Waifs and Warrior Princesses: Heteronormative Female Masculinities in Group Fitness Discourse and Possibilities for Change

Ann Fox-Thomas

This paper confronts issues of gender and heteronormativity as manifested in the discourse of Western gym-based group fitness classes. My focus is on female masculinities in group fitness, particularly modes of female masculinity that can, I argue, be called heteronormative. Examination of these is broached via a self-case study, the data of which I analyze using creative writing research techniques. Through the analysis and discussion, my paper seeks to understand if and how gym cultures may serve as sites for the troubling of gender norms – for remaking gender in wider, wilder, more livable ways.


Gender; Female Masculinities; Heteronormativity; Group Fitness; Gyms; Discourse; Creative Writing Research

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I always want to work my muscle, muscular group, until it can no longer move: I want to fail. As soon as I can accomplish a certain task, so much weight for so many reps during a certain time span, I must always increase one aspect of the equation, weights reps or intensity, so that I can again come to failure (Acker 1997:145-146).

For late twentieth century postmodern writer Kathy Acker (1997), weightlifting was about pushing limits and pursuing transformation–of the body, and also of culture, thought and possibilities for being.

Acker’s attitude to muscle building resonates with me deeply, for in my early twenties strength training provided the mechanism through which I became ready to leave an abusive relationship. Later, the gym became one of the first cultural settings in which I felt comfortable telling others about my first serious same sex relationship. As a result, I have long perceived gyms as spaces in which individuals and groups can seek self-empowerment, spaces in which prescribed social norms and boundaries can be tested, expanded, remade. So strong was my conviction in these potentials that I completed fitness industry training and became a part time group fitness instructor. Initially, I taught choreographed weight lifting and indoor cycling classes–two class types that are within the industry generally considered more masculine, and which attract a higher number of male participants compared to other classes within the significantly female-dominated realm of gym-based group fitness overall. I saw my role, as instructor, as one of sly social subversion, for it entailed public celebration of my female masculinity in ways that could–I then believed–make embracing masculinity more possible for other women too. Masculinity is a term I’m using to suggest qualities and behaviours that have, within the rigid binary paradigms that still tend to dominate western thought, historically been associated with maleness and the male body (despite multitude instances of the same qualities and behaviours in non-male bodies, and despite the inherent flaws in imagining all individuals can or should be conclusively categorised as either male or female) (Reeser 2010). Female masculinity meanwhile denotes the ways in which people who primarily identify as female may exhibit, enact and enjoy masculinity. This usage is based on late twentieth century and recent works of gender studies and queer theory (Sedgwick 1998, Reeser 2010, Halberstam 2012, Dahl-Michelsen 2014), most significantly Female Masculinity (1999) by queer theorist Jack J Halberstam (then publishing as Judith). The significant place female masculinity holds in contemporary gyms is emphasised by Tone Dahl-Michelsen (2014), who researches the cultures of fitness and physiotherapy.

For me (a nominally cisgendered, mostly femme-identifying bisexual woman with a medically-diagnosed testosterone excess and a body others have told me, often spitefully, most closely resembles that of a teenaged boy with no penis), female masculinity in group fitness has in the past meant joy in being publically sweaty, stinky and grunty; it has meant broad shoulders, bulgy muscles, and protruding veins that drove my mother to despair over my apparently comical appearance in a bridesmaid’s dress; it has meant confidence in my capacity to lift heavy objects and defend myself if attacked–in short, freedom to be and do things I was throughout childhood told were improper or even impossible for a person with a vagina. It has also given me something that lets me take pride in a body the medical profession deems abnormal, in need of correction–a body cruelly taunted and paranoidly hidden in high school change rooms; a body would-be lovers have more than once rejected because it failed to match expectations. In gyms, the very things that supposedly made my body abnormal–high testosterone and a non-feminine frame–were celebrated, literally converted from flaws into strengths. Group fitness has thus seemed, to me, a space rich with possibilities for celebrating gender diversity and undoing heteronormativity. Here heteronormativity signifyies what Queer Theorist Michael Warner historically identified as the ‘often invisible’ ways in which

[h]eterosexual ideology, in combination with a potent ideology about gender and identity in maturation… bears down in the heaviest and often deadliest way on those with the least resources to combat it (Warner 1993: xvi).

