Sexism and The Health and Fitness Industry: Dead or Alive?

So its international women's day today, the 8th of March 2017. I have already posted my obligatory 'na mná abú' post and photo on my social media accounts this morning, but things have just not been right in my head today. I have been pondering the difference between men and women, and the opportunities that arise for both sexes. Does sexism exist in this day and age? Do men and women have equal rights in today's society in Ireland? Do men get paid more than women? Is it tough to be a woman today?

Of course, there are probably those out there who would tell us that indeed sexism had been eradicated from the western world already, and anyone who claims otherwise is a trouble seeking feminist. Well sure, women have equal voting rights, are allowed to order a pint at the bar, and are just as entitled to build themselves a career as their willy toting counterparts, but when I think about it in the context of the mini-world that I am currently engrossed, that of the so called 'health and fitness' industry, I cant help but wonder that the abolition of sexism against women is 'gone' in a similar way that racism against African American citizens is 'gone'. Its officially frowned upon, but in reality still exists as an ugly undercurrent of society that destroys people's lives, and devalues communities,  on a daily basis.

From where I can see it, the beginning and end of sexism in the health and fitness industry is powered by the commercial desire to sell a product or service to women by companies that care very little about their customers beyond the superficial and shallow promotion of their own offerings.

Lets take magazine covers for example. Walk into any newsagents and have a look at what these magazines are promoting. Cosmetic surgery, airbrushed perfection anti-aging products, 'celebrity gossip', and the idolisation of people who's contribution to positive physical or mental health is questionable at best.

Next up, is the terminology that is pushed and promoted in relation to women's health. 'Beach body', 'bums and tums', 'blast cellulite', 'flat tummy', 'post baby body', and a whole plethora of superficial terms that are designed to create envy, build insecurity, and a establish a sense of need or frustration at where you think you should be in relation to where your currently are.

You go to a standard commercial gym, and there is probably an image up there of a woman in a sports bra or crop top and sprayed on sweat working out delightfully, and taunting you to be just like her.

This purpose of this combination of imagery and words, serves one purpose, and that is to create the demand for products such as a new celebrity cook book, a new type of diet, some training product, a feature enhancing clothing garment, or a program of exercise that can be sold at a premium because it promises to deliver on the perfect body image that has conveniently been created by the magazines and websites. Sure, this type of approach exists for men as well, but it is overwhelmingly aimed at getting women to feel insecure, and to buy more of what the big companies are selling.

Case in point, in January, the Late Late Show and host Ryan Tubridy, put a musical performance by one of Ireland's top up and coming musicians, Lisa Canny, to provide an extended period of coverage for the onstage promotion of cosmetic surgery for women. They actually had Lisa ready to perform backstage, and didn’t give her the slot at the last minute, so that they could give a live Botox demonstration to the live audience and hundreds of thousands of viewers. What does this say about how women are portrayed in our society. If you ask me, its screams;

"You women might be artistic and talented, but the most important thing is that you look like we say you should look. Yes of course, you can have a job just like any man, then you can spend your money on artificially changing the way you look with this cosmetic surgery. Sexism!? No that doesn't exist any more. We just know what's best for you, and its not culture, self-expression, or achievement in your career. Its Botox. Now sit down, shut up, and look how much more beautiful you could be if you get this Botox injection."

Lets talk a little about job opportunities in the world of health and fitness for women. I know coaches from all over the world, working at the highest level of professional sports, and coaching to an exceptional standard. Very few are women. Why is this the case? Why do male sports teams often refuse to employ female coaches? They might argue that it is because of the fall out of potential sexual relations between the players and the coach. They may also say that a woman on the coaching staff would be a distraction for the red-blooded males on the team. I say that those excuses are bullshit, and that it’s the responsibility of the clubs, teams, and training facilities to set a culture that demands equal respect for all staff and participants. If you are afraid that there will be a breach of professionalism within the setup, its not the fault of the female coach, it’s the fault of management for allowing such a culture to exist in the first place.

Now, you might be reading all of this and saying;

"Well so what?, I like to read about celebrity gossip. I actually would like to have a flat tummy. What's the problem?"

If you are thinking in those terms, there is a good chance that the job of the commercial and marketing 'gurus' is complete. Its most possible that you are now ripe for the picking, and ready to buy whatever product they should chose to put in front of you. There was a time in the not so distant past, when health advice for women was based on things that would actually improve overall health, not try to make you aspire to unrealistic ideals, or buy useless products. More importantly that that though, being satisfied with the low bar of expectation that is being set for women today means that you have accepted that women are not entitled to the same quality of life, the same big dreams, or the same level of self-respect as men, in my own opinion.

But who am I to speak? I am but a lowly member of the oppressing sex that has perpetuated and maintained the inequality of the sexes through the annals of time. Well, I know that I run a business that respects all of its employees equally, provides the same opportunities for everyone, and that tries at every opportunity to step away from the notion of air-brushed perfection and 'the perfect' body nonsense that our society is poisoned by daily. We don’t train men, and women. We train people. Individuals. Unique people, who's likes there will never be again . We promote the benefits of having an active lifestyle, eating real food, and sharing the experience of eating together as a main component of health. We promote health as a holistic combination of physical health, the food we eat, our lifestyles, our mental health, ongoing learning and personal development, positive self-image, having a social structure, and of people being no better and no worse than the next person. Certainly, discrimination of any kind, including gender discrimination has no part to play when it comes to our approach.

On this international women's day, I remember that we descendants of Gráinne Mhaol, who led Gael's bravely into battle, and defended Ireland from invading forces in the 16th century, and the Tuatha Dé Dannan's goddess Éirú, who's name we have taken as our country's own. The iconic women of our mythology, the pioneering women of the modern age, and the brilliant women of the future.

I think of the women who most influenced my life. My mum, who moved to Belfast in 1985 from Dublin when most people who didn’t have to be there were getting to hell out of the place, and who raised three of us nearly single handed while working at the Belfast Central Library.

My Granny Theresa, who's father was shot dead while she was but a young girl, raised her own family through some of the worst times of conflict that Ireland has every seen, and even my great-granny, whom I never met, but who raised her large family despite suffering the untimely loss of her husband.

My Granny Nora who made the regular trip from Dublin to Belfast to teach me French when she heard I was struggling with my GCSE's, and brought us all to Cork every summer, and invariably sparked my obsession with hurling that has shaped much of my adult life today.

Bríd, my Dad's wife, who has stuck by him through the toughest of times. While he suffered a very near fatal stroke, and even while she dealt with her own extended brush with the grim reaper while fighting stage 4 cancer.

My partner Shakira, who is as exceptional a coach, and talented an athlete as you will find anywhere, and is an example to me, and anyone else who aspires to break the mould of conformity and say things how they really are.

Today, I urge you to recognise what the women in your life have done for you, but more importantly to open your eyes to the inequality that still exists between males and females, and be a part of the positive change in society.

Happy International Women's Day!

This article is by Ainle Ó Cairealláin MSc CSCS.

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