Concerns From a Fitness Professional

Last month, in Why Fit is the New Thin, I explored how the “fitspiration” phenomenon can be uncomfortably reminiscent of the “thinspiration” phenomenon. They aren’t entirely identical; thinspiration is pretty much always about collecting pictures that glorify an unhealthy and unattainable standard of beauty (skinny). Fitspiration can be about motivating and empowering yourself to try rock climbing, do a handstand, run a marathon or reach some other kick-ass physical fitness goal. But it can also be about glorifying an unhealthy and unattainable standard of beauty… and because it all gets dressed up as “fitness,” the unhealthy parts can be a lot harder to pick out. I offered some guidelines that help me separate the “this makes me want to run outside and be sweaty and awesome!” stuff from the “this makes me feel like dog poo if  I can only go to the gym for 35 minutes instead of 45 minutes today.”

You guys had a lot of thoughts about this. Which I dig. Because I get it. Fitspiration is incredibly compelling — I mean, that’s its whole raison d’etat. (As I noted in that post, a lot of it is advertising, which means Nike, Lululemon and the rest have paid huge sums of money to talented mad men and women specifically to ensure you’d find these images highly appealing.) And again, there are plenty of examples of positive fitspiration out there, doing good things.

But then one comment came in, from Concerned Fitness Pro, which I’ve decided to respond to in post form. Because there’s a lot happening here. And it’s not just about fitspiration but also about how we distinguish between inspiration and judgment when we’re looking at other people’s bodies. Which, let’s face it, we all really, really like to do.

So here we go. (Just to be clear, the paragraphs in italics are Concerned Fitness Pro’s comments; the bold and regular stuff is me.)

1. But fitness models are so healthy! 

I disagree tremendously with the general health view points of this article. I will also address some of the other comments as well. First, it is nearly impossible to maintain being a fitness model and having an eating disorder. The amount of muscle required to become a true fitness model requires a VERY healthy diet and exact fitness prescription distinct to each individual.

Actually, it’s pretty possible. Research shows that as many as 31 percent of young female athletes in “thin-build sports” have eating disorders (and as many as 62 percent participate in disordered eating behaviors), compared with just five to nine percent of the general population. (Those stats straight from an American College of Sports Medicine 2011 position paper on the issue.) “Thin-build sports” are physical activities where a lean physique is an asset — think running, gymnastics, and oh yeah, fitness modeling.

You’re assuming that everyone with an eating disorder has wasted away to nothing and wouldn’t be able to lift a free weight, or is morbidly obese from binge eating. But the eating disorder spectrum is far more nuanced than that; patients come in all shapes and sizes and some of them may look very physically fit. Compulsive exercise (also called obligatory exercise and anorexia athletica) can go hand in hand with an eating disorder or be a mental health problem in its own right. And the reason the ACSM is tracking eating disorder stats among female athletes so closely is because they’re worried about Female Athlete Triad, a triple threat condition where young, female athletes with some form of disordered eating fail to take in enough nutrition to support their sport — and wind up with amenorrhea (loss of period) and osteoporosis.

2. I mean, they’re not like those runway models… 

 I have known several models who are not fitness models and that I feel there a much better depiction for your argument. Many of the models on runways etc are not “ripped” due to their appearance in clothing, and its effects on selling the product. They fast and maintain very unhealthy diet in many of their circumstances to stay that skinny (Liquid diets before shows, not eating at all before shows, do research and you’ll be mortified). Victoria Secret models are not fitness models. Their habits and lifestyles should not be compared similarly.

True, Victoria Secret models are not fitness models. They’re working to achieve a different aesthetic. But we can absolutely compare their habits and lifestyles. In both cases, these women are training to meet their industry’s specific standard of beauty. Yes, the fitness model’s standard of beauty is also — allegedly — about health, whereas the Victoria Secret model’s standard of beauty is about sex appeal. But in both cases, they’re working tremendously hard to maintain an impossible standard. As the data shows, athletes are not exempt from eating disorders. They’re actually getting more of them than the average population. They may look more “ripped” than Gisele and co, but I’d argue these two groups have more in common than we realize. And by subscribing to a narrow idea of what an eating disorder looks like and what healthy looks like, we’re doing a big disservice to people who may need help — but are harder to spot.

3. It’s okay to intervene when someone is fat, for their health’s sake.

Now, I am not familiar with any of these images, nor do I judge someone for their ability to be fit. However, if I see someone who is overweight and they are close to me, I will say something. Its the same thing as an alcoholic intervention etc. If someone is endangering their health, I will let them know it for their sake. Many believe it is enough exercise every once in a while, but if they do not maintain a healthy level of body fat, which for women is under 30%, then they are at a much greater risk for CVD.

Concerned Fitness Pro and I already covered the “not familiar with any of these images” part. (He/she went back and familiarized and stands by his/her comments. Moving right along.)

