What Does a Yoga/Pilates/Runners/Weightlifting Body Look Like?
With the most recent news debacle about the plus size Nike mannequin in London (and the horrible article it inspired), I thought we could take a look at bodies and their appearances. In this article, and in general media, there's an inaccurate notion that a certain physical activity will inevitably lead to a certain physical and aesthetic appearance, i.e., yoga and pilates practitioners are long and lean in appearance (what does that actually mean?), crossfit and weight lifters are strong and muscular, runners are petite and muscular, and so forth. The question I have is whether the appearance of the bodies in question have more to do with genetics and exercise, rather than exercise itself, or whether bodies that are better adapted to certain forms of exercise tend to gravitate towards those movements.
Here’s an example from the Nike mannequin debacle: are runners always thin and petite just because they run? We all know (or should know) that many different shapes and sizes of bodies can perform movements equally well, so does someone need to be thin to run? After watching the tail end of the Seattle Rock n Roll marathon, I’d say that any body type, shape, size, or age, can do any movement with training. The finishers of this weekend’s marathon were a wide variety of ages, heights, and sizes, proving that runners aren’t one size fits all.
Here’s another example: If you watch competitive olympic athletics of any sort, you’ll notice that not all of the athletes look the same, whether it’s swimmers, runners, soccer players, etc. While certain body types may be advantaged in terms of height or arm length, the bodies are varied because bodies adapt to training differently. Even if an olympic team did very similar training and diet plans, each individual on the team would look differently based on their genetics, metabolism, hormones, and more.
Here's the deal: every body responds differently to movement and diet. Period. Some people can eat junk food for years and be at a "healthy" weight, others might gain weight immediately with those eating habits. Some people do crossfit diligently and don't necessarily become lean or jacked (which is why I love the blog Fat Crossfitter) and some people will immediately change physique. Some pilates and yoga teachers are naturally tall and thin (or are former dancers and gymnasts!), others are not. In the world of fitness, there is this notion that there is a bottom line standard of lean and strong that we all can achieve if we only work hard enough, and if we don't have that body shape, then surely we must be doing something wrong, especially if we're a teacher of movement. A pilates body must surely be a thin one, right? And a yoga body is a flexible thin one? And someone who lifts weights must be strong and chiseled? And a runner is petite and thin?
This logic comes from a long line of fat phobia, blaming people for their size, and assuming that they’re lazy, making poor dietary decisions, or otherwise judging them. It also comes from the misguided realm of advertising, which has long favored thin models for fitness, clothing, and everything in between. Representation of diverse ages, body sizes, and races, has only come into fruition recently. The Nike mannequin article in the Telegraph is shockingly hateful, with a paragraph of “Yet the new Nike mannequin is not size 12, which is healthy, or even 16 – a hefty weight, yes, but not one to kill a woman. She is immense, gargantuan, vast. She heaves with fat. She is, in every measure, obese, and she is not readying herself for a run in her shiny Nike gear.” Here’s another thing: if women who are bigger than a size 12 want to exercise, what are they supposed to wear? Men’s clothing? Paper bags? And why do we need to assume that people of different sizes are not healthy? Linda’s Bacon’s book, Health At Every Size, refutes the notion that all people need to be thin to be healthy, and reminds readers that much of the conventional diet and weight loss talk comes from people wanting to make money, either selling diet products, pills, or something else. More importantly, someone else’s body is not your business- what they eat, what they wear, what size they are, whatever.
We all have anthropomorphic differences that affect the way our bodies process exercise and diet, as well as hormonal, metabolic, and genetic differences, just as we have infinite variations of skin tone and hair color/texture. Give a group of people the same workout plan and diet, and everyone's body will change (or not change!) differently and at different rates. With a group of female fitness professionals between 30-50, you may have women with hypothyroidism or PCOS, women who have delivered multiple babies, women who may have chronic fatigue, women who have never been petite, women that are stressed, and women who are happy and healthy at a different size than you. And as a student, layperson, or fellow teacher, you may judge a person for their body, but you don't know what's going on for them and it’s not your business. Fitness professionals also have a lot going on, whether they are business owners trying to make it work, independent contractors running around to teach, mothers, fathers, caregivers, partners, and more.) For some reason, this seems to be ignored in regards to fitness teaching-and it's preposterous. In her awesome podcast, Pilates Unfiltered, Chicago based instructor Jenna Zaffino mentioned this very issue a few seasons ago.
Why don't we look at movement as something more than a means of creating an aesthetic appearance? What about how someone feels in their body? Or improving their quality of movement or daily activities? So many of us have illnesses that affect our body, whether larger ones that affect our energy, immunity, digestion, or hormones, or smaller injuries. Everyone has a different story, and not everyone should or can look the same, or achieve the body aesthetic favored by mainstream media. In addition, the training, meal management and dedication needed for figure competitions and athletic modeling is often intense and not sustainable long term for most people, even though those bodies are featured on magazines, clothing advertisements, and media at large. On the podcast "Behind the Podium," last fall, my friend and business owner Isabelle Barter said it best; "I am a movement educator. Some people are movement educators, some people are fitness models, some are both. But I am a movement educator." As a teacher and professional musician, I've absolutely been judged for my appearance and body composition- 26 years of playing viola means that I've spent a lot of time sitting in orchestras and ensembles (when I could've been exercising), coupled with some peculiar spine and shoulder challenges from adaptation. That's part of my body story, and everyone has their own story. Judge me for my teaching and my knowledge, not my bodily appearance, especially not in regards to my movement ability. In the fitness community, it can be tempting to assume that a teacher without a perfect body doesn't know what they're doing, but odds are, they're highly trained, extremely busy, and don't have the time or desire to work out for hours a day to achieve a perfect physique. That doesn't mean that someone with a perfect body isn't worth studying with either, it just means that there is diversity of bodies within the greater movement community. "The body that moves you throughout your life without pain and with joy" is the one you want to inhabit, not necessarily the one the magazines and media want you to.