Once upon a time there was a magical land.
The inhabitants of this land were lean and sculpted. Their skin was firm and blemished neither by the zits of youth nor wrinkles of age (nor that weird zit-wrinkle combo — like, what is that even about? make up your mind, skin!). Their ass cheeks were heavenly spheres betwixt which no flatus had ever egressed. Their abs were serrated blades upon which no flab nor dimples perched. These divine citizens wore hot pants Rollerblading and tiny swimsuits to do their laundry, and lo, it was good.
Their sturdy jaws were set with abundant, gleaming white Chiclets. The good citizens of Buffland used these Chiclets to masticate their four-to-six daily servings of lean protein and green vegetables, which they enjoyed at all times. They never deviated from this ingestion of aminos and antioxidants because they were a better, stronger, more in-control species than our slothful, gluttonous human race.
There was only one problem with this magical land.
It was complete. And utter. BULLSHIT.
I am about to lay some heavy duty stuff on you, possums. Now, you may be feeling real smug, because, like, you know that magazine are airbrushed and stuff. But do you believe it? Have you seen it step-by-step? Let me help.
OK, fine, we all realize Photoshop is involved and mainstream media eats a plate of ass. Hello, 1985 called, they want their feminist media analysis back. I know, I know.
But let’s talk about something more insidious. Look at your fitness role models. Look at the men and women who seem to have their shit together, are always perfectly lean, and never have a bad hair day. (Powerlifters, you can be excused from this discussion. Ha ha! I kid!)
What if I told you that many of these deities who look sleek and shiny on magazine covers or on the physique stage, or even the hotstuff trainers at your gym, had a big, fat secret?
That when the camera is off and the lights go down, those hotties get in their car, drive to the 7-11 and grab a 1 lb bag of M&Ms? That after the contest or the shoot, they gorge themselves to the point of pain on junk food? That they make 3 am runs to Taco Bell, or raid their refrigerator, swirling a block of butter in some brown sugar, or spooning in some ice cream with the laser focus and frantic speed of a meth-head surgeon and then afterwards feel sick and shameful? That they’re then shitting and puking and purging and exercising and starving that food off their bodies? That just like you, their diet ends in disaster as their bodies, ever more iron-willed in defense of homeostasis, cry havoc and let slip the dogs of Doritos?
Krista, you say. Surely you exaggerate. These are things that, say, misguided teenage girls do, or perhaps overweight lonely cat ladies who wear muumuus and read romance novels with unicorn bookmarks in them.
I only wish.
But biology is a bitch. The mechanisms that control eating behaviour are stronger than your pathetic attempts to delude them with fake foods. The exquisitely sensitive machinery that analyzes every last molecule that you send down the plumbing knows your game. Your brain may be fooled by the Splenda or the low-carb bread, but your digestive system is all like, “Oh honey, puhlease” before it sighs and sets about sorting the triglycerides into their allotted compartments or upregulating Poison Control to deal with the toxic sludge you just dumped in there in the form of diet soda. Your body will roll its eyes and go along with your little “I’m going to be so gooood” game from 7 am till 7 pm, and then the gloves are off — and said ungloved hands are shoving your face into a jar of peanut butter.
Combine the bitch goddess of biology with an environment saturated with stress, addictive food-like substances, and precisely delineated yet entirely false visions of “perfection”… and you have perfection all right — the perfect storm of disordered eating and self-loathing.
After working with nutrition clients I started to notice a funny thing: for many people, there was in fact an inverse relationship between socially accepted ideals of “fitness” and happiness.
Which is to say, the leaner and buffer many people got, and the more their bodies matched the mainstream norm, the unhappier they were. The more they binged. The more they purged, often through increasingly vicious exercise regimes rather than the old-school “open up the digestive sluices”. The more they restricted their food intake, whittling away and obsessively recording calories and carbs and choices. And the more they felt they “failed”.
Got your body fat down into a healthy range? Great. Go for lean. Got down to lean? Go for ripped. Got down to ripped? Go for “lipodystrophic wasting disease”. I want to see eye sockets, people!
Meanwhile, the folks who started out at, say, 300 lbs were just thrilled when they could breathe a little easier, get out of bed pain-free, and take a nice trundle around the block. If they tried a new veggie, or cut back on the soda, or their belt felt a little looser, they high-fived themselves.
This is, of course, the opposite of what you’d expect.
You’d expect that the fine citizens of Buffland would forevermore play beach volleyball gleefully, wear horizontal stripes fearlessly, and/or have ongoing instances of nice, tidy sexual congress. You’d expect that once their toned thighs or rocklike pecs had been accomplished, Bufflanders would close the door on the inconvenient chapter of their lives that involved cellulite, fried chicken, childbearing, and gravity, never to open it again. They’d be fit and perfect and eat kale. And that would be that.
You’d be wrong.
In fact, I’m not sure I’ve met a less happy group of people in my life (in the sense that “happy” would imply a deep, heartfelt satisfaction with the immediacy of one’s existence) than people who approached having “perfect” bodies, where “perfection” was defined entirely by an aesthetic ideal that defies most ordinances of nature, such as mortality, midsection squish, or menopause.
Literature majors, let’s double check: Poignantly contrary to what was expected or implied? Check! Yep, we have irony.
