Morten Renslo Sandvik
More and more people go to the gym. In 1993, nine per cent of Norwegians exercised regularly in gyms or fitness centers. 20 years later, in 2013, the number had risen to thirty-one per cent. The trend is similar in the other Nordic countries. Correspondingly, more and more people make money at or in relation to gyms and fitness centers, be it as entrepreneurs, successful bloggers, personal trainers (PTs) and group instructors, or professional body builders. These are important aspects of the development Jesper Andreasson and Thomas Johansson describe with the title of their book Fitnessrevolutionen (“The fitness revolution”). The title of a second book by the authors – The Global Gym – captures another part of the revolution: Gyms pop up just about everywhere, and, no matter where in the world, they tend to be rather similar. Gyms and fitness centers have turned into a global industry, and it is possible to conceptualize a global fitness culture.
Through historical, sociological and pedagogical lenses, Andreasson and Johansson analyze the “fitness revolution” by way of studying groups of people deeply engaged in the gym culture. In Fitnessrevolutionen and The Global Gym we meet PTs and group instructors, entrepreneurs of the fitness industry, popular fitness bloggers, and body builders. From online discussion fora and blogs to in-depth interviews and participant observation, the authors base their analyses on a large variety of data. There is an international (if not global) ring to it as well, with interviews and fieldwork performed in Sweden, the United States, Australia, and Japan. This broad approach makes sense, carving the way for nuanced insights into what seems an increasingly homogenized culture, but which still contains different symbolic and cultural meanings in different national cultures and, not least, across different “sub-disciplines” of fitness.
Accordingly, Andreasson and Johansson’s understanding of globalization balances between a homogenization of the fitness culture and “the hybridization thesis, according to which cultures borrow, combine, and incorporate different elements, resulting in syncretic and highly diverse and complex forms”. Ritzer’s term McDonaldization is put forward as a key analytical concept describing homogenization. Just as I can walk into a McDonald’s restaurant anywhere in the world knowing what and how to order, how it will taste and how much time I will spend there, I can enter a gym in Stockholm, Tokyo, or New York, knowing that I will find the equipment and localities suitable for my training routine. The homogenization of gym equipment and localities indicates a related homogenization in people’s needs when it comes to physical activity. Just as McDonald’s satisfies a need to dine fast every now and again, “the global gym”, perhaps, accommodates common needs across different cultures for the performance of certain types of bodily movements in certain types of surroundings. There is a leap, however, from common needs to similar symbolic and cultural meanings attached to those needs. Andreasson and Johansson’s attention to local nuances within the fitness culture is a key strength of the two publications.
Chapter 4 of Fitnessrevolutionen contains interesting examples of this nuance (it is touched upon in chapter 3 of The Global Gym as well), concerning the occupational practice of PTs and group instructors. The fitness professionals are prominent actors in the contemporary fitness culture, but as Andreasson and Johansson show, how their roles are interpreted and negotiated varies from context to context. One important aspect concerns intimacy. Working as a PT or group instructor frequently involves physical intimacy with clients. In the fitness setting, bodies are at the center of attention. For example, as some informants explain, touching the client’s body can be key to communicate the difference between correct and incorrect execution of an exercise. Add to this the amount of time PTs typically spend with clients, this becomes a clear example of how the fitness professional must negotiate roles and boundaries, particularly between the private and the professional. Discussing examples from a Caribbean cruise ship, the United States, Australia, and Japan, the chapter shows that the expectations and power relations feeding into such negotiations vary significantly from context to context.
As Andreasson and Johansson point out, “the field of bodybuilding and fitness allows us to explore different ways of doing and presenting gender”. Chapter 5 of The Global Gym approaches the topic of fitness and gender through analysis of “the global blogosphere”. In a selection of contemporary blogs followed by gym-goers around the world (or, I would suspect, mainly in North America), the authors identify three different positions in relation to doing and presenting gender: one of compliance with normative masculinities and femininities, one of negotiation, and one of subversion. Showing that influential actors within the fitness culture present themselves and their “philosophies” quite differently when it comes to complying with or transforming contemporary gender positions, the blogosphere offers a clear-cut example of diversity of gender representations present in the fitness culture. Even if there is still a prominent tendency in fitness to comply with and adjust to hegemonic gender values, the gym can be a context of gender transgression. Andreasson and Johansson convincingly communicate this nuance.
Another significant theme, particularly in The Global Gym, concerns gyms and fitness centers as sites of learning. Focusing in chapter 4 on two quite different fitness disciplines – bodybuilding and Pilates – the authors describe a learning dynamic in which knowledge of the body is translated into knowledge in the body. Many bodybuilders, in particular, are knowledgeable about the human body, training, nutrition, and medicine, and spend a considerable amount of time learning about these topics through reading magazines or online, or listening to more experienced bodybuilders. However, as the authors point out, “[i]t is in within the realm of physical experience that acquired knowledge has meaning and substance”. Through bodily sensations experienced in or in relation to working out at the gym, the bodybuilder develops self-understanding and learns how to interpret body signals. In Andreasson and Johansson’s analysis, knowledge is embedded in sensual experiences; it is embodied rather than fully conscious, and hence difficult for informants to articulate. One sensation taken by most bodybuilders to indicate that they are doing something right – but that still seems difficult to put into words – is “the pump”. For a reader, like myself, who never have had this seemingly pleasurable experience, Andreasson and Johansson’s analyses of their informants’ accounts of “getting the pump” is unusually precise and informative.
Fitnessrevolutionen and The Global Gym offer valuable insight into several important themes. Besides the themes mentioned above, the authors write informatively about the fitness culture in relation to body ideals, age and death, health, doping, and more. Throughout Andreasson and Johansson’s discussions, the historical context of globalization is navigated successfully with attention to geographical and inter-disciplinary nuances within the fitness culture. With this necessary caution, these publications offer deep insights into specific aspects of fitness, which, taken together, add up to a valuable account of a contemporary, global fitness culture.
Copyright © Morten Renslo Sandvik 2016