“Sweat like a pig to look like a fox”- so my choice is barnyard or woodland animal?

Welcome to January! The month where the blues are not just a music genre, where everyone is extremely dissatisfied with how much they indulged themselves over Christmas and self-improvement is the word of the moment. It is always a very interesting month I find. Normal life resumes and New Year’s Resolutions are dug out from last year and recommitted to. Habits we would like to eradicate or hobbies we would like to take up are widely discussed and attended to. Our increasingly individualistic world no longer needs institutions such as the church to give us meaning and focus in life, now we have to find purpose in other things such as wealth, relationships and the cultivation of the self and our physical presence. There is no higher representation of who we are than what we look like on the outside, at least that is the belief by which most of the world lives now. Nobody can escape the scrutiny and obsession with body image in our culture or deny that they have felt more than encouraged by society to lose that bit of weight usually put on over Christmas.

Because it is January and a great many people I know are aiming to be more health conscious I thought I might write on how fitness has become a large part of our lives both in the literal way and in the social, online presence way. We have moved into a more self-aware, health-conscious world. One where organic eating is more popular than fast food and doing crazy exercise classes are the new way of socialising. We are the fitness generation. It is an extremely positive advancement and is teaching people to make wiser choices about their diet and health. However, like anything that causes us to change ourselves we need to be careful of how much we let the pursuit of fitness take over our life. Thinspiration was a very popular trend among young women for a time. This self-deprecating activity was one where you would look at images of extremely thin people and motivational quotes to ‘inspire’ you to eat less in order to be skinny. Now that this has been perceived for the dangerous and unhealthy standard that it is we have the ‘fitspiration’ wave rising like a muscular dragon in it’s place. This is where we motivate not to be skinny but fit and strong and I think in general the idea is quite a good one. We have woken up and realised that having women punish themselves to have their bones physically jutting out of their skin is not only very unattractive but also encouraging disorders that are destructive and cause them to lose themselves to obsession.  However, if we look deeper at ‘fitspo’ promotion on social platforms it’s easy to see why many people are divided on whether this fitness trend is any better than the obsession with being thin. There is a fine line between motivation for positive health versus the cultivation of a perfect body. I think we need to be careful and think about our reasons for engaging in the world of exercise. My Instagram feed at one point was filled with scrolling images of sexy, lean women wearing beautiful workout gear, often posing in provocative positions with a motivational statement superimposed on top of them. I thought this would make me want to exercise more. They are strong, determined and scream at me “Why do you not look like this? Don’t you want this? Push yourself harder”. They did not make me feel good but like a failure who wasn’t trying hard enough. It really made me think about what I am valuing as important and why I am chasing a body that is unrealistic for someone of my stature and fitness level.  There is nothing wrong with being into fitness and engaging in that lifestyle, I love it sometimes. My issue is when being dedicated to maintaining a good physical appearance becomes a prerequisite for being an acceptable human being and becomes the most important part of our identity.

Like many people I decided to get back into exercise this year to get myself into better health. So I began by following new inspiration pages on Twitter to motivate me to go to the gym. That is until about a week ago when I intentionally unfollowed them because I was shocked by how mean they were online. I don’t even know these people personally and they succeeded in hurting my feelings. I just don’t think the kind of brutal and abusive attitude they circulate inspires anyone to anything but shame and disappointment. Not only that but they were posting really stupid and potentially dangerous unhealthy diet suggestions and I think that if we sit idly by and allow this nonsense to infiltrate our thinking it’s going to make us think that this is the only way to live a healthy lifestyle. The right kind of positive motivational social pages and advertisements often include healthy recipes and workouts that promote fun ways of being active and allow us to enjoy eating. The bad kind of motivation is destructive, shaming and equates getting the perfect body with achieving total happiness and self-acceptance. Messages such as ‘Unless you puke, faint or die KEEP GOING!’, ‘So you’d rather have a bag of chips than look like this?’, ‘Do not reward yourself with food you are not a dog’ are harsh, dangerous, demeaning and allow us to think it’s acceptable to hate and admonish ourselves. My brother, a fairly muscular gym goer, advised me I should clarify that I am not criticising people who are passionate and dedicated to a life of pursuing fitness and turn to fitspiration to keep them inspired appropriately. There are people who live a high fitness life because they are athletes or they simply find great joy in working hard for success. This is an admirable place to be in, they have a self-satisfaction that is not reliant on how they look but on their inner strength and perseverance and they are grounded in their identity. For them aesthetics are not the reason they work out but the thrill and joy at being at the peak of their fitness. I am talking to the rest of us.

As a girl I know how overwhelming the pressure is on us to look a certain way. Even though thin is no longer in we are still told that our curves need to be smooth, our bum round and tight, our legs muscular and lean, our arms slender, our hipbones slightly protruding.  The pressure is still there despite the change in what we perceive as ‘sexy’, and self-destruction lurks around the corner when we ourselves emulate that which we cannot achieve. I know many strong, confident women with fantastic personalities and independent lives and yet few will say they are 100% happy in their own skin. We are constantly told that we are not good enough, that we have to be striving to improve ourselves and we can’t be satisfied with our appearance. This is what advertising and media does. It floods us with expectations that if we look a certain way everything in life will fall into place and all we have to do is eat right, exercise a lot and we will be fully satisfied and whole. I have been all over the body spectrum. Years of being a chubby teenager unnoticed by boys led to a lot of strange ideas about relationships and how they only work if you are a pretty and slim. Utter nonsense of course, at my thinnest I could have modelled on a catwalk and boys no more noticed me then than now when I’m in a curvier state of being. Women search for love and acceptance in men. A lot of our self-confidence is built on how lads view and respond to us physically and we spend ridiculous amounts of time dressing ourselves up and tucking ourselves in for them. Somehow we have learned that we won’t be desired and can’t be comfortable being ourselves unless we can exude sex appeal and attract men with our body. It’s crazy, I do not ooze sex appeal and if that was the only reason somebody would want to date me then that would be a sad, shallow thing. Even other women have the ability to make us feel naked and ashamed of our bodies. We constantly put ourselves down and talk about self-improvement without a thought for the impact it has on the women around us, particularly the younger generation who think that self-criticism and judgement is acceptable.

