Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The sweatband: the moral arbiter of our time?

Oliver Williams from the Department of Sociology examines the social significance of sweat and how, when health is framed as an individual moral responsibility, it can come to symbolise moral worth. He asks whether people really should be made to sweat about sweating.

Someone wiping the sweat from their brow is a classic image of physical labour; as a gesture it can be considered a synonym for hard work. The sweatband is an object that assumes the wearer will be working up a sweat usually during some form of physical activity: sport, exercise classes, jogging, etc. Sweat is so strongly associated with physical exertion that it is ascribed great social meaning; this is particularly true in environments where people exercise. In other social settings people may wish to avoid perceptible perspiration. Many people would feel awkward at a social gathering if one of their party brought with them the aroma of body odour, and in a courtroom sweat may be seen as a sign of guilt. However, to someone who is exercising, either alone or as part of a group, perspiration is framed more positively and its absence may even lead to feelings of disappointment, guilt and shame. Social science helps us to appreciate the significance of sweat and to understand how, in contemporary society, a soaking wet sweatband can be viewed as a good citizen’s halo.

There is a long history of exercise being associated with morality. The commonly used saying ‘a sound mind in a healthy body’ comes from Ancient Greece and contends that physical and mental health go together. In the 19th Century Thomas Arnold, headmaster of the independent Rugby School, set a trend for attempting to instil pupils with what he considered to be sound moral values by using ‘Muscular Christianity’, a practice that preached the moral virtues of enduring physical toil. So sweat being infused with a moral message is not a new thing. However, in relatively recent history there has been a distinct shift in how many people have come to think about health and physical activity.

Since neo-liberal politics came to prominence in the West during the last quarter of the 20th Century, there has been a shift in political focus towards advocating individual responsibility. Rather than being a collective concern for whole communities, health has become more of a private issue; this has seen governments attempting to encourage and/or coerce their citizens to adopt ‘healthy lifestyles’. The responsible citizen is now the non-smoker, who drinks alcohol in moderation, has a nutritious, low-fat diet and is regularly physically active. Within this context, the notion that we are currently experiencing a costly global obesity epidemic is seen as evidence of people not heeding this advice and thereby not fulfilling their civic and moral duty.

In this social climate, sweating whilst being physically active can be seen to show that someone is taking responsibility for their health and doing the ‘right’ thing. Sweat provides ‘evidence’ of effort and therefore has great social significance. This is particularly true for people who are classified as overweight, obese, or, that most scorn-inducing category, morbidly obese. For these people, others read their bodies as the products of sloth, greed and irresponsibility. Bigger bodies are often seen this way irrespective of how physically active these people are. As such, after exercise people with bigger bodies can use sweat as a sign, to themselves and others, that they are putting the effort in and they’re not the gluttonous, morally inferior citizens they are often assumed to be.

Of course, in an unequal society not everyone has the same opportunity and motivation to live a healthy lifestyle, e.g., not having the money, time or knowledge. Social science helps us to think about whether people should be made to ‘sweat’ about being ‘morally upright’ or whether this could actually be considered a case of victim blaming as cruel as the cries of ‘run fatty, run’ that the sweatband wearing jogger so often has to endure.

Oliver Williams

Research interests

  • Lifestyle-focused health advice
  • Health inequalities
  • The body and embodiment
  • Cultures of eating and drinking
  • Sporting celebrity and cultures of masculinity

Back to top