Whether it’s the good pain and the ‘don’t make me laugh’ after you aced an ab workout the night before, the dubious pride of the struggle to make it down the stairs after leg day, or even the thrill you get from pounding to a beat, exercise has its highs. ‘The fitness life’, when you find a way to make it work for you, can be incredibly rewarding. Seeing your strength build or your stamina improve in the long-term can be real confidence boosters, not to mention the endorphins and the ‘happily knackered’ feeling which directly follow a good workout. Getting away from your room, the library, or the lecture block for a focussed chunk of non-academic, productive me-time is a pretty good self-care and mental-wellbeing strategy. And I haven’t even mentioned the long-term health benefits along with the socialising which comes with sport – if, that is, unlike me, you don’t mind other people sharing in your tomato-faced sweatiness.
But the fitness craze as a societal phenomena doesn’t get me quite so pumped. My problem isn’t so much with the ‘no pain, no gain’ narrative; I think encouraging yourself to overcome mental and physical barriers, to stand a bit of endurance, to push yourself is a largely positive attitude which, in a moderate form, can help with life in general.
The nub of the problem is a little more complex, and a little more feminist. Because it’s all well and good encouraging a healthy incorporation of activity into our daily routines when we value exercise in and of itself. But the modern gym hype is all too focussed on results, with not-so-happy consequences.
Fact: the ultimate gym-bod, that shadow of a six pack revealed from under your t-shirt, those toned inner thigh muscles that don’t quite touch, the peachy bum, and, the cherry on the cake, the perky and perfectly-formed boobs – all of these things which girls are conditioned to covet, are myths. Even laying aside the consideration that a lot of these features of the goddess body are problematically intertwined with the hyper-sexualisation of women, the myth of a perfectly lean, hourglass shape is just one more of the unrealistic expectations placed on women by Patriarchy, Pinterest & Co.
It isn’t that all men expect their girlfriends to be ripped. Men don’t even figure into the equation a lot of the time. It’s the fact that we like the feel of flat tummies, we like the look of thigh-gaps, we covet slender shoulders (and quake in fear of bingo-wings and back fat), and we venerate leanness, toned-ness, and the ‘right amount’ of curviness. Or, I should say, we’ve been trained (and not in the athletic sense) to attach both moral and aesthetic value to these things.
Some women, no matter how many squats they do, will always have flatter cheeks than they’d like. Some women, no matter how far and fast they run, won’t be able to shift that extra (and necessary, and embrace-able) bit of weight which always goes to their thighs. Some women can lift more than a lot of men would like to be challenged to, but carry some baby weight, or (maybe traumatised by school PE lessons) hate cardio, or would rather spend their time on more productive or meaningful things than fat burn.
But from a biological perspective, it makes sense that we view fitter women, more toned women as more attractive, right? Well no, because besides the obvious fact that in the 21st century attraction can and should be based on factors other than those which natural selection prioritises, this theory just doesn’t hold medically either. Some women, more women and certainly more young girls than we’d probably be happy to estimate, don’t get their period unless they carry a certain amount of weight on their tummy, or their hips, or their upper thighs. Their bodies need this extra layer of fat (and I’m really not talking blubber here) to thrive. Some women want to be runners, athletes, swimmers, or just fit gym bunnies, but genuinely have to make the choice between fertility and fitness. The kind of fitness, that is, which Instagram, Pinterest, and beauty magazines espouse.
What the fitness frenzy ignores, just like the beauty industry and any other institution or hype which centres and swoops down on women’s bodies, is that women aren’t a homogenous group of clay figurines whose bodies could all be moulded into the same enviable shape if they did ‘the right things’.
Exercise as empowerment, fat burn as feminist: I’m up for a healthy view of the real benefits which prioritising, and enjoying, physical activity can bring about. I’ll keep squatting and crunching and running (okay, power-walking) for my own sanity, and to a certain extent for my own body. In the meantime, though, I really hope we can take the focus away from ideals and perfections that are not just unrealistic, but seriously unachievable, and look at what girls who lift (or jog, or burpee, or cycle, or press, or just walk, or play some football or sport) actually can, and do, achieve.
Featured image sourced from canva.com