaxation of what is strictly prescribed
by the exercise frame, for a pause which is authorized within it. What is interest-
ing to notice here is a leap beyond the order of interaction which is negotiated and
ultimately contained within such order. Notions of the body external to the exer-
cise which refer to one’s own social body are supported by individuals when they
consider that they may become the object of a surplus of attention, perceiving
they have made a mistake while engaging in training. Patricia and Joanne are both
BodyMove clients of some years standing and have met up at the same aerobics
morning classes. During training they both remark on their effort to follow what
they consider to be a ‘difficult series of movements’. This attracts the curiosity of
the other participants and the two friends are stimulated to justify themselves
even more: ‘Gosh! I really cannot follow this one, I am just not a professional
dancer’, says Joanne, supported by Patricia who laughs and alludes to how her
friend will ‘impress everyone at home’.
These limited exchanges are typically allowed and even approved of by train-
ers and other participants with smiles and supportive glances. They are managed
as forms of informality considered as proper during physical activities in the gym.
The exercise’s body definitions as well as its demands on participants may thus be
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perceived as stringent, but not coercive or oppressive. In a situation where partici-
pants are asked to concentrate their attention and emotions on to their objectified
bodies, to make them work out as neutral tools and perfectible machines, respect
for their selves as not contained by the crudity of the situation may be crucial.
Informality, in fact, allows for what Goffman famously defined as ‘role-distance’
(Goffman, 1972: 85–152). The reintroduction of external notions of the body
helps the individual to gain ‘distance’ from his or her ‘role’ as defined by training,
to project a self beyond the locally attributed identity. Translated as informality,
reference to external definitions of the body thus helps participants to ease tension
during training. The deployment of such definitions is governed by the exercise
frame, and can reinforce its continuity and strength and furnish a perspective on
the participants’ negotiation of meanings for the local preservation of projected
selves.
The availability, in the background, of external definitions of the body is in fact
both cooperatively managed by participants as a tension-release mechanism, and
actively pursued by individuals as a risk management strategy meant to control
ceremonial risks during interaction (Goffman, 1959, 1963a, 1967: 168–239). Irony,
often in the form of consciously out-of-frame reference to a different, even
contrasting, external body may be used as a means to avoid annihilating oneself
completely within the exercise, confining oneself to the identity which is thus
locally attributed. When, as noticed, Joanne says half-joking that the aerobic
sequence is too much for anyone but a professional dancer, she shows her compe-
tence to recognize what is required within the exercise as a docile body, and she
is detaching herself from her local performance, refusing to reduce herself to it
and her body to a pure instrument of training.
As an individual strategy irony is not only used to gain distance from the local
identities attributed during training, but also from the body ideals which training
is geared to, from the toned, tight and slim body which exercise is deemed to
produce. As the idealized final goals and the conspicuous outcomes of training,
these body ideals are obviously linked to the docile mechanical body of the exer-
cise. Nevertheless, they are not coextensive with it. The exercise body is a pure
instrument, a neutral machine made of energy beyond any distinction or specifi-
cation but those strictly necessary for carrying out the prescribed movements. It
is a pure and universal utility which is thereby layered with a wealth of meanings
as soon as training gives way to other social situations. The fit and toned body as
portrayed in advertising and the media is in fact typically and conspicuously
gendered, charged with racial and sexual connotations, indexed to a set of prized
social roles (Bordo, 1993; Cash and Pruzinsky, 1990; O’Neill, 1985; Wolf, 1991).
All these external appreciations are instead officially filtered out during training
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as they may upset the definition of the situation, and distract clients from involve-
ment in the ongoing activity. Irony also functions as a relativizing recognition of
the body ideals which, from an external viewpoint, sustain training. It neutralizes
clients’ own inadequacy with respect to culturally defined body ideals, which are
obviously associated with fitness work-out, by means of their re-introduction
within the exercise as important but locally irrelevant.
