Aesthetics vs. Athletics: Body Built By… Whatever I Want.

It’s #TransformationTuesday. I’ve participated in it before, so I have this photo.

One is me in 2006, when I was about 30 lbs heaver than I am now, before I had ever run a mile (and routinely ate a sleeve of Chips Ahoy for dinner out of stress). One is how I looked only a few weeks ago, at the Spartan Race. The final one is me this morning, a few weeks out from my 5th marathon. Beyond weight-loss, my return to running has meant not only becoming generally smaller/lighter, but losing muscle mass in my core and quite a bit in my upper body.

I’m listing these for one reason, and not why I normally do. Often, photo sets like these are a celebration of how far someone has come, how much better off they are. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t true of me — I am much happier now that I work out, that I eat in moderation, that I am generally a healthier person. I am willing to celebrate that about myself and definitely for anyone else.

However, during the transition between that second and third photo, I’ve noticed a more frustrating trend: the fitness and strength of one’s body does not liberate a woman from the constraints of society’s view of what she should be. I want to push that the girl in all three of these photos is beautiful in her own way.

Yes, that means the love-your-curves aspect of the body-positivity movement. That also means a big “screw you” to people who look at women who lift (like I was doing more of only a month ago) and tell us to “not become to muscular.” I absolutely agree with all that. When I was lifting, it was heard from other women, men, from joggers or yoga-enthusiasts, that lifting would make me “too bulky.” They encouraged me to pursue more “feminine” workouts, like running or yoga. Didn’t I want to just be toned, they asked, and not too muscular? For many reasons, this makes me want to scream. There are other articles (here and here, for example) that can talk about why.

That wasn’t the only problem, though. When I moved from lifting to refocus on running (I have a marathon in a few weeks), it wasn’t like the fitness community looks at the with unanimous admiration. “Cardio sucks.” I’ve read on the same blogs I had looked at when I started cross-training. Or “runners are too skinny.” “Runners don’t have curves.” I read that and thought Crazy idea: maybe I’m not running to look a certain way, but because I really love it.

When I started working with a trainer about a month ago, he asked me: “Are we looking for athletics or aesthetics?” Neither was bad, he just wanted to know my goal.

The question itself has rolled around in my mind for a while, bothering me (not that someone asked — my trainer was just doing his job to help me get what I want). The more women work out for aesthetics versus athletics, the longer our bodies, our sexuality, the very physical make up of our being are controlled by someone else. The notion that women’s bodies are liberated when they get fit continues to be a fallacy.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have pride in what you love to do or the way you train. If the power you feel when you do a clean-grip squat at body weight is your high, then that’s great! Or, if you think that the only thing you want to do is yoga or running for the rest of your life, then power to you! Being healthy in any way is good! I love cross-training, doing HIIT workouts, and feeling like a beast. I feel accomplished that I’ve done crazy things like doing 3 Spartan races in a weekend. I don’t want to give that up. Still, it doesn’t compare to the complete calm and content feeling I get from running. It’s not better — it’s apples and oranges.

Do I really have to choose? Can’t I lift when I’m in a place of lifting, then switch to a running regimen when it suits my life? Also, if I decided tomorrow that I didn’t want to do any intense fitness (I don’t see marathon running as “casual”), but just stay generally healthy, shouldn’t that girl feel beautiful too?

My concern is that those two sides of the female fitness community, the “strong” and the “spiritual,” perhaps even the “masculine” and the “feminine” are still pitted against each other, put at war by women ourselves (with a heavy-handed aid from men and the mainstream media). Neither is bad. The balance of both is good, even if it’s just a taciturn, short-nod acceptance of the other. While there are facts and arguments to be made about the strength of either, here is a fact that I think most people who are into fitness will be able to agree on:

1) People will stick to a fitness regimen if they really enjoy doing it.

If that is true (and I really believe it is), does it matter if you got to better health via running, lifting, yoga, or Zumba? If you find some athletic pursuit that, whatever level you get into it, makes you a happier, more satisfied person, is that not the overall biggest benefit?

MANY methods have the ability to produce bodies that are not only strong in some way, but, more importantly, are stronger than the day before. The more we focus on this false sense of aesthetic superiority instead of athletic sustainability, the longer we keep ourselves from a society that actually accepts women, and maybe people overall, for more than a size or a body fat percentage.