Yesterday I read this blog in the daily spark:
There was some controversy over the blog in the comments, as some of the commenters felt that too much emphasis was being placed on the alternative body time image (one of not just fit but powerful or athletic builds) and not accepting of the fact that some women would prefer slim over powerful. But it got me thinking. I can understand the appeal of slim and feminine--but why not strong and powerful as well?
I've been watching the Olympics, and more than once I caught myself thinking "that woman looks thick" or "big" when seeing the women in form fitting gear--never "fat" but still, each time that stray thought it surprised and dismayed me, because these women are not just fit, they are exceedingly fit--in far better shape than I ever hope for. And I never have this thought when it comes to the male athletes--just the women.
Why? Women Olympians have, as a rule, exceptionally low body fat compositions. Some of them have bigger frames to start with, but a big part of it is that they work out hard--driven, even--and have the muscles to prove it. Not a one of them has the kind of muscles you see on men--women don't develop muscles like that--but still they have a lot of strength--upper body, lower body, and core, and when wearing form fitting clothing, you can see it. They are incredibly fit, healthy women--from a physical fitness perspective, they, not those skinny models in their skinny jeans--should be my role models and ideals.
I can understand why some of the commenters are drawn to slim but less fit body images--for example, one of the downside of having such a low body fat percentage is that women athletes tend to have smaller breasts--breasts being mostly composed of fat, after all. Call it vanity if you like, but full breasts and visibly feminine hips are one of the few things I *like* about my body.
I'm not really worried though that my workouts will get rid of them or give me a more manly appearance--for one thing, my goal is to get down to a healthy weight/fat ratio--which is no where near as lean as serious athletes can get to. I have neither the time nor the dedication to get my body fat down that low. Similarly, I can look forward to fitter, trimmer, more muscularly defined arms and legs etc. without worrying too much about bulking up--I have no need or desire for that kind of muscles. I want muscles to facilitate every day activities--stairs, chores, walking, dancing, maybe play some pick up soccer or tennis matches, that kind of thing. I am not competing against the world's best in bobsled or luge or skiing or figure skating.
But what the blog made me wonder again why I didn't think "strong" "fit" or "powerful" when I saw some of these women athletes--and I think that she is right, it's in our cultural programming. The media--television, fashion magazines, etc.--have so skewed our ideal of "normal" or at least "slender ideal" that even exceptionally fit women don't always meet that impossible ideal. Not that long ago, Marylin Monroe was considered the epitome of female beauty--and I've read that she was a size 14 (though I don't know if that's a modern size 14 or size 14 of that time--not the same thing at all). Still, she certainly wasn't stick thin, and yet very attractive--yet by modern standards, many would criticize her for being chubby or over weight. By these standards, how can any of us hope to achieve the ideal? Or be healthy in process?
One of my exercise dvds has a woman instructor wearing a short top that stops shortly under her breasts, leaving her stomach and ribs mostly bare. Every time I see that video, I just want to feed her--all the bones in her ribs are clearly visible, she's so thin. She looks anorexic, though that doesn't mean that she actually is anorexic--she could be like my brother and just have a high metabolism or something. But still, this is the body type many of us want--tall, extremely thin, and yes, even beautiful and blond! And yet for most of us, this isn't healthy at all. It's like there's this disconnect between our body image ideal and the body reality--the real limits of what is healthy for our bodies.
I confess, I want to be thin again. I want to have my 26 inch waist back, to be 125 fit pounds again. Yet I know that when I was that thin, I could count my ribs, too. Is that healthy? Should that even be desirable? Back then, I was younger, more active, and had a high metabolism--I didn't have to worry about dieting and I certainly wasn't anorexic. But now, a decade older, with a metabolism I abused, I don't know if it's realistic--or at least healthy--to want that. My weight goal is 135 lbs--which brings me well within a healthy BMI, but still heavier than I was in high school and college.
And I want to be fit--what Sparks calls "FUNctional fitness" in that I want to be fit to better enjoy my every day life. I have (well, not so much the last two weeks, but in general) been working out fairly regularly--40 minutes of strength training 3 days a week, aerobic activity 5 days a week and sometimes an hour of yoga. I want to build up enough upper body strength to be able to lift and carry things without always having to ask a guy for help; I want a strong core to protect myself from back pain, and I want legs that can take me where ever I want to go--quickly, if I want/need to. I want the freedom of independence, to make choices based on what I want to do, not what I'm able to do.
And I'm making progress. I can feel the muscle tone improving, especially in my legs. I can lift heavier weights now than I could a year ago. My physical therapy/weight training is also helping to build up muscles I'd lost in my legs and hips (slowly, painfully--I hate the physical therapy part because it hurts
Take care of yourselves, my friends, because therapy stinks) but my hips are finally getting the rest of the way better and not hurting all the time--unless I stop working out (a good motivator to keep going).
And it may be that someone will see me--maybe a friend who hasn't seen me since my skinny days, for example, or a stranger--and think "that woman is thick and/or big." And you know what? I don't really care, so long as I'm healthy fit and slim (which is different from skinny--slim means not pudgy or chubby or overweight, where as skinny means overly slim). I want to be feminine and slender, but I would rather be fit and trim than skinny. The problem then isn't my body but rather our culturally skewed perception of it. I want to have lean muscles, feminine curves, and flexibility. And if that means only losing down to 135 lbs--or maybe even only down to 145 (still, I believe, within my healthy BMI), than so be it. The scale isn't what matters. And maybe I won't be doing a triple axle any time soon, but I want to be out there, living my life, enjoying it--healthy and fit, feminine and slim.