As a kinesiology major, I get asked a lot of questions from friends about the “best way to get ripped,” or “the easiest way to get a six-pack before spring break,” or a thousand other questions that seem to be guided by the overall principle of, “What can I do to make myself look muscular?”
Unfortunately, I have never been asked, “How do I make myself healthier?” That speaks volumes about our misplaced values as a society.
I believe we have made some very positive strides in the last year or two regarding issues relating to women’s body image and its relation to self-worth. While there is still much progress to be made, movements such as Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign are gradually chipping away at the archaic view that one particular body size or type is superior and anything that varies from that is subpar.
However, in my experience, that ancient view of the “one, ideal body” is still held as gospel for men.
To provide a reference point for my view, I’m 5 feet and 9 inches, and weigh approximately 150 pounds. I am built like a runner, through and through. As a kid, I was always one of the thinnest – if not the thinnest – of my friends. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, after three years of lifting weights for track and cross country, that you couldn’t see all of my ribs.
I’ve received comments my whole life about my weight, both positive and negative. They have ranged from people complimenting me on looking “trim” to being made fun of for being bony. The insults are what struck me more at the time, as anyone who has been harassed for their size can relate to.
Looking back, I realize now that the compliments I received show just as much about our views on health and body image. Just like my friends never ask me for advice on how they can be healthier, no one ever seemed to comment or care about how my habits – whether eating or exercising – were affecting my health. All this did was further emphasize the value that I, as an adolescent, placed on my appearance over my actual health. If no one else cared about my health because I was thin, why should I?
We are taught, from a very young age, to view only certain body types as “healthy” or “unhealthy.” We are taught that if you are muscular and thin, you must be healthy; if you are bigger than that, you are not. We learn that you are only healthy when your physical appearance reflects it in the ways that our society deems attractive for men.
However, a person’s appearance is not directly correlated to their health. A very muscular person that achieved his physique through the use of unhealthy, poorly-researched supplements instead of a balanced diet wouldn’t be considered healthy by any professional, despite his outward appearance. The same professional would never consider him healthier than an “average Joe” that (though his body doesn’t look necessarily special and might even be slightly overweight) runs, lifts weights often and makes sure to carefully monitor what he eats.
On paper, this is an easy conclusion to draw. However, there is often a disconnect in society when it comes to what we say and what we actually believe about the relationship between body image and health. If you search the term “healthy man” on Google, you’ll find screen after screen of thin men. Search “unhealthy man” and it pulls up larger men.
While a quick Google images search is far from comprehensive research, it does show what our bias as a society tends to be when it comes to the relationship between body image and health.
If we are going to fix these issues that are holding many people back from achieving their healthiest and fullest lives, we need to change what we place value on and how we view beauty as a society. If we can shift our focus away from how exercise and dieting affect our appearance, and instead focus on how it makes us healthier, we will all reap the benefits. This shifts the importance from the outside and what others think of us, to the inside and how we feel about and see ourselves.
Ian Bower is a junior in kinesiology.