Putting your best butt forward (Or, Motivating by appearance:The good, the bad, and the ugly)

There have been a few inspirational photos floating around my coworkers’ Facebook pages lately, showing off how strength training rather than long stints of cardio can transform a woman’s body with impressive results.  You see, no matter how much the media tells women that lifting weights does not, in fact, turn you into the Hulk and does get you that much closer to being a bad-ass like Michelle Obama and Ellen (see: Best Video Of My Life), many, many women get scared by the prospect of picking up moderately heavy objects and moving them around. 

And, as you probably can guess, the concern is never getting too strong or too fast or jumping too high.  Many women shy away from weight-lifting for fear of getting “too big,” and head to the treadmills or ellipticals when they want to shed a few pounds. Now, this not being a blog about the science behind fitness, I’m not going to get into tons of explanation here of why this thought process doesn’t hold much weight (no pun intended).  Suffice to say, though, research has shown that to change one’s body composition to get the look flaunted in Hollywood and most fitness magazines, you have to lift a few weights.   Plain and simple.   You cannot look “toned” without muscle, and you can’t build muscle without doing something to challenge the muscles you currently have. 

Now, let me show you these photos that folks have been talking about:


In the break room, I heard multiple people say how great the photos are.  Women should see that the bodies they want don’t come from hours on the treadmill. Maybe this will show women that shorter interval-training-style cardio sessions and strength-training can help get them to goals they’re actually trying to achieve, not just things they “should” care about like bone health and injury prevention.  Let’s be honest—gym-goers care about the things they “should,” but they often care about their looks as much or more.  As a result, any motivational quote, article, or picture that shows women that strength training can make them feel attractive seems like gold to personal trainers.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that the trainers I work with have a great understanding of the importance of motivations beside appearance.  They brag as much or more about their newfound ability to do pull-ups or increasing mobility in this joint or that or increasing their speed on their latest 10K.  And they get the importance of appreciating one’s appearance in the context of one’s own body, instead of some random societal standards.  In fact, they’ve been integral to helping me wrap my head around the idea that appearance can be a positive motivator for people—focusing on improving one’s appearance doesn’t necessarily mean you hate yourself, it doesn’t necessarily mean you want to look like someone you’re not.  Feeling sexy or beautiful or muscular can be another way a woman learns to value herself.

Motivating by appearance, though, treads a fine line.  Take those pictures.  Okay, yes, we’re telling women to get away from their fear of weights and anything but long, slow “fat-burning” cardio.  But chances are, that marathon runner in photo number one actually does have a well-rounded workout routine including strength and shorter interval runs, because, guess what—it’s pretty tough to be a decent marathoner without doing those things as well.  Equating her workouts to just watching television on the elliptical for an hour three times a week isn’t entirely accurate. 

Plus, go into any running advice forum or magazine, and one of the major points made again and again is you shouldn’t take up marathon running if you want to lose weight.  Period.  You take up marathon running because you want to run really far and tell people you can run really far.  Possibly you take it up because you really like pasta dinners before a race.  Whatever.  Point is, people who start marathoning to lose weight or look a particular way usually end up sorely disappointed, and marathoners readily advertise this fact.

So chances are that chick in photo number one did not go into running simply for the hot bod, and therefore it doesn’t make sense to judge her for doing something that doesn’t make her look like a fitness model.  She probably didn’t go into the sport to be judged for her appearance, so why on earth spread her photo around the internet as an “educational” device about how women should get the bodies they want? She decided she wanted a body that runs 26.2 miles.  It’s essentially like a marathoner calling out some random woman whose goal is to look good at her sister’s wedding for not being able to run more than two miles.  Different people want different things from their bodies.

Thus, we end up with the first stumbling block with appearance as a motivator for working out: Oftentimes, we confuse judging a routine based on how it helps a person reach her goals with judging a routine based on how it helps someone look a certain way.  The latter is a subset of the former.  Too often, when motivational materials try to convey the idea that form follows function, that our bodies adapt to the types of stress we put on them and therefore will change in appearance and ability based on the way we challenge them, the message comes out as, “You don’t want to look like that, do you?”  Suddenly, a logical argument becomes body-negative and teaches women that bodies that don’t look a certain way are shameful.

