The danger here is that unlike photoshopped models, fitness stars tell you that what they have is real, and that you could—no, you should—achieve it, too
I was always “the thin one.”
I spent more than a decade wavering between being underweight and being anorexic. Naturally, people just assumed that my body type was slender and somewhat frail.
“You look like a model,” people would tell me. More than once, a stranger approached me on the street or in a cafe to ask if I was a ballerina. (Perhaps it is only in New York City that someone would a) care if they encountered a ballerina, and b) care strongly enough to ask.) What gave them this idea? Probably the razor sharp shoulders that held up my t-shirts like hangers. Probably the fact that I was so thin my head floated above my twig neck like a balloon.
Obviously, I know what they meant by these comments: I was tall and skinny like your stereotypical post-modern fashion model. When I think of that statement today, however, I cringe.
I cringe to think that that word — model — was ever applied to me then. As if that body should have been a model, an example of how women should look, or of the lengths to which a woman should go to look like I did. As if starvation is the paradigm for which everyone should strive.
Fitness Models: The “Anorexic Chic” of 2016?
Interestingly, if I looked today like I did when I was anorexic, I might still be called a model, but this wouldn’t necessarily be an enviable trait. As a culture we’ve come to understand that most fashion models either are rare, lithe creatures that cannot amass body fat if they tried, or they are photoshopped beyond recognition (and usually it’s the latter). We more readily acknowledge that the images we see in magazines aren’t real.
That’s great — except that a different paradigm has taken the place of starved ballerinas. Now, the emphasis has shifted to being “fit” and “healthy.” Instead of holding up anorexic fashion models as the epitome of female beauty, we look to Instagram fitness stars. These are the people who load up their accounts with photos of protein shakes and smoothies, who swallow kale by the bunch but who would consider cake a cardinal sin.
These fitness stars might be more dangerous than the photoshopped magazine models, because unlike models, the fitness gurus tell you that what they have is real, and that you could — no, you should — achieve it, too. In reality, results they achieve are far from “typical.” They’ve made a career of exercising, and they spend every waking moment maintaining the look they’ve created.
Worst of all, many claim to have thrown away their scales, and they decorate their posts with tags like #strongissexy, #fitnessmotivation, #bodycomposition, and #sweatwith[name goes here]. But underneath those photos (the ones that are usually the 12th or 13th taken, because the first 11 made her neck look saggy) is someone who just as anxious about her appearance as her followers.
A New Paradigm
Of course, this doesn’t apply to every fitness guru on social media. Lots of people love to work out vigorously without falling into disordered eating or exercise habits. But some (who knows how many) are maintaining this lifestyle by working out six days a week without fail, meticulously counting every calorie, and then posting professional (perhaps even photoshopped) photos on Instagram. And then they rhapsodize about this amazing lifestyle and body that YOU TOO CAN ACHIEVE if only you push yourself.
It is none of my business to tell them to not live like that; however, as a person in recovery from an eating disorder who writes publicly about that experience, I urge you not to fall for it. What you see on these accounts is no more “real” than the stick-thin fashion models we have all grown suspicious of.
Do not beat yourself up for not looking like these people, and do not sacrifice your happiness to destroy yourself at the gym. Think and browse critically about what you see on social media. It may at first seem positive to come across someone who posts before/after photos of going from underweight/skinny to “healthy” and “fit,” or who says they never weigh themselves, but don’t take that to mean they have it all figured out.
The world is all too happy to tell you how to “be fit” and thus how to “fit in.” Don’t let it. Decide that for yourself.
If I’m going to model anything, I hope it will be self-love and self-respect. I hope I can show by example that your happiness isn’t contingent upon your muscle tone. That there is absolutely nothing to be gained by joining in that conversation of “Ugh, I ate SO much today, I am disgusting.” That your stomach does not need to be perfectly flat and chiseled before you can wear a fitted shirt or a two-piece bathing suit.
So, one more time: There is no one who can tell you what you should look like, what the ideal female body is, or what it means to “be fit” and thus to “fit in.”
Love yourself. Be your own model, whatever shape that takes.
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