Women, Fitness and Body Image: A Conversation


Photo credit: mustangnews.net

I’ve written a lot about being an eating disorder survivor over the past year for several reasons. It was a cathartic and healing experience for me to share my story and not be afraid of my past. The stigma that had hung like a phantom limb was gone and in order to not make my history my future, I had to talk about it. Seeing my story strung together on the screen of my lap, sentence after sentence, I thought, this doesn’t seem so big and scary anymore. Writing it all down made it manageable, for whatever reason.

I also shared my story because it’s still big and scary for other survivors and people who continue to struggle with eating disorders. I wanted them to know they weren’t alone in their fears and that they are worth more than the stigma imposed on them- that their lives are worth more than how society chooses to compartmentalize them based on their responses to a larger system of misrepresentation, oppression, sexism and exploitation.

The reason I keep talking about it because it was not a one shot deal. There are tons of dynamics and complexities to my story, and to every survivor’s story, that makes it impossible to not have our lives continually influenced and impacted by our past. Over the past few years, my story changed lanes. What once felt like a high-speed chase down a dark highway with no headlights suddenly felt like a normal drive- one that I even liked. I did a lot of work to get there on my own, but I also had a lot of help.

When I moved to the city by myself after college, I was worried about the lack of oversight on my distorted body image. I had lived at home with my parents during college breaks so my habits had company, and I was worried about how they would manifest and develop on their own. Body positive experiences were foreign (if not unbeknownst) to me so when I found 30/60/90 in 2011, a group fitness program founded and created by fitness expert Kristi Molinaro, I began to see myself in a completely different way. I became part of an enthusiastic and supportive community that has been following Kristi and her fellow 30/60/90 instructors for years and learned to change my attitude about body image and how I thought I was supposed to look. My old workout method was framed around thinness and it’s now evolved to encompass a completely different mindset- one that’s body positive, encouraging and most importantly, makes me feel like a boss. That’s exactly how it should be.

That class continues to be a safe space for me but the rest of the world isn’t, and you can’t insulate yourself from the crazy, asinine and conflicting messages that exist in the world, no matter how many trigger warnings people are generous enough to set because guess what? The oppressive, patriarchal state doesn’t give a hoot about your feelings. Women (and men) are consistently bombarded with mixed signals about how our bodies are supposed to look, and it’s always in relation to unrealistic ideals around thinness and beauty.

Miss Representation reports that 53% of 13-year-old girls aren’t happy with their bodies. By age 17, that number reaches 78%. Ninety-one percent of adult women are unhappy with their bodies and only 5% of women have the genetic make-up that is idealized by the American media. What this means is that society and the media have decided that 95% of American women just don’t look good enough.

That body image representations of women in the media only represent a small portion of the pie directly translates into how society views women, how we see ourselves and what opportunities are available to us. Never mind that women are expected to fill this void by being likeable but we’re supposed to look a certain way while doing it, too. Women in the fitness industry are no exception, despite the fact that they’re leaders in the field.

“I do sometimes think to myself, maybe if I was 10 lbs smaller, I would get more opportunities, because I don’t look the way they want me to look,” says Kristi, who has created one of the most successful fitness programs that packs studios in New York and California and has been a game changer in HIIT (high intensity interval training) training and the fitness community. Her experience in the industry, apart from being revolutionary and ground breaking, has taught her that women have a harder time excelling in fitness.

“The strongest people in the fitness industry are women- over 40, under 40, whatever. Having been a manager and holding a lot of auditions, men do have it easier as instructors. The women always have a little more of an uphill battle, I think.”

30/60/90 instructor Sabrina Nieves echoed these sentiments and reflected on the beginning of her career in the industry when a male instructor told her, “when you bark these orders, think of a man.”

The implication here is that men are taken more seriously, so embodying a more masculine presence will increase a female instructor’s chances at success. There’s a lot of things wrong with this suggestion but what’s more disturbing than the notion that women should be like men to ‘make it’ is the greater imposition and stigma that’s associated with womanhood in general. That biology is a factor in success is the blueprint for patriarchal oppression since plans for success and full human rights never included women in the first place. Our fight for full equality is far from over and misrepresentations of women and body image certainly don’t help. When we tell women their body image has anything to do with their level of success or self worth, we teach them that their body is only worth as much as society says it is. Make-up, clothes, diet products and other merchandise marketed towards women reflect this narrow framework and it greatly impacts what we see when we look in mirror and the behaviors that may develop as a result.

