What am I Fit For? Examining Our Relationship to Fitness and Health

 

imageWe are so often taught to treat our body as an object, a project, or an enemy to be defeated. Lose weight, tame curls, drop sizes, deny cravings, and on and on. We are taught to hate ourselves constantly. How does someone learn to love their body and treat it with kindness? How do I even figure out what my body needs? Open up a women’s ‘health’ magazine and it tells me how to lose weight, how to slim down and tone up, but they can’t tell me anything about what my body needs to feel good. They’re much more concerned with telling me what other people want my body to look like and how to pursue that body. No thanks. Plus, no one writing it has met me, so they can’t anticipate my challenges and skills. Here I am, 22 years into the process, and I’m still trying to figure those out!

My relationship with my body currently is kind of strained, shall we say. I’m only recently realizing that pain both is and isn’t a necessary part of my life. I’ve had back, neck and hip pain throughout my childhood, resulting in chiropractor visits since 8th grade, but it wasn’t until recently that it even occurred to me that I could potentially investigate why. I’m privileged to have a name for the source of some of my pain now (relatively minor scoliosis) and access to treatment (physiotherapy), but it surprised me in hindsight that it took 21 years for me to wonder why I hurt. 21 years to even imagine that my body was trying to communicate something it needed, instead of my body simply being an obstacle to my happiness. Now I know that while some of my pain is part of my life, much of it can be managed. I can do stretches and exercises and build strength, little by little by little. It would have been useful to know this 10 years ago…

Still, I have to constantly remind myself that my body is not broken because it has needs. The pain is not a sign that (as I have been fond of saying) my body hates me. My body is not wrong. My body requires my love, attention and support. I owe myself that, and I am years in debt. One of my goals is to (re)learn how to love my body on my own terms.

Our relationship to our bodies, ourselves, are unique, changing and individual, so my story may be completely unfamiliar to you. Still, I wonder how many others are trying to find their way towards self love in a similar way. How many people are trying to seek out well-being without falling into the traps laid by dieting companies and advertisements banking on undermining self-esteem? How many people will be attending the same gym with the same reservations about how those kinds of spaces often frame health in a way that I find harmful, even directly un-healthy, for many?

For me, well-being is a complex and subjective concept that is experienced very differently depending on the individual and includes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellness. In contrast, the ‘health’ I’m critiquing is the one-size-fits-all approach that demands normativity/conformity and offers a narrow vision of what a good life can be. Rachel has an amazing post talking about the myth of the whole and healthy body that deconstructs many of these limited ideas about health. However, I want to take part of that conversation a step further.

If we don’t want the myth of health, if we aren’t chasing down an ideal or trying to squish and fit into someone else’s mould, how do we seek out well-being? How do we learn to care for ourselves? For me, that’s part of  self love, part of beauty, and it’s gonna be quite a journey. Follow this thread on my blog with the tag “Wellness” and join the conversation!

(cross posted to The Body is Not an Apology)

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Plastic Surgery Horror Stories

Plastic surgery is a complex issue in my opinion. On the one hand, I think individual control over your body is important and vital to control over your life in general. On the other, plastic surgery for cosmetic purposes (a.k.a. elective surgery that you choose to undergo for aesthetic reasons) often appears to be motivated externally by society or pressure from peers/family/loved ones. So, for example changing your body because your partner makes you feel bad about your body is not empowering or really expressing control over your body. It’s an expression of the social pressure women feel to conform to a certain body type. I have a HUGE problem with that.

Body modification can be a very empowering act – ask any 21-year-old with a new tattoo – but it can also have big ramifications for your health, body satisfaction, self image and how others relate to you. The complex consequences from plastic surgery are what make me especially worried about young people who want or get plastic surgery. For example, according to some studies, silicone breast implants have a 50-60% chance of rupturing after 15 years. That means that if someone gets the implants at 20, by 35 they’re not holding up so well. In fact, they could break inside you. Of course this isn’t always the case, but it is a legitimate health danger that is often not seriously considered by girls who want bigger breasts. Check out this horror story for a little more real life experience.

