About as early as junior high school, I sensed that there were two feminine ideals vying for supremacy. At very least, there seemed to be two acceptable options for middle class white females:
Splayed across the pages of Vogue and Elle were the model types, emaciated and amazonian. Squatting and sprinting their way through Shape and Women’s Health were the athlete types: not much bigger than their model cousins, but more muscular.
The first type, the fashion ideal, represented the long dark road toward anorexia; it suggested passivity, superficiality, artifice, and being a fashion victim. We were warned against it early on in school.
The second type, the fitness ideal, was touted as a kind of liberated solution: the “healthy,” active, superheroine type. A butt-kicker who could still rock an evening gown.
It didn’t occur to me that both were, in many cases, unnaturally and unsustainably thin, and that perhaps neither was particularly healthy.
Growing up, my heroes were women like the Spice Girls (for better or for worse); later, they were actresses like Milla Jovovich in the Fifth Element, Carrie-Anne Moss in the Matrix, and Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I marveled at these lean, thin, women in active, action-oriented roles. In their carefully scripted and choreographed worlds, women not much taller than me could wield power; they could be spectacular fighting machines. They were principally beautiful, but endowed with supernatural strength. I didn’t see Bend it Like Beckham until I was in college, but when I did I noticed how curious it was that the two leads, Keira Knightly and Parminder Nagra, were substantially smaller and thinner than the other women playing the rest of their soccer team. Over time I sensed that while people loved the idea of strong, athletic, powerful women, they still preferred for them to look like more like models and less like serious athletes.
The olympics, to me, are always a great example of this. The more a female athlete looks like a model, the more excited we get about her. The more she looks like a man, the more our enthusiasm wanes. For instance, look at the ratings for beach volleyball versus weightlifting. It’s tempting to say that an athletic body is inherently beautiful. But that line of thinking hasn’t always applied to women, and from what I gather, it didn’t so much until the aerobics boom of the 80s, or perhaps a little before.
As a kid of the 90s, I’m surprised at how recent the phenomenon of women’s athletics is. It stuns me to think that for most of western history, women were discouraged and even forbidden to train their bodies in any capacity like what we do today. Our participation in sports and training is undoubtedly good. Yet when I see any kind of women’s fitness magazine or clothing retailer, I feel a great deal of skepticism about what they are really promoting. I think we need to be wary of what exactly we are cheering for here: are we really admiring the strength and ability of women–women who may not be small, lean, or conventionally feminine–or are we just admiring a new spin on a previously established ideal of ultra-lean femininity?
It is good to move from language of passivity to activity, and from value based on appearance to value based on ability. But I don’t believe that’s what’s truly happening yet, at least not on a widespread cultural scale. Many women, through sports and athletic training, have developed both a physical strength and sense of self-worth that would have been impossible in previous generations. But I don’t believe this is what’s really being promoted in any of our mainstream media outlets. As people continue to rebel against the ultra-thin beauty ideal and push new paradigms of beauty, fitness seems to be supplanting mere “thinness” as the ultimate goal. But what does fitness really mean? Does it mean being powerful? Or does it just mean being lean? I see an unsettling convergence in image-based pressures between men and women, where nobody gets a break: athletic leanness is becoming an aesthetic mandate for men, while for women, the ever-present aesthetic mandate leans toward athleticism.
So now we have Victoria’s Secret angels with six-packs. Is this inherently bad? I don’t know. But the emphasis on leanness, on a lack of body fat, is a strong common thread between the fashion and fitness ideals, and they evoke for me what I call the “no curves rule,” which says that if you are white or Asian, you need to have as little body fat as possible, or risk being seen as lazy, gluttonous, and shameful. Traditionally in the west, white and Asian female bodies have been seen as a kind of coveted, private property– in contrast with brown and black female bodies, which have been treated as literal property, hypersexualized, and considered a kind of decadent public good. Discipline, work ethic, and purity are mainstays of America’s white, Puritanical roots, and on a subconscious level, I believe many women are relying on their fitness (and really, a very white, moneyed beauty ideal) to remain in a more privileged and protected class, or to work their way into it. What’s at play is the notion of the “disciplined body,” by which a person conveys their status and worthiness of respect by showing how dedicated and restrained they are (in addition to having enough money and free time to maintain their body shape). The fashion ideal demands discipline through rigorous dieting; the fitness ideal prioritizes discipline through rigorous exercise.
