50 Shades of Fitness: The Pornification of The “Fitness” Industry

It seems the fitness industry is inching closer and closer to the porn industry.

Maybe I’m being overly dramatic.  Maybe I misunderstand because I haven’t done a figure/bikini/physique competition.  Maybe I’m just a prude.

But you tell me…when a “fitness” competition requires women to pose like this, is it about sports, or is it about sex?

bikini competition rear pose

Obviously, I’m going to step on some on toes here.  And while I definitely lean more conservative when it comes to sex, most of my friends will tell you that I’m not a prude. I’m practically a semi-practicing nudist at times, and I could certainly keep up with a group of sailors when it comes to telling bawdy jokes (and drinking whiskey).  I’m all for bringing sexy back, and having a sexy back, and admiring sexy backs.  But this is one issue that has bothered me for a long time, and as I’ve seen it become more prevalent (or perhaps I’m just becoming more aware), I’m compelled to address it….And I’m not going to apologize for my opinion.

Let me be clear – this is not about body types, aesthetic appeal, athleticism, or personal choice.  I am not saying that people participating in fitness competitions are too small, or too muscular, or too manly, or too artificial, nor am I saying that they are not athletes or that they should not be able to compete however they please.  I have friends who have competed in fitness competitions, and from talking with them and doing my own reading, I know that such an endeavor requires incredible discipline and personal sacrifice.  Although it’s not something care to do, I don’t see any problem with fitness competitions.  The issue is how the industry merges fitness with sex. 

In other words…

Parts of the fitness industry have become indistinguishable from softcore pornography.

There’s no getting around it, and truthfully, it’s evident enough that it shouldn’t take much explanation. The amount of skin exposed, the kinds of posing used, and the focus on sex appeal – rather than, say, athleticism – are a page straight out of the porn industry’s playbook.   While this probably is a bigger problem in female fitness competitions, the men are not exempt from it, either.   Although the sexualization of fitness is blatant in fitness competitions, it’s not limited to the stage.  Many fitness brands use sex to sell their products, and they’re not subtle about it.

gaspari nutrition ad crotchshot

Gaspari Nutrition prefers subtlety to blatant objectification.

equinox ad sexual

Equinox: In case your health wasn’t enough of a reason to go to the gym, there’s always the chance that you might have the opportunity to star in an independent porno.

ad woman resistance bands overly sexual

I’m not sure what’s being sold here, but I’m fairly certain it’s not those resistance bands.

Social media is positively swarming with competitors, both amateur and professional, flooding their feeds with gratuitous “glute” shots and “abs” photos (which for the women almost always include breasts, as well).  Of course, there are plenty of non-competitors, folks who are just fitness enthusiasts, who do the exact same.  Post what you want, but please don’t pretend that you are sharing your progress when you are really just sharing your bits.  I wish I could tell you how many “fitness” accounts I’ve seen on instagram that are really just self-shot softcore porn collections, charmingly hashtagged with things like #fitness, #strength, #strongnotskinny, #dedication, #progress, #inspiration, and #healthyliving…but at this point, I’ve lost count.  This is perhaps one of the most bothersome parts, because fusing fitness with sex and stamping the whole package with words like “strength” or “dedication” conditions viewers and participants to see those terms solely in that light.  “Dedication” becomes a matter of 4:30am workouts and tupperware meals of tilapia and broccoli, “inspiration” gets measured in pounds and inches lost, and “health” is seen as a consuming regime of workouts and diets and supplements and the occasional glittery bikini/banana-hammock.  (This, in particular, gets me riled up.  You want real inspiration? Look at this family.  You want to see real dedication? Read this man’s story.  You want real health? Create sustainable habits…and taking pictures of your own ass is not one of those habits.)  It makes people think that these oversexualized images (often featuring bodies that are achieved by means of incredibly damaging diets/training) demonstrate the pinnacle of fitness and health, and insinuates that they should be a goal towards which we strive.

bikini competitor rear view

It misses the point entirely.  Fitness is about the ability to move well.  Sometimes that’s moving heavy weights, sometimes that moving fast, sometimes that’s moving your own body with great control, and sometimes that’s moving to the outer limits of your flexibility.  Health is about being well  – in body, in mind, and in spirit.  None of it requires you to “do sexy” well.  Your level of fitness and your level of health are not dependent on how sexy you can be.  Being fit and having a healthy body can make you feel good about yourself, and that kind of confidence is sexy.  Fitness and health are reflected in your physical appearance, and that can be sexy.  But you see, in that case, sexiness is a side effect of fitness, not the end goal.  And even then, for the vast majority of folks, it’s going to be a different kind of sexy than the kind promoted by the media (that goes for women and men).  we see on stage, on instagram, and on ad pages in a magazine.  “Sexy” doesn’t have just a single physical expression, and neither do health and fitness.

