First of all, hi everyone. It feels like I haven’t blogged about anything sociologically substantial in a while, and I might be a bit rusty so please pardon the potentially poor prose.
Now that I’ve graduated from McGill and no longer have to whittle away the hours of cushy student life by blogging nonsensically about sociological things, what have I been doing with myself?
WELL. That brings me to today’s topic.
My strange, wonderful, and illuminating journey working in the fitness industry.
My job more or less involves establishing a new product’s brand personality within the health and fitness industry/society. It has made me realize a lot of things about the messages we send to girls about what’s healthy (most of it is really horrible and messed up, duh), but it has also given me a lot of hope for the future of women in America (which, if you’ve read my other angry feminist stuff, is usually pretty pessimistic).
This is how it came about:
First I got a job in sales at LA Fitness. Which was a horrible fit, obviously. A writer should never attempt a job in sales; I’d much rather sit around in my pajamas and eat Nutella with a spoon and type on my computer for a living (which is exactly what is going on at the time of this post being written, thankyouverymuch).
Failing miserably at a soul-sucking corporate job selling gym memberships actually turned out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
The reason I first ventured into an LA Fitness (gyms not being my usual haunting grounds) was an interesting one. Being of a naturally petite body type, I had never felt the urgent need to frequent the gym. Of course, like any normal girl, I had flirted with all sorts of diets, fads, and eating disorders pretty consistently throughout my adolescence. Being an un-athletic girl means that you have to figure out some other method for attaining skinny nirvana.
Why Pressuring Teenage Girls to be Skinny Should be Illegal:
For the record: Teenage girls are so horrifically moody because they are always hungry. I guarantee you that every teenage girl’s angst is amplified ~300% because she is 1) miserable because she’s on a diet and hungry 2) miserable because she’s “on a diet” but just ate a cake and feels really guilty and is considering regurgitating it 3) miserable because she’s given up on dieting and resigned herself to being “fat”.
And why do we do this to ourselves?
Because we want to be thin and beautiful.
This desire to be thin and beautiful goes much, much deeper than the desire to be sexually attractive (Dear men: We don’t actually care about you that much). Eventually all girls internalize (whether we realize it or not) certain realizations about how the world works, and our dual status of being both human beings and sexual objects. Girls learn things like employment, leadership opportunities, and social acceptance come easier when you’re good looking. We see in the media that a woman’s viability as a sexual object is often emphasized more than her intellectual accomplishments. In fact,the success of a powerful woman is often accompanied, or even overshadowed, by the attention directed at her appearance.
This was made painfully apparent in my teenage years during the 2008 election, during which I observed for almost 6 months the media’s treatment of Obama & McCain versus the coverage of Clinton & Palin. I listened to a ceaseless, unyielding stream of media nattering over Clinton & Palin’s wardrobe choices, weight, hair, cup size, age, “screechy” voices, calling them “bitches” and “ditzes” and next to nothing about their political views. And these are two of the most accomplished, educated women in America.
Here’s a short clip to give you an idea:
(When you have time, here’s Miss Representation in it’s brilliant entirety: This is a very powerful, insightful documentary which examines how women are portrayed in the media, and the reverberating effects of this upon the everyday lives of women. I highly recommend all young ladies watch this. For me, it was life-changing.)
As I was saying, the 2008 elections sent me a very clear message on what it means to be a powerful woman in the public eye. Obama & McCain were offered enough respect by the media to actually run campaigns that revolved around their political views, instead of news blasts about lookalike pornos (Nailin’ Pailin’… enough said). So yes, girls do learn that our appearance is often more important than our intellect, accomplishments, or success. Because that is how we are treated.
(And I DON’T CARE if Sarah Palin is a stupid twit. George Bush is a stupid twit, and as far as I know, the media couldn’t care less about his pant size or hairstyles. This is a gender thing, not an intellect thing)
But as important as that is, I digress from my original point.
During my last semester at McGill University I mysteriously lost my appetite. And no, “mysteriously lost my appetite” is not code for anorexia or bulimia. I just had no desire to eat, plain and simple. I wasted away for four months over the summer. When I returned to Seattle in September, I had gone from 120 un-athletic pounds to 104 pounds of (basically) skin and bone. Not that I was really complaining about being super skinny. I mean, hey, a size zero is a size zero, amiright?
Which just goes to show you how dangerously warped the average girls’ thought process on beauty, health, and self-worth really is.
So there I was, 104 lbs and I finally felt “sexy” with my spindly, heroin addict body. I was ecstatic that delicate, trendy, Urban Outfitters clothing finally draped just right over my waifish frame (just like the prepubescent models in their catalogs!). I had lost the ability to perform a basic human function- eating- and done nothing about it. I relished not feeling hungry and having to eat, because like, c’mon, that’s every woman’s dream.
