What They Learned: Rachel Wolfson ’19

The softball player and sociology major explored how trending boutique fitness studios impact contemporary notions of health, wellness, and femininity in an era defined by universalizing pushes for gender equality.

Boutique fitness studios are all the rage—just ask sociology major and softball player Rachel Wolfson ’19, who used her thesis as an opportunity to explore how burgeoning fitness trends help construct gender, class, and community.

“Being a female student-athlete at Haverford, as well as a sociology major, I found myself thinking critically about what it meant to be an active, healthy, athletic woman,” said Wolfson. “The contemporary moment is characterized by pushes for equality, so I wanted to examine how standards and practices for exercise and fitness manifest differently for women.”

To investigate the relationship between fitness and gender, Wolfson honed in on boutique fitness studios as spaces where notions of fitness, health, and gender are constantly interwoven. These studios—like the indoor cycling studio SoulCycle, for example—are usually small, single-purpose fitness outlets that host classes led by fitness instructors who escort their students through their workout. Oftentimes, these studios market themselves towards women, so Wolfson set out to determine how boutique fitness studios reflect and construct a specific type of femininity.

“I specifically looked at how boutique fitness studios market their spaces and practices for women,” she said. “I also examined how the boutique fitness instructor prescribes and guides women through a more holistic and palatable kind of fitness in order to generate a community.”

Wolfson was guided through the thesis process by her adviser, Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology Shelly Ronen. Ronen aided Wolfson by helping her investigate one corner of modern femininity and then interpolate this investigation into a broader history of feminist discourse.

“She was extremely helpful throughout the process of designing, analyzing, and writing my thesis,” said Wolfson. “She asked specific questions that urged me to think critically about what I was asking, how I was asking questions, and why I was asking certain questions.”

Ultimately, Wolfson’s thesis was an opportunity for her to investigate the multidimensional currents of gender, health, and consumerism at work in the boutique fitness industry. By studying how gender and healthfulness inform one another, she developed an intimate perspective on an industry that deals in both: “My thesis allowed me to analyze notions of feminine fitness and why exercise is still highly gendered in a moment in time where there is an emphasis to practice gender equality.”

What are your plans for the future and did your thesis have anything to do with guiding your future career path?

I have accepted a job at a private equity company in Philadelphia after graduation. I think my sociology and liberal arts background has taught me how to ask a question, develop quality research, and create arguments that are grounded in theory and diligent research. I think these skill sets, as well as a collaborative approach to working on projects, will directly help me in my new role.

What do you want us to know about you, your work, or your time at Haverford? 

I really appreciated the opportunity to create an academic piece of writing that focuses on a contemporary topic that interested me and pertained to my experience and life at Haverford. The boutique fitness industry is a growing industry and the studios serve as a site where health, exercise, community practice, body image, and femininity converge. Writing this thesis sparked a lot of reflection and made me think critically in how I interact with this community. Professor Ronen was an unbelievable support throughout the process and I definitely could not have created the final product without her. I am so grateful for my time at Haverford and have loved being able to grow and develop personally in this community. Haverford has allowed me to develop a confidence in my voice. I believe that Haverford fosters a holistic kind of growth both academically and personally that has granted me a wonderful four years and allowed me to feel at home at Haverford.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.