There was once a time when chanting ‘Hail Mary’ was believed to absolve us of our sins.
These days, our sins (eating non-organic food, skipping BodyPump after work, etc) are amended in a more chic, social-media-friendly manner. The rosary beads have been replaced by designer fitness wrist bands and chanting positive mantras in mindfulness classes.
“I am strong. I am happy. I am enough. I am strong. I am happy. I am…”
Mantras, measuring steps, committing to 10 minutes of mindfulness daily: these actions are proven to have positive benefits on mental and physical health. It’s when the rampant desire to completely overhaul one’s life and model it on the Instagram and Snapchat model/actress/nutritionist/yoga/reiki masters takes over that danger beckons on the Body Image Horizon.
I’m not immune – as the founder of Ballet Sculpt, a barre, yoga and Body Pump instructor and daily gym or studio goer, I walk into the church of body worship and wellness warriors with both a sense of acceptance but also wariness. Under the excuse of “fitness”, there’s some dangerous imagery, ideas, language and behaviour going on. Personal trainers loudly crowing about their two days of fasting and how coffee is improved with a big chunk of butter was a recently painful conversation to overhear (from the other end of the gym).
We discuss on Mamamia Out Loud what happens when you are fat-shamed…by your gym. (Post continues after audio.)
It’s my job to teach people that fitness is not your rippling biceps but a state of being. I have to remind myself too. When Instagram tries to convince me that a Lark-filtered teenager in Nikes and a string bikini is the epitome of strength, it’s time to call time on “fitspo” and do my job: teach you – and remind myself – that true fitness inspiration isn’t dictated by a sneaker brand or a weight loss clinic but your own values, goals, and what you want to be doing at 90.
I want to be teaching yoga in my wrinkly, lululemon-ed gloriousness and proving strength is timeless. I’m my own fitspo.
While fitness-themed apps have – to the majority of studies – proven to have some positive benefit initially in encouraging very inactive people to initiate a walking routine, largely they have proven to have no sustainable benefit.
A study by University of Pennsylvania indicated that almost 50% of people stop using their wearable fitness tracker within a 12 month period. Another study by the same university found that fitness trackers were accurate in measuring steps but could be up to 22% off when indicating calories burned, distance and sleep quality. For the obsessive and competitive, and especially for those in a vulnerable state seeking to control some aspect of their lives, measuring calories, counting steps, competing on social media with friends and strangers on levels of fitness, hours of training, nutrient value is a temptation into a black hole of self-criticism, punishing regimes of dieting and exercise, and ultimately bordering on diagnosable eating disorders, anxiety or depression.
Psychotherapist and body image expert, Susie Orbach, introduced the concept of “orthorexia” in the late 1970s. This is the compulsive and obsessive need to be healthy to the extreme point of cutting out food groups, restricting, measuring and logging exercise, and ultimately prioritising these “wellness” and “health” measures above family, friends, job and social life.
The pursuit of wellness becomes the end in itself.
Wellness, fitspo, food fads and obsession with the body and its appearance and function are nothing new. The irony in obsessing though, is that it ultimately leads to misery and is distinctly unhealthy. With ideals of how we should eat (or not eat), how we ought to look and what measures we ought to take to manipulate ourselves into this idea, any (inevitable) failure to tick all the boxes, follow all the rules and obey our own flimsily justified processes will result in self-punishment. This self punishment might take a physical shape such as binge eating, purging, self-harm or risky behaviour.
It might be an emotional beat-up: constant thoughts of how you’ve failed, the sense of not doing enough or being enough, constant negative comparisons to friends, strangers and our own perceived ideal “self”.
The attachment of a moral code to food is akin to a war of religions. The zealousness attached to following particular diet is so tribal it wouldn’t be a shock to see a paleo fanatic throwing spears at a vegan in the grains aisle of Coles. Is gluten the enemy? Is meat anathema to living an ethical life?
Will grains cause weight gain, bloating and cancer? The opinions are endless and conflicting. What’s lost in these arguments is the joy in eating, the right to make our own decisions for our own bodies according to our own values without the judgement of the Church Of Vegan or the Church of Paleo adherents.
Labelling certain foods “good” or “bad”, “fattening” or “guilt-free” is to attach values that aren’t measurable or even true. Eating anything in excess is “fattening” and attaching emotional values to food is giving that food much more power than its capable of. However, diet books, slimming protein powders, weight loss clinics and eateries depend on these savvy – if strychnine-laced – messages to sell their goods.
A guilt-free muffin because it’s vegan?
I’ve visited eating disorder clinics and sat at tables with girls who nibble at the edge of a sandwich then sit there looking blankly into the distance, allowing the demons in their head to demand restriction, restriction, control and death.
Their bony, blue-tinged fingers and thinning hair aren’t fitness. Skinniness, restriction, control: all the nasty flipside of obsession with the body. Likewise though, a fat-free, excessively muscular body that demands hours of rigorous training and counting protein by the gram is equally deathly and restrictive. Obsession isn’t fitness. Restriction isn’t fitness. Because restriction and obsession can have quick results physically – in regards to body composition and weight loss, it’s an easy route for trainers, media, weight loss “experts” and gyms to push.
I teach barre, yoga and pilates classes daily and often walk into rooms where at least one entire wall is made of mirrors. The number of times I need to repeat myself or ask class participants to stop checking their hair or gazing intensely at their stomachs is countless. As kindly and as firmly as possible, I always ask my classes to focus on the fact that they can’t judge their technique, alignment, posture and poses from a one-dimensional view in the mirror.
I ask them to focus on how their body feels, on the intention of what we’re doing – not to achieve thigh-gap but to be able to glide gracefully through daily life without aches, strains, exhausting chronic back issues and also to feel capable of doing everything else if we just put in the work and the focus on doing it right.
A killer six-pack might happen. But long after that’s been achieved and appreciated in the gym mirrors, there’s challenges in the gym and beyond that require energy, focus, intention, great balance and strong bodies and minds that restricting, punishing, straining and striving will only sabotage.
Fix your fitspo expectations and realise that a fit body doesn’t have one shape or size. Fitness is a physical, mental and spiritual state that we define for ourselves according to age, lifestyle, circumstances and values.
The first step in your fitness progress is to ditch #fitspo altogether.
Cat Woods is a Melbourne writer, blogger and the founder of Ballet Sculpt. She has authored Core Integrity With Cat (http://catcore.blogspot.com) for over 12 years and currently teaches vinyasa yoga, Ballet Sculpt and pilates in Melbourne. As a former teenage goth, she is occasionally prone to playing Depeche Mode in classes. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
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