Even when it uses the language of activity, equality, and empowerment, any commercial media I see that involves women’s fitness still feels focused way more on aesthetics than ability to me. I still sense a deep undercurrent of the fear of fat, and everything fat has come to represent: laziness, ignorance, idleness, poverty, carelessness…things that are an affront to the values of our Puritan heritage. I’ve written before about how preoccupations with how we look often go much, much deeper than that, bleeding into territories of how we are treated, valued, and even our physical safety. So I have no doubt that when I see other women striving for a level of leanness that is exceptionally difficult to maintain, many of them have goals beyond just beating a PR, whether they are conscious of it or not. I myself am in the uncomfortable position of wanting to milk this sizeist, classist system for all it’s worth, and yet at the same time wishing it never existed so that I (and everyone really) could feel less anxiety and fear, or even none at all regarding body image. What I would love to see is a diverse range of healthy body types receiving representation and admiration in mainstream media. Little by little, I see it starting to happen, but it still feels like a pipe dream.
Part of what complicates this discussion of fitness is the insistence on “health,” that specifically, this is good because it is healthy. But “health” has always been the cleverest and most convincing disguise an eating disorder can take. It certainly was for me at the apex of my obsession with food, when I sincerely believed what I was doing was healthy, even though it was causing me a great deal of physical and mental suffering. So again, are we really encouraging health, in its beautiful diversity of forms, or are we taking this modified feminine ideal and proclaiming, “this is healthy”?
Health, like beauty, means something different to everyone. To some people, health is being alive and not in any great measure of pain; to others, health means ultramarathons! I personally prefer Igor Boutenko’s definition of health: having the energy to accomplish your goals. I like this, because it places health in the camp of an individual’s needs and values, and takes it out of the realm of commercial images and cultural stereotypes. The idea that someone could have all the energy and vitality they need and yet have a body we consider overweight is unfathomable to some people. On the other hand, I know from experience what it’s like to be technically thin, and struggle to function.
There’s a level of functional fitness that makes life substantially easier and more enjoyable; I support it unequivocally, and pursue it for myself. But I’m wary of the point at which training actually gets in the way of life, rather than serving it. I believe Americans have a unique obsession with self-improvement that does an excellent job of keeping us so focused on our own perceived shortcomings that we take our attention and energy away from our communities and civic life, and even away from real progress within our own lives. As Naomi Wolf writes in her book The Beauty Myth, a secretary who can lift two hundred pounds is still a secretary. I’m not trying to make light of the meaningful personal accomplishments that athletic training brings. But there’s a scary irony in that this training, which for so many people is a source of health and confidence, for others becomes a source of taxation and anxiety, and a distraction from other meaningful, worthwhile goals. Mindset is critically important, and I am not convinced that most mainstream fitness advocates are truly in an empowered or empowering mindset.
There are times when I see images of fit women, and I feel motivated and encouraged. But more often than not, I feel I’m being given yet another set of standards to judge myself by, and I’m coming up short. Wait a second, first I thought I was supposed to weigh 90 pounds, and now I’m supposed to lift 200? Is this merely a new type of pressure to apply to myself–in the form of literally applying as much physical pressure as possible? Because as much as I appreciate and admire strong, athletic women of all sizes, I myself am not, at this moment in time, one of them. And frankly, I don’t want to have to beat myself up for not being able to lift more. My life has simply not yet required me to drag a hundred-pound tire across a field. What it has required me to do is develop confidence and self-worth, and to whatever extent exercise will help me in that process, then I’m all for it! But if it’s going to be another self-flagellation contest, then I’m out. I’m skipping that extra hour at the gym and spending it with my friends. Or writing.