Why are we, as female fitness entrepreneurs, so afraid of making money?
The ways you’re limiting your financial success.
I admit defeat. I’m pretty upset about it. The feminist in me, the advocate of women in business, has died a little inside.
Recently, a colleague asked me for a recommendation of a female fitness coach with a solid business structure and an obvious successful business strategy. Given my network of excellent female fitness coaches and nutritionists, I immediately assumed I’d received my easiest request since ‘more wine’ on my last dinner date. But one week later, I find myself here, writing this article, without a referral to my name (other than my business partner who, despite working 24/7, would be unable to commit to that). Much like my 20 something self when I realised that I couldn’t change red into white, I give up. Had I been asked for a recommendation for an empathetic, skilled, knowledgeable female coach, I’d have a list longer than said collection of red, turned into somewhat pink, flags.
So, what’s the problem? Why the discourse between excellent female fitness coaches and an outwardly successful coaching business?
Online marketing 101.
I think we can all agree that if you’re a woman who works with people, in a role that requires empathy and understanding, being considered ‘aggressive’, isn’t particularly conducive to fostering effective relationships. After all, when someone is looking for support, they are generally seeking kindness, compassion and empathy, alongside the accountability of a coach of course.
Yet marketing demands opinion, social media norms catapulting those who are outspoken and entice provocative engagement to the top of the algorithm food chain. We find that attractive in men, don’t we? The slight (tad generous) ego, the ‘masculine’ energy, the perception that let’s be honest, that penis has power. My word, our attachment systems are triggered so badly our therapists’ ears are burning. But if a woman threw myriad expletives into her educational content? How endearing that would be for her potential clients? A nice girl doesn’t use expletives, or talk about penis to be quite honest, but we’ll keep that out of the marketing content. Displaying anger as a woman is so often construed as aggression, assertive as egotistical, opinionated as hormonal (God bless the selfless male who questioned my use of an opinion under the assumption that I was ‘going through some traumatic event’ given I ‘wasn’t usually this outspoken’). It’s no wonder female coaches hold back from social media marketing strategies that, despite the potential for exponential growth in exposure, would put them in the firing line as ‘unlikable’.
Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) was an early read into the idea of ‘patriarchy’, explaining how women had been socialised into pleasing, flattering and gratifying men. Not only are we mindful of expletives and appearing muted and ‘nice’, but some of the biggest names in female fitness business owners and influencers have a social media page that predominates in bikini pictures and revealing loungewear shots. Because we have been conditioned to believe that our bodies are our worth, here to serve, so we use them in that way. There’s no shade , not only am I partial to nudity, with two very free nipples, I am very much pro- people using their bodies to make money, provided that money goes into their own pockets, and not in those of the dusty man at the top.
But there’s another challenging dichotomy here. Be a legitimate businessperson, demand a fair payment for your time, but in order to receive requests for that time, it helps if your half naked body is on display first. What happens when you ask for a PhD rate payment that arose from a naked body piece of marketing? A disconnect, that’s what.
As millennials, we remember the dawn of social media, when the most topical memes grew from mocking the ‘neediness’ of women, the over emotional, unhinged depiction of women that dates back well in to the 18th century when they were placed into asylums for what was effectively, PMS. But with millennial women being encouraged to be more independent, ‘wanty not needy’ as one of the earliest memes so eloquently described, we’ve now found ourselves in this space where we are ashamed to need, as if it goes against the very value introjected onto us by TLC, do it all yourself girls. In business, we often reduce sales to needing, needing clients, financial income, and needing feels shameful to us. Shame stifles action.
Do we think we’re good enough?
These are all very much internalised messages resulting from societal values, but what about our own sense of self?
When writing this article, I naively assumed that as women, we are are more likely to experience imposter syndrome, a state of mind where one experiences an inability to believe success is deserved as a result of hard work and skill acquisition, and is instead an outcome of luck. Based on conversations I have had with colleagues, perusing social media messaging and mainstream media articles, I believed the narrative that we don’t believe we are good enough, so we simply don’t put ourselves out there to be effectively shot down, to fail. I believed that was why we don’t appear as avid in sales and financial success as our male counterparts.
