Is It Possible to be Fit and Fat?

Women continue to feel pressure to maintain the fit looks

Posted May 16, 2014

In her book “The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness” Kim Chernin (1982) defined the current feminine body ideal as a taut, narrow hipped, and slim body bordering on emaciation. The shape of a pre-adolescent female body, added Sandra Barky (1988). A few years later Susan Bordo (2003) observed that any extra loose or wiggly flesh is unacceptable even on extremely thin bodies. This was more than 30 years ago.

Such a body shape continues to be unattainable for most women: Some estimate that only about 5% of women are born with bodies resembling the ideal. Because 95% of women continue to struggle with their less than ideal shapes, it is no wonder that a vast majority of women are dissatisfied with their bodies. Many women with normal weight or BMI desire to be thinner. For example, Neighbors and Sobal (2007) found that 87% of normal weight females in their study desired to weigh less. As an interesting contrast, some normal weight males desired a body weight that would be considered overweight in terms of BMI and more than half of overweight males desired to retain their current weight.

Medical researchers have also recorded the continued prevalence of women’s body dissatisfaction. In their seminal study, Silberstein, Strieger-Moore, and Rodin (1987) described it as a normal part of the female experience, a ‘normative discontent.’ Body dissatisfaction has, however, been consistently identified as a risk factor for eating disorders (e.g., Stice & Shaw, 2002). Despite these research findings and decades of education, the thin and toned feminine body ideal continues to be promoted by the mass media.

The fitness industry has also been accused of selling ‘the body beautiful’ (e.g., Dworkin & Wachs, 2009) and thus, escalating women’s body related psychological disorders such as eating pathologies and exercise addiction. Fitness instructors, particularly, appear vulnerable to these conditions (e.g., Hoglund & Normen, 2002; Prichard & Tiggemann, 2005). Tiggemann, however, suggests that the reasons for taking up exercise impact on the level of body dissatisfaction. Exercising for weight control, body tone, and attractiveness is associated with increased body dissatisfaction, disturbed eating, and lower body-esteem whereas exercising for health, enjoyment, or fitness are associated with increased self-esteem and body-esteem and lower levels of body dissatisfaction (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2005).

The connection between exercising for improved appearance and the prevalence of eating disorders has now been well established, but has the industry responded? Are we now offered alternatives ways to exercise? To find out, my colleague Joy and I asked how fitness instructors deal with expectations of body shaping in their classes.

Our small, qualitative study included five experienced fitness instructors (4- 21 years in the fitness industry) who were well-educated (several fitness certifications and 4 held university degrees) and who taught a diverse group of clients (seniors, ‘parent & tot,’ cycling, aqua, HITT, clients with chronic conditions, step). They were, thus, well-qualified to reflect upon possible changes in the industry.

According to these instructors, the media continues to promote the narrow body ideal and thus, the pressure to strive for thinness persists. They believed that female clients come to fitness classes to lose weight “100% of the time.” In addition, many of the class participants complain about specific areas of their bodies. All the instructors identified ‘stomachs’ followed by legs and thighs, bottoms, and flabby arms as definite problem areas for women. These body parts, where the female body stores most of its fat, become a problem when the ideal feminine body is defined based on the adolescent body: firm, toned, lanky, and low in overall body fat. Obviously, the ideal feminine body shape and the pressures to obtain it have not significantly changed in the last 30 years.

The instructors were aware of the narrowness of the ideal ‘body beautiful’ and believed that there is now more general awareness of how unrealistic this image is. One instructor commented: “I think [the participants] have more education and can dismiss some of those images that you see on TV and in magazines. But I think people need to learn acceptance.” She urged women to accept that their bodies are different and thus, have different problems: "Everybody’s body type is different. ‘It’s my muffin top, it’s my flabby thighs, it’s my cellulite, it’s my grandma arms, it’s my double chin’, I mean it’s because we all are built differently. So everybody has an issue with something."

This instructor recognized that ‘we are all built differently’ but despite one’s body shape there is always something to work on.

The instructors did not believe in ‘spot reduction’ (losing weight on a particular body spot by exercising), but claimed instead that a thinner body can be achieved by following a ‘balanced lifestyle.’ “There’s no such thing as spot reduction. You keep working on a balanced lifestyle…don’t make yourself do 200 crunches a day to get rid of it…all that’s gonna do is make the fat sit a bit nicer, but it’s not gonna remove that fat,” explained one instructor.

As an exercise in self-acceptance, two instructors discussed ‘inherited’ body types with their clients. One of them explained: “it was quite refreshing to learn about the three body types: endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph” and the other described: "I found this triangle thing that’s got pumpkin people and pear people. I’ll [ask the participants]: “What type are you?” and they [say] “Maybe that’s me?” Well guess what? You’re not going to change that."

