By Dr. Allison Belger
Since staring this blog a few months ago, I’ve solicited article ideas from readers, friends, and fellow athletes a number of times. Without fail, each request has led to a suggestion for an article addressing women’s body image. Thus far, I’ve avoided the subject for a number of reasons, in large part because of the widespread attention the topic has already received across various media; what could I offer in a field that has been saturated for years? In addition, I didn’t want to contribute further to the female obsession with body and food.
In the past few weeks, a number of articles have been published exploring the portrayal of women’s bodies in the media and the extent to which CrossFit has done things differently. Productive discussions have followed, with many of my readers asking for my perspective on this huge and complex issue. As a 44-year-old woman, a psychologist, a mother of two young daughters, a former collegiate athlete, and an owner of CrossFit gyms, I have quite a bit to say, so here goes…
A woman’s relationship to her body dates back to primitive psychological times. Our earliest attachment is to our mothers, first and foremost, and to other caregivers secondarily, through an intimate exchange of nourishment and sustenance that involves feeding from a mother’s breast or from a bottle substitute. These early interactions are rich with psychological interplay–involving food and bodies–and become the foundation of the complicated mother-daughter relationship. While this charged dynamic is not the focus of my work here, it certainly deserves mention. Whatever our body image and our own responses to media portrayals of women, they are rooted in our earliest and most profound interactions with our mother, as well as our relationship with her as we grow. And of course, a mother’s own psychology and sense of her own body are both consciously and unconsciously infused into her relationship with her daughter. Author Kim Chernin’s excellent book, The Hungry Self, is rich and evocative in dealing with these issues and well worth the read for any woman with a body and psyche.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s when I was coming of age and growing into my own body, the look of the moment was that of the skinny Supermodel. We were inundated with images of perfection that included smooth, tan skin; limbs that went on forever; hair that was thick and straight; and eyes that were catlike and sultry, if not blue as the ocean. These were also the days before we were aware of the secrets of airbrushing and editing. I can remember looking through magazines during my high school and college years, wondering how I stacked up to the images therein. Even as a student athlete at an Ivy League college, I invested too much energy in trying to discern how or if I might ever embody this media-driven portrait of the perfect woman.
Fast forward to the present day. While some things have changed, some have stayed the same. I’ve been asked recently whether I think CrossFit has changed the landscape of what is considered beautiful and appealing with regard to women’s bodies. In many ways, I think it has. For those immersed in the CrossFit culture, there is a clear celebration of what women’s bodies can accomplish physically, which does, in theory, trump how women’s bodies appear. In other words, the focus is on what we can DO, not how we LOOK. However, if we think that the mantra of “Strong is the new Skinny” or the celebration of women lifting heavy weights means that the CrossFit culture–or other sport scenes such as professional women’s soccer or volleyball–has avoided objectification of women or has managed to glorify all body types, we are fooling ourselves. I do not think for a minute that the images that are displayed in the media by CrossFit or others are any less threatening to us as women than the ones filled with super skinny, tan models holding Gucci bags. Is there a broader representation of what is attractive and acceptable, with women who have bigger muscles and who don’t appear to be hungry or suffering from some massive eating disorder? Absolutely. But are those images any less likely to cause a woman out there in the world to loathe her own imperfections or yearn for a different casing for her insides than those images from Elle Magazine back in the day? I think not.
What remains constant is that the bodies we see, flaunted across all media, possess popular standards of some kind of objective beauty. They may be bigger and more muscular, but they are no less perfect—symmetrical, smooth, angular, tan–and without fat. Likewise, the faces attached to the bodies tend to be attractive and beautiful in conventional ways. In other words, we may be looking at stronger women, but their aesthetics may still be as tantalizing as those of the skeletal and perfected supermodels with cheekbones to (almost literally) die for. If I’m a woman with extra fat in her midsection, or with triceps that move with the kettle bell I swing, or with genetically determined cellulite covering my otherwise toned hamstrings, or with skin that burns instead of tans, I might easily wonder why my likeness isn’t represented in the media. I might, in fact, be moved to self-doubt and distress upon seeing the images of good-looking women with perfectly chiseled muscles on page after page of my favorite fitness magazine.
So is this article meant as yet another indictment of the media, of our collective capacity to fall prey to advertisers, and of our longstanding cultural acceptance of creating standards for women’s bodies that are unrealistic for most? Not quite. While I agree that all kinds of media fuel the fire that is our tendency as women to use (misuse) our bodies as holding grounds for all sorts of psychological material, I also think there is a far more productive conversation that we might have. Do I think we should fight for truer and more representative images of real women doing real jobs and celebrating our minds and our capacities instead of our looks, so that our girls have substantive and legitimate models of greatness to which they can aspire? Absolutely. Do I wish for my own daughters that they will never once look at a photograph in a magazine and then at their own image in a mirror and experience a moment of disgust or longing? Heck yes. But there is more to this story. The reality is that our susceptibility to the cultural phenomenon of perfection is fundamentally and essentially based not only on the images we see, but on our own psychology.
