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.