Although the instructors recognized different body types, they also assumed that women are born with a certain body shape that is unalterable: changing from ‘a pumpkin’ or ‘a pear’ to become toned and slender is simply impossible. ‘A pumpkin’ or ‘a pear’ body shape is, of course, not ideal and thus, women with these bodies are destined to appear unattractive, a fact that they simply have to accept.

Instead of body shaping, the instructors preferred to emphasize health. They viewed health ‘holistically’ as ‘life balance,’ or as mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness. Despite the importance of holistic health, physical fitness featured most strongly in the instructors’ discussion. Good physical fitness was, in turn, linked to a positive body image: “physical fitness, it’s a good sense of a positive body image,” noted one instructor. Positive body image was further associated with a certain appearance. Here the ‘looks’ of the body and health blurred together: health can be determined by the fit looking body. Not everyone endorsed an automatic connection between fit looks and health. As one instructor continued: “I don’t agree with [the body beautiful]…You might look fit and athletic, but you’re not healthy.” Although health was now emphasized, the instructors believed that the drive to achieve the ideal body persists. One instructor felt that the problems associated with the current body ideal have only escalated: "Perhaps education is getting better, but I think we have more bulimia, food issues and body issues than we’ve ever had. Women in their 30s, 40s and 50s feel like they have to be super women with perfect bikini bodies."

Some of the instructors faced these problems themselves. Two of them were uncomfortable addressing weight loss with their participants due personal issues with body weight and/or eating disorders. All felt a lot of pressure to have a lean and toned body because their bodies were scrutinized by both participants and other instructors. Older, heavier, and instructors who lacked muscle tone were judged more harshly than younger, fit-looking instructors.

The instructors, nevertheless, agreed that an instructor needs to look ‘fit’ and ‘healthy,’ to have ‘that ideal body type’ instead of being overweight, out of shape, and soft. As role models to the participants, they needed to sustain the ‘healthy looks’ of “fit, toned, and little body fat,” said one instructor.

While the instructors acknowledged that ‘fit looks’ tends to be the dominant industry standard, they believed it was unrelated to competent teaching skills. One instructor explained: “It’s not necessarily the body that you have…it is what it can do. You could be obese [yet] absolutely fit and able to teach a class.” The instructors also felt that the problems related to the ‘looks based’ standard were not openly discussed within the instructor community. One instructor described it “like an elephant in a room:” an issue that nobody talks about, but everyone is assumed to strive for because “that is what you need to be and who your participants want you to be.”

Not much has changed in 30 years: women continue to feel pressure to obtain the thin, toned, and young ideal body that also dominates the fitness industry. According to the instructors, there is, however, more emphasis on health in the fitness industry. But the health messages tend to be mixed with the messages of obtaining a fit looking body. The instructors, nevertheless, felt that the fitness community is silent when it comes to clients’ and their own needs to strive for the fit body. This could indicate that there is recognition of the problems associated with the quest for the ideal body and thus, it should not be openly promoted. There is, indeed, plenty of medical evidence linking this image to body related psychological disorders in women. However, if we simply not talk about it, will the body problems disappear?

So what should be done? The obvious answer is, of course, to change the image of the ideal body. This has proven to be a very slow process and while we wait for a broader standard for feminine beauty, we could, perhaps, acknowledge our instructors' teaching skills instead of adding to their body pressures by continual judgment.

What about our own bodies? This is hard. Even with increased awareness and education, it is nearly impossible to ignore the body ideal, but at least we can practice exercising for other reasons than just ‘fit looks.’ These other reasons could include the enjoyment of moving, obtaining better alignment, having less pain, becoming stronger, having more energy, or feeling better. We can also help our instructors by openly stating that we prefer to exercise for other goals than the ‘body beautiful.’ Perhaps these, in time, become steps towards defining more inclusive ideas about what beautiful women look like.

Works cited:

Dworkin, S. L. & Wachs, F. L. (2009). Body panic: Gender, health, and the selling of fitness. New York: NYU Press.

Hoglund, K. & Normen, L. (2002). A high exercise load is linked to pathological weight control behavior and eating disorders in female fitness instructors. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 12, 261-275.

Neighbors, L. A., & Sobal, J. (2007). Prevalence and magnitude of body weight and shape dissatisfaction among university students. Eating Behaviors, 4, 429–439.

Prichard, I., & Tiggemann, M. (2005). Objectification in fitness centers: Self-objectification, body dissatisfaction, and disordered eating in aerobic instructors and aerobic participants. Sex Roles, 53, 19-28.

Stice, E., & Shaw, H. E. (2002). Role of body dissatisfaction in the onset and maintenance of eating pathology: A synthesis of research findings. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 53, 985–993.

Copyright: Joy Chikinda and Pirkko Markula