Tag Archives: Body image

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What would health and fitness advertising look like if marketers had to be honest?  I was inspired to do this post after seeing the hilarious before & after pictures here - I'm not sure who did these originally, but I owe them for a lot of laughs.

I had WAY too much fun doing these.  Someone should have been taping me giggling like an idiot while trying to come up with witty sentences in Photoshop.

In any case, I thought it had been far too long since I'd done something similar to my popular "Pinterest Modifications" post, so without further ado, here's my take on a few popular articles and products we've seen over the years...

AdRedo1

Alternative caption "9 foods that, just like everything else on Earth, contain chemicals."

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"Eat this, not that" potentially an experiment in "how many books can you sell off of one concept?"

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Please pay close attention to my pro-level Photoshop skills here.

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Any takers on how many VS models have done this workout?

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God I hate slideshows.

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Other products used: going back in time before having children, eating less, moving more.

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I mean this could be any exercise DVD / magazine headline / program promotion really.

And this last one is a little off-topic, but this was my theory for why Cosmo keeps talking about sex when any sane sex-having female would probably find those articles a tad ridiculous:

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I know this because I have experience being an 11 year-old girl.

This week I'm re-hashing a very old post from my last blog.  Sadly attitudes towards female bodybuilders (and even male bodybuilders) by many hasn't changed much since.  I'm hoping that re-surfacing this post can help others to respect rather than be revolted by bodybuilders. 

Take a look at the two pictures below:

NaturalBodybuilders

They may not be very pleasing to your eyes.  It's probably not a physique you'd ever want to have.  You may even be a little disgusted.

It's completely fine to not want to look like a bodybuilder, I'd say most people don't.  However there's a trend I notice when talking about bodybuilders with many people that I do find a little troubling -

Bodybuilders are spoken of with disdain, with disgust, as though they were somehow less human than the rest of us merely because of their chosen sport.  As though because we don't like their physique ideals something about them must be flawed.

If you do a Google search for 'female bodybuilders,' the first link is entitled "Steroids gave me a penis."  Seriously?

In truth, bodybuilders are doing what most people want to accomplish, but to a higher degree: Losing fat and gaining muscle.  They're experts at it.  Thankfully for most of us, we don't have to work half as hard as a bodybuilder must to achieve our goals.

I'm hoping that this post will serve two purposes:

  1. Lend more evidence to why merely doing strength training is not enough to 'bulk' you up.  We'll take a look at how some bodybuilders train - it's probably a bit different than your typical strength routine!  Bodybuilders would love if they could just wake up one morning HUGE from a few months of strength training!
  2. Come to respect bodybuilders for their resolve, consistency and dedication to their sport instead of being repulsed by it.

Competition Divisions

Back in the day of Arnold Schwarzenegger and crew, bodybuilding was pretty simple.  Nowadays there are several different divisions, each with their own judging criteria.  It can get a little confusing.

In general though, all of the competitions are looking for some degree of muscle size, the best muscle symmetry and proportion, as well as a certain degree of muscle definition.

The fake tans caked on so liberally that competitors' heads look photoshopped on, oil, and minimal clothing isn't just to look as strange and inhuman as possible.  It's to enhance muscle definition and make it more visible to judges.

Let's define the different types of body aesthetic competitions:

Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding competitions have simple goals: Get as much muscle and as little bodyfat as possible, while maintaining good symmetry and proportion. (As in, not having one shoulder larger than the other and not having quads that are out of proportion with your hamstrings)

There are drug-tested bodybuilding competitions (the two bodybuilders at the beginning of the post are "natural" competitors), and then there are open divisions where basically anything goes.  That's where you'll find your Jay Cutlers, Ronnie Coleman's and Iris Kyle's.

Iris Kyle looks like she cares a lot about your opinion of her body.

In addition to the spray tans, oil, etc. mentioned above, dehydration and lifting weights before going on stage (in combination with drastically low body fat percentages) are some other techniques used to help increase vascularity and get that really 'shredded' look.  Before going on stage a competitor may also take in a high amount of carbohydrates in order to make the muscles appear fuller and larger.

