Moving away from the cult of the body in 2014

In recent years, I’ve made a habit of spending the last several days of the year engaged in a sort of psychological reset, which is basically a fancy way of saying I spend my time relaxing and thinking about things.  I haven’t normally made resolutions because I’ve found that making resolutions on Jan. 1 – particularly specific ones like “write an hour every day” or “keep a daily journal” – is usually a solid way to ensure I keep said resolution for an average of about 11.7 days.

Instead, I spent some time making lists of goals I’d like to accomplish for the upcoming year.  Some of those goals are athletic, and I will write about them later. Some of them are creative, like figuring out how to produce a podcast and writing a new zine.  Others are personal, like learning to cook more vegetarian meals and converting the spare bedroom into an actual office.  I wrote all of my goals down in a notebook, and then assigned each goal its own page and made a sublist of corresponding steps I can take to make each of those goals happen.

I am aware that this is incredibly dorky and that it also makes me sound like some kind of super-organized Type-A personality (which I am so not, not even close, I mean have you seen my closets?) but I’ve found that breaking down big ambitious goals into manageable chunks makes them way less likely to inspire the kind of panic that leads to paralysis that in turn leads to no goals being accomplished at all.

So yeah, I will take extreme dorkiness, which makes me feel embarrassed for like two seconds, over feeling like a total failure who is squandering her single chance at life, which is the kind of emotional experience that has caused me to break down in tears in the car while sitting in Tuesday-morning traffic.  (Is that an overshare? Very well then, I overshare.)

At some point during this whole convoluted list-making process, I realized that maybe this year I did want to try making some resolutions again.  Just two of them, and they are pretty simple.  Here, I’ll share them with you:

  1. Deal with other people from a place of kindness.  Not only do I feel like the world could always use more empathy and kindness, I just feel better when I handle a difficult situation without becoming defensive, rude or impatient.  It might feel great in the moment to respond to someone who is a jerk by being a jerk right back to them, but later, upon reflection, I have almost always felt worse about it.  I always feel better when I make the effort to be kind.  This is especially true for the people I find most challenging.
  2. Find joy and pleasure whenever possible.  On New Year’s Eve, I had to work until 11:30 p.m., which was undeniably a bummer, so I focused on things to make it less of a bummer.  I put on silver eyeshadow and shiny red shoes, and drove to work while listening to Queen & David Bowie (“Under Pressure”) and the Rolling Stones (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”). I got pad thai for dinner. When things slowed down I found “A League of Their Own” on TV and watched that while working.  These are all small things, but they went a long way toward making a crummy situation decidedly less crummy.

Pretty simple, right? Not too complicated, pretty straight-forward, and if I mess up, another opportunity to get them right will come along pretty quickly.  I like them.

Notice what I didn’t mention in my resolutions.  I did not mention anything about dieting, or losing weight, or working out five times a week.  I did write some athletic goals down, but that’s about it.  Part of this is, I’m sure, due to the fact that my nutrition and physical activity habits are already pretty well ingrained in me by this time, and so I don’t feel the need to rely on resolutions to make these part of my life.  I mean, what’s the point of making a resolution to run forty miles a week if I am already running forty miles a week?

But I also think that a bigger part of this is a direct reaction to some of the terrible things I’ve seen over the past couple of years as I’ve immersed myself further into fitness-related communities as a result of this blog.  I wasn’t really sure how to articulate what I was seeing until I saw a tweet from Bookslut‘s Jessa Crispin in which she referred critically to the “cult of the body” and I thought, Yes, that’s exactly what I’m seeing. 

I’ve seen holy wars break out over Paleo/primal/vegan/fruitarian ways of eating. I’ve seen smugnoms tell people with cancer that they wouldn’t be in this situation had they just avoided meat and processed food.  I’ve seen people try to recast cruelty towards fat people as something intended to help them.  I’ve seen people who can barely articulate a coherent thought brag about spending three hours a day in the gym.  I’ve seen fitness and nutrition professionals basically use their platforms to inflict their disordered lifestyles on thousands of adoring followers. I’ve seen people wield their healthy lifestyles and their fit bodies as clubs with which they beat the heads of lesser mortals who may not have visible abs or who might have boxed food in their pantries.

