Studies of gender in physical culture: Interesting and inspirational, but missing out on theory

Marie Larneby
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University


University of Gothenburg hosted the 7th meeting of the Transnational Working Group for the study of Gender and Sport. It was the largest meeting so far, comprising 60 delegates from 12 nations and 38 contributions. Claes Annerstedt (Head of the department of Food and Nutrition, and Sport Science), Roger Säljö (Dean of the faculty) and Susan Bandy (head of the Working Group) welcomed us. We were also met by lights and song as the Swedish tradition of Saint Lucia-celebration occur the 13th with a Saint Lucia procession performing. Hence, a first question on gender issues was raised, as Lucia and Lucia’s maids are female and the “star boys” are male, a quite uncontested fact in Swedish culture.

The purpose of the working group is to advance research on gender in sport, especially from a transnational and transdisciplinary perspective. The theme was Gender in Physical Culture. Physical culture is a concept that historically was used to describe more than mere movement, a lifestyle that was “embedded in beliefs, knowledge and broader individual and social practices” (Kirk, 1999:65). As traditional Danish-Swedish gymnastics lost its dominance during early 20th century, the term physical culture disappeared from many encyclopedias. Today, various scholars are bringing the concept back. As physical culture represents a wider understanding and dimension of the contested term “sport”, the concept can be fruitful in theorizing socio-cultural issues in body and physical movement cultures.

Since most sessions were parallel, I will briefly report only from presentations I attended, and reflect on the overall impression of the conference. For the full program and all abstracts, follow this link.

Keynote: The Global Gym: Gender, Health and Pedagogies

Professor Thomas Johansson (University of Gothenburg) and senior lecturer Jesper Andreasson (Linneaus University) based their keynote on their book project The Global Gym (forthcoming 2014). The purpose of the book is to analyze fitness centers as a site of learning and to address the construction of gender within the fitness culture.

The culture of fitness developed during the 19th century in Europe and North America. The aim of building muscles was to construct masculinity alongside warfare, violence and nation state building. Muscles were also a sign of health. As fitness grew and spread globally, critique against body building raised questions about drugs, obsession of exercise, and the negative anxiety of masculinity pertaining to physical appearance and bodily values. Women took [sic!] place at this site in the 1980s; consequently, gender became an issue. Male body builders viewed their bodies as naturally masculine due to the construction of muscles as a trait of masculinity. Yet, female body builders similarly viewed their muscular bodies as naturally feminine. Women’s entrance into fitness transformed the view on bodies, and a traditional conception of muscles was challenged.

Nowadays, with blogs, fitness experts and “body-make-over” narratives reach beyond national borders. Blogs are perceived as a powerful way of expressing and constructing values, norms and trends. Johansson and Andreasson use netnography to investigate self-presentations in blogs, how gender is constructed and can be understood, and the cultural framing in media narrative in relation to hegemonic values. A young male blogger expresses a paradigmatic masculine narrative by wanting to change his body and masculinity in a homosocial context. A female blogger wanted to find her “real” and “ideal” body after giving birth. Her blog emphasizes a “bikini model-body” as the ideal, not the (female) “body builder-body”, since sexualization and femininity are not perceived as aspects of fitness and muscularity. Johansson and Andreasson explain these blogs as compliance to hegemonic masculinity and the duality of the male and female body. Muscles are associated to masculinity and are negotiated to fit the feminine way. However, negotiating positions are also found in other blogs, as one man articulates a metrosexual masculinity and negotiates the cult of the beautiful male body, and one woman uses irony and sarcasm to replace the stereotypical norm of women.

The keynote concluded with a brief reflection on the fitness culture as a culture of paradoxes, simultaneously polarizing and reconciling beauty and health, the natural and unnatural body, masculinity and femininity. These paradoxes were evident in most studies presented on the conference as well. What I lacked in the keynote – possibly due to the forced ending – was a problematization of hegemonic masculinity and what masculinities are expressed in contemporary society (cf. Eric Anderson, 2009), but also a discussion on how emphasized femininity is negotiated and reconstructed through sport, and not only to legitimize female participation in sport.

Thematic session: Contemporary Combat Sport and Gender Studies

The purpose of this theme was bringing together research exploring the gendered landscapes of the diverse combat sports world. Nine presenters offered several empirical observations and narratives with examples of reproduction of conservative notions of gender, as well as negotiations on how gender is performed and embodied. Anu Vaittinen focuses on the intersection of pain and gender in the local, non-elite Mixed Martial Arts gym. Results indicate that pain is gendered when it is referred to female traits as “don’t cry like a girl” and “don’t weep for nothing”. It highlights questions of what pain is okay and what is not. Christopher Matthews has studied the localized understanding of masculinity and the (working class) boxing man. Matthews argue that the ‘power gym’ is an enclave in which male boxers are able to express an understanding of an innate, biological and embodied masculinity – thus securing uncontested local pastiche hegemony. Anne Tjønndal presented preliminary findings on coach-athlete relationships in boxing. Tjønndal suggests that constructions of gender are dominant in coach leadership behavior, in that male boxers get more instructions and positive feedback than female boxers. Other contributions also offered insights on female athletes in Muay Thai, World Wrestling Entertainment, Legends Football League, boxing, karate and body building with interesting and various foci: transgressing taboos, “beautiful” violence, motivation, gaining acceptance, and sexualization. The interesting results show that combat sports is a relatively unexplored but important field of research that deserves more scholarly attention.

