Sex sells. Lots of things, in lots of different ways. Our media is awash in lots of sexy, irrelevant advertising.
In part one, I addressed how I’m pretty okay with using sex to sell women’s sports. Mostly because I think in time, more spectators who actually care about the sport will help to broaden our definition of “sexy” as it pertains to femininity and athletics. In time, I think female athletes will be able to choose exactly how they want to be marketed, and all sorts of marketing strategies will be successful. But for the time being, the sports-watching majority watches to see attractive women do something cool. It’s about novelty, and it’s about sex.
Let’s not deny our primal urges – watching men’s sports is rooted there too. We like to watch virile specimens engaging in simulated war on the field, court, or ice.
So, using the most primal of urges, sex drive, to get fans revved up about organized sports isn’t so far off the mark. At its best, sex appeal in sports advertising adds to the athlete – making them seem both a fierce competitor and an object of desire, not a bad deal. Despite the spin, you’re still selling the sport. Maria Sharapova’s scores still get listed, Anna Rawson’s golf games are still televised. Sexy ads might draw more viewers, but the sport (and drawing spectators to it) is still the focus.
Now to fitness –
Personal fitness is an individual pursuit, not a spectator sport. It does not rely on asses in seats. The only ass it needs to motivate is yours. It’s something you do (mostly) with yourself and (hopefully) for yourself. Personal fitness should make you feel awesome about who you are and what your body can do. And if it’s something you do for yourself, you should get to set the parameters of what you want to get out of it. Here’s where fitness marketing throws a wrench into the works – they say they’re selling fit and healthy and then give us this:
It’s easy to get up in arms about using hot girls (and the potential for them to have sex with you) to sell gym memberships to dudes (see every gym ad ever). And it’s easy to think using sex (almost exclusively) to hype fitness is silly since essentially personal fitness is about the business doing real life things, and most of us don’t spend the majority of our waking hours boning (we might say we are, but seriously, almost no one is getting it on 24/7).
However, fitness is about getting in touch with our bodies, and our bodies have primal impulses. For argument’s sake, let’s give fitness marketing the benefit of the doubt and say fitness=success at biological imperatives and reproduction=biological imperative, so fitness=winning at sexy times. Even if that is true (which is a stretch), let’s take a look at the routes they choose.
My major issue with marketing sex appeal as fitness is that “sexy” looks pretty narrow in the marketer’s eyes. “Strong is the new sexy” (or “Real women have curves”, or “Suck it up so you don’t have to suck it in”) throws up guidelines about what’s sexy, and if you’re not hitting the benchmarks (skinny, muscular, still have boobs, thigh gap, perky glutes, no cellulite), you’re not it. Whereas in sports, sex appeal can add to what we think of the athlete, in fitness sex appeal diminishes what we think of ourselves. It gives us a sexed-up image of strength (apparently the only image of strength that sells, seeing as the ads aren’t full of powerlifters or moms toting multiple children and bags of groceries), and forces us to admit we don’t measure up.*
Relying on the same tactics to sell personal fitness as sports (and cars, and Axe spray) to the public belies the fact that those selling it want your dollars (you know, the ones you shell out because you feel bad about yourself), not your well-being. Since most of us aren’t professional athletes, we don’t get coverage of how great we’re doing day-to-day, we don’t read articles about how well we served a customer, or how insightful a report we wrote, or how diplomatically we handled a PTA meeting – all we have is our less-than-airbrushed bodies to compare to the glossy ads.
Fitness marketers aren’t so concerned about celebrating the personal accomplishments you’re achieving now, they’re concerned with getting you to spend money to get where you want to be next. If you feel a little bit inadequate, you’ll be more motivated to buy into whatever it is they’re selling. The worse you feel, the more you’ll buy.
With a hard focus on the superficial outcome of what clean eating and hard training can bring, sexy ads imply that you and your self-worth amount to what your body looks like. That the more cut (or lean or disciplined or whatever) you are, the more sex with attractive people you will have.
I’d like to challenge that – I think oftentimes more focused you become on super-sexy extreme leanness, the less connected to others you become, and the more you begin to treat your body like the enemy. The more unrealistic the images used to market, the more hardcore the message, the less attainable the “end product” becomes. “Do what makes you feel accomplished, energetic, and healthy” turns into “cut for that 6-pack until your hair falls out, you’re cold all the time, and your sex drive is totally shot.”.
In one of my favourite posts about sex appeal, Juliet asked the real question:
“What really makes us attractive? Sure, a physically attractive body never hurts to look at – I won’t argue that point. But! How much of that is adding to our sex appeal? How much is our pursuit of sex appeal making us less appealing?”
In the post, she really digs into the fact that a) we all have physique goals, whether we are willing to admit them or not, and b) sometimes the crazy things we do to achieve those physique goals end up making us less attractive to potential partners (and ourselves). Single-minded fixation on your physique goals, whatever they may be, is not appealing. I speak from experience – my partner doesn’t find it attractive when I bitch and moan about how much I hate (certain parts of) my body. Yes, we all want to look better naked – but at what point does wanting to look better naked turn to being disgusted with what you currently look like naked? Trust me, feeling terrible about the way your body looks (no matter what it shape or size or state it’s in) is a great way to drastically cut down the amount of sex you’re having.
You know what’s “sexy”? Confidence. And advertising that makes you feel like you’re failing isn’t really a confidence-booster. Hotness as a fix-all in your life is a fallacy – if hotness fixed everything, people wouldn’t have multiple plastic surgeries. Fitness can make you hotter, sure, but it doesn’t necessarily make you more confident. If you drink the Kool-Aid about the “ideal” body, and aren’t getting the “right” results, fitness can make you feel less confident.
So, what’s the fix? Total media blackout? Stop trying to get hot and forgo fitness altogether? Deny that you have physique goals (and secretly think that you’re vain because you still do)?
I think the solution is the same with sports marketing – broadening. Expose yourself to all types and shapes and sizes of sexy. Celebrate your body for what it can do. Move. Eat well and joyfully. Give yourself a freaking break.
Figure out what makes you feel sexy – maybe it’s a PR deadlift, maybe it’s strapping on your skates, maybe it’s making your family a beautiful meal, maybe it’s reading a book in your jammies – whatever it is, be mindful of it. And keep that sexiness with you for the next time you see an ad that makes you feel “less than”.
* For an amazing (and fantastically snarky) deconstruction of the marketing of fitness through “fitspo”, look no further than Kevin Moore’s brilliant post. I LOVED this article. My favourite part: “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being skinny. I’m also not suggesting that being skinny and strong are mutually exclusive. I’m only pointing out that strength only sells when it’s sexy and, make no mistake, advertisers want very badly to make you feel like you are currently failing at both.”