I decided to enter a bikini competition. With all these “fitspo” images and fitness motivation depicting bikini competitor bodies (that we all must have) I decided to challenge myself to see what indeed it does take to have that body. I’m learning that this body is very much not about health and more about aesthetics.
In my previous post I had written about the demise of health in the fitness industry but today I must stand corrected. You see the fitness industry, at least in the case of women, wasn’t built around principles of health and wellness. It was built around aesthetics. When Fitness Centers first opened to women in the 1960s and 1970s their focus was purely on weight loss and spot reduction. They often did not have proper exercise equipment but rather pseudoscience based technology such as vibrating belts to jiggle the fat away. They had no resistance training programs and were largely cardio based. The fitness industry for men, however, was designed for those that wanted to increase their muscle mass, strength, ability and agility.
Since having my sons the messaging for postpartum women has been very clear. We need to lose the baby weight, flatten our stomachs, hide our stretch marks, cut off our loose skin, wear a bikini and have no excuses for not looking flawless. After all, we may be mothers but we are still women, and it’s a woman’s responsibility to look good. We can have children but we must not look like we have.
Historically women have been viewed as the lesser gender. Girls are supposed to be quiet and look pretty. The feminist movement gave women a voice. Women like Gloria Steinem, Margaret Thatcher, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, and Hilary Clinton have stood up and shown that a woman is more than her body. A woman is not the sum of her physical parts. She has a mind and value that extends far beyond the aesthetic. We can vote, we can go to school we can hold powerful jobs. But as women continue to rise up and declare that we are more than a body, the beauty and fitness industry continues to reiterate that our worth is based on our looks.
The fitness industry did not use to be as main-stream as it is today. There was a time where it was aimed at a select few looking to improve their looks. But with the rise of chronic disease and depression and a better understanding of how a healthier and more active lifestyle can improve these pandemics, it is necessary for not only the method of training to change (as it has) but also the advertising to change. The fitness industry has become synonymous with good health now because a fitter lifestyle can improve physical and mental health. But a fit body is not all there is to physical health so if we are to begin talking about good health in fitness we must move away from aesthetics and explore what it truly means to be healthy.
They asked me what my excuse was. They told me they had kids, a 6 pack and no excuses. They challenge me to be accountable for the way I looked. They told me I didn’t look healthy enough.
“So what does it take to have a 6 pack?” I asked myself.
Since I started training to compete I’ve had the flu once, a stomach virus, three colds, strep throat, and tonsillitis. I am constantly physically tired, my muscles ache most days and I’m emotionally drained. I work-out every lunch time, some evenings and some weekends (and I know competitors who do much more than me but I’m a part-time solo mother of two so my free time is limited). I think about what I have to eat all the time. I feel like I’m over training and rarely give myself the time I need to stretch because I know I have to complete my workouts in a fixed amount of time in order to look a certain way by a specific date. I set an alarm to time my meals. I wait three hours between meals, even if I’m still hungry. I eat brown rice like it’s going out of fashion. I’ve probably eaten a whole extended family of chickens and their potential offspring. This program is not about improving my health; it’s about moulding my body to fit a very specific image so I can get the points I need on stage to get a placing position. When I’m standing on stage, dehydrated and at 8 – 10% body fat (do you know the ideal body fat percentage for the average woman is 25 – 31 %?), tanned and oiled up so the lights emphasize the impressions of my muscles, I’ll look fabulous. But this is not health.
I’m not saying this is everyone’s experience but this is my experience, and I know it’s the experience of many. I don’t like having to measure my carbs, I don’t like having to weigh my proteins, I don’t like having to count my nuts, I don’t like having to time my meals. These are things you have to do if you want a six pack. These are the things you have to do if you want to look like a fitness model. But this is not health.
I have an amazing trainer who is supportive and encouraging, and she often reminds her clients that competition stage bodies are not every day bodies. Competitors follow a diet and an exercise program designed for very specific results, but this is not health. Trust and believe that when someone, especially those in the fitness industry, plan a fitness photo-shoot, they follow a very specific diet and training program in the weeks leading up to the shoot to have their leanest on-camera body. This doesn’t mean this is how they look all the time. Women have become so deluded with the advertising that many don’t even know what to expect of a normal body. I literally have women message me asking why their stomachs get bigger after they eat a meal. Because you ate; because you have food inside you; because your stomach has to expand to hold the mass; because it’s part of the digestion process. Because you are human! Women question why their bodies have not returned to size 3 months postpartum. Because you had a baby; because your body expanded; because your skin stretched; because your uterus grew; because you retained more water; because you carried more blood. Because you’re human!
I honestly can’t wait for this process to be over so I can return my focus to health. So I can exercise because it strengthens my body. So I can work-out because it clears my mind. So I can stretch. So I can take rest periods when I know I need it. So I can eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. So I don’t have to count calories or macros. So I can remove my focus from my body and return it to my health; because this is not health. I feel like shit, but I look pretty good!