Sessions on sub-themes of Gender in Physical Culture

The conference offered new knowledge and findings on various sub-themes relating to gender in physical culture. Besides the sessions I report on below, the following topics were also discussed: experiencing bodies; high-performance sport; historical development in sport; women’s football; women pioneers, and dance. The studies shared knowledge of how gender is displayed, reinforced, (re/de)constructed, and on how athletes negotiate the dominant values and norms of the gendered body and bodily practices.

For instance, Susan Bandy’s study on film and literature indicate that although the sporting woman is the main character, her function is to replace an absent sporting man. In one book, in the absence of his deceased son, a father coaches a promising female swimmer. Bandy explains this ‘absence as presence’ as a strategy of exclusion of sporting women in film and literature, and a recapturing of the social order.

In contrast to most other sports, equestrianism allows men and women to compete together on equal terms. Eva Linghede has studied boys’ and men’s narratives and the doing of gender in equestrian sports, and concludes that while there are several ways to be a boy or aman, it is important to emphasize masculinity. However, equestrian sports restricts and opens up for a more inclusive view. This is similarly evident in Katherine Dashper’s study, which focuses on different bodies and gender within equestrianism. Dashper suggests that the everyday human-animal relationship and care of the horse is more gendered than the performance in the ring. The latter refers to the fact that female and male riders wear similar clothing, and that the human body when riding – in symbiosis with the equine body – strive for balance, stability and core strength; movements that are not gendered.

Suzanne Lundvall presented the Swedish (200-year old!) Physical Education Teachers’ Education culture. Different bodily movement practices have changed over time, due to paradigmatic changes in gendered and societal purposes. An important question is who decide/d what movements were/are to be called for, and for whom? Kim Oliver and David Kirk shared understandings from a study on girls’ experiences of physical education. One crucial finding was that some girls adopt a “girly girl” femininity as an excuse for being out of PE, predominantly to avoid boys’ dominance. Therefore, teachers’ lack of problematization of the “girly girl” position were criticized by Oliver, as this femininity is perceived natural – the assumption is that “girly girls” don’t want to sweat, mess up their clothing, hair or make up.

Lars Alberth presented a study on masculinity and locker rooms, suggesting that this space induce masculine displays of emotion, body conduct and space. Masculinity comes into play either as control, coolness and distance from other men, or fraternal intimacy between men knowing each other. The homosocial “double bind” of masculinity must and must not be recognized simultaneously, as it is not evident who is allowed to look at another man and who may be looked at.

Håkan Larsson asks if gender equality can become an encumbrance, referring to that gender actually matters in sports – otherwise female and male athletes would not have been separated or described differently in sports policy documents. (Read Larsson’s interesting study in the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Sport, Gender and Sexuality, by Jennifer Hargreaves and Eric Anderson, eds.). Laura Gubby presented her study on korfball, a sport in which female and male players are on the same team. Gubby argues that korfball offer a place and space for girls to play on equal terms with boys, and for boys to distance themselves from typically male dominated sport norms. I presented the context of my recently started PhD-project on gender positions and school sport, where different gender logics of sport meet: the organized sport’s separation and the school’s integration of the sexes.

It was a great conference in many respects, interesting and inspirational. Various aspects and dimensions of physical culture was presented and discussed. However, overall I lack theoretical discussions in relation to the presentations. It may be perceived as self-evident that participants at a specific conference are familiar with the theories used, but I find it interesting and vital to be informed (and to learn) more about how a researcher uses theory in the particular study presented, and the reasoning in relation to the results.

The study on gender and sport – a brief reflection

According to Hall (2002) studies on sport and gender has mostly been on female athletes and women’s sport. This was also the case at this meeting. Out of 38 contributions, 21 were on female athletes/women’s sport, 4 on male athletes/men’s sport and 13 on either gender equality or a sporting context for both sexes. This may of course be a coincidence depending on who attends a conference, and I emphasize that I am not critical of this meeting’s distribution on female/male/equality foci. Nonetheless, if the program of this conference represents research on sport and gender in general, I find it quite worrying. I don’t suggest that less research on women’s sport should be conducted, on the contrary. This research is important, especially as girls and women globally don’t experience equal access to sport, have not reached equality in practice, and are being sexually and racially discriminated as well as trivialized and marginalized. However, research on men’s sport, as well as the interaction of men and women in physical culture, need more attention alongside research on women’s sport. Within the study of sport and gender, is there not more room for research on male athletes and men’s sport? It is crucial to further problematize male athletes’ possibilities and challenges, negotiations of masculinities and femininities, male norms, homosocial places and spaces, the logics of performance, and the expectations of (in most sports) aggressiveness and toughness and the consequences of all this outside the sporting context.

In addition, from an all-encompassing point of view, perspectives of social class, race/ethnicity and a questioning of whiteness could be more prominent, as well as an intersectional perspective. However, in many reflections, the westernized normative femininity and female athletes as well as westernized perceptions of the male body was problematized to some extent. Furthermore, I propose an additional keynote at a meeting like this which may be more theorizing and reflective at a meta-analytic level.

I want to conclude by emphasizing that it was an instructive conference with many questions raised that will progress the research on gender and sport further, and I extend my gratitude to the working group, the organizers at the University of Gothenburg, and all delegates who made this conference possible.


  • Anderson, Eric (2009). Inclusive masculinity. Routledge.
  • Hall, M. Ann (2002). The discourse of gender and sport: from femininity to feminism. In Scraton, Sheila & Flintoff, Anne (eds.). Gender and Sport: a reader. Routledge,  6-16.
  • Kirk, David (1999). Physical Culture, Physical Education and Relational Analysis, Sport, Education and Society, 4:1, 63-73.

Copyright © Marie Larneby 2014

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