Pursuing Health in a World Ruled by Unreasonable Media Fitness Standards

By Lydia Yekalem and Stacie Larsen

Editor’s note: Lydia and Stacie were undergraduate research assistants for the DARP this quarter, and one of the projects they did was this very perceptive paper on what it means to be healthy and beautiful in a world where media (worsened by social media) standards require women to be a certain size.



In 2012, after a fashion show in Miami, super model Kate Upton was criticized by a pro-ana site, skinnygossip.com, for being too fat. Jezebel, famous for standing up for women’s control over their bodies, called the blog out for being wrong. Yeah, Upton is curvaceous and larger than most models today, but that doesn’t make her any less beautiful or unhealthy. There are many sizes of beauty and healthy, and the expectation of the media for all swimsuit models to be a size zero is unreasonable.

You would expect swimsuit models to be a model of health and fitness since their photos often show them parading around the beach doing physical activities in bikinis. While most swimsuit models probably are healthy, there isn’t a wide variety of sizes portrayed in most ads, which perpetuates an expectation to be a size zero. Upton breaks this mold with her curvaceous body, but she doesn’t do this without criticism.

According to Sarah Hentges, scantily clad, mostly white and thin women surround the image of “fitness” in popular culture. We have been bred to believe that mainly thin, tan and young bodies are the “better bodies.” It then becomes the norm that bodies like that are more beautiful, and even if they aren’t, at least they look good. Women with muscles are looked on as threatening and desiring to be manly. Fitness and sex have been perpetuated and combined in works such as aerobic fitness videos, and it has become the normal for scantily clad women to dance around to suggestive music as if to prove good health and beauty.

Different Places Different Values

On the one hand, Hollywood and the media persuade women to think that the slimmer you are the healthier you are. On the other more extreme end of things, we can see that bodybuilders and female athletic physique competitors argue that to be fit one must have as many muscles and as little body fat as possible. The truth of the matter is that even more muscular fitness models, such as those in female bodybuilding competitions, suggest a body that is far beyond that of an average woman. In fact, for many bodybuilders (both men and women) working out is their full time job. Achieving an equivalent physique is literally impossible for many working humans. Furthermore, it is unclear if these fitness models are themselves healthy. What makes someone healthy and beautiful is a combination of several factors that cannot be put down to just building our muscles.

The author of the blog Fit Is a Feminist Issue points out that there is a difference between looking fit and being fit. The blogger, Tracy I, argues out that by competition time the models are cutting their calorie intake to far below what it should be, which means, “in short, their bodies, admired as models of fitness by so many, are unrealistic even for them!” The problem with these unrealistic body images being portrayed as “healthy” and “fit” in the media is that “narrow and stereotypical representations of women and femininity that transmit unrealistic standards for physical appearance, and girls and women evaluate themselves based on these idealized representations.” This means that, as women, we see these images and then compare ourselves to their unrealistic standards. Even women who are not trying to be “skinny,” but are instead looking to be healthy, may find themselves looking for a more physical and image-based ideal of health, instead of simply looking to feel better on the inside.

Who is to blame?

Women like Jennifer Lopez, Kimbra, and Jen Selter have become famous because of their toned physiques. Take, for example, Jen Selter. Her Instagram is filled with photos of her in underwear or swim suits, in provocative poses that accentuate her assets. The focus of almost every photo is her rear end, which has earned her over five million followers. Shelton Bumgarner of NoriMagazine.com points out that “if she’s drawing attention to it herself, it’s difficult to accuse people like me of  ‘objectifying’ her. She’s a beautiful woman and she wants to show off what she’s got.”

In a New York Post article, Selter herself explains that she “mainly [does] body selfies. Not that I care what people think, but they don’t care. They don’t want to see my face.” The internet fitness star argues that “there’s a difference between a porn-site picture and gym wear or bikini wear. Everything’s usually yoga pants.”

Some modern feminists are trying to flip their objectification, in a way that proves they are in charge of their own bodies. One example of this is Jennifer Lawrence. When hackers broke into her personal account and shared nude images of her on the internet, she fought back by posing nude for a magazine to challenge those who want to shame her. In this way, she argued that she was able to take control of her body and not allow other people to use it against her.

Even though Jen Selter, Jennifer Lawrence, and others like them argue that their sexualized personas are made to inspire others, the fact of the matter is that they are inspiring others to chase a socially constructed dream that could be harmful to other women’s perception of their own bodies and fitness. Before the recent trend of big bottoms, few women cared about how big their behinds were. Since no one cared, there was no need to be “inspired” to hit the gym and sculpt their rears with endless squats. The same can be said for any beauty or body trend. These ideals of perfection come and go with time but may do harm while they last.

A time for change

As young women, we find the physical expectations placed on women by society unreasonable and impossible to achieve. The fact that even the most beautiful women in the world are photoshopped gives us the impression that no matter what we do, we will never be good enough for society or men’s ideals. Furthermore, the fact that health is sexualized is a key problem for us. We are physically fit women who eat relatively healthy and work out at least four times a week.

However, we do not wear size zero jeans nor do we have “perfect” hourglass figures. As a matter of fact, by some measurements we could be considered overweight. Genetically we are all different and that means our bodies look different. For many girls like us, the only way to make our bodies achieve the look that is considered ideal in the fitness world or model world would be to take unhealthy actions. This is ironic. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice our health to get a certain look, especially one that is supposedly the image of “health.”

While the unreasonable beauty standards and hypersexualization of women in fitness and media is present now, it is not a new thing. Girls our age grew up with Barbies, infamous for an unattainable body type. Models were willowy and frail. Being skinny meant being healthy. Not running fast. Not being strong. Social media have just made these images more accessible. “Thinspo” is all about looking at skinny women for inspiration to be willowy. Women are bombarded from all directions with what they should look like, eat like and aspire to be.

There is also “fitspo” out in the media, which is supposed to encourage health and fitness through media, but often that continues to highlight thin women and not healthy women in a variety of shapes and sizes. Since we are surrounded pretty much everywhere with high expectation of body images that are potentially impossible to obtain, we struggle to accept our bodies for what they are. We are not supposed to feel worthy of men until our body looks like X, Y or Z because society tells us anything but skinny is unhealthy and ugly. We are supposed to devalue our bodies for what it is capable of. Running six miles. Climbing high walls. Hiking mountains. Yeah, we don’t have the ideal sexy body. But we have bodies that can.

Because these images are now all over social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, young girls and women are now more exposed to them than ever before. Not only that, but an innocent search for “health” or “fitness” now brings up an endless stream of scantily clad thin women in bikinis and lingerie. Perhaps in the past, it was possible to ignore the extreme habits of women’s physique body builders and extremely thin models, but as the spread of social media increases and we become more connected than ever before, these images become ever more present in our lives.

In this way, health extremes are impossible to ignore, and they negatively shape the way women see themselves.

We believe that media producers should be more responsible in the type of beauty and health they promote, and should strive to create a diversity of body images that more realistically reflect the experiences of healthy women in society.

Matthew Adeiza
Written by Matthew Adeiza

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