Women’s Health banned the phrases “bikini body” and “drop two sizes” from their cover, The Pirelli Calendar got a revamp, and pretty much everywhere you look, women started changing their fitness goals from “flatter abs” to “get stronger and feel great.”
One big reason for this shift is that for so long (and admittedly, still even now!) there was a crazy amount of misinformation being thrown around about what kind of training would give women the body they desired. The old advice was to “eat less and move more,” which led to countless dieters and cardio-bunnies, but that advice straight up didn’t work. With cardio, just doing more and more eventually trashes the metabolism, making it harder to get the body you want. Ditto for dieting; ninety five percent of all diets fail, and the dieter will gain the weight back plus some, thanks to metabolic damage.
As our cultural emphasis on looking “perfect” was coming to a head thanks to photoshop, social media, celeb culture, and advanced non-invasive procedures, people started putting more and more effort into changing their bodies. But the misinformation on how to go about that was failing us, and many women retreated to secret shame caves when it came to their bodies, sure that there must be something unspeakably wrong with them. The harder they tried to look better, the worse they looked; we created an epidemic of people who feel fundamentally broken.
In light of such widespread cultural negativity about our bodies, is it any wonder that the mantra of “it doesn’t matter what you look like, only how you feel!” became popular?? The body-acceptance movement can feel like hitting a pause button on the spiral of self-loathing and failure we’ve facing about our bodies over the last 20 years. It’s a breath of fresh air to anyone caught in that vicious “try, fail, try harder, fail harder” cycle of trying to lose weight or change the way their body looks.
But just because the old way wasn’t working doesn’t mean the new way is perfect either. Backlash doesn’t usually take you back to neutral, after it. It purposefully swings the pendulum a bit too far in the opposite direction, in an effort to balance some long-standing injustice. I believe today’s body-acceptance movement is backlash.
For this reason, there has sprouted up a little COUNTER-counter movement among some fitness professionals, who feel that having aesthetic goals for yourself has become unfairly demonized in recent times. They want it to be known that having aesthetic goals is no less noble than having strength goals, and that working to improve how your body looks is perfectly fine. They seem to feel affronted by the unfortunate holier-than-thou attitude held by many body-acceptance advocates.
There is, admittedly, a lot of public lip service paid to how “brave,” and “strong” a woman is for accepting her body’s natural state and not apologizing for it. (Trust me I got mad props for this.) With so much talk about the high moral character of any woman who rocks her body flaws and all, one might easily start to think that striving to change any of those “imperfections” is some kind of sin.
I personally advocate autonomy above all else, so there’s no real reason for any kind of moralizing or divide here in my eyes. Each person is entitled to do whatever she likes with her own damn body, and there is zero reason for anyone to judge another person’s body, or her motivation for training it.
That having been said, for a woman who is blessed with a healthy relationship to her body, it may not be even slightly damaging or negative for her to pursue goals like “get a six pack,” or “lose 5% body fat.” But for the majority of women that I work with, those exact same goals and behaviors would come with intensely negative psychological and emotional behaviors. For many women, it’s just too difficult to maintain a healthy focus on changing a body part, without slipping into an obsessively negative attempt to “fix” something that’s “wrong with them.”
The intention behind a goal or behavior determines the health of that goal or behavior.
Working out with the intention to “fix” something that you hate about yourself tends to come with a whole host of baggage, like negative self-talk, hyper-monitoring of your body, and comparison, either with other people or your imaginary future self. All that stress and negativity actually makes much harder to get the results you want. This is the old way of doing things: obsessing over the aesthetic results of fitness, while ignoring the rest of the benefits that training your body offers.
Working out with the intention to gain strength, skill, agility, endurance, speed, or power tends to be fun and rewarding, because it’s more like a sport or hobby than a chore or beauty regime! For many people, this mindset shift leads to much more enjoyment, consistency, gratitude, enthusiasm, and the complete removal of dread and habitual feet-dragging from the whole fitness affair. Training to gain something (instead of lose something) every time you show up to the gym is a lot less pressure, and it tends to foster body acceptance and positivity.
Now here’s the kicker. (This is a bit taboo to talk about, but here goes.)
Focusing on the process, getting stronger, removing dread, increasing enjoyment and body acceptance, and all the other changes that come from letting go of aesthetic goals… THEY MAKE YOU LOOK BETTER!
In an extraordinary fitness paradox, the stressing and obsessing, the hyper-monitoring, negative self-talk, dread, and constant need to “motivate” yourself for aesthetic goals often creates a body that is very resistant to changing. (Thank your hormones for this.) I call this an “unresponsive body,” and it is exactly what it sounds like. Someone with an unresponsive body is usually riddled with stress, negativity, poor self-care habits, and a lowered immune system. Some of the most common reasons for a body to become unresponsive are years of negative self-talk, body anxiety, low body image, inauthentic self-expression, a low sense of worth, and chronic over-exercising and under-eating. These behaviors, over the long haul, trash a person’s metabolism, fry their adrenal glands, and eff up their hormones.