Why Fitting into Size Zero Pants is not Actually that Awesome:
Then the classic “the grass is always greener on the other side” dilemma snuck in. I began to miss food. Then the compliments (“You look really good! Have you lost weight?”) turned into concern (“Do you have a coke problem? You can tell me, I just want to help!”). I began to hate my body, even though it was one society had taught me was “ideal” ever since, um, puberty.
SO. I decided to get off my bum and go to the gym, in hopes that exercising would stimulate my appetite. Since I was a recent graduate with no job, the next logical thing to do was apply for a job at a gym so I could exercise fo’ free and, you know, be employed.
As I previously mentioned, I failed miserably at selling gym memberships. I also failed miserably at exercising more (Surprise!!!! Not.). In fact, the only good thing about working at LA Fitness is that it forced me to memorize a lot of information about fitness in a very short amount of time, and it made me miserable enough to start seriously looking for a “career”. Which, for a wanna-be writer, is kind of like searching for a unicorn in a Where’s Waldo? book.
BUT THEN I FOUND A UNICORN.
Because one of the jobs I applied for online asked for a creative writing sample (which I do #likeaboss) on the topic of health & fitness. What a wonderful, wonderful coincidence (or fate? who knows).
I got hired to write for Cody, a small startup that was developing a health & fitness iPhone app. My role was to create content for their blog. Specifically- write workouts and health tips that would eventually be offered within the app for users to browse (BTW, everybody should go download Cody, I like to think I made him really funny 🙂 )
And so, the heavy door into the world of fitness had been heaved open to me.
Becoming familiar with exercises, workouts, and fitness-lingo was a requirement of my new job. And, as one would expect; it is pretty much impossible to write instructions on how to do an exercise unless you can actually do the exercise yourself. So I found myself frequenting the gym more and more often out of necessity.
I’m sure I made a complete idiot of myself the first few times I went (literally the first time I walked into the weight room I tried to pick up a barbell [no extra plates-just the bar] and dropped it). Eventually, with a lot of practice and a few (ok, a lot) embarrassing moments, I figured out the basics of the weight room and then (this is the miraculous part) began to really look forward to working out.
This is coming from the girl that has always been notoriously un-athletic. Like, worst dancer on the dance team, slowest person on the Cross Country team (I joined because it was a no-cut sport, and I needed a P.E. credit), always picked last in P.E., ran a 11-minute mile bad.
Like, allergic to exercise bad.
Ok, ok- Enough Rambling. What’s your point, Sophia?
The time when I was my skinniest and most photographically beautiful (i.e. I looked magazine-cover-skinny) was also the time when I was at my weakest, in all senses of the word. I was constantly asking the guys downstairs to opens jars for me, and if they weren’t home, well then I was shit out of luck (and pasta sauce). Trying to carry my own suitcases while traveling between Seattle and Montreal was (pathetically) a nightmare. Even carrying pitchers of beer at the bar I was working at was a struggle for my skeletal arms. I was sleeping 12 hours a day and constantly tired. I’m sure that my brain wasn’t functioning all too well either.
Now I wonder how my life would have been different if people had encouraged girls (me) to be strong instead of skinny.
I think back to high school, when I put myself on a 1200 daily calorie limit, even though I was running 3-5 miles daily. I attended a reputably rigorous high school with a 5 AP course load, woke up at 6:30 am, went to school, did extracurriculars, worked part-time, and often went to bed at 2-3am. I was counting calories, denying myself food, guilt-ing myself when I did eat, and even though I was never more that 120 lbs., I never stopped pinching my “fat” every time I looked in a mirror. I was hungry, angry, tired, and depressed all the time. And I was a teenager. Let’s not forget that part. Teenagers are hellions.
But when I look back at my experiences, decisions, and accomplishments, I still wonder how different would my life have been if I had been encouraged to be strong instead of skinny. Would my grades have been better if I hadn’t been literally starving myself since the age of 13? Could I have gotten into Harvard instead of McGill? Would I have been a better dancer and runner if I had been encouraged to eat a full meal instead of diet. Would I have had better relationships with my parents, sister, and friends?
It’s sad that only I came to this realization with clarity after seeing both extreme sides of the coin. I still can’t do a lot of basic things (chest to ground push ups still evade me), but the progress I have made so far has made me fully realize what I was missing when I was younger. It’s funny how the skinnier I desired to be, the weaker I got, and when I finally realized I had to gain weight, the stronger I got.
Actually, that’s not funny at all. It makes a lot of sense.
