Thursday, July 30, 2015

Clothed with Strength: Meaningful Material Practices in the Sport of CrossFit

Alexander D. Ornella explores the sport of CrossFit as meaningful material practice via the use and display of t-shirts. He provides us with a unique case study and encourages us to look at the domain of sport with new eyes, one where materials, artefacts and practices are simultaneously part of the mundane world but also transcend the ordinary and manifest transformative values.

MLA Citation Format:
Ornella, Alexander D.
"Clothed with Strength:
Meaningful Material Practices in the Sport of CrossFit"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 29 July 2015. [date of access]
The sport of CrossFit is an increasingly popular varied and high-intensity fitness and workout regime. Its aim is to "forge a broad,general and inclusive fitness [and to] […] build a program that will best prepare trainees […] not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable."  CrossFit workouts are usually performed in small groups at dedicated CrossFit boxes (gyms) and are often a combination of body weight movements and Olympic lifts.
As a CrossFit enthusiast who enjoys the sport and the welcoming community, I can, however, never quite take off my theology and religious studies glasses. In fact, we can learn a lot about CrossFit and its value system if we look at the sport from a religious studies perspective. Media coverage has not always been generous when covering the “new phenomenon” of CrossFit and some have labeled CrossFit as a “religion” and a “cult” – accompanied by all the negative connotations that come with these terms in popular culture today. I reject these labels because they are too simplistic and do not take seriously the many different reasons of why people do CrossFit.
A look at materials and objects, such as CrossFit clothing, can help us move beyond simplistic labels and better understand why people engage with CrossFit and what they might get out of the experience. In particular, t-shirt culture in CrossFit is a practice that can establish meaning for “CrossFitters” and embody the CrossFit community. In his seminal study on boxing, Loic Wacquant argues that to understand boxing one has to experience it [i]. Similar to Wacquant, as an avid CrossFitter, I benefit from my insider perspective when analyzing objects in CrossFit because the language and letters can be difficult to decode for someone not familiar with the sport and its practices.

The Role of Clothing in Sport

Workout clothes in CrossFit are usually kept to a minimum. Guys often tear their shirts off seconds into the workout and women often wear pants and sports bras that would be considered too short – or not modest enough! – in commercial gyms.  Yet, t-shirts play an important role in expressing the workout mentality and mindset, values, gender roles (or their subversion), and in embodying, rendering visible, and knitting together the global CrossFit community. T-shirts render visible and tangible the many experiences and reasons why people engage with the sport.
The perspectives of material culture and material religion provide us with a framework to better understand the importance of objects, such as t-shirts:  how individuals interact with seemingly mundane objects and express values through them. Loic Wacquant suggests that boxers express membership or values of the sport (such as toughness) through t-shirts or other insignia. Stephen Hardy argues that sport is one of the most obvious cultural domains where everyday objects become invested with meanings and attributes of sacredness. In fact, he argues that we cannot understand the entire culture of sports, from game play to fan culture, if we do not pay attention to such objects [ii]. “Material culture,” Hardy argues, “both drives and reflects the meanings that humans attach to sports” [iii].
The look and feel of objects that cultural practices produce is not merely coincidental (though they certainly can be), but are consciously or unconsciously shaped by social actors. Jules D. Prown argues that the objects produced/used by an individual or a community can reflect attitudes and values of a group. In fact, objects not only reflect or express conscious values but also latent implicit values and ideas that are taken for granted or are hidden from social discourse [iv]. Objects can materialize values, i.e. allow values to become manifest and visible, but also shape values through practices. The target audience of such a materialization can be insiders and outsiders. In all of the examples below the objects are aimed at insiders; for outsiders, the objects and their meaning might remain mundane or hidden.

Reebok CrossFit Shirts: Creating Mythologies

Figure 1: Reebok CrossFit shirt with "74" inscription
Reebok is one of the main sponsors of CrossFit events and the exclusive supplier of training gear during the annual CrossFit Games. A number of their shirts and shoes bear the cryptic imprint CF74. While I wondered several times what CF74 might mean, I have only recently looked up its meaning online. 1974 is the year Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, started his coaching career. However, “CrossFit” was officially founded only in 2000 when it slowly but steadily, and in recent years more rapidly, gained popularity. How much input the Reebok design and marketing team had on “CF74” is a question that deserves closer attention. I am, however, interested in the CF74 logo from the perspective of material religion. As such, I see CF74 on objects such as trainers and t-shirts as an attempt not only to create history, but a mythology. It is a mythology that is rooted in the embodied experience of Glassman as both athlete and coach (see also the article in the CrossFit magazine The Box. Not only do today’s CrossFit athletes profit from Glassman’s experience and expertise, but CF74 aims to suggest that they stand in a direct relationship with Glassman’s “revelatory” experiences at the age of 18. One cannot help but think of numerous stories of religious leaders or religious founders who had an inspirational or epiphanic experience at a younger age. The label CF74, then, is an attempt to create a founding myth and make the experiences of young Glassman part of this founding myth.
I do not want to dispute that Glassman’s experiences might have been crucial to his coaching career and his understanding of CrossFit training principles. That might be so. However, the very materialization of CF74 shifts this experience into the mythological realm (or rather “shifted” because the letters “CF74” seem to be slowly disappearing from Reebok CrossFit gear). An important question is whether or not CrossFitters are aware of the meaning of CF74 and what they think of this mythologization. While a survey would be helpful here, a quick look online suggests that not everyone is enthusiastic about this mythologization.