This is well exemplified by a machine training episode where Wendy and Mary,
two middle-aged women who typically spend a couple of hours a week in the
gym, engage in a brief dialogue. Wendy asks Mary: ‘Do you need this machine
now? ... It’s really good for a slim waist and against those hip bulges’; and Mary
answers, ‘Yes, yes, but how many shall I do, uh?! ... working hard, working
hard.’ Mary intervenes not so much to protect her physical appearance as to stress
her mastery of the body ideals which culturally sustain the exercise while
discounting them as somehow suspended during training: she is ready to take
responsibility for her exercise performance as well as her capacity to work on her
body, but not for her embodied qualities. And so does Amy, who, by similarly
joking about her physical appearance, actively contributes to make the gym into
a place where people can work on their objectified bodies without feeling
exposed. When, during a stretching class, the instructor asks participants to turn
their torsos far enough to see their posteriors, she cannot help whispering to the
complaisant neighbours: ‘Indeed, I always see mine!’
The flexibility of the exercise frame, its relatively high degree of informality,
allows participants to deploy irony as a risk management strategy. The mainte-
nance of cooperation during exercise thus implies both taking the exercise seri-
ously and discounting such seriousness as peculiar to the contingent framed
reality. Exercise is indexed to other external realities, social roles and cultural
values about the body, that are present even if recognized as locally irrelevant.
Discounted as part of an encapsulated activity, the definition of the body within
exercise and the relative local identities attributed to clients become nevertheless
real. Thus indexed they may be considered by participants as less threatening for
their own projected self, and may be endorsed more easily.
While different body definitions are managed by the fitness gym as part of its
organization, their selection, variation and combination also underpin the
creation of local identities, those identities which are attributed to participants
during physical activities in the gym. Abstracting from all those parts of them-
selves which do not fit with the exercise, playing down the body requirements of
their social roles, looking at their body as a pure instrument of training, knowing
what to do and what is next, participants subjectively endorse the local identity
attributed to them. Involvement within training authenticates the reality of the
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exercise and validates the competence of the actor. Regular clients’ descriptive
narratives, in effect, show that training fosters sensations of body control as well
as power, strength, agility, harmony, expressivity. These are all feelings of
accomplishment which are easily classified as confirmation of one’s own compe-
tence. Nancy, for example, maintains that when she gets ‘concentrated’ and
‘works out seriously’, it ‘feels great to be able to follow’, a sensation which puts
her ‘in the right mood all day long’. The confirmation of local identities thus
reverberates outside gym environments. In the long run, what has been singled
out as relevant within the exercise frame tends to have effects on external rele-
vances. In particular, local identities as well as the notion of the body which is so
poignantly appropriated fuel personal identities, becoming relevant for the indi-
vidual as a biographical unity.
Precisely because it requires similar identity plays, training may prove to be a
risky business, whereby inadequacy as opposed to competence is experienced. It
is thus an important feature of the exercise frame that it allows for some elements
of informality in the form of partial detachment from the exercise, from its local
demands and its cultural goals.
9
Regular clients learn to modulate their local iden-
tities with limited and typically half-joking allusions to their social roles and the
corresponding body requirements. Notions of the body referring to clients’ social
roles may thus intervene to facilitate the endorsement of local identities, such as
when, after a mistake, participants in a fitness session allude to their external body
requirements while striving to resume training. At the same time, these very local
identities, the necessity and capacity of clients to concentrate only on training a
neutral and machine-like body, filter out the wider body ideals which the exercise
is geared to.
Although linked to the exercise body, ideals of the fit and toned body as
portrayed in the wider culture are not coextensive with it; they could therefore
conflict dangerously with training and need appropriate managing during it. This
complex game of meanings shows that what happens in the gym is not simply
directly produced by broader cultural values which are imposed on individuals.
Cultural values, distinctions and body ideals exist as situated practices, they are
crucial only insofar as they are negotiated through locally specific interaction
rules which require the active contribution of all participants.
