Reflections on women, exercise, and body image

I’ve recently started reading Anna Kessel’s Eat, Sweat, Play, and even though I’m not even halfway through it’s already had such an impact on me that I knew I wanted to write about it. The comments and observations she’s made in just a few chapters have been so striking that it’s made me want to take a step back and re-evaluate.

Recently I joined my local gym, and in the past few weeks I’ve been going at least twice a week. This week is the first week where I’ve settled into a routine, doing spinning classes twice during the week after work and going to an intensive workout class on the weekend. My main motivation for joining was guilt and shame; guilt because I knew that I didn’t exercise enough whatsoever, and shame because I don’t like how my body looks.

I’ve felt better after going to the gym, mainly because after I’ve gone to the gym I feel like I’ve reassured my turbulent mind that flips between lusting after sweet things and insulting every ounce of my skin. At the beginning of this week I picked up Anna Kessel’s book, and every time I read another few pages I’ve felt like telling myself off, even as those feelings of guilt and shame still riddle my mind. Eat, Sweat, Play firstly makes the very clear point that women and sport are not often portrayed in media as things that go together. Women playing sport – playing’ being a key word in that sentence – aren’t often shown, and instead women are told about exercising. The difference in a media standpoint is that sport is a competitive environment reserved for men or a fun one reserved for young children, whereas exercise is a realm where women can participate in order to make their bodies better. Whereas sport is fun, exercise is about getting in shape – something that women are told they need to constantly do.

Sport, as Anna Kessel describes it, is meant to be fun. It’s not meant to be a chore or something that you dread doing, it’s something that you choose to do as you enjoy it. Exercise is prescribed, sport is willingly committed. In my experience, they have been one and the same thing – something that I’m not very good at and something that I don’t look good doing. From sweat patches to flabby pieces of my body to stretch marks to short breaths, exercise and sport are words that I have mostly avoided. I always claimed that I liked exercise when I didn’t think of it as exercise – such as rock climbing or kick boxing – as those activities I saw as being more enjoyable. Those activities, I now realise, are sports. Maybe a rather simple realisation, some may think, but this revelation is one that does not come lightly to me.

The war between getting fit and enjoying myself has been something that I’ve felt constantly going on in my head. On the one hand, I can just live my life and have that piece of chocolate, or I can be attractive and slim and fit. Yet, there is an in-between – a stage that I have always hated, and have never actually gotten out of. It’s the stage where you get out of breath after a rather simple exercise, the stage where there are bits of your body that you still can’t stand to look at. It’s the reason why I always hated the thought of going to the gym.

Whilst reading, there have been comments about women’s bodies in sporting environments that have made me want to throw my book across the tube carriage. Women’s bodies are constantly being criticised or sexualised or both. Either your body looks incredible in sport, so you’re sexualised to the point that you feel you cannot participate on an equal level, or your body maybe isn’t up to standards so you’re criticised so much that you’re too embarrassed to participate. Either way, women have been excluded from the world of exercise and sport – a world that there is no reason why they should be.

Embarrassment is an emotion that I feel often when I’m at the gym, and usually I push it so far back to the edge of my sub conscience that I just pretend it isn’t there. When I’m in the changing rooms, I take such pains and care to make sure that I show the least amount of skin as possible. In the gym itself, I feel like everyone is watching me and judging me for how out of breath I get or how unattractive I am when I exercise. After working out I try to cover any sweat patches I have, feeling them like brands on my skin that tell the world that I’m disgusting, ugly, unworthy, repulsive.

But why? Why is my brain programmed to think that I need to keep my body hidden in a changing room? Why does my mind immediately jump to the conclusion that people are watching and judging me? Why do I instantly think that evidence of sweat will make anyone think anything other than ‘she must have worked out’?

Self-consciousness plays a part, yes, but it’s obvious that I’m not the only one that goes through these awful cycles of thought. Clearly women all over the world have the same feelings, and they’re powerful and damaging enough that they exclude so many women from doing something as simple as going for a run.