The cult of the body struck me as the perfect way to describe the near-religious fervor with which so many fitness- and health-minded people approach their bodies.  Instead of looking fitness and health as pursuits that help us care for our bodies so we can do other things in the world, the cultivation of optimal health and physical perfection has become the ultimate goal in and of itself.

But I can’t help but wonder what good it does to have a lean body if your entire existence is immersed in maintaining that physique?  What good is an impressive 1 rep max deadlift if you haven’t a clue what’s happening in the world outside of your gym?  What’s the point of looking great in a bikini if you cannot empathize with anyone but yourself?  Sure, you’re totally ripped and pretty to look at, but is there anything going on beneath that?

The cult of the body takes the whole universe and shrinks it down to the size and shape of your body.  And not even what’s inside of your body, like your heart and your mind, but just the exterior.  The world becomes so narrow and so small, and maybe it’s less scary that way, but it’s also a lot less exciting and interesting that way, too.

I need my life to have more meaning than that.  I need to feel like I’ve made a positive impact in the world. I need to be able to look at my life and to be able to say that I left my little corner of the planet a bit nicer than when I arrived.  I don’t think I’m alone in this.  I think most of us want these things.  But I think that a big part of this involves turning away from all of the cultural bullshit that tells us happiness and personal fulfillment can only be achieved through attaining physical and material perfection, and figuring out what actually matters to us, not what we’ve been told should matter to us.

I’m going to end this post with a lyric from Beyonce’s “Pretty Hurts,” because like most of the Internet I spent the last two weeks of 2013 basically obsessing over her visual album.  (Those videos, omg. OMG!)  I heard this song while out for a run and I got such goosebumps I nearly had to sit down.  Anyway, this is the part that’s relevant to what I’ve been thinking about:

“You’re tryna fix something but you can’t fix what you can’t see/It’s the soul that needs the surgery”

By all means, keep on trying to be fit and healthy.  Keep on doing things that make you feel attractive.  Take the best care of yourself that you possibly can.  Get fancied up, admire yourself in the mirror, take all the selfies in the world and post them all over Instagram, whatever you want .

But don’t lose perspective about what it is that makes you who you are.  Your body is just a small part of who you are.  Do not let it become the whole universe.

49 responses to “Moving away from the cult of the body in 2014

  1. Pingback: Resolutions | Laura Lifts·

  2. Thank you for introducing me to the term “smugnoms.”

    Resolution #2 is very similar to my primary goal for this year (and all future years). Good luck with it, and have a splendid 2014!

    • Thank you, and my best to you as well! (Also, “smugnoms” came from a sister site of Get Off My Internets. It’s so perfect that I had to borrow it.)

  3. THIS is pretty much everything that I’ve been feeling exactly, too! I hope you don’t mind if I link you and quote some of my favorite selections from this in a new blog post?

    *Speaking of Beyonce’- I’ve been LIVING for the song “Flawless.” That spoken word verse! MY GOD! Amazing. Loving her new direction!

    • Go right ahead! And yes, I totally hear you on “Flawless.” That song is my jam! I listen to it at least once a day. So much love for Queen Bey.

    • I have been living for “Flawless” too. When the album was first released I had to listen to that song at least three times a day.

  4. This is an amazing post and all too true. I know that at times I’ve probably been guilty of this myself. Eating well and working out should be different for each person, but no matter which diet or exercise program you follow, you should feel EMPOWERED by it. Not trapped or demeaned by it. Lots of different things work for different people and we need to learn to accept that and support each other. Plus we need to realize eating a certain way and working out isn’t meant to trap us, it is meant to help us be able to do more of the stuff we love….like running after grandkids or being able to play and feel good. FEEL GOOD is the key word here. A one rep max or “bikini body” means nothing really in the grand scheme of things. I know all too many people that reach those goals and haven’t gained anything and actually feel worse about themselves.

    P.S. The other day another trainer, when reviewing my new site, said that I shouldn’t be using pictures of myself in t-shirts. That people would be more likely to do the workouts if they saw a very lean toned person demonstrating and my pictures in my t-shirt don’t show that. I simply told him to shove it and that I love my t-shirts (although I would try to avoid taking pictures in the ones with pit stains as that is just sort of gross…) 🙂

    Anyway, love this post and love your goals!!! 🙂 Sorry for the slight rambling.