Now let’s talk about why you wouldn’t “judge someone for their ability to be fit,” but you would feel free to say something to an overweight loved one. That, my concerned friend, is hypocrisy plain and simple. Because it’s not the same as an alcoholic intervention. If you see someone regularly missing work and letting down loved ones because of drinking, yes, fine, intervene. If you look at someone’s waist size? Keep your mouth shut. You don’t have enough information yet.

We know that being overweight correlates to certain health issues, but we do not know that the weight itself causes the problems — science is far from conclusive on this question. Studies show that at least one in five obese people have no health issues at all, and overweight women actually live longer than normal or underweight women. (To my regular readers: Sorry, I know I keep trotting out the same stats there. There’s plenty more research like this and I’m working on a longer post where I’ll get it all nicely synthesized for you.)

If you know your overweight loved one also eats an unhealthy diet, smokes, and never exercises, well, maybe then you’d want to have a respectful conversation about healthy lifestyle choices and what you can do to support them. But you should want to have the same conversation with your thin friend who has a similarly unhealthy lifestyle — because science does show that these specific lifestyle habits cause health problems. And in both cases, you can actually have this whole talk without ever bringing body size into things. Not judging them by their muffin top (or “skinny fat”) will go a long way towards making the respectful part happen.

Because you’re concerned about their health, right? Not how good they look in a bikini?

4. Eating bad foods is bad. 

Rewarding yourself with food in moderation is okay, however, just because you go on a run does not mean you can pig out on a huge bowl of ice cream or have a heavy night of drinking. Especially sugar, to some is considered by many health experts as a drug or a poison due to its addicting effects of releasing dopamine in the brain. I myself do indulge on certain pleasure on occasion such as alcohol and bad foods, but I feel guilty about it. I should feel guilty about it. These things shorten your life. You cannot be sensitive to your health.

Hoo boy. Concerned Fitness Pro, your world has a lot of rules. And guilt! That doesn’t sound like much fun — but hey, that’s your diet. I respect your right to feel guilty after you eat ice cream. Personally, I’m working on shedding my food guilt and listening to my body instead of following a bunch of external rules. That’s because I’ve found that guilt is just my way of apologizing for doing what I wanted to do anyway… and since I’m a grown up person, I don’t owe anyone an apology for making my own decisions, as long as they don’t hurt anyone.

So I know what you’re going to say: But I AM hurting someone — myself! — when I eat that ice cream! See above re: Sugar and poison. I’ve been following this research too (here’s an article I wrote for Fitness Magazine last year about it) and it’s fascinating stuff. But it’s also pretty controversial and (like the whole causation/correlation question around obesity) far from definitive. So right now, I don’t see a need to treat sugar like heroin — though I’m open to being wrong about this if the science becomes more conclusive.

[Breaking news update: Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, just gave a lecture saying yes, food can be addictive — but also that this idea is still super controversial. Time's Healthland has a helpful breakdown of her talk and the counter-arguments.]

I do see plenty of reasons to increase regulations on how the food industry is allowed to market sugary foods to kids, and I’d love to see clearer labels on packaged foods that helped people understand when they’re buying something without much nutritional value. Because right now, food companies do pretty much everything they can to convince us than everything they sell is healthy and that’s misleading and confusing.

But I want us to be better informed to help us make our own choices. What those choices are — well, that’s up to every individual. (With occasional, respectful input from the people who love them and want them to live a long time.) Applying morality to food and health, as you do when you talk about “bad food” and “guilt,” implies that there are always clear right and wrong choices and anyone who makes the wrong choice should be condemned. Health, however, is not some sort of prime directive. We eat food for so many reasons (joy, community, comfort, artistry) that aren’t about health and yet they are equally valid. And so, there are plenty of situations, happy and sad, where health doesn’t have to be (and some where it absolutely should not be) our top priority in a food decision.

5. The pros outweigh the cons (even if you stop menstruating). 

Some fitness models, specifically women, are between 14-20% body fat. Although this can have some adverse effects with menstrual cycles etc, the pros out-weight the cons. To get to this toned level, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication in being healthy. I’m not saying you need to look like these fitness models, either. I just don’t think maintaining average health is good enough. Images of these models inspire people to get in shape. Better shape = live longer and happier. People are way too sensitive, and need to get over it.

