Rant 15 June 2004: Against perfection

My mother-in-law sent me this article some time ago:

Fitness babes a turnoff: Mac researchers find women less motivated to work out when watching perfect 10s

By Jennifer Morrison, The Hamilton Spectator

Looking to get in shape, boost your self-confidence, and get that body you’ve been dreaming about? Better think twice about what exercise video you choose to pop into your VCR or DVD player.

Believe it or not, according to a new McMaster study, Jenny Craig’s Personal Fitness video might be a better motivator then the latest, best-seller featuring a supermodel, or ultra-toned actress. McMaster University researchers Julie Fleming and Kathleen Martin Ginis discovered that commercial exercise videos featuring super-fit, hard-bodied women may actually make women feel less motivated to exercise, and have less overall psychological benefit.

“It’s really sad because all these women are buying these videos thinking they’re going to motivate them to get fit and then they don’t feel so great afterwards,” said Dr. Martin Ginis, an associate professor of heath and exercise psychology at McMaster. “They felt less confident, and if they were less confident, they were less motivated.” Surprised?

Sure, super-skinny runway models and glammed-up Hollywood celebrities have long been blamed for crushing women’s self-esteem by promoting an unrealistic, unattainable body image.

But exercise videos? Aren’t they supposed to help?

The study, set to be published in next month’s Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, involved 101 McMaster female university students aged 18 to 24 who were asked to complete a survey about their exercise intentions, fitness commitment, and level of activity.

From there, subjects were divided into two groups, and broken down into exercisers and non-exercisers. The first group was shown video clips of “perfect-looking” exercisers who epitomize the cultural body ideal.

The second group watched video clips featuring “normal-looking” exercisers.

Researchers were expecting that the non-exercisers who watched the attractive women in the videos would feel worse about themselves then the non-exercisers who watched the regular videos.

What they didn’t expect, however, was to see an adverse effect on women who exercise regularly.

“The biggest surprise was that the regular exercisers had a loss in confidence. We really thought that if they’re regular exercisers, seeing these women isn’t going to bother them, but that wasn’t the case. Even these women were affected,” she said.

While the study’s results go against the cultural expectation that women will be motivated and inspired by others who fit into the cultural ideal of beauty, others weren’t too surprised.

Shirley Eden, owner of six Hamilton-area Curves Fitness studios, said women join Curves to get away from intimidating, super-fit women.

“It’s all women. No men. No makeup. No mirrors,” she said of the Curves philosophy.

David Patchell-Evans, the founder of Good Life Fitness, said it should be all about attitude. “In my experience, neither males or females are intimidated by a person in shape if the person in shape does not overplay it, does not exaggerate it, does not flaunt it,” he said.

I can’t say that this surprises me either. To me, images of fitness models and other types of so-called perfection exist in the same universe as the Smurfs, Pokemon, and Santa Claus: a fun idea, but not real. Watching some studio set with perky people is about as inspiring to me as two weeks straight of November sleet. What particularly fills me with apathy is the emphasis on training for appearance. Sure, if I had to choose between the two, I’d rather resemble Salma Hayek than Jabba the Hutt. But in general, an excessive focus on appearance as a training goal is intensely DE-motivating to me.

In part this is because I realize it’s a falsehood. Being healthy and active always makes a person look their best. But best for that person is still real. It still involves the indelicacies of daily existence: going to the bathroom, staying up all night with a barfing baby, paying bills, indulging in a little too much red wine, sitting at a desk, locking one’s keys in the car, etc. etc. Daily life imprints us indelibly with its legacy: scars, wrinkles, gravity, bad hair days, and the caprices of genetics. Being fit and active is also often a less than glamourous pastime. After riding my bike 20 km to work I am a lovely mess of sweaty helmet hair, bike chain grease on my leg, and mud splatters (thank heaven for gym showers!). I am decked out in an extremely dorky safety vest because I would rather look like a dweeb and avoid being hit by a car than look sleek and fabulous under the wheels of an SUV. Exercise Video World is about as far from physical reality, and frankly, the reality of actual exercise, as most of us can get.

The “exercise video” I prefer to watch is the struggles and successes of real people along with my own. What inspires me are the two portly gray-haired guys who shuffle-jog past my place every morning, chattering to one another in Italian, or the little kid with a look of glee on her face as she hauls ass on her Big Wheel, or the tiny old Greek woman in her garden next door, weeding as she leans on her cane. It’s the young guys at the gym who, despite their meatheadedness and focus on chest and biceps, are nevertheless there like clockwork every week. It’s my friend who falls off her bike and takes three layers of skin off her knee, cries while she picks gravel out of the bloody injury, but then gets right back up there.

I remember being glued to the TV for the Eco-Challenge in Borneo. Screw reality TV, this was the real deal. This was sleep deprivation, risking life and limb, mountain climbing, extreme cycling, rappelling down hundred foot rock faces, giant leeches up the urethra (yes, this actually happened to some poor contestant–eeuw) kind of action. This was about as far from cosmetic perfection as one could get, unless you consider being covered in oozing foot blisters to be appealing. One Sunday during a rainstorm, I was watching the coverage. I decided that I too was extreme! I too was hardcore! I was going to go to the gym and more importantly I was going to ride my bike in the watery apocalypse!

What I was not, as I discovered fairly quickly, and reflected upon as I squelched into the gym leaving a trail of slimy water like the little girl from The Ring, was intelligent. But nevertheless, anything that gets me riding my bike in a rainstorm on a Sunday afternoon has to have something to it.

Find your spark. Find your drive. Perfection numbs us and paralyzes us. It catches our attention briefly but rarely inspires us. What inspires us, and keeps us coming back for more, is the underdog, the challenge, the ugly duckling. Maybe the ugly duckling will never become a swan, but he’ll kick ass trying.