Hence heteronormativity signifies a force that reinstates the myth of two genders with rigidly-defined roles, limiting the lives of those gendered male as well as female, encouraging literal and symbolic violences including but exceeding those of homophobia, transphobia, straight privilege, queer privilege and denial of intersex rights.

My view of gyms and group fitness as spaces for undoing heteronormativity is in line with Pirrko Markula’s arguments for group fitness as a cultural practice through which it is possible to disread gender (Markula 2006) and pursue social change (Markula 2014). However, more recent experiences have forced me to acknowledge that gyms and group fitness are, after all, strongly imbued with normative western ideals about what does and does not count as a culturally approvable body. This acknowledgement was prompted by group fitness participants’ responses when, eighteen months ago, I rapidly lost an unhealthy amount of weight as the result of a gastrointestinal disorder, then regained the same weight through healthy recovery. Positive responses to weight loss showed me how greatly female thinness remains prized in western cultures. However, positive responses to weight gain suggested that female muscularity is also prized.

The responses to both weight loss and weight gain made me reconsider my previous assumptions about female masculinity as empowerment. Overall, I have had to confront entrenched heteronormativity in group fitness and its role in reinstating the heteronormativity of western society broadly. Social scientist William Hoverd (2005: 55) even treats gyms as social institutions that, in western cultures since late nineteenth century, have assumed disciplinary functions previously played by the Christian church. By Hoverd’s account, gyms facilitate the reproduction of normative and non-normative social subjects and power relations: gyms ‘train, normalise and correct’; they ‘rehabilitate those who have fallen away from society… making the sick healthy and the irrational rational’ (2005: 81).

The heteronormativity of gyms problematizes their potential as spaces of and for gender diversity and social transformation, yet does not rule them out. Literary theorist Susan Lanser recommends that those seeking to undo heteronormativity strategically ‘scrutinize what passes for the heteronormative’ in order to ‘see where it might already carry the seeds of its own resistance or critique’ (2014: 35). Furthermore, following the broadly Foucauldian principle that the production of social rules entails the production of exceptions to those rules (Foucault 2002: 85), Hoverd stresses that gyms also (re)generate the modes of being they superficially discourage (2005: 58). An example of this is observable in performing arts theorist Rhonda Garelick’s (1995) broadly feminist account of how 1980s and 1990s fitness infomercials provided a platform for camp performance that increased the social visibility and normative acceptance of gender androgyny, and of male femininity in heterosexual as well as queer men.

In light of the problems discussed so far, this paper asks if and how it might be possible to trouble heteronormativity in and through group fitness towards a broadly Halberstamian objective of expanding the thinkable ‘ways of being in the world and being in relation to one another’ (Halberstam 2011: 2). In line with the argument Tony E Adams and Stacey Holman Jones present for ‘the confessional/autobiographical embrace of subjectivity, contingency, and connection’ as a queer research method (2011: 108), I present and discuss excerpts from self-interviews conducted during and soon after my experiences of rapid weight loss and regain in the group fitness setting. I begin by considering how celebrations of both thinness and muscularity reflect celebrations of female masculinity in group fitness cultures. These heteronormatively-approved female masculinities, though historically connected with attempts at empowerment and/or subversions of binary gender, problematically reinscribe heteronormativity in and beyond group fitness. Pondering how Lanser’s (2014) strategy of scrutinising heteronormativity to undo heteronormativity could transfer from literary studies to group fitness, I consider, first, ‘critique’ as per Judith Butler (2001) and Michel Foucault (1984), and then, Halberstam’s notion of queer failure (2011). I suggest queer failure can facilitate critique in and of group fitness. Sharing some experiences of failure as a fitness instructor, I relate how writing, and reflecting on words written, about these experiences has enabled me to recognise and work through my internalised heteronormative self-rejection and associated self-violences. I then conclude by recommending writing about failure as a mode of critique and a means towards change in and through group fitness cultures.


“The perverse thing about the sickness-induced weight loss was that women in the gym kept congratulating me, asking how I’d done it. I had to keep repeating, actually, I’m sick, in pain, dizzy all the time. The strength I worked on for years–gone. I used to squat eighty kilos, easy. Now I shake under half that. The classes I loved teaching, I had to give up. If fitness was my main career I’d be boned. Socialising’s stressful–I can’t eat out or even do drinks. Sex canes [hurts] because my body can’t lubricate. Even everyday stuff’s a struggle–shopping bags and that. I’m bloody weak and hopeless.”

