The Phenomenon of Physical Capital in Fitness

In an industry that values muscle over morals, physical capital is king. Physical capital is the currency of the fitness industry, and this can have some far-reaching consequences for trainers and their clients. What is physical capital, and is using your body to get ahead really all that problematic?

The History of Bodily Capital

The concept of “physical capital” is derived from the work of Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu proposed physical/bodily capital as one of the four forms of capital which make up our society [1]. In essence, physical capital refers to the leveraging of physical appearance/status to acquire other resources/power [2]. Using your appearance to get ahead is not unique to the fitness industry – aesthetic labour has formed the undercurrent of much of society. Models leverage their prominent cheekbones to secure catwalk prowess, bouncers use their Dorito-shaped upper bodies to enforce good behaviour amongst clubgoers, hot people use their ride-status to live rent-free in your head. Lookism, pretty privilege, aesthetic labour – it’s the same concept in different fonts.

Physical Capital & The Fitness Industry

However, physical capital is particularly pertinent to the personal trainer, because the entire industry is appearance-based. Physical capital is the dominant currency of the fitness industry, both on the gym floor and online.

Every Gym Floor is a Runway: Physical Capital At Work

As noted by Hutson [3], for physical capital to “work”, it must be utilised in a pre-determined space where it’s valued. And nowhere quite values aesthetics like the gym environment. Your visual image is constantly highlighted and under surveillance in many areas of health and fitness centres. Posters/murals of lean bodies clad the walls, inspirational quotes about achieving dream physiques are etched onto the walls and body fat analysis/weighing scales are often positioned at the entrance to the gym. Everybody is up for the objectifying – which isn’t a cute unifying display of comradery like it sounds. This increased emphasis on objectification leads to emphasis being place on aesthetics for gym sales [4].

And as the “face” of the gym, this can be particularly troublesome for personal trainers. The uniform of many gyms is tight clothing like compression t-shirts and leggings. During classes, many personal trainers literally “take the stage” and display their physique to classes to perform movements[2]. And this is noted by clients – who often elect for classes to be taught by instructors in “better physical condition”[5]. Gym owners are trying to build a business, and put food on the table. It makes sense that they would encourage their workers to look/act in a certain way that will generate business. I’m not saying it’s the right thing to do, but it is important to understand where this is coming from.

Abs of Steel & Glutes of Peace: Credibility You Can Wear

Physical capital has been used by PTs to generate trust from their clients. Anyone can get qualified – but achieving success is different [6]. And the best way to do that is to look as close to body ideals as possible. Physical capital is one way trainers can distinguish themselves from other trainers – clients will notice. This “idealised” body, and an individuals’ capacity to use their body to build social or financial capital has seen a shift in the thinking of personal trainers from focusing on the body for function/performance to an aesthetic concept.

This has led to many PTs cultivating a sense of identity around their body, and how it looks [2]. Fitness instructors are now geared towards attaining physical capital and displaying it.

Authority and clients do not come from having paper credentials – they come from having 16” biceps and a questionable “supplement” routine. This is best evident in Hutson’s 2013 qualitative study of PTs and their clients [6]. Trainers that had “fit” bodies were best able to harness “moral authority” and credibility from their clients. In this study, the clients actually had a higher education status on average than the trainers, but both groups agreed that a trainers legitimacy depended on their ability to keep fit.

Quotes from interviews with participants include:

  • Your body is your business card
  • My trainer basically wears his reputation
  • It [my body] is something I’m always working on… I’m never satisfied.

Just how aesthetic-focused this whole trainwreck is is remarkably evident from this study. For clients and trainers, the fitness instructors physique suggests what they know about exercise and nutrition. Appearance is a pre-requisite for success. YIKES.

The Online Coach & Physical Capital

Now, Instagram was before aul Bourdy’s time. But my God did that man have some foresight. The cultivation of the online physical trainer has amplified the importance of physical capital in fitness.

