Play To Strength

The Athletic Body

31 May

Many people take up exercise to attain a certain look. Fitness is even often sold on the concept of looks whether it’s looking thinner or looking buffer. Many today are starting to get the message that being very thin isn’t always the best goal, that it is, in fact, often a dangerous one, therefore some have begun to say they want to “look athletic.” This goal, however, is another example of the problem with going for a look, as opposed to going for health benefits or greater strength, endurance and other goals, including that of actually becoming an athlete. When we go for a look, we are even less likely to attain that look than we might attain athletic ability. And just what does an athlete look like, anyway?

Our actual image of “the athletic body” is really that of the current trend of athletic models. Yes, occasionally we do see actual athletes in adds, but the majority of layouts which we see in advertising and sports fashion are done with models who have the required look. Most athletes, especially female, who get contracted for advertising or fashion layouts also tend to have the right look as well as be popular.  It might even be argued that for female athletes real popularity requires having an appropriate look as well.  This has been for women, rather small framed with some muscle definition but not “too muscular” and very little body fat. For men the frame is bigger, taller and slightly more muscular but still not too muscular and very little body fat. (Dworkin and Wach, Body Panic)

Real athletic bodies come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. The photo to the right is one that has gone around the blogosphere and FB quite a bit. It is just a section of a spread from The Athlete by Howard Schatz and Beverly Ornstein. I recommend their site (front page may not be work-friendly or friendly to those who have issues with nudity) to see more or buy the book, not only is it a great inspiration for those who want to see different athletic bodies in action and awesome if you are an artist with a lack of diverse real-life model to work from (for the layout this shot comes from, which you can also find elsewhere, is far from the only photo, there are photographs of bodies in motion).

The young woman in the center of this, Olympic weightlifter Cheryl Haworth, is featured in an Independent Lens documentary called Strong! which I saw last week. The viewing was followed by a discussion, although there was no official panel as there often is with IL films even in the little VT city we saw it in. The discussion touched upon Health At Every Size ™, well, of course it did as I and a lovely HAES focused dietician who was there (yay! networking). The movie does bring up issues that even an Olympic athlete has to face in our size-obsessed society, that even a woman so graceful that she can balance the sort of weight she does (and it does take grace) and who can leap higher and more accurately than most of us could even dream of can feel graceless in the eyes of others…which even becomes her own eyes.

This is why we need to forget the messages that we should look a certain way, whether it’s “athletic,” “skinny,” “curvy” or what every the narrow preference someone wants to project on us which is not possible for all of us. We come in different sizes and shapes and, you know what, all sizes are beautiful. We can’t force our bodies into a different body type. But all can be graceful and functional, also with some limits due to real ability issues for some but even within that, if we can move, we can attain greater function by doing so. “Athletic” is about what we can do, not what we look like. And any mobile body, even if all parts aren’t mobile, can become more athletic through movement, even if  few of us can attain Olympic levels.

We can find those things we can be good at, even if by “good” it means we’re having fun and might not impress anyone. Because unless we are competitive athletes we don’t need to impress, not with how we look or what we do, we just need to enjoy our activities and improve from where we were. It’s an ongoing process, never a set goal. And when we do this, when we move our bodies and make them stronger, we don’t just look like athletes we are athletes.

Strong! will be airing on PBS in July, check your local listings (it’ll be listed as Independent Lens, you may find other films in the series interesting to, check it out!)
The Athlete by Howard Schatz and Beverly Ornstein
Body Panic: Gender Health and the Selling of Fitness by Shari L. Dworkin and Fay Linda Wach

Photo from The Athlete Howard Schatz and Beverly Ornstein (if such bothers you or you’re at work, please note there is nudity on the splash page) were originally scanned to ANTHROPOLOGY 390-080: Honors Colloquium: Anthropology of Sports