Embodying Community

Anna-Katharina Höpflinger argues that clothing (i.e. the clothed body) creates and shapes spaces and imbues them with meaning [v]. But clothing can never be seen in isolation but must be understood in the social, communal, and spatial contexts they are used in or produced for. A shaping of space through clothing can also be observed in CrossFit boxes. Some CrossFit boxes hang up CrossFit t-shirts with the names of top level CrossFit Athletes or shirts produced by other CrossFit boxes. These t-shirts can come from CrossFit coaches or members who have visited and worked out at other boxes or visiting CrossFitters who might have brought a t-shirt as a way of thanking the local box for their hospitality (unlike in commercial gyms, CrossFit boxes are very welcoming and hospitable to traveling CrossFitters who want to get a work out in).

Figure 2: CrossFit t-shirts at CrossFit Hull, image taken with kind permission of CrossFit Hull.
Image by author.
Hanging up t-shirts might seem like a mundane activity but it serves more than mere decorative purposes or an expression of fandom for high profile athletes. T-shirts from other CrossFit boxes set the local box in relation to other boxes. What I mean here is that they express on a material level that the local CrossFit box does not exist in isolation but is part of a broader and increasingly global community. Of course, when someone goes to a CrossFit box, they do so with a set of expectations of what the workout, the equipment, or the gym space might be like. As such, the label “CrossFit” already denotes that the gym probably follows certain training styles and subscribes to certain values. However, the material presence of t-shirts on display in a box opens up the confined spaces of the local box and renders visible the embeddedness of the local box and local athletes in a broader community and network of boxes.
T-shirts hanging in a CrossFit box are, however, not passive objects. Rather, they include, express, and are part of the practice of traveling, being welcomed by another CrossFit community, and taking that experience back to one’s local box. Many CrossFitters emphasize that the community aspect is something they particularly enjoy about the sport. The practice of traveling, buying, bringing home, and hanging up t-shirts gives texture to the community, makes community tangible, wearable, and visible. In other words, one could say: clothed in and with community spirit.
Not every box, of course, engages in this practice. Some do, others do not. Again, a survey to uncover motivations for doing or not doing so might be helpful here.

Materializing Values

CrossFit discourses often revolve around a (loose) set of values with community, inclusiveness, respect, and support being at the center. When athletes talk about why they do or enjoy CrossFit, they often do not only talk about the training style, but about the values they associate with the sport.
Value discourses do not remain in the immaterial realm but spill over into the material and become embodied in CrossFit t-shirts produced by individual CrossFit boxes or sports apparel manufacturers catering to the CrossFit community. CrossFit boxes all have their own approach to creating t-shirts for their boxes. Some are fairly plain with just the name of the box while others supplement the name of the local box with an entertaining or inspirational slogan. For the purposes of this blog, however, I want to focus on the t-shirts with the more inspirational inscriptions.

Figure 3: T-short of the CrossFit Invictus box in San Diego with the inscription
"I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul." Image by author.
One example where values and a certain mindset to working out becomes manifest are the t-shirts of the high profile box CrossFit Invictus in San Diego. Some of their t-shirts show the last lines from William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul,” others the slogan “Battle tested. Unbowed and unconquered.”

Figure 4: Another CrossFit Invictus t-shirt. Green is also their lead color. Image by author.

Both inscriptions refer to mental toughness both in the daily high intensity workouts as well as in a competition context. More importantly, I think, they refer to one of the key narratives in CrossFit that the goal is not necessarily to win or beat others, but to conquer one’s own weaknesses (mentally and physically) and not to quit but always finish a workout (or face life’s everyday challenges): “Mental toughness is not about winning; it’s about not quitting [vi]. As such, these slogans can help both people new to the sport and more experienced athletes to get into the mindset that help them endure the “dark place” in which one might find oneself during a workout.

Figure 5: T-shirt with the inscription
"Be strong when you feel weak, brave when you are scared, and humble when you are victorious." Image by author.

Another slogan we can find on t-shirts of several CrossFit boxes reads: “Be strong when you are weak, brave when you are scared, and humble when you are victorious.” This slogan, too, refers to a particular mindset and expresses the community spirit of CrossFit where no one finishes their workout alone. It is common practice in CrossFit boxes and competitions that those who finish first or win an event then go on to cheer on their peers who are still working on (or struggling with) their last few remaining reps.

