Yes, I Used to Exercise, but. - a Feminist Study of Exercise in the Life of Swedish Women

Article excerpt


Is exercise a way for women to live out their socially constructed gender? Is it a releasing leisure activity, a way for women to escape stress and obligations? Are women in general not particularly interested in exercise as a leisure activity? These questions arose in the course of my research on Swedish women's work. leisure, and lifestyle (Thomsson, 1996), and called for separate analysis. This paper presents the results of that analysis.

In Sweden, as in most modern Western countries, exercise is considered a valuable leisure activity. However, an essential condition for anyone who wants to engage in exercise or other leisure activities is time (Deem, 1989; Shaw, 1991). Since most Swedish women are in the labor force, and since Sweden is often regarded as a pioneer in enabling women to combine employment and family life (Eyer, 1996), Swedish women could be presumed to have adequate leisure for exercise. However, in Sweden, as in other countries, women, especially mothers, are often expected to make the home a comfortable 'leisure center' for the family, as well as staging 'special events' (such as Christmas and birthday celebrations and family holidays) for the family or other relatives (see Hochshild & Machung, 1990; Holm, 1993; Richardson, 1993). Much of women's leisure time is taken up with work that others take for granted, and that makes leisure possible for those others (Hunter & Whitson, 1991).

Leisure generally has grown in qualitative importance and has come to be more and more central in individuals' and families' lives (Roberts, 1997). At the same time, the importance of active leisure, including sport and active recreation, has also grown (Wankel & Berger, 1990). Today 'everybody' knows the importance of getting exercise to be healthy and experience well-being (see Blair, 1993; Diamant, 1991).

In the context of this emphasis on exercise, this paper provides a feminist, social contructionist analysis of exercise as a leisure activity in the life of Swedish women. I start from the assumption that the best way to reach an understanding of the complex phenomenon of women's participation in or rejection of exercise is through a discursive reading of women's own narratives.

Being a Swedish Woman

Since the 1970s official policy and ideology in Sweden have actively encouraged equality between women and men in all sectors of society. The official discourse of equality is represented by legislation and labor market contracts that prescribe goals and the means to achieve these goals. In Sweden, the concept of gender equality is generally used with reference to both the private relations between women and men, as well as their relations at work and in society. Swedish legislation interprets gender equality quantitatively, calling for an even distribution of women and men in all areas of society, and qualitatively, meaning that women's and men's knowledge, experiences and values have equal value and influence in all areas of society.

The discourse of equality implies that sex is not allowed to be a positioning or diverging factor. Everyone's position within the social system is to be determined by their individual competence and personality. According to this discourse, gender is socially constructed on the basis of the similarity between women and men. This means that women and men as groups are seen as being equally qualified to take care of children and home-related responsibilities, as well as to occupy higher positions in society.

But all statistics show that this official gender equality is not in fact a reality (Statistics Sweden, 1995). Women still carry the major responsibility for children, and they perform about twice as much housework as their husbands (Back-Wiklund & Bergsten, 1997). This implies that at the level of everyday practice, gender is socially constructed through difference.

The literature on feminist psychology (Gergen & Davis, 1997; Jaggar & Rothenberg, 1993; Unger & Crawford, 1992) suggests that there will be gender-restricted obstacles to activity, not only preventing time for leisure, but also restricting women's joint activities within this rather scant leisure time. …


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