The Gendered Politics of Sweat
[gblockquote source=”Zora Neale Hurston, “Sweat” (1926)”]“Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!”[/gblockquote]
The topic of sweat always comes to my mind as I get ready for summer. I am and always have been an avid exerciser, and I sweat a lot. As a teenager and into my early 20s, I was very self-conscious about this, in part due to the comments I received from other people. Instead of seeing my sweat as a powerful thing (I was in shape, and my body was working efficiently to cool itself down), I believed it was something I should be ashamed of.
Amy Roe wrote in 2015 about her experience of being sweat-shamed in Starbucks after a run. A woman critically commented on Roe’s sweaty appearance. The fact that Roe had run 12 miles didn’t matter. Rather, it was her sweaty hair that merited attention. Roe describes the concept of sweat-shaming as “when someone points out your sweatiness as a way to signal disapproval. Like its counterparts, slut-shaming and fat-shaming, sweat-shaming is mainly aimed at women, who are actually not supposed to sweat at all.”
Roe faced backlash for her article. The criticism, while vociferously refuting that sweat-shaming existed, paradoxically underscored its reality. Writers said: Buck up! Don’t sweat in public! Men are sweat-shamed too! Many writers believed that Roe had pulled the gender card for no good reason. One woman argued that because Marco Rubio was criticized for excessive sweating at one presidential debate, the practice isn’t gendered.
Just because one guy was unfairly criticized for sweating, doesn’t negate the fact that the body, and its substances, are gendered. Heather Sykes in her book Queer Bodies: Sexualities, Genders & Fatness in Physical Education argues that “bodily substances, such as body hair and sweat, are intensely regulated because they are highly gendered substances … Sweat plays an important role in the social and discursive construction of a gender binary.”1 To argue that hair is not gendered (or racialized) seems ludicrous. The same goes for sweat.
In a time when more girls and women are encouraged to play sports, exercise, and “be healthy,” sweat-shaming remains a salient demonstration of embedded gender norms that constrain women’s bodies. Attempts to support women’s athleticism continue to infantilize women and engage in sweat-shaming. Take this horrific Australian Kotex ad for pantyliners, in which (mostly white, thin) women are crotch sweat-shamed. While it is perfectly acceptable for women to sweat on their face and underarms while exercising, how dare they sweat in their genital area! As Roe writes, “Strong may be the new sexy and fit may be the new skinny but sweaty is as gross as ever. To ‘sweat like a pig’ is to be fat, dirty, uncivilized.”
The link between sweat, the body, and civilization has a long history in the United States — and across the Western world. As historian Kathleen M. Brown has argued in her examination of hygiene and the body in early America, male and female bodies had different trajectories in their paths towards modern-day standards of “cleanliness,” something that the current gendered politics of sweat-shaming lays bare. While religious and medical leaders in the early modern period viewed women as “having the foulest of human bodies,” by the nineteenth century women had “transcend[ed] [their] reputations for disgusting physicality to become [the] standard bearers and enforcers of a new ethos of bodily refinement and domestic purity.”2
Brown demonstrates how women were not only the focus of new ideas about cleanliness, but also performed the work these new standards required. Daily baths and linen clothing required intensive domestic work. And women, often of color, performed these tasks. In this sense, women not only “got stuck with the responsibility for these standards” but also “were expected to embody these ideals.”3
By the nineteenth century, most reformers saw cleanliness as a moral choice connected to personal responsibility. Controlling the body and its substances was seen as civilized, and how white, middle-class men and women differentiated themselves from other races and classes — and nations. Ideas of cleanliness were in fact definitions of what it meant to be civilized.4 Black day laborers who sweated in the sun were considered to be “inferior” to the white men who engaged in indoor lawmaking. Domestic servants who toiled over physically demanding tasks were marked as uncivilized by their sweaty brows. White, middle-class Americans saw their ability to “control” their bodies as proof of their superiority.
The blog judgybitch.com was one that criticized Roe for “making up” the idea of sweat-shaming. The critique, however, revealed less about the particular issue of female sweat and more about how debates on the gendered body are really about women’s place in the public sphere.
Judgybitch explains to her readers that she sweats a lot in her boxing class, but she would never think to do so in public: “I would never in a million years expect anyone outside the gym to tolerate my sweaty, stinking body close to theirs … You got shamed by a woman who clearly met public grooming standards because you were being an inconsiderate, ignorant, entitled pig.” [Emphasis in original]
Her words express the larger belief that Roe’s sweaty (and unfeminine) body, while acceptable in some spaces (i.e. the gym), broke societal norms by stepping beyond those boundaries. In fact, if we look at the gym as a place in which women are allowed to (selectively) sweat in order to engage in other forms of body care such as exercise, Roe’s public sweat-shaming demonstrates how space shapes the standards required of gendered bodies and their substances.
It is important to keep in mind what Brown discovered for early America: “judgments passed on the body were not incidental but fundamental to larger debates about who could claim the rights and privileges of civilized humanity.”5 It still rings true today.
Michel Foucault. The History of Sexuality: The Care of the Self. Volume 3. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.
Millian Kang. “The Managed Hand: The Commercialization of Bodies and Emotions in Korean Immigrant-Owned Nail Salons.” Gender & Society 17, no. 6 (2003): 820-39.
- Heather Sykes, Queer Bodies: Sexualities, Genders & Fatness in Physical Education (New York: Peter Lang, 2011), 45-46. Return to text.
- Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 4. Return to text.
- Ibid., 7. Return to text.
- Ibid., 2. Return to text.
- Ibid., 11. Return to text.
Cassia received her PhD in Latin American History with a Concentration in Gender Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her book manuscript, titled A Miscarriage of Justice: Reproduction, Medicine, and the Law in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1890-1940), examines reproductive health in relation to legal and medical policy in turn-of-the-century Rio de Janeiro. Cassia’s research has been supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Coordinating Council for Women in History, the Fulbright IIE, and the National Science Foundation.