New book highlights gendered labour in sport and fitness philanthropy

Solveig Straume
Molde University College, Norway

Catherine Palmer
Sports Charity and Gendered Labour
117 pages, hardcover
Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing 2021 (Emerald Studies in Sport and Gender)
ISBN 978-1-80043-429-5

Catherine Palmer’s book Sports Charity and Gendered Labour explores the social phenomenon of fitness philanthropy. Through six relatively short chapters (four which are empirical), Palmer aims at demonstrating how fitness philanthropy is a unique social and philanthropic phenomenon that is made possible through intersecting forms of labour (embodied labour, emotional labour, invisible labour and philanthropic labour), and that gendered roles are visible in these sports settings.

In the first chapter, “Sport, gender and charity”, Palmer introduces important concepts as well as provides a historical and contemporary context of running. The author recognises the complexity of hegemonic masculinities in sport in general and argues that her project is located within a feminist perspective. A short historical overview of running is presented, where the author argues that “bigger social forces [are] at play” (p. 13), hence running for charity has become a big thing. It is in this context Palmer aims at exploring gender and gendered roles.

In the second chapter, “Embodied labour and sports charity”, Palmer draws on her own auto-ethnographic research, training for and competing in a fitness philanthropy event, the Southern Most Marathon, in the Florida Keys in 2018. Palmer describes her personal experiences of becoming a marathon runner, and how she negotiated ‘the work of working out’. Illustrating embodied labour through the visible suffering body (physically and mentally), she aims at unpacking possibilities for new knowledge and understanding of gendered embodiment and subjectivity in sport, fitness and physical culture studies.

I like the empirically based approach and think that the book is written in a light and inspiring manner. (I did actually want to go running when reading chapter 2!)

The third chapter, “Emotional Labour and Fitness Philanthropy”, is also empirical in its nature as Palmer explores “the work required to manage the emotions of those training and fundraising for and participating in fitness philanthropy events” (p. 33). Applying a narrative enquiry, the chapter is informed by the lives of two Australian families that Palmer followed and interviewed over a period of 1,5 years. Both families had suffered the loss of a family member to cancer (a mother and a child respectively) and were involved in fitness philanthropy as a way to commemorate the loved one and raise awareness and funds to cancer research. Palmer details how these two families manage their grief through emotional labour, how leisure becomes emotion work, and shows how fitness philanthropy somehow gives meaning to the meaningless.

In the fourth chapter, Families, fitness philanthropy and domestic labour, Palmer explores how domestic labour (typically done by women) provides a space for others (typically men and children) to participate in sport on several levels. Through interviews with two groups of women (spouses of endurance athletes as well as women ultra-runners who were training for a major sport charity event), Palmer demonstrates how women, and especially wives, play crucial support roles for athletes, as they do most of the domestic/invisible labour, and thus enables athletic life.

The fifth chapter, “The Enterprising Self: Philanthropic Labour and Sports Charity”, moves to the labour of fundraising, or what Palmer terms ‘philanthropic labour’. Palmer demonstrates that in a neoliberalist society, sport charities are supported mostly by the hard work of fundraisers and typically between peer-to-peer social networks, family and friends. The second part of the chapter reports a content analysis of the webpages of a large breast cancer charity that partners with sporting events to raise funds. Palmer finds that the images and values that underpin cause-related marketing are taken up by the peer-to-peer fundraising networks, where they are then deployed as tactics of philanthropic labour. The tactics uses narratives that has an appeal to funders, often portraying the suffering or a wounded body, that consequently, according to Palmer, demonstrates that “philanthropic labour puts into action a set of social relationships of gender that continue to this day” (p. 87).

Hundreds of people wearing pink run and walk in the Paint Gwinnett Pink event, a charity fundraiser for breast cancer research, on October 26, 2019 in Buford, GA. (Shutterstock/BluIz60)

The final chapter summarises the book and points towards future research.

Having read the book thoroughly I was left with a few reflections. First of all, I found the book interesting in the sense that it illuminates how gendered labour is visible in sports settings where females typically take the biggest share of the invisible and emotional labour. I think this is the book’s main contribution, and I think it is important to continue to unpack these structures in a liberal society that often takes gender equality for granted.

I like the empirically based approach and think that the book is written in a light and inspiring manner. (I did actually want to go running when reading chapter 2!)

Palmer makes a point out of the fact that she hopes that the empirical chapters will stand alone in their own right. I think they will, but as I was reading the book, this became my main concern. Although written in a light manner, as the empirical cases and examples were quite different in terms of methodology and approach, the stand-alone ambition also serves to divide the book into sections, and it is not always clear to me how they connect. I also think that the gender perspective, which I find really important, is somehow faded in some of the examples. Palmer does remind us about the connection throughout the book (that is maybe my second concern, that there seem to be a lot of repetition), and I think that would be unnecessary if the logic of the book was more self-explanatory and less ‘all over the place’. This made the reading experience somehow fragmented for me.

From a Nordic perspective and for the reader of, I think that the context presented might feel slightly outlandish. That is not to say that there is no fitness philanthropy in the Nordic countries, there is, and increasingly so, but to my understanding to a much lesser extent than appears to be the case in Australia and the US from the examples provided in the book. This might be explained by strong welfare states and a less privatised health system in the Nordic countries.

The examples of the labour of fundraising (chapter 5) were relatable, though more as general voluntary work and dugnad from the sports club point of view.

That being said, we are all exposed to gendered labour of various sorts, running charities and fitness philanthropy seem to become increasingly popular and therefore the book provides food for thought for all of us.

Copyright © Solveig Straume 2023

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