The Post-Communist Body: Beauty and Aerobics in Romania

Mette Nordahl Svendsen(1)
Paper presented at conference "Postkommunismens Antropologi", 12-14 April 1996, Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen. Published in "Anthropology of Eastern Europe Review" 14(1) 1996

© Mette Nordahl Svendsen . Distributed by
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Since the fall of Communism, Romania has experienced massive social, political and economic changes. The emergence of new social groups - the new rich and the new poor - has made the social spectrum much more diversified than it was under Communism. Class identities now manifest themselves in new patterns of consumption and in the conduct of different lifestyles. Questions of individual and collective identity - of who I am and to which social group I belong - are being reformulated in terms of new identity models.

The present article deals with one of these new identity models: the modern woman. In particular, I examine the cultural construction of femininity and among Romanian practitioners of aerobics. The theme of the modern woman will be approached by describing the interrelationship between the ways in which women talk about their looks and their perceptions of alternative female roles.

My analysis is based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Bucharest in the autumn of 1994. The fieldwork, a study of new body activities in Bucharest, focused particularly on aerobics clubs and beauty clinics. In studying the presentational status of the body in a society with new possibilities of consumption, my objective was to examine how processes of relocating oneself in a changing world are reflected in body practices and investments in one's looks. Interviews and participant-observation were carried out in three Bucharest aerobics clubs and in a newly opened beauty salon. The majority of my informants were higher educated middle-class women between 18 and 45 years of age. After returning to Denmark, I conducted a short fieldwork with Danish women practicing aerobics in a Copenhagen fitness club, data which will enter into my forthcoming M.A. thesis in anthropology..

The History of Aerobics in Romania

Although one might expect aerobics to be a completely new activity introduced in the wake of the "revolution" of December 1989, this is not quite the case. As far back as 1984 it was possible for Romanians in Bucharest to watch aerobics illegally on Bulgarian television. Prior to 1990, aerobics could be practiced at a few state managed sports clubs, at a private underground ballet school, and at the few big hotels of Bucharest catering to foreigners. However, because hotels were not accessible to the vast majority of Romanians, aerobics in hotels remained for foreigners only. In short, during Communism aerobics was an invisible and insignificant activity. This state of affairs changed after the revolution.

From 1990 to 1994 the number of women practicing aerobics at state managed sports clubs doubled. Aerobics facilities at hotels were opened to everyone, and the former underground centers advertised publicly to attract clients. In addition, new privately-run clubs have opened which combine aerobics, fitness, swimming pool, sauna, cosmetic salon, massage rooms and bars. Doing aerobics at a state managed sports club is by far the cheapest option, and many of the participants at such establishments are high school or university students. The new private clubs are rather expensive ($17 for 12 hours of aerobics in 1995), and their customers belong to the wealthier groups. Most of them are university-educated professionals (Rom.: intelectuali) who after the revolution have gone into business. Many of them have a connection to the international community either by marriage, by having a child studying abroad or by being in daily contact with people abroad.

A characteristic feature of the Romanian women with whom I did fieldwork is that they are extremely conscious of being women and of having to behave and think in a specifically feminine way. They believe that different rules apply to them than to men. No matter if explicitly articulated or not, it is inherent in virtually everything they do and say. It is this general observation which will be discussed below. I will deal mostly with the married women who practice aerobics.

The Domain of Self

When talking to women about their motives for doing aerobics, the conversations tend to revolve around three themes:

1. Obtaining other people's recognition. Letting others know that one cares about one's body.

2. Improving one's own sense of self-esteem. Along with other beauty strategies, aerobics is a means of "caring for one's own beauty", something which gives the participants a feeling of "self-respect".

3. Obtaining independence and personal freedom. Finding time and spending the money for aerobics is viewed of in terms of "being independent" and "claiming a space for oneself".

All three themes are linked to the domain of self. In examining my interview data, I noticed that my informants link these themes to their ideas of femininity. Their self-understanding becomes intelligible within a framework of alternative models of gender identity, each with model with its own discursive elements: e.g., (1) the beautiful independent woman, (2) the young, pretty girl, or (3) the sacrificing married women. This observation accords with Henrietta Moore's theory that in the process of constructing oneself as a person and as an agent, one uses the cultural understandings of "man" and "woman" to generate representations and self-representations (Moore 1994:51).

