I’m not a supermodel.
I’m not a rockstar.
I'm not an actor.
I’m just an engineer and a leader and an entrepreneur.
My jobs don’t require me to have a chiseled body. There’s no benefit, aside from the obvious cosmetic appearance, for me to have single digit body fat. So why is it that there is so much outward pressure from society to have these things? It’s not coming from any single individual or entity; the pressure is coming from everywhere.
And if I, as a middle-aged male, feel this external pressure, I can only imagine what it must be like for young females. I believe it's important to explore this pressure and figure out what we can do about it for the future.
[Note: I take nothing away from someone who chooses to work on their body to chase perfection. It is a difficult, strict lifestyle choice that requires great focus and discipline. But it is an aesthetic choice; it is not required in order to live a healthy life and therefore, that expectation should not exist for everyone.]
As a side job, I teach group fitness and run small group training. As a result of those classes, I feel as strong as I have ever been in my life. I know how my body moves and I can leverage it to do just about everything that I need it to do.
Recently, we moved to a new city, so I rented a truck and moved all but the largest 5 items all by myself. Twice. The only reason I couldn’t move those 5 items myself was that they were too physically large to control going through doorways and such; weight was not the issue. So I asked a buddy to give me a hand.
Sure, I could have hired someone to do the work. But I was proud of the fact that I have the strength, endurance, and control to manage the day-to-day things that need to be done and do so injury-free.
Every year, I go for my annual physical because being an analytical, data-driven individual, I look for trends. Very few things in life happen spontaneously; there is almost always a progression and there are warning signs visible to those that are willing to look for them. And year after year, my doctor tells me that all my health markers are positive. Aside from a lifelong case of asthma, I haven’t had any conditions that require long-term medication. By all accounts, I’m a very healthy individual.
And yet, marketing to me and my family and my friends is all geared around the “ideal”. I come across perfectly normal people all around me, who are unhappy with where they are and spend inordinate amounts of money on shakes, supplements, meal plans, bootcamps, memberships, counselling, and trainers in order to chase the “ideal”. And their expectation is that I should be doing the same. But fortunately for me, I see no additional value in investing more of my time, money, and mental energy to chase down another 5-10% of my body fat. My self-worth isn't exclusively tied in to whether I have a six-pack or whether I look like the guy on the cover of Men's Health.
The reality is that very few of the folks who do make the effort will ever reach the point where they’re finally happy. Why? Because by overwhelming us with images of hard bodies and washboard abs, we’ve been brainwashed into always thinking that we’re not quite there; the way our arms jiggle or the cellulite on our backside is a sign that we haven’t done enough. Because we don’t look like the model in the advertisement or the commercial. It’s a never-ending cycle that erodes away our self-worth, establishes a negative body image and constantly tugs at our wallets.
I work in the fitness industry and see this firsthand. I’m surrounded by some of the most beautiful people, who are as close to the “ideal” as anyone could get. And yet, a lot of them are as insecure as can be. Why? Because they work in an industry that thrives on the “ideal” and at any given moment, someone newer, hotter, and more “ideal” could come along to supplant them. I’ve heard that it’s the same in Hollywood and athletics.
For this reason, a lot of fitness professionals routinely live off a sketchy “diet” of chemicals that couldn’t really pass for nutrition: pre-workout shakes, intra-workout drinks, post-workout bars, BCAAs, muscle-building stacks, protein powders, and fat-burners. (Keep in mind that very few of these supplements have been evaluated or regulated by the FDA, so nobody is aware of the long-term side effects of using any of these.)
And because there is no emotional satisfaction from eating chemicals, they end up binge-eating and starving themselves in a vicious cycle that leaves them hollow inside in spite of how close to perfect the outside is. It’s not uncommon to hear about whole cakes, brownies, bags of candies, and bottles of alcohol being devoured in a single sitting followed by starvation and strict calorie-counting as they prepare for the next show/event. Yes, your personal trainer, group exercise instructor, or the “trainer” you follow on Instagram may very well be doing this.
