CrossFit: Forging elite fitness… at what cost?

In my last post, I talked about some of the concerns I had with the overall way CrossFit works, particularly the question of who is able to access and/or use the services it provides. Today, I want to talk about something that is much more personally troubling to me: the sexism that seems to be an undercurrent to much of the main CrossFit media. My letter is addressed to Greg Glassman, one of the founders, but I invite anyone who is a part of the CrossFit community and who comes across this post to consider whether they are contributing to the issues I raise. For those who aren’t part of that community, I invite you to read along and come to your own decision about what is going on here.

Dear Coach,

I’ve been a CrossFitter for a little over a month now, following a very scaled WOD as faithfully as I can given the equipment available to me. I’m grateful to you for the free service you provide with your website, especially all of the videos. The are so information-packed that just by watching them I began to develop an awareness of how my body works, which even yoga and dance classes had never previously made clear to me. If that had been all I gained from CrossFit, I would happily share the news with those around me. And to be certain, I’ve already gained far more than that.

But in these videos, I’ve also begun to see a disturbing trend, one that makes me reluctant to set foot in a CrossFit facility despite the fact that I know a visit to an affiliate would be hugely helpful for me. The trend I refer to is one that equates masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness. Surely I don’t need to explain to you why this is a problem, when you have worked closely with so many strong and amazing women while developing CrossFit. Yet this trend persists in many places.

I have yet to come across any direct references to women as weak in CrossFit videos, for which I am grateful. Too many women, I think, have avoided fitness endeavors in the past because they fear being mocked for taking on weightlifting, etc at scalings appropriate for their fitness levels. The only direct reference to women that slightly troubles me is the way men’s and women’s records are sometimes tracked separately. Perhaps I just don’t understand the rationale behind this. Is it because of differences in body weight? The CrossFit Total rankings don’t seem to indicate this – equal body weights have different standards. Perhaps because of the way muscles develop in men and women? Or perhaps just different expectations? I would love to see some explanation of this somewhere, but that’s somewhat beside the point.

What’s much more troubling to me is when male CrossFitters are “motivated” by framing them as feminine if they fail to perform. This ranges from the very subtle to the blatant. On one end of the spectrum is putting a man who is new to CrossFit against Nicole or one of the other iconic CrossFit women in an overhead squat competition to convince them CrossFit is more effective than their current program. (I am unfortunately unable to find the video in which a man commented about this afterwards.) Why not find a man of similar age and/or body weight, if you were following the division seen in other rankings like the CFT? It seems to me that the implicit reason is that being beaten by a woman will be a bigger hit to a man’s ego. This may in fact be true, but it depends on the reinforcement of the sexist idea that a “real” man should be stronger than a woman. CrossFit can do better than this.

Closer to the other end of the spectrum are things like this affiliate video, which contains 4 different references to “defending masculinity” (plus several more about defending “reputation” or “name”, which without any other context amount to the same thing) in the space of less than 6 minutes. Meanwhile, the woman who breaks the female gym record twice and, I would guess, could have done it again if necessary, seems to fade in importance behind the implied humiliation of her competitors. I felt embarrassed for her – she was doing her best in the front squat, not trying to bring down a family’s masculinity. Surely men and women can compete in CrossFit without this sort of baggage.

The most disturbing example of this for me, however, was the one that came from your own mouth in this video (wmv,mov). Really, is “pussy” the best word you can come up with for that situation? How about wimp, weakling, loser… you get the idea. There are many insults that can have motivating power without equating a woman’s sexuality with weakness.

And speaking of a woman’s sexuality, if you haven’t seen it already, I would like to recommend you read my post here in which I commented on my dismay with the objectification of CrossFit women on the blog. I would also like to echo some of the other posters in asking why that particular photo was chosen, if the form in the photo is sub-par. Surely there are other pictures of powerful women with good form. If the reason this one was chosen was because of the prominence of her breasts, shame on you. As I said there, this tacit acceptance of those sorts of comments can seem like approval. When it is combined with the use of femininity as an insult, I begin to wonder if CrossFit is a safe place for me to pursue my goal of improved performance. I believe CrossFit can do better.

