The Fitness Phenomenon

When I describe my thesis, it’s normally been met with comments along the lines of, “So you just attended Soul Cycle classes for your senior thesis?” People typically respond with confused looks and skepticism about my project.  As part of my year-long sociology thesis, I have explored the meaning of fitness and exercise for women by conducting observations and interviews with instructors at Colgate University and at boutique fitness studios such as Soul Cycle, Barre3 and CrossFit.  I conducted this research in order to help me gain perspective on exercise at Colgate and what it means to women on this campus.

One of my inspirations for this topic was the Senior Honors Thesis of Hannah Guy, Class of 2012. In her thesis, she explored a myriad of “Disordered Eating Behaviors,”  which suggested that going and exercising at the gym for at least 45 minutes, at least five times a week, was considered to be common and acceptable. Her data showed that 74.9 percent of the survey’s respondents believed that frequent lengthy fitness sessions, with the goal of losing weight, were something in which most female students participated.  Additionally, 42 percent of women who responded to her survey said they would be comfortable with their peers knowing of this behavior and 29.5 percent  “indicated that it was appropriate for [a student] to work out for an extra two hours when she ate a piece of cake.”

When I first read this finding, it shocked me.  Not because I was surprised that Colgate women felt this way, but because I know that neither I nor any of my friends consider what she described as “disorderly eating.” I know, from personal experience, it’s definitely not uncommon to talk to your friends about working off the slices they ate or the alcohol they drank. It definitely made me think, however, about Colgate’s campus and why everyone goes to the gym.

It’s a commonly held belief that Colgate is an extremely active campus. I’ve often overheard it mentioned on campus tours. It was pervasive in my interviews just how much people perceived Colgate to be an extremely active student body, more so than the average college campus.

At 5:00 p.m., during any given weekday, the Huntington Gym and Trudy Fitness Center at Colgate are filled with students participating in fitness activities, from all class years, organizations and social circles across campus. At times it can feel like, “everyone works out,” but that assumption is one that is both harmful and silences the experience of people on campus, and groups who simply do not feel comfortable in the gym. One of my peers, senior Sally Langan, conducted her thesis on comfortability among women at Colgate University. She interviewed women in the senior class.  She explored which spaces on campus were the ones where women felt the most comfortable. One of her findings was that 47 percent of the 130 senior women surveyed who went to the gym felt indifferent or slightly/very uncomfortable in the Trudy Fitness Center. In the same survey, however, 80 percent of these same respondents said they go to Trudy Fitness either “all the time” or “a decent amount.”

I wasn’t much of a gym person before college, but after my first year at Colgate, I found that exercise, and specifically going to gym, had become a very important part of my schedule and my social life. It was not uncommon for me to plan times to attend fitness classes or Trudy Fitness with friends, or to find myself socializing with friends and acquaintances once I was there. I believe it’s general consensus that we as a student body seem to be more active than the average school.

Many may suggest, “What is the harm in having an extremely fit student body?” or  “Aren’t there numerous health benefits from working out?” Yes, there is plenty of research that shows the health benefits from working out. In my interviews with female fitness instructors on campus, however, they spoke about the pressures both they and their friends feel from peers about the way that one dresses, exercises and appears to others while at the gym.

Many of the women I spoke with describe a feeling of competition among their female peers, which drives one to exercise more. Interview respondents attribute this to aspects of the larger cultural characteristics of Colgate, such as hook-up culture, that encourage women to seek out the male population’s approval. While others disagreed that hook-up culture was the motivation behind Colgate women’s desire to work out, they did speak of a feeling of competition with other women, in things such as jobs and academics. The consensus is that women describe and observe a pressure to compete against their peers and to be slender, which is amplified by their feeling that Colgate is a “skinny school.”

While it would be false to make assumptions that all women feel this way, or to say that I have a solution to these attitudes on campus, I would encourage students, administration, and faculty to be aware of how fitness is practiced on our campus.  

I believe we as a student body need to have more discussions and open dialogue about how we can make the space more comfortable for all members of our campus.