‘Strange Borrowing’: Affective Neuroscience, Neoliberalism and the ‘Cruelly Optimistic’ Gendered Bodies of CrossFit



The history of representation of the female athlete has been cyclic, from the ‘babes’ and ‘muscle molls’ of the early twentieth century to the ‘hotnesss’ quotients assigned in the twenty-first (Heywood and Dworkin, 2000). What has remained fairly consistent is that traditionally feminine athletes are idealized, and more ‘masculine’ athletes denigrated, with a few notable exceptions in the 1940s, 1990s, and within a specific athletic culture in the present — that of CrossFit, a 10,000-plus global network of affiliated gyms or ‘boxes’ as they are called within the subculture to mark their back-to-basics, low-tech approach to fitness. CrossFit as a training methodology is a multidisciplinary physical practice where men and women train together in a high-intensity programme run by a coach who takes a small group (anywhere from 5 to 20 people depending on location) through a prescribed set of exercises that includes running, gymnastics, Olympic lifting and powerlifting, rope climbing, tyre flipping, plyometrics, and pretty much anything else that can be imagined. The current representational demographic, though somewhat varied, has become more conservative since the 1990s, but CrossFit marks one emergent cultural site that creates an alternative reality where body expectations and ideals tend to be non-normative, and ‘real’, functional bodies are idealized.


Female Athlete Affective Balance Historical Present Affective System Beauty Ideal 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Berlant, Lauren (2010) Cruel Optimism? Durham: Duke UP. Available online at: -athletes-whose-popularity-will-skyrocket.Google Scholar
  2. Cromwell, Howard Casey and Jaak Panksepp (2011) ‘Rethinking the cognitive revolution from a neural perspective: How overuse/misuse of the term “cognition” and the neglect of affective controls in behavior neuroscience could be delaying progress in understanding the BrainMind’, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Review?, 35(2011), pp. 2026–2035. Available online at:, -became-the-next-great-spectator-sport/.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Glassman, Available online at: BUl0U. Also see ‘Do Not Cross CrossFit’,,
  4. Grosz, Elizabeth (2010) ‘Feminism, materialism, and freedom’, in Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (eds) New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, Politics? Durham: Duke UP, pp. 139–157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Heywood, Leslie (1998) Bodymakers: A Cultural Anatomy of Women’s Bodybuilding? New Brunswick: Rutgers UP.Google Scholar
  6. Heywood, Leslie (2007) ‘Producing girls: Empire, sport, and the neoliberal body’, in Jennifer Hargreaves and Patricia Vertinsky (eds) Physical Culture, Power, and the Body? New York: Routledge, pp. 101–120.Google Scholar
  7. Heywood, Leslie and Shari Dworkin (2000) Built to Win: The Female Athlete as Cultural Icon? Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  8. Leys, Ruth (2011) ‘The turn to affect: A critique’, Critical Inquir?, 37(3), pp. 434–472.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Moore, Kelly (2013) ‘Fear and fun: Science and gender, emotion and embodiment under neoliberalism’, in Elizabeth Bernstein and Janet R. Jakobsen (eds) The Scholar and the Feminist Onlin? (11.1–11.2 Fall 2012/Spring 2013).Google Scholar
  10. Panksepp, Jaak (1998) Affective Neuroscience? Oxford and New York: Oxford UP.Google Scholar
  11. Panksepp, Jaak (2000) ‘Emotions as natural kinds within the mammalian brain’, in M. Lewis and J. M. Haviland-Jones (eds) Handbook of Emotions? 2nd Edition, New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 137–156.Google Scholar
  12. Panksepp, Jaak and Lucy Biven (2012) The Archaeology of Mind: The Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions? New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  13. Papoulias, Constantina and Felicity Callard (2010) ‘Biology’s gift: Interrogating the turn to affect’, Body & Societ?, 16(29).Google Scholar
  14. Porges, Stephen (2011) The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation? New York: Norton. Available online at: -is-new-bautiful.html.Google Scholar
  15. Rose, Nicholas (2013) ‘The human sciences in a biological age’, Theory, Culture & Societ?, 30(1), 3–34, p. 4. Available online at: -science-and-gender-emotion-and-embodiment-under-neoliberalism/.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Thrift, Nicholas (2004) ‘Intensities of feeling: Towards a spatial politics of affect’, Geografiska Annale?, 86B(1), 57–78. Available online at:, Scholar

Copyright information

© Leslie Heywood 2015

Authors and Affiliations

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations