Healthy Perspectives: The Functionality of Physique: A New Look at Body Image

Posted by Brittany Dingler

One of the most prominent priorities across college campuses is combating the issue of negative body image. Regardless of gender or age, a toxic concoction of the intrinsically and extrinsically placed stressors brought on by work, classes, family concerns and general frustrations, induced by the realization that a gap exists between where we are and where we want to be, most often manifests itself through critical thoughts toward others and, sooner or later, ourselves. Although the possibility of an eating disorder should be delicately and seriously considered when diets are drastically modified for the purpose of changing one's body, here I hope to address more general tendencies that so many of us have whenever we get dressed, see ourselves in pictures from weekend festivities or - god forbid - pick up a magazine.

Many of us share a common set of ideas for how we define beauty. Although there are a limitless number of deviations from this common canon of pleasing traits, we are, essentially, biologically programmed to find certain core features attractive. That being said, the constant bombardment of sex-focused advertisements, TV shows and movies has seemingly overridden our brain's natural propensity to favor symmetrical faces, women with wider hips (suggesting greater reproductive fitness) and men with a strong jaw line (denoting higher levels of testosterone). Now we're told to admire an infinite assortment of features that, when consolidated, are not naturally found in one single person. The comedian Tina Fey comments on our propensity to envy these tailored traits in others while condemning our bodies for not having gotten the memo. Fey jokes that if we were to create a single individual with the 'most beautiful' version of every trait, we would obtain something that most closely resembles Kim Kardashian, who "was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes." Although funny, Tina Fey's insight is spot-on in pointing out the absurdities of our expectations. We need to confront our proclivity to condemn even the smallest, pore-sized imperfections on ourselves, an energy-sucking habit that takes time away from dealing with other, more productive tasks. 

Unfortunately, these criticisms tend to linger most when we evaluate our body by how it looks rather than by what it's able to do. We criticize our curves by abhorring the inappropriately placed adipose tissue concentrated too highly in our thighs (so sensitively named "saddle bags") or obliques ("muffin tops"). We are hopeful that we can simply wish it all to more desirable locations so our bodies may mimic an hourglass figure, spontaneously transforming into a svelte, toned physique. After shaming the quality of our muscle and fat, however, we move on to critique the quantity; we want to be toned, but not bulky, curved but not chunky. Even the language we use to describe our "wobbly bits," as the zaftig Bridget Jones affectionately refers to hers, confers acceptance or disapproval. We experience estrogen envy toward those with larger cup sizes, or resent the larger, testosterone-triggered triceps that our 135-pound frame just won't quite allow. Furthermore, we often use arbitrary terms to describe our body shapes as the fruits they most closely resemble and continue our condemning from there: apples want to be bananas, who want to be pears - and all fruits gang up to envy their mutual enemy: the hourglass (a shape that currently only describes eight percent of women in the US). 

It is important to note, however, that Americans did not always have this drive for the unobtainable perfection. In the late 19th century a Prussian immigrant named Eugen Sandow garnered considerable fame for his body. However, unlike Kim Kardashian and friends, he had a noble purpose for willfully advertising his defined, shaped, bodybuilding physique in the nude: to motivate inactive, American men to get up and shape up. In his "Looking Good: Male Body Image in Modern America," Lynne Luciano reflects on Sandow's ability to use his known success as a weight lifter, coupled with his impressive form, to "transform muscle and strength training into a miracle cure for the ills of a sedentary and stressed male population." Sound crazy? Perhaps. But one must acknowledge Sandow's bold brilliance, which can also be seen today in the First Lady's "Let's Move!" campaign, designed to get kids and teens up and moving. Her program aims to fight the obesity epidemic by making healthy food more accessible and tasty and by reigniting the fun of exercise for those who have grown up in an increasingly sedentary society made even more toxic by its technology-ridden tendencies. 

Fully clothed, unlike Sandow, Michelle Obama works hard to look strong and healthy, thereby affording her the credibility to emphasize the importance of eating for fuel and exercising for fun. She created an environment in which the conditions for healthy eating and exercising are more readily available for everyone, issued incentives for children and teens to meet certain exercise goals, and, by being fit and healthy herself, is a non-photoshopped role model who passively and straightforwardly embodies the attainability of health. Moreover, she gracefully juxtaposes the omnipresent, rib-jutting storefront mannequins with her famous biceps and full face. It is therefore no surprise that not only have the First Biceps inspired the "Michelle Obama Arm Workout," but also, as President Obama pointed out in last week's State of the Union address, the obesity rate has dramatically dropped since "Let's Move!" took off in 2010 - a much-needed decline antithetical to trends from the past three decades. Although recent statistics show that children and pre-teens have benefitted the most from Mrs. Obama's laudable campaign, we all have something to learn from her and her biceps. In wit, rather than attempting to over-control the "wobbly bits" by creating a relationship with food in which we choose what to eat by imagining what ghastly effects each option could have on our physique, the First Lady's model encourages us to evaluate the food based on what we need it to do for us in that moment and for various energy-demanding tasks throughout the day. In other words, when we begin to treat our bodies as temples for health and productivity, rather than merely for beauty, the latter comes as a natural side effect.    

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