AbstractsWomens Studies

Guilt, Women, and Exercise

by Anita Kay Harman

Institution: University of Otago
Year: 0
Keywords: exercise; embodiment; emotions; affect; feelings; guilt; shame; women; gender; morality; ethics; health; bodies; discourse; femininity; responsibility; blame; empathy; fitness; visual methods; physical activity; leisure; exercise-related guilt; cogmotion
Record ID: 1306445
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/10523/5057


In this thesis I explore exercise-related guilt experienced by mid-age women. While guilt occupies a prominent place in women’s narratives about exercise, it has been largely overlooked in sociocultural research on health, fitness, and related discourses. I argue that guilt plays a significant—and often negative—role in women’s experiences of exercise (e.g., anticipation, performance, and retrospection), often manifesting in anxiety, internalised self-critical surveillance, and even depression. Mid-age women are targets of gendered societal messages and discourses celebrating and moralising an idealised fit feminine body. I draw on the concept of ‘the imperative pathway’ to show how discourses around women’s exercise, health, and bodies create an impasse that is fraught with guilt feelings: complex social forces impose a nexus of responsibilities that reduce available time and resources, while an aging body imposes physical limitations and changes. As a self-conscious emotion (e.g., not directly observable), guilt is a difficult construct to engage with empirically and ethically. I adopt a heuristic and pragmatic approach reflecting a poststructural ethos that recognizes individuals’ fluid subjectivities. Through reflexive online and offline observations, conversations, and interrogations, I interacted with women, listened to their voices, and the voices surrounding them. In my analysis of these voices, I draw on theorists from a range of disciplines, taking inspiration from Marcel Mauss who advocates including bio-psycho-social aspects in human scrutiny. My aim has been the creation of a rich, holistic picture of how guilt (defined by women themselves) interacts with socially constructed notions of exercise, and how it operates within mid-age women’s exercise realities. I also provide a space for their voices as they navigate challenging tensions of responsibility, power, and desire. In pursuit of these aims I ask questions such as: what do women deem to be their sources of exercise-related guilt? How does their guilt manifest? How do they manage it? How does it operate in their lives? I suggest that women’s exercise-related guilt is often induced by the well-meaning, blamed on the less culpable, and discomfiting for more than the obviously vulnerable; it inhibits many of the intended positive outcomes of the inducers, and drives a self-perpetuating bio-psycho-social cycle of self-incrimination. I strive to offer women alternative, and more critical, ways of thinking about guilt relative to exercise. I hope to provide women with the opportunity to share similar experiences, and thus help alleviate negative responses to feelings of exercise-related guilt. Finally, I trust my analysis can offer ideas for more holistic, empathetic, and critically informed communication to women that are sensitive to the potentially emotionally damaging effects of perpetuating norms relative to their bodies and social expectations.