The Idea of Ideal


Just when you think that you have a handle on what you’re supposed to look like, just when you’ve lost the weight, dyed your hair, and even forsworn relaxing at the beach on your days off, they up and change it on you. And the worst part: you don’t even know who ‘they’ are so you can’t post something against them on Facebook. But fads are like that, I guess. You never know when somebody is going to start one. You never know when the train is going to leave the station -with or without you.

Fitspiration -a neologism presumably coined to inspire fitness- would seem to encourage not just fitness, but a particularly muscular form of fitness: brawny fitness. Not only should you aspire to being fit, but also to looking fit. Thinspiration, fortunately, is in decline -unless, of course, it is accompanied by visibly toned muscles that reassure anybody who cares to observe, that the wearer is healthy and vigorous. Just dieting can’t do that.

But as an elderly male, I have to be careful here. Presumably I represent the dark side of the equation -or more accurately, I am non-representative of the case at issue. I have observer status at best. And yet, as detached from the fray as I am, I can claim to have witnessed a similar phenomenon in my admittedly testosterone-sodden brethren. I am old enough (barely) to remember those comic book ads for chest-expander-springs that promised relief for thin, but otherwise healthy young men who were constantly having sand kicked in their faces by muscular bullies on beaches populated by attractive, and admiring young women. Laughable in today’s world, they nonetheless suggested that the route to popularity, and attractiveness, was a physical one. A buff one.

And it seems to me that this undue emphasis on muscularity -on power, if you will- is a seductive trope that is no longer gendered. There is no compelling reason why it should ever have been, I suppose, although I have to say that physical power is illusory. It is what those people actually in control -the Mafia dons, for example- hire to protect them. Not command them.

I am clearly a product of my era: a consequence of the prevailing Weltanschauung on offer at the time. I suppose I was conditioned by those around me to view muscularity as a marker of fitness in athletes -male and female- but neither particularly desirable nor realistically attainable in the average person. Some men, to be fair, seemed to flaunt burl as signs of their masculinity, but apart from avoiding them on sandy beaches, I did not feel overly disadvantaged. Of course, they out-competed me for women, but so did everybody else.

My point, if I have to admit it, is that I have grown used to muscularity in men over the years. It seemed a natural thing, I guess, not an ostentatious badge of physicality. But I find it interesting that the fitspiration trend in women has now been noticed by the scientific community, as I discovered in an article written by two PhD candidates, Frances Bozsik at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Brooke L. Bennett at the University of Hawaii for the Conversation: https://theconversation.com/the-ideal-female-body-type-is-getting-even-harder-to-attain-91373

‘By now, most women are probably aware of the discrepancy between their bodies and the impossibly thin women who appear on TV and in magazines. This disparity was first identified in a 1980 study that compared the body weights of regular American women to prominent media figures … The researchers found that between 1959 and 1978, average female weights in the general population increased, while the women appearing in the media were actually getting thinner.

‘This matters because, particularly for women, exposure to thinner bodies contributes to body dissatisfaction, which can worsen your mood and lead to lower self-esteem. Those who aspire to this ideal figure can end up engaging in negative behaviors like restrictive eating or purging.’

So, ‘One trend that has gained traction is “fitspiration.” These are images and videos that depict women engaged in workouts or poses that highlight particular muscle groups like the abdomen or buttocks. In promoting muscularity, these images seem to be promoting healthy exercise. But analyses of the text accompanying the images have found that they often include guilt-inducing messages that focus on body image (e.g. “Suck it up now, so you don’t have to suck it in later”). In fact, one study has shown that an overwhelming percentage (72 percent) of these posts emphasize appearance, rather than health (22 percent). And it’s an appearance that’s not only muscular, but also thin.’

The authors go further: ‘You might wonder: Isn’t it healthy that women are increasingly preferring muscularity? Studies have examined the impact of viewing thin and toned bodies, and have found that they have a negative impact on the body image of female viewers. Just like the previous studies on media images that promote thinness, seeing thin, muscular women can lead to a negative mood and decreased body satisfaction.’

I think the aspect of the fitspiration movement that concerns me the most is its emphasis on appearance rather than health. I mean, believe me, I’m all for beauty, but not if it is at the expense of well-being. Not if an inability to live up to some ideal female body form leads to dysfunctional consequences. Heaven only knows there are enough things out there to admire, without requiring membership.

I suppose I could be accused of cherry-picking, though, of selecting an article that just happens to align rather conveniently with my own apparent biases, but there are many other studies out there with similar findings -for example: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10410236.2016.1140273 or https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/eat.22403

And yes, although I try to remain objective, I find I am still conflicted about the muscular trend in women. Fortunately, in my circle of friends, their numbers are still too small to attract much attention -although I guess it’s quite possible that large muscles bulge unseen beneath an increasing number of coats and designer sweat shirts. Maybe, in fact, I should spend more time on beaches than I do. In truth, I’d love to see if sand-kicking has changed gender over the years.

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