Flip through any women's magazine, and there's a good chance you'll get the same underlying message: No matter what we do with our brains, hearts, or spirits, if we're not also sexually desirable, we've failed. Some articles would even have us believe that the act of having sex is actually a performance, done with the sole intention of impressing and titillating one’s partner. While this sometimes leads to hilariously terrible sex advice, it's a symptom of a much larger problem: Mainstream media is teaching women to place the needs of other people (in this case, men) before their own and to look at (and judge) themselves and their bodies with a hypercritical eye.
These messages about sexuality and bodies are well-documented by blogs like Beauty Redefined, which illustrate, for example, how often even seemingly empowering statements—like the fact that a woman’s confidence is a real turn-on—are undermined by subtle phrasing that “privileges male pleasure above all else.”
Basically women are told that their self-confidence should be acquired, not because it’s good for their minds, bodies, or hearts, but because confidence is appealing to others. This reinforces the message that being desirable, pleasing others, and attracting men are a woman’s most important duties—which can affect every aspect of overall health and wellness, even which workout you choose.
If you’re surrounded by the message that your body exists to attract men (and to make other women envious) then of course you’ll be compelled to choose a workout that promises to make you the most "attractive," regardless of whether you actually enjoy it.
It’s no wonder that women feel worse about themselves after browsing through women’s magazines.
We may not always be consciously aware of this messaging, but it sticks in our minds: "You need to get rid of body hair, pull the toxins from your mouth, and for Pete's sake burn off of those love handles before someone sees how disgusting you are!" It’s no wonder that women feel worse about themselves and their bodies after browsing through women’s magazines The influence of fashion magazines on the body image satisfaction of college women: an exploratory analysis. Turner SL, Hamilton H, Jacobs M, et al. Adolescence. 1997 Fall;32(127):603-14. .
All of these messages lead to what one study calls “self objectification,” or women internalizing the way magazines objectify us and using that perspective as their primary view of their own physical selves. This in turn leads to habitual and often hypercritical body-monitoring, a lack of awareness of what’s going on inside their bodies, and possibly contributes to a whole host of mental health risks.
So What Does This Have to Do With Fitness?
Everything. This self-objectification means that when a woman comes to me for training, she has one million perceived external flaws that allegedly need fixing. She typically points out her "trouble spots" or explains why she can't seem to lose those last five pounds. Her fitness goals are based not on her own objectives—say, wanting to finally try kettlebell training or working toward a faster 5K time—nor are they based necessarily on what she likes doing. Instead, they are the result of seeing herself through the eyes of media and with the goal of sculpting her body into something that will please others.
The problem is that relentless pursuit of a beach-ready butt isn’t likely to be the foundation of a lasting, fulfilling relationship with one’s body or any sustainable fitness program. For a truly fulfilling and joyful relationship with your body, the key is to focus on your internal experience, not an external one.
Be Your Own Celebrity Health Guru
Tuning in to the internal experience can be really hard to do, conditioned as we are to pay attention to how we appear to others, but it’s the only way to learn what you really like. Ask yourself: What feels good? What feels bad? What do I crave more of?
You can’t outsource this stuff; it’s you who must figure out what rocks your world, and then make sure you get more of that. Health and fitness (just like sex!) can all be "done" in a way that actually increases the desire to do more. You just have to teach yourself to crave it, by giving yourself something worth craving!
Our culture has the majorly misguided idea that being healthy is no fun.
Many of us don’t actually expect “healthy” to feel good. Our culture has the majorly misguided idea that being healthy is no fun—that it’s supposed to be hard, painful, and require tremendous discipline and willpower to cope with suffering through a workout and forcing gross-but-good-for-you vegetables down our throats. But working out, once you find something you love, feels amazing. It’s often my favorite part of my day, and I try to help my clients see it that way too. Is it challenging? Yes. But I wake up on lifting days excited to have a challenge worth pushing myself for. Feeding myself nourishing food feels incredible, too. So does prioritizing sleep and being well-hydrated. Having a body, and all the habits that go into making it healthy, can and should feel absolutely pleasurable.
So let’s stop looking outside ourselves to find out what feels best and start tuning in to our internal experiences. A celebrity health guru doesn’t know what kind of diet or fitness program will work for you—only you do.
To get your journey started, here are a few ways to start getting to know what makes you tick. Do these now and start reaping the benefits of a pleasurable, satisfying health and fitness life.
4 Steps to a More "You" You
- Write it all down! Keeping a workout or food journal, along with noting how you feel during each new experiment, gives you a concrete way of assessing which ones worked best for you. (For example, I love a high-rep, muscle-building programs, but when I go back and browse through my notes, I see lots of “feeling wrecked,” “exhausted,” and “soooo hungry” scribbled around those workouts.) It can be as easy as jotting down “Ran 3 miles. Hated every second of it.” Or “Did hot yoga. Hard, but I loved how I felt after.”
- Start slow and commit fully. Make only one new diet or fitness change at a time, and commit yourself to it for three full weeks, whether it's a new supplement, a new workout program, a new diet rule, etc. If you try to implement all three at once, you’ll never know which variable was making you feel a certain way. If you quit after a week or two, you haven’t really given it a fair chance.
- Be brave. Step outside your comfort zone, keep an open mind, and don’t be afraid to try new things. Going back to our bedroom analogy: Each new sexual partner and experience offers something different, causing new puzzle pieces to fall into place, even if you’re learning what doesn't really light your fire, rather than what does. Try different combinations of exercise and eating, work with different training partners, and read programs and articles written by different coaches. Keep what works for you and ditch the rest!
- Have fun. The journey is the reward. Fall in love with the process of experimenting with different ways to eat and move. After all, finding things that are fun, rewarding, and life-enhancing should feel pretty amazing.
Jessi Kneeland is a New York City-based certified personal trainer, strength coach, fitness writer, and founder of Remodel Fitness with more than six years of one-on-one training experience. She's a secret superhero on a mission to save the world from negative body image. Read her blog, and follow her onTwitter, Facebook, and Instagram.