Fitness blog FitSugar rounded out 2011 with an annual poll for the fittest female celeb of the year. They created a list of 64 “inspirational” celebs and created a bracket for readers to vote on who’s fitter—Jessica Biel versus Eva Mendes, say, then Cameron Diaz versus Reese Witherspoon.
The fun catch? For the first round of voting, you didn’t get any information about their workouts when you’re voting. Hell, half of the photos don’t even show said celebrities engaging in fitness activities. Yes, that’s right, you get to vote on who’s fitter based on—what? Facts you memorized from your careful perusal of the year’s gossip rags? Likely not.
Once the blog whittled the competition down to a slim 25 (pun intended), you’re giving insightful blurbs about the contestants’ workouts like
- “Mom of three and actress Jada Pinkett Smith is always on the move, but a busy lifestyle doesn’t keep her from scheduling in gym time, often at 6:30 a.m. in the morning.”
- “[Gwen Stefani] doesn’t shy away from sweat — in fact, she says she’d rather work out ‘like a man’ than set foot in a yoga studio.”
- “If this picture of Cameron Diaz’s guns isn’t a clue that she take fitness seriously, maybe this leg-toning workout from her trainer Teddy Bass is. In 2011, Cameron bonded with then-boyfriend Alex Rodriguez with couples workouts that were no joke.”
- “There are many good reasons why Jessica Biel constantly takes our Fittest Female crown. There’s her 2010 hike to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, her fit-and-fun lifestyle (including biking around town with Justin Timberlake in August), and her enviable toned physique.”
Using FitSugar’s logic, the Boston Athletic Association can ignore tedious lists of qualifying times and choose runners for the marathon based on who has the most attractive legs. Have you ever watched the Boston Marathon? It’s a bunch of skinny guys (and a few chicks) with sunburns, looking generally uncomfortable. Clearly, they’re not made for that kind of exertion. Cameron, though. She’s got some killer quads. She’d totally beat out those weeny Kenyans.
But seriously—let’s look at the assumptions FitSugar’s encouraging readers to make in their “competition”:
- Form follows function (in other words, to look fit, you have to be fit)
- We have certain ideal physical traits
- If you don’t have said physical traits, you’re just not working hard enough
- Certain types of fitness are better than others
- Certain amounts of fitness are better than others
- It’s okay to judge someone if you say you’re judging them based on health
Perhaps most clearly, this article brings up a major question about fitness in general: At what point do we stop talking about health and we start talking about appearance?
In the book Against Health: How Health Became the New Morality, editor Jonathan M. Metzl writes about the excessive focus on appearance in health and fitness publications; most of the articles focus on issues like getting flat abs or clear skin or finding jeans that make your ass look good. He argues that “calling [this focus on appearance] health allows these and other magazines to seamlessly construct certain bodies as desirable while relegating others as obscene.” Basically, we can’t say you’re ugly because you’re fat, but if we say that a thin, muscular body is healthy and a body with some extra cushioning is unhealthy, then we can still judge you as inferior based on your appearance.
Even though there’s a growing amount of evidence that a person can be above-average size and healthy, or normal weight and unhealthy (See here and here and here), the media continues to perpetuate the myth that there is a particular body type that represents ideal health. And this kind of ideology ultimately keeps people from being healthy more often than it helps or motivates them.
I’m not just talking about those girls who want to lose “those last ten pounds” when they’re already able to run a marathon or lift a car over their head or hang out in Bird of Paradise pose for twenty-four hours. Imagine how hard it is to get started in a exercise routine if you know that the ultimate goal is something you’ll never achieve—which is how it can feel when you’ve been overweight your entire life, or were always chosen last in gym and have never been an “exercise person”, or just straight up don’t have a body that’s constructed like good ol’ Cameron’s. I mean, seriously, why bother?
Plus you have issues like one I experienced the other day: A girl, a long-time runner, came in for an introductory training session at the gym where I train. She’d been doing everything “right”—running three to four miles three days a week, lifting weights for her upper body and doing some ab stuff to build muscle definition and boost her metabolism, but she can’t shake the knee pain that’s creeping into her runs or the neck stiffness that shows up after she’s been huddled over her desk all day.
Even though she reads countless articles on fitness and nutrition, she hasn’t been given the information she needed to actually be healthy and prevent the issues she was experiencing: she knows a whole lot of exercises to give her sculpted arms, but has never done an exercise to strengthen her upper back. She’s probably read a dozen or more articles on treadmill routines that blast fat in 15/30/60 minutes, but nothing about foam rolling IT bands or crosstraining to prevent injury. Because you know what? IT bands ain’t sexy. Which is why, if you’re reading this and not in the fitness industry, or have never been to physical therapy, you probably have no clue what I mean when I say, “IT band” or “foam roll.”
Perhaps appealing to appearance is simply more marketable. Perhaps the media’s just catering to the lowest common denominator, the folks who can’t or don’t want to be reading about the way their bodies work and would rather be reading Us Weekly (Not that there’s anything wrong with Us Weekly. I mean, Katy Perry. Divorced. What?!) Perhaps it’s easier to discuss and judge health if we give ourselves a standard for measurement, even if that standard doesn’t include a lot of people. Whatever the reason, our current means of comparison clearly aren’t helping us.
Which leaves me with my question(s) for you: How do you judge a person’s fitness? If all other measures of health end up the same, is it possible to compare two people’s fitness and say one’s better?