    • See, I think you are really good at balancing your passion for fitness with a balanced understanding of the role it should play in our lives. (At least that’s the perception I have from your online presence.)

      And also good for you for sticking to your guns on the photos on your new site. I personally have no issue with photos of trainers in sports bras and whatever, but it’s also nice to see some diversity in presentation, especially since I think there’s little acknowledgement paid to people who might actually feel intimidated or turned away from photos like that.

      • Thanks Caitlin. I really do try to be both online and in person. I think I just find myself so often, in person, dealing with this cult of the body and using it to get clients to join, since that is what they are focused on, (and then turning them toward other goals) that sometimes I worry by even using it to get them to change, it is in some way promoting it.

  5. I like this a lot.

    I am really weary of the endless focus on women’s bodies and their size/shape/tone/proportions. Imagine — if for ONE day, one total magazine issue, one entire television show — the entire focus was on our intelligence, (all the great ways to get smarter about the world, economics, politics, education) and our compassion (highlighting women whose energy is spent making the larger world better — not just their ass.) It will never ever happen, of course.

    Wishing you — my fellow blogger/Caitlin/passionate feminist — a great 2014!

    • Oh god, and even when we DO get something about a woman’s accomplishments or intelligence, it’s couched in this whole thing about her appearance. It’s not enough to be intelligent and accomplished, you’ve got to be lovely and stylish, too! It’s exhausting.

      Happy New Year to you as well, fellow Caitlin/feminist/blogger. 🙂

  6. The cult of the body is the perfect way to describe what I’ve seen in the fitness community and by those who are trying to make drastic changes to their body. I think over the last year, I’ve realized that its just not worth it to beat yourself up about the number on the scale or on the bar. Happiness starts with who we are on the inside, not who we are on the outside.

    My goal for 2014 is just to take better care of myself inside and out. I hope you have a great year!

    • “Happiness starts with who we are on the inside, not who we are on the outside.”

      So much truth. I’ve often thought that if beauty and thinness really did mean happiness, that actresses and models would be the happiest people in the world, and I think it’s clear that this isn’t the case for most of them. Sure, it can make certain parts of life easier but that’s about it.

      I like your goal for 2014. My best wishes for you as you work to accomplish that.

  7. Breaking down bigger goals into smaller actionable steps is exactly what you’re supposed to do. I’m a psychologist, so this is one of the things I teach my students when we talk about goals and changing behavior.

  8. In July of 2012, I set out to do the ambitious “101 goal in 1001 days” goals that pop up across the internet every so often (as “101 in 1001”). I too make a book with a page for each goal. The book was quickly abandoned; however, the list gets copied onto a page in each yearly planner since (well, all 2 yearly planners since), and while 101 in 1001 is entirely too ambitious for most people, it gave me a lot to consider and I find that most days I’m still working toward the goals.

    Resolution #1 is something I’m working on. #2 Started years ago for me in, you guessed it, traffic. Life is so much better for it.

    HAES helped me get out of The Cult of the Body. It, plus many other resources, helped me learn about myself that I was terrible about attaining goals in the sense of “Acheive X thing (X being quanitfiable, like waist smaller by 3 inches) by Y date” and instead to focus on simply integrating a system in my life that may make such a thing attainable, but if not, no worries, I’m still improving in the process.

    • Traffic is one of the worst parts of my lives. Almost all of my existential crises have been triggered by sitting in a car surrounded by hundreds of other cars. It’s like, THIS is how I’m spending my life? Thank god for podcasts. They help me feel like I’m not totally wasting that time.

      Your last paragraph describes a big part of why I am such a huge fan of HAES. This sort of thing doesn’t work best when it’s framed as a finite thing with a specific end, like just have to work out and eat well for six months and then you can go back to doing whatever. It works a lot better when you can find ways to integrate it into your life. I’m also always trying to improve (at this and at so many other things!), but I see that as a really cool and exciting thing, because it means there’s always room to grow and learn. 🙂

  9. I really appreciate and like your two resolutions, but it’s the final two paragraphs of this post that have me giving you a standing ovation. Yes, yes, yes! to these words – By all means, keep on trying to be fit and healthy. Keep on doing things that make you feel attractive. Take the best care of yourself that you possibly can. Get fancied up, admire yourself in the mirror, take all the selfies in the world and post them all over Instagram, whatever you want .