3-2-1-GO!

P.S. If your first response to this was something to the effect of “But it wasn’t intended that way!”, I highly encourage you to read Melissa’s post here, which talks about how sexism is an objective reality, not a question of intent.

________

ETA: I tried to add another comment to the post I mentioned above, and was informed that my comment had been held for approval by the blog administrator. Given that that was more than 24 hours ago, it’s possible that the comment won’t ever show up. So for those coming from the CrossFit site, I’m reproducing it here.

“I’m not naive enough to think that anyone here would listen to me if I simply told them to “just shut up about the boobs already”. That’s why my point has always been that the accumulation of comments contributes to an overall hostile environment. I would however invite anyone who made those sorts of comments to consider how they would feel if strangers made those sorts of comments about their mother, wife, or daughter – not to mention how their mother, wife, or daughter would feel. Then I would remind you that the woman in this picture is someone’s daughter, and possibly someone’s wife and mother too.

I cannot stop anyone from making comments, though I can ask them to reconsider their motivations for doing so. As I said before, I am not speaking for CrossFit as a whole any more than anyone else has.

My point has always been aimed at those who care about the public image of CrossFit. If you truly don’t care, that’s your issue. But keep in mind that every time you work out with a CrossFit shirt on, or tell someone about CrossFit, you are representing CrossFit for the people you interact with. When you post here, you are contributing to the overall impression of CrossFitters as a group that a visitor to the site can see. If a person comes here and sees that a fair number of CrossFitters think that “yay boobies” is an important part of CrossFit, they may decide to go elsewhere. And if you care about CrossFit as a whole, that should matter to you – even if it’s to recognize that “we just don’t want those people here”.

The only response I want from CrossFit HQ is better choice of pictures in the future. I of course recognize that they are free to make their own choices on the matter. But the choice on their part to post pictures like this concerns me, because there doesn’t seem to be a good explanation for choosing this particular picture out of all the ones in the video. If the goal was to show the strength of CrossFit women, dozens of others would have served that purpose. If it was to show “the sexy side of CrossFit”, why not put up the picture of the woman in fishnets – a picture that is obviously taken and submitted with that goal in mind? As others have commented, this picture does not seem to show off good form – and if the goal is to show exertion, not form, other pictures would have done so just as well.

The message that this picture (with the man in the background who at least appears to be staring at the woman), and the accompanying comments which could easily have been anticipated given past experience, send is this: If you come to CrossFit, and the sexual parts of your body happen to catch someone’s eye while you are working out, people will evaluate them in public spaces and their behavior will not be discouraged by CrossFit. I find that to be a very troublesome message.”

Edit, part 2: My comment appears to be up now.

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16 Comments »

  1. Jason said

    Just wanted to say I saw your post on the discussion of the Glory Box video, clicked over here, and couldn’t agree more, re: objectification et al.

    I think Crossfit as a training regime is amazing — I think the sexism the permeates some of it flows from the general right wing puerile underpinning of some of the politics of the people. Good science (i.e., Crossfit’s approach to fitness) doesn’t necessarily equal good politics. It is annoying. And it undermines the community workout aspects of the whole thing.

    OTOH, there is also celebration of women and their abilities and a rejection that women are supposed to “tone” their muscles, etc. But that still takes place in an overall framework that’s messed up, as you identify above.

    Anyway, thanks for the post.

    • mike said

      I loved the way you took such a rational leap in explaining how the sexist attitudes derived from right wing politics.

  2. Gretchen said

    Thanks, Jason. It’s always good to have some support 🙂

  3. […] I recently read a post from a blogger and Crossfitter who was irked by the rampant sexism on the site. If you go to the […]

  4. Jesse said

    As a Crossfitter for some time, to tell you the truth I have not seen this. Now that you mention it I do see how calling someone a ‘pussy’ could be insulting to a woman even if not intended. I understand that this may be an underpinning that makes you question what the men think about the women they are interacting with.

