It seemed farcical. An ardent women’s rights advocate, and outspoken feminist, especially on body issues, I would be entering a fitness competition where winning meant being judged solely on appearance, presence and onstage personality.
I puzzled over this for a long time before beginning to train. And then, as soon as I began the morning and evening trainings, the nutrition program, as soon as I became an athlete again (and away from the ‘down season’), I forgot about it. Yes – I see that women are posing in bikinis being judged on their bodies, their faces, their personalities. Yes, I see that women are standing being period. But so are men. We are all in the same boat, and the judges are male and female. It’s a sport that has been around since the dawn of time – pushing the limits of a body’s physical attributes into this so-called realm of ‘perfection.’
I do, however, think this is the deciding factor: I don’t live under the presumption that this is perfection at all. I know that fitness websites and ‘fitspiration’ messages are just as harmful as ‘thinspiration’ boards, parading near certain eating disorders in the name of health.
I think, as women, we are so happy to be able to do the fitness thing in a mainstream way because it’s a space we’ve never occupied before. It’s so traditionally male: being strong and fit and powerful with our bodies – and then showing it off without being told to be quiet or sit down. We should not, however, make it become the only space in which ‘sexy,’ ‘healthy’ and ‘fit’ women exist – because the reality is that there is an enormous variety of healthy and beautiful bodies out there.
“Strong is the new skinny” or “skinny is not sexy” – these are exclusionary statements. Anything can be sexy depending on the beholder and anything can – without needing to be sexy or sexual or intended for the ‘male gaze.’ Women need a space to simply exist – and what they choose in terms of health and body image should be their own – without the additional pressures of having a thigh gap a six-pack. Aesthetic mandatories in the name of fitness are still lies masquerading as health.
Let me be clear and say that no one can happily look like those lean fitspiration pictures 365 days a year. For the .01% of people who do, that’s great. For the rest of competitors, the ‘off season’ is perhaps the most important part – your body must rest, your mind must recuperate – and if you’re going to come back with a better package, you need the food, the rest, and the strength. It is the hardest part, however, because all at once you see your body changing and you can’t help fearing it’s for the worst. This is where a lot of competitors develop eating disorders. It would be ridiculous to assume that one’s perception of beauty doesn’t change and sometimes it takes a while to regain perspective. Yet just as football trainers aren’t smart to train when injured, so fitness competitors are deluded in believing they can maintain such a low body fat percentage all year long and that this could even be a healthy goal.