I remember my first "selfie." It was a hot summer day and I was preparing to take my kids, ages 7 and 1 year old to the beach. I dug to the bottom of a bin of pre-pregnancy clothes, I found a two-piece suit and wondered if I'd lost my mind. Would I really feel comfortable wearing a bikini in public? I made a new commitment to barre classes starting mid-pregnancy, and it evolved into a pivot point for my entire life.
The practice left me me centered and confident, internally. When I put that suit on I was so shocked by the strong, muscular body in the mirror, I shut the bedroom door, locked it, and broke out my digital camera to take a picture of myself in the mirror. I had to know if my eyes/mirror were playing tricks on me or if this powerful body was really mine.
As a single mom going through a nasty divorce, showing up at the barre 3-5 days a week had become an oasis of sanity in an otherwise stressful existence. It gave me a break from my kids, and more importantly, a break from my thoughts. It allowed me to get out of my head and into my body. It showed me I had the strength to push through even when things were challenging.
I could feel myself getting stronger when I went from doing pushups on my knees to being able to do them on straight legs, and when I increased my muscular endurance from holding a plank pose for 10 seconds to a full minute and more.
What I hadn't realized was how much it would change the way I looked - this was more like a surprising side effect of my work at the barre. I felt amazing inside and out. The feelings that prompted that selfie comprised a defining moment for me, internally. Not because I amazed myself with the definition of my own abs. But because I realized how women everywhere are conditioned to think this is what it's all about, when there had been so much more to my journey than aesthetics.
In the first glance in the mirror that day, I was proud of my inner confidence and physical health. At the same time, my heart sank as I reflected on how many women sell themselves short when they adopt physical appeal as a central point of importance. Inner strength, confidence and resilience can move mountains, create transformation and make the world a better place. Bikini bodies - not.
At the core, I'm a feminist. My definition of this is summed-up in two words: gender equality. Whenever I hear fitness professionals attempt to spark motivation in female clients by talking about bikini season, I cringe. It's central to my mission as a feminist leader in the fitness industry to do everything in my power to stop women from thinking even for a second that this is what lies at the center of their physical practice.
As founder of Barre & Soul, I see a genuine opportunity for transformation of entire communities. And that change has nothing to do with bikinis. Ensuring women's bodies are as hot as possible - for the benefit of those taking in the view of them in swimwear this season? What a miss.
At the core of feminism is this idea that the personal is political. Whatever I'm struggling with personally tends to be affecting other women too. A key intersection between feminism and fitness is the issue of body image. But fitness pros should know that a fit lifestyle is about much more than how a body looks. Let's get straight about the substantive benefits strength and fitness deliver - not just in summertime.
Setting things straight
Fitness is an area of life that can't be ignored, our health and vitality, physical, intellectual and emotional well-being depend upon it. Unfortunately, it can bring up perfectionism and feelings of inadequacy for women. I believe body image is a big deal, because it affects confidence and can hold women back. If you don't know already - confidence is a crucial asset every woman can benefit from having more of. Studies show in many areas of life - from personal to professional - confidence matters as much as competence when it comes to success. Men don't seem to have the same problem. It's not as simple as telling women to be confident no matter what body they were born with. Fitness pros have an opportunity to lead a change.
There is a sub-text to the overwhelming majority of fitness articles and headlines women are bombarded with in every facet of their lives. It dictates that we should worry about looking a certain way, and when bikini season is here - we need to work our literal asses off to fit the mold. This cultural assumption that we should feel obliged to focus on aesthetically perfecting our bodies is a sad reflection of what it means to develop true confidence. Leaders in the fitness industry should have much more to offer than a bikini body.
Finding strength, inside and out
Speaking from personal experience - I was about as low as could be in life when a renewed commitment to my mind/body fitness practice of barre and yoga brought not only physical strength and stamina, but nothing short of a revolution in my confidence, self-assurance, aspirations and beliefs about what I could achieve in every facet of life.
I was a single parent, struggling in every way to escape a lifestyle burdened by financial strain, domestic violence and emotional abuse. At vulnerable moments in life, the last thing that will draw you in and build you up is a message that you're just not enough - because your body looks terrible in a bikini, according to some B.S. standard of beauty.
Everybody has their own vulnerabilities that can be addressed in healthy, empowering ways through fitness. The focus needs to be in the right place to create the kind of breakthrough that changed my life. We need to be telling women they have the capability to shed substantive emotional and physical burdens and internal barriers - rather than just focusing on a few stupid pounds.
Focusing on 'bikini season' and 'shaping up for summer' implies women's bodies are not their own. Assuming women somehow owe it to society to look a certain way, positions their bodies as objects for consumption. In this paradigm, there is no emphasis on why women might want to be stronger or fitter.
For your 100-old self
Planning to go paddle boarding or hiking with your grandkids? If you don't build physical, mental and emotional strength and stamina into your routine now - it's not going to happen. You owe it to your 100 year old self - not the guys checking you out at the beach - to make fitness part of your life. And by the way - almost no one is talking to men about swimsuit season or urging them to present a flawless figure to the world.
Women are already under tremendous pressure to succeed in areas from career, to social and domestic life, to physical beauty. This is all impossibly high-maintenance if we choose to subscribe to it. And it leaves us with substantially less freedom and leisure time to devote to real self-improvement and development compared with men. So don't buy in!
As an innovator in the fitness arena - I want women to be attracted to a fitness practice that promises more substantial results. It can transform them - and I'm not even talking about their physical selves. The outward results are a significant byproduct of what happens when you find a fitness community that supports you, and embraces a consistent approach integrating mind, body and soul.
Don't get me wrong -- I appreciate my toned muscles. But that's just the surface. We need to get real, and just stop with the notion of bikini-season. Because you are so much more than just a body.