Too hard to believe? Read about this Instagram fitness professional.
If fitness professionals (or actors and even athletes) experience such routine dysfunction, what hope is there for regular people who may need to legitimately lose some weight for health reasons or who are nowhere near where they want to be? If people that should be happy with their physical identity can’t be so in this society, where does that leave the average Joe or Jane? Let's face it: this is disordered eating and it can affect everyone. (Don't believe it can happen to you, men? Read about this member of the Seattle Mariners.)
First, we have to acknowledge that our society is still focused on looks. Sex sells and beautifully unrealistic, often air-brushed people are used in marketing everywhere. Whether right or wrong, marketing companies tap into the fact that we want to be beautiful and we want to have beautiful things. The problem is we encourage this marketing practice by continually reinforcing these behaviors with our wallets. We've been talking about changing the way things are marketed for as long as I can remember (I still remember the uproar over Kate Moss back in the day!) and nothing has changed yet. Until marketing companies see a change in our behavior, they have no reason to change their tactics.
Perhaps an easier route is to standardize on what it means to be healthy as a society. In my mind, being healthy involves 3 things:
- Physical health
- Mental health
- Emotional health
In all 3 facets, we must not only be free from illness, but also be in a state of well-being. For the average person, this means we have to eat well, move well, think well, and socialize well.
Eating well should be simple, but it’s so confusing when you listen to all the chatter from doctors, researchers, magazines, and the internet. What I’ve learned over the years is to stick to real food, not processed chemicals. Fruits, vegetables, meats…
Regular people don’t need to take supplements, shakes, and powders if they’re eating a variety of real food. Sure, top-level athletes looking to push their bodies to the extreme need to look at supplementation because of the intensity of what they do and the limited recovery; but very few of us are top-level athletes. For non-athletes, the body can get everything it needs from real food.
These “nutrition & fitness” companies pitch their products as the shortcut to losing weight, using athlete and model endorsements to prey on our desire to be like the "ideal". But there is no shortcut. For hundreds of years, we’ve known how the body processes food and what it takes to lose weight. Anyone with a new diet book or pill or shake that tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.
Next is mental health. We need to have a proper mindset about our bodies. The truth is that very few people are genetically predisposed to look like the models in the advertisements; we all store fat differently. Additionally, we are the result of the accumulation of all of the damage that we’ve done over a lifetime; there are certain things that can’t be undone easily. If we spend 25-30 years eating junk, it takes its toll on the body; sure, we can get healthier, but we may not be able to erase all of the damage. So obsessing about how we look or the number that appears on the scale is a lesson in futility and not healthy because the frustration that we experience gets funneled into a negative self-image. “Everyone else looks pretty/muscular/lean; what’s wrong with me that I'm not?”
Reconciling the fact that certain cosmetic goals are unrealistic and unattainable means that we can focus on improving the things that truly matter. Dropping your cholesterol, being able to climb the stairs at work without breathing heavy, lifting your kids without straining your back, learning to move pain-free. These are tangible things that can be improved through proper nutrition and physical training.
Lastly is emotional health. While normal emotions can be great, excessive or overly-negative emotion can be harmful. If we are in a constant depressed state because of our perceived physical state or if we get angry at ourselves because we don’t look like the advertising models, we put ourselves in a downward spiral that is incredibly hard to escape. Not only do we harm ourselves, but that emotion can manifest itself in our relationships with others in unhealthy ways.
By focusing on staying healthy, physically, mentally, and emotionally, regardless of how we look, we can start to remove the huge load under which our society must function and we start to lessen the power that marketing has on us as individuals.
Moderation is the key. Even a healthy thing done excessively can be unhealthy. The WHO says that health should be: “A resource for everyday life, not the objective of living.”
For further reading or help, here are some resources:
Join the conversation! We can make a difference for ourselves and future generations, but we have to be willing to have these conversations to move forward with confidence. Use #unsteadystate on social media to let us know what you think.