body image · diets · fitness

50,000 Hits and Counting: Why Is “She May Look Healthy But” So Popular?


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!

athletes · body image · competition

So You Want to Be a Fitness Model or Competitor?

absFirst a disclaimer: I’m not a fitness model or a competitor, and I don’t want to be. But if the 2000 or so hits a month on our last post about fitness models is any indication, lots of people do have an interest and maybe even want to try it.  Last week, someone posted a comment asking for advice. I’m not a well of information, but I’ve  heard enough different perspectives since that post back in February 2012 that it’s time for a follow-up.

The gist of my original post was that fitness models and fitness figure competitors may look amazing, but their path to getting to that look is far from healthy.  I based my comments on  articles I’d read (including this one) and from my friend Shay’s experience of contest prep.  Neither the woman interviewed in the article nor Shay who competes think that the challenges of achieving that competition-ready or photo-shoot ready body are a reason not to go for it.  They both experience rewards.

But neither claimed it was healthy.  And so the paradox: to look like the picture of fitness you need to compromise your health.  That’s not necessarily a reason not to go for it, but it’s perhaps a reason to re-think our idea of what a “fit” or “healthy” body looks like.

Of course, there were dissenters. A couple of women commented with quite different experiences. Abby said:

I’ve been competing/modeling since 2008 and tinkered with different methods. Ultimately, most show preps should only last 12-16 weeks max and most people don’t cut out cheat meals until they’re about 4-6 weeks out. It would be too restrictive otherwise. Additionally, a good nutritionist would not make the diet quite that restrictive for the entire prep because it’s too hard on your body and is a VERY tough pill to swallow emotionally. You have to adjust gradually and shift your food list as the weeks pass. Where you deplete carbs, you generally up your fats so you have an energy source.

As for me, I eat 1400-1600 calories (6 meals per day) when I’m closer to a show. When I first start out to cut bodyfat, I’m closer to the 1800 range and feel very powerful in my training. I lift during my lunch hour and do 30-45 minutes of cardio after work. Home by 6:30 or 7, and I have the night off in front of the TV. I feel great. It took a few years of experimenting but I look and feel healthy. The last month of a show is more restrictive but I definitely don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything in terms of fast food or anything at the moment.

And she commented on my friend Shay’s experience that in the weeks immediately preceding a competition, life gets really hard. Shay said, “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.” To that, Abby commented:

1200-1400 cals in an offseason is ridiculous (unless she’s like 4’10). You can’t build muscle in your offseason if you aren’t eating, especially if you don’t put carbs back in the mix. Additionally her base metabolic rate is likely in the 1200-1400 calorie range as-is– so the reason she feels like crap is she’s in full-blown ketosis (she’s eating less than she burns naturally + with exercise.) Keto diets, while effective, make you feel fuzzy in the head and weak.

If you do a bad show prep plan, you’re at the risk for adrenal fatigue, hypothyroidism, sleeplessness, constipation, missed periods, low energy, headaches, dizziness, etc. I’m sure it’s different for body builders but as far as bikini and figure competitors, you shouldn’t feel bad. You should feel good. A little physically tired towards the end, maybe, but good. Miserable shouldnt be in in your lexicon. I think that the competitor interviewed had a terrible coach. I have my 13th show in 3.5 weeks and I feel fabulous.

Note her last point:  she feels fabulous.  Another commenter had a similar positive experience. She objected to my post because it seemed discouraging to people who might want to compete:

I personally think that this post is really discouraging for those who actually want to become involved in this sport. I have been training since Novemebr for a show that I competed in my first show May and place 2nd. I am now training for a show on August 17, 2013. I have really enjoyed my journey, and look forward to taking this level of fitness as far as I can.

My couch always says “It’s all mental”, and it’s a “life-style” change. So if someone if telling you that it’s hard, and miserable, then that’s what you’re going to set your mind to believe. I would like to say that it’s an awesome and life-changing experience, just to know that you can transform your body into looking fit and feeling great without fad-diets and surgery, is a reward in itself. I’m actually going to look into becoming a personal trainer, to “motivate” all who want to have a life of health and reach their fitness goals.

My friends and family are so supportive and encourage me to keep up the good work. I have inspired many of my friends and family to change their life-styles as well. So I see nothing bad about this journey.

In short this is an AMAZING experience!!!!

Clearly, not everyone has a thoroughly negative experience. The post was never meant to discourage people, though I can see how someone might take it that way. It was more about the realities of achieving a certain aesthetic.  Most competitors will agree that their competition-ready body isn’t the same as their year-round body.  So in that sense, what we see on competition day or in the photo-shoot is not sustainable all the time.

And it would be unrealistic to think that it’s easy to get to that level of muscularity and low body fat. As with any physically demanding activity that you take to the level of competition, training for “game day” can be grueling.  It’s not all fun and leisure. In a way, that’s what distinguishes those who dabble from those who compete.

The question remains: is there a healthy way to get there if you do wish to compete?  There’s a great article by natural body builder Krista Schaus (Precision Nutrition coach) called, “Healthy Contest Prep–An Oxymoron?”  In it she argues that it is absolutely possible to prep for competitions in a healthy way. The key, she says, is to develop a new goal: always be 3-6 weeks away from being contest-ready. That’s year round–3-6 weeks away.

Besides that it feels good to maintain a high level of leanness and muscularity year round, prepping from that place is also much easier on the body:

When you’re training year-round and staying “3-6 weeks away,” your preparation phase is much less stressful on the body.

Think about it, if you only have 10-15lbs to lose for a competition it takes much less time (and much less of a huge lifestyle overhaul) than if you have to lose 30-40lbs for that competition.  The negative energy balance doesn’t have to be as great.  So, you can keep eating lots of nutrient rich foods while simply cleaning up the diet and ramping up the exercise program.

What she’s claiming is: there is a right way to do it. It doesn’t need to be soul-destroying:

In the end, it seems to me that a lot of gym folks treat physique competition like recreational runners treat their local marathon.  It becomes a holy grail of sorts.

In establishing this milestone goal, they forget that before rushing headlong into such an event, there’s some stuff to do.  Some self-exploration is required.  Some expert advice is to be sought out.  And some serious sacrifices have to be made along the way.

So if you’re thinking about competing in your first physique contest – or your first powerlifting meet – or your first marathon… “just do it.”  One caveat, though.  Do it right!

If you don’t do it right, you might end up with metabolic damage. And that’s no fun for anyone. As Scott Abel, expert on metabolic damage says, “Trust me when I say if you ever have to experience the emotional pain of metabolic damage, no contest and no degree of leanness will ever have been worth it.”

There are different ways to do it right. But as with any training, it’s best to be informed and seek the help and guidance of experts. It’s definitely not the case that everyone ends up miserable and everyone ends up damaging their metabolic health. If you set fitness modeling, or figure and body-building competitions as your physical challenge, make sure you do your research and adopt a plan that, while pushing you to your physical limits, won’t compromise your longer term health.