Intriguing title, eh? It's all about "grabbing the reader," apparently...or at least, that's what Coach Dan tells me. Let me assure you, this post has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with helping you lose 10 lbs. It also has nothing to do with some new kale-and-açaí-berry “miracle food” smoothie that might help you LOSE WEIGHT FAST AND KEEP IT OFF? (Raise your hand if you've heard that phrase a thousand times in commercials.) But headlines and promises like that work, and they work by preying upon our collective cultural obsession with weight loss.
All you have to do is look around—on magazine racks, newspaper stands, ads at the bottom of websites you visit—to recognize that we are a people possessed. Sometimes I play a fun little game while waiting in line at the grocery store called, “How Many Weight Loss Headlines Can I Count?” YOU CAN PLAY IT TOO! In fact, you probably already do...subconsciously. Flat Sexy Abs! The Top 10 Weightloss Tips You’ve NEVER Heard Of! Skinny Jeans by Saturday! How [insert celebrity name here] Lost The Baby Weight!
I guarantee you will always win. Which sadly means that we, as a culture, lose.
America loves diet secrets, fast fat-loss, low-calorie desserts, dressing for our figures, looking skinny, looking ripped, looking jacked, eating clean, eating whatever you want and still looking skinny/ripped/jacked, etc... The list is longer than Percy Harvin’s Super Bowl touchdown kick return. (Obligatory Seahawks Super Bowl championship mention! Go Hawks!)
We have been conditioned to constantly seek out ways to make ourselves aesthetically perfect. The underlying message being that, until we are a size ____, or weigh ____ lbs, or squat ____ kilos, we are simply just not “good” enough. And this is sooooo ridiculous. With five O's. (Because Dan wouldn't let me type five HUNDRED O's. What a micromanager...)
I’m talking to girls AND guys, here—both sexes are targeted by media emphasizing specific traits that make up an “ideal” female or male body. But I'm placing a strong emphasis on my female audience. Maybe it’s just me—and I’m no sociologist—but it seems like girls bear the brunt of cultural pressure to fit a narrowly-defined physical ideal. I sometimes feel this pressure as a weird sort of vortex, created by a misconstrued collective idea of what it means to be aesthetically perfect, and the world is trying to pull me in. I’m a girl, so my lens and personal experience are irreversibly feminine—which makes my writing geared more toward a feminine experience of American weight loss culture. But don’t stop reading just because you have a Y chromosome! This post is for the girls who feel the pull of that vortex, AND for those of you who know, teach, coach, and care about these girls.
I am a personal trainer for a living, and the majority of my clients are women. It’s been my experience that, when I ask a new client her goals in pursuing an exercise program, her first answer is almost always, “to lose weight.” Other reasons follow—to feel strong, to improve self-esteem, to build the habit of regular exercise, etc.—but “losing weight” trumps all. Now, to a certain extent, losing weight can be an appropriate and healthy goal for some people, and it’s important not to diminish that. But—and here’s the kicker—losing weight is not a catch-all measure of physical health. Seriously, paint that on your doorframe. In fact, I’d argue that this kind of “the scale is my enemy” mentality is, I believe, ultimately harmful to a person’s whole—physical, psychological, and emotional—health.
Even in clients I’ve worked with for years, I see evidence that they, too, still feel the pull from that “weight loss” vortex. I was talking with one recently—I’ll call her Amy—and this is how our conversation went:
Amy: Man, I am feeling really depressed this week. I got on the scale and I haven’t lost any weight since Christmas. In fact—I GAINED a pound! What the heck is going on?
Me: Well, how are your clothes fitting?
Amy: Loose. Actually, I’ve gone down at least one pants size since the first of the year. I had to dig out some old pre-pregnancy clothes from the basement.
Me: That seems like a pretty big accomplishment to me!
Amy: Yeah, I guess so.
Me: And you hit a PR in your deadlift last week, too! So your body is smaller AND stronger!
Amy: Sure…but I still haven’t lost any WEIGHT! I just don’t know what to do.
Now, I’m sure that you catch the point I’m trying to make here, but I’ll spell it out just the same: weight is just a number on a scale. It’s just a data point. It has no bearing on your self worth or success as a person. And it isn’t Amy’s fault that she was so bummed about not losing weight—we’ve been culturally conditioned to count that number as the ultimate measure of our health, fitness, and beauty.