(Un)Gendering Sports

Figure 6: A CrossFit Invictus t-shirt for women with the slogan "Building Strong women."
The female athlete is shown in a snatch position. Image courtesy of a fellow CrossFit athlete.
Commercial gyms are still, to a large extent, gendered spaces where heavy weights are a predominantly masculine domain and women predominantly inhabit the space of cardio machines or a (often small) “Ladies Only” room hidden away somewhere. As Tanya Bunsell in her study of female bodybuilding shows, some men still discourage women from certain exercises so they do not become too bulky or what they perceive to be un-feminine [vii]. CrossFit encourages inclusivity and men and women perform the exact same workouts. Some t-shirts for women express this change in gender dynamics. CrossFit Invictus designed a Building Strong Women Since 2009 shirt which shows a female athlete in a snatch position (a challenging Olympic lift and part of some CrossFit workouts) while some sports apparel manufacturers have designed All Girl LiftingTeam t-shirts. These shirts indicate that women are reclaiming spaces typically considered male domains.

Figure 6: The Heavy Rep Gear "All Girl Lifting Team" t-shirt for women.
Heavy Rep Gear offers an entire range of clothing under the "All Girl Lifting Team" theme.
Image courtesy of a fellow CrossFitter.

Is CrossFit Clothing Culture Unique?

The manifestation, materialization, and embodiment of sport specific values and ideas is, of course, not new or unique to CrossFit. Top level athletes can promote fashion trends and sportswear companies often invest a lot of money to have their logo show on athletes’ bodies [viii]. Marsha A. Casselman-Dickson and Mary Lynn Damhorst argue in their study on clothing in the context of cycling that, “The way that the cycling subculture uses and applies meaning to cycling clothing can help us understand the emerging role of female cyclists” [ix]. A similar argument can be made about CrossFit. The clothes (or lack thereof) with all their inscriptions can help us gain a better understanding of the value and meaning-making discourses among CrossFitters. As Höpflinger argues, clothes and clothing can help the individual to situate themselves within communities. They can hide or render visible discourses within a community, and contribute to and express a sense of belonging [x].
Approaching t-shirt cultures and practices from a material culture and material religion perspective can help explain why many CrossFitters are very enthusiastic when talking about their sport. “Religion” here needs to be understood beyond popular labels as a meaning-making and meaning-generating system and a space, in which humans make sense of, and experiment with, being human [xi].
The material practice of purchasing and clothing oneself in CrossFit apparel shows that for many people, CrossFit is not just a daily activity to become fitter. Rather, CrossFit is, indeed, a meaning-making and meaning-generating system that provides an experimental space to test and challenge what they perceive to be their limits. It provides a space for people to experience a sense of belonging to a community that goes beyond – or transcends – the local. T-shirts are one way for CrossFit values to become manifest in its cultural practices. Whether they are rather plain or inscribed with inspirational quotes, they can be seen as a sort of religious resource that, as Chidester argues, contributes to social cohesion and raises the visit to the CrossFit box above and beyond the ordinary [xii]. Clothing oneself in CrossFit gear is, then, more than a mundane activity. Through garments, fundamental CrossFit values become visualized and CrossFitters become clothed in, what could be argued to be a socially transcendent (maybe even spiritual), strength and meaning.


[i] Cf. Wacquant, Loic, Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 58.
[ii] Cf. Hardy, Stephen, “The Material Culture of Sport: Toward a Typology”, in: Journal of Sport History, vol. 36(1), 2009, 129-152, 130, 146.
[iii] Hardy, Stephen, “The Material Culture of Sport: Toward a Typology”, in: Journal of Sport History, vol. 36(1), 2009, 129-152, 146.
[iv] Cf. Prown, Jules, “The Truth of Material Culture: History or Fiction?” in History from Things: Essays on Material Culture, eds. Steven Lubar and W. David Kingery, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Press, 1993, 1-19, 2-4.
[v] Höpflinger, Anna-Katharina, “Clothing as a Meaningful Marker of Space. A Comparative Approach to Embodied Religion from a Cultural Studies Perspective”, in: George, Mark K; Pezzoli-Olgiati, Daria. Religious Representations in Place. Exploring Meaningful Spaces at the Intersection of the Humanities and Sciences. Palgrave: New York. 2014, 177-192.
[vi] CrossFit Invictus, “Mental Toughness: The Key to Success“,, 20 July 2015.
[vii] Bunsell, Tanya, Strong and Hard Women: An Ethnography of Female Bodybuilding, London: Routledge, 2014.
[viii] Cf. Casselman-Dickson, Marsha A. and Damhorst, Mary Lynn, “Use of Symbols for Defining a Role: Do Clothes Make the Athlete?”, in: Sociology of Sport Journal vol. 10, 1993, 413-431, 414.
[ix] Casselman-Dickson, Marsha A. and Damhorst, Mary Lynn, “Use of Symbols for Defining a Role: Do Clothes Make the Athlete?”, in: Sociology of Sport Journal vol. 10, 1993, 413-431.
[x] Cf. Höpflinger, “Clothing as a Meaningful Marker of Space”, 177-179.
[xi] Cf. Chidester, David, Authentic Fakes. Religion and American Popular Culture, Berkeley: Univ of California Press, 2005, 1.
[xii] Cf. Chidester, Authentic Fakes, 1.


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