Physique

Female physique competitors

Very similar to bodybuilding, except competitors can get marked down for having too much muscle.  That's really the main difference.  Sort of seems like an option for women looking to be muscular and compete but still retain a more traditionally "feminine" shape - but don't quote me on that.

Fitness

A step down again in terms of muscle size, leanness, and vascularity requirements.  However competitors in this division typically have to do some kind of routine that combines aspects of strength / flexibility, so a greater degree of athleticism is required.

Figure

Like the Fitness division, minus the routine.

Bikini

Bikini Competitors

I'll admit, I'm not sure what exactly judges look for in this division, because the only judging criteria from the NPC (National Physique Committee) website are:

  • Balance and Shape
  • Overall physical appearance including complexion, skin tone, poise and overall presentation.

So, perhaps a step down from figure.  Judging by the pictures of most bikini competitors, that's accurate: fairly lean, not much muscle definition.

Note: I thought Scott Abel's take on 'watering-down' bodybuilding competitions was interesting.  There is a lot of talk about the dangers of deciding to compete in figure and bikini competitions going on lately.  Take a few minutes to listen to this podcast starting at 12:48.

Bodybuilding Exercise Routines

Bodybuilders spend a lot of time in the gym.  The stereotypical "bodybuilding split" workout typically involves 4-5 days a week and tons of volume. (Competitors on drugs can recover faster and thus do more work) That takes quite a chunk of time each week.  To give you an idea, here's a sample day from competitor Josh McMillan:

*2 warm up sets of 15 reps, seated dumbbell curls, then:

  1. INCLINE SEATED DBELL CURLS (SUPINATED)-
    4 sets of 6 reps (slow deceleration), then 6 hammers.
  2. BARBELL REVERSE CURLS (to forehead)-
    3 sets of 12 reps (3 second decel)
  3. HIGH PULLEY MACHINE CURLS-
    3 sets to failure (around 15-20 rep range)
    *2 warm up sets of tricep push downs
  4. TRICEP ROPE PUSHDOWNS-
    4 sets of 12 reps w/flex
  5. ONE ARM REVERSE TRICEP PUSHDOWNS
    3 sets of 10 reps
  6. BENCH DIPS-
    3 sets to failure
  7. MACHINE SHRUGS-
    4 sets to failure

A bit more work than most put in on a typical day - done 4 or 5 times per week.  Doing exercises to failure is not pleasant.  It burns.  Your body begs you to stop but you must have the mental fortitude to push through it anyway.  Rinse, repeat again the next day.

This doesn't count the cardio that many competitors put in.  It varies from competitor to competitor, and you'll find many arguments for and against excessive cardio.  But at the end of the day most will do some form of cardio in the weeks leading up to a competition.

I got to interview Staci, a natural female bodybuilder in the 118-132lb weight group.  She gave me a general idea of how much time she spent in the gym and how much cardio she also did on top of regular training:

"During off season, I am in the gym for 1 hour a day for weight training 4 days a week and cardio will take up 2 of those other days, with 1 day full rest. When I am cutting for competition, I am in the gym in the morning for HITT (High Intensity Interval Training) before breakfast and for another hour later in the day for weights. I will do this for 4 days, and depending on energy levels, I will put in a few more cardio sessions the other 3 days as well."

Now bear in mind, this is just a sample.  Bodybuilding requires you to take note of whether or not an exercise is working for you, whether or not you should consider a different angle on the bench when you're doing incline bench press, whether or not you should widen or narrow your grip, are you making sure to target both your soleus and your gastrocnemius on calf day?

Bodybuilders need to have a good, basic understanding of human anatomy to be successful.  How can you make a muscle bigger when you don't know it exists?  How can you make sure a muscle is activating unless you know what its function is and what bone it attaches to? (You could always read blog posts, I guess!)

So if one needs to have a broad knowledge base in anatomy and physiology (or hire someone who does) to be successful in bodybuilding, where did this stereotype come from?

