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"Body image by association" : women’s interpretations of aerobics and the role of the fitness instructor Vogel, Amanda E.


The increasingly popular fitness industry targets members of the middle-class who are anxious to lose weight, "tone-up" and "look great." Studies on women and body image consistently show that many active women express a multitude of concerns over their physical appearance (cf. Davis & Cowles, 1991; Markula, 1995). The aerobics class, an instructor-led, exercise-to-music workout, is a form of exercise frequented mainly by women. Many researchers consider aerobics to be representative of stereotypical ideologies of femininity and ideal beauty (Cole, 1993; MacNeill, 1990, White, Young & Gillett, 1995). Other researchers believe there is room for the empowerment of women and body image satisfaction in aerobics (Haravon, 1995; Markula, 1995). Research which examines body image in the context of aerobics as a distinct social setting, particularly with a focus on the role of the fitness instructor, is largely absent from the literature. On one hand, the instructor's appearance and discourse can be influential in reinforcing cultural standards of an ideal female body among aerobics participants (Kagan & Morse, 1988; Kenen, 1987; Valdes, 1995). On the other hand, some researchers have suggested that the instructor has the potential to focus participants' attention away from weight loss and appearance enhancement in aerobics (Frederick & Shaw, 1995; Haravon, 1995; Kagan & Morse, 1988). This study examined how female aerobics participants and female fitness instructors interpreted the role of the instructor and how this role relateed to the body image experiences of participants. Unobtrusive observations and one-on-one interviews were conducted with volunteers from a popular Lower Mainland fitness facility Results from this study indicated that both participants and instructors constructed personal meanings for their involvement in aerobics. Further, the impact of the instructor's role on the body image experiences of participants was multi-dimensional. Instructors who emphasized appearance and weight loss in aerobics offended some women and inspired others. Certain women preferred an instructor who resembled an image consistent with media representations of a fit female body while others resisted this stereotypical look and sought an instructor with a larger, more athletic build.

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