I came of age in the 1980s. One of the biggest health concerns for teen girls in that decade was eating disorders. There was a high correlation between eating disorders and females in aesthetic-based industries – models, actresses, musicians, dancers, figure skaters and gymnasts – and it seeped into mainstream America as media elevated them and girls wanted to emulate them. We, as responsible citizens, began having conversations about promoting healthy body images and pushing back against leaders in these industries who placed pressure on females to conform to an unhealthy, underweight body type.
I wish I could say we’ve learned our lesson and are healthier for it nearly 40 years later. But, the reality is there has only been more added to the already toxic stew. Ironically, the fitness industry can be added to the list of bad guys promoting unhealthy body images. Fitness is supposed to be about health on the inside but it’s often bastardized into being about body-perfect on the outside. We’re still telling women they should look like Barbie as we did in the 80s, except now we’re supposed to look like Barbie with visible biceps and sculpted abs. Don’t believe me? It took me five minutes to find these top headlines on the most popular fitness sites:
- “Sculpt Your Legs with This 20-Minute Bodyweight Leg Workout” (Fitness Magazine)
- “The Sexy Legs, Arms and Abs Workout from Jeanette Jenkins” (Fitness Magazine)
- “How Dakota Johnson Toned Her Legs for Steamy ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ Scenes” (Yahoo Fitness)
- “Elle Fanning Shows Off Her Toned Abs After Gym Workout” (Yahoo Fitness)
- “37 Essential Butt-Lifting Moves” (POPSUGAR Fitness)
- “Get Faster While Burning Belly Fat with this Treadmill Interval Workout” (POPSUGAR Fitness)
Each of these stories is accompanied by photographic “proof” – many of which are likely doctored to exaggerate desired features – of how every woman’s butt, abs, waist, arms or legs should look. And, as each title suggests, achieving these aesthetic goals is supposed to be the purpose of working out and the measure of whether or not one is fit.
Add to this the reality that social media allows anyone who wants to be a minor celebrity and, voila, we have body-shaming and skinny-bragging all disguised as fitness being hurled in tweets, Facebook posts, snaps, YouTube videos and Instagram pics for thousands of the most vulnerable in our society to absorb. Can’t exercise or starve your body into conformity? Then plastic surgery becomes the accepted alternative. Here’s proof women are taking these messages to heart:
- 65% of US women aged 25-45 have disordered eating behaviors & 10% more report symptoms consistent with clinical eating disorders. (study by Self Magazine & UNC at Chapel Hill, 2008)
- Experts are learning that disordered eating in young women is highly correlated to disordered exercise, known as compulsive exercise, and these individuals’ main catalyst for exercise is achieving and maintaining thinness. It’s also noted that people who compulsively exercise report dissatisfaction with their lives compared to those who exercise for enjoyment and health. (WebMD)
- Body-Shaming + Cyberbullying promotes disordered eating and exercise (National Eating Disorders Org)
- Since 2000, elective cosmetic surgeries have increased by 115% to 1.7 million with the biggest increases in tummy tucks, breast augmentations, breast lifts, buttock lifts, lower body lifts & upper arms lifts. An additional 14 million elect for minimally invasive procedures like Botox injections, peels and soft tissue fillers. (plasticsurgery.org)
In the 80s, the message was skinny equaled beautiful. That lie, instead of being erased, has been extended to include more meaningless, yet psychologically damaging, parameters. In the 90s, the message was a skinny waist and large bust equaled beautiful. Fast forward to 2017, and the requirements are: skinny waist, large breasts, visibly toned abs with a flat belly, high butt, thigh-gap and toned arms and back. The message is: if you’re missing any of these aspects, you aren’t fit and you definitely aren’t beautiful. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In my small corner of the fitness world, I try to remind my readers of this fact. And I promote others in my industry who fight the good fight with me. Skip over those skin-deep, skewed articles like the ones I cited above and read these truth-telling fitness stories instead:
- “Downton Abbey’ Star Opens Up about Eating Disorder” Jessica Brown Findlay, suffering privately from an eating disorder since the age of 14, has decided to make her struggle public, believing it’ll serve the dual purpose of helping herself and others. She says she’s finally learned that she’s, “…not going to be a better actor if I’m a dress size smaller.”
- “Lies the Fitness Industry Tells Plus-Size Women” Author of the upcoming book Big Fit Girl, Louise Green says, “Plus size women feel fitness isn’t for them. And it creates this myth that fitness isn’t approachable because we can’t see ourselves.”
“If Social Media is Toxic for You, Do These 4 Things” Cassie Ho, creator of Blogilates, tells us, “Sometimes I’ll find myself seeing pictures of other people and start to question my own body and worth. Like I always tell you, comparison is the thief of joy.”
“Fitness Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated” Kelli of FitnessBlender reminds us, “Fitness looks different on everyone! Remember your body is constantly changing and try not to tear yourself apart as it does so.”
Fitness doesn’t have a body shape, number on the scale or dress size. Fitness is a way of life and you can’t see it by looking at someone any more than you can taste, hear, touch or smell it. Until we all understand and accept this, many of us will continue to chase an unhealthy, unachievable, unsustainable lie. You and I can’t stop others from believing the lie. But we can stop believing it ourselves. Start with you – reject the lie, embrace true fitness.