Training Bodies, Building Status: Negotiating Gender and Age Differences in the U.S. Fitness Industry

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What role does the body play in facilitating interaction across status differences? Whereas previous scholarly work has focused on “roles” and “specialized knowledge,” I investigate how bodies, appearances, and physical abilities are also consequential in these exchanges through the concept of “bodily capital.” Coined by Bourdieu, bodily capital provides a way to understand why individuals invest time, energy, and resources into their bodies, and what they expect to receive in return. As a concept, bodily capital is necessarily broad as it encompasses a variety of forms, including athletic prowess, attractiveness, physique, muscle tone/strength, agility, and other modes of embodiment. Because the body is integral to a variety of status distinction-making processes, individuals invest in and exchange bodily capital to increase their relative status in specific fields. Drawing on interviews with 26 personal trainers and 25 clients, as well as more than one year of participant observation, I find that trainers and clients use bodily capital to negotiate gender and age differences, either by re-arranging interactional power dynamics or resisting stereotypes. The type of bodily capital that allows for such negotiations to take place, however, is the hegemonic thin-toned ideal—a classed and largely raced form of bodily capital that has purchase in the U.S. fitness industry. Although individuals in the study were able to use this form of capital to enable successful cross-status interactions, doing so reified the dominance of middle-class, white bodily aesthetics. Thus, while bodily capital may challenge some status hierarchies, it reinforces others.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)49-70
Number of pages22
JournalQualitative Sociology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


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