After all, we are more likely to experience imposter syndrome if we don’t see many examples of those who are similar to us excelling in our industries. We can then of course, refer to mainstream fitness expos and events, whereby until recently, panels have been led by white males, with females being given ‘female fat loss / hormones / physiology’ stages to present at for example, locked away in the corner of the venue, whilst males held the general stage for all human people. An industry where often, women are used to sell ‘beach bodies’ whilst males lead the way in education and business acumen.
Let’s add to this the pervasiveness of female worth being inherent in our appearance, with many fantastic coaches more likely to experience self-doubt of their abilities in an appearance-focussed industry when they lack the normalised physique of fitness. The irony being, of course, that the once-idolised female ‘fitness’ physique is often accompanied by poor health and disordered eating habits, a far cry from an oil painting picture of a ‘perfect’ health professional.
However, if we look at the data surrounding imposter syndrome, it appears to hit both women and men equally. Which begs the question. If we are just as likely to experience imposter syndrome as our male counterparts, why do we sit in that frame of reference seemingly more often? Why are we so comfortable placing ourselves within that narrative? Why are we so willing to keep ourselves small…?
According to IPSE data published in 2020, there is a 43% gender pay gap among the self-employed, with men charging on average £65 more per day than women, compared with males earning on average 17% more in employed positions.
Are we ashamed of earning more money? Ashamed of talking about money? Concerned about how that looks to potential romantic partners, to be financially secure, possibly more than them? Is it really, socially acceptable now, to own our earnings and be honest about our financial independence? Or does the patriarchy do all of us over here, pressurising men to provide and women to ‘need’ in a heteronormative relationship? There are many women fighting a constant battle between a drive for millennial independence and traditional gender norms and ultimately, an inherent desire for love and connection.
We do have a key advantage.
Although we are so used to fighting our way to the top that we often let our vulnerability fall to the wayside, there is no denying that we are certainly the winners in that patriarchal domain, given the shame men often experience when expressing their own vulnerabilities. Toxic masculinity has indeed done a number on men, and I question the impact this has on the development of their coaching relationships, given the situ of an industry whose foundation is built on empathy and authentic connection, or at least, should be.
Vulnerable leaders are effective leaders, so when it comes to the physical and psychological act of coaching skills, I am not remotely surprised at the number of excellent female coaches I see in the fitness and wellness space. The world is changing, we are embracing vulnerability and authenticity and there is an ever-expanding body of research linking vulnerability with effective leadership.
What can we, as women, actually do about it?
When it comes to marketing yourself, lead by example. Show your most authentic self, without oversharing or emotion dumping, but through living in line with your values. Your values may involve your body and that’s ok, but ask yourself before you market, how does this align with my values, vs. how does this align with the values of society?
It is easy to believe that one must be aggressive when it comes to sales, and this may well be reflected in the relatively fewer sales positions held by women in wider society. But social media algorithms aside, you absolutely do not need to take an aggressive approach to this. Visualise sales as a reflection of the genuine support you offer. You provide a service that supports others towards a healthier, happier, self-actualised place of being. Own that. It is not neediness to share that support with more people (do keep in mind that needing isn’t shameful, and one can be truly autonomous, and often more effectively so, when there is the stability of dependence behind the scenes).
There is no shame in power. Your success and authentic voice are not ‘too much’. If those words are ever spoken to you, a simple reframing provides resolution. “You are too much”, translates very effectively to “I am not enough”. Do not internalise that.
Let go of what other people think. You do not have to be the ‘nice’ girl, who falls in line with expectations and never asks for more. Own who you are and charge what you’re worth. ‘Niceness’ and power are not mutually exclusive.
Business mentors, are you considering this in your entrepreneur development? Are you fostering an environment for women to flourish? We need to make training on skills available sure, but let’s direct this training towards marketing, income generation, confidence building.
A lot of this comes down to autonomy, authenticity and confidence. Our internal frame of reference is crucial for understanding. What are your values? Where have they come from? From what reference point do you base your worth? Perfectionism and overworking, undertaking evermore training in the hope of finally feeling ‘good enough’, is working from your core belief that you are not enough as you are. Most of you, when it comes to your coaching, probably are already more than enough, and until you change that belief, you will not reach a level of acceptance that allows you and your business to flourish.