The above self-interview excerpt indicates that unhealthy thinness is, for at least some women in contemporary group fitness settings, a feminine bodily ideal actively celebrated and sought. This affirms feminist claims about the fetishization of thinness as a prolific theme in western fashion and culture (White & Walker 2008: 134), even though feminists have for decades now been working to undo the thinness ideal (Orbach 1988, Wolf 1991, Addison 2000). Particularly worryingly, the self-interview excerpt demonstrates how fetishization of feminine thinness extends even into arenas ostensibly focused on health promotion, despite the major contraindications of excessive thinness to physical and mental health. That is to say, in line with Hoverd’s (2005) broad argument, this excerpt reflects how group fitness insidiously reproduces unhealthy bodies and bodily ideals as part of processes that reinstate heteronormative power relations–in this case, reinstating the disempowerment of those gendered as female relative to those gendered male, for extreme thinness means weakness, fatigue, and reduced capacities for pursuing goals and asserting rights (notwithstanding cis-feminine privilege over transgender and intersex ways of being).

Something else the self-interview excerpt reveals, through the remark about reduced sexual function, is the self-contradictoriness of heteronormatively fetishizing feminine thinness when thinness compromises participation in heteronormative sexual and reproductive practices–a point feminist theorists have also emphasised (White and Walker 2008: 134). Recalling Lanser (2014), this self-contradiction can be seen as an instance of heteronormativity carrying ‘seeds of its own resistance or critique’ (2014: 35). In this case, the seeds are possibly ones sewn in the 1920s, when the thin-framed female ‘flapper’ ideal marked a major departure from the fleshier female bodies objectified in pre-twentieth-century western cultures (White and Walker 2008: 134). This departure signified, for some, rebellion against and liberation from normative pressures to bear children, cook and so on, for a lithe, flat-chested body can after all make it easier to run, jump, climb and pursue activities breasts, hips and children make awkward. (White & Walker 2008: 134). Indeed, thin women are often described as ‘boyish’ (Addison 2000: 24), which suggests that, despite its contemporarily heteronormative status, female thinness is viewable as a form of female masculinity–a self-contradictory residue of historic attempts to resist binary gender roles and limitations. That attempt has, however, proved ineffective, for serious underweightness renders one too weak to run, dance, fight, think, party or pursue sexual pleasure (White and Walker 2008: 134), while the constant pursuit of thinness as part of a never-attainable beauty ‘myth’ is, as Naomi Wolf historically pointed out, a time-consuming distraction that literally burns away energies otherwise investable in questioning oppressive social norms and power relations (Wolf 1991).

Hence resistance to heteronormativity also contains seeds of its own undoing. Thinness as a mistaken means towards liberation illustrates a point from Judith Butler’s influential late twentieth-century study of gendered subject formation, Gender Trouble (1990)–namely, that attempts to directly resist or subvert normative limitations frequently tend to inadvertently cite and reinstate what they seek to undermine. Similar problems were noted by Garelick (1995) in her study of camp performance in fitness infomercials. In particular, Garelick observed how the recurring narrative of camp fitness icon Richard Simmons’ infomercials–Simmons as an asexual ‘gentleman caller’ who rescues distressed damsels from overweightness, then delivers them to grateful husbands–enacted ‘a return to an earlier, idealized femininity… and, finally, the apotheosis of the heterosexual couple’ (Garelick 1995: n.p.). By Garelick’s account, this exemplifies camp’s capacity to promote ‘the renaturalization of consumerist desire’ and the ‘reinscription of women into the capitalist culture of suburban life’ (Garelick 1995: n.p). In the contemporary context, Markula, too, notes the dangerous potentials in fitness-based attempts at gender subversion: ‘although many exercisers feel empowered by their engagement in physical activity, they simultaneously long to obtain the ideal body,’ thus living in ‘constant contradiction’ (2006: 29). For Markula (2006, 2014), this doesn’t rule fitness spaces out where social change is concerned, but it signifies the need to broach change in critically considered ways.

The ease with which attempts at subversion can become implicated in the very things one wishes to subvert contextualises how and why I came to question my previous assumptions about female muscularity, masculinity and empowerment. Notably, my desire to be muscly, and the despair I felt when illness made me waifish, demonstrates that idealisation of feminine thinness is not all-pervasive in western and/or/as group fitness cultures. Indeed, when I began regaining weight, I received just as many compliments as when I lost it–albeit from different sorts of women. Incidentally, with both weight loss and weight gain, it was almost exclusively women who remarked, and in neither case did anybody approach me to express disapproval or concern–which seems to suggest that the approval / disapproval of bodies is itself a gendered practice, and that women at least are culturally more inclined to voice positive as opposed to negative feedback.