In the following I will show how my informants' alternative models of themselves are placed within various discourses of femininity. By examining women's self-understandings and dreams of a specific type of identity, I will investigate how these dreams are linked to their perception of the type of woman they are, or would like to be, as well as the type they definitely do not like to be.

Other people's recognition and one's own self-esteem

Doina is a 26-year-old computer programmer. She works as the manager of a small private firm which trades with Korea. She finds her job demanding and her life stressful. Half joking she says, "I am living like a man." Doina's husband is also engaged in trade and business. Doina shares most of my informants' ideas about beauty being important for women. When I ask her about her cosmetic treatments, exercise classes, and the importance of being good-looking, she says:

To take cosmetic treatments is a way of respecting yourself. It is also very helpful, and it makes you more beautiful. So it is very suitable for a lady I think....It is a basic duty. I like everything beautiful. When the body is very clean and good-looking, and when you try to have style in your dressing it makes you feel more sure of yourself, and it also puts all your partners in a better mood when they see you; because looking at something clean and nice - even an object -makes you feel better. That is why the better environment in the office and at home, the better it makes you feel. Mainly, I'm doing it for myself, but also I realized that all the people I came into contact with are more impressed and are more ready to listen to me when I am better dressed and my hair is properly cut, and when my nails are clean and I have put some make-up on my face. But first of all, it is for myself.

To Doina it is suitable for a lady to be good-looking. She thinks of it as a moral act. To take care of her appearance is an obligation. It is part of her social role as a woman, part of the way she understands herself.

According to Doina, beauty serves three ends: her own well-being, other people's well-being, and better possibility of social mobility. These three interwoven aspects of beauty are mentioned by most of my informants. The first aspect, her own well-being, is rooted in the belief that looking good means feeling good. Feeling good about her own looks gives her confidence and helps her to define herself to others. The second aspect, other people's well-being, reflects an attitude held to be characteristic of Southern and Eastern Europe: that beauty in the sense of caring for one's own looks is considered as being polite towards other people (Knudsen and Wilken 1993:116). Although this attitude is held to be true for both men and women, all my female informants consider physical beauty to be more important in a woman than in a man. To be a beautiful object to others, as Doina puts it, is part of being a proper young woman. Fulfilling the demand of beauty will bring other people's recognition. In daily interaction between men and women (acquaintances, lovers, friends, family members) men tend to start the conversation by commenting upon the women's looks.

The requirement of beauty is considered more necessary for young unmarried girls than for married women. This is because beauty is considered as an instrument to be used to attract men, in order to marry and build a family. Most women tell me that having a family is the most important event in a woman's life. As this wish is realized by marriage, the demand for beauty correspondingly is not so pressing. Instead, a woman's energy should be channeled from her physical attractiveness towards family life.

The demand for beauty is not only related to respectable behavior and attraction of men, however. It is also linked to the view that a woman has a sacred duty in life to please, help and think of others. Pleasing others by being beautiful is one way of meeting this expectation. The women I talk to never say so directly, but as an implicit tacit knowledge the moral obligation to please others shapes discourses and instigates action (Price 1987:316). This is especially true in the households in which women consider the well-being of the family and its guests to be women's personal responsibility.

The third aspect, upward mobility, is mentioned by many women as a necessity which has become outspoken after 1990. One young woman puts it this way: "Today beauty is very important for social life. If you want a job in a private firm they will study you from the top to your feet. You win if you look good". Beauty is taken to be necessary in order to cope with life in the new society. This statement can be understood as part of the process in which Romanian women try to figure out the operating principles in today's Romania. People experience their daily lives as being uncertain and obscure while they attempt to pursue stable and decent living conditions. To achieve these, they tell me, money is the key, and beauty is one strategy to achieve the good job, the high income or to have success in business generally.

Beauty operates as a moral imperative, as a defining feature of femininity, as a dream and a necessity. Taken together, these functions make beautify (or body care) an essential field of activity for women. With great surprise the younger girls answer my apparently naive questions about the importance of beauty: "All girls want this. It is normal for a girl to be interested in beauty. And if you [the money to] do something about it - especially if you are a girl - you should." In short, other people's admiration and the thought of acting in accordance with norms for proper female behavior call forth the strong feeling of self-satisfaction which is the motivational force for women to be concerned about beauty. As Doina puts it, "first of all it is for myself".