So my question is why are we not good enough as we are?  Why can’t we be sexy without being sex objects?  Why can we lift weights without being some kind of barbell-sporting-dominatrix? Why can’t we be great athletes without being sexy athletes?  Why can’t we be badass without being a hot piece of ass?

I know the simple answer is that “sex sells.”  In a culture that is becoming more and more desensitized, it takes more and more sex to sell.  Shorts get shorter, tops come off, and everything gets more explicit.  But that doesn’t mean we have to put up with it.  We don’t have to buy into the marriage of the porn and fitness industries and their sexy-fitness lovechild.  We can choose to decide for ourselves what is sexy, and ignore those that tell us it requires more spray tanner and more bedazzled bikinis.  We can choose to invest in health and fitness, and whatever physical manifestation that takes.  We can choose to be strong, to be flexible, to move often and eat plenty and sleep well and play freely and live a fulfilling life that is characterized by wellness and joy.  And we can make our choices, live our lives, and move on without a second thought to whether we are “sexy enough” by fitness industry standards.

And of course, when in doubt, a little naked dancing in the privacy of your bedroom will almost always make you feel sexy enough for anything.

Now go get on with your bad selves.  

I’d love to hear your thoughts and get a good discussion going!

Do you think the fitness industry has become oversexualized?

Have you ever felt pressure to be sexy in addition to being fit/athletic?

When it comes to “sexy-fitness,” do you think there is a double standard for men vs. women?


18 thoughts on “50 Shades of Fitness: The Pornification of The “Fitness” Industry

  1. I’m SO glad I’m not the only one who has this opinions of the fitness industry these days. I’m a trainer and it drives me nuts to see female trainers getting clients because they dress in practically nothing and promote themselves as “don’t you wish you were hot like me?” Mentality. I feel like exercise helps us respect our bodies by making them stronger and healthy, and we shouldn’t use our bodies as sex toys to the world. Preach it, girl! 🙂

    1. Oh man, that mentality bugs me, too! A good trainer/coach will empower their clients to develop sustainable habits of eating and exercise to suit the CLIENTS’ goals…not just give them a template to follow so they can be “hot” like their trainer. Too many trainers these days get their credibility from their looks rather than actual education/experience (but that’s a rant for another day, haha). Thanks for reading, girlie!

    1. For all the work these folks put in, I’d expect them to be proud of it…they have to have an incredible amount of discipline to get to that level. I just think the focus on sex appeal (rather than fitness or health) is gratuitous, when the industry is supposed to be centered on fitness/health.

    2. I can see their vaginas in their poses; I can see their breast implants popping out of their too small bikinis.. That is over sexualized. Hey, sex sells, though. Let’s add porn to the olympics.

  2. I love this! You said everything that I have been thinking 🙂 As a personal trainer this subject really irks me. I often get asked why I don’t compete. I like to keep certain things private. I know a lot of trainers that have overly sexual instagram and Twitter accounts. It drives me crazy! It takes credibility away from the profession. Anyway love this post… I’m sharing it on FB 🙂

    1. I’m with you on that, girl! Especially with social media, I try to tread on the more conservative side of the line…people don’t need to see the goodies to get the message, you know? Thanks for reading and sharing, and I hope to see you around here more! 🙂

  3. As someone who has competed, still lifts and eats for aesthetics, and is completely unrepentant about it, I can actually agree with most of this. I disagree with the definition of fitness being “the ability to move well” however. The reason being is that the fitness industry only really took off after Schwarzenegger popularized the gym industry with big biceps, huge pecs and single digit bodyfat. The strength and flexibility aspects took a backseat and looking good became priority. I am aware however that the fitness industry also sets, at times, unattainable expectations for people to live up to, especially as far as women are concerned. It’s difficult because on one hand I think a woman has the right to show every inch of skin on her body without fearing reprimand or slut shaming (from other women especially), however I think certain fitness competition categories parade women out on stage in poses that minds well be selection standards for an Amaterdam brothel. Where do we draw the line between looking and feeling sexy and becoming objectified?

