It’s been a minute since I last wrote. Honestly, I’ve had a lot on my mind! Between the recent inclusion of women in the UFC, mainstream acceptance of female muscle, and emphasis on body image I’ve been seeing in the media, there has been a lot to take in. Sometimes it’s nice just to be quiet and observe. After a pause, here is my major observation: there are two conversations happening around women and fitness. One is taking place within the sports and fitness industry, and the other is taking place outside of it—and each affects the other.
Let me sum up these conversations quickly with some tags and key ideas:
Fitness industry: metabolic disorder, too much cardio and dieting, becoming unhealthy, reaching goals, body image issues
Outside the industry: motivational photos, muscle, too much muscle, body as work in progress, striving to get fit, reaching goals, body image issues
Did anyone spot the overlap? While competitors inside the industry are coming forward with stories of metabolic damage, eating disorders, and ruined lives, people outside of the industry are being motivated by images of them. And, in both circles, more and more women are blogging about body image and self esteem, while striving like hell to reach fitness and body goals. You may also have noticed a little more optimism in the second set than in the first—I believe that the fitness industry is reaching a dangerous point of negativity and frustration, while still providing hope to outsiders who have still never heard of metabolic disorder. So how can we be so focused on self-acceptance while still being so willing to abuse our own bodies? Because goal attainment is extremely important to a person’s self worth; and, as has always been the case for women, deprivation, sacrifice, and self-improvement are the key motivating forces behind most fitness goals. And it can’t be ignored that somewhere, someone is making a lot of money off women who will buy anything to feel better.
This new ideal of the fit woman is being used against us and few even realize it. In fact, the conditions by which most eating disorders develop exist in extremely high concentrations within women’s sports, and it’s starting to show. Despite messages of health and self-empowerment, we really are back where we started when Kate Moss was the reigning ideal.
What do I mean? Well, to sum it up, I’ll use the most popular answer from a recent poll on Sioux Country which asked competitors to name one thing they wish they’d have known before they started competing: “That I would never see my body or food the same way again.” Many can never feel “good enough.” Once you’ve seen yourself at single digit body fat, it’s quite difficult to feel comfortable at 18-20%. Suddenly everyone comments on how great you look, and with all of that reinforcement, it’s difficult to go back to maintaining a normal and healthy body. But, a woman generally cannot comfortably maintain low bodyfat for longer than is necessary to peak for her sport, and that can be really difficult to wrap her mind around. This affects female athletes across many sports, including MMA, gymnastics, and even volleyball. The more the mainstream adopts these ideals, the more women outside of sports will be affected.
Many of you may be wondering what I mean by “metabolic damage.” Basically, hours of cardio and extreme calorie deficits have caused hormonal imbalances that result in thyroids that become sluggish or completely shut down, reproductive hormones that cause their bodies and moods to go haywire, and adrenals that fail to function properly, among other complications. Eventually, not only can they no longer lose weight, but many gain more weight than they had to begin with, causing body images and relationships with food to deteriorate. Somewhere floating around in that nightmare are psychological problems including but not limited to disordered eating and over-exercising.
This is increasingly common in the fitness/bodybuilding industry, but certainly not limited to it. As acceptance of female muscle leads to new ideals in mainstream culture (which is GREAT!), unrealistic goals and misunderstandings about how to get there are making these problems more common outside of the fitness industry. I’m already seeing them show up in my non-competitive clients in alarming numbers.
People often look at photos of competitors for inspiration and motivation. At least, this is what they say. But really, the motivating force behind these photos is the hope of one day looking like them. Or maybe even half way—but even then, these photos become a measuring post. And this is where the danger lies. Many of these photos involve chemical enhancement, strict dieting, and more cardio than anyone should do. Even the healthy ones have made sacrifices to their social lives, lifestyles, and careers that would be unrealistic for most people. I would invite anyone to look closely at my lifestyle and see how, exactly, I make it work—most of you would turn away immediately and readjust your goals and expectations. If you want to be an elite athlete, you need to train and eat like one, definitely. You might even look like one. But not everyone needs to be a competitive athlete, and it’s ok to accept this.
And that brings me to my point: I promote health and fitness, yes, but I do not promote spending one’s entire life in the pursuit of looking better or different. And, as much as I advocate for family fitness and women in strength sports, it’s just not realistic for most people’s households to revolve around fitness 100% of the time. Yes, for most people fitness involves some level of sacrifice. Like, sacrificing pancakes for oatmeal, and sacrificing Big Macs for home cooking. But not like sacrificing all carbs, avoiding all social situations, or depriving yourself all day every day in the name of glory. There is no glory in that.
Fitness inspiration photos capture one of two things: someone who took drastic measures to look like that for a very short time, or someone whose life revolves around fitness. Both are fine—I do both, and I know firsthand that both can be done in a healthy way. However, it is not for everyone, and therefore the apperance is not for everyone. Strive for something else! The question you have to ask yourself is, “what are these photos motivating me to DO?” Diet harder? Lose more weight? Even the photos that show women working hard often depict THIN women working hard. Or they focus on the [often temporary] end result, instead of the process. Not to say that thin women can’t work hard, or can’t be motivating—the photos often focus on the reward of thinness, and not the work it took to get there.
To be clear, a large majority of what you see from the fitness industry is unhealthy. Diets with no variety, two hours of cardio per day, demolished families, budgets, social lives, and even metabolisms are all heavily prevalent. More and more women are coming forward with stories of eating disorders and metabolic disorders—many of whom will never compete again, nor ever get back even to the weight they started at! And, sadly, many started in the same place: simply wanting to reach a body ideal.
I have been in that place. During preparation for my first show, I was doing over two hours of cardio a day, while lifting and eating only 1000 calories. After the show, when it was time to go back to looking normal, suddenly “normal” was no longer good enough. I felt like everyone expected me to look like I did for the show, and I soon developed a very unhealthy relationship with food and my body that has taken me years to correct. The second show was better, but afterward I took two years off with no plans of ever competing again. I had a new goal: to let a cookie just be a cookie. To eat a damned bowl of cereal from time to time. To ban food guilt from my life forever. And, honestly, I won the battle and went on to compete again. In fact, this blog was created in the hope of reaching people with a new idea of what it means to be fit and healthy.
So what does this mean for my non-competitor readers? First, it is so important to have a clear understanding of the entire process—before, during, and after. Here are some tips to help you stay in the safe zone with your fitness lifestyle:
- Set appropriate and realistic goals
- understand fully what it will take to reach and maintain them
- be able to picture life “after” you’ve reached your goal
- Single digit bodyfat will not happen year round for women; for most women, bodyfat in the low to mid teens will require ridiculous sacrifices—if this is your goal, be prepared to make them
- Unless you are competing, I do not recommend setting goals that you have no intention of maintaining
- HALF OF YOUR FITNESS GOAL SHOULD INVOLVE ACCEPTANCE OF YOUR BODY AS-IS. If you can’t accept yourself now, how will you accept yourself after you’ve lost weight?
- DO NOT divide food into black and white categories; once you view food as “good” or “bad,” it’s difficult to undo. (It is ok, however, to recognize “fuel” and “not fuel,” such as McDonald’s)
- Eat a cookie every now and then, and don’t you dare feel bad about it
If you are looking for healthy inspiration, I strongly recommend getting plugged into these two places: