Spotting the Bull$%^: The Unhealthy Messages Behind Thinspiration

Because anyone who doesn’t look like her eats junk. And because we all want to look like her…WTF America? And I hope they aren’t implying that her trunk holds junk!  Um, you can see her…er, front…from the back…kinda weird.

This post was born from a Facebook status that I posted recently.  I had had enough of watching fitness industry leaders and competitors posting statuses and photos with captions that militarize fitness and place blame and shame on anyone who is not fit.  And by “fit,” or “healthy,” they clearly mean thin.  My status was a little rash and was missing context, but basically expressed my frustration at people who post such things.  As highly visible participants in the health and fitness industry at a time when obesity and chronic illness rates are skyrocketing at an alarming rate, we have to recognize that people are looking to us for answers.  We have a responsibility, whether we want to accept it or not.

So first, let me explain something about participants in the fitness industry: we feel bad about ourselves at times, just like everyone else.  Some more than others.  We feel pressure to be thin, even if we appear to be thin or fit.  We don’t have the answers, and even if what we’re doing works, we are constantly striving for more.  In fact, many of us came to the industry because we felt bad about ourselves.  So not one of us can speak with authority as though we have been delivered from the natural human conditions of jealousy, body image crises, or mistakes—even if for some of us these conditions are temporary and fleeting.  The ones with the lowest self-esteems are the easiest to identify, because they are the ones most likely to fling shame on anyone they possibly can.  Especially those yucky fat people who don’t have the decency to get thin.

Is it fair to assume that anyone who wishes to look like this can achieve it by simply working for it?

That said, a lot of us do find success.  We find what works for our bodies, and we find balance in a rigorous and mentally challenging sport.  But none of us can—or should—deny the role that genetics plays in all of it.  I do well at maintaining a muscular frame because my body is inclined to do so.  But what most people outside of the industry don’t realize is that there are different categories within the fitness industry, and my body is really only genetically cut out for one or two of them—and even that depends on the judges.  The same goes for those in other categories—a bikini competitor is going to have to work for a very long time to compete in bodybuilding.  So not a single one of us is qualified to hold other women to our own standards of what “fitness” looks like.

If you don’t know your body type, or want to learn more about them, click here.

What really irks me, however, is when competitors take on the attitude that hard work and determination alone are enough to win shows, and that if every woman in America simply had the same work ethic, we could all win shows.  This is as ignorant as the super wealthy who believe that privilege had nothing to do with their success.  They are not wealthy because they work 60 hours a week, or plumbers and nurses and small business owners everywhere would be rich too.  The truth that no one wants to admit is that what you’re born with largely determines the cards you have to work with.  Can someone born into an obese family work his ass off to stay thin?  Sure.  Can someone with a high school education from a poor background find wealth through hard work?  It happens.  But neither happens often.

So there is no excuse for posts that shame and blame people who are overweight (and I take issue with that term—over what weight?!).   There is no excuse for the ignorance I see from  ectomorphs who honestly believe that hard work gave them a small bone structure.  Or that they naturally maintain 16% body fat because they eat less than “those fat people.”   The truth is, some have to work harder at it than others.  And some, despite all the hard work in the world, will never achieve thinness.  There is no excuse for constantly representing the fit body with a thin body.  With equating hard work with thinness.  I’m pretty sure I have worked for the photo on the left, but somehow still always have muscles in my arms and legs…

Just to give you an idea of what I mean, just in case you aren’t sure, I’m going to post some of the ignorant “inspiration” I see floating around on FB.  Even those with positive messages are plastered over images of half-naked, thin women with big boobs.  So even the very industry that claims to be helping women feel better about themselves contributes to self-hatred and mass production of unrealistic images of perfection.  In my next post, I’m going to discuss the ways that this language of “inspiration” in the fitness industry is identical to the language of self-hatred that can be found on virtually every pro-anorexia website.  Am I claiming that competitors share the same pathology as those with eating disorders?  Absolutely.  So please, if you are a competitor reading this post, cease and desist from using language of self-hatred; if you won’t do it for yourself, do it for the women who look up to you.  And for everyone else, please be careful of who you look to for inspiration.

This is the one that put me over the edge. Posted by a bikini competitor who is also a personal trainer. Be careful who you hire.

From this image, I see no evidence of hard work. But I do see a formula. Big boobs+thin+pretty=fit. I guess the rest of us are F$#^ed.

Because anyone who doesn’t look like her is a loser. And we are losers because we don’t work hard. And why the hell is she just hanging on those chains?  I’d love to hear her thoughts on the benefits of training with chain weight.

(Posted by the same person who posted the first one on this list). Like, duh!  Isn’t it obvious?  Clearly every woman at the gym is hiding an ass like this. Genetics have nothing to do with anything…the rest of us just “overeat constantly.”

Side note: I have an ongoing game I call “spot the bullshit.”  Athletic apparel ads featuring women who clearly don’t work out posing in their best athletic poses pretty much always win.  Photos of people squatting hardcore with 65lbs are a personal favorite.  And the #1 most over-done B.S. photo is hand wraps on women who have probably never been hit in the face, trying to look bad-ass (and they NEVER wrap between the fingers…solid giveaway).  Oh, and chains.  Because chains look pretty bad ass–but I guarantee that very few–if any–of them have ever actually trained with chains!  Play this game yourself and see how fun it is!