    But don’t lose perspective about what it is that makes you who you are. Your body is just a small part of who you are. Do not let it become the whole universe.

    I am at the fatter end of the spectrum and I am slowly moving toward becoming fitter and working on the physical health while also working on my mental and spiritual health. It’s a whole package. One is not separate from the other. Thank you for this wonderful post and the powerful punch of these words! ♥

  10. Very insightful and reflective post. I love the way your blog, deep and real, you put your thoughts on the table. The cult of the body (great name) has been going on for decades, in whichever form it takes. It is a really ugly thing when people behave/judge/respect based on their own or others’ physical appearance.

  11. Have been lurking as a reader for a while, but commenting for the first time with thanks for this fantastic article and a suggestion that Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is awesome for new vegetarian recipes.

  12. “Deal with people from a place of kindness”… This is what I say to myself when it is easy to be impatient, annoyed, irritated, or just at my wits end. It really helps!

  13. Yes yes yes love love love hit the nail on the head etc

    I love setting goals for the year, just to give myself some focus and some feeling of accomplishment. But I always try to include some non-fitness ones, like “Read X Number of Books”, and this year I added “Volunteer” – something I used to do regularly but has fallen by the wayside. One of my friends commented on my 2014 Goals blog post that she liked that they’re measureable. I didn’t really think about it until she brought it up, but I realized what I was doing was taking the intangible ideas – be healthier, enjoy what’s around me, give back, stay connected to friends – and putting them into tangible actions.

  14. Caitlin, I love this post…you have such a great perspective. One thing I have learned this year by keeping up with the fitness press, blogging and reading other bloggers? I don’t really belong there. I’m just someone, like you said who wants to be fit and healthy– not get caught up in all the controversies in the media. But it takes a lot of energy to ignore it too. How to be smart and know what’s going on without getting sucked in…there’s a goal right there…a fine balance it will take. Here’s to a great 2014!

  15. I really love this post.. I get the whole media & social media craziness.. I want to hide from it but I think more I want to confront what it does to young girls & older ladies as well.. I don’t want girls to grow up not loving themselves anymore like me & other after me due to the message to girls & women in the media….

    Not sure what I will do in 2014 – it remains to be seen…

  16. What an amazing post! You’ve captured what I’ve very inadequately been trying to say for the past few years. Our value to the planet is not the number on the scale, or the size of our waistbands, or the number of burpees we can do in 60 seconds. It’s far deeper and wider than that. At least, that’s what I’m shooting for. 🙂

  17. WOnderful post. I am SO much in agreement. Here’s a thought experiment – suppose we spend our ENTIRE lives focused on our exterior image. Zilch on the karmic progress front, however you look at it. Then imagine we come back in another body – but this time we’re a fruit fly. Or maybe a dung beetle or a hippo. A body is a body. We should respect and take care of it and then do amazing and compassionate things – something that’s only really possible from a place where our brains and bodies are in harmony.

  18. Yes, yes and yes!
    I very much like your resolutions. And I agree entirely with your description of the fitness cult. I think it has many elements of a new cult – firm believers who rage against “sinners”, gurus, “fitness temples”, redeeming yourself by starvation or (over-)working out.
    I also agree that fitness and health by itself are a good thing. To stay with the image I am a “newly converted” person myself and enjoy many benefits of tha. So much so that I always ask people to tell me if I start acting as a “missionary”. 😉

    But you are right – using one’s own fitness _against_ somebody and especially the cruelty disguising as advice is awful. There are studies that show that coming down on overweight people makes it even worse. It makes people unhappy and lonely and often they react by eating fat or sugary food as a consolation. And telling somebody who has cancer that he/she caused it him-/herself is something I hardly find words for.

    Exercising is great if you use it as a means to achieve certain things (may that “only” be enjoying life more). But that changes if you take it as a goal by itself.

    To end it with a lighter note: I once saw a drawing of two people talking (and hope it does not get lost in translation). Person A: “For my arms I do that exercise, for my legs I do this, for my chest I do that”. Person B: “Are you doing anything for your head as well?” Person A : “Oh, yes of course. I have an excellent shampoo”. 😀
    That’s also a sort of stop sign for me. I hope I will notice if I start thinking like that.