The most striking difference between the women who commented on my weight loss as opposed to gain was age: women who approved weight loss tended to be in their forties or older, whereas women who approved weight gain were mostly in their twenties and thirties. Approval of weight loss typically focused around smaller overall body size and implied fat loss, whereas weight gain approval always focused on muscle gain–even though in both cases I no doubt lost/gained both fat and muscle. That younger women predominantly celebrated muscle–particularly arm muscles, namely biceps or ‘guns’–possibly indicates that heteronormative fetishization of feminine thinness is a once-dominant theme now fading into cultural residuality as it becomes subsumed by a heteronormative idealisation of female muscularity. I emphasise ‘heteronormative’ in the previous sentence, because the muscle gain approving women predominantly presented themselves in what dominant culture defines as feminine ways (long hair, make up, a preference for pink and pastel gym clothing), and they predominantly seemed to view muscularity as compatible with femininity–that is, they were not obviously congratulating me on the changes as representative of anything butch, queer or socially rebellious. This indicates female muscularity to be a celebrated heteronormative ideal in contemporary group fitness.

The heteronormative celebration of female muscularity was what led me to question my previous assumptions about its empowering potentials. Here is a self-interview excerpt that reveals the deep problems with which those assumptions were riddled:

“I love it when muscly bodybuilders attempt body pump [a group fitness class entailing barbell weight lifting choreographed to music]. Entering a room that’s mostly women, they prepare to coast. By track three they’re practically curled knees-to-chest, howling. That’s because it’s high rep[etitions]–a different type of strength, one mostly about just keeping on despite pain. Whether developed to meet gendered social expectations or otherwise derived, lots of women I meet possess that strength. So pump’s a great gender-equalizer: when macho-ness is defined by something beyond brute muscle, women can be as or more macho than men. What’s more, pump’s a space where women can do macho stuff–can sweat, grunt, turn purple. Which feels amazing. It’s power, a chance to blow off steam. There are women who wouldn’t dare do that in any other setting. Pump lets them, I guess because it’s lots of women getting grunty together, and the context is group fitness–through the Jane Fonda aerobics thing, historically a feminine practice–so women’s macho-ness is sanctioned, made okay.”

This statement suggests that at least some women in contemporary western societies actively seek to embody and/or express a machoness that aspires towards and/or competes with the dominant heteronormative version of masculinity. The statement is indeed itself an attempted statement or even assertion of machoness–evident in the cavalier grammar of short sentences, frequent grammar and casual vernacular. However, upon reading my own words with the distance time and text afford, I am able to see how my claims fail. I attempt to present group fitness barbell classes as empowering, but undermine this by remarking that a ‘sanctioned’ setting enables empowerment: women ‘can’ (gain permission to) sweat, grunt and be macho provided they quarantine it. Perhaps some even do it to ‘blow off steam’–to purge macho-ness and enhance femininity. Far from ‘a great gender-equalizer’, the barbell class may thereby contribute to the reproduction of heteronormativity. Similar issues are evident in the following self-interview excerpt, in which, beginning to recognise problems, I persist in defending the radicality of group fitness weight lifting for women:

“For some women it’s a stepping stone towards being macho beyond group fitness: trying weights in a supportive space gives them the confidence to then go lift on the real weights floor…”

The word ‘real’ here betrays what I now recognise as my previous subconscious belief in male macho-ness as somehow more authentic. This shows how, notwithstanding my outward rejections of gender normativity, I had deeply internalised heteronormative ideologies of binary gender, including a troublesome belief in maleness and masculinity as superior to femaleness and femininity–despite the deep harm these false beliefs had caused, were causing and continue to wreak on me and those close to me.

So far as my own processes of self-examination indicate, female muscularity-as-masculinity and its celebration in group fitness cultures is thus something that may seem empowering and/or subversive, but which can meanwhile insidiously reinstate heteronormativity. Like thinness, it represents, I suggest, a seed of self-contradiction within heteronormativity–yet, problematically, a seed imbued with its own self-defeating self-contradictions, for if female muscularity-as-masculinity represents any historic attempts at binary gender subversion, it represents attempts successfully diffused and co-opted into the heteronormative feminine ideal, reinstating heteronormativity’s violent regulation of bodies, being and relation.

