A couple of years ago, just before I left for a sailing trip in the British Virgin Islands, I whipped up a quick post questioning the health of fitness models. A few days later, when I managed to find a wifi connection on shore (at Foxy’s Beach Bar), the stats blew my mind. The post was racking up hits as if we’d hit the jackpot on a slot machine. Never before had we posted anything that attracted readers to the blog by the thousands.
“She May Look Heathy But.. Why Fitness Models Aren’t Models of Health” is still sailing strong, by far our most read post. Surpassing 50,000 hits over the weekend, it’s had more than double the exposure of the other two old stand-bys, “The Shape of an Athlete” and “Why the Thigh Gap Makes Me Sad,” each standing now at around 24,000. Close behind them: “Crotch Shots, Upskirts, Sports Reporting, and the Objectification of Female Athletes” and “Padded Sports Bras and Nipple Phobia.”
Some weeks, these and a few other of our stalwart reliables get more traffic than any of the new content. But “She May Look Healthy But..” takes first prize. And we’re kind of baffled as to why.
It’s not the tags. We have lots of posts tagged or categorized with some combination of “body image, diets, fitness, health.”
And it’s not as if it’s one of the most indepth or well-written posts on our blog. I cribbed most of it (with credit to the original, of course) from this interview with a fitness instructor who decided to prep for a women’s figure competition. And I got the rest from our friend, colleague, and figure competitor, Shay Welch.
My post made a point that I think is worth repeating: that the healthy and fit look so many aspire to, the well-defined and sculpted body we see in magazines and competitions, is attained usually through not-so-healthy, temporary routines. The routines’ primary purpose is to produce a body that looks like that, not to promote health or fitness. And the look is not sustainable even for the people who achieve it. It’s how you appear on game day, but not on most other days.
The disconnect between looking fit and healthy, on the one hand, and being fit and healthy, on the other hand, shines through like bright sunlight on a clear day when we read her story and also the experience of Shay, fellow-philosopher, friend, and fitness figure competitor, who told me this:
I usually am at 1200-1400 calories during off season just to maintain (which is about 25 lbs over what I should be on stage) and then at about 800 calories in the final stretch, working out twice a day for around 4 hours. everyday. I do a lot of crying and very little sleeping. Off season is relatively healthy but your body will change weight super easy because the metabolism crashes to nothing. But the final stretch is super duper uper unhealthy. But I can’t do any other sports and I love being athletically competitive so I deal. Most people I know who do this cannot maintain a real job. They are almost always fitness trainers because they’re the only ones who can really endure this. I’ve known more than a few people who had to quit their regular job because they became obsessed with dieting and being on stage. I throw all my trophies away because I am always trying to remember that this is just a hobby. And no one maintains except professional fitness people and they get paid to starve year round.
The post generated tons of comments. Lots of people agreed with the key idea.
But we also heard from competitors who said that the tone of my post was unduly discouraging. They defended these competitions and the possibility of prepping in a way that isn’t as difficult, or at least isn’t any more demanding than prepping for any other physically demanding undertaking.
Competitors expressed gratitude for the support of friends and family, talking about how rewarding an experience it’s been for them. Trainers took issue with some of the claims about how restrictive the plans were.
The fact is, you’re not going to convince me that the central point is wrong. Fitness figure competitors, like any other competitors, train for specific competitions. In their case, the goal is to look a certain way for their events, or, if they’re models, for their photo shoots.
They’re the first to admit that they don’t look this way all the time. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not ready to run a marathon all the time either. No one, not wrestlers or power-lifters or rowers, “makes weight” every day.
Where things go wrong is that in the popular imaginary, we have come to associate the way the fitness models and figure competitors look with what it means to be/look healthy and fit.
It’s not just ironic. It’s downright harmful. So no. You are not going to convince me that equating health and fitness with looking like a fitness model ready for competition is a good thing. It’s not a fair or accurate representation of fitness or health.
If that’s the main message people pick up from reading our post, then I couldn’t be happier that so many read it every week. We have a good range of views represented in the comments on the original post, which is why they’re now closed.
We haven’t solved the mystery of why the spotlight lands on that post every day. But we’re grateful that it attracts a steady audience, and we hope that at least some of those readers click through to the other good content on the blog.
Thanks for reading!