 Losing your menstrual cycle can set a woman up for osteoporosis, infertility and a variety of other health consequences that would certainly screw up the math on your “Better shape = live longer and happier” equation. So I’m having a hard time imaging the list of “pros” that outweigh these cons, but I fear they mostly have to do with the joys of rock hard abs. I don’t want to discount such pleasures — I have never known them personally, but I can imagine they are a lot of fun at parties and such. I have known other joys of physical fitness (mastering a headstand in yoga, running a half-marathon, hiking up a mountain) so I do understand the thrill of the endorphin rush, the feelings of empowerment and so on. These are great things. But you can have them without losing your menstrual cycle or otherwise messing up your body. I guess that might look like just “maintaining average health” to you. Which sounds reasonable, sustainable and fun to me… so again, I’m just not clear on your pro/con list here.
But I’m not sure my confusion on that point really matters, since we’re talking about hypothetical fitness models right now. And I’m certainly not going to start assuming that every fitness model I see pictured in every bit of fitspiration has lost her period and is in the throes of an eating disorder. I’m just trying to raise awareness that this is a problem that exists, but is easily dismissed when we assume we can tell everything about a person’s health from their appearance.
Because every athlete is not healthy.
Every fashion model is not anorexic.
Every obese person is not one cheeseburger away from a heart attack.
So perhaps the biggest problem with fitspiration is that concepts like “health” and “fitness” are far more personal and complicated than anything one picture can capture.
[Image: By Things We Forget via Pinterest, on the smart advice of Katesome, who is fighting the negative messages of fitspiration and thinspiration with her amazing Stop The Thinspo board. Follow her, repin this stuff like crazy, and let's get more Health At Every Size and body positive messages up on Pinterest!]

Filed under Beauty Standards, Fashion, Glossed Over, Health, Modeling

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17 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Great response to that commenter. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  2. Pamela
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Great post. This reminds me of a chat I had with a yoga instructor a couple months ago. She had an upcoming photoshoot for her website or something, and was bemoaning the fact that she had to go on a diet in order to look ‘fit’ enough for the photo. She was in excellent shape, physically- got plenty of exercise, flexible, etc. But she had to go on a pretty intense diet to look fit. That pretty much convinced me that getting exercise =/= looking fit.

    • Posted April 5, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Wow, yes, that illustrates everything I was trying to say here so nicely. And I completely get the pressure she was feeling — we absolutely have this idea of how “Fit” should look (especially yoga teacher fit!). And it’s 100 percent a beauty standard, not a marker of health.

      • Posted April 22, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

        That story doesn’t surprise me! Though I’ve found yoga to be much more accepting of non-standard body sizes that don’t fit with what people imagine ‘fit’ to look like. I have found myself thinking of one of my teachers, who is visibly much bigger than me as a fitness role model. Particularly iyengar i guess, maybe ashtanga less so (those are the two types of yoga I do).

        Anyway, excellent response (and original post!)

  3. Posted April 6, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    I LOVE this! I wish you’d included an image so I could pin it on my anti thinspo board on Pinterest.

    Great that you posted back up studies too.

    Do let us know if he/she responds.

    • Posted April 6, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      Ahhh! I totally need to do this. Brainstorming images… and yes, I’ll definitely let you know if he/she responds!

    • Posted April 6, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      PS. I love, love, love your anti-thinspo board. Wildly re-pinning!

  4. Ruth
    Posted April 15, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    to me this all feels so.. ridiculous. and unfortunately so normal. He should (of all people) know better than to say losing your period is healthy but as so many people have really warped ideas of health he is hardly alone. I wish people didnt get sucked into all these x=y ideas without thinking them through.. Image is not substance..
    And great article :)

  5. evan
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    I really hope you don’t censor this and allow it to be on your site, because it needs to be said:

    I don’t know how I found myself on your site… but I find myself taking the opposite side of the argument on pretty much every issue. It reads like a diatribe of a girl that needs to come up with lofty excuses as to why people that look better than her are wrong, and she’s right&healthy&beautiful. Don’t get me wrong, if you want to eat ice cream and pretend refined garbage is fine for you then go for it, but don’t try and feed it to other people and pass it off as ‘healthy’.

    Get a grip on reality.

    I don’t even agree with ‘fitness pro’s’ comments much either to be honest, you’re both wrong. Just for different reasons. I’ve been bodybuilding for about 5 years now and you both are so off base it gives me a headache to read your writing.

    The one thing I will agree with you on is that you can’t look at a body and determine if it is healthy (solely by appearance). But who is stupid enough to think you can do that reliably anyways? Obviously, if you see someone who is overweight/obese there is a higher chance they will be “unhealthy” (whatever that subjective word means), and the more you arrive at normal body weights the higher chance the individual will be “healthy”.

    It’s obvious that is the case, when you get a blood test, they correlate your values to the ‘normal’ range. The more ‘normal’ you look, the closer to ‘normal’ you will be. It means nothing.

    As a bodybuilder, the amount of time I put into planning and preparing my meals would probably cause you to think I have a disorder. I eat 6 meals a day, in the off-season I eat sometimes when I am not hungry because I am trying to gain weight (re: build muscle), in-season I am still eating 6 meals a day, but am constantly hungry. I am using food as a tool to achieve a certain aesthetic. I feel at a loss trying to describe my lifestyle to you because I am sure that your mental image will be a misrepresentation of my life.