The conclusions about female masculinity’s heteronormative operations in and through group fitness cultures that I have arrived at based on my own self-examination are consistent with a point separately raised by multiple theorists of gender: female masculinities are not intrinsically subversive or queer (Doan 1998, Halberstam 1999, Noble 2003, Dahl-Michelsen 2014). By Halberstam’s account, female masculinities come not only in various ‘queer’ manifestations, but also in a multitude of ‘approved’ forms–for example, the tough, yet cisgendered and heterosexual female characters in the films Terminator 2 (1991) and Aliens (1986), and tomboyism as something ‘encouraged’ provided it is ‘linked to a stable sense of a girl identity’ (Halberstam 1998: 6, 28). This is consistent with my observation that the majority of women who approached me to comment favourably on muscle gains tended towards feminine self-presentation in line with broadly heteronormative ideals. Hence I posit that female muscularity as a mode of female masculinity in the group fitness context is, like female thinness before it, a mode of female masculinity that has gained this approved status. I will henceforth refer to both as heteronormative female masculinities–female masculinities that are approved by, and supportive of the heteronormative status quo. The approved status of female masculinities in fitness cultures is also among the findings of Dahl-Michelsen’s (2014) study into sporting and physiotherapy communities. Furthermore, Dahl-Michelsen ventures that some female masculinities problematically operate as what sociologist Raewyn Connell in the 1990s termed ‘complicit masculinities’ (1995). These are modes of masculinity that exist within a hegemonic system of relational privilege and marginalisation, and which, although not themselves bearing the position of greatest privilege, tend to benefit from the system and thus support its reinstatement (Connell 1995). A similar operation of female masculinities is reflected in Halberstam’s depiction of them as ‘alternative masculinities’  that, though often ‘framed as the rejected scraps of dominant masculinity,’ (re)produce the conditions that make ‘male masculinity’ look like ‘the real thing’ (1999: 1).

On the basis of the arguments from Connell (1995), Halberstam (1999) and Dahl-Michelsen (2014), I suggest that the two modes of heteronormative female masculinity discussed within this section–thinness and muscularity–predominantly operate, in and through group fitness, as complicit masculinities that reinstate hegemonic masculinity in and beyond group fitness, thereby reinstating heteronormativity with all its entailed violences. That this section has considered only these two modes of heteronormative female masculinity does not in any way indicate that I privilege them over other other modes. They are simply the two modes of approved masculinity that have become most visible to me in relation to the experiences my self-interview excerpts describe. This visibility possibly reflects their present privileging in heteronormative cultures–likely to the degree of silencing other possibilities, which indicates the need to explore and discuss viable alternatives to this limiting, binary formulation. However, for now the two key points salient to this paper’s question of if and how group fitness might be engaged towards social change are, one, that group fitness cultures are highly heteronormative, and two, that this heteronormativity operates even through practices that seemingly contest it–including but exceeding practices of female masculinities. This problematizes, but does not rule out, engaging group fitness towards change; rather, it signals the need for strategy.


The key factor problematizing group fitness as a space for social change is, I have so far argued, the heteronormativity of group fitness cultures–a heteronormativity that viciously co-opts and exploits historic and ongoing attempts at its subversion. Faced with this troublesome scenario, I now turn to the possibility of problem-as-path, via the adaptation of a strategy Lansser (2014) poses in the context of literary studies. In brief, Lanser (2014) proposes examining heteronormativity to undo heteronormativity. This can, Lanser contends, faciliate heteronormativity’s ‘critique’ (Lanser 2014: 35). But what is critique? Judith Butler (2001) asked this question when she examined Foucault’s influential, What is Enlightenment? (1984). Based on both works (Foucault 1984, Butler 2001), I understand critique as a life project through which the limits of discourse, knowing, being and relating are continually sought, questioned and remade. The act of writing is one among many ways in which to practice critique, which entails always asking what it is possible to know, and how, and why. Critique can support the broader Foucauldian goal of becoming ‘less governed’ by one’s circumstances (Foucault 1997/2007: 45). Butler (2001) elaborated Foucault’s (1984) concept, explaining how each human subject ‘is compelled to form itself within practices that are more or less in place,’ but that this can occur ‘in disobedience to the principles by which one is formed’ (Butler 2001: n.p.). Instances of ‘desubjugation’ can evoke moments of ‘ethical questioning which requires that we break the habits of judgment in favor of a riskier practice that seeks to yield artistry from constraint’–turning points at which radical change becomes possible (Butler 2001: n.p.). Crucially, critique never ends: it is an ongoing process of continual transformation, perpetual re-recognition and further expansion of limitations that can never be fully destroyed, only ever shifted. It is less about pushing against oppressive constructs, more about stretching beyond, about reconstructing situations in less-oppressive ways.