What’s the problem here?
The problem is what it takes to get that “ideal” body.
What it takes to get from “fit normal” to “magazine shoot” requires such a tremendous cost that your sanity usually goes into debt. There are a lucky few who can take their body to extremes of performance and aesthetics, and do so without becoming a rabidly bipolar beast who alternates between the highs of self-induced restriction and the lows of self-induced gorging. (High-fives to you, sirs and madams, I salute you. You are rare and unique creatures, and you should probably consider having your brain and metabolism examined for scientific purposes.)
Most folks are not so lucky. Scratch the surface of many “fitness pros” who buy in to the commercial industry and you’ll often find disordered eating and self-harming behaviours.
Talk frankly to a fitness or bodybuilding competitor about where they go and what they do after the shoot or the contest. It probably involves Baskin-Robbins or Pizza Hut or Cinnabon and the word “epic” may be used. Ask the tautest tush at your gym how s/he feels about him or herself. If they are speaking honestly, they will tell you that many of their days are preoccupied with thoughts of how to acquire, prepare, and consume food, as well as thoughts of all the body parts that are not quite good enough yet. Look at the hormone profile of these shiny young things and you may find elevated stress hormones, depressed sex hormones, and the blood cell counts of a chronic disease, for the gentle citizens of Buffland are often starving and shaming and stairmastering themselves into oblivion.
And it’s not restricted to pros. Anyone who ventures into the serious pursuit of aesthetically based fitness ideals, and/or who marinates in the malodorous stew of the fitness-industrial complex — even just a little toe dipping– is at risk. Male, female, old, young, smart, dumb, expert, newbie, nobody is immune.
What a fucking tragedy this is.
Scott Abel is one of the few throwing out the bullshit flag on this with books like The Other Side of the Mirror and his posts about metabolic damage. (Check out his April 2010 piece Sometimes Falling Feels like Flying… For A Little While)
So what’s the solution? Should we all just give up?
No. Going face down in the KFC Double Down does us no favours either.
If I like fitness and health, do I immediately turn into a narcissistic, self-destructive jagoff?
No, of course not. I wish more folks would love fitness, nutrition, and health… at least I wouldn’t bore so many people at parties by talking about how awesome it is to drag a sandbag around, and how many things you can make out of broccoli.
Use fitness, health, and nutrition to live better, and to engage more fully with life, not to withdraw from it, be angry with it, avoid it, or be afraid of it.
Does this mean we should all be “beyond caring” how good we look?
No. We have eyes for a reason, and sexual attractiveness is important to our species.
But. The disordered eating, behaviours, and mindset rampant in the industry have very little to do with true joy, visual pleasure, and/or sexiness.
When you are starving, self-obsessed, narcissistic, compulsive around food, avoiding social occasions because you can’t have your special kibble or because you think you still look too fat in a bathing suit, when the hormones that control your happiness and horniness are MIA because your body thinks it’s about to die from scarcity and is shutting the system down, that is not joy or pleasure or sexiness.
My solution is this. Focus primarily on what your body can do, and how you feel inside it. It is OK to want to be beautiful. It is OK to want to look hot nekkid. But understand what is real and normal and sane. Shoot for “fit normal” as an ideal and beyond that, focus on living wellness and an authentic, honest, loving relationship with your body (which includes, by the way, eating real food).
When you eat, ask yourself what your food is doing for you, not whether someone or something is allowing (or preventing) you eating it. Ask yourself how much distress this project prompts in you.
When you work out, feel the pleasure of your body moving, and the thrill of emergent power, not how many calories this is burning.
Are you going towards joy or away from it? Understand that drastic restriction, control freakery, and rigid rules will always come back to bite you in the ass, whether that’s an hour from now or a year from now.
Are you present with this body of yours? Aware? Mindful? Thoughtful? Are you caring for your insides — all your insides — mental, emotional, and cognitive? Do you bullshit yourself? Tell yourself lies? Yell at yourself? “Should” yourself?
Does every choice you make say “Yes, I will love and nourish you, self”? or do your actions really say: “I hate your guts and I will do everything I can to beat you into submission”?
One of the best meals I ever had was a grubby-looking protein shake made out of a smorgasbord of green veggies and fruits. I drank it out of a Mason jar.
I did not love it because it was virtuous, or because of its calorie content. I loved it because I drank it at the sixtieth kilometre of an 85 km bike ride, and it was sweet and nourishing, and gave my body what it needed to keep going. I loved it because I drank it while sitting on a park bench looking out at Lake Ontario, knowing that my tiny legs had pumped those pedals all the way around the shoreline. The question of my legs’ aesthetics was not at that moment even on my radar, beyond my brief notice that they were grease and mud-splattered. (Sexy.)
At that moment the veggies and fruits were my friends, nutrient powerhouses that would protect me from harm. I chose them because of how they made me feel: strong, joyous, energetic. Getting back on my bike I felt like my seven-year-old self with the streamers on the handles, riding the sparkly banana seat, thinking, “Wheeee!”
This is what the citizens of Buffland want but will never have. No matter how fantastic your ass is, if you don’t feel “Wheeee!” at least some of the time… and if your eating has become more like religious penance… then it’s a darn good sign that your soul is seriously out of shape.