Digital bodily capital is rife – with trainers posting content of their exercise routines, meals and physiques daily [8]. Instagram and TikTok are cesspools of “fitness” content, and they are also aesthetic-focused apps. This has facilitated trainers the world over the opportunity to market their body to a wider audience, and increased the importance of body ideals in fitness.

I’m not going to get too much into it, because I’ve covered it here, but in essence social-media has cultivated aesthetics as the currency of the fitness industry.

What Does It Matter?

The fitness industry is an equal opportunities objectifier and offers men the chance to build their self-worth on their appearance. Just like how we have been treating women for centuries! Who would have thought the fitness industry would make such a feminist statement?

And what could be wrong with basing your entire identity on your body fat percentage?

Thankfully, we have been objectifying women since Eve used her wily feminine charm to convince a man to eat a poxy apple. So, we have loads of research showing the consequences of physique-preoccupation. Self-objectification has a strong association with disordered eating[9], eating disorders [10], poor self-worth, poor mental health and generally a reduced quality of life [11]. Not really something we would encourage now, is it? (Note: men are underrepresented in this area, but now that we have an environment where they are objectified in a similar capacity to women we have an opportunity to carry out some really interesting research and see if men exhibit the same reaction to this!).

Conclusion

It is extremely unlikely that an entire that industry that profits off the body fat percentage of individuals will shift its focus anytime soon.

I think an awareness of physical capital is extremely important – and it is pivotal to consider when designing interventions aimed at reducing disordered eating amongst fitness professionals. It is paramount we consider the role physical capital plays in our industry. So, before you tear individuals apart for posting a photo of their glutes on their Instagram and reduce all PTs to rampant narcissists riddled with eating disorders, consider the industry that fosters these values, not the individuals. Namaste.

References

  1. Bourdieu P (1983) The Forms of Capital. Goettingen: Otto Schartz & Co.
  2. Maconachie G, Sappey J (2011) Physical capital and its consequences for fitness workers in Queensland. Lab Ind 22, pp. 5-24.
  3. Hutson DJ (2013) “Your body is your business card”: Bodily capital and health authority in the fitness industry. Soc Sci Med 90, pp. 63-71.
  4. Frew M, McGillivray D (2005) Health clubs and body politics: aesthetics and the quest for physical capital. Leis Stud 24(2), pp. 161-175.
  5. Evans RR, Cotter EM, Roy JL (2005) Preferred body type of fitness instructors among university students in exercise classes. Percept Mot Skills 101(1), pp. 257-266.
  6. Hutson DJ (2016) Training Bodies, Building Status: Negotiating Gender and Age Differences in the U.S. Fitness Industry. Qual Sociol 39, pp. 49-70.
  7. Edmonds S (2018) Bodily Capital and the Strength and Conditioning Professional. Strength Cond J 40(6), pp. 9-14.
  8. Toll M, Norman M (2020) More than meets the eye: a relational analysis of young women’s body capital and embodied understandings of health and fitness on Instagram. Qual Res Sport Ex Health 13(1), pp. 59-76.
  9. Schaefer LM, Thompson JK (2018) Self-objectification and disordered eating: A meta-analysis. Int J Eat Disord 51(6), pp. 483-502.
  10.  Calogero RM (2009) Objectification processes and disordered eating in British women and men. J Health Psychol 14(3).
  11.  Tiggemann M, Williams E (2011) The role of self-objectification in disordered eating, depressed mood and sexual functioning among women: a comprehensive test of objectification theory. Psychol Women Quar 36(1).

Published by Michelle Carroll

I am an online coach (MSc Sports & Exercise Nutrition, EQF Level 4 Personal Trainer, PN Level 1) and radiographer (BSc). I believe in empowering others to make better choices for their health through education. I think that the fitness industry has created a disconnect between best practices and “evidence-based” practices. I hope by chronicling my experience as a healthcare professional and my education as a fitness professional I can assist others on the path to bettering themselves.

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