January 12, 2011

What does the media tell us about our bodies?

At one point, Hewitt had
stated she "loved her
curves"...what the hell
You couldn't pay me enough to be a (female) celebrity these days. The scrutiny over fat, cellulite, too thin, too fat, and too addicted must have a negative influence on emotional well being (I'd be freaked out about going out in public for fear of seeing my dimples posted in national magazines).  Flipping through your typical trashy magazine you won't have to wait long before you see the latest pictures of the stars with "cellulite" (and the nasty headlines that accompany them). Flip over to the next page and you see pictures of the 40+ superstar pickled and emaciated with unflattering photos taken of wrinkles, dimples, and plastic skin (coupled with the nasty headlines that accompany them). It seems today that almost every pop-culture magazine has diet tips, fitness tips for flat bellies and firmer arms, and countless ads for the latest plastic surgery promising ageless beauty.  Quite honestly, I'm tired of it.

OMG...there are no words. This was
the result of my Google Image for
Don't think for one second that the health and fitness industry (and its' participants) aren't influenced by this pop-culture belief of what beauty, health, and fitness are. Just "Google Image" the word "fitness" and see what pops up. You won't see too many (if any) chubby people wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but you will see many scantly clad, tanned and toned women wearing next to nothing and showing off their six pack. Or you will note the ripped male figure, shirtless and flexing into the camera. Is this fitness? Conversely, "Google Image" the word "health" and you will see many happy, yet normal looking people walking outdoors and laughing. Or you will see pictures of apples and tape measures resting on scales or dumbbells (this is my personal favorite....gag). Is that health? Funny we don't see the overweight or obese person walking with their friends laughing, having a good time and radiating health. Of course, you can be healthy and overweight....but the media doesn't present this information...it isn't sexy.

This is the uniform of choice
for many in the fitness
center. No wonder many
are intimidated.
If you have ever been in a fitness facility, you will see this "body beautiful" belief advertised through the fitness classes offered. More often than not (I can't think of a fitness center I've been in where this wasn't the case) you will see fitness classes marketing toned abs, butts, and thighs (via classes such as "Abs, Butts, and Thighs") or promises of a chiseled physique with classes called "Body Sculpt". Such titles invoke a feeling of promise to many participants. In addition, they propagate the beliefs that we, as women, have "trouble spots" or areas of concern we need to "take control of" or "improve" when, really, our body parts are working fine (thank you very much). I have even seen a class called "Better Body" assuming that the body I have could be better. Um....ya....going to a fitness center may not be that great for your self esteem.

There it is..there's the apple. This is an
image from Googling "health".
Why an apple? Why not a pomagranate
or a banana?
Once you get past the titles, you are now exposed to the uniform of this fitness culture. I've seen everything from women working out with next-to-nothing on to others wearing full body condoms (almost). I have to admit, when I see a woman (usually one with little to no body fat) wondering around a gym wearing tiny little shorts and a bra top that couldn't even pass as a headband, I want to ask her what the hell she thinks she's doing. Is she wearing that because it's comfortable? Does she think it's appropriate to be 3/4s naked in a public space? Am I too much of a puritan? I realize that everyone has a right to wear what they want, but the negative effects that come from her "costume" are measurable. The research shows that women do not join fitness facilities because of costumes like that. I truly believe in dress codes that are functional, yet don't shout (look at my chiseled ass!). Studies have also shown that exercise environments that have "appropriate yet respectful" dress codes offer a great feel of inclusiveness to those "novice" exercisers joining for the first time. Just imagine the barriers we are creating as fitness leaders when we decide to teach our classes in the latest fitness gear designed to show off those aerobized legs, arms, and svelte torso. If we want to draw in more participants in, a focus on inclusive-wear may be something to consider.

..and here's the "healthy" family.
Beautiful, blonde, white teeth...
From posters and marketing campaigns to the uniforms we choose to wear, the fitness industry is heavily influenced by what we believe beauty (and fitness) should look like. But what about health? In the industry of health promotion and wellness we are continually exposed to the messages of beauty through pictures of thin, "fit looking", beautiful models marketing the latest fad in health food or walking shoe. Even the educated health promoters (without them even knowing it) will unconsciously market the "body ideal" through their own "weight wellness" programs created to lose weight and get healthy (when more research than not shows that you can be healthy at any weight as long as you eat well and exercise daily). As one of my favorite researchers, Patricia Vertinsky, once said; "Health and fitness programs are merely judgements wrapped up in scientific packages".

Another image from "health".
This word is often medicalised.
Which is strange to me, health is
without illness...and can't be
measured with a stethascope.
The physical "health" and "fitness" of the nation is such a focus that we forget the other aspects of health (emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual) are JUST as important. A person with feelings of chronic isolation may reduce immune system function and pick up any bug going around (funny we didn't see this as a health promotion message when H1N1 was going around, eh? Wash your hands and find a friend!). People do die of broken hearts when they lose their social connections. A person unaware or unable to verbalize their emotions in a healthy manner may experience a higher rate of illness (including cardiac complications and cancer). This has been shown in much research and is a message that, in many cases, is undermined by our desire to attain the "ideal" physique as defined by our popular culture (Look at me! I've lost 20 pounds and look fabulous in this bikini, but I still suffer from depression and can't seem to shake this cold).

I wonder what it would be like to go to a fitness facility where the predominate message is true health? What would you call the fitness classes ("Strong Heart", "Strength and Flexibility", "Group Cycling")? How would the staff dress? What posters would you see on the wall (healthy eating, living in balance, marketing emotional and social health)? How would you feel walking into a facitlity that was concerrned about your overall health (not only the physical) and lead by example? I don't know about you...but I would pay a hefty membership fee to be a part of that fitness facility.

What is the difference between this advertisement for group cycling and the one below? Which one motivates you and why? If the fit couple above motivate you could it be the hope or desire of attaining that ideal look of fitness? If so, how does this hope influence our personal health changes? Many would suggest that after a few weeks of not seeing a change, hope dissapears and the old behaviours creep back in. Our beliefs and attitudes about fitness do influence our health in the long run. 
What do we assume when we look at this picture? Many would assume (based upon the beleifs of what it is to look "healthy") that this woman is just starting out on a fat loss program and is a beginning a group cycling class for the first time. Perhaps she has exercised all her life, eats a well balanced diet, and has been group cycling for years....research shows us that we cannot tell by what's on the outside.
After saying that, I'm completely influenced by popular culture like the next person. I want to hold onto whatever "youthful good looks" I have and be able to zip up my jeans without flailing on the floor like a fish out of water. Although I am focused on eating an "anti-chronic illness" diet and now exercise to remain pain-free, injury-free, and mobile into my old age.....the physical benefits are a nice perk.

That's all I'm sayin'.

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