Bodybuilding Diets 

Dieting for a show can get pretty grueling - not to mention boring.  Ask any competitor.

If you think that your diet is restrictive, try a bodybuilder's who is preparing for competition.  Men strive to reach levels of 3-8% bodyfat, women around 9-15%.  For reference, average bodyfat percentage for men is 18-25% and for women is 25-31%.  How do you have to eat to get to these numbers?  I asked my friend Charlie, and he had this to say about dieting for competition:

"The diet is the tough part. Lifting is fun, being hungry for 12-16 weeks is not. Diet for competition is usually a low carb diet... total calories 1700-2000. The target is no more than 2lbs of weight lost a week, anything more your losing muscle. Off season diet is 3500-4000 calories a day with protein being about the same, but way more carbs...

Three weeks out from the show I wanted to quit. I was grumpy, tired, hungry, and wondered was it all worth it. I didn't quit, because I knew I would beat myself up if I did. The diet messes with your mind. You question everything your doing and wonder if you're screwing up. This is why I think a coach is the most important thing you can have. Someone to talk you off the ledge, to have a sane mind that can hold you to the plan and can gauge your progress and make adjustments without sabotaging everything."

In the weeks leading up to the show, all food is logged.  How many ounces of chicken, exactly how many almonds, how many grams of plain oats?  Exact calories and macronutrient levels must be measured.  There can be no cheating involved - you bring your food to work, to restraunts, to birthday parties and holidays.  Research the correct supplements (legal or not, depending on your division), take them at the exact right times according to your training each day.  Any deviation might mean the different between first and last place.

And then there's the post-competition diet.  You don't want to completely de-rail for a month (though many do) and get fat, since it's just that much more weight you'll have to lose before the next show.  But to gain muscle, you do have to eat at a caloric surplus.  It's a fine balance between eating enough to gain muscle and support your workouts, but not so much you gain 50 pounds of fat.

Staci had this to say about switching between phases:

"The main difference between off season eating and pre-contest diet is the amount of calories. When I am bulking, I aim for about 2500 to 3000 cals a day. When cutting, I am looking at around 1400 to 1000 cals, depending on the workout for the day. Macros will move up or down, obviously but keep protein very very high...

The transition can be grueling. The key is to not reduce the amounts to quickly, as you will almost go in to shock psychologically and mentally. Obviously your body is use to taking in so much, and when it is not receiving, it will come back to bite you...[[One time]] I cut my cals too quickly and had a difficult time functioning, as far as speech, cognitive and emotionally. It was an eye opener to see just how much this affects you."

Now obviously if you found female bodybuilders less than easy on the eyes before this post, nothing above will have changed that.

But how about we show these ladies (and gents) a little respect for the tremendous amount of work they do and do away with comments like these:

FemaleBodybuilders

How about we stop being "afraid" of getting too "bulky" as though that's a bad thing or the only reason to lift weights?  Again, bodybuilders would LOVE it if it were that easy.  Hopefully we can see now that's not the case.

Even in light of all this, the physique of a bodybuilder will probably be continually unappealing.  And that's okay.  Take a look at this video of a young female bodybuilder:

Chances are good she doesn't care if you think she's too manly looking, or that some random dude on the internet wouldn't have sex with her.  But I just want you to look at the confidence she exudes while on stage.  Just from her body language you can see the hard work she put in, the dedication, and you can tell she knows she's amazing.

Even if you don't want to look like her, we should respect her for her resolve.  We should respect her for having the guts to even decide to prepare to get up on that stage.  We should respect her for the respect she has for herself.

That's something that we should all strive for, no matter in what manner.

There's a bit of a "chicken or egg" argument about certain marketing tactics.  The dual argument will go as such:

"The media just give us what we want.  We fear being unattractive or appearing old, and they prey on those already existing fears with weight-loss products and wrinkle creams."

Or,

"The media makes us think that being old is a bad thing.  By rarely portraying women over 40 in big productions, or women who are more than a size 2, they make us think that being old or fat are bad.  We get that message, then advertisements and other marketing tools drill it in by selling us products to solve a non-existent problem." 