I’ve set myself a lot of goals recently, and going to the gym regularly is one of them. Now, however, it’s a combined goal – I want to go to the gym regularly and see it as a fun thing I’m doing, and not a chore or prescription. I want to go to the gym not because I think i’m fat and ugly and deserve a punishment, but because I want to be fit and healthy, and this is one way that I can achieve that.

Eat, Sweat, Play is such an important book, and it’s one that I wish I could give to my teenage self so I could come to these conclusions – or, at least make progress on changing my mindset – so much sooner. I’m looking forward to seeing what else the author is going to show me about sport and exercise, and I’m also looking forward to getting up and going to work out – not because I hate my body, but because I love it.

So ends my late night Saturday rambles.

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Female Beauty

I have a notebook obsession – seriously, it’s a bit of an issue that I try to handle every single day. I even tried to get rid of a few old ones the other day, and as I was flicking through  the pages of one of my numerous ‘ideas’ notebooks, I came across a small passage that I wrote. It was a first-person rant by a female character who was fed up of being called arrogant for thinking she was beautiful. When writing it, I think I must have been maybe fourteen and most definitely insecure about my appearance, so of course I wrote about characters who were confident, strong, and took absolutely no shit from anyone.

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Anyway, it got me to thinking – a rare activity for me – about why I, along with so many other girls, are so insecure. Yes, the easy answer is media and body-shaming and blah blah blah, but I think it’s more than just telling girls that they need to be skinny or it’s beautiful to have flawless skin and long flowing locks like some sort of Disney princess. I think you could go far enough to say that we’re not telling girls just about what beauty is, but that they can’t be beautiful. Or at least, they themselves can’t think that.

I’m not making much sense? Right, let me take you to a classic example of a pop song by a boy band beloved by most young girls. Heard of that horridly catchy and irritating What Makes you Beautiful by One Direction? Now, not to hurt too many feelings, I’m sure the boys of 1D did not intend to fit into the stereotype of putting down girls nationwide, but they certainly do with that number. Yes it might sound cheerful and seem sweet about a boy telling a girl she’s beautiful, but let me remind you of the killer line ‘You don’t know you’re beautiful, that’s what makes you beautiful’.

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I know, I know, they seem very cute, but STOP THAT RIGHT NOW. Are you seriously kidding me with this line? Let me elaborate what they’re saying here several times:

  • You don’t know you’re beautiful, that’s what makes you beautiful
  • What makes you beautiful, is that you don’t know it
  • I like the fact you think you’re ugly, it makes you more attractive
  • You have no self-confidence, which I like
  • I like to be superior and for you to feel inferior

Ok, maybe the last one is going a bit too far, but I’m standing by my point. We are telling girls that it’s better for them to have no self-confidence. It’s not good to think that you’re pretty or beautiful because that’s too close to arrogance which isn’t at all attractive. Far better for a boy/man to find a girl who thinks she’s worthless so he can be the one to reassure her, or not. We go back to the ageless stereotype of thinking girls should be meek and quiet who need to be saved by strong men. Stop that right this instant.

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And so we’re back to the classic slut vs stud dichotomy; women who sleep with lots of men are sluts, men who sleep with lots of women are studs – simple! You would think we’d be past this by now but, alas, we are not. And boy bands are partly to blame. Sort of.

Why are girls encouraged, still, that having confidence isn’t great? In an age when we’re trying to get girls thinking that they can be just as good as boys, and telling both boys and girls that they don’t have to fit the stereotype of being strong all the time/quiet and meek all the time, there are still a million and one issues. Beauty is one that we usually think we’ve covered, like there’s some long list and after the numerous attacks on body-shamers and huge long articles about plus-size models and what not, we’ve ticked that box. Hate to be the party-pooper, but we’re a long way from done. Girls are told to be confident in themselves and their abilities, but that doesn’t yet truly extend to being confident about their beauty.

So, let’s please change something. Even if it’s just a song that now says ‘You don’t know you’re beautiful-oh wait, you do know? That’s great news; I find your confidence attractive and I like that we’re on equal footing’, although that’s a little less catchy.