My grandmother has congestive heart failure. My mother has mitral valve prolapse. My mother and grandmother are my inspiration for staying active and healthy. Over the years, I have moved from hating every step that running required to looking forward to the thrill and boost that I get from running a little farther, sprinting a little faster, or making it up a giant hill without stopping. I love running and yet, I have recently discovered a magical nugget of information regarding how I view exercise. When I run for the love of it, for the thrill of feeling autumn air coursing in my lungs, I am happier, healthier, and I honestly carry around this sense of accomplishment, knowing that I can trust my body to work hard and become strong and efficient.
However, this past summer my fitness outlook changed, in way that I would describe as problematic. I’m not going to lie, I love knowing that my body is strong and I know logically that, the way my physique is built, I’m never going to be a 2 or a 4, and I don’t want to be, but sometimes I still feel pressure to be thinner, to make sure that NO extra fat is hanging around. My upper thighs could be more toned right? Couldn’t my stomach be a little flatter and…Ah!!! Is that cellulose!!?? Heaven forbid!! Usually I manage to stop the panic train of silliness before it collides into, and subsequently pops, my self-esteem bubble.
But then my family decided to go on family vacation to the Outer Banks and… I decided to invite my boyfriend. For some reason, it was like inviting him turned on a latent part of my brain. I remember thinking, “it doesn’t matter how many times he says I’m beautiful or that he loves the way I’m built, he might be lying. There could be girls in better shape there. There WILL be girls in better shape. What if he sees them and realizes this whole time he’s been wrong about my body??” (You can see how this crazy train can derail me fairly quickly). Like a good student, I decided to research. Whereas before, I liked to read the occasional fitness magazine and article online for fun or to improve my running, now it became a daily prerequisite. I HAD to research as much as I could, if I could magically read enough about fitness, I would become more fit through osmosis! It began rather innocently, I had eaten more ice cream then intended in May and was looking for ways to make my workout more efficient. I started off cruising the websites of my usual fitness magazines, reading tips and articles, looking for a better way to “slim down”.
Then I turned to Pinterest. If anyone else has ever browsed through the “Health/Fitness” category before, I’m sure you’ve seen what I began to expose, no… indulge myself in. There are legitimate links and tips for revving up a workout or dieting sensibly. There are many more links to blogs on how to starve oneself, to fight off hunger pangs from not eating; tumblrs dedicated to pictures of either very thin or very, very fit women. Recipes, desserts, morning workouts, evening workout, abs workouts, fitness clothing, sweat-proof makeup….it never ends. How to make him notice you at the gym…. You don’t even have to click on a link and you are still barraged with hundreds of images of thin women, women who work out more, women who lost the weight you can’t seem to. I now like to refer to these as “fitness porn”. Essentially, all I did for a month was fill my head with idealized images of women (mostly white) who had perfectly fit bodies. They were all thin with six-packs and worked out EVERY, SINGLE DAY.
In the past I had always taken this section with a LARGE grain of salt, but this past summer I would spend hours on Pinterest, “researching”. What really happened was that I was becoming more and more attracted to “fitness porn”. I would sit and stare at the photos and wish that somehow I could look like those women too. I would hope that throwing in an extra run would change my thighs; another ten crunches would flat out my stomach at last. My attention to these fitness images became very intense and as the days got closer to the beach trip, I ate less, ran more and, overall, felt worse about myself than I ever had before. Over vacation I gained back the weight I lost, cut myself some slack, had a good cry with my boyfriend, and stopped getting onto Pinterest.
I’m back on Pinterest now, but I generally avoid the “Health/Fitness” section and I try to limit it to 15 minutes a day. What have I learned in that time? That I’m not going to be one of the fitness models on Pinterest and I’m okay with that. I love to eat. I love to run. I love to be healthy but it’s not an obsession for me anymore. It might be silly, or simple, but a balance of eating what I love in smaller portions and running when I realistically can, has helped me to return to a healthier perspective and to finally feel satisfaction with myself again.
But all of this begs the question of, how did this happen? How is it that fitness and health have become co-opted by the mainstream social ideals of beauty? Because it’s pervasive, its everywhere, literally everywhere. I can’t even read an article on a fitness magazine FOR women without seeing titles like “A Sexy Slim Down” with some sort of caption about “catching his eye”. I think it’s time that women reclaim what it means to be healthy and fit, to change it’s direction from how to look pretty at the gym and start making it more about how to take charge of your health. How? Well I don’t have a master plan to change it all, but little steps such as watching where you get your fitness inspiration/information and NOT double-checking where links on Pinterest actually go can make a hug difference.
Here are some more links to other articles about this issue and some differing perspectives: