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’m strong.

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:

And 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?


20 responses to “Fitness is not what you look like; it’s what you can do

  1. Excellent post. Fit is totally the new pretty and we’re just so damn fabulous for realizing it.

    By the way, unrelated feminist rant – I tried to read this article on my phone, and your blog (as well as other feminist sites right down to xojane) is blocked on the grounds of being “adult content.” And yet, after a little experimentation, I find I have no trouble finding orgy porn. WTF, phone company, WTF? An ostensible child (I’m 30) can watch a woman getting plowed six ways to Sunday, but can’t look for support and opinion on FEMINISM? (Note: I don’t think porn is inherently bad, but the contrast here is absurd.)

  2. Yes! And that’s why I love weightlifting. It is completely about what my body can do and never about what I want to take away from it. I truly never really understood the power of positive goals until I got myself a few :). The physique changes are more of “Huh, look at that. I have traps” than the goal itself (maybe because lifting an objective and quantifiable heavier amt. of weight on a regular basis gives me all the reward I need?). Also, weightlifting totally reframes body fat conversation. You know what you need to grow muscles and do more with your body? Body fat. Thanks for continuing to change the conversation.

  3. Thank you for sharing Nia’s posts and for writing this one. I completely agree, I’m tired of the same old “flat stomach conversation” and I want to start having more conversations like this one on my blog 🙂

  4. Thanks so much for this awesome post! I saw a picture of backstage at a major body building competition where the contestants were taking hits of oxygen just to stay upright. Never thought about body building the same way again after that!

  5. Great post! Replacing the Playboy bunny look with the fitspo model image is not progress, it’s just another mirage of THE “attractive female” look of the moment. As long as how a woman looks/how closely she matches the conventionally attractive ideal of the day is more important than her actions or skills, it’s still the double standard/sexism at play in our culture. The more we vociferously reject the messages, the less power they have.

  6. Applause all-around to this post and Nia Shanks’ responses to her readers and her general bad-assery.

    With regards to Tracy Anderson, I really think that she feels a little threatened given the attention that lifting heavy has been given and so she has to say terrible things like how “bulky muscle doesn’t age well” to scare her clients and potential clients into listening to her again and buy her services and DVDs. It’s not even that she’s not correct about some things in that article, but the fact that she’s about being skinny at all costs is so problematic and so not about the point of long-term, “sustainable” (to use a word she threw out) fitness.

  7. Absolutely. I’m appalled that people even wrote her with such remarks, and so happy with her reply. I actually read a really good memoir by Sam Fussell (titled Muscle) about his brief foray into the world of bodybuilding. Prior to his book, I had no idea the extremes to which bodybuilders and fitness models take themselves for competitions. By his account, his body is so deprived by the time he hits the stage, he’s pretty much delirious while posing. It’s terrifying that we hold these people up as paradigms of “health.”

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  9. I am glad to see that many people feel the same way as me. My question to marketing people is, “what do you mean sex doesn’t sell?” That’s just what they’re supose to say to cover their butts. Almost everywhere we look though sex is selling something. From clothing to cars to electronics to health foods and weight-loss products. They are trying to make us say “I want to buy that” and in the meantime we are also saying “If I use that I’ll look like him/her” or “If I have that then I’ll attract someone that looks like him/her” its a marketing scheme that is over used. Society generally beleives that we should all look like that, news for you (unless you already know) normal women do not look like barbie. The proportions are not natural, and gravity would make it hard for her to not fall on her face. Skinny and healthy are completely different. That’s why we need to have good nutrition and lots of physical activity.

  10. It’s funny that you posted this because I’ve been working on the redesign of my site. I’ve actually come to hate the pictures that I have up and am embarrassed for posting them. (It’s funny to say you are a modest person when you have photos like that up but I’ve avoided looking at the front of my site since putting them up haha)

    I did it originally as a marketing test because of recommendations and they did help, but now I’m done haha. I feel like the actually detract from my message.

    Feeling like you look good is important, but that can mean so many different things to different people!

    A healthy body isn’t necessarily the one with six pack abs – it is the body that can handle the stresses of life and do EVERYTHING that you want it to do.

    Thanks for this post! It inspired me to speed up the redesign process…as much as I can at least being really freaking bad at website design stuff haha 🙂

  11. Thank you for writing this. I am so tired of hearing that as a female, I have no use beyond looking good. I am tired of having to pretend that I’m okay that 95% of my interactions with others revolve around measuring how attractive or appealing I am to them. I am tired of pretending I don’t notice that people treat me or other women around me differently depending on how “sexy” we seem. Believe it or not, guys, women are not here for your pleasure. We are here because we are human. We are here because we produce more humans. Respect our bodies for their incredible capabilities. Respect us for our whole persons.

  12. Oh, I’d almost forgotten how horrible it was when I was attracted to competition training and prepped 1.5 contests before concluding that dieting until you are a bitch, shaving off all your bodily hair and painting yourself brown had nothing to do with — well, with badassery, which was what I always craved most. The day I did the Sun Salutatiion upon arising and keeled over like a tree in the forest, because my blood pressure had dipped too low to be measured from overtraining, was the day the light started to dawn.

    Thank you for those videos. Now I wanna do sumo deadlifts. Yowza.

  13. There’s nothing wrong with looking sexy, but realise that’s in the eye of the beholder. And I would add that in most (tasteful) beholders’ eyes that means some model of healthiness. At the same time just being strong looks and feels sexy (and it’s fun). Bust out a lengthy set of chin-ups and see how many eyes you draw. Just making a point – if you don’t make how you look your primary focus then you will somehow look good anyway without trying.
    And who wants to say they go to the gym but not be more able than those that put in zero time training? Not me – I can exert some physical force (force as in Newton’s 2nd law second law of motion) – just ask the fella I arm-wrestled at work – ha.

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  15. Pray pardon my bad language, but that’s f**king super bada**! The *bar* was bending on the 3x bodyweight lift….I’m surprised these loudmouths would have the guts to badmouth her…she’d be able to knock them down with an angry *look*, much less bothering to use physical force.

    Also, Nia? You ROCK!

  16. Love your perspective! I’m a collegiate runner now and have struggled with the female athlete triad and with the standards to which athletic women are held. In my opinion, you have to make your own standards, not necessarily to just accept what you look like, but to really set your own standards that aren’t based on societal norms.

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