Athletic versus Aesthetic Values in the Pursuit of Fitness

As anyone who’s been reading this blog knows as part of our “fittest by fifty” campaign both Tracy and I are looking for ways to track improvements in fitness that aren’t about the way we look. No “firmer thighs, visible abs” goals for me. I care much more about being fit (how fast I ride, or how much I can lift) than I do about looking fit.

Staying clear of caring about looks is a challenge in our culture, whether it’s looking fit or looking fashionable. For me I find refuge from our culture’s hyper emphasis on looks  in the values of athleticism.

What’s different about athletes? Athletes care about competing and about winning, not about what you look like. It’s a very different world than mainstream culture in which looks play such an enormous role. Generally speaking, among people who view themselves as athletes, people respect you for what you can do. (Of course, athletes do run up against mainstream cultural values. Consider the case of advertising dollars and who gets them, the best athlete or the most conventionally feminine one?)

In environments where there are a lot of athletes no one seems surprised at what I do in terms of physical activity. This is different from fitness clubs and other environments where it’s assumed that non-thin people are just starting out.

The Fowler Kennedy Clinic at Western, for example, sees a lot of older athletes and their standard list of questions asks what physical activities or sports you usually do in the run of a week. No one blinks as a I rhyme off my list. They don’t assume from that you can make any conclusions about how active someone is from what they look like.  The physiotherapists and I chat and bond over recent sporting news and I’m not a weirdo to them. “Fit and overweight, how can that be?” is a question that never occurs to them. They see a lot of athletes and there I’m just part of the mosaic.

For what it’s worth, I love their honesty. They never ever mention weight so occasionally I ask. Would my knees be happier if I lost a few kilos? Maybe. We don’t know. Try it and see how it feels.

Yes, exactly so. Thank you.

Focusing on what your body can do can be tremendously liberating. I loved being pregnant and even took a great deal of satisfaction in giving birth. Yes, it was hard work but my body was doing this amazing thing and doing it so well. Wow. All of sudden, the shape of my body made sense to me. Ah, that’s what these hips are good for? Yes.

I recognize this isn’t true for everyone. There are limits to what our bodies can do that those limits are different for different people. That’s true in both childbirth and in sports. We start with different raw material. Able bodied and disabled persons both face limits in terms of performance in sports. But I find that’s not a distinction that is so meaningful when it comes to sports.  Certainly, some of the best athletes I’ve known have been disabled but with adaptive gear have been able to compete at high levels. And thinking about sports you soon realize that everyone uses specialized equipment. It’s just different specialized equipment.

Here’s two other examples that help make my point.

In the rowing room there are very large mirrors besides the erg machines. And it is true that when I first started I immediately looked and noticed my chubby tummy and my messy hair. But after a few training sessions of working on form, I lost all self-consciousness about my shape and instead paid attention to whether my arms were moving quickly on the return and on whether I was bending from the hips in that way I’d been taught. I was still evaluating, yes, but what I was evaluating was something that actually matters for the sport.

Many sports feature clothing that’s designed for speed, not looks. Time trial cyclists in the velodrome wear a skin suit to help minimize wind resistance. Few women I know like the way they look in a skin suit. But once you realize you’re there to win, you get over worrying about how you look in a skin suit. Likewise, rowers compete in something called a unisuit. You can see some pics here.

Almost all the athletes I’ve met have a relationship to their bodies that’s healthier than that of the average gym goer. Certainly there’s no mincing about behind towels in the changing room. We’re all pretty comfortable with the flesh we’ve got. Ditto with healthier attitudes towards eating. Food is fuel for performance. The women cyclists I know all joke about how cycling has influenced our shapes. But it’s not weight or leanness that we talk about. It’s the important stuff, like finding jeans and boots that go over our calves.

So identifying as an athlete helps me avoid the focus on “looking fit” that’s so pervasive in our culture. But identifying as an athlete or as an athletic person isn’t something I was always comfortable doing. After all, I’m not a professional athlete and I wasn’t even a college level athlete.  If I’m joking I sometimes say “adult onset athlete” or weekend warrior. More seriously, I tend to describe myself as a recreational athlete or club-level athlete or masters swimmer/cyclist/rower etc but that’s enough of an ‘in/ for me to feel I can learn from and share in the values of athleticism.

An interesting question is how much of these values–caring about bodily competence not looks–we can transport back into the everyday world.

And yes, not all is rosy in the land of athletic values. It’s not a perfect world. Consider what’s happening as the competitiveness of  professional competition sneaks into amateur athletics. See Wider Testing Reveals Doping Among Amateur Cyclists, Too.

But in terms of providing alternative values to those that rule in the land of looks and beauty, the world of athletics has something to offer women. Let’s sing the praises of our bodies for what they can do, not the way they look. In my own pursuit of fitness. I’ll take athletics over aesthetics any day.

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