    By the way: I hope you don’t mind if I “borrow” your resolutions. 🙂

  19. Fantastic post! There’s so much of this going on out there today and it really is time to acknowledge it and reel it in.

  20. Hi Caitlin, never commented before but this post is just exactly what I have been thinking lately. When did almost all of our self worth come to be measured by our figures? I was not raised that way. I grew up on very different values, was valued for my brains and encouraged to be a smart, thinking human being. But some time in my 20s society got to me. I shudder to look at the children of my friends and think that they should grow up believing their figure is the most important thing about them.
    Personally I am struggling to find more balance and to shrink my preoccupation with what my body looks like. I would be really happy if you could share what you do to help you on that route.

  21. This. One thousand times yes. It’s hard to articulate just exactly what has made our culture so crazy about bodies, but the cult of the body feels like it hits right on the money. I’ve struggled with weight and eating and exercise disorders for years, but the past few months I was able to finally let go of some of these destructive habits, partly thanks to your blog! Thank you for continuing to share informative and woman empowering posts! Good luck on your 2014 goals!! 🙂

  22. Wonderful post.

    It’s all about balance, really. Extremes and balance cannot coexist. I opt for balance.

    Your approach of goals is great! To reflect on what we have accomplished is as important as planning for the future! And, keeping it manageable with only a few goals increases the likelihood to reach them. It’s too easy to make long lists. We never implement them though.

  23. Pingback: Day 6: Perpetuating The Problem | Move Fit Performance·

  24. Great post. I am new to working out, relatively anyway. When i first started, i began finding and reading lots of blogs. I love seeing visible abs, I sometimes daydream of attaining them, but I began to wonder if that was the only body ideal. I began to wonder, does anyone workout simply for the physical benefit, do people work out to chase/keep up with their eating lifestyle? Then i started reading nutrition blogs… you know? Just eat! Eat food. Eat organic if you can afford it, cook your own meals, vary you veggies, grains and meats. Running down any mainstream rabbit hole is going to lead you to places that are very uncomfortable. It is in niches like this one, your blog, where I find balance.

  25. Pingback: Body Image Boiled Down to One Question » MagMileRunner·

  26. I’m so glad you wrote this. I have been really focusing on making fitness a part of my everyday life by engaging in some sort of physical activity every single day. But I don’t want this turn into an obsession. This post, I think, will help me keep myself in check.

  27. Ok, will you then change the name of your blog to be less fit-focused? 😉
    “But I can’t help but wonder what good it does to have a lean body if your entire existence is immersed in maintaining that physique? What good is an impressive 1 rep max deadlift if you haven’t a clue what’s happening in the world outside of your gym? What’s the point of looking great in a bikini if you cannot empathize with anyone but yourself? Sure, you’re totally ripped and pretty to look at, but is there anything going on beneath that?”

    +1 You got it! I think some people think I’m cycling obsessed : but I’ve never raced and will not want to. Ever. I already have competed in school, in my career. Enough. I just seem cycling oriented ..because I chose to be car-free….for past few decades. To me, it’s just life, ordinary. Nothing extraordinary.

    I don’t make lists per say unless I absolutely have to remember stuff related to my job..usually meetings or interactions with other workers. That’s all.

    I seldom even make grocery lists unless we are cooking an elaborate, special meal which is only 3-4 times per year. Rest of the time, it’s have 3-4 things “needed” and then going to store, buy and buy other things along the way that’s on the sale which will be good to eat.

    Happy year of the horse. Gallop along like a horse and stop along the way.

  28. Hi Caitlin,
    Thanks for the inspiring post (and blog). One of the reasons I don’t like going to the gym or yoga class is this sort of mentality: holier-than-thou fit spiritual attitudes! So when I find people who are genuinely interested in a holistic well-being, it makes me so happy! Everyone has their own idea of what health and beauty mean, so it’s up to the individual to find what works for them. I have a skin condition that makes my skin welt up with the slightest scratch, and I’ve found a way to make it beautiful–by embracing it. This feels right to me, and so does the way I take care of myself: the food I eat and the exercise I do. No cult here ;’)
    Thanks again,

  29. Pingback: Top Fitness Articles of the Week -- January 5, 2014 › Personal Trainer Development Center·

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