    That said I have a few comments. One this is gym culture. Coach is a coach and uses cues that people identify with. If you don’t like the cues it is a larger problem than just coach. the cues work because it is ingrained in society. The best coaches find the most effective cues and use them. I guess this commentary could assure you that ‘pussy’ is a pervasive in our society. I would say coaches use of the word is not helping anything but he is not an activist, his focus is human performance.

    Second men typically are stronger for a variety of reasons. I am not the most knowledgeable person to back this up but it has to do with hormonal levels, neurological development and ability to actually display their theoretical maximum effort. The getting beat buy a girl is a cue and an awesome display of what is possible. It is a testament to the training of these women that they can have a disadvantage and still beat men that may have the advantages not afforded women.

    This brings up a question that I always have for feminists. Why is the fact that men and women are different such a problem for you? Different can survive with out a value assessment. I love and honor women, mostly because they are different than me. They have capacity that far exceed my own and I am amazed and awed by this.

    In regard to the ‘boobs’ comment. Yes this humans are obsessed with looks, especially the men. The fact that men like a specific hip to waist ratio is rooted in their DNA. It is a visual marker that a woman is fit for child bearing. Large breasts indicate sufficient fat reserves to carry a child to term and then nurse the child. In the past men that desired mating with women that did not display these traits got phased out of the breeding stock as they did not pass genes along.

    I guess that I see your points but obviously feel much less strongly than you about them. I am not sure that you are attacking the right foes though. I really do support you though and wish you the best.

    Jesse

    • Michelle said

      Feminists don’t have a problem with men and women being different, they have a problem with women not being seen as human beings by men, capable of life in their OWN way, without anyone telling them they are weaker just because they were born with a different type of body. Women should be valued for their side of the life process, not put down because they were not born a man. Each sex has their own strengths. It is how the world perceives that strength (of a woman) that feminists are concerned about. And I am not talking about physical strength, either.

  5. Ethan said

    Dude, Jesse. You rock.

  6. Cody Mitchell-Chavez said

    As I read your log entry, I couldn’t help but think, “Who cares what you think.” Crossfit is privately public. If you disagree with the culture behind it, then don’t be involved. Make your own politically correct version if you truly think there is a demand for it. Also, what sexism you are seeing in crossfit is not unique from everyday life. If you were to post about every bikini carwash, dance club theme, or fashion statement, you would never be able to stop typing.

    What you should get from crossfit is how inclusive it is to women. Never before have I witnessed such a fitness mentality (Crossfit isn’t really a program as much as it is a state of mind) that included women to do what the men do. Women doing full scaled burbees, squats, and muscle-ups are as inclusive as I have ever seen. Women who Crossfit are not given outs, they are not excused from the overall goal; “forging elite fitness.”

    Maturity rates and hormones have guided the growth of the two sexes in all animals, and for good reason. Diverse sex based features have enabled us to survive, but can arguably be the foundation of society. Without fragility, beauty, or lust do you really think we would have the arts and societies we have today? Crossfit is honest with humanity in its celebration of the beauty of the human body.

    http://www.crossfit.com/mt-archive2/Gillian_Kallista_StagHS.html

    I have to agree with you, women are the target of a lot of sexual advances, but to oust Crossfit as a champion in the matter is unwarranted and ignorant.

  7. MizFit said

    I really need to try this and see what my experience is.

    Ive been curious for so long.

  8. Otto said

    Let’s face it, Crossfit can do whatever they want. If they want to make a video of girls working out in thongs, and the girls are ok with being exploited/objectified/used to attract men to the facility, then nothing is going to stop them. However, it is also the above blogger’s right as a potential client to raise her objections, and make the company aware of a potential issue of which they might not be aware.

    Yes, sexism and racism exist, and differences in behavior, body type, dna, etc. all contribute to our ability (or lack thereof) to survive as a species. But while we have instinct, we also have the ability to adapt to environmental changes, as well as the ability to empathize and think about complex issues. It’s not enough to simply say that we are slaves to our dna and move on. We can think and reason as well.