How can one broach critique in and of group fitness? A risk is that practices of critique might be re-absorbed into the heteronormative matrix of dominant gym culture–which is itself focused on continual and ongoing transformation, limit transcendence and so-called self-improvement, but in often disciplinary ways that tend to support social normativity and existing power relations (Hoverd 2005). Broaching this risk, Halberstam’s (2011) concept of queer failure presents, I suggest, a means towards a group fitness critique capable of withstanding the dominant gym culture’s insidious modes of heteronormative co-option and coercion. By Halberstam’s account, queer failure can be a creative ‘art’ and indeed a means towards the ‘radical utopian’ realization of ‘otherwise’ ways of being (2011: 2)–although this depends, vitally, on avoiding the lurking snare of allowing failure to become, as it frequently becomes in mainstream media discourses, ‘a stopping point on the way to success’ in ways that undermine its radical potentials by re-inscribing a success/failure dichotomy (2011: 174). Contrary to the success-driven model, queer failure as per Halberstam (2011) entails the exploration failure as something worthwhile and valuable in its own right. Among the valuable creative possibilities that can emerge from failure is that it may enable perception of limitations that were previously unperceivable–for instance, in the case of social rules and assumptions so deeply embedded that one never thought to question them, as with my recognition of my internalised hegemonic masculine and heteronormative attitudes of self-rejection. This ability of failure to make assumptions and/as limitations noticeable is why I consider it useful for the critique of group fitness, because critique is significantly about questioning what one has previously been unable to question. In this way, failure and critique enable the (re)perception of situations and opportunities in ways not previously imaginable. Recognising and challenging personal assumptions can expand limitations that previously hindered perception and thought–although it is important to acknowledge that the limitations are not gone, merely shifted, and that there will always be more new ones to recognise, question and shift. Creative failure towards critique is always ongoing and in-process.

On the point of creative failure and critique as crucially ongoing processes, it is worth reconsidering Acker’s depiction of her ongoing quest to ‘again come to failure’ (Acker 1997: 145-146). Also pertinent is Acker’s pondering of whether ‘the equation between destruction and growth’ that she observed in the strength training context might also provide ‘a formula for art’ (1997, p. 146). By my reading, Acker (1997) here seems to be alluding to the role failure can play in creative writing practices–a role very crucial to early twentieth century writer Samuel Beckett, who pursued repeated failure as something that could and should never lead to ‘success’, but perpetually and absurdly to ‘more writing, more failure’–at best, to ‘failing better’ (Brien, Burr & Webb 2013: 9). Or, in the terms of literary theorist HP Abbott, Beckett was an artist ‘for whom ruin is clearly the object… much of the surprise and delight of [Beckett’s] work lies in discovering the author’s inventiveness in missing the mark’ (1975: 222). Abbott deems Beckett’s failures ‘assertive’–even a ‘strategy’ for ‘radical displacement’ and remaking of the self (Abbott 1975: 222).

Based on the precedents of Acker (1997) and Beckett (in Abbott 1975), as well as Foucault’s (1988: 27-30) remarks about writing’s role in self re-making, and the argument Adams and Holman Jones (2011) present for autoethnography as a queer research method, one possible means for broaching critique in and through group fitness is that of writing about group fitness failures (though this is by no suggestion the only possible means). Failure holds a significant place in gym cultures broadly as something that is, as in Acker’s (1997) account, explicitly sought out, explored and exploited for the pleasures to be derived from the experiences of failure in itself, and without the necessary assumption that this will eventually lead to success. Indeed, the principles of bodybuilding rely on pursuit of the ‘failure point’ or threshold at which one’s muscles inevitably give out regardless of what the mind might insist (Brown 2009: 21). In my own training experiences I have often sought and relished in the almost drug-like oblivion that results from extreme physical expenditure, from confrontation of the impossible, or perhaps indeed–as Acker also reflects–the realisation of one’s mortality, of coming ‘face to face with chaos, with my own failure or a form of death’ (Acker 1997, p. 150). And failure is not only celebrated in the weights training context. As the following self-interview excerpt relates, group fitness participants also exhibit a willingness or even enthusiasm to tolerate and embrace public failure and personal imperfection in fitness instructors:

