Looking at herself in the mirror, she wonders why. Why do her shoulders look huge? Why do her legs lack definition? Why is her stomach always bloated?
She looks at the mirror and wonders when. When will she be able to finally see her abs? When will the gap appear between her thighs? When will her butt fill out her jeans? When will her body be bikini ready?
The fitness industry, the entertainment industry, the advertising industry — they've all let millions of women like her down. They've let millions of men down. They've let you and me down.
You see, in the past couple years, we've witnessed a shift in the ideal body type. The traditional thin, slight, and slender ideal has been pushed aside by a more athletic, toned, and muscular image.
And, for a moment, you might be forgiven for thinking this shift is a good one. You might, mistakenly, believe that the athletic ideal is inspirational, that it gives people something to strive for and work toward. You might think it's motivating and encouraging. Athletic images are often accompanied by seemingly inspiring words or body-positive messages, after all.
The problem is that the athletic ideal, like the slender one before it, is unrealistic, unobtainable, and unhealthy.
Why the athletic ideal doesn't fit
There are three big problems with the athletic, fitspirational images that have become so popular on social and in mass media.
The first is that these images are as unrealistic as ever. The magazine covers are still digitally enhanced and Photoshopped. Instagram stars aren't normal people. They're often elite-level trainers and athletes who've spent years in a gym, dedicating their every waking hour to fitness. Celebrities who fit the athletic ideal employ personal trainers and dedicated nutritionists. The people who look like this spend their entire lives working to look like this.
And even then, they don't even look like this. Not every day. Not without the perfect light and makeup and digital touch-ups. Not without years of dedication and mountains of hard work. Not without sacrifice.
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The second is that these images don't motivate people to move more. A recent study published in Body Image showed that people who are exposed to athletic images don't exercise more often or for any longer than anyone else.
The third is that the same study showed that women who are exposed to athletic images have greater body image concerns. They are left feeling like they're somehow at fault for not achieving the athletic ideal. Like they should've worked harder, had more willpower, or eaten less. They are left feeling pressured to conform to an ideal that's made to seem far more obtainable than it actually is.
What would be ideal
It would be ideal if the fitness, entertainment, and advertising industries would stop overusing unrealistic athletic images. It would be ideal if they'd stop tying health and fitness to an ideal that does not promote health or fitness. People are motivated to move more when they feel good and confident about their bodies. These images undermine that confidence. They steal away the good feeling that should accompany physical activity and replace it with feelings of inadequacy, guilt and shame.
It would be ideal if we could let go of the idea that there is an aesthetic ideal altogether. Imagine a world where our Facebook and Instagram feeds were filled with people of all shapes and sizes. Imagine a world where people didn't constantly compare themselves to what they've been told is desirable.
It would be ideal if every woman could look in the mirror and not have to wonder why her body doesn't look the way society has told her it should.
It would be ideal if she didn't have to wonder when she would see the unrealistic changes that she's been told are far more common and easy to obtain than they are.
It would be ideal if she didn't have to wonder what she has to do to finally feel good about her body.
It would be ideal if she didn't have to wonder how she will ever be fit enough to be beautiful.
It would be ideal if we could all look in the mirror and not have to wonder at all.
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Written in collaboration with Steele Roddick.
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