To all of you girls and women out there who struggle with doubts about your body, I ask you this: What do you imagine would be different for you if you were thinner, or your hips were smaller, or your arms more muscular, or your abs more defined, or your calves smaller? How do you imagine your life would change if you had another body—you know, the one you watch enviously at the gym every day or the one with which your best friend is blessed? Would you be more intelligent, or funnier; a better athlete, mother, lover, wife, or friend? Would you have played more sports or had more boyfriends or been more popular in your youth? What do you imagine would be different if you were just a little skinnier or a little tighter in those parts of yourself you so abhor?
There’s a funny thing about the human body and psyche; the former becomes a great vesicle for the latter. Without delving too deeply here, the point is that we infuse into our experience of our bodies all sorts of psychological material, and, perhaps most conveniently, the psychological content that is most troubling to us. We create defense mechanisms that help us function and navigate our relationships and other life content. We are clever beings, and these defense mechanisms can do wonders for us, but we’d be silly to believe they come without cost or are effective forever. Our bodies are convenient defensive tools, and for women also confronting social and cultural pressures to look a certain way, the allure of the body as holding ground for emotional content is deeply seductive.
What I’m getting at here is that when you spend your time and precious psychological resources focusing on how your life would be different if your body were different, you are likely missing something. Just as addictions or obsessions or self-destructive relational patterns can be the result of unconscious issues, you may be using your body’s imperfections as a way of defending against feelings that are too complicated and hurtful to acknowledge. If you’re in your forties and have been saying since college that your life would be better if you could just lose those ten pounds, there’s probably a psychological reason why you haven’t. In fact, you’ve probably lost those pounds before, only to find them again somehow (suspicious, huh). Maybe you didn’t keep them off for long enough even to assess how different your life really was. Go figure.
I can remember when my kids were in diapers and I was in a mom’s group. We would meet a park or at someone’s home to just hang out and have company while caring for our little ones. I was always struck by the fact that a group of smart, talented, accomplished women who were once lawyers or doctors or fundraisers or musicians could so easily spend hours talking of absolutely nothing else but their children’s feeding and sleeping schedules. I understand that new mothers are, by necessity and design, totally consumed by their babies. Nevertheless, it always left a mark on me when I went home realizing that we had, once again, been sucked into the oblivion of nursing, pooping, and sleeping. In a similar way, it blows my mind when women who are multifaceted individuals with all sorts of cool things to offer, who have great personalities, minds, ideas, jobs, etc., are completely and hopelessly consumed by a longstanding hatred of their bodies and a wish to be thinner or leaner or more beautiful.
How about if we spend our time and energy encouraging women to look inward and figure out what drives us to be so obsessed with our bodies being more perfect? The answer will be different for each person, of course, and the content will have varying degrees of accessibility for each, but the analyzing is work that needs to be done. If we could bottle the intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and financial resources that go into our collective focus on our bodies and how we might have “better” ones, we’d have a seriously powerful resource we could use to tackle the world’s financial problems or solve world hunger or cure diseases that have escaped the figuring of scientists for eons.
If you’re one of the many women out there who struggle with a negative body image or hold tightly to that dream of being thinner or tighter or leaner, maybe what you imagine is actually right on. Maybe if you were leaner, you might be actually be a better mother; you’d be making use of more parts of yourself than you are now, so focused on the work of being obsessed with fat. You’d be less preoccupied and more focused on being a mom. Maybe you actually would be “smarter;” your brain power would be directed towards endeavors other than how to eat the cookies you want without them manifesting in your thighs. Maybe you actually would be a better friend, lover, or business partner. You’d be far less busy with the full-time job of hating yourself. It’s time to re-frame our discussion and focus. Blaming the media hasn’t worked. Take control of your own psychology and figure out why you’re not thinner, if that’s truly what you want for yourself.
One last note, so you don’t think I’m an ignorant fool who doesn’t understand or appreciate reality. I am aware that our level of attractiveness and our body type is largely determined by genetics and that there is only so much we can do to change many aspects of our appearance. I get it that science has shown repeatedly that people who are considered attractive reap social and financial benefits in our aesthetically driven culture. But given this state of affairs, there is still quite a bit of work we can do to address what we do with the bodies we’ve been given, how we handle our perceived imperfections, and how much of ourselves we lose to the fight against all we think is wrong with ourselves physically. It’s high time that our collective resources as women aren’t sucked dry by the fight to be perfect, whatever perfect looks like to each of us.