Gendered Exercise as an Expression of Gendered Meaning? Exercise Contexts and Motives Among Norwegian Youths 13–18 Years Old, 2010–2018 | A Summary

Mads Skauge1 & Kolbjørn Rafoss2
1 Nord University; 2 UiT The Arctic University of Norway
Translated from Norwegian by Jeremy Crump

Norwegian researchers were among the first to carry out research into gender and inequality in sports sociology, and gender remains a central theme in the field. Most studies have looked into gender differences in engagement in sport and the impact of gender on women’s opportunities as participants, trainers and leaders. For women over 15, participation in sport and physical exercise has grown steadily since the 1970s, and since the mid-1990s, women’s participation has been as extensive as that of men. The growth of female participation has been greatest in self-led exercise and in commercial gyms. There has been an increase too in female participation in sports clubs, but participation among women and girls in organised sport remains significantly lower than that of men and boys.

It appears that boys and girls are recruited to sports clubs in equal numbers when they are children, but that girls leave clubs sooner than boys. At the same time, adolescent girls exercise more than boys, but in situations other than sports clubs. The transition from childhood to adolescence changes the way girls’ exercise is organised more than it does that of boys. This suggests that physical exercise acquires a new meaning for girls during their teenage years.

Several survey-based studies of young people demonstrate changes in the way physical exercise is organised, in the decline in participation in organised sport during adolescence and in the emphasis on motivation for exercise. There is, however, a lack of studies which systematically examine gender as an independent variable and which explain gender differences in the organisation of and motivation for physical exercise over time. In order to describe changing patterns of physical exercise, there is a need for analyses of how boys and girls exercise and their motivation for exercise both in and outside sports clubs. The aim of this study is therefore to describe and discuss how the motivation for exercise and the choice of organisational context for exercise is gendered and varies as young people get older. We discuss how this pattern could be related to choices linked to the gendered construction of identity and gendered social conditions.

Specifically, we pursue the following research questions:

      1. What differences are there in the motivation for exercise for boys and girls who choose different organisational forms for physical exercise, and how do these change with age?
      2. What reasons do boys and girls give for leaving sports clubs, and how do these change with age?
      3. Which changes in the organisation of physical exercise in sports clubs, gyms and self-led exercise characterise boys’ and girls’ participation in the period 2010-2018, and how do these change with age?
      4. How can gender differences in motivation for exercise and the choice of organisational context for exercise be understood in the light of gendered identity projects and opportunity spaces?

In seeking to explain gender differences in motivation and organisation, we draw on Giddens’  concept of reflexivity and Bourdieu’s notion of habitus. The empirical foundations are taken from Ungdata, which is a collection of surveys of young people at a local authority level which when aggregated provide national data. These youth surveys consider a number of themes which include changes in physical exercise habits of 13- to 19-year-olds from the beginning of 2010. The questions include those which cover motivation for exercise and how exercise is organised. We apply multiple logistic regression analysis using Stata, controlling for factors including socioeconomic status.

The study consequently investigates differences between boys and girls in motivation for physical exercise and how far they choose to take part in sports clubs, gyms and self-led training. Previous research shows that patterns of exercise among young people tend towards what modernity theorists call individualisation. However, little research has taken place into the ways in which this individualisation is gendered.

Our results indicate that the practice of physical exercise is health-orientated, individualised and gendered. The greatest emphasis is placed on good health as a motivation for exercise, and this is most apparent among girls who do not exercise in sports clubs. The most significant reason for leaving sports clubs, especially among teenage girls,  is the wish not to commit to regular training sessions. Too great an emphasis on competition in sport is a more significant reason for leaving for girls than for boys. While competition and performance increase in importance for boys as they get older, the opposite is the case for girls. A greater proportion of boys than girls exercise in sports clubs while girls prefer commercial gyms.

Starting from Giddens’ concept of reflexivity and Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, we discuss how differences in motivation for physical exercise can partly be explained as an expression of gendered reflexive projections of identity as young people seek to meet expectations attached to their gender, and partly as an embodied gendered habitus which socialises boys and girls to behave differently.

In his analysis of the development of identity in late modernity, Giddens points out that identity has gone from being determined by social background to become a reflexive project of self-realisation through reflexive choice. This means that belonging to a social category no longer answers the question of who one is. The uncertainty which this creates makes the body one of the few fixed points for the expression of identity. While reflexivity is about more than identity and the body, the body has nevertheless become one of late modernity’s central signifiers of identity.

The body has become a vehicle of the self and hence acquires a symbolic significance for how physical attractiveness and personal identity are expressed. This means that the individual is made responsible for the design of their own body. A consequence is that the late modern individual is confronted with a perpetual reflexive task. This task is expressed by means of an embodied reflexive appearance which gives outward form to the autobiographical narrative of self-identity, which Giddens characterises as bodily regimes. These include, inter alia, dietary habits, clothes and exercise, and how they can reflexively signify gender.

From our starting point in Giddens, modernisation and individualisation are thus important for young people’s construction of identity and their choices about exercise. Activity and exercise are no longer built into the daily routines of most people; they are the subject of choices. Exercising the body has become an individual responsibility, the expression of a reflexive staging of how one wishes to realise and present oneself.

This is especially the case for young people who find themselves at a stage in their lives which is characterised by freedom from fixed frameworks and institutions. In this perspective, changes in the way young people’s exercise is organised can be traced back to social changes such as the relaxation of cultural norms, which emphasise that the modern individual is more self-centred and less socially orientated than hitherto, and moreover that youth is a time which implies liberation from activities led by adults.

Alongside Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, in our case applied in the sense of gender habitus, this Giddens-inspired perspective contributes to an understanding of gender differences in the organisation of physical exercise since youth sport and gyms represent distinct social, cultural and organisational logics which in their different ways correspond to gender expectations and gendered socialisation. We state the case for a gendered individualisation of the field of physical exercise.

Copyright © Mads Skauge & Kolbjørn Rafoss 2021

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