Endorsement (and rejection) of normative fitness culture: Qualitative evidence for a novel construct


"Normative fitness culture" is a phenomenon within the disordered eating literature that comprises the endorsement of sociocultural fitness norms (e.g., "no pain, no gain" rhetoric). Endorsement of normative fitness culture is hypothesized to contribute to maladaptive body, eating, and exercise attitudes and behaviours, though it has never been formally operationalized and examined in the psychological literature. Qualitative explorations of how women endorse (and reject) normative fitness culture may inform how these norms are promoted and maintained, and their impact on individual psychosocial experiences. Therefore, the objective of the current study was to explore and characterize the endorsement and rejection of normative fitness culture in a sample of women who self-reported rejecting these norms. Eleven self-identified women aged 19-36 (Mage= 26.72) were guided through a one-on-one semi-structured interview about their relationship to normative fitness culture that lasted approximately 1-2 hours. Using reflexive thematic analysis, four themes were identified: (i) fitness spaces as sites of self-punishment and regimented behaviours, (ii) outcome-oriented fitness norms in response to evolving body ideals, (iii) the moral virtue of conforming to normative fitness culture, and (iv) unlearning and ongoing resistance to normative fitness culture. Participants' accounts illustrated the pervasiveness of "toxic" fitness culture rhetoric, noted the difficulty in resisting it, and expressed concerns about the underlying motives promoted within normative fitness culture under the guise of health and well-being. Based on these preliminary accounts, endorsement of normative fitness culture may be an important – yet understudied – phenomenon in understanding how sociocultural norms impact women's psychological experiences with exercise.