Concluding Remarks
Training within the gym is sustained by the local organization of resources, time
and space management in particular, and by a host of implicit interaction rules
which help to frame the exercise. The exercise frame facilitates participants’
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cognitive and affective concentration on training and it is thanks to this that the
gym may be experienced as an obvious, meaningful and relatively separated
reality. The body is thus not only the material object of training, but also the
fundamental symbolic device for participants to implicitly agree on the defi-
nition of the situation. The rules of interaction in fact sustain a particular defi-
nition of the body as relevant within training and translate external definitions
in prescribed and locally specific ways. The situatedness of fitness training is
crucial: the local organization of resources, interaction and meanings filter out
the ideal of the fit body from its wider, typically gender- and class-specific
charges, transforms it into the exercise body, a pure instrument of training
bearing little resemblance to the organic body confined inside the changing-
rooms, an objectified utility which is beyond any social role specification. Social
roles and their body requirements are both important for individual clients’
structural chances to join the gym and locally neutralized or reduced to tension-
release mechanisms. Similarly, the cultural ideals of a fit, toned and slender body
contribute to the legitimation of the fitness gym; yet the actual capacity to train
is less the result of the direct grip of culture, than the outcome of clients’ dynamic
and, to some extent, always highly contingent adjustment to an articulated set of
local rules of interaction.
Body definitions are not simply embodied by the gym nor reproduced by its
clients, but continuously and actively negotiated and transformed. Clients are, in
fact, asked and allowed to play a particular game of involvement with and detach-
ment from the mechanistic and abstract exercise body. The docility of the body
and its correlative plasticity are, for example, all but total within fitness exercise.
This is so not only because instructors continuously limit such plasticity to the
exercise itself as opposed to other techniques of body transformation available on
the market, but also because the docile objectivity of the exercise body is
tempered by a series of identity mechanisms which allow clients not to be reduced
to it. The informality of the work-out scene facilitates training by allowing for
limited pauses whereby clients are able to negotiate some room for their projected
selves as existing beyond the contingent locality, its body requirements and its
ascribed body ideals. The docility of the body is thus enacted, as opposed to being
imposed on or chosen by the participants. Participants are able to approach and
impersonate such a body only by partially detaching themselves from it. It is thus
through a series of personal adjustments regulated by the local organization of
interaction that the exercise body is transformed and indexed to one’s own
personal reality. Thus negotiated, it can be subjectively appropriated as a fit body,
layered with meanings rooted in different social situations and experiences, a
body which indeed is felt and deployed as a conspicuous sign of personal worth.
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Acknowledgements
An earlier version of this paper has been presented at the Conference ‘Body Modification’, Notting-
ham, June 1997. I would like to thank all the participants for their comments as well as Robin Bunton,
Pier Paolo Giglioli, Emilio Santoro, Alan Scott, Barbara Steward, John Street and an anonymous referee
for their helpful suggestions. A special acknowledgement is due to the clients, instructors and managers
of the gyms examined for without their precious time, concern and consent this study would not have
been possible.
Notes
1. Some of the most recent studies on the specificity of various exercise techniques are also pointing
in this direction. See Aoki (1996), Courtine (1991), Ewen (1988), Mansfield and McGinn (1993) and St
Martin and Gavey (1996) on body building; Lloyd (1996) and Metoudi (1987) on aerobics; Blouin Le
Baron (1981), Perrin (1985) and Thirion (1987) on new ‘soft’ and ‘expressive’ gymnastics.
2. The fieldwork, which is part of a larger study on the commercialization of body discipline, was
conducted in Florence during 1994 and 1995. Shape and BodyMove differed with respect to size, facil-
ities, type and variety of fitness activities, number and socio-economic background of clients, number
of trainers and cost. I participated as a client in the activities of both gyms for more than six months
for several hours a day at different times, following all the different training programmes and instruc-
tors. Clients to be interviewed were selected on the basis of a theoretical sampling covering different
participation profiles within the gyms. The actual names of the clients, instructors, managers and gyms
concerned have been changed to protect confidentiality. Words or phrases in quotes are drawn from
interviews and conversations with clients and trainers or from gym scenes. For more details on the
method and context of this research see Sassatelli (1996: 272–87).
3. The notion of the ‘liminoid’ is borrowed from Victor Turner. Turner developed it to describe how
‘liminal’ spaces get transformed in modern societies, becoming less predetermined and more subjective
(Turner, 1969, 1982). The changing-room shows very well what I would call the individualization of
liminality, the fact that individuals are asked to continually negotiate the social understanding of
passage symbols. On this and on how the changing-room manages intermediary tensions between the
meanings of the gym and of everyday life see Sassatelli (1999).
