How CrossFit Might Be Promoting Gender Equality

Some fitness trends need some time to pass before we realize how ridiculous they are. We squeezed into unforgiving spandex. We wore vibrating belts that supposedly jiggle our fat away. But other trends are mocked and labelled as fads pretty much from the start – like Prancercise, an exercise program from the 80s based on horse movements.

When I first heard a friend mention an intense fitness program she had started, I dismissed it as yet another eye-roll worthy trend destined for the archives of pop culture. But as I learned more about CrossFit, I realized it might actually represent a creeping shift in social values.

But first, what is CrossFit?

CrossFit is a fitness regimen that prescribes varied, functional movements at high intensities. It pursues function instead of form to prepare participants for any physical challenge, focusing on performance rather than aiming to look a certain way. It may or may not survive in the long-term, but the numbers seem promising.

According to a 2013 study by Channel Signal, a market research firm specialized in the outdoor recreation market, opening a CrossFit gym is a safe bet with only a 2% failure rate. CrossFit Inc. follows an affiliate-based business model where its main source of revenue is through its affiliate licensing and training certification fees. It has over 7,000 affiliate gyms and over 35,000 accredited Level 1 trainers. Estimating the company’s worth is speculation, but some have guessed it could be as much as $500 million.

Justin Taylor, a CrossFit trainer and owner of an affiliate gym in Toronto, thinks the company is so successful because it fills a gap in the market. “CrossFit is for the more athletically inclined who maybe can’t afford a personal trainer but also don’t have two hours to spend in the gym,” he says. “Out of every 10 people who leave, maybe one doesn’t like it. It speaks to the quality of the program and the community.”

Despite CrossFit’s undeniable present success, the company’s long-term success may hinge on the power of its culture, given nothing is to prevent others from adopting and marketing its approach. You can’t copyright high-intensity functional movement workouts.

But if things continue as they have been for the company, it may very well be around for the long-haul. Though some say that is not a good thing.

What the critics say

Sports medicine specialists suggest that the risk of injury is prevalent for inexperienced CrossFitters. This is especially true for those who don’t participate in a gym and follow the program online. These people risk injury from working out with improper technique that trainers in gyms can correct.

Other critics describe the culture CrossFit prides itself on as one of “getting fit even if it kills you.” What they’re referring to is something called rhabdomyolysis. One of its causes is over-exertion, which in severe cases can lead to kidney failure. And because the CrossFit regimen is all about high intensity workouts, anyone is susceptible. But inexperienced participants are especially at risk because they are less likely to know their limits.

Injury and health risks aside, CrossFit has potential to be revolutionary in a positive way.

Shifting values

Recent CrossFit convert, Jennifer Gagné, thinks the focus on ability and strength may change the way people think about fitness and beauty. “CrossFit shifts ideals outward-in,” Gagné says. “You’re no longer trying to look a certain way but trying to become the fittest you can be. So, it’s more about your total performance rather than aesthetics.”

Of course, given the current hierarchy of values today where image trumps ability, many CrossFitters are still probably working toward an ideal body form (precisely what CrossFit preaches against). But surely at least some of its practitioners believe in its ethos. And that is significant, because it signals that values are changing.

Even more encouraging is both Gagné and Taylor agree that CrossFit is particularly beneficial for women, especially as it relates to their self-esteem. “Traditionally, women are celebrated for how they look – how thin or pretty they are,” Gagné says. “But in CrossFit, women are celebrated for being strong; the aesthetics are secondary. I believe that CrossFit is really liberating for women, because they can break stereotypes, if not for others, at least for themselves.”

If CrossFit’s culture is encouraging women to strive for strength and ability without a restrictive idealized image, just think of what might happen if this new order of values were applied to other areas of their lives.

The Bigger Picture

Because our current value system teaches girls to strive for aesthetics above all else, girls become less confident than boys. And achievement is tied to confidence.

The evidence is well-documented. The problem begins with early socialization, when girls are still brought up with a gentler hand and are taught to want to be pretty while boys are encouraged to be strong and to compete. As a result, girls tend to become cautious and underestimate their abilities, which makes them risk-averse. This is one of the major reasons that women don’t achieve as much as men, as Katty Kay and Claire Shipman describe in their book The Confidence Code. It’s not a question of competence; it’s a question of confidence. And men are socialized to be over-confident and women under-confident.

So if more girls were raised to strive for strength and focus on what they are capable of, they might be more inclined to take risks, compete and grow up to focus more on their achievements. Until we stop raising girls to be obsessed with what they look like, women will continue wasting time worrying over an image whose ultimate goal is to please other people. And until we disentangle our self-worth from what others think of us, don’t count on gender parity in leadership roles.

But teach girls to want to be strong and capable? We think we’d meet a healthier, higher-achieving generation of women.

If CrossFit is contributing to that shift, we sincerely hope it isn’t a passing trend.


2 thoughts on “How CrossFit Might Be Promoting Gender Equality

  1. I haven’t done CrossFitness before but I had Martial Arts. I’m black belt and very proud. I think I understand the concept of high performance, competition and confidence about gender in physical activities and how that changes you. Nice observation.


    1. Thanks, Karen. Hope you’re keeping up the Martial Arts too. Always like to hear of women partaking in male-dominated sports!


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