Fitness and body-policing

Exercise is not a punishment. While the fitness culture of the 21st century could be deemed a healthy obsession, if it is based on brutal body policing, how healthy is it really?

To counter the stick-thin female body ideal of the 1990s and 2000s, a new fitness ideal is slowly making its way into the public consciousness.

Mass media, like magazines and social media are full of images of people looking lean, clean, firm and ‘fit’. Alongside it, the commercial business of gyming and active wear has exploded.

“All bodies are real bodies. They deserve love, care and respect. They do not deserve to be policed and exploited by any fad.”

This new fad is not necessarily a bad thing. Premised on ‘health’, it encourages ‘clean’ eating, exercise and looking after your body. Exercise can increase your serotonin levels, it can reduce stress and anxiety, improve digestion and immune system functioning, and it can strengthen bones.

Exercise has also been shown to improve body-image, but not primarily because it changes how you look. The experience of using your body simply makes you more grateful for it and what it can do.

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Female joggers on the beach. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons. 

Fitness culture also has positives for feminism. It is great that women are breaking gender norms and taking on a more traditionally ‘masculine’ image.

Women are also no longer under pressure to be skinny. Curves are ‘in’.

But not all curves are equal. Fat distribution is genetic, and if it naturally drifts to your glutes and your breasts, then you are in luck. The hour-glass figure has now been given the sought-after stamp of approval from society.

Skinny is now bad. Lack of tone is bad. Curves in the ‘wrong’ places are very bad.

And here is the problem; a culture that deems some body shapes ‘good’ and others ‘bad’ is not a healthy culture.

While the spread of obesity around the world is a cause for concern, ‘fitness’ is not the solution.

“While the fitness culture of the 21st century could be deemed a healthy obsession, if it is based on brutal body policing, how healthy is it really?”

Obesity, on a structural level, is caused by quick, cheap, easy access to junk food, the hurried 21st century lifestyle, and poverty. On a psychological level, it is caused by comfort- or stress- or emotional eating and is often an effort to cover up painful feelings.

Fitness culture does not fix any of these things. In fact, ‘fitness’, in terms of gym membership fees, clothing and the current trend of ‘clean eating’, is expensive. And the drive to get fit is often caused by feelings of unworthiness.

A lot of fitness culture has nothing to do with internal or health benefits. It is about image. Image, unlike what our instincts would have us believe, is not necessarily related to health, and if the focus of fitness culture is determining your worth based on your appearance, it is not a healthy culture.

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A women looks at herself in the mirror prior to lifting weights. Photo source: Pexels

A ‘health’ culture premised on the physical is leaving something important out: the health of your mind. It may be true that eating well and exercising can improve mental health, but not if it comes from a bad mental space to begin with.

Replacing one harmful ideal with another is not fixing the problem.

A culture that treats your body like an object, not a home, is not about health. A culture that profits from peoples’ feelings of unworthiness is not about self-love. A culture premised on shame, on people not wanting to be ‘unfit’ for the beach, is not about confidence-boosting.

All bodies are real bodies. They deserve love, care and respect. They do not deserve to be policed and exploited by any fad.

Exercise is not a punishment, or at least, it shouldn’t be.

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A women practicing meditation and yoga on the beach. Self-compassion is an integral part of yoga and mindfulness practice. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

We can do the same things, but from a different mental place. We can do things out of love, or out of fear. I hope the next time you start your exercise routine, you are aware of which one is driving you. It will make all the difference.

Cover Photo:  Controversial ‘beach-body’ advertisement by Protein World. Photo source: Flickr

All photos used have been licensed for noncommercial re-use. 

This article was originally published at All4women here

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