4. If there still seems to be a certain preference among men for machines and among women for
aerobics, this is by no means a sharp divide (Dechevanne, 1981; Mandard, 1987; Mansfield and McGinn,
1993). Fitness gyms are not only sexually mixed environments, they are also structured as to allow for
a switch from aerobic to anaerobic work-out and vice versa, pushing clients to pursue their own
personalized routines combining different exercise techniques. Nevertheless, it is evident that the
suspension of traditional gender divisions is very selective. The relevance of gender is blocked within
training and reintroduced within the unfocused interactions and acquaintanceships scattered around it.
The latter thus tend to become overcharged with aesthetic and sexual concerns related to seduction.
5. These observations may be seen as developing toward interactionist concerns, a perspective which
considers both consumer and leisure spaces in commercial modernity as contained spheres of ordered
disorder (Elias and Dunning, 1986; Featherstone, 1991; Turner, 1969; Urry, 1995).
6. Developing Bateson’s idea that play illustrates our capacity to make sense of situations on the basis
of a message or a frame of meaning which guide our orientation within them (Bateson, 1954), Goffman
deployed the notion of frame in his own work on games (1972) and later elaborated it in Frame Analysis
(1974) considering the experience of social actors as the enmeshing oscillation of a multiplicity of
everyday life frames. The notion of frame has been appropriated by a host of disciplines which have
placed a number of different emphases on it (Tannen, 1993). For a critical discussion of Goffman’s
notion of frame see Giglioli (1990); Gonos (1977); Verhoeven (1985); and Wootton and Drew (1988).
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7. Goffman understood that some psychobiological implications may be derived from this notion:
‘when an individual becomes engaged in an activity, whether shared or not, it is possible for him to
become caught up by it, carried away by it, engrossed in it’ (1972: 35, see also 1974: 346–7). The
emphasis that I have placed on the notion of meta-communication, requiring only a minimal anthro-
pology, is in this sense meant to address involvement from a sociological perspective as related to the
local organization of experience (Sassatelli, 1997). On these issues, see Burns (1992); Giglioli (1990) and,
for a socio-psychological application, see Csikszentmihalyi (1982).
8. Within the vast scholarship on the development of ideas about the body in modernity, several
authors have underlined the progressive relevance of the body-machine imagery especially within insti-
tutional contexts (Ewen, 1988; Foucault, 1975; Le Breton, 1990; Synnott, 1993; Turner, 1987; Vigarello,
1978). Others have underlined the importance that a notion of the body-organic has maintained both as
a backstage counter-image and as a ritual tool (Douglas, 1966; Elias, 1939; Falk, 1994; Goffman, 1963b).
9. A similar emotional structure is fundamental for fitness training precisely because it is organized
as an interaction domain with a very limited and strictly prescribed focus of attention and as a highly
consequential set of activities, i.e. the exercise is deemed to obtain objectives which are crucial in
everyday life. Informality is particularly important for those categories of people which are structurally
more likely to participate in fitness due to the importance that body capital has for them, i.e. women
and young people (Bourdieu, 1978; Shilling, 1993), or to a wide gap between their own body charac-
teristics and body ideals (Markland and Hardy, 1993). The possibility of locally filtering body ideals
while pursuing activities which are aimed at their accomplishment is decisive in protecting individuals
from a dangerous exposure of their inadequacies. Informality thus helps clients to govern the paradox
by which the more important the body projects pursued by training, the less individuals are able to
concentrate in actually doing it.
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... It appears that the gym affects its users' style and quality of life in terms of their social and spousal relationships (Johansson, 1996), and also contributes to their individual selves through commitment to their bodies as a project (Crossley, 2006). The gym affects identities and represents body definitions, which are reproduced by its clients and are constantly changing through active negotiations (Sassatelli, 1999). Much of the growing research on gyms in the last decade discusses the connection between the gym and social identities like gender, age, and sex. ...
... The physical layout of the gym also contributes to the gender divide by creating a gym culture which seems to favor 'male' territory. In this reality, gyms are often divided into functional areas for aerobic classes, cardiovascular machines, weight training machines, and free weights, which contribute to perpetuating gender identities and expectations through what is perceived as 'feminine' and 'masculine' materials (Sassatelli, 1999). ...
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