I admit myself, I am not sure which camp I agree with.  Both seem plausible to me.  Some will bring up evolution as a way to say that the desire to appear young and healthy (aka, not overweight) is bred into us.  The more you look to be between 18 - 35, the more likely you are to be fertile, the more attracted potential mates are to you.

(Of course, I could perhaps buy that for the 'old' argument, but considering overweight and even obese women were literally idolized in the past, I'm not sure about that particular side of the argument. )

I used to have a client who was a big advertising executive.  I was always fascinated by his job and we'd spend time in between squat sets talking about his work.  He told me one day about one of his biggest challenges in marketing.  His company had a client trying to sell a television that was much more expensive and vastly inferior to their competition.  Off to a great start, right?

He detailed to me about one common advertising tactic: present your product as a solution to a problem, regardless of if your particular product is actually a better solution, or even if that problem is an actual problem.  They made a marketing campaign that promoted this particular TV as stylish enough for your wife to approve putting in the living room, but with a picture great enough to capture every bead of sweat on your favorite quarterback's face.

And, it worked.  They sold the majority of their stock and even outperformed their competition - who recall, had a superior product for a cheaper cost.

Does that sound familiar?  You can probably think of a few products and commercials you've seen use that same tactic.  Here is a completely made-up problem used to sell deodorant for example:

How have we managed for SO LONG to live without a special deodorant to deal with the super-special STRESS SWEAT?  That one was just an obvious example.  What about cellulite?  Another made-up problem with no 'solution' to date (aside from losing overall bodyfat), but that doesn't stop some of the most ridiculous advertisements I've ever seen from stepping in to "help":

LOBSTER WEIGHT LOSS TECHNOLOGY AHAHA THIS IS FUNNY SO WHY AM I CRYING??

LOBSTER WEIGHT LOSS TECHNOLOGY AHAHA THIS IS FUNNY SO WHY AM I CRYING?? (click to zoom in.  It's still hard to read the label - there's probably a reason for that.  That reason of course being that it says 'lobster weight loss inspired technology.')

Anyway, all of this is building up towards a discussion on an article I found in Self this month titled "Old Talk is the New Fat Talk."  I took the liberty to snap a few quotes from it that I found particularly controversial:

Hypocrisy

I'm going to go ahead and get a couple of issues I have about this out of the way that don't have to do with the content of the article.

  • Right before this article there were 5 pages dedicated towards how to look hot after you finish your workout.
  • Before that there was an article about how you should really consider using sandwich bread instead of a pita pocket for your lunch so that you could save yourself 50 precious calories.
  • And earlier in the magazine was a page dedicated to the #1 exercise to get a flatter belly, as if such a thing could even exist.

Now that doesn't mean the content of this article isn't worth reading.  After all, the author of this could have nothing to do with whatever else is put in the magazine.  Maybe she's as disgusted with the surrounding content as I am - who knows?  But don't the editors see the irony?  In reality it probably doesn't matter too much.  Just something to point out.

But let's take a look at some of those quotes:

"Now women are viewed as sex objects for a much greater portion of their life span."

Why is that?  Is it true that in the past when you hit your 50's you went from sex-object to dignified elder?  Or did you simply drop off the face of the earth, as many women in entertainment do now?  Which is better?  Here are some stats I took from a documentary (Miss Representation - starting at 0:58:00).  I tried to find their source but couldn't - I've emailed them to try and get where the stats came from, but here is what they claim:

  • Women in their teens, 20's and 30's comprise 39% of the population.
  • Yet, they are 71% of female characters on television.
  • Women 40 and older are 47% of the population.
  • Yet are only 26% of female characters on television.

"Thanks for that Madonna."

Is it that Madonna has somehow retained all of her youth naturally, or has she had to use a liberal amount of photoshop in her promotions to appear young so that we will still recognize her talent?  Is it really her fault?

Note, there is NOTHING WRONG with the former picture.  Oh no, she has some wrinkles.  BECAUSE SHE'S FIFTY-FIVE.

