Resisting a culture of body optimization
I have a piece up at Deseret on why no new state should approve online gambling, and the states who have should restore their bans. “A state that relies on gambling revenue is similarly reliant on worsening the lives of its citizens. It plans to fix crumbling infrastructure by eroding the financial stability of its families, to fill potholes by laying pits in the path of its people.”
(This week’s Other Feminisms talks about body dysmorphia and disordered eating, in case that’s a topic some readers need to handle carefully)
I saw a disturbing little diptych in my recent reading. First, from the New York Times, former Penn State runner Audra Koopman quoted in “Female College Athletes Say Pressure to Cut Body Fat Is Toxic.”
“A lot of us have kind of been brainwashed into thinking that that is something that’s good for you and it is good for you to lose your period and it is good for you to have that feeling of hunger in your stomach.”
Then, in the Washington Post’s feature on the science of steroids and bodybuilding, Jamie Pinder, a three-time Ms. Olympia competitor said:
A lot of people got very mad at me because they think that I should be an advocate for women doing whatever they want to their bodies. But my point is, should we be promoting a sport where women are downright abusing anabolics? It’s like, I don’t care if people are alcoholics, but do I want to watch a sport where people drink themselves to death?
I’ve always said I won’t let my daughters sign up for ballet. I know there are some non-toxic studios, but it’s always seemed like the simplest ways to increase their risk for an eating disorder. Whatever good there is in ballet, I’d encourage them to find elsewhere.
What I see in these other examples is the way that other feats of athletic prowess can be drawn into a kind of toxic excellence. It takes weightlifting (as well as steroids) to be a bodybuilder, but, at competitions, the strength they’ve developed isn’t on display, just the poses that show off the competitors veins and muscles. It would be as if a competition for chefs consisted solely of showing off their burn and knife injuries with no food eaten at all.
Meanwhile, in many college athletics, the quantification of fitness leads many girls (and a number of men) to become progressively less healthy as they chase bodyfat percentage benchmarks without regard for how destroying their body destroys their strength and speed.
At the Summer Olympics, we see gymnasts who are encouraged to train through injuries and stay silent about abuse, and then, in the Winter Olympics, it’s skaters who are ripping through quads during the brief window their bodies are light enough to fly—and stunting their puberty and their growth to push that window a little longer.
There’s a kind of treadmill, where the athletes who are gifted enough to excel are invited to push further and further, until their bodies are destroyed and they’ve hypertrained and hypertrained themselves until the sport is a long way from the play it started as.
I’d be curious to hear how you find ways to pursue strength and exult in the gift of a body while remaining an amateur in the most basic sense: a lover of your discipline, not a competitor. I’m particularly interested in hearing from parents of older girls, but also from readers who are making these choices about their own physical explorations.