Brooke Birmingham of the healthy living blog Brooke: Not on a Diet lost over 170 pounds and was recently approached to be featured in Shape Magazine. When the writer of the article asked Brooke to send in her “after” picture, she sent in this:
Whether is was Shape or the freelance writer who told her to cover up the body that she worked hard for, the message being sent to Brooke was clear. Losing weight and being fit is not enough; you have to look the part or it doesn’t count. This might as well be the motto for the fitness community and the multi billion dollar fitness industry. As much as we constantly hear that eating right and exercising is good for your health, let’s face it: the fitness industry doesn’t want us to be healthy. They want us to feel insecure about our bodies so that we can try to change them. In essence, the fitness industry is an extension of the beauty industry. This is clear when you look at any promotional video or advertisement for a fitness product or video.
For example, the first words of this promo for Beachbody’s widely popular Insanity program is “Think your body can look like this 60 days from now? You need to be committed.” If Beachbody wanted to sell us wellness instead of insecurity, perhaps those first words would be, “Think you could reduce your risk for diabetes and heart disease in just 60 days?” Or perhaps, “Think you can increase your energy, sleep better, and be stronger in just 60 days?” Then again, in our beauty-driven society, Insanity and other fitness programs probably wouldn’t sell if they didn’t make us feel like our bodies are inadequate as they are.
This industry sells transformation and improvement, while constantly presenting unattainable perfection. Workout videos are filled with people who have shiny, athletic bodies, attractive faces, and infinite amounts of energy. They rarely ever stop to take a break, catch their breath, or grab water. The people in these videos are supposed to be examples for the rest of us who may not have “perfect” bodies or endless stamina. This can be motivating, but it can also be alienating to someone who knows that they will never be able to look like the fitness instructors on screen. It would be refreshing if fitness companies like Beachbody and Shape sold inclusion and diversity instead of desire for perfection; if they sold “you are great just the way you are” instead of “you’ll never be good enough.”
Those of us who are not perfect may feel that we don’t have a place in the fitness community. Many people do not go to the gym out of fear of being ridiculed, or feeling out of place because they are new to exercise. (For this reason, I choose to workout at home in my bedroom.) Gyms are not alone in being exclusive. Yoga studios, for example, are often dominated by those who are white, thin, wealthy, and educated. Food can also be exclusive in it’s own way. Eating healthy or organic food can be more expensive, and less available in poor neighborhoods, meaning that people who have a low SES are disproportionately overweight.
Besides that, fat shaming is rampant in our society, partly because it’s probably the only acceptable way to intrusively criticize someone’s body or behaviors under the guise of being concerned about their health. We take one look at a fat person, and assume what they eat, what diseases they have, if they exercise, and what their daily habits are like. And we are quick to offer advice (for example, “You shouldn’t be eating that”) that we wouldn’t offer to thinner people. We appear to be so concerned about the health of others, yet we do not celebrate fat people who exercise regularly and live a healthy lifestyle, and, with some exceptions, we are less likely to shame people for having other health conditions. When is the last time that someone has been shamed for not going for their yearly check up, having cancer, or breaking a leg?
Marianne Kirby says, “if people really cared about the health of fat people, they wouldn’t be suggesting self-harm via starving, guilt, and self-hatred as some sort of penance for fatness. They’d be supporting a movement that has reconnected fat people with their bodies and their own health, both mental and physical, whatever the state of their health might be.” We, as a society, troll those who are fat, or those who have otherwise “unacceptable” bodies, but not because we’re worried about their health. People’s bodies are under a high amount of scrutiny and social control, so it’s easy to criticize some who dares to exist in a body that is not considered acceptable.
We know that fat shaming is not an effective weight loss or health promotion strategy. One study found that fat shaming increases risk of obesity. And a recent Florida State University College of Medicine study found that fat shaming can be detrimental to physical and mental health.
Speaking for myself, I know that feeling insecure about my body doesn’t motivate me to exercise. A few months ago, I started working out again. I say “again”, because like many people, I had started and stopped fitness programs several times in the past. Back then, my main goal was to lose weight, particularly around my midsection. What I didn’t realize was that focusing on my appearance instead of appreciating my body actually had a demotivating effect. As Abbey Lewis says, “We have been told that exercise has been good for our bodies, and we don’t dispute that. But it hasn’t been good for our minds.” Weighing myself every day, counting calories, and measuring my waist was making me discouraged and insecure, so eventually I stopped. This time around, I decided to focus on better reasons to exercise. For me, the main reasons are my mental health, feeling stronger, and having a new hobby. Focusing on these benefits instead of what I look like has made working out into a fun activity instead of a reminder of my insecurities.
Despite what some might think about her bikini photo, Brooke (who is now going to be featured in Shape in her bikini) celebrates her weight loss and her body. We should celebrate Brooke and anyone who works hard to achieve a difficult goal. Her story is a testament to her hard work, dedication, and self love, and it is also great example of the realities of losing large amounts of weight. Most importantly, Brooke is happy with herself and her body, and she has been an inspiration to many others who are on a fitness or self love journey.
She is not alone in challenging the norms of fitness and beauty. The fat acceptance and Health at Every Size movements are gaining momentum. Yoga is slowly becoming a practice that is more diverse, as seen in the documentary Yoga and Diversity. And the public’s reaction to Brooke’s story and other instances of body shaming (like Maria Kang’s “What’s Your Excuse?” Facebook post) seems to indicate that more and more people are willing to stand up for body acceptance.
Fitness should be an activity open to people with any and every type of body. The industry would be wise to cater to those of us who are not, and do not strive to be perfect. Until then, I hope that more of us learn to use fitness, not as a tool of self-hate, but as a way to appreciate, love and take care of ourselves and each other.
Written by Keziyah Lewis