    If a nice looking girl comes into my gym, do I look at her? Of course! But I don’t stare at her to the point where she becomes uncomfortable. I have empathy, and would not want to intentionally make another person feel uncomfortable. Yes, men are still men and women are still women, but if you look at the video, I can see why the author would have reservations about the club- this is the part that guys aren’t getting. A girl who thinks about coming to crossfit might be in good shape like these women, but chances are she’s trying to get into shape and might not feel so tip-top about her condition. Hell, I’m not in the best shape of my life, and if all I saw in crossfit videos were shirtless, ripped guys in ridiculous shape, I’d probably feel less inclined to go there too. But I see plenty of regular Joes doing the crossfit programs, which makes me more inclined to consider going. Seeing videos of women that are in freakishly good condition being filmed in slow-mo in an overtly sexually charged way (sanctioned by the crossfit website) is not necessarily a motivating force for an aspiring female member. If they see other normal looking women there then they would probably feel more comfortable about going. Or even if they showed fit women just working out with guys in a normal way it could be motivating, but they are showing them in an objective way, with “club/stripper pole” music and slow mo closeups of body parts. Is this all of the videos? No. But the author is pointing out what she noticed to crossfit because they are the ones who set the tone for their clubs, and they control the content.

    Let me try to paint the author’s point in a slightly different light. Let’s consider a club that trains sprinters. Now, history has shown that ON AVERAGE, the black sprinter is faster than the white sprinter. Look at the top 10 sprinters in the 100m every year and the numbers don’t lie. What do the numbers mean? Well that’s a different issue altogether.

    But what if, in an effort to motivate black runners, they put them up against the fastest white sprinters only, who might be very fast indeed, and maybe even some of the fastest. However, the reason for doing this was to motivate the black sprinter, because if he can’t beat the white sprinters, then the implication is that he certainly has room to improve (since on average the best sprinters are black). Is this any different than trying to manipulate the ego of a man by pitting him against a woman? I must admit that in a physical scenario, if a woman is able to do something better than me physically, there is an immediate visceral reaction that takes place. I might feel a little emasculated and guilty for letting myself go. It’s not something that I can even necessarily control. But manipulating this and using women to do it is an entirely different ballgame, and shows a lack of sensitivity.

    So how do you think the white male sprinter would feel about being used in this way? I’ve can imagine it would be quite invalidating. As men we aren’t thinking of it this way because we’re men. What if they split up the results into two categories: white and black? Do you think the white guys would have a problem with it?

  9. poppy said

    I just joined. It’s only been one week. So far only 3 things have bothered me.

    1. The workouts are named after “girls,” not women. I believe it’s invalidating and a bit demeaning. (If, however, the workouts are really named after children, why only little girls?)

    2. The “Heroes” of war are all men. How come a woman has not been chosen? (Notice these aren’t named “superboys.”)

    3. An article in the April 2010 CFJ about female crossfitters — I found the POV so sexist I felt sick as I was reading it. It was a shame, because I think the author was trying to empower women. Instead he revealed just how ignorant he thought they were and objectified their bodies throughout the article. Women are not idiots, girls, or “chicks.” I was surprised CFJ published the article.

    I grew up doing sports with men and women (unlike baseball, basketball, football etc. where there is no socialization with the opposite sex in your sport). As a swimmer, we trained according to ability, not gender.

    Maybe the perpetrators of sexism at CF aren’t used to women in sports, and this is why they have a skewed perspective in regards to women. They see potential mate. Not an athlete walk through the door.

    It is my hope that CF listens to these concerns. No woman should be objectified (in videos or photos etc.), diminished (being called a girl or chick when she is a woman, and being used as Otto mentioned above to make a man feel weak), or denied status as a hero.

    I’ve seen women outperform men on several occasions. Some humans are weaker than others. Gender need not be the determining factor.

  10. mygrannytaughtmetoshootncuss said

    As a woman, I Think it’s ridiculous to think there is more sexism in a Crossfit gym than on a downtown street corner or inside corporate boardroom. I find it ridiculous for a woman to walk into a male-dominated arena and start making demands. Women’s power cannot come from asking or crying for men to give it to us, we have to earn it. Frankly, I’d prefer to command respect. Begging for it-,-ain’t gonna happen. The fact that her post is so unbearably long underscores the fact she’s grasping for straws to construct her shaky story. I think she’s just kicking up dust.