“When I trained to teach pump I was mid-twenties, smashing weights four-to-five times a week and cycling everywhere. The formal feedback on my certification videos was positive: I was demonstrating the highest level options with near-perfect technique, and I seemed in the right essence. Actual classes with members were a different story. Some reacted really badly, even complained to the desk. The majority were okay with me–but just okay, willing to attend if the timeslot suited. I couldn’t get rapport. Then I copped an injury–the worst thing that could happen, I thought. I had to use light weights and take all the easiest options while cueing the advanced moves for members much tougher than myself. What spun me out, though, was that suddenly my class numbers skyrocketed. The rapport happened. I realized, lots of participants want to see instructors fail, want us struggling, suffering, publicly making fools of ourselves.”

The above account suggests a dissonance between the ideals group fitness cultures ostensibly promote and what participants want from their instructors. This dissonance is also observable in the broader discourses of western fitness. For instance, the videos of Richard Simmons arguably sell mainstream beauty norms to which Simmons himself stands counter, as do the diverse class participants typically pictured in his classes (Garelick 1995). Sinner-turned-saint or ‘redemption’ tropes–the once-obese ex-junk food addict turned svelte nutrition guru–are also relatively common (Hoverd 2005: 99). Although these arguably reiterate a failure-turned-success model, what is notable is the significant emphasis placed on returning to and reminding others of past failures, for instance, through graphic ‘before’ photos, the proliferation of which seems to sometimes border on the fetishistic, and which perhaps satisfies consumers’ desires to see the fitness-guru or success-figure as flawed and haunted by past humiliations (Hoverd 2005: 99).

In my self-interview, I reflected on why participants desire to see instructors fail:

“Maybe some get a kick out of beating the professionals. But maybe for others it’s about making their own failures okay, about the relief of acknowledging that absolute “success” in terms of having the physical fitness to perform every single move with complete perfection every time is something nobody ever attains, let alone maintains long-term, except as an illusion. This acknowledgement lends failure new meanings: no longer success’s absence; rather the multiple presences of various divergent possibilities, each entailing peculiar pleasures. Fitness classes become celebrations of the diverse ways in which we can all fail differently together.”

The key point this excerpt offers me, on re-reading, is that when failure occurs in group fitness, it becomes an opportunity to redefine the paradigms of what we do and do not desire. The realisation of this–a realisation gleaned through writing about, then reflection on what I had written about failure in fitness contexts–has been an important one for me, which has fed back into my instructing practice in that I am now a lot more willing to fail on stage: I even relish, and draw attention to it. For instance, when I became ill I gave up high impact strength classes and began teaching stretching classes, which I previously considered ‘soft’, indeed ‘girly’ options opposed to my (then limited and limiting) conceptions of female masculinity and empowerment. Paradoxically, stretching is for me harder than strength, for my muscles are tight from years of weights and cycling. Yet, much as lifting lighter weights and demonstrating low options curiously made me a more, not less popular barbell class instructor, my struggles to stretch seem to attract, not repel class participants. Perhaps this is because a significant portion of the people who attend stretching class are, like me, dealing with or recovering from illnesses and injuries that limit our capacities for performing the moves as prescribed (for the classes are quite rigidly ‘prescribed’ in that they are pre-choreographed and branded as specific programs taught in gyms around the world by thousands of instructors all guiding participants through the same moves set to the same songs sequenced within the same class format). Because success at the moves as prescribed is effectively off the cards, the exciting question becomes that of the new ways in which we will discover we can fail.