Since I started writing for Cody, and out of professional necessity, started working out, everything has changed. Now when I look in the mirror (this is embarrassing by the way, I can’t believe I’m admitting this online) I flex instead of sucking in. Now when I pinch my stomach, it’s to feel my abs, not to feel shitty about how much “flab” (real or imaginary) is sitting there. I no longer stare at the “calories burned” display on the elliptical, but how many plates I have on each end of the barbell. I can open my own pasta sauce jars now. I am moving soon and do not need the help of any hulking strong lad to transport my furniture. My goal has changed from “be a size zero” to do a freaking pull up. I have gained far more self-esteem from being able to pick up heavy things that I ever have from being able to zip up a skin-tight designer dress. I became a more capable, energetic, independent, and mentally focused person once my focus shifted from what my body looks like to what my body can do
But it’s just tragic – no sarcasm here- really really tragic how a large majority of young girls in America spend their time obsessing over their weight, devoting time, energy, emotions, and effort into being skinny.
It’s tragic because you have to the think of all of the potential that is lost when a whole generation of girls care more about fitting into minuscule pants instead of… oh I don’t know… running for student council, pursing a passion, studying, volunteering, playing sports, working, furthering woman’s rights… the list could go on and on. My main point is, girls waste so much time on being skinny – because we are taught that is is important if we want to be successful- when we could be devoting their efforts to becoming so much more powerful than simply skinny.
What’s even worse is the following scientific truth I’m about to acknowledge, that NOBODY BOTHERED TO TELL ME when I was an insecure teenage girl, that really would have helped me out: Muscle is approximately twice as dense as fat.
Or, for all of you visual people:
ARGGHHHH! WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME THIS BEFORE?! Almost every single food, diet, and gym commercial marked towards women stresses the importance of reducing calories and dropping pounds. Not a single one will ever mention the fact all women will look & feel healthier by gaining muscle mass & reducing body fat- an accomplishment that the hallowed bathroom scale will never reflect.
Anyway, I think it’s time I brought this blog post to a conclusion and made my point:
Dear Society: Please assist me in convincing young girls that “strong is the new skinny”.
Encourage them to eat. Don’t let them diet. Discourage the idolization of anorexic and bulimic celebrities. Make them exercise instead. Teach them that “exercise” means running, jumping, sweating, grunting, working hard, and kicking butt- it doesn’t mean flapping their arms around in some trendy, overpriced Trogalaties course, or running on the elliptical until they pass out. Help them realize their own strength. All of these things will help girls realize their full potential, both physically and mentally. It will help girls become self-confident, capable, and literally and figuratively strong. A girl who is encouraged to be strong instead of skinny will have higher self-esteem, respect, ambitions, and worth. She will never be a victim. She will be healthy. She will be a leader. She will be confident. She will be an incredible, exceptional, powerful woman.
Spread the strength.
A Brief End Note, If I May…
WOW. Uhm. My dashboard tells me that it has been 12 days, ~400k views, and ~375 comments since I first published my “Strong >Skinny” post. In the wake of all this blog ballyhooing, I thought I would take the time to respond the three of the most important and/or aggravating of the comments.
1. “Stop bashing skinny women! You’re just replacing one type of body ideal with another! Wa waaah wah waaa wahh….”
Oh dear. Strong is not a body type. It is an ability. Unlike skinny, fat, tall, or short, anybody and everybody has the ability to be strong. “Strong” transcends all body shapes and sizes. You can be skinny and strong. You can also be fat and strong. While the glamorization of skinny by the media is harmful to a large number of women because it creates an unattainable ideal, the glamorization of strong by the media would be beneficial to a large number of women because it creates an attainable, healthy ideal.
2. Sarah Palin this, Sarah Palin that…
Look, ok I get that everybody’s got an opinion on Sarah Palin and her (lack of) intelligence. But really? It’s kind of like if I had posted a picture of these adorable pandas, and 40 people commented “OMG, there’s SNOW in CHINA!!?!?!” Like, really, it’s kind of beside the point.
3. “I HATE YOUR EFFING PROFANITY!” / “I would like to share this with other young girls, can you please clean it up?”
Ok, fair enough. I will be the first to admit that I have issues censoring myself. I’m one of those jerks that accidentally drops the F-Bomb when I’m in an elevator with small children because I’m absentminded and swearing is just a (bad) habit. I don’t usually edit my writing to popular demand, but in retrospect it seemed so hypocritical of me to tout the phrase “Spread the strength”, but then have an un-shareable blog post. Hence, this PG-version. Copy and paste as you please.
(And then for some reason, this morning it became of the utmost importance that I create a lazy Sunday playlist, which I am now sharing with all of you.)