Recently, fitness fanatic mum, Abby Pell, was criticised after she posted this ‘fitspo’ image on her Instagram page.
If you have read this blog for a while, you’ll know that body image, health, weight and size are areas of interest for me. Since living in Bali (where the hot weather means peoples bodies are much more on show than in my native UK) it’s all the more obvious when people attribute value to themselves and others based largely on appearance – a phenomenon only exaggerated by the image driven surf industry that has a huge presence here.
However, as much as we like to put things into boxes (e.g. ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’, good’ or ‘bad’, ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ etc etc), when it comes to health, size and physique people seem to have got things a little mixed up.
Take todays example of the picture & caption that caused uproar, particularly amongst mothers. Aside from the issues associated with fat shaming I have spoken about before, there are other problems with images of ‘supposed’ physique ideals. Quite often, people selling themselves in this way are seen as a picture of health and fitness – and this is where I think it gets a little confusing.
While she appears to have acknowledged the criticism and offered a half hearted apology in the newspaper, she assumes a number of things which blur the lines between physique and health:
- That people are criticising her because of their own insecurities, and jealousy perhaps
- That people that don’t have thin and fit bodies aren’t healthy
- That people can only be happy and healthy when they fit into society’s limited view of what healthy looks like
Taking pride in your body and health doesn’t mean aspiring after a certain shape or size. Not having a six pack or abs doesn’t mean you are unhealthy (as equally as having them doesn’t mean you are) and extremes of anything – even fitness and diet – can be positively unhealthy.
So what’s the difference? Fat shaming aside, isn’t she an image of health because of her diet and exercise regimen?
Erm. No. Actually.
I’m assuming from her Instagram page that as well as being a fitness instructor and ‘nutrition coach’ this lady has also been at some point a figure competitor. There is no doubt that her body is a result of hard workouts in the gym and a strict diet regimen. However, I almost never look at ‘fitspo’ pictures at this end of the physique spectrum and think, wow, they look healthy. And here’s the reason.
Eating for Aesthetics
In reality, to achieve a look like this, you would have to drastically reduce your body fat percentage. Getting a six pack takes a lot of time and dedication to the gym (handier if it’s your job I would like to point out Mrs Pell) and your diet.
Getting your body into this condition also isn’t without risks for many women. Thinking physically, we know that women who have an inadequate energy intake (from restrictive diets) coupled with high exercise demands may send their hormones all out of whack, damaging both their reproductive and bone health. This phenomenon known as the Female Athlete Triad is something that all professional female athletes are monitored for, but may go unnoticed and untreated in the amateur athlete striving for extremes of physique. For many of us, exercising and pushing our body to the extremes of shape and body fat that these images promote may not be out of reach, but the dietary restrictions and high volumes of exercise we put ourselves through to get there may be extremely unhealthy.
So What does it really involve?
People who strive for this look are very focused on their eating and exercising habits. They have to plan meals with particular attention to timing and macro nutrient composition, limit carbohydrates or other macronutrients at particular times, limit fluid intake to achieve a lean look before photo shoots and exercise very regularly to a regimen – often twice a day. Most people would also have to avoid alcohol and cut right back on other interests to fit in their workouts.
Here’s an infographic that spells out ‘the cost of getting lean’ in pictures from Precision Nutrition.Bottom line?
While this lady might be perfectly healthy at the weight and size she is at and achieved her physique in a healthy way over a long period of time (I can’t tell by looking at her) for many, achieving this ‘look’ will involve adopting a lifestyle that could have a negative impact on their physical and social health. In the same way that people can restrict their intake to extremes to achieve an exaggerated look such as the ‘lollipop head’ or size zero, people can take it too far with the ‘shredded’ look too.
Im not saying that if done correctly you cant be healthy and live like this, I’m saying that health is not the focus of this type of lifestyle. IMAGE is.
Eating for Health
Choosing to eat for health is an entirely different practice than eating to sculpt your body. Health after all isn’t just about what you eat, or what you look like, it’s about how you feel and your whole lifestyle. Many people would benefit from making changes to their diet and exercise habits. However, small changes focused on healthy behaviours are the key.
In my view, a healthy diet is one which:
- Isn’t based around a size or weight target
- Matches a persons energy demands
- Nourishes your with plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Is enjoyable and satsifying
- Doesn’t mean you feel guilty about the occasional treat
- Doesn’t restrict you from attending social occasions
- Is sustainable in the long term
- Is free from ‘rules’ and doesn’t exclude specific foods or food groups (unless for medical/ethical or personal reasons)
I should also add, that while I’m also not a fan of these sorts of images for the impact they have on peoples self esteem and body image. I understand that they are usually well intentioned. Most are simply trying to motivate women to get into the gym and get fit. However, its a little disturbing that almost all of these images focus on objectifying bodies and shame to get people to exercise. What about exercising for fun? Because you love your body? Because it makes you feel good? Because you know it will benefit your health?
If your interested in other reasons ‘fitspiration’ is deemed an unhealthy practice, see these great posts from Gemma at Dietitian Without Borders, Jen at Mamma Lion Strong and the awesome Kite sisters from Beauty Redefined.
Health and a ‘ripped’ physique are two entirely separate issues and the size at which a body is healthy varies from person to person. If you see ‘fitspriation’ like this online, clean up your social media. Hit unfollow. Could some people do with a shift in their lifestyle to benefit their health? Sure. Do you need to look like this to be healthy? Most definitely not.
2014 Female Athlete Triad Coalition Consensus Statement on Treatment and Return to Play of the Female Athlete Triad: http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/48/4/289.full.pdf+html