Independence and Personal Freedom

Within the sphere of beauty, activities like manicure/pedicure, cosmetic treatments, and hairdressing are duties which lie with all women, regardless of age or marital position. Other activities, such as wearing fashionable clothes, keeping a slim figure and doing gymnastics rest to a higher extent with younger girls. Social class intersects with age, as these latter activities are considered to be expensive activities and only for people with money.

For some married women with children, however, keeping up the life-style of the young women becomes a way of defining an alternative femininity. This is the case with Irina, a 29-year-old married mother of a three-year-old son. Irina has a degree in Economics and works for a private trading company. She has been doing aerobics for 7 years, and at the time of the interview was exercising 3-4 times a week in a new, rather expensive private club. One of her motives for doing aerobics is to maintain her pre-maternal figure:

to look the same as before [I gave birth]. After marriage people think that you become lazy. It is important to show that this is not true. To show a difference. People don't believe me when I say that I have a 3-year-old boy....It is important for me that someone tells me that I look good. [At work], in the office people are interested in what you do and how you look. It is with admiration people say: "aha..because you do aerobics you are good-looking".

In Irina's opinion, looking a certain way reflects the kind of woman she is. Irina's admission that her energy is directed towards her surroundings typifies a prevailing view among the women I talk to: that external qualities are taken as a sign of inner qualities and social position. The body is regarded as a primary marker of social identity. A person's looks are used as an indicator of social position and education, and as an instrument for improving one's social position.

Irina is not happy in her marriage. She and her husband have serious problems and live quite separate lives although under the same roof. When I ask her what her husband thinks of her doing aerobics so often, she says

He doesn't agree with it. He sometimes tells me that he should also have fun three hours a week. But he plays basketball on the weekends. In his opinion, aerobics doesn't fit with the female role. He doesn't understand how much it means to me. It is a way of doing something for yourself. You have to think of yourself, that you are also a person, and you have to take care of yourself. We have many problems each day - at the office and at home. How do we forget about everything? When I come here [to the aerobics center] I am tired, but I do aerobics with pleasure, and I am relaxed when I leave. You have to start with something to become independent...also concerning money. My husband and I have separate economies. I pay for my aerobics and my clothes and the things I buy for the child".

Irina's words about the female image with which she wants to identify herself show that this image is defined in opposition to the "traditional" role of a married woman with a child. The traditional married woman is characterized by

- Directing all her energy into taking care of her family and home. Her own looks are without importance.

- Conceiving of her life in terms of the family's life. Living for others in the sense of directing her acts and thoughts towards others.

- Putting all earned money into the budget of the family.

Irina wants to show a difference as she says. Contrary to the traditional view, she wants to be a woman who:

- is conscious of her own looks and trying to maintain a young and slim body.

- conceives her life in terms of her personal happiness. Doing things for herself.

- keeps a part of her salary to herself.

By looking good, Irina wants to show other people what kind of woman she is: that she is independent and conscious of the value of her own life. Her self-understanding does not only concern her own ideas about herself, but also her relationship to other people. Much energy is spent on defining this attractive female role to her surroundings. The compliments she receives from her colleagues are important to her, whereas her husband's disagreement is taken as a challenge for her to fight the prevailing and traditional opinion that a woman's personal life stops with matrimony.

The good feeling of being an independent, good-looking girl is acquired by spending time and money on her body. This immediate relationship between the cultivation of the body and a feeling of independence is articulated by most of my informants. As one young woman says: "I think that a woman must fight for herself because nobody helps her. [To fight means] to have her own time, to have a little independence, to be good-looking every day and not to spend all her money on children and the home, because a man does not spend all his money on this."

Among young academic women in Northern Europe, focusing one's energy on personal beauty is more a sign of dependency than independence. In Scandinavia, the natural looking body considered the culturally most acceptable body. Doing too much and talking too much about beauty strategies is regarded as a sign of weakness. The strong woman is the one who accepts the body as nature has shaped it. (This does not prevent people from trying to improve their looks, but one should not display this vanity in front of others). My Romanian informants, however, explain to me that the female body needs correction: it is inferior to the male body. Having the time and the money to fulfill this obligation to correct one's body is part of fulfilling social obligations and the personal dream or desire to look good. In a society in which women experience their daily lives as a struggle to accomplish their duties at home and to make ends meet financially, spending money and time on one's body has become a symbol of being a "winner": the supreme woman who masters her own life. Moreover, as Irina points out, it is a visible sign of control. By taking care of your body and maintaining youthful looks, a woman shows her independent lifestyle and her membership in a certain social group.

