Fitness is not what you look like; it’s what you can do
Yesterday on her site, personal trainer Nia Shanks addressed something that evidently bothers some of her readers: why she never posts photos of herself in a bikini. She’s gotten emails from people who have accused her of being a fraud since she never posts those kind of photos of herself:
“Nia, why don’t you post photos of you in a swimsuit? You must not know what you’re doing if you never show photos of you in a bikini.”
I’ve received other similar messages calling me a fraud and claiming my “methods must not work” because I don’t display photos of me in a bikini.
Ever the classy professional, Nia didn’t respond with a big hearty “go eff yourself, buddy,” even though it would have been well-deserved. Instead, she posted this:
I don’t have to show anyone my stomach or any other body parts to “prove” I know what I’m doing.
I can bust out pull-ups, handstand push-ups, dominate 50 pound dumbbells for bench pressing, and I’ve deadlifted over 300 pounds.
My PERFORMANCE is proof enough.
(Go read the whole post. It’s terrific. I actually did a fist pump in the air at one point while reading it.)
And it’s true – she regularly posts videos of herself doing things like this:
Yep, she’s pretty much a certified badass.
But in the eyes of some, because she’s not displaying her glistening abs in a string bikini or doing deadlifts while wearing a g-string (which, by the way, I hate that trope in soft-core fitness photography and I would like it to die, please), she clearly has no idea what she’s doing.
Not only do I find it really gross that people have actually written to her to say these things – honestly, the rudeness of some people never fails to amaze me – but I find the whole mentality behind those statements to be utterly baffling. “Who cares if you can deadlift twice your body weight?” they are saying. “That doesn’t count if we can’t see your abs.”
Got that? It doesn’t matter what you are capable of doing. It doesn’t matter if you are strong as hell. It doesn’t matter if you are healthy. The only thing that counts is how you look in a couple of triangles of fabric.
Nia’s post would have resonated with me no matter what, but they felt particularly pertinent after reading this post at Fit, Feminist and (almost) Fifty about the reality of preparing for a fitness competition:
One less well known fact is that fitness models and people who compete in the figure category in fitness competitions aren’t actually at the height of healthy when they compete. By the time “game day” comes, they’ve followed a regime that no one recommending a healthy approach to fitness and diet would recommend. They’ve eaten too few calories for the intensity of workouts they’ve been doing. And they’ve reached a weight that they have no intention of maintaining.
Contest prep for fitness and bodybuilding competitions is no joke. The contestants manipulate their carb and water intake in some pretty dramatic ways with the ultimate goal of reducing bodyfat and water weight to extremely low levels, all the better to make their musculature pop while on stage. Fitness models go through similarly rigorous preparations ahead of photo shoots.
It’s the ultimate paradox of fitness culture, that these people who are held up as paragons of health and fitness commit to extreme diet-and-exercise routines to make those physiques happen. The women who symbolize fitness and strength are often at their lowest levels of fitness and strength when we see them.
And, you know, it’s not just figure competitors and bodybuilders who exemplify this paradox. I thought about it again today when BlissTree posted about Tracy Anderson, who continues to push the “heavy weights will make you bulky” line of b.s. Anderson’s bias against weight training for women flies in the face of health recommendations, in which women are encouraged to lift weights as a way of avoiding osteoporosis later in life. (Not to mention all kinds of other health benefits, as well as, you know, being strong.)
It’s an ongoing theme, where women are encouraged to follow questionable fitness advice in pursuit of a very specific body idea – skinny arms, a flat stomach – at the expense of actual health and wellness. We are told that it’s more important for us to look a certain way than it is for us to be healthy and strong. In the minds of many, it doesn’t matter that we women might want to move through this world in bodies that are capable and strong and vigorous. The only thing that matters to these people is that we are pretty for others to look at. We don’t get to be the subjects of our lives. We are only here to be decorative objects for others.
We’ve been hearing this over and over again, since the days of corsets and arsenic powders. The details of the message may have changed over time, but the core message itself stays the same. I have to say, I’m bored with this conversation. I’m bored with obsessing over flat stomachs and thighs that don’t touch and all of that nonsense. I’d rather talk about all of the amazing things our bodies can do, wouldn’t you?