Ethnographic research: my gym experience



This is an ethnographic research about my one-week experience at the gym. The research explores the environment, the people, the place, the practice and the machinery at the gym. Additionally, it explores my interaction with people in the gym which hugely reflects on my gym practice. The research further looks into the motivation of the people I interact with to participate in the gym practice. While looking into the above areas of interest, the research explores various literature review to support the claims put down. The literature review relates to research carried out around the gym experience. The literature review includes research studies that either support or reject claims from my gym experience. Lastly, the paper explores approaches incited by the work of Susan Bordo.

Literature review

Most of the work of Susan Bordo, especially the Unbearable weight Feminism, western culture and the body, focuses on the role of diet as well as an exercise in the body fitness. The work brings out its meaning through analysis of popular representations by which the theory’s cultural meaning is metaphorically encoded, transmitted and crystallized. Bordo depects a contrast between various symbolic functions of the size and shape of body. In her expression, a designation of class status or gender role is illustrated as a social position as well as an outer indication of the moral, emotional or spiritual state of a person.

Through the help of the work of Robert Crawford, Susan Bordo (2004, 186) demonstrate how management of desires inevitably produces unstable personalities along with extremes of self-starvation and obesity. In her work, Bordo (2004, 187) introduces gender in her works and discusses how females through desire and reproductive destiny have over-determined slenderness for women as the current ideal.   Bordo (2004, 188) expresses her standards as she had no favor for thinner bodies rather she expected a tighter smoother and a contained body profile.

Sacker and Zimmer (2010, 198- 200) dispels the myth that the anorectic misinterprets her entire body as fat. In the book, they talk about her looking into the mirror and seeing some parts of herself being really thin like the arms and legs. Through the work of Dalma Heyn, “Body Vision,” Barbara talks of her body looking so bloated that she does not want to dress, she, however, likes the way her body looks two days of each month. She views her body as awful lumps, bumps, and bulges any other day. Barbara talks of her body as an out of control mass of flesh that can turn on her any moment. Bordo (2010, 199) talks of Karen and Barbara as metaphors for anxiety on internal processes of uncontrolled desire, impulse, and unrestrained hunger. Bordo argues that images of bodily eruption happen symbolically in a similar way in werewolf films and horror movies.

According to Bordo (2004, 186),  until the 1980s most ads on diet products focused on excess weight to sway consumers, a fast forward to today one finds the enemy already constructed as fat, bulge or flab. Current ads run as; “get rid of the large stomach, bulges, bumps, buttocks and flabby breasts” and “feel younger, prevent cellulite build-up, get rid of tummy and have a good shape.” Bordo (2004, 186) views this as an attack on the body and describes it as a violent attack on the enemy.

In her depiction, bulges are attacked and destroyed while fat is burned and eliminated. In addition to this, stomachs or guts are busted as well as eliminated. Bordo explain that liposuction is an increasing popularity and is an indication the extent of our disgust has gone towards bodily bulges. A body protected against an eruption from within as well as a body whose processes both internal and external are under control is the ideal body.

Bordo (2004, 188) views cellulite management as an action with nothing to do with weight loss but a quest for firm bodily margins. The Bordo view illuminates continuity in the culture between bodybuilding and compulsive dieting. Bordo sees the same as a revelation as to why it has been easy for the view on female attractiveness to swing between a minimalist look and a muscular, solid and athletic look. The two coexist and bring about two ideals united against a common enemy- the loose, soft, unsolid and excess flesh. She detects continuity in meaning between the disparate ideals of femininity; the minimalist look and the solid muscular, athletic body.

According to Bordo (2004, 189), the culture permits substantial weight or bulk even for women as long as the same is managed tightly. The culture, however, restricts wiggling flesh. The culture gives insight as to why the image of the ideal slenderness has shrunk through the years further, women with very slender bodies still view themselves as fat. Bordo argues that for one to achieve an excess-free, flab-free boy he or she must take to muscle-building and escape the need to trim very near the bone.

Bordo (1990, 18-19) argues that regular exercise is empowering for women and is gender subversive. She further argues that regular exercise just like dieting denotes acquisition of masculine skills by women as well as virtues of self-control and mastery. Bordo, however, in her analysis of the pursuit of slenderness by anorexics women, the skills of control and mastery exhibited by women by staying thin may be seen as a self-defeating tool for control and regulation of the female desire; hunger referring to sexual desire or desire for public power.

Slenderness as a form of tight management according to Bordo’s Foucauldian presents the potential of investments and empowering the usage on the female body. However, Bordo’s study on slenderness and the focus on feeding disorders stresses on self-monitoring, desire management as well as productivity aspects of tight flesh and slenderness. The three being forms of social control, they overlook fashion as well as display pleasures of fitness and contemporary gym culture which are also concerned with slenderness.

Gym-related practices according to Foucault can be seen as a social control tool; the same should not only be seen only as a way to achieve a contained, productive, healthy body but also a beautiful and fashionable body more so for women. Bordo talks of the gym related practices as a mean of social control by stimulation as opposed to control by repression (Bordo, 2004, 237).

