We often hear that expression in the gym and read variations of it in fitness magazines. It’s meant as a compliment, as positive reinforcement for our hours of hard work. But let’s be honest. It’s kind of a lie, right? I mean, who looks good when they’re pit-stained and oxygen-deprived and viscid and smelly? Okay, Venus Williams and David Beckham. But that’s it. Two people. The rest of us look like we’ve been doing speed drills through one of Dante’s circles of hell.
I don’t like to think about my appearance when I’m working out. I need to concentrate on form, especially with my recurring hamstring issue. I don’t need to be fretting about ‘chicken wing arms’, ‘muffin tops’, ‘thunder thighs’ or ‘badonkadonk’. What makes those lousy descriptions even worse is that I’ve heard them all used by women — women talking about their own bodies.
Why are we so obsessed with appearance? And why are we so incredibly mean to each other — to ourselves, for crying out loud! — when it comes to our looks? Is there only one ideal mark of beauty? Who gets to decide it? Back in Botticelli’s time, I’d be a waif. Fifteenth-century skinny equaled starving equaled impoverished. Ironically, in our oh-so-advanced modern civilization, it’s the other way around.
If I were queen for a day, I’d put a gag order on appearance-related commentary, in the gym or anywhere else, for that matter. Imagine if we stopped commenting on each other’s body shape and started acknowledging the things that really matter. Watch what happens when you tell someone how much you admire the way they show grace under pressure; or that you love how they persevere toward a goal; or that their positive attitude makes the whole world brighter. That kind of feedback resonates far deeper than a nod to tight abs. Not that I’m knocking tight abs; I just don’t think they’re a true measure of success. Besides, they’re fleeting: yesterday’s washboard becomes today’s baby bulge becomes tomorrow’s middle-aged spread.
I admit, I’m a bit sensitive about this issue. Someone I love dearly has an eating disorder. I have watched her fight valiantly against a disease that wants her dead. In the midst of her struggle, she has endured comments like these, from both friends and strangers:
- “You’re so skinny! I hate you!”
- “You’re lucky! I wish I could skip meals.”
- “We need to fatten you up!”
- “If I had your body, I’d show it off.”
- “You’re tiny / a stick / as thin as a rail / barely there!”
Listening to the radio as we drove from a recent doctor’s appointment, Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta (a.k.a. Sandy and Danny) declared their undying love in the Grease hit, “You’re the One that I Want.” Suddenly, I’m 16. And just as suddenly, I hate my body. That’s right, Olivia; those skin-tight leather pants, that off-the-shoulder crop top — after 35 years, your slinky getup still makes me feel self-conscious and ashamed of my inferior exterior. No one had to tell me that I didn’t measure up. Before I could recover from the flashback, the song faded and the late Karen Carpenter began her classic, “Only Yesterday.” Remember Karen? She died at age 32 from heart failure due to anorexia. “In my own time, nobody knew the pain I was going through…” It was a surreal, poignant moment of clarity. I cried for my beloved, for myself and for every woman who felt that our worth was measured by our waistline.
Words have terrific, irrevocable power, and images can linger forever in our memories. How we talk to ourselves and to each other matters. So let’s compliment each other’s strength and admire our tenacity, but look past the outside packaging to see the gifts inside.
Greece native Teresa Keyes lives in Bloomfield NY. Follow her at https://teresakeyes.wordpress.com/.