What Celebrity Body Shaming Can Teach You About Fitness

Smiling female runner stretching with friends
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During Super Bowl LI's Halftime Show, it took all of about two minutes for people to take to Twitter to body shame Lady Gaga for her supposed "belly rolls." They spewed their hate, which was then met with backlash from fans, and in the ensuing aftermath, the conversation changed from, "What an amazing, athletic performance!" to "Lady Gaga got shamed for her belly!"

On the one hand, it was refreshing to see so many people denouncing the shamers and applauding Gaga's (clearly fit) body, but on the other hand, it was infuriating to realize that peoples' physical appearances are still deemed "more important" and worthy of conversation than their competencies and talents. And finally, it was distressing to witness such a clear disconnect between peoples' perceptions of idealized physical perfection, and what it actually looks like to be physically fit.

The truth is, being physically fit does not mean looking like a supermodel, and as clinical psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas points out, the "supermodel body" is often attained through decidedly unhealthy actions, including binging, purging, extreme restriction of calories, using laxatives, or exercising excessively. In other words, the pursuit of the "perfect body" is often entirely different than the pursuit of a healthy body.

And yet, a healthy body is what's most important, and what that looks like, is different for everyone.

The Culture of Body Shaming

Of course, Lady Gaga isn't the first celebrity to be body shamed, and she (unfortunately) won't be the last. Culturally, body shaming celebrities is practically a sport. Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a New York City-based licensed clinical psychologist and faculty member at Columbia University Teacher's College uses Lady Gaga to illustrate this point, "Celebrities are held to an incredibly high standard. People complain when celebrities have plastic surgery, and then they complain when celebrities look more natural. If Lady Gaga came out on stage looking thin, people would be criticizing her for being too thin, even speculating an eating disorder. It's a no-win situation. It's either perfection or harsh criticism."

And certainly, celebrities aren't the only ones to experience the unjust and, frankly, inappropriate act of being body shamed. People do it to celebrities. They do it to each other. And worst of all, they do it to themselves. It's practically ingrained in the collective cultural psyche, which Dr. Kelly Morrow-Baez, a licensed professional counselor with a Ph.D. in psychology points out is hard to undo, "The way someone looks is a large part of first impressions. Especially in our fast-paced digital world, our tendency to make powerful decisions in mere moments has only been intensified."

Jennifer Lentzke, a registered dietitian and the Director of Nutritional Services at Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders concurs, "We are 'trained' by targeted marketing campaigns on the Internet, television and in print media to identify and categorize body types, shapes, sizes, and so forth as 'ideal' versus 'unacceptable.' With the onslaught of social media platforms that promote stylized photos and manipulating physical features, we are dealing with a society that places too much emphasis on appearance and surface-level appeal."

But just because snap judgments about body shape and size have become ever-more the cultural norm, that doesn't mean we have to accept the norm, especially when it can have serious repercussions that interfere with a true understanding of what being healthy truly is. "We see it permeate the eating habits of millions of young men and women as they try to figure out who they are and how they fit within the society that both raises them and teaches them how to evaluate their self-worth based on physical features and attractiveness," says Lentzke, adding that, "It's an epidemic, and it's pushing people to take drastic measures to try and live up to unrealistic standards."

So if any good can come from body shaming, especially on a Super Bowl-sized stage, perhaps it lies here: It gives you an opportunity to educate yourself on the difference between supposed "physical perfection," and the true meaning of being fit and healthy.

The True Definition of Healthy and Fit

In a nutshell, the definition of "health" is the state of being free from illness or injury. Of course, this definition can be expanded to include the absence of disease markers, such as high cholesterol, blood pressure, or blood sugar, so the case-by-case definition is really between you and your doctor. If you get the thumbs up from your doc, then congratulations! You can assume you're healthy, regardless of your body shape or size.

Fitness is a little more complicated. There are essentially two "layers" of fitness: health-related fitness and skill-related fitness. While everyone should shoot to attain the health-related components of fitness, skill-related fitness is typically attached to specific goals or lifestyle requirements. For instance, the goals and lifestyle of a professional athlete will be different from the desk jockey who wants to spend his weekends hiking with his family. Neither is right or wrong, good or bad, just different. And the physical outcomes of each form of training are also likely to look different.

The trick, of course, is understanding that it's okay to look different. Everyone looks different anyway based on simple genetics, so the comparison game that ensues, making people react to others' bodies with ranging statements from, "Look at that belly—gross!" to "I wish I had her belly!" is altogether unnecessary and inappropriate.

"People are often ignorant about what actually constitutes health. There are many 'skinny fat' people—those who look thin, but are metabolically unhealthy—and many larger people who are actually quite healthy," says health psychologist Dr. Gretchen Kubacky, "Comparisons in general are unhealthy. Fitness should be measured against a personal standard of performance, growth, and effort."

So if you want to get off the comparison train and start developing your own definition of what it means to be healthy and fit, consider the following.

Health-Related Components of Fitness

These five components of fitness are the elements everyone should shoot to attain and improve. They help protect against the development of chronic illness and disease, including heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and the like, while supporting an overall active lifestyle.