In fact, let’s take a peek at a sampling of media and the message it sends to girls about weight. (Again, these example are not meant to disregard messages sent to guys about weight and physical beauty—but I’m a girl, so just deal with my girl examples.)
Watch one episode of Say Yes to the Dress, and you’ll probably see 5 commercials for “diet” food products: diet sodas, “light” canned vegetable soups, “low-fat” yogurts, “special” low-calorie cereals…products that are created and marketed with the sole purpose of helping women “lose weight.” Open a fitness-focused magazine and odds are you’ll read at least one article promoting a 1,200-calorie diet plan to help women “lose weight.” Hop on Twitter the morning after the Oscars, and you’ll hear all about who has “lost weight,” who “looks great,” and who wore the most “figure-flattering” styles. It’s like a tickertape running at the bottom of our brains 24/7, flashing LOSE WEIGHT! LOSE WEIGHT! LOSE WEIGHT! No wonder we’re so obsessed.
Women, in the past, have been taught to be small, and quiet, and respectful, and still. We were taught to cross our legs, and play hard-to-get, and defer to the opinions of others. We were taught that small is best, and smaller is better, and if you aren’t trying to lose weight then there is something WRONG with you. Think about what a corset did—it literally crushed women's ribcages in order to make them appear SMALLER. And get me off my soapbox, ladies, because all this crap is just LIES! HORRIBLE, AWFUL, SOUL-SUCKING LIES!!!!!
(OK, deep breath, Christye.)
You may be wondering where this relates to sports performance since, here at Volt Athletics, sports performance is our passion and mission. But this skewed stereotype of what it means to be a woman touches every aspect of sport. If you’re a female athlete, ask yourself if you have ever skipped a meal to lose weight—at the risk of jeopardizing your body’s ability to perform physically. If you’re a coach of a female sports team, ask yourself if your girls have ever complained about lifting weight—saying they don’t want to “bulk up.” If you’re a guy, ask yourself if you have ever heard a female relative—sister, mother, grandmother—complain about needing to go on a diet, when she really didn’t.
When I became a full-time trainer, I gained 10 solid lbs (mostly muscle). I work with women for a living, coaching and encouraging them all day long not to pay attention to mere numbers—but even I have to ask myself, why was I bummed out when I had to go buy a bigger blazer, to accommodate my stronger deltoids?
This type of old thinking is STILL everywhere. Everywhere. And unfortunately, I’m not sure any of us are immune. But I'm not sure that's the point.
I think that, in order to free ourselves from the type of thinking that makes us click on links like, “LOSE 10 lbs BY NEXT WEEK,” we need to stop ignoring the vortex of weight loss obsession. Rather, we must instead confront it head-on. If we can open up meaningful dialogue about what culture is teaching us about how to think about our bodies, then we can enact some self-change. By recognizing that even the innocuous stuff—“Who Wore It Best?” line-ups, or Special K commercials advertising replacing two of your daily meals with cereal or granola bars—is sending a message. And even the quiet messages add up.
So we have to be ready. Talk to your athletes, talk to your teammates, talk to your peers, and your family. Create a safe space to talk about issues, ask questions, and practice self-affirmation. Try thinking of numbers—the number of daily calories you allow yourself, the number on the scale—as data points. Call out trends like the “thigh gap” for what they are: harmful—but ONLY if they are allowed to mean something. Recognize the untruths being presented to you in the form of airbrushed images on glossy paper. Teach each other that beauty isn’t a body type. Take away the power of the magazine headlines.
Reclaim your body from a culture that tries to pry it away from you, to make it your enemy—and relearn to make friends with it.
And, finally and importantly, MOVE! Our bodies are unique machines, each lovely and differently gifted, and it is a blessing to run faster, jump higher, squat heavier, swim longer, hit harder, shoot more accurately, kick more powerfully. When we use our bodies to do movements they were intended to do, we find a much more lasting sense of purpose than a diet can provide.
We are so much more than numbers!
As always, if you have any comments or questions for me, post them on our blog below. And POWER TO YOUR BODY!
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Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye