This guest post is written by my dear friend Suzanne Best, whose passionate reaction to this story provoked a lot of heated conversation in the blog’s Facebook page earlier this week I asked her to write something for the blog, and she produced this beautiful essay about her experiences as a new mother and a runner. I am so honored to be publishing this on the blog, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did. Let her know what you think in the comments below.
Let’s talk about excuses. If you’ve just started on a fitness journey, like I have, memes are everywhere. They rule fitness blogs, Twitter accounts, memes… you name it.
And most of them bring the same message to their readers.
“Excuses are useless. Results are priceless.”
“You can have results or excuses; never both.”
And, of course, this:
This picture went viral recently, and has been the subject of controversy for the woman, Maria Kang, a recovering bulimic, mother, and fitness enthusiast who started the nonprofit Fitness Without Borders to help children live healthier lives. A worthy cause, which should be lauded along with Maria’s journey from recovering from an eating disorder to living a healthier life and creating a beautiful family.
Maria has been criticized from various angles, from her appearance to her clothing to her ability to be a good mother. While I think that some of the criticism against her is unfair, particularly the claim that she is a bad mother for posing with her three (adorable!) children while “scantily clad” in workout gear or for devoting time to working out, there is something that needs to be said about the way she chose to frame her message to her followers, and to the public at large. I left a rather passionate excoriation of Kang’s message, “What’s Your Excuse?” on Fit and Feminist’s Facebook post that basically summed up my point:
“I do not need some ‘regular’ mom with a f—— six-pack fitspo me and other mothers like me into a f—— eating disorder. UGH…. Fitspo can suck it.”
In large part, my reaction was a buildup of watching various fitness accounts on my Twitter feed lambast me and their thousands of followers with similar messages every day. It’s like clockwork for these sites; almost every hour, practically every 15 minutes if you follow various ones like I do, these accounts tweet affirmations in between workout routines and healthy recipes. The mantras are plain and absolute; no excuses, ever. Ever. They tweet pictures of toned tummies, perfectly round buttocks, and shapely legs with routines that all but guarantee that you – yes YOU!! – will get the same results.
But you have to want it badly enough. And never stop. And NO EXCUSES!! Then, you too will be the picture of fit perfection. Just like Maria Kang.
The allure of these websites, of what I learned was “fitspiration” or “fitspo” memes, lured me in when I started running again after nearly a two-year hiatus. I was pumped! Raring to go with my new at-home workout routines during the days I wasn’t jogging outside by myself or with my son, in between naps and marathoning episodes of Breaking Bad.
But then I dug deeper into the madness that was fitspo, as well as the body dysmorphism-encouraging “thigh gap” trend. And it appeared to me that the “No excuses!” mantra is a little like a gateway drug to more dangerous messaging for any individual wanting to get fit for whatever reason. No excuses, ever. The fanaticism, the zeal with which perfection is sought in these circles frightened me.
There is something so absolutist, so judgmental about the “No excuses!” meme and the way it is packaged with so-called “perfection.” It’s something in the way that Maria Kang’s picture above promotes her physical superiority over her audience, particularly in the way the camera captures the composed shot of Maria and her little dudes. Maria appears to be in perfectly good health, fit and beautiful. By posting the image on her site, which now boasts around 115,000 followers, she likely expected it to be linked around the internet on other fitness sites and blogs. She framed her image with the question “What’s your excuse?”
With this abrasive question addressed to her followers and whoever views the picture, Maria invites herself to impose her perfection onto her audience. And it is very clear who she is trying to reach out to, who she is wants admiration from: women like myself, mothers with busy lives trying to fit workout routines in between work, chores, quality time with children, and finding a little corner of quiet time for ourselves during days that are far too short. She is telling us that we have no excuse to not have the body she has. None. So get out there and work your butt off, and you’ll look and be perfect, just like her!
It’s not like she’s alone in demanding absolute perfection, physical and otherwise, from women, especially from mothers. I discovered after giving birth to my son, Ian (light of my life my little man is…. also, he’s a major troublemaker-in-training) that becoming a mother meant opening yourself up to the world for unsolicited advice and judgment. Perfect strangers will come up to you and tell you how to care for your child, pity, annoyance or frustration filling their eyes when you tell them “Thanks, but no thanks.” Grandparents will stream feedback constantly in your ears, explaining to you everything that you should be doing and everything you’re doing wrong. Doctors, nurses and midwives, will tell you in their offices how you should feed your child. Depending on where you live in the country, simply the mere mention of formula feeding or asking whether you can breastfeed your child until they are two can lead to judgmental glares and hours of lectures about the damage you will inflict upon your child if either comes to pass, not to mention the stone cold stares you get from other mothers who disagree with your choices.