In this new lifestyle, aerobics has become an important component. It is a lifestyle which stands in opposition to the traditional lives of women. Most of the married women I did fieldwork with were proud to emphasize this lifestyle of body cultivation. They feel they have created a space in which they are without demands from their surroundings. Doina says:

It is a separate world, and it belongs only to me and my body. It is very different from all other things that I do, and nobody is connected with husband, no lover, no business partners. So it is a very important place for me.

For the younger women, personal freedom goes hand in hand with the desire to change the gender pattern. They want to liberate women from men's demands. For some of them, changing the gender pattern is an abstract illusionary idea. Others hold it to be more realistic. Doina is confused. She is not happy in her marriage. She has been married for three years and she and her husband live in his parents' house. Although they have a separate part of the house to themselves, she is not happy about the situation: "I would prefer to live on my own - even without husband sometimes...". Doina says that she has married because marriage as such is an end in itself. Considering a divorce, she says:

So many people are divorcing these days, but I think that I am still very confused, and my husband too. I mean, so many people are changing ideas about marriage. ... Before 1990 you could only think of marrying somebody and compromising no matter what because divorcing was so difficult. These days you consider the possibility of divorce like a reality. It is possible that it will happen. In my case I always thought that only one partner in a life is more than enough because the relationship between a woman and a man is really difficult, at least for me it is very difficult, so I thought that starting from the beginning with somebody else cannot be possible. But who knows? ...Maybe this is just the beginning of the marriage, and it is just a normal crisis. I don't know. I have to decide a little bit later. I need some time....I'm thinking less of living with the idea of sacrifice than before. I see it as a duty to make my life beautiful. And his life too, if we come up to a point where we can't feel very happy together, it is better to divorce.

This statement, like the remarks of Irina, serve to indicate the tension between the traditional woman who compromises and sacrifices herself, and the woman who tries to incorporate an alternative understanding of femininity and married life. In this understanding, the woman is an active agent, ready to take serious steps in order to change her conditions of life.

"The American woman"

When talking to women in aerobic centers, they would often tell me of their feelings of independence whenever they spent time and money on themselves, the necessity of being good-looking, of having personal lives separated from family lives, or taking the consequence of an unhappy marriage by divorcing. These attitudes are widespread among women who do aerobics in Romania. Aerobics should certainly not be interpreted as being the cause of such thoughts. Rather, I believe that women who begin to think about the ideal of the beautiful independent woman also start thinking of the available strategies to become like her. The women consider aerobics to be one strategy out of several to achieve the ideal of the good-looking independent woman. As pointed out, this ideal differs from the traditional understanding of a married woman's life and highlights an alternative definition of femininity: a woman who doesn't have to think of money or to consider social relationships. She can do whatever she wants to and she can manage alone. She is an ideal whom my informants call, "the American woman". She is foreign. The American woman as a foreign ideal has become something to be fascinated by and to strive for. A woman who succeeds in achieving her life style can feel very proud. As a model of identification, the American woman pervades the view of who you are, who you are not, and who you would like to be in the eyes of others. In Henrietta Moore's words, such identity fantasies are

...linked to fantasies of power and agency in the world. This explains why concepts such as reputation are connected not just to self-representations and social evaluations of self, but to the potential for power and agency which the good reputation proffers [Moore 1994:66].

According to Doina and several other women whom I interviewed, being attractive is likely to improve status position. Not only does it give women emotional satisfaction; they are aware that it carries with it real social and economic benefits. Thus, identity fantasies are linked to local systems of prestige, status and social belonging of which aerobics is an integral part. Although possibilities for doing aerobics existed before the revolution, people regard aerobics as a new activity, as part of the Western style of life, a style available to people who can afford it, and for whom it is important to keep abreast of what is happening at the moment. There is a foreign air attached to aerobics, and a vague atmosphere of "possibilities." The aerobics salon is associated with "the good life". To spend time and money on this activity is to invest in one's links to the group of people frequenting such places, and to be identified with their modern views of life. This investment can be understood as a part of the process of relocating oneself in society. Doing aerobics may bring with it friendships and social connections to high-prestige groups of people.