Take the American media and global fashion industry. Last year, ABC News reported that most runway models meet the diagnostic criteria for anorexia and the average model weighs 23% less than the average woman. Sizes 6-14 are now considered plus-sized, a drastic change from 10 years ago when plus-sized models were wearing sizes 12-18 and the average model weighed only 8% less than the average woman. Women are oversaturated with these images on the daily basis; transparent and malicious reminders that beauty should be defined in a limited and narrow framework with no margin for error or accommodation.

Sabrina, who was nicknamed ‘flaca’ in her family growing up (‘flaca’ is a Spanish term of endearment but is also used to tease skinny women), says that some of her students think the purpose of working out is to get skinny rather than overall health and wellness.

“Some of them ask, ‘how do I look like you?’ It’s not about that.” She laments further, “when did it become about what you look like as opposed to being fit and having a healthy lifestyle?”

Rachael Stein Schwartz and Darbi Worley, fellow 30/60/90 instructors, recognize their students may have body image-related goals but try to focus on teaching them to be their best selves, no matter what their goals are.

“My number one goal is that people leave class feeling good,” Darbi says. “I want you to feel good about yourself. I try very hard in class not to say, ‘think about the bikini you want to wear in May’. I try very hard not to talk about that. I want people to know that if you focus on the external, that type of ‘in-shape’ will never last. You have to make a deeper change and it comes from the inside out.”

Rachael, whose background in group fitness and dance encouraged her to become an instructor, makes sure that her students feel supported and inspired.

“I want to motivate them to be their best and work towards whatever goal they have. I believe it’s okay for women to want to come to class in order to change their appearance if that is what is important to them…and I stress THEM, not society.”

Having this kind of support and motivational space that Darbi, Kristi, Rachael and Sabrina embody makes a big difference in our body-shaming society. It’s no wonder that people go to extremes to try to fit into the dangerously unhealthy standards imposed upon them, and the misleading and often unhealthy diet industry has thrived as a result- especially when it comes to gendering products towards women.

“There’s a lot of snake oil in the weight loss world,” Darbi explains. “It never felt like a gender thing for me until I got older. It wasn’t until I was dating that it felt like a male-female thing for me.”

The industry’s deceptiveness is a concern for Rachael, who calls the tactics “evil” and laments that “even the creators of this crap know that it’s just bullshit and it’s not something you can maintain. It’s sad they’re just trying to sucker people into buying the next book.”

The divisiveness that’s created when we impose unrealistic ideals on our society based on distorted notions of beauty and body image has far-reaching implications. Building a society that consistently questions whether they look good enough and in turn, are good enough, serves no utility for the greater good or for individual people. Pushing back against body-shaming and unhealthy representations of men and women is necessary and I’m glad to be part of a community that values self-love over appearance and archaic gender constructions.

While fitness may always be as an unhealthy trigger for some, Kristi wants people to change their perceptions on the function it serves.

“This is not a place to get skinny. This is a place to get fit and healthy.”

Kristi Molinaro is the founder and creator of 30/60/90 and has been inspiring NYC fitness junkies and weekend warriors alike in her classes and personal training sessions for over ten years ~ something far from what she set out to do when she left Connecticut at age 19 to pursue a career in show business. Anyone who has experienced one of her classes or private sessions can attest she was born to be a leader in the fitness world.

You can read Kristi’s full bio here and follow her on Twitter and Facebook to learn more about 30/60/90. 

Sabrina Nieves is a Bronx born, native New Yorker who embodies all that a city gal is. Her fitness teaching style is the grace of a Dancer, with the gritty strength of a Boxer! Growing up a ballerina, she was always looking for something else to release her tough side. That’s when she found and fell in love with Boxing and kickboxing! With 20 years of classical dancer training, the discipline and structure gives her a phenomenal knowledge, and aware ness of the body and proper form. She is ACE Group Fitness certified, is trained and certified in Cardio kickboxing, 30/60/90 (HIIT) Piloxing (Pilates/Boxing infusion), Schwinn Cycling certified and adores running a tougher than nails Boot Camp!

You can follow Sabrina on Twitter and Instagram (@SabrinaSang)

Darbi Worley is a New York-based voiceover artist, actress, TV personality and fitness guru. You can read her full bio here and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.



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