    Now, you have not defined what ‘healthy’ is. But ANY TIME of the year, I can lift more, run longer, run faster, and look better than 99% of other males that lead normal lifestyles.

    Perhaps I have an eating disorder? Would you like to shove my lifestyle into some category and put a label on it?

    Whatever happened to dedication? To having goals? To NOT WANTING TO BE NORMAL. I am not normal, and I make no excuses for it, I go to the gym every day, my meals are planned and calculated. The only disorder I have are aspirations to achieve something better and constantly push myself every single day towards my goals.

    I could go on but I’ve written enough. This is an industry you really need to be closer to in order to have a real understanding of the mentalities of the people therein and the type of lifestyle they lead. On paper it might look like eating disorders and muscle dismorphia but in reality we aren’t motivated by anxiety, we’re motivated but ourselves and the drive to be the best.

    p.s. you will never be able to find a true cause-effect relationship for health issues and lifestyle, the best researchers can do is give STRONG correlations. Guess what, being overweight correlates STRONGLY to having issues like heart disease and diabetes. You can’t bash a correlation in one paragraph and then ‘trot out’ your own studies that show mere correlation again in the next, that is the definition of hypocrisy, as you like to say.

    • Posted April 17, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      Hi Evan,

      I don’t censor (with the exception of spam and hate talk) so I am allowing your comment to be on my site. But I’m not at all sure that any of this needed to be said. You oscillate wildly between making personal attacks and assumptions, stereotyping, and just plain sloppy writing — I don’t have much patience with any of it.

      But I am not shoving you into a category, labeling you, or making assumptions about your health. Nor am I qualified or well-informed enough to determine whether you have an eating disorder. You seem to find your body building aspirations and lifestyle choices to be personally rewarding and I think that’s wonderful. But there are many ways to lead a healthy and rewarding life — and there is also no law that says anyone has to be healthy all the time. Your lifestyle does not give you the authority to offer the last word on health or to judge others who make different choices and don’t subscribe to your beliefs.

      Thanks,
      Virginia

    • Posted April 18, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      A suggestion? I would recommend that if you want someone to take your contrary points seriously, you start out with something other than an insult. You don’t suddenly have the right to be a jackass to people simply because you are typing on a keyboard rather than speaking to their face. Have some respect.

      Not everyone wants to be a fitness professional or a competitive bodybuilder. If that’s what you want to do, that’s great, but to make bodybuilding the standard of health is borderline absurd. It’s like saying marathoners ought to be held up as the standard of cardiovascular fitness, when the reality is that bodybuilders, marathoners and other people who compete at the extremes of physical activity are outliers.

      I run long distances and I compete in multisport events, which are both pursuits that take a lot of time and focus and dedication, but I would never, ever dream of saying that everyone has to lead their lives the way I do in order to be happy and fulfilled.

  6. Posted April 18, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Virginia, your post is so apropos, especially as I’ve been reading a lot lately about endurance athletes and eating disorders. Like, I find it fascinating that Chrissie Wellington, one of the most successful Ironman triathletes of all time, has struggled with an eating disorder. And then of course, so many runners…

    One simply cannot assume that a person is healthy just because they compete in sports or have a certain physique. It’s as foolish to do so as to assume that someone is unhealthy simply because they are fat.

  7. anonymous
    Posted September 25, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Just to comment on the issue of “female fitness”: you are absolutely right that striving for low body fat can have some serious consequences on a woman’s bone health. Too low body fat means insufficient estrogen levels (indicated by loss of periods) which in turn means deterioration of bone mineral density and eventually osteoporosis if the condition lasts for months or years. This we all know I guess. However, there is also a less well-known effect on cardiovascular health; estrogen plays an important role in protecting against CVD, which explains why women in general do not suffer from CVD until after menopause (unlike men who may have clogged arteries in their forties). If for one reason or other a woman is estrogen-deficient, her arteries will be at risk – for example, there have been some studies showing clogging of arteries in young anorexia patients with amenorrhea. This I think is something to be considered regarding the alleged “healthiness” of the fitness model body type.

  8. Posted July 26, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I’m looking for a helpful post and not just random thoughts about exercise, hard to understand and wondering if it fits me but finally I found it. Sometimes that’s hard to articulate what we’re looking for – especially at the beginning. But we almost always have a gut feeling for what’s closer to what we’re looking for or what’s farther away or even downright wrong or annoying.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Clickity Click! | The Karina Chronicles on April 27, 2012 at 6:02 am

    [...] A great article from a fitness professional. [...]

  2. [...] Is fitspiration actually thinspiration in disguise? Virginia Sole-Smith discusses the dangers of compulsive exercise, false assumptions about what is true health, and distinguishing between inspiration and judgment when looking at other peoples’ bodies here. [...]

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