A responsive body on the other hand tends to be the result of someone who has aligned everything in her life to be healthy and happy. Someone with an incredibly responsive body is usually relaxed, joyful, well rested, and rarely sick. She sleeps well (and enough), eats plenty of nourishing food, lifts weights consistently, and has a mental landscape of positivity, purpose, connection, compassion, authentic self-expression, and mindfulness. Her system responds appropriately and easily to the stresses of her workouts, because the rest of her life is so nourishing and helpful for overall recovery. Her metabolism is super high because everything is running optimally, so she is able to see physical changes in her body with only small tweaks to the way she trains or eats.
The sweet irony here is that NOT trying to change how you look will often make it much easier to change how you look.
This is where the new movement to stop paying attention to aesthetics gets interesting.
I’ve found that outright ignoring how your body looks for a while can be a totally valid and valuable stage of healing from a chronically negative body image. Not everyone will need to go through this, but many do. Learning to tune into other aspects of having a body, and read other markers of progress, can be just as important for healing the mind as cultivating relaxation is for healing the body.
At the end of a nice long stage of healing and re-connecting with your body without paying attention to how you look, you may find that you feel comfortable diving back into aesthetic goals in a healthy way. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you dip your toe in, feel your confidence and compassion come crashing down, and decide to set up permanent camp in the world of not giving a fuck about how you look. All options are totally valid and great, and totally personal and unique.
It’s worth mentioning here that recently, I’ve noticed how many leaders in the body-positive community (myself included!) say “I just work out to feel good.” While that’s mostly true, I think it can be a bit misleading and over-simplified, and I want to clear it up. After all, the last thing I want is for the body-acceptance movement to create even more unrealistic standards and black-and-white thinking!
So let’s do this.
I do not work out however I want, regardless of how my body looks. I love my workouts, it’s true. But training the way I do is the perfect intersection for me between enjoyment of the process, and enjoyment of the results. I have so much information about training stimulus and effect (both in general, and from years of trying different things and paying close attention to my how each factor affects me personally) that I simply don’t have the option to not consider the aesthetic outcome of how I train. If lifting weights made me look a way I hated, I would probably just find something else I liked. I take an enormous amount of pleasure in moving,lifting weights, and trying new challenges, but I take an equal amount of pleasure in admiring myself!
In fairness, I do usually choose workout programming for myself based on emotional or mental goals, like “I wanna get strong AF in these major lifts,” or “I want to slow down and make sure my movement patterns are clean and tight for a while.” But even then, I almost always include extra glute-training volume, because I was born with a naturally flat butt, and I delight in keeping it big and round.
Sometimes I create mini aesthetic goals, like when I check in with myself naked and think “I wonder how muscular I can get my back,” or “I want my shoulders to be more ka-POW!”
In these cases, I’m almost always coming from a place of admiration and ego boosting, rather than feeling less-than. I know exactly what goes into changing how my body looks, and instead of wondering how it would look on me, sometimes I just go ahead and do it. I adjust my program accordingly, without any stress or drama, and then I fully enjoy the process.
I find there to be something a bit naïve about preaching “stop paying attention to how you look and only ever pay attention to how you feel!” For most people, no matter how happy with their body they are, that’s just not realistic. Guess what? THAT’S OK. With clients, I regularly use practices that involve ignoring their reflection just as often as I use practices that include looking at and admiring their reflections. It all depends on the individual person, where they’re coming from, and what will serve them best right now. Consciously stripping your appearance of its power over you for a while can be a powerful resting place when you need it, but the ultimate solution for most people isn’t usually to stop noticing how they look forever. (That having been said, it might be for you, and that’s OK too!)
The important piece of the puzzle here is raising your own consciousness, and being aware of your own intentions. You can notice you want to change something about your body and make the appropriate adjustments, without coming from a place of self-loathing or trying to “fix” something that’s wrong with you. After all, even if there was nothing wrong with you at all, the human body is amazingly adaptable, and
Likewise, feeling trapped or bullied into making those same changes, from a place of not feeling good enough, will most likely be no fun at all. The emotional and mental hell-on-wheels of feeling restricted and punished would be enough of a reason to find another plan, but add on top the fact that your body becomes less and less responsive as you try harder, stress, and obsess? No thank you.
In summary here, there is no moral highground when it comes to having or training your body. There’s only “what serves me best right now?” But no matter where you are in your journey, and what your goals are, I encourage you to come from a place of positive, self-compassionate intentions.
Do this over the long term, and you’ll find that you both feel better AND look better. Who can argue with that?