And then there are the books. There are always books. And books have agendas and come at you with all the statistics in the world, persuasive in their utter righteousness.
There is a benefit to this surplus of information that a mother receives. There is so much advice and encouragement given that you can wade through the information and come up with something that fits your lifestyle best. But you have to navigate the bad messaging, judgment, and other well-intended thoughtlessness that, for some people, can trigger personal traumatic histories.
This leads me back to Maria Kang and the insidiousness of other fitspo memes. It’s a complex issue, because constructive advice and affirmations can give a person a brand-new outlook on life. When I started running with my friends when I lived in Boston, they gave me advice and affirmations and support. Though my friends were all fitter and tremendous runners compared to me, that didn’t matter. They ran with me, they walked with me, they laughed with me, and they appreciated me and what my body could do, even if they could do the same activity better. Running in and of itself was enjoyable, sure, but it was their encouragement, their feedback, and their support that made running special for me. And it still does to this day. I imagine running along side them around Jamaica Pond or in Brookline while I’m 1,500 miles away in California.
The flip side of the same coin is embodied in Maria’s meme. Had the photo shown Maria in the middle of her workouts, whether her family was included or not, or doing something fun with her family that showed their active lifestyle, removing the insane mantra of “What’s your excuse?” I wouldn’t be writing this right now. I’d be applauding her. Instead, her picture focuses on her physical appearance as a mother of three. It positions her as the pinnacle of beauty par excellence, of obtainable, objective perfection as she shows off her incredible abs, thus forcing me to see myself through her eyes.
There are times when excuses are inevitable, unavoidable. My son’s schedule every day is predictable…until it isn’t. And sometimes, things pop up or I need a break or I get sick or Ian gets sick. Life happens. I go with the flow. I work out when I can, I eat as healthy as possible and I teach my son to move and eat well too. Yet, Maria’s message tells me that isn’t good enough, as if nothing I do, no performance record or personal best, will ever lead me to obtain the perfect body, to be a total “Maria Kang.”
That’s the issue, right there in a nutshell. Affirmation and support is never so good when it’s judging me at the same time. If only the people who judge me the way Maria’s meme judges me would be willing to have a discussion about these attitudes then maybe, just maybe, we can start to change the way fitspo operates.
However, by her own words Maria doesn’t seem to want that discussion. This is from her not-really-an-apology-at-all apology:
“I’m sorry you took an image and resonated with it in such a negative way… What I WILL say is this. What you interpret is not MY fault. It’s yours. The first step in owning your life, your body and your destiny is to OWN the thoughts that come out of your own head. I didn’t create them. You created them. So if you want to continue ‘hating’ this image, get used to hating many other things for the rest of your life.” (From her Facebook page.)
No, Maria Kang. If readers take issue with the way you framed your message, the message you likely expected to go viral since you were trying to inspire “the person who feels completely overwhelmed, [that] they can control their own destiny,” (Yahoo! Shine) then your message is broken. Shutting down the opportunity to have a healthy debate and dialogue will only continue to encourage and perpetuate the vicious cycle of damaging fitspiration. Worse yet, damaging fitspo created by the people we look up to for fitness and lifestyle advice. Maria lays all the blame on readers like myself, who apparently have such a negative body image that we are imparting this hateful perception of ourselves onto her own (perfect) image.
Okay, then. Thanks for that.
I’ll leave you with two images of myself from my last 5K trail race on October 12, in gorgeous, sunny San Rafael. They are one of me posing with my son before the race, trying to get him to kiss me. The other is me setting off at the starting line of the race. I’m proud I had my best showing in a race, finishing second in my age group and eighth overall.
But let me tell you about the other things about me I’m extremely proud of. There’s my poochy tummy that carried my son for nine months, and my hips, which gave him a lot of room to grow. I am also just as proud of my legs, which carry me past the finish line in my races.
You see that smile? That’s me doing something I love surrounded by the people I love in a body that I love, imperfections and all.
I’m glad the camera was there to capture that.