The abuse of thin = fit

Recently a friend brought up the fact that, after a long bout with illness over the winter, she wanted to start eating healthier and get more fit. She felt this would help her immune system fight off such illnesses in the future.

The idea of starting such an endeavor, however, brought up negative feelings in her. She didn’t want to be focused on “losing weight” because she had come to realize how abusive pressure by family members, as well as the entire culture, was for her. This struck a chord in me, regarding how our culture looks at fitness, at least in regard to women.

That bad relationships with food, eating disorders from anorexia to binging, usually have roots in childhood abuse has been heavily studied and written about. Some of these studies do venture into the issue of exercise, typically the abuse of exercise to reach dangerous goals. What I haven’t seen addressed is what the constant message exercise is only supposed to be about getting thin makes any exercise at all seem to be giving in to the abuse for women who have striven to over come the abusive messages that they must fit an unrealistic ideal.

What can we do to over come this message, that fit=thin and what it does to women who have indeed felt abused in various ways by the message that thin=beautiful/feminine/the-only-thing-worthwhile/etc.? Not only for those suffering from eating and exercise disorders because they internalized this message into self-abuse, but also those women who have managed to gain a healthy self-image, who have managed to become strong and proud within themselves, yet find that considering exercise to become healthier and stronger brings up the old voices. And, yes, also women who are naturally thin and have been told that exercise is wasted because they already fit the “norm”…and also suffer negative health effects.

Because thinness simply should never be the main goal of fitness. Being healthy should. You do not need to attain a certain size, you need to keep your heart strong and keep your body strong. Because strength is what exercise should give you. Losing weight may or may not happen, getting strong will as long as there is no medical reason keeping it from happening.

My friend knows this, but I believe it’s not been without struggle to live it, with issues that it brought up for her. I’m sure this is the case for many women. And my struggle is how do we address this? How do we find a way to promote fitness without echoing any of those abusive voices that are out there?

This is not something I’m going to be able to answer here. Because it’s really a long road to undo this sort of conditioning. Especially as I see more and more diet companies and gyms focusing on “we all have our ideal weight” in ways that fail…that still give the message that it’s not about health but about being thinner than you are now, even if you fail at being really thin. That feeds the same message, as far as I’m concerned.

The thinness message should be the antithesis of fitness! As Colette Dowling points out in The Frailty Myth thinness is about taking up less space in the world. About having less impact in the world. Fitness should be about having more impact in the the world. Being healthy enough, strong enough to do what we need to do.

Copyright © 2008 Kym Lambert 

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