The Sheer Snobbery of Fitness for Sale

Every time I turn around, the promise of a better body (and a better life) is being marketed to me — through the traditional channels of TV, radio and print, but increasingly more on social media. And it's not just fitness center, protein powder and expensive active wear companies trying to poke at any internal embers of physical/emotional malcontent, but also people — life coaches, yoga teachers, nutrition gurus (some so extreme I refer to them as "food shamers") and personal trainers. Somewhere along the way, the philosophy of "moderation" and "balance" morphed into "beast mode" and became the mantra of the new generation, creating a clique of sorts that advocates for aggressive, unrelenting physical activity in pursuit of an enviable physical form under the guise of health.

What's wrong with this picture? First of all, looks can be deceiving, and no one seems to talk about the accelerated wear and tear on the body that repeated strain, day in and day out, has on knees, joints, tendons, etcetera. Second of all, blanket marketing to mass audiences with the assumption that everyone receiving the message is unhappy with their physical condition is a ridiculous notion, and a practice that continues to feed the epidemic spiral of self-loathing. I actually responded to a Instagram post by a "health coach" one time that had overtly preachy tones, something along the lines of "Time to stop living an unhealthy lifestyle and become a better you." Who me? I thought. I politely suggested to the proprietor that she adjust her messaging to include language that celebrated the power of the self to enhance our physical condition and frame her message more around wisdom to be gained, instead of jumping straight to body shaming. Think about all of the commercials out there with a focus on health — yogurt, fruit juice, breakfast bars — that involve an actor making a healthy choice. The healthier option = a happy actor whom good things happen to vs. an unhappy actor who falls victim to various misfortunes. Ironically, breakfast bars are full of crappy ingredients like cheap sugar formulas and processed grains. When's the last time you saw an advertisement for spinach, or eggplant?

The spectrum of a wellness journey is rarely linear, multi-faceted and deeply personal. I actually know a lot of really great health coaches who lean towards the holistic approach, and applaud their enthusiasm for spreading the message of the many fruits of a healthy lifestyle. But for the practitioners and companies who go around shouting that you (or your product) can fix what's broken, it’s a case of arrogance and an exercise in condescension — because what if nothing is broken, but rather just in need of refinement or the right motivation? Some of these ads feel akin to a snake oil salesman selling a "cure-all" to mend a persistent ailment. I told the misguided health coach that I had been pretty involved in finding healthy ways to eat and stay fit for years, but took her post to be rather offensive — not just to my sensibilities as a fit human, but to the hundreds reading it who may have some self-consciousness about their weight, their lack of muscle tone, their failed fitness goals or their inconsistent diet, who in that moment of reading her lines were made to feel inferior. Had she merely taken the time to find a more delicate and respectful way to speak at me (us), there's a chance I could have found something of value in her services.

The problem is, our collective mentality still views "healthy" as the other side of the fence, a journey that runs from point A to point B, a place we can get to by responding to marketed promises of fast fixes, when in fact it is an ongoing process of expanding our awareness of the body to discover, by learning and experimenting, what it needs to function optimally (i.e., more energy, stamina, better moods).

When I was a pre-teen, I had a mild obsession with food and my body image was unfavorable. I would see how long I could go without eating, have a salad around 2 pm, and then pick at my dinner plate, smashing food around so it would look like I ate something. My grandfather always commented on how skinny I was: “Girls should have curves, not angles." I had a fear of fats and used to use napkins to dab the oil off of pizza slices. I didn't understand the calories in vs. calories burned formula, but equated looking good with deprivation. Today it seems deprivation and suffering is still viewed as the golden ticket to health, hence the prevalence of "no pain, no gain" and a "cheat day," which now strikes me as silly. If you're eating what you need to fulfill the body's nutritional and caloric requirements, why would you need to "cheat" at eating well? Where's the balance in that? In my version of a healthy diet, my body consumes a lot of fruit and veggies, but it also gets dark chocolate or birthday cake when it wants it.

I'll admit as an adult, I've cared too much about crunches, cringed at any evidence of weight gain and felt bad after noticing less tightness and more softness in certain areas. I've weight trained for over a decade, and enjoyed testing the limits of my physical condition. Ironically enough, when my body was the tightest it's ever been, I was not in a good place mentally. I got a certain sense of superiority from being able to drop weight at will. After losing 15 lbs., I had a coworker ask, "Are you so thin because it's the one thing you can control in your life?" Looking back, she hit the nail on the head. But in the last few years, a seismic shift has occurred in how I view fitness. I've seen incredible things happen in regards to the power of the self to heal negative patterns and move towards symbiosis. I've watched an obese friend completely change her life by making the decision to finally achieve a healthy weight, realizing that the mental and emotional journey required far more courage than the physical one. I watched my mother stop smoking after trying for as long as I can remember, because circumstances conspired to make it the right time for her, because she came upon that inner strength somehow. I, myself, seized an opportunity to evaluate the emotional issues underlying my askew self-perception guided by the suggestions of a 12-step program and a strong network of support (no purchase necessary), and I began to learn how to have healthy relationships with myself and others. Now my version of health does not hinge primarily on what I see in the mirror. The truth is, even if you do everything "right," you will have days where you lean toward the self-critical. But when you let go of the absurd ideals the health proprietors promise and let yourself breathe and enjoy, those self-critical moments leave as swiftly as they came. And you begin to understand that "happy" and "healthy" are subjective and malleable and not implicit in any single decision you make regarding food or fitness.

Mostly, though, in these last few years, I have really relished the process of letting go of the notion that keeping a strict ideal of fitness will keep me in good standing in life. My body has its own sense of balance, and it's rarely ever completely in homeostasis, and that's ok. I've learned to appreciate the ebbs and flows, and I listen and respond when things feel off. Now I can enjoy a root beer with my nephew, or a bucket of movie theater popcorn once in awhile, without feeling like a blob who has to run to the gym to make up for bad deeds. Most recently, I've had a drastic change to my schedule while visiting Tahiti, where I'm staying with a family. Meals are to nourish the body and spirit, and to spend time together, and no one at the table is talking about how fat they're going to get if they eat another croissant, or how much time on the treadmill they'll need to make up for another piece of cake. I don’t have access to my regular fitness routines or food items, so it has become a new opportunity to reinvent my definition of fitness. The commercials are in French, so I don’t have to roll my eyes when health commercials peddle their “should” mentality. I am content after meals, and if I feel heaviness, I go for a jungle walk, or stretch. I eat as much fresh fruit as I do bread and cheese, and I’m excited to get going on turning some of these angles into curves.

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