Aside from these instrumental benefits, practicing aerobics has just as much to do with (re)defining one's own self-understanding. For these women, their identities are being shaped just as their bodies are being shaped: aerobics as a separate sphere and set of practices are affecting them in the same way that their identities are being affected by the practices of work and of family life. This is not to say that practice alone is the motor, however. One's self-understanding is also a result of how one experiences these interactions and relationships, how one envisions being among those who practice aerobics, how one sees one's relations to the family, or to one's colleagues (Kondo 1986:44). The experience of doing aerobics causes a young woman to view herself in a different light socially as well as physically. Looking in the mirror, she sees a body, but also a new social identity. Perhaps this explains why even after the first lesson many girls think that their bodies have taken on a new shape. It is not so much the body, but the person who gets into a new "shape". While bodies are being shaped, identities are being recast.

Negotiating a female position

The American woman as an image not only enters Romanian consciousness via MTV and American soap operas such as Dallas, but by personal relations with people from the West (Sampson 1995:166). I myself am an example of this. The fact that I "have the courage to go to Romania all alone," that my boyfriend "allowed me to go on my own," that I have money, that I do not depend economically on my family and that I even live on my own in Denmark, make me a superb example of foreignness to my informants. Discussions about femininity thus tended to revolve around my person and the Western image of femininity which I am taken to represent. These discussions are processes in which identities are being imagined, tested and refined. They comprise part of a process of changing horizons which implies an expansion of geographical and social space. As part of the "transition", changes of horizons are changes of people's "perception of what the world 'out there' offers and their place within it" (Sampson 1995:164). The negotiations between the image of the beautiful woman, the image of the traditional woman and the image of the independent woman typify the process whereby horizons change. It is part of figuring out how the world operates and of finding a place in this world.

In a society like Romania, in which unpredictable social changes have implanted people with the idea that life is uncertain, much energy goes into stabilizing a social position and pursuing what is called "a good life", a life with time and money. Aerobics is one ingredient of the good life, and naturally invites to discussions about alternative definitions of femininity. Attention, however, must be paid to the different contexts in which the various models of femininity occur. When discussing femininity and body activities with me, women often praise the ideal of the independent woman. When I observe them at home, however, cooking and taking care of the children, it is clear that these duties are very meaningful to them, indeed for some at the very core of their identity. While they tell me that women in Romania lead hard lives which they complain about, their practices leave me with the impression that working hard in the home is the defining feature of their femininity. And paradoxically, part of a fulfilling life. The women point out the hardships of their friends who have emigrated to Germany or to the United States. Although they have swimming pools, washing machines and two or three cars, they live in cold societies with loose connections to family members and neighbors. "People in America are superficial and do not care about others", they tell me.

In Romania of today, the ideal of the "beautiful independent woman" exists alongside ideals of "the good wife," "the responsible mother," and "the hardworking woman takes care of her family." It is not a case of choosing one or another of these identities, but of reconciling them. Identities are never homogeneous or coherent entities. Rather, women take up different positions and shift between these. Identities are being constructed with simultaneous reference to several different and even conflicting models of femininity.

Postscript: Danish and Romanian women compared

Several points mentioned in this article could certainly apply to Western women who practice aerobics. However, comparing the interview data my Danish informants from a Copenhagen aerobics salon, it appears that the Romanian women view their appearance in a much more moral fashion. The Romanian informants seem to look upon their bodies as a presentation of themselves and as a mirror in which their moral qualities are reflected. Whereas my Danish informants talk about "getting into shape" and "feeling better about themselves" the Romanian women talk about "self-respect" and "the body as a business card" (cartea de vizita). The Romanians seem much more other-directed; concerned with the impression they make upon other people and the concrete advantages their good looks can bring to them. Good looks are instrumental. For both Danish and Romanian women there is close relationship between body and self, but in Romania the body is much more explicitly regarded as a resource, as "body capital" than in Denmark. For Danish women, the body must "feel good" and "be in shape". For Romanian women, being in shape helps make the body into a social resource, to be "utilized", like other social resources.

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