So, why to girls and women want bigger breasts? It’s a complicated question and I would be wrong to simply say that a woman can’t want it for herself. I would argue however that much more frequently, the desire for bigger breasts has more to do with others than a separate inner need: wanting others to find you attractive, hoping to please (potential) partners and be seen as beautiful/sexy/feminine, or even attract attention. Large, perky breasts are part of the “right” body that is popularly seen as beautiful and the allure of achieving the “right” body is powerful for many people (men and women). For some, having the right body means achieving acceptance, love, attention, sensuality, desirability, popularity, control and/or perfection. Almost everyone is interested in a few of these ideas. However, the notion that you need to create a new body to get these things is completely untrue. Society can brainwash us into thinking that there are diets or beauty routines or surgeries that can get us love or perfection or make us feel comfortable in our skin, but it’s simply not true. There’s no pills or procedures for self-esteem, confidence or happiness.

Colbert’s Satire is Pitch Perfect

The Colbert Report recently spoke about a new product by Dove, their Go Sleeveless deodorant, that informs women that they can get attractive underarms in five days. Five days! What an arm pit revolution! Thank goodness that Unilever could pretty up our pits for us. What would we do without them?

Dove Go Sleeveless

Because we needed something else to be wrong with women...

Check out the clip below starting at 3:28 for Colbert’s hilarious (and yet cringe-inducing in its accuracy) analysis of Dove’s invention of a product to solve an invented ‘flaw’ in women.

http://watch.thecomedynetwork.ca/the-colbert-report/full-episodes/the-colbert-report—april-13-2011/#clip448419

Dove gets a lot of credit for their Campaign for Real Beauty and I have even used some of their videos in my presentation. However, Dove is owned by the same company that owns Axe. Yes, Axe, a brand that bases most of their advertising on telling young men that Axe products will make sex objects (a.k.a. the hyper-sexualized women in their commercials) throw themselves at them.

So, I would suggest the Dove’s advertising strategy is just that – an advertising strategy – that is still based on telling women that they will be so much better once they have Dove lotion/shampoo/conditioner/deodorant all over them. Dove is still part of the beauty industry that is set on “fixing” women and all the things “wrong” with them. Sure, they make you feel good about it sometimes and that’s nice. However, that feel good moment is there because it’s profitable.

Products are made to solve faux-problems all the time. Go Sleeveless is just one example. Colbert’s piece is a fantastic commentary on how companies are more interested in the bottom line than women’s self-esteem, no matter what their ads may tell you. So, whether it’s convincing you that your underarms are ugly or that you need the latest teeth whitener, they’re hoping that you hate your body enough to love their products.

Dressing to Impress at the Golden Globes

Jennifer Lopez at the Golden Globes So, this past Sunday was the Golden Globes and so there was, of course, the required hours of red carpet footage. No doubt there were hours of red carpet preparation as well done by many celebrities. What they wear is often the source of entertainment news fodder. This year, Time has graciously (eye roll) created a post-event slide show highlighting “Five Stars Who Look Looked Fat and Five to Who Looked Fit.” Gee, thanks Time. What would we do without your critical and enlightening gaze?

Actually, more like just critical. This Sociological Images post does a great job of talking about how the article assumes that fashion is used merely to hide the “flaws” that separate your body from that of the ideal we’re supposed to live up to. Thighs are too big to fit the super-skinny mould? If your dress doesn’t hide your shape, then – according to the piece – you’ve failed. And they plan to publicly shame you. Hurrah.

Fashion as body camouflage? Fashion as the tool for creating a generic body? I think we can find a better use for the creativity and beauty that is potentially possible in the things we wear. Many girls (and boys) see their clothing choices as reflecting who they are and showing the world a little piece of themselves, not hiding what makes them special. Celebrity articles show the extreme version of what happens often when people try on clothes at home or in dressing rooms and compare themselves to how they “should” look. Time is holding up the body image standard here to see how the celebrities compare, and even they – who are often only celebrated for being closest in society to this ridiculous ideal – cannot live up to this measure. Anyone calling J Lo fat in this picture needs to get their eyes checked, and re-checked.

I’m no fan of the Golden Globes. I’m no fan of celebrities. However, I’m even less of a fan of this beauty standard that requires our every effort be devoted to conforming and contorting our bodies to fit the ideal. Can’t we just wear pretty dresses?