  • Cardiovascular Endurance: This is the ability of your heart and lungs to deliver oxygen and energy to your working muscles during an activity. You can enhance cardiovascular endurance with activities such as walking, swimming, biking, and interval training.
  • Muscular Endurance: Muscular endurance refers to your working muscles' ability to repeatedly perform a specific task without getting tired. For instance, how well your legs can handle pedaling a bike up a hill. Enhanced muscular endurance is often associated with specific skills or activities. For instance, the more you bike ride, the stronger your legs will become, the more you row, the stronger your upper body will become, able to continuously perform a repetitive task.
  • Muscular Strength: Muscular strength refers to any given muscle's capacity for exerting maximal contractile force a single time. In relation to strength training, it's often referred to as a "one rep max" for a given exercise.
  • Flexibility: Flexibility is the unhindered freedom of your joints to move through a full range of motion. Flexibility is, therefore, joint-specific. It's possible for someone to have excellent flexibility through the shoulders, but limited flexibility through the hips. The goal, of course, is to have sufficient flexibility to move freely without pain at all of your joints.
  • Body Composition: Body composition is the relation of fat mass to fat-free mass (bone, water content, muscle, and so forth) within your body. It's important to note that body composition is not the same as weight or BMI. It's possible to have a healthy body composition, but to be considered overweight. Likewise, it's possible to have a "normal" BMI, but have an unhealthy body composition.

The ultimate goal here is to enhance fat-free mass by building muscle, and to reduce excess body fat through the combination of a healthy diet and regular exercise program. But reducing body fat does not mean eliminating it completely—body fat is actually a protective and necessary tissue when maintained at healthy levels.

Skill-Related Components of Fitness

Skill-related fitness is different than health-related fitness in that how you choose to develop these skills is 100-percent up to you, and will be different from one person to the next depending on personal goals. For instance, a sprinter will want to develop power and speed. A baseball player will need to enhance reaction time. A gymnast will work hard on balance, coordination, agility, and power. And the average human may simply want to work on all of them to become a more efficient "human athlete."

  • Power: A manifestation of the combination of speed and strength - the ability of your body parts to move quickly with maximum force.
  • Speed: How quickly you're able to move your body, in whole or in part.
  • Agility: The ability to change direction quickly while maintaining control of your body.
  • Balance: How well you're able to control your body and maintain stability while standing still or moving.
  • Coordination: Your ability to use and control your body and senses while moving; hand-eye or foot-eye coordination fall into this category.
  • Reaction Time: How quickly you're able to respond to external stimuli.

The level to which a person works on skill-related components of fitness in conjunction with health-related components of fitness can certainly affect his or her physical appearance, but if the ultimate goal is health, these physical manifestations of fitness shouldn't be used as a method of comparison or idealism.

Implementing the RISE Method of Training for Health and Fitness

It's one thing to understand the elements that contribute to fitness, but another thing to know how to implement a training program that can help you reach your goals. Dr. Paul Arciero, an exercise science faculty member and researcher from Skidmore College, developed the "RISE" acronym based on his research to help define what a quality workout program should include. If you're checking all the boxes, and combining your training with a high-quality, well-balanced nutrition plan, you're bound to experience positive results.

  • Resistance: Resistance training, which can be in the form of heavy lifting, boot camps, circuit training, or body weight training.
  • Intervals: Interval training, which alternates bouts of lower intensity and higher intensity exercise and maximizes cardiovascular endurance, and depending on the method, power, speed, and strength.
  • Stretching: Maintains range of motion and flexibility, and can be performed through a more traditional stretching routine, or a form of exercise like yoga, Pilates, or barre.
  • Endurance: Sustained, steady-state exercise, often in the form of traditional cardio activities, such as walking, swimming, cycling, or rowing.

Fitness Comes in Different Shapes and Sizes

At the end of the day, no two people (even identical twins), look exactly alike. The sum total of genetics, personal choices, experiences, and goals, all affect physical appearance. And given that the definition of "fit" varies widely based on lifestyle and programming, no one has the right to judge or compare themselves to another person's body.

As psychotherapist and author Iman Khan so astutely points out, "Healthy doesn't necessarily mean having a six pack; genetics and body structure contribute a great deal to that. Lady Gaga proudly displayed that a healthy, fit body may not look like Pink's healthy fit body, or your yoga instructor's healthy, fit body. Comparisons are irrelevant."

Overcoming the Culture of Body Shaming

The challenge, of course, is that if physical judgment is ingrained in the American culture, how do you remove yourself from cycle? Truthfully, it's not easy. You have to be able to recognize your negative or judgemental thoughts—of yourself or others—then redirect or re-frame the negativity into something constructive.

Dr. A.J. Marsden, an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, says, "The only way to change that aspect of our culture is to speak out against body shaming - especially in cases where the individual is clearly healthy and fit. It's also important not to place a lot of weight in the judgment of others. People can't make you feel anything."

This is an important thing to recognize. If you, personally, feel body shamed, you can elect to redirect your negative feelings and essentially "reject" those feelings of shame. Marsden goes on, "Once you realize that, it will help you be able to rephrase any type of negativity in a more positive light. If you catch yourself thinking negative thoughts or saying harsh comments about someone else, stop. Remember compassion towards others lessons harsh judgment."

It's also important to take steps to prevent the cycle from continuing. Dr. Helen Odessky, a psychologist and the author of Stop Anxiety from Stopping You, points out that children are sponges who start developing their body image at a very young age. "A child that's exposed to fat shaming is more likely to develop an eating disorder, depression, and anxiety. If we accept body shaming and don't call it out as inappropriate when it occurs, then we're letting it be the norm."

Rather than focusing on appearance first, Odessky suggests you focus on action and ability. "We can teach our children the value of our bodies and their amazing ability to deliver an athletic performance, dance, jump, and sing, and to focus on the issue of health, not looks."

And you can use this same approach to change your own tendencies to focus on appearance first. If you find yourself "wishing" for someone else's body, stop. Remind yourself of your own unique talents and abilities, and the work you're putting in toward your own fitness goals. Focus on what your body can do.  It's all well-and-good to want to be your fittest, healthiest self, but as the saying goes, comparison is the thief of joy. Wishing for a body that isn't your own is a futile distraction from who you are and what you, personally, are capable of.

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