Something else I have noticed since I began teaching balance classes is that there are a relatively high number of male participants in my classes, and that they seem particularly grateful when I comically joke to others in the room that my hopeless hamstring stretches are ‘something to be proud of’ because they result from hard training activities. In what is almost the flipside of the competitive attitude I used to take to men in weights training classes, I feel a deep solidarity with these men who, like me, struggle to touch their toes. I also recognise that for some of them, attending the class may be about exploring femininity as something that can entail phenomenal strengths in the very enactment of what superficially appears to be weakness or failure–in short, the strength to see beyond such surface appearances, to entertain the diverse and perhaps indeed subversive alternative possibilities lurking in and beyond experiences one might otherwise seek to avoid, escape, forget, deny. This is a mode of femininity that almost immediately undoes itself as femininity, for it is about subtle multiplicities inconceivable through any model of gender that would aim to neatly define it as simply opposed to or suppressed by hegemonic masculinity, which it can both overlap with and exceed (I write ‘can’ to indicate that both overlaps and excesses are fluctuating and changeable, as are the concepts being discussed–which are, after all, made yet influential cultural concepts in constant states of remaking). The discovery and ongoing exploration of these multitude potentials for strength drawn from the very things I once misread as weaknesses is, for me, a significant benefit that has arisen through writing about, then reflecting on my experiences of failure in group fitness contexts–that is, a benefit arisen through group fitness critique as per the strategies this paper recommends.


This paper’s central question was and still is that of if and how group fitness can operate as a space for undoing heteronormativity and remaking gender in wider, wilder, more liveable ways. Through exploration of my own experiences in relation to critical theories of gender, this paper came to the decision that attempts to directly resist gender normativity in the group fitness context–for instance through performances of female masculinity–strongly risk reinstating the very problems they seek to undermine. But critique of the heteronormative gym culture provides a more viable strategy. This paper has recommended one possible means via which such a critique is possible–namely, writing about failure in group fitness, and reflecting on what one has written. This paper has also demonstrated an enactment of such critique, through the presentation and discussion of my own self-interview reflections. These include the reflections where I specifically discussed my failures to meet group fitness ideals (that is, my inability to perform moves as prescribed). It also includes the earlier reflections where I was not explicitly writing about failure, but came to identify failures when I re-read and reconsidered my own words (for instance, self-contradictions of my attempts to argue for group fitness strength training as empowering).

To emphasise the possible benefits of writing about failure as a means towards group fitness critique, the previous section explained how such practices have helped me perceive and find pleasure in strengths and possibilities I previously dismissed and thus missed out on. To expand this point, I now note that I am presently far less impacted by the internalised heteronormativity, self-rejection and self-violent tendencies I previously did not recognise were causing deep pain to me and probably also those around me. Ironically, evidence of my greater self-acceptance is notable in that my drive to train is far reduced. By the dominant standards of judging physical fitness and strength, I am probably the weakest and unhealthiest I have been in years. Yet, I call this a healthy sign, for it represents my release from the delusion related in this paper’s introduction–that the purportedly ‘abnormal’ aspects of my embodiment could be ‘converted from flaws into strengths’ through strength training–and furthermore represents my recognition of how that very effort to ‘convert’ myself through strength training was complicit in the maintenance of hegemonic masculinity and, by association, the heteronormative conditions that limit being for myself and others. I am now acutely aware that my ability to stand up for myself and others in the face of abuse is in no way commensurate with the load I can or cannot squat; my physical abilities and inabilities no longer seem preconditions for being and becoming in the world. To an observer, such statements may seem obvious. But they were for me lessons hard learned over many years–lessons learned, to large degrees, through writing, then reflecting on what I had written, about failure in group fitness, that is, lessons learned through critique of group fitness culture as per the strategy this paper proposes.

If (ongoing) critique of group fitness has brought me the (still-unfolding) benefits described above, then I propose that it can bring similar benefits for others. Indeed, in my case it probably already does, given how changes in me change my relations with those I encounter in my role as instructor. Hence the concluding recommendation of this paper is the need for more and broader critiques of group fitness–critiques engaging the strategies of failure and writing suggested here, but also potentially engaging other strategies. Such critiques could focus, potentially, on modes of female masculinity and/or male femininity beyond the limited range explored here. Critique of group fitness could also focus on other possibilities. This is the way in which I suggest that group fitness spaces, in connection with writing practices, may indeed be engaged as spaces in which to trouble heteronormativity, pursue social change, and–following the Halberstamian agendas noted earlier (Halberstam 2011: 2)–to realise wider, wilder possibilities for being and relating in this world.


I thank my former PhD supervisor, Dr Vicki Crowley, for her valuable assistance. I also thank Dr Brad West, for useful responses to a presentation that made early explorations into the themes explored here. Gratitude also goes to Elliott Mundy for friendship, support and inspiration, and to the anonymous peer reviewers for their very helpful advice. Any errors or oversights in this paper are, however, of course entirely my own.


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