We are Responsible for Many Body Image Problems
As I write this, we are closing in on the last few days of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. I really enjoy the Olympics. To me it is a celebration of what athletes from all around the world have accomplished. These competitors have worked their butts off for YEARS to get to where they are, and now it is all on display for the world to see. Talk about all things that are great in sport distilled into one big extravaganza of competition!
Yet, in some cases, this celebration has descended into the cesspool of actually having primetime television and magazine taking heads discussing who looked the best, who was the sexiest, who is the latest heartthrob. You have to be kidding me! What in the heck does that have to do with sport? NBC even went so far as to denigrate these games by having Ryan Seacrest reporting on what the nietzens of “Social Media” are saying about the way the athletes looked. Not how they preformed, or where they came from to get there, but what they actually looked like, and how attractive they are or are not. One word. Disgraceful. I can’t believe that someone like Bob Costas would even share the same production set with that kind of garbage reporting.
In my training and coaching world, I am amazed how much body image issues have found their way into every nook and cranny of what I do. Several years ago, I had the privilege of training an up and coming female powerlifter. She was in high school, and had significant potential. In just that first year of real training, she was a force to be reckoned with, even earning 5th place at High School Nationals. She had drive and passion for being the best she could be. Everyone was very exited to see where she would go the next season – making the World Team was not out of the question. But when that next season came around, she was no where to be found. I caught up with her and tried to talk with her about what was going on, and why she wasn’t with her old team. This girl was polite beyond measure, and gracefully dodged my many questions. Eventually, I had to let it go, but it still ate at me. What went wrong? Was I bad coach? Did she not have the “fire” that we thought she had? Did she just want to do something else? It wasn’t until some time later that I found out the truth. She was relentlessly bullied by others about being a strong girl that didn’t fit the mold of the size 2 prom queen, and that she was excelling at a sport “for men” so something must me wrong with her. She was not obese or even close. She had the body of a strong woman. But that didn’t matter to those that chose to humiliate her. It didn’t matter to these people that she was great at what she did. All that mattered to them was to ridicule her about what she looked like and the sport she chose until she chose it no more. Congratulations everyone, you did what you set out to do. You made someone feel bad enough about how they looked that they quit something that they were very good at, and could very possibly given her something that she could have made part of her life. To all those people, here is your gold star for being complete jerks. You earned it.
Athletes come in all shapes and sizes
A few months ago, a good friend sent me a link to a blog post targeted at artists who were interested in the athletic form. To quote from the post, “This is a photoshoot of various Olympic-level athletes by Howard Schartz and Beverly Ornstein titled “The Athlete”.” In the post are many pictures of some of the best known athletes in the world showing what they look like. The divergence in body shapes and sizes is amazing. You can see for yourself here. Everyone in those pictures is at the top of their game. They have spent huge portions of their life fine tuning their bodies into machines of excellence. And, isn’t that the point of all this? To train your body to be great? Yet, there are many, many people out there that would do nothing but stand back and say “Well she may be a great weightlifter, but she sure is fat”, or “That guy is a great equestrian, but he is as tiny as a prepubescent girl.” What? Seriously? These are the best of the best in athletics, and there are those that are willing to toss that out the window and focus on their body type and dismiss the rest? If we do this to the best out there, is it really a surprise that we have girls and women suffering from eating disorders, and boys and men dealing with dysmorphia?
Some are finally speaking out
During the Olympics, even Conan O’Brien couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He just had to take a shot at one of our American athletes, in what I think is incredibly tasteless and indicative of the body image issues that are plaguing our society. I won’t give the joke any space here. That said, you can read the reaction from another Olympian, Zoe Smith, in this Salon.com article. Zoe took most of the words out of my mouth, so I will only say that I agree completely with her. I just wish more like her would stand up and call out those that peddle in these disgusting and pejorative sound bites.
While it does not step very close to the athletic world, even Vogue magazine has now taken steps to change the types of models that appear within its covers. I don’t read Vogue, but good on them. At the same time, these same magazines, the media and the fitness industry has redefined the perfect body type as devoid of any body hair, single digit body fat percentages and clothing that now comes in “vanity sizing.” Tom Sellek never seemed to have a problem attracting people.
I am proud that I wear XXL clothing, and have to have suits sport coats and shirts custom made because nothing on the rack will even come close to fitting me. For me that means I am carrying enough muscle on my frame that I can’t get my arms into the sleeves of a coat, and that my legs don’t fit many jeans so I have to wear a lot of cargo shorts. My 36″ waist may have a little extra junk in it, but I can deadlift a car for reps and run around with a 200 lb sandbag. Not bad for a guy well into his 40′s. When I helped move my daughter into her new apartment this past weekend, I was handling stuff that others half my age couldn’t move. I’m also healthy. My Doc told me once not long ago that he wished that many of his other patients had bloodwork as good as mine.
I say this to help you understand that you too should have pride in what you can do, not vanity in what you look like. One of the sayings I use with the kids on my powerlifting team is “Stop training what you see in the mirror.” We have become a society that values looks over performance, and promotes a training philosophy that then end goal is to look like what is on the cover of Cosmopolitan or Men’s Health. We embrace aesthetics over function. When Conan O’Brien can preform a clean and jerk and a snatch on stage for the world to see, I bet what he thinks is funny will change.