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12 Life Lessons I Learned in the Gym

Everywhere I look, I see people in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle.  People of all ages, from every walk of life, are searching for something that I’m not even sure they can name or define.  After all if, when I ask them, as I often do, to define health or describe the healthier lifestyle they’re looking for, they often can’t.  Perhaps they assume they’ll know it when they see it.  So what is it they are really looking for?  Some will say they want to lose weight.  Others point to a body part they want to improve in some way.  But more often than not, they just want improvement.  Any improvement.

Sometimes, people conceptualize this improvement as a better, different version of themselves.  They think of the improved Self as though it were disconnected from the current Self—as though the goal were to become an entirely new person.  And I wonder if this isn’t why, when someone wants to improve, the first place he or she looks is to bodily improvement.

I have studied body theory extensively—Foucault, Butler, and Bordo are a few of the theorists who have shaped my own understanding of how we think about our bodies.  A big part of my interest is in understanding the relationship between the body and the mind. Why do we equate improvement of the body with improvement of the inner Self?   This question had me stumped for quite some time, and had a lot to do with my choice to stop competing and training clients.  I tend to think of my internal Self as totally separate from my physical Self—so I generally do not associate the changes I make to my body with improvements to my inner Self.  I stopped training people for this reason.  They would come to me for help, asking for “discipline,” “transformation,” “happiness,” and “health,” treating it as though changing their bodies would change their lives.   They came to me because they wanted to become someone different.  This drove me absolutely crazy!

However, after having been asked the same questions over and over, I have begun to learn from them.  For instance, people ask me how I wake up and go do cardio at 5 a.m., or how I follow a strict diet plan, or how I push myself through training when I’m tired.  I have begun to realize that the qualities they find admirable are less about my ability to build my biceps and more about inner qualities that can be applied outside of the gym.

Perhaps my physical Self, my body, is indeed reflective of—or at least tied to—my inner Self.  My “Real Self,” as I call it.    What a concept!  I have spent all of this time arguing against the idea, striving to be recognized as a person with a deeply spiritual side and a strong intellectual side, desperate to separate myself from my body.  I wanted so badly to believe that the gym is just what I do and not who I am.  But is it so bad to accept that there is a connection?

So, while I apologize for the extended break between posts, I have to admit that it has taken me two weeks to identify the following list.  I can apply this list to school, career, relationships, parenting, or anything else life throws at me.

12 Lessons that Training Has Taught Me About Life.

  1. If I can push myself through the first two weeks, I can reach a long term goal.  Discipline is temporary—after that, it gives way to habit and then it becomes easy.
  2. The ten seconds it takes to push out those two reps I don’t want to finish will feel like failure if I give up.  Ten seconds of work, or the lasting feeling of failure…hmmm, tough call.
  3. There is a rhythm to my moods and my motivation.  It’s ok if I don’t “feel like it” every minute of the day.  This doesn’t mean I’m a failure, it means I’m human.  Go through the motions until the motivation comes back.   And I NEVER make any decisions while I’m in a bad mood.
  4. I’m not immune to the Voice of Failure (a good friend of mine refers to this voice as the “bitch fairy”).  Instead of fighting it, I have gotten used to it.  The trick is to KEEP MOVING.  I can think of a million reasons not to go to the gym at 5 a.m., and sometimes I make the list as I’m getting dressed and driving over!  It keeps me occupied when I’m tired.  And I can laugh about it later.
  5. I don’t judge myself in terms of success or failure.  If I miss a personal record, oh well.  I let it go.  Holding on to that as a failure only takes away from the next one.  But I let go of my successes just as quickly—focusing on today’s win takes away from tomorrow’s goal.  I can’t operate on forward momentum or every bad day will hold me back.
  6. I take myself seriously enough to put forth a serious effort, but not so seriously that I go into tunnel-vision mode.  A cookie is still just a cookie.  Which brings me to the next point:
  7. There is a time for everything.  It’s ok to have a bad day, to eat an entire sleeve of oreos, to not train, to get pissed off, to cry, to feel negative.  But the key is to remember that it’s a part of a cycle, and it will get better tomorrow.
  8. I don’t see myself as being on a journey to become a new person.  When this journey is over, I want to be this person, with improvements.
  9. I don’t see myself as being at the bottom striving for the top.  It’s ok to move laterally, to make small improvements and to be content with how things are.  In terms of fitness, this could mean getting used to my off-season weight and feeling good in that package.  If we are constantly fighting an uphill battle, when will we ever rest?
  10. As I tell clients in contest prep, “trust the system.”  I understand that there is a process, and I trust that process.  I will get what I put in.  12 weeks out of a show, I want to see the finished product NOW.  But as many people in the fitness industry say, “the legs and glutes always come in last.”  Well, certainly this translates to other aspects of life, right?  I can’t have everything right now.  If I had skipped the work, I would have a degree and no knowledge.
  11. I do not compare myself to others, and I do not motivate myself with negativity.  I do not look in the mirror and tell myself that I need to get my fat ass in the gym.  How is that constructive?  But I also don’t look to images of other fit women as motivation either, because that is a dangerous road that often doesn’t end well.  My best package is unlike anyone else’s.
  12. I can’t have my “best package” all the time.  I have to accept that my best takes on different forms.  Competition has taught me that it takes hard work to reach that particular best—work that is so hard, it can’t be sustained all year long.  So there have to be other goals throughout the year.  There is a time to strive for single digit bodyfat, and there is a time to simply feel good and let my body recover.  I have to embrace both times equally.