Memes poking fun at muscle soreness. Bulging veins filtered in Hefe. Selfies with protein powder and Tupperware. The popular hashtag of #FitFam, with its uploads and photographs, exhibits community and hard work, maintaining a rampant dominance across social media. In its defense, weight loss, competitive bodybuilding, or fitness modeling each require discipline and passion, two conditions the world could benefit from more of. From experience, my own 20 lb weight gain required no time and half as much effort, the fruits of a slowing metabolism and grilled cheese sandwiches. Though undocumented, the work to reach a place I felt confident and healthy was laborious and consuming on its best days. And healthy is a good thing – a great thing, if not, the most important thing – and without Instagram and Pinterest evidence suggesting otherwise, these #FitFam women and men are our modern day spokespeople for healthy.
So, what is healthy? Health has nothing to do with lean stomachs, boulders for biceps, a vein-selfie. According to old reliable, Merriam-Webster, health is defined as “the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit; especially: freedom from physical disease or pain.” Health, then, by definition, can show itself in all shapes and sizes, in both the hashtagged fit family and outward.
Somewhere, though, wires crossed: we began regarding fit, athletic bodies as the lone testament to health, making health an issue of appearance, and #FitFam and #fitspo (the less evil spawn of #thinspo) our most visual and attainable inspiration for a healthy-looking lifestyle. We have risen above idolizing Photoshop skills and moved onto idolizing those who display their bodies in conjunction with determination, diet (or what they claim as clean eating) and exercise. They photograph meal preps, emphasize greens over sweets, and upload quotes questioning one’s will to succeed. In turn their viewership feels inspired. It’s a win/win.
Eh. #FitFam often fails where it wishes to succeed. Much of fitness culture is well meaning: those with exponential weight losses, those competing in bi- and triathlons, those who were raised as athletes finding place for that in adult life. Some eat Paleo, others raw, while others identify as yogis. But as with any social media account we witness one layer, a decidedly filtered one at that, tailored for the approval and admiration of a growing, global audience. Health for health’s sake is never bad. Health for aesthetics’ sake can be, and once a portion of one’s public identity is devoted to improvement photographs, self-accountability is an afterthought to the more daunting mercurial opinions of others.
Ruthie Harrison, IFBB Bikini Pro and former-Bombshell athlete, stepped off the NPC Bikini competitive stage last year not long after winning her pro card and developing bulimia. In a confessional blog post she writes: “I was so caught up in the desire and the pressure to get better and better, to not only perform but win, to be what the judges wanted… I defined myself by what I thought others wanted from me.” She lived by the diet/binge cycle recognized and often advised in the fitness community, more specifically in that of competitive bikini and figure modeling: a week of strict dieting followed by one “cheat meal” and post-show binge. The pressure of expectations, both interior and exterior (though exterior catalyzed the interior) resulted in what Harrison described as damage control: purging, followed soon after by shame.
Could one blame her? Women in training for bikini and figure competitions report an intake of as low as 800kcal/day to as high as 1,100 while exercising once or twice a day. It is important to note: these numbers themselves are considered starvation – or, anorexia – and as Jen Comes Keck, a figure competitor, said of her sub 1,000 calorie/day diet: “I was basically starved onto stage.” Harrison writes that her focus was on tight glutes and a lean stomach, on beating the competition, on never disappointing her cheerleaders. An at-all-costs attitude toward one’s body is encouraged to the unfortunate point that ignored survival needs are if nothing else mere side effects to a championship win and pro card. Thus, the face of health is simultaneously starving and collecting trophies for its effort.
Well, there’s consumer America, and with the introduction of social media, we have the greatest avenue for marketing. Fitness garnered popularity once obesity was met with shame, and with media promoting unrealistic (at least, for most) standards of thin, the healthy-living conglomerate found its right place and time. These bodies of #FitFam are its promotion, and for the individual accounts, the bodies are the brand. That is not to say aspiring to health is a new thing, or a bad thing, or even a necessarily risky thing – that’s unfair – but it is a topic of ballooning attention and questionable marketing. When the frame, the parts, the muscles of a human being are subjected to branding, are the focal point of one’s attention and other’s scrutiny, are what will afford them career opportunities or national acclaim, then, frankly, anything goes. Sometimes anything means health.
Health is the single thing guaranteed to improve one’s life. Much of #FitFam, of yogis, of mindful athletes are on a salubrious, favorable path and deserve their motivational outreach. The problem occurs when the glamour of fit is introduced to those uneducated in dangerous habits. Therefore, I am asserting a call for action.
Ladies and Gentlemen of #FitFam, of bikini and figure competitions, of athletic and health promotion: raise awareness of eating disorders.
Remind others that they are not their bodies, that their body is the home of their souls and their purpose, that health and exercise is a way of showing this home respect. Teach them nutrition and consistency and choice making, and teach them that one bad choice is neither disappointing nor retrogressive to the greater goal. Share stories of those who forever damaged their metabolism by consuming 1,000kcal/day while exercising off 1,600; of those who, nightly, shove their finger down their throat because of some stranger’s opinion; of those who keep bottles of fat burners and diet pills in the medicine cabinet; of those who wear shape-shifting undergarments so their waist is 21-inches wide while their weight is five pounds below a nutritionist’s recommendation (and three pounds more than their fitness coaches’). Share stories of those who recovered.
Tell them they have a choice in their body, in their appearance, that they are not to be defined – not by strangers, nor by themselves – by aesthetics, by their legs or their arms or any piece of their whole. Teach them that to starve is not to never eat; to starve is to eat less than the body needs. Teach them the consequences of not feeding the body what it needs. Teach them disordered eating. Explain the importance of berries, of kale, of sweet potatoes and pomegranates, of brussel sprouts and almonds without referencing appearance and instead emphasizing health. Remind them that confidence looks good clothed and confidence looks good naked, that the motivational quotes suggesting anything otherwise are marketing ploys and shame tactics. Ask them to throw away their scales.
And please, if their body so desires, let them eat cake.