The other day I had a realization about how athletes motivate themselves. It happened because BJ made a movie montage of motivational clips for our morning spin class. As the montage went along, I found I couldn’t really relate to it, because it was all about men and their experiences in sport. Men getting huge lifting, hitting things, bonding with other men, getting yelled at by other men. This is nothing against BJ, he is not a sexist by any means, he just made a video that motivates him based on his experiences as a man.
I was already planning to write this blog about how women motivate themselves before this incident, but it made me feel even more passionate about it. It seems there is a wealth of resources for men to motivate themselves (granted not all of these are healthy for their psyches), but women don’t. Mostly women have pictures of skinny, fit women to motivate them. They cut out, “pin”, and look at other fit women’s bodies, as a goal for their fitness. I’m not saying women can’t or shouldn’t do this, but I think its important to understand the possible implications this can have on women’s body image and self-esteem.
I am currently getting my Master’s degree in Health Promotion and Education with an emphasis in eating disorders and obesity prevention. Through my studies I have learned so much about the huge risk women have at developing negative body image and eating disorders. For example, there have been studies showing that young women’s levels of self-esteem and body satisfaction decrease when they start exercising. That seems counter-intuitive. However, many people see exercise as a way to lose weight, control or morph their bodies, rather than doing it for the intrinsic values. This can lead to a decrease in their body and self esteem, as well as an increase in disordered eating (calorie counting and restriction, bingeing, avoiding certain foods, avoiding eating when hungry, feeling guilt after eating, etc). Disordered eating affects a large majority of females but especially female athletes, ranging from 30-67% depending on the study. There are a lot of reasons for this, Western culture’s “thin ideal”, media images, gym culture, and the one I find most interesting, self-objectification. This theory posits that women’s bodies are constantly viewed, evaluated, and potentially seen as objects. As women experience this they can begin to think of their own bodies as objects, making them hyper-aware of appearance, more likely to feel body shame, and not recognize how their body feels. Interestingly enough they are less likely to experience that awesome feeling you get when you are working out, where the world fades away and rhythm takes over called “flow.”
Basically what I’m saying is that looking at other those “motivational” pictures of fit women flexing, can be doing more than motivate you. They encourage looking at other women’s bodies as objects, rather than what they are, bodies, belonging to people, with personalities, and goals. Women are more than just bodies to be looked at, not to say that bodies (of all shapes and sizes) can’t be strong, powerful and beautiful. Yet, looking at these ideal images generally make us compare ourselves, leaving us feeling de-valued.
As an athlete I have struggled with body image, even with steady compliments on my physique, which probably just made me focus on “looking like an athlete” even more. After reading the literature I recognize the sources of this negativity in my life and I finally feel like my body isn’t something to shape and pinch at for fat, or something to be looked at. It feels like my body, that I do awesome things in and I don’t care what people think of it cause I don’t get fit to look a certain way.