"Here's the deal: You're gonna obsess, whether it's about gray hair or cellulite or something else entirely."

Why would you even write that?  Why on EARTH should you just accept that you're going to obsess about your appearance?  Doesn't that sound like something you should, I dunno, work on?

Here we have a magazine that perpetuates our obsession, attempting to normalize that obsession as though it's just human nature to worry about whether you have thighs that touch or not, or whatever the latest body-flaw obsession is fashionable these days.

"...if you truly don't like the way you look or feel, use your vanity to inspire you to take steps towards a healthier life..."

What if you take those steps towards a healthier life and still don't end up as the perfected ideal you are presented, which is likely going to happen?  You're perfectly healthy, but still have cellulite, as normal human beings tend to have.  According to Self, whelp, you're just doomed to a life of fruitless obsession.

So, Self, I get what you're trying to say.  It's unhealthy to obsess over these pointless little things.  It's normal to age, it's normal to have cellulite.  But apparently they have reached the conclusion that worrying about these things is simply an inevitable consequence of being female.

They do a pretty good job of perpetuating that.

_________________________________

I'd love to hear your thoughts.  What really causes these impossible ideals?  Do marketers use liberal photoshop because if Madonna didn't look picture perfect we wouldn't buy as many of her albums?  Or were we conditioned by the same marketers to expect that ideal so that the idol in question seems more awesome to us?

Are we given wrinkle creams because we inherently don't want to look old, or are we told not to look old and thus given wrinkle creams?  Does it matter which came first?  Should it make our strategies for overcoming this different?  What do you think?

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This week's post is less of a splattering of information and more of an open-ended question.  I'm not going to pretend like I have the answer to this.  In fact, part of the point I think is that the answer will be different for everyone.  And I want to hear those!

The question is, in its most basic form: When is it okay for someone to desire to lose fat?

Let me elaborate on that a little bit.  This is a question that's been mulling over in my head for a while now.  Since writing this article, in fact.  I've recently been reading a lot from several people in the fitness industry who focus on body acceptance and trying to undo some of the neurosis people feel over food.  (If you're curious, it has primarily been from GoKaleo, FitMamaTraining and EatMore2WeighLess.  There is certainly a lot of thought-provoking information there.)

I like the message of these women, and it also just so happens to jive with the "eat whatever I want kinda" part of my diet right now.  (I'll have some updates on that next week)  I've known plenty of people who have gone really far with their diets, to the detriment of social lives, relationships, and performance in sports / everyday life.  I've gone off the deep end when it comes to how I treat food quite a few times in my life, so many of these stories really resound with me. (Obviously the following questions do not apply to people who need to lose fat / gain fat for health reasons, such as the unhealthily obese or someone who is severely underweight / anorexic.  I'm talking about all of us in between.)

I also whole-heartedly agree that there's no need to aspire to look like a model or <insert really lean / thin person here>.

Whether it's 'fatspo' 'fitspo' or 'thinspo' they're all basically the same.

Whether it's 'fatspo' 'fitspo' or 'thinspo' they're all basically the same.

I agree that chronic dieting is a generally bad thing, and that being able to enjoy food - all foods - guilt-free is something we should aspire to.

However, what happens when someone reads all that, agrees with it, yeah yeah, that's great - and then still wants to lose fat?

How can you pinpoint whether YOU want to lose fat as a reflection of how you see yourself or whether you want to lose fat because you think you need to look like said fitness models?  And the real question - does it even matter which one it is?

If you feel bad when you look at yourself in the mirror, do you need to work on your self-image and accept who you are as you are, or should you try to lose fat to achieve whatever aesthetic you'd be happy with?  When is the latter an "okay" thing to do?

When is losing fat something to do 'for you' and when is it giving into societal expectations?

Thankfully I was able to articulate these questions to a blogger whose work I've admired for a long time, Leigh Peele.  She had an AMA on Reddit today and I jumped at the opportunity to ask her opinion.

I'll get the conversation started by posting responses from a couple of other users and Leigh herself.  Let me know what you think in the comments below!

LP1 LP2