  11. Simon said

    @ last poster.. The fact that you need other people from whom to derive or “command” respect – men in particular, suggests that you need the respect and acceptance of others (including men) in order to be motivated, and that women who do not command such respect from men are perhaps inferior? Surely gender equality should be universal right and not something that needs to be earned?

  12. Grys Rheen said

    @ the last post: True respect is earned. The idea of universal respect is great but not realistic. I have more respect for my wife than a homeless drunk on the street. My wife has earned my respect. My wife and I both do Crossfit. I think there are few things in life that are less sexist than Crossfit. For someone to complain that there are different brackets for men and women’s events fails to see that if there were no brackets, the majority of the men would out lift the majority of the women. As far as the idea that women are objectified by being filmed working out in the minimal amount of clothing, people fail to see the reasoning behind the video. It’s about glorifying them. Look what they can do, what YOU might be able to do if you got off your fat ass (America). These women are proud of their bodies, and they should be. I think it’s sexist that it’s not objectification if a man is filmed without a shirt on. We all want “equality”, but fail to see when it’s the other way around.

  13. Jay said

    I couldn’t help but laugh when you asked why men’s and women’s records were tracked separately. Short answer: because we are different. Like the previous post (Jesse) says, we are anatomically different, built for different purposes, and designed to excel and survive by different means. Men are stronger than women. Or at least, we are suppose to be.
    Imagine if women and men no longer competed separately and the top 5 times for men and women just became the top 5 times. There would be no more women on the whiteboard.
    For the sake of humor, let’s carry this out. Why not open up all sports? No more W NBA. Just basketball, open to men and women. No more women’s volleyball either. Just volleyball. Olympic sports? Sure, why not have men and women competing together? By doing this, you would eliminate women from sport. They would have no place because the top women cannot compete with the top men in an activity that is based on physical performance, strength, balance, agility, speed, endurance, stamina, accuracy, etc.

    To shift gears a bit. This shouldn’t bother you. The fact that women were built to meet a different set of demands than men is not a bad thing. It’s OK to be different. It’s OK to have different strengths. That is part of the beauty of humanity. Men and women are both beautiful, and are both capable of extraordinary accomplishments. Rather than sitting back and criticizing CrossFit, you should embrace it for what it is. CrossFit is a place where men and women can both come to celebrate and embrace eachother for wanting to push themselves physically, to reach a level of fitness that goes beyond appearance and goes against the
    “norm”. If you enjoy CrossFit, keep it up. The community, coaching, programming, and method is amazing and you will see and feel the results quickly.

  14. eva said

    This sounds pretty horrific – and completely new to me as a crossfitter. I guess I am lucky to go to our box in South Brooklyn. If you ever are around NYC, please drop by and see how CrossFit can be done in a totally different way. I’m a weak newbie, and also a touchy European feminist. If I felt there was any sexist bull I’d be out the door in a second (and so would my husband!) Apart from a lingering beginner’s “what the hell do I do with this barbell??” embarrassment I’ve felt welcome and respected in my box. I’ve never heard anybody …yell at anybody, and certainly not words like “pussy” or “weakling”. What. The.HELL? That’s so counter-productive, as well as just …douchy. I can’t imagine that kind of negativity in our box. I think the room would just go silent if somebody said that.

    Everybody is respected and encouraged. There will often be separate instructions to men and women, but always based on our coaches huge knowledge of anatomy (I’m 6 feet, skinny and have boobs – my mechanics for a press will simply be a little different than my 5.5 feet very muscular and fit coach). If you show up and try, people are amazingly, sweetly supportive. Half of us members are women, about a third of the coaches are. Everybody works hard and tries their best and that’s what you’re accepted for. I can’t even do ONE knee push up and I feel welcome and comfortable (if a bit annoyed at times that I always have to scale down-down-down).
    ALL women in CF should enjoy the same respect and camaraderie and support as we have in our box – seriously, please come by for a look at Best Practices. And thank you for tackling this issue – I’ll be sure to not use any of that media and support them in any way.

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