Furthermore, even if the marathoner did go into running to look better, she may actually consider her body type the hottest body type out there.  On the off-chance that everybody viewing the photo agrees that the sprinter is hotter than the marathoner, it’s still not fair to shame the marathoner because her body doesn’t fit others’ perceptions of beauty. The same holds true for the second photo, of the two ladies’ bums.  Think about the people you’re attracted to and the people your best friend’s attracted to—probably a few differences, right?  The first photo implies that one should prefer the sprinter body type, and the second suggests we should all prefer the perky, round bum.   And so we see problem number two with appearance motivators: it’s easy to forget that not everybody idolizes the same body types, and positive appearance goals should stem from one’s own body and values, not others’. 

Photos like these illustrate the main reasons I had a hard time grasping appearance being a positive motivator for so long.  Calling someone unattractive—whether overtly or implied– does not make for healthy motivation.  It teaches the individual who is motivated by appearance to be ashamed by not fitting particular molds.  It can make fitness seem downright futile for those who realize their bodies will never look like the standards set by society.


Trip down memory lane:  This is a photo of my track team, freshman year of high school.  It was the only year that I participated in a team sport, because that season I ran out of practice crying about every other day.   That cutie with the red arrows pointing at her is yours truly, age 15.  Notice my shoulders were as broad as those of the linebackers in the next to the last row, despite the fact that everything below my ribcage was a size 3/4.  I hated this photo at the time because it made me realize, no matter how thin or athletic I was, I would never fit into any sort of ideal body type (it’s also hard to tell in this picture, but I was pale-whitish-pink, thanks to my Norwegian ancestry, while everybody else had this lovely golden tan).  Since then, I’ve learned that my shoulders, along with my really large hands and flipper-like feet, make me a formidable swimmer, and I would probably be a damn good football player on a girl’s tackle league, were it not for the aforementioned crying problem and a general lack of hand-eye-coordination (not a requirement for personal training certification, incidentally). 

I suppose this is all to say, I’ve been jaded about appearance motivation for a long while.  Exercising made me learn to appreciate my body for more than what it looks like, made me care or the bits and pieces for what they can do for me rather than whether or not they make me look good in a sleeveless dress or bathing suit.  The feminist in me, the liberal-arts student turned MFA-er, wants to make all women think this way.  I want to yell, You are more than the sum of your parts!

But I work at a women’s gym, and, I have a feeling co-ed gyms are pretty similar in that the majority of the clientele worry about fat loss and getting Michelle Obama arms just as much or more than they do about their LDL/HDL ratios.  (Well, perhaps the men don’t want Michelle Obama arms.  But maybe they do. Have you watched that video I linked at the beginning of this post yet?  Go.  Now.  Why on earth are you still reading?)

So then I grapple with this question of how women motivate themselves with the goal of looking better without turning it into a game of comparison or deeming particular activities off limits simply because they don’t have the desired effect on x, y, or z body part.  From what I’ve learned from my coworkers, part one is accepting and embracing who you are and what you find attractive: robust farm girl with killer arms and quads and freckles or hippy endurance athlete or muscular and compact crossfitter.  Some people want more muscle, some want less.  Some want long, lean limbs with soft definition, some want every vein to pop. Some care more about having an endorphin rush after every workout, some hate feeling sore or tight the day after a workout.  The trick is to stay true to who you are, and to remember that others may value different traits– and neither will be wrong.

The irony of the photos, of course, is that they ultimately are meant as a way of teaching women to think outside the box in terms of their own fitness goals.  The intended take home message is one that I stand behind: don’t limit your workouts because you’re afraid of what they’ll do to your body; you might be happily surprised when you challenge yourself in a different way.  Or, as one of my coworkers’ t-shirts proclaims, Strong is the new beautiful.


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