Culture

Get Fit or Die

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Pudgy Stockton (via)

Do we work out for health or beauty? Yes.

I’m in the middle of reading Making the American Body: The Remarkable Saga of the Men and Women Whose Feats, Feuds, and Passions Shaped Fitness History by Jonathan Black. (Full review to come.)

So far, it’s enormously entertaining and enlightening, and I’m recommending it to friends already. Interestingly, it focuses more on the clash of personalities (and marketing styles) than on the fitness methods themselves. But what stood out to me is how so many marketing campaigns for fitness regimes, dating all the way back to the nineteenth century, played on fear and shame. Apparently every era of American society has teetered on a crisis of emasculation and/or unhealthiness. And that crisis also happens to necessitate buying lots of new equipment, accessories, and specialty food, so we can fit into the clothes that exalt the body type that the fitness trend tells us we must have.

Another thing that stood out to me was the changing shape of the “ideal” woman. One of my favorite stories from the book so far (and a welcome note of positive, encouraging marketing) was that of Pudgy Stockton. Pudgy’s nickname originated in her chunky teen years, but she shed the pounds and gained a very different reputation on Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach. A smiling, playful fitness icon, Pudgy is credited with demonstrating to women of her generation that females can lift weights without losing their femininity — and that lifting can even enhance their womanly curves. It was refreshing to see a female fitness icon who didn’t look like she could fit through the eye of a needle — but was still healthy, attractive, and feminine.

It seems fitting that I started reading this book right before my company’s health screening. I’ve been fighting to lose a few pounds for several months now, with discouraging results, as I thought my current girth was both unattractive and perhaps bordering on unhealthy. So I was surprised to learn that I was firmly within the recommended parameters for weight and BMI for my height and age. In fact, I discovered I was extremely healthy in every respect — my LDL cholesterol was even so low it showed up as N/A on the test. I’m sizes below the national average dress size, and I’m fit enough to dance the night away at a local rock festival. So why do I constantly feel just a little fat?

It’s not just the constant barrage of images of rail-thin women. I can tune those out. It hits a lot closer to home than that. For me, in large part the anxiety and self-disgust stems from the fact that nearly all the current, trendy, mainstream fashions sold in popular stores are designed to look best on pencil-shaped people. You can walk into H&M and find the same tunic in sizes 0 through 16, but it’ll only drape the way it’s supposed to on a size 4, moderately busty, straight-hipped, flat-assed woman. If you’re a size 8 with an hourglass figure — small waist, large bust and hips — you’ll look like a cow in those clothes… and current fitness trends, which promote a lean profile, seem to imply that it’s your fault for not trying hard enough. I’m not bitter or angry toward the thin, pencil-shaped women who rock those clothes gloriously — I just wish there was more out there that looked that good on me.

Online shops like Pinup Girl Clothing celebrate the healthily curvy woman, and creative shoppers learn to find the pieces that work for their bodies (and the trendy shops that sell them). Ultimately I find clothes that make me proud of my body and remind me that curves were not always “out.” (Enough clothes, actually, that I’m constantly looking for creative new ways to cram them all into my closet.) But I sense a marketing feedback cycle at work here, because some of the trendiest workouts right now (long-distance running and cycling) also happen to be the ones that give you an ultra-lean, uncurvy body — the kind that would fit into those pencil clothes, while touting the message that this is the healthiest shape to have. Meanwhile, lifting and other exercises that develop body mass have been relatively marginalized — the well-muscled body doesn’t fit in trendy clothes, while lean-body-type advocates decry lifting as unsafe and popular culture portrays well-muscled people as meatheads. As strength training makes a comeback, I wonder if the exuberant curves of Pudgy Stockton will as well… and va-va-voom white wrap dresses.

For now, though, it’s “I want to buy those leggings…but I’ll have to buy that juicer first.”