Bordo is against the feminism’s argument that the women of the present time have achieved a good and strong sense of self. She argues against Holly Brubach, a feature writer of The New York Times looking around the eating disorders, the self-scrutiny, self-flagellation as well as the exercise compulsions of present day young women. Bordo feels that through this women have not yet started coming into their own and that women in this are yet to feel at home in their bodies (Bordo 1997, 58).

According to Bordo, many feminists including Brumberg are quick to overlook eating disorders as they think the same will disorient the power women have achieved in the past century. Bordo observes that as long as her students keep up their time at the gym, then they can feel as pumped up as they wish…. burn calories as much as they will not throw up after dinner. But the students wonder how they can maintain this in their entire lives. According to Bordo 1997, 65 few people understand the pressure on women more so young women to stay thin. All they want to hear is enough; you can rest you have worked hard enough I accept you (Bordo 1997, 64-65).

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Methods and Methodology

Among the tools that I utilized in my ethnographic research included interviewing and one on one conversation tools, participant observation tools and personal experience tools.

 Interviews and one on one conversation

Interviews and one on one conversation were a pivotal method that I largely utilized in this ethnography. Interviews were used to probe the motivation of various individuals to participate in gym practices, further by use of interviews I got the general feeling or attitude of various individuals that I interacted with during my one-week gym practice towards, the place, the environment, the machinery and the instructors.

The interviews were used to answer the question why the gym participants do what they do. Under this method, I was keen on the validity of data and knowledge obtained from the research. The research is done with an interest in identifying the motive of people participating in gym practices. While interviewing and holding conversations with gym participants, I tried to the best of my ability to overcome influences of any prior knowledge and pre-existing ideas on this area of study.

Personal experience

I happen to have been in the gym for a period of seven days and have had a direct feel of what the experience is like, through this, I was able to explain my observation and experience which greatly helped in my research. Through participation, I easily overcame the notion of situational knowledge. Further my interaction with peers at the gym makes me more familiar with the gym practices as well as the motivation of various people to participate in gymnastics.

I used a research journal to take field notes as a good way of keeping track of my day to day experience. Through the research journal, I was able to substitute my memory as well as observe patterns more easily.   The notes from the journals formed a basis of realizing and acting on my prejudices and biases.


In my participant observation, I interacted with four gym participants whom I picked at random. While at the gym I observed the four characters with the aim of gaining knowledge on their intricacies and motivation. Personal observation yielded information that the participants were unable to expose during interviews and one on one conversation. Being at the gym further made my participant observation more effective. Throughout the research, I tried to put aside my personal feelings for more accurate judgments. Further, I constantly adjusted my earlier determined way of obtaining information to suit the participants I met at the gym.

Research subject

This paper’s fieldwork as earlier discussed aims to explore my one week experience at the gym, the gym environment, the people, the place, the practice and the machinery as well as look into my interaction with other gym participants. The one week experience happens daily and covers a single gym session at the gym. While at the gym I interact very closely with four fellow gym participants of whom three are ladies and one is a gentleman. Each of us takes part in the practice separately. However, our schedule is similar as we have a common instructor. This research further explores the motives of my four fellow gym participants and what measures the success of their activities at the gym.

Findings and analysis

As I undertook my gym practices, I took notes every day of the seven days I participated. My findings on this research heavily relied on my research notes. In exploring and reporting the findings, a first person omniscient tone will be utilized with the aim of better communication of the findings.

On my first day at the gym, I eagerly wait for two o’clock when my schedule is set to begin. When I enter the gym is fully packed, and I can see different groups of people on the floor. The machinery is spectacular. For the first time, I come to see a close view dumbbells, barbell sets, weight plates, gym benches, leverage systems, treadmills, Smith machines, multi-gyms and other machinery that I could not identify on a first visit. In the gym, one can easily decide that a majority of the participants are women. The gym, however, has an assortment of people who include the newbies, the pros and the averagely experienced. During my practice, I encounter four people who are easy going and more than willing to share their experience, thoughts, motivation, and targets.

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Instructors at the gym look strict, and I always wished for initially recorded instructor. However against my wish recorded instructors are not available for beginners as they need special attention for better performance. Jacq, a lady, tells me of how she came to the gym, she talks about advice from her personal doctor. Jacq told me she was obese when she first came to the gym. While at the gym she desired bodies of other ladies whom she met. She describes them as muscular, slender young looking and fit.

I met Barbara on the third day at the gym. She was tall, dark and slender; Barbara has been a model for the last twelve years. Barbara takes me through her fitness journey. She tells me of a company that she works for as an advertiser; the company requires her to remain fit and good looking. From this, I am able to derive her motivation to participating in the gym practice. Laura too is a participant at the gym, from the moment I meet her I can tell that she has not been in the gym for long.

