Is the Fitness Ideal Any Less Damaging to Women Than the Beauty Ideal?

In light of recent conversations about the deleterious effects of an impossibly thin beauty ideal, some women’s media outlets have offered an alternative that purports to be both healthier and more realistic: fitness. But to what extent is the “fitness ideal” portrayed in many magazines equally unattainable and connected to wider social issues regarding women, bodies and class?

There’s no question that nutrient-rich foods and physical activity are important for bodily health, but a gym membership does not guarantee a disease-free life. Even the most athletic among us may suffer from a variety of health issues, whether they are genetic (celiac disease), circumstantial (strep throat), or related to athleticism (tendonitis, a torn ACL or exercise bulimia). Despite the importance of fitness to vitality, it’s a fallacy to conflate a six-pack with immaculate health.

Yet mainstream women’s health and fitness media still offers us one very narrow vision of what it means to be healthy, and that vision greets us daily from the covers of magazines and Nike billboards. Unfortunately, the means through which we are advised to obtain this healthy and happy ideal are often hindered by paradox. Flatten your belly, but stop weighing yourself so much! Almonds are great for you, but don’t eat more than a handful a day! Love yourself and find happiness everywhere, but burn calories all day long! Going gluten-free is healthy even if you aren’t celiac, but don’t develop an eating disorder as a result!

These are not messages of self-love and rational healthy behavior, but ones that create and perpetuate obsession, self-loathing, ambivalence, and fear.

Some writers have already discussed the ways in which “fitspo” (as opposed to “thinspo”) is tied to problematic issues regarding body image. For the majority of women, a wiry, muscular size 4 is no more attainable than a svelte, bony size 0.

Beyond body image, there’s also the issue of class and money. Within the pages of fitness publications are hundreds of advertisements for products that we’re told will solve our body woes and make us instantly healthier. The imagery is familiar: the woman who’s ever-so-lightly tanned, blonde-ponytailed, free of body hair, and toting an expensive gym bag full of color-coordinated gear, her legs and abs tightened by hours of private training sessions, Zumba and Pilates. Above all, you know she is upper-class.

Indeed, the pursuit of fitness and health is often marketed as a luxury experience. LuluLemon yoga pants cost upward of $118, while a Stella McCartney for Adidas running jacket will set you back a cool $250, $25 less than your monthly Equinox gym membership. Organic Avenue’s five-day juice cleanse retails for as much as $400. A month-long once-a-week workshop at Pure Yoga clocks in at $120, while a three-class intensive at Uptown Pilates goes for $255. All of these are advertised as indulgences, but ones that will make us better people.

So to what extent is this mainstream health ideal not only unrealistic and only marginally related to actual health, but also part of a fitness industrial complex marketed largely to women? And to what extent is the lifestyle and appearance this industry promotes one not of health -- which is possible at a variety of body sizes, and as attainable in Walmart sweats as in yoga pants with a three-digit price tag -- but of wealth? The message is clear: if we aren’t born beautiful and healthy, we can buy it, given enough leisure time and enough money.  And if we can’t or don’t buy it, we must be lazy.  

This attitude draws from deeply ingrained, classist narratives about the “American Dream” -- if the poor would just try harder, they could become rich. Yet recent studies have shown that upward class mobility has dwindled in recent years, with just 8 percent of Americans born in the lower fifth of incomes rising to the upper fifth in their lifetimes. Even so, the belief that America is the land of opportunity persists, and in turn, we shame the poor for staying poor.

Similarly, we shame the less-than-perfect-bodied for being less than perfect. If you just worked more you’d make more money, and if you just worked harder at the gym, you too would be toned and fit, and thereby healthy, society tells us.

What moral judgements are we projecting onto the working poor -- especially women -- when class politics, health policies, food accessibility, and body shame are so closely intertwined? Considering that poverty is a major risk factor for any number of conditions from diabetes to HIV and that the poor have less access to quality medical care, food and nutrition education, it is especially cruel that we are so quick to judge them for what we perceive as inferior bodies. Then we associate those bodies with some sort of ill health for which we hold them responsible. It would seem that looking out of shape is the same as looking impoverished and unhealthy, two conditions over which we collectively (and incorrectly) assume complete personal agency.  

The commercialized and arbitrary health ideal the media rams down our throats is part of an ongoing narrative through which we fault the poor for their own troubles. The “fitness ideal” many aspire to is actually a class ideal. It is not health or beauty many of us aspire to, but the appearance of being wealthy. So why do we so feverishly perpetuate that illusion? And how can we encourage class-inclusive and size-inclusive health outside of that body snobbery?

It’s an insidious problem and a difficult one to critique, as any criticism is usually interpreted as a tirade against exercise and fitness. Of course, an active and vegetable-packed lifestyle is healthier than a sedentary one full of cheeseburgers. As a fashion writer and distance runner, neon sports bras excite me a great deal, and there’s nothing inherently immoral about appreciating stylish activewear. The solution is not to disregard health and fitness, as aspiring to them at an individual level is completely valid and likely to have a positive effect on personal wellbeing. But it’s worth questioning why we encode so much moral judgement and shame into the marketing of fitness products and beauty ideals. And the first step to reversing that is to divorce the appearance of wealth from the concept of health.


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