Two days ago, an image popped up in my Facebook feed: a slender young woman on a gym floor taking a selfie. The photograph consisted of her own torso and head, along with the image of a larger, middle-aged man using a cable machine, just visible over her shoulder. The caption read:
“Uck: when his boobs are bigger than mine.”
That was the original image, but the original image is not what popped up in my feed. The secondary version I found had a scrawled response caption referring to the original. It read:
“Why the f*ck are you making fun of him for fixing the problem in the first place?!!”
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article for The Body is Not An Apology about my passion for weightlifting. I made mention of some the varied gym environments I’ve wandered through in my three-or-so years of training. In that time, I’ve been exposed to entire buildings, weight rooms, and websites devoted to the sentiments behind the original image and the second version.
I won’t pretend that I’m not relieved to have the well-intentioned response cross my radar before the original, but it bears stating that both of these attitudes are severely misguided.
Let’s begin with the obvious: It is an act of Body Terrorism in the strictest of terms for this young lady to take a photo of this man, post it in any capacity, and comment on it, all without his consent.
This has been a disturbing trend for some years now, with Facebook pages, Tumblr profiles, and entire websites devoted to capturing images and video of innocent people and littering the Internet with mockery of them. There are whole online communities that gather to deride these bodies, sometimes under the guise of suggesting that, should any of the subjects find themselves going viral, the shame might be just the motivation they need to turn their lives around.
In my experience, more often there is no explanation at all. It’s just considered fun.
The other, kinder example is by no means without problems, either. The term “fixing” here is a microaggression. I take this term very personally. I weightlift, but I do not do so to “fix” anything. I have passed more than my share of large, well-muscled individuals who have assumed that a little guy like myself must be squatting 200+ pounds for sets of five because I must want to get larger.
But I have never desired to bulk up beyond what comes naturally from pushing my limits, and I resent any suggestion to the contrary. I don’t know the story of the man in the photo, what his desires and goals are, or why he is in that weight room. What I do know is that he has bodily autonomy and a perfect right to try and do with his body what he desires. I hope is that those goals and desires are as personal to him as mine are to me, and are not rooted in acts of Body Terrorism from a culture that has made it its business to regulate what he might consider “normal” for himself.
Both responses to the photo are rooted in a singular societal scourge, that of “healthism.” In simple terms, this refers to the imposed norms of a “healthy lifestyle,” ignoring all individuality and most science on the subject, and often resulting in mass stigmatization, both of the self and of others.
I like to think of it in the same terms as heterosexism or Social Darwinism—a philosophy that touts the superiority of one singular constructed group and molds the culture to allow that group domination over all others. In this case, the dominant group consists of those individuals capable of fitting the “health” standard. This is how Photoshop images, movie-star physiques, and images of attractiveness that are plainly unnatural to the vast majority of humankind become goals for which we pay and strive and work.
Science is a tricky monster to contend with here. Those of us who have attempted to gain some perspective on what constitutes “healthy” are extremely familiar with how difficult it can be to reach any consensus. For instance, recent studies have found that two-thirds of Americans are currently overweight, and half of that number are considered obese. However, in 1998 BMI standards for obesity were lowered and 25 million Americans were suddenly considered overweight. But that might not matter if you’re one of many educated individuals who find BMI to be an inaccurate measurement system in the first place.
If you count anecdotal evidence, it’s perfectly true that a person who is overweight or underweight by any of these standards might not have anything wrong at all with their cardiovascular, respiratory, circulatory, or indeed any bodily systems. I’ve seen a 300-pound marathoner and a 130-pound powerlifter – both with personal records of which I could only dream.
Hell, there are controversies around taking multivitamins and eating fruit every day. The first action we can take is to wade through the information and decide for ourselves (and some of us will give terrible suggestions on Twitter). The better, more active and healthism-battling choice however, is radical self-love. It is entirely too easy to confuse the two. When we don’t recognize healthism for the shaming monstrosity that it is, we can easily assume that we are caring for ourselves while committing acts of body terrorism.
This is what I fear for the man in the photo. Perhaps he has chosen to exercise because his blood work has shown a condition for which light resistance training can be an effective treatment – heart problems, osteoporosis, arthritis, the list is extensive – or perhaps he’s a hobbyist looking to get into the activity. These are the happy thoughts.
But if he is there out of vanity or shame or pressure from a stigmatizing culture or peers, than I can only wish that man the peace that eludes him. We who attempt to practice radical self-love seek to encourage acceptance and adoration of the body for what it is. In my personal version, this includes what my body is capable of physically, which is why I lift and practice calisthenics. But I’m careful to resist the urge to bend these activities towards a certain “look.”
It is not self-love to starve oneself for the sake of reaching a body fat percentage that is unnatural. It is not self-love to abuse the body under a barbell or over a treadmill, chasing higher numbers on these for smaller (or larger) ones on a scale or a ribbon of measuring tape. And it is is never self-love to chastise or shame those around us for nonconformity to beauty standards that do not line up with our conditioning.
We commit body terrorism against others and ourselves when we treat the body as a customizable machine without regard to its nature or inherent value. We are not cars to customize and compare with our peers and our media. There is no blue book for what constitutes a body worthy of love, except the one we develop for ourselves. For as long as there is still financial, cultural, and egotistical capital to be gained from a lack of consensus, the jury will probably remain out regarding what constitutes proper health and healthy action But the battle can be fought and won through acts of self-love and acceptance.
When we make peace with our bodies’ parameters in terms of appearance, we break through the mental barriers that a culture of healthism promotes. When we cherish our “imperfections” as the marks of well-lived life that they truly are, we can make kind decisions for our bodies that promote true health in both body and mind. When we love ourselves in this manner, we can also respect the autonomy of others and encourage the practice of self-love for all.
[Headline image: The photograph shows two men weightlifting. In the foreground is a black man with close-cropped hair and a short beard. He is wearing a gray and white top with a blue stripe on the side, along with a pair of black workout pants with a blue stripe down the seam. Next to him is a man of color dressed in the same attire.]