    1. Jeremy, thanks for reading and joining in the discussion. Training/eating to look sexy is a fine goal (so long as physical and mental health are not compromised), and I certainly enjoy looking better for the way that work out and eat. But I think there’s a general trend where the standard for “looking good” has become synonymous to “looking like a competitor/porn star/fitness model.” None of those aesthetic ideals are sustainable (how many competitors maintain sub 8% BF year round), and the pursuit of them can often come at the cost of physical/mental health (eating disorders, amenorrhea, osteoporosis, metabolic damage, and so on). That’s clearly something that is not healthy, and not aligned with my definition of fitness as an overall sustainable state of physical wellbeing and “the ability to move well.” It does seem that it would fall in line with the fitness industry’s definition of “fitness,” though.

      I think it’s fairly simple in terms of what is objectifying or not (like your example of posing that could work on a bikini comp stage or a red light brothel). The line that gets blurry is when you have to decide for yourself at what point it becomes something you’re not ok with. Some people might be ok with beauty pageants but not fitness comps; some might be ok with lingerie modeling but not playboy shoots…at that point, it comes down to personal choice/responsibility.

  4. Saw your article shared on Siouxcountry! This resonates with me on so many levels. As a trainer i felt pressured to do a bikini contest since my peers who did them had more clients. I went to a fitness expo yesterday. A huge billboard of a woman with a half shirt showing the bottom of her breasts and abs…instead of this protein company showing a woman deadlifting….it had to be posing like a sex object and the sad thing is….women eat it up. I used to as well.I never felt comfortable posing when i competed..not to mention an eating disorder followed by needing approval from others. I still train although ive switched to competing in kb sport and powerlifting which i still feel at times i spend too much time on those activities and not in communion with god. I have come across bikini competitors who claim to be Christian. How one can pose like a stripper and think that is glorifying ones temple is beyond me. Matthew 6:2 ( or 6:1) is a great verse about not glorifying god in front of others. I think this covers bikini comps ..

    1. Ahh, thank you for letting me know where this got shared! I saw my pageviews spike up but couldn’t find where it was coming from. 🙂

      I agree with you that sex sells, and as followers of Christ, it’s something that requires a conscious effort to find the line (and hold it) between training the body and stewarding it well vs. abusing the body in the name of “aesthetics” and/or peddling it for social approval or monetary gain.

      Thank you for reading and commenting, and I hope to see you around more!

  5. Hi, love your article. I do agree, I’ve just started a business selling a product I have invented and I’ve had quite a bit of ‘advice’ from various directions on how I should include sexy girls, or oiled abs as part of my product pictures. I come to the fitness industry from the military, where no one gives a rats ass what you look like, performance is all that matters.

    So I’ve decided to not give in to this, even though I know this sexual advertising will work, I want my company to be honest, so it’s only ‘real’ people in my pictures, wearing normal clothes.

    The other thing people have said is that I should do ‘before and after’ pictures so that you can see the affect of using my product. This is connected with the whole body image thing and fat loss. Again it’s a great stunt to pull, will lead thousands to buy with the promise of ‘killer abs’ but I’m not going to go there.

    Maybe this is marketing suicide, but I think people are bright enough to see though that superficial stuff. Hope I’m still in business to be an example of how you doing have to have sex to sell, time will tell!

    1. Bravo, Rob! Great to hear that you are holding your marketing to a higher standard. I always appreciate that in companies that I endorse, and know plenty of folks who feel likewise. BIAbox looks like a great product (so versatile and adaptable!), and I have a feeling it will do well on it’s own merit – no oversexualized/deceptive advertising necessary.

      Thanks for reading/commenting, and I hope to see you around here more!

  6. Well researched and written article. Unfortunately in an industry that fights for any sort of publicity some of these advertisements become almost pornographic. What I find ironic is that the adverts shown here would have been from a muscle mag of some sort. However, the more softcore advert from Protein World, which is in the eye of the general public gets so much more stick.

    1. Thank you, Paul. I agree, many ads from the fitness industry easily fall into softcore pornography. It’s a shame, but it means brands that hold to a higher standard in their marketing stand out that much more above the rest.

  7. So good to see that I’m not the only one who has had enough of the sexualizing of fitness. Thanks for your refreshing take:)

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