I know this is post is very much focused on women but men are equally, yet differently, affected by the same issues. Us girls often have a very oblivious attitude to men and how they struggle with their own body image. There is almost a double standard out there where we tend to criticise and judge a man for objectifying a woman and saying they like certain looks and yet it’s ok for women to turn around and deconstruct men into almost purely physical beings. Many a conversation I have had with other girls involves us talking about ‘hot’ features in men, lauding those with good physical bodies as ‘perfect men’ and setting those physical attributes as a standard we look for in a partner. Most girls do this without a second thought for the affect this has on the lads in our lives. We create the idea that a real man must be strong, large and powerful. Yet, just like women, men have all different body shapes and it is not right to expect them to have to look a certain way to be manly. Men can be buff or they can be thin, they can be fit and yet look fat or they can be unhealthy and bulging with artificially developed muscles. We need to learn to make allowances for men to not be that physical, godlike being we all want. It’s ok to say that the guys I find attractive are more round and soft than Ryan Gosling or that some girls like men who a bit on the thin side. Just like its alright if lads like us women despite the fact that we don’t have the pert bum of Beyoncé or the taut abs of Jessica Alba.  These are are not fair standards for us to measure each other up to and perpetuating pressure to look a certain way only leads to negative self-image and low self-esteem. We shouldn’t have to feel like we are alienated or incapable of being considered beautiful just because we look different to a socially acceptable form of beauty, men and women alike. I know lads who have strong characters and have come through emotional difficulty with positive and fun attitudes but may not be ripped with a six-pack and that’s more than fine by me. Creating expectation that men are not allowed be insecure about their bodies has such damaging consequences on the mental health of guys and it limits their confidence in opening up about these issues.

It is a good thing to have a good handle on your health but is it more worthy to be disciplined, controlling and bent on perfection than striving for goodness, kindness and being a fun person? When I was at my most obsessed with getting fit I was blinded to everything but the importance of exercising constantly. It was a self-absorbance that I did not even notice because to me I thought that achieving ‘fitness’ was a good thing and required me to give up my time usually spent loving and valuing others. I am not saying you can’t be both, that you can’t spend time on working on your inner qualities, on being a loving and supporting friend and also being fit and eating healthy but what gets more media support and online attention? Going to a coffee shop and talking through things with your friend or spending time in the gym sculpting your body into something pleasing? Nowadays if you are not a socially acceptable body shape you are seen as being less of a good person than those whose bodies are more controlled. We can’t help judging people based on their outside appearance and make assumptions on their character. Being ‘fat’ is synonymous with laziness in modern culture. Tv shows for a long time portrayed larger people as being greedy, selfish and unable to control themselves while those with a slimmer body type as more focused, intentional, hardworking and intelligent. We emulate beauty and aesthetic perfection as the pinnacle of being an acceptable functioning person. We have twisted and manufactured beauty into this position where you can never reach it no matter how much change yourself, it is an unattainable ideal. We will always feel not good enough in comparison to other people because the world tells us that unless we are attractive we won’t be happy and won’t find love and success. Thankfully this is now changing with role models emerging in the world who don’t fit into the perfect body mould, who are admired for their humour and character regardless of their size and use their position to generate positive communication on social and self-acceptance.

Respecting our bodies should not just be about what society wants us to do for our health but about appreciating that we have good health and the ability to look after ourselves. There are countless people who live with ill health and yet without a second thought we often treat our bodies as rubbish bins, eating terribly and living a sedentary lifestyle. God healed me from serious illnesses and for me part of showing my gratitude means valuing myself as a representative of Him on this earth. He has given me new life and I try to live a healthy lifestyle, choosing to eat well and exercise moderately because I want to do right by Him. But there is a fine line between treating our body with care and clean living and controlling and punishing your body into submission. Our physical body is not the ultimate representation of our identity, nor is it what we should measure the worth of a person by. Worshipping the body can become idolatry if we are not careful. No longer do we pursue good health for the glory of God or for the simple act of being healthy people, but we begin to live a mindset that can lead us into self-obsession, narrow-mindedness and shallow relationships. True beauty is seen when you can feel good about yourself even if you don’t have a tight, toned body or naturally pretty features but you know in your heart that your character is good and you live outwardly as you are inwardly, boldly saying “I like who I am and my weirdness and my uniqueness and I am going to show that to the world”.  Challenging what is acceptably considered beautiful and choosing not to engage in shaming those who struggle with self-image is vitally important to ending the increasing prevalence of mental health issues related to body image and in encouraging one another to be real. Let’s not make chasing fitness about fitting into some socially constructed ideal of the perfect body but about treating ourselves and others with respect, worth and value. If we engage in this world of fitness then that’s great as long as we are being smart and are content knowing that it’s a lifestyle of health we pursue and not a slim body and that we do it not for the world but ourselves.

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