Body Wars: Body Acceptance vs. Pursuit of Fitness

As females, we are constantly confronted with conflicting expectations.  For example, moms who return to work after the birth of their baby are often chastised as not being good mothers but, on the other hand, women who make the choice to stay at home are blamed for being anti-feminist or setting back women’s rights. When it comes to sexuality women who are assertive and upfront about what they want are labeled as ‘sluts’ by other women yet women who practice sexual restraint are ‘prudes.’  We can’t win.  And, as is often the case, these are no-win situations perpetuated by women against other women.

Body Wars

One such conflict, sometimes dubbed the “Body Wars,” that has made waves in social media lately is the idea of body of body acceptance i.e. accepting our bodies exactly the way they are versus the pursuit of fitness (which, while I of course want to emphasize the health and performance components, definitely includes aesthetic goals as well).   A prime example of this conflict is the intense reaction to fitness advocate Maria Kang‘s infamous “What’s Your Excuse?” photo.  While that rhetorical slogan was certainly provocative, I am continually astonished by the hateful girl-on-girl fights that this singular photo has instigated around the internet.  Yet again, women seem divided into one of two camps: those that applaud Kang’s pursuit of fitness and those that interpret Kang’s message as one of body-shaming (some even accused her of hate speech!) any one who’s body is not as toned or fit as hers.  Is the pursuit of fitness (and the fit body that comes with it) really at odds with loving and accepting one’s body?

“The focus on weight loss can seem in conflict with the idea of accepting (particularly for women) our bodies as they are. One issue is about health, the other is about women’s image in society. We have been objectified for so long, our bodies commodified and consistently treated like the most important aspect of our selves. Accepting our bodies as they are is about moving past the absurd feminine ideal put in place, not by women, but by our culture as a whole, by every industry out there using the female form (one particular, often unattainable version of it) to sexualize and sell their products” said Sara Moriarty in her article on Maria Kang, Is the Fit Mom a Feminist? 

Unfortunately, the issues of body image issues, health, cultural views on femininity, and sexism and objectification are inextricably linked. But, to use any of those issues as an excuse to put other women down is deplorable and simply feeds into the unfair and unattainable cultural expectations that I know both sides want to push against.

Being constantly bombarded with photoshopped images of celebrities has not done wonders for our self-esteem and that goes for women of ALL body types.  And, if as women we could some how let go of our culturally-perpetuated insecurities, I believe that we all want the same things.  Women who appear to be the epitome of “fit” need to learn to accept and love their bodies just as much as women who are overweight.  Outward appearance is not a reflection of how much a woman should love herself; nor does it reveal how much she may struggle doing just that.

On the other hand, working towards healthy and realistic goals to obtain better levels of health, fitness, and usually, by extension, a more “fit” body is an option available to everyone.  It’s amazing to me how hard working women like Maria Kang and Lee-Ann Ellison, who I consider to be very positive fitness role models, are put down by other women for perpetuating an “unattainable” body image.  I realize that it is hard to recognize reality when we are faced with fake, edited versions of women’s bodies on a daily basis, but having a fit body is one of many real-world attainable options if you put in the work.  A fit body is evidence of physical fitness and health. Insulting someone who has put in the hard work to achieve the body they want by dismissing their body as “unrealistic” or “unattainable” just reveals your own insecurities.

My Journey

A few months into CrossFit
A few months into CrossFit

Like most women, I know firsthand what it is like to struggle to find balance between loving my body but also pursuing a body image ideal. From the time I was 10 years old up until I graduated from the University of Minnesota I spent hours and hours in the dance studio.  At one point, my chosen career was a professional dancer.  If you have seen any dance movie from the past decade or two (heck, maybe make that any dance movie ever!) you have an idea–albeit a slight exaggerated, hollywoodified version–of the type of pressure that is placed on dancers to maintain a certain body type.  Now the dance world has grown leaps and bounds from what it used to be but even a handful of years ago when I was a dancer, the pressures to maintain an aesthetic ideal were very real and unfortunately tended to encourage a very unhealthy body image and even unhealthier methods of attaining that body type.  Let’s just say I am grateful that I did not develop an eating disorder, although the line between an unhealthy obsession with exercise/restrictive eating and a diagnosed disorder is blurry at best.  At any rate, it has taken me several years to find the balance between body acceptance and the pursuit of fitness: a feat I largely credit to discovering CrossFit.

When I first started CrossFit, I was still in my obsessed-with-the-number-on-the-scale phase.  I still felt an immense sense of pride when the scale read a certain number.  So, I was extremely heartbroken when I weighed in at 10 pounds heavier than my previous weight after about 6 months of CrossFit.  I admit that it took a while for that sting to fade even after I caught a glance of myself in the mirror one day and saw a level of muscular definition that surprised me! I had always been pretty lean but now I had abs and shoulders!  I hadn’t even noticed the physical transformation that was taking place because I was so focused on getting a heavier squat or learning how to do a proper pull-up.  In fact, besides that one memorable weigh-in, I hadn’t really thought about my weight at all during those first 6 months of CrossFit.  Since this initial revelation years ago, I have learned to love and accept my body for what it is while also being pursing fitness goals that happen to result in me being able to build and maintain the body I desire.

Two years into CrossFit
Two years into CrossFit

It is a secret that is shared among many women who have discovered CrossFit or a similar training methodology that places more importance on performance goals than aesthetic ones: by pursing performance-based goals you start to appreciate your body for what it is capable of and often you end up attaining the outward appearance that you desired in the first place! But, choose to focus only on physical appearance and both performance and, more importantly, self-esteem and self-acceptance will suffer.

My Rules for Achieving Balance

Not to be misinterpreted, as I feel was true of Maria Kang’s “What’s Your Excuse?” message, I want to make it clear that I am not saying that my body is the ideal or that all women should try to look like me…far from it!  I am extremely proud of my body because of the work I have done and more importantly the new-found confidence and self-love that I possess.  You don’t need to look like me to achieve those same things.  But, I believe there are a couple hard truths that women on both sides of the body acceptance vs. pursuit of fitness conflict need to accept if you are ever going to find a healthy balance:

1. You can accept your body, even love your body exactly the way it is but still want to change it.  It does not make you a bad person to want a smaller waist, or perkier butt, or chiseled shoulders and it’s also ok to work towards those goals.  But if you can’t put an end to the judgement and hateful talk directed at the person in the mirror, then you could look like Angelina Jolie and still never be happy.

2. Loving your self and your body is not an excuse to ignore your health. It’s hard for some people to hear the truth these days because everyone is overly sensitive and politically correct, but here it is: being overweight or obese is not healthy.  I still want you to love yourself enough to not put yourself down about your physical appearance; no one should subject themselves to that.  I also do not believe that everyone should try to be a size 2.  But, facts are facts and being overweight has a negative impact on your overall health and you should love yourself enough to do something about it!

3. There are some things that you cannot change about your body.  Not without endless hours of frustration or thousands of dollars in plastic surgery…but then even still you will find something you dislike.  Know when to stop fighting and learn to love some of your “flaws.”

4. “Real” women are skinny, curvy, strong, tall, muscular, short and everything in between.  All women are real women.  Making yourself feel better by putting other women down is not ok.

One thought on “Body Wars: Body Acceptance vs. Pursuit of Fitness

  1. Katie M says:

    Kim, I really like this post. I think the most important point you made is that being physically active leads to body acceptance. I don’t always love my body but when I challenge myself physically and see what I’m capable of, I value my body more. I think that can be an important starting point for anyone who doesn’t feel confident. Start challenging yourself physically, and you’ll start to appreciate what you have and strive to make it better.

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