A Call to Arms (And Abs, Quads, Calves, and Shoulders)

I bought a women's fitness magazine the other day and almost every page equated fitness with losing weight. Get bikini ready in seven days! Lose 12 pounds by tomorrow by doing these three exercises! Hungry? Eat seven almonds! Fuck that.

Your body was made for so much more than being looked at, deprived of food, and enjoyed by others. Your body was made for kicking some ass.

As women, we're inundated every day with the idea that our bodies exist for other people- when we're catcalled on the street, when coworkers have entire conversations with our breasts rather than our faces, when we're groped on the subway. We're prudes if we don't let enough people access our bodies; sluts if we allow too many people to access our bodies. Billboards display women in various states of undress, wearing products, endorsing products, as products. Movies and TV we watch invite us to look at women from the perspective of the male gaze. I'm not an expert by any means, but this seems harmful to the way we see ourselves and the way we take care of ourselves. Maybe we should stop letting those things dictate how we see our bodies and start seeing our bodies as instruments of power rather than smorgasbords for others to feast on. Your body isn't a passive painting or a photograph, your body is a tool.

Discussing exercise or athleticism is tricky in the context of body acceptance; we're told the only reason we'd possibly want to exercise is to have a sexy body or to be smaller or more in line with what society has determined is an acceptable size. Writes Jezebel commenter CherriSpryte:

I've kind of come to the conclusion that I don't want to work out to lose weight, but to jump higher/punch harder. This is very complicated to explain to people, who tend to give me a "tell yourself whatever you want, sweetheart" look when I attempt to explain this to them. Finding fat-friendly spaces to work out is nearly impossible as well.

You guys. This is bullshit. Physical fitness doesn't have to be about anyone else but you or about anything else but becoming stronger. It's time we stopped associated exercise with a form of conformity and surrender, because do so is to deprive yourself of the potential that your body offers you.

I'm lucky in that I've never had serious problems with eating or other body issues, but I'm typical in that my relationship to my body had historically been one of contempt and animosity. That changed this year. I started running on January 8th; I remember that date because it was the first day that I no longer felt a little bit hung over from the disaster that was the New Year's Eve concert and the New Year's Eve redo that I staged on the following week. I hopped on a treadmill at the gym and couldn't even run two miles before feeling like I was going to have a spectacular exhaustion-related fall off the back of the machine in front of all of the cute gym people. Despite the discouraging start to my running career, the next day, I signed up to run an 8K race in March and started telling everyone who would listen that I was going to run it (because nothing motivates me like an aversion to shame). After the first race went surprisingly well, I signed up to run the Chicago Marathon. My entire summer went out the window, sacrificed on the no-fun altar of proving to myself I could run a distance that has killed people.

During the process of training for the marathon, I noticed my attitude toward food changed. Rather than worrying a plate of spaghetti would go straight to my thighs, I started worrying that it wouldn't. I developed the appetite of a 13 year old boy after hockey practice, eating five or six times a day so that I could make sure I'd have enough energy to run 10, 12, 15, 20 miles and not keel over with exhaustion. My attitude toward my body changed as well. I stopped really thinking about how it looked and instead focused on getting shit done, realized that any physical changes I was seeing were happening because my body knew best how to shape itself to complete the task at hand. When a coworker commented that my enlarged calves made me look like I could probably dunk a basketball (even though I'm only 5'6"), I took it as a compliment. Fuck yes, I have huge calves. Fuck yes, I have strong legs. Fuck yes, my body got me through all 26.2 miles. And fuck yes I'm still running. And no I don't know how much I weigh, nor do I care whether or not I'm ready for bikini season. Am I ready for running season?

I don't mean to get all cheerleadery and Oprah-tastic all over your face here and suggest that everyone run a marathon, as we're all different; some people aren't built to run, just as I'm not built to go rock climbing or dance ballet. There's merit in finding something-anything- to do with your body that you love, and loving when your body is able to do it. And there shouldn't be any reluctance to talk about choosing to be physically active, because enjoying your own physical strength doesn't have to be viewed as subscribing to patriarchal notions of femininity.

When I reached out to a small group of commenters about this issue, the response I received was overwhelming. Next week, I'm going to share some of their stories of how using their bodies in physically demanding ways has helped them appreciate themselves as more than pretty little knickknacks with attached boobs.

In the meantime, what say you, commenters? When's the last time you appreciated your body for what it does for you rather than put it down for how it looks? And what the hell is up with "fitness" being equated with "thinness"? Does anyone consider a handful of almonds a satisfying afternoon snack?

Image via CREATISTA/Shutterstock.