Laura is 35 years old unlike Jacq and Barbara Laura is plump. When I first talked to her I sought to know why she was in the gym; she tells me that I should see it for myself. Laura is single and feels that her body makes her unattractive. She further tells me she aims to eliminate all the fat around her stomach. Laura’s determination is puzzling she takes sit ups very seriously which I easily associate with the will to lose her stomach fat.

Kane, a young man, also interests me he keeps dumbbells close. He often jokes and has a high self-esteem. Talking to Kane, he tells me that he comes to the gym to simply keep fit. Kane, however, seems insincere as he does not expound on why he keeps dumbbells close compared to any other machinery at the gym. He is very energetic and always on time for the sessions.

Once in a while as we are taking a break, I jokingly tell Jacq that she has already achieved what she longed for with the aim of establishing what will indicate her success in the long run. Jacq keeps telling me that she feels that she can get a little better in every session Jacq visits the mirror thrice and spends quite some time looking at herself. In Bordo’s work, she discusses how females through desire and reproductive destiny have over-determined slenderness for women as the current ideal.   Bordo expresses her standards as she had no favor for thinner bodies rather she expected a tighter smoother and a contained body profile.

Laura during my interaction with her compares to Karen, in Ira Sacker and Marc Zimmer’s “Dying to be thin” where Karen looks into the mirror and seeing some parts of herself being really thin like the arms and legs.  In connection to this, Bordo’s argues that images of bodily eruption happen symbolically in a similar way in werewolf films and horror movies she constantly erupts and continually hates her body.

Laura came to me after every session asking if her big stomach is reducing. Laura despite the indication on the weighing balance of a decrease in weight she seems to stop at nothing other than a trimmed stomach. Bordo’s Twilight Zones discusses how few people understand the pressure on women more so, young women, to stay thin. Nevertheless, all they want to hear is enough; you can rest you have worked hard enough I accept you. Laura desires more than rest.

In my week experience, I like what Barbara feels about herself. Like Bordo 1998, 18-19 she argues that regular exercise is empowering for women and is gender subversive, Barbara feels better at the thought that she uses her beautiful body to earn and depend on herself. Barbara is outright empowered, and she feels more confident, in my last day at the gym Barbara invited me to a fashion show that she kept insisting she was best of them all. Kane like Barbara feels good and is confident about himself. I, however, had a feeling of insincerity on Kane’s part. Kane’s motivation to participating in gym practices seems to be something other than fitness.


During my interaction with my four fellow participants; Kane, Laura, Jacq and Barbara, I was met by dilemmas. Kane always seemed insincere and at some point I felt that I should withdraw my interaction with him with the aim of obtaining research information. Kane, however, formed a good character of study as he was comfortable and happy. Further, my interaction with Laura was always strained I felt that I was getting so much into her personal life. Despite this interaction strains being part of my pre-study thoughts, I felt that my relationship with Laura was strained.

I, however, made it clear to her that I intended to create a research study the same made her relax despite the common outbursts. If I conducted this research again, I would make it clear to Laura that I was conducting research on the onset of the interview. Issues related to underestimating interaction strains in pre-study thoughts also from an area I would act on if I conducted the research again. The changes would give me a greater methodological advantage as well as offer a stronger foundation for further studies in this area of study.

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The methodology of the research or rather the ethnography can be termed successful as it offers a clear support for earlier works, assumptions, and claims. However, the narrow scope of the entire paper means that a full theoretical approach around the area of study cannot be applied. Theories and works relating to gym practices are vast hence the restriction in applicability.


My research without a doubt shows an existing relationship between my one-week gym experience and the theories of Susan Bordo. This study, in my opinion, inspires a new way of looking at gym practices. Through the study gym, participants will review their targets and motivations regarding their gym activities.

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  1. Bordo, S., 2004. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the body. Univ of California Press.
  2. Bordo, S., 1997. Twilight zones: The hidden life of cultural images from Plato to OJ. Univ of California Press.
  3. Bordo, S.R., 2004. A feminist appropriation of Foucault. The Body: Knowing bodies, 1, p.237.
  4. Bordo, S., 1990. Reading the slender body (pp. 83-112).
  5. Bordo, S., 1998. Bringing body to theory.
  6. Bordo, S., 1990. Feminism, postmodernism, and gender-scepticism. Feminism/Postmodernism, 145, p.144.
  7. Bordo, S., 1993. Feminism, Foucault and the politics of the body1. Up against Foucault: Explorations of some tensions between Foucault and feminism, p.179.
  8. Eisenhart, M., 2001. Changing conceptions of culture and ethnographic methodology: Recent thematic shifts and their implications for research on teaching. Handbook of research on teaching, 4, pp.209-225.
  9. Sacker, I.M. and Zimmer, M.A., 2010. Dying to Be Thin: Understanding and Defeating Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia–A Practical, Lifesaving Guide. Grand Central Publishing.
  10. Rodemeyer, L.M., 2006. Applying Time to Feminist Philosophy of the Body. Belief, Bodies, and Being: Feminist Reflections on Embodiment, pp.197-208.
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