The skinny on being skinny
“Skinny girls look good in clothes. Fit girls look good naked.” So reads an image floating around Pinterest, an online pinboard that allows users to “pin up” images they find interesting, amusing, or inspirational, or which otherwise tickle their fancy. The image follows in the recently burgeoning spirit of “fitspiration” – the mobilization of inspirational images and messages in order to encourage fitness.
Virginia Sole-Smith, a writer out of New York, took up the issue. She wrote on her blog, “Sometimes we forget that developing a healthy relationship with physical activity can be just as challenging as ditching your food guilt — and that exercise can play as big a role in eating disorders as well, eating.”
She also took issue with the implication of the image, noting, “Any motivational statement that has to diss another type of body in order to make you feel good about your body? Not. Helping. Anyone.”
Agreed. Fitspiration, and its cousin, thinspiration – the mobilization of inspirational images and messages to encourage thinness – are deeply problematic trends. For while encouraging certain body states in order to “improve” one’s health and body image, the images and discourses mobilized do a lot of damage to people, both physically and mentally.
I like health. I go to the gym on a fairly regular basis. I run. I climb. I drink very little and I steam my vegetables. I’m also a pretty busy guy, and these things take time. But I do them for two reasons: first, my lifestyle is an ethical choice I’ve made for myself, with the aim to maximizing the functionality of my body towards the aim of completing several goals (living longer, completing certain physical activities, avoiding illness, etc.). Second, I enjoy these things for their own sake, and I moderate them with other choices (occasionally binging on wine gums and drinking a can of pop while playing video games on my couch). This is how I’ve chosen to live and it’s a way of living that I enjoy. That I enjoy.
Fitspiration and thinspiration denigrate other ways of living, forcing on others, without argument, a way of living as an ethical necessity – to be fit is to be better than others, and you’d better aim to be so. To be more fit than another is to be better than that person, forget the nuances of deeply variable life circumstances and the undulating rhythms and flows of each person’s lifetime. If you’re unfit, what are you waiting for? If you’re thin, well, then get fit – for not even thinness is good enough.
This movement from a contingent and somewhat arbitrary and highly generalized body-status (e.g. fit, thin) to an ethical state (e.g. good, bad) occurs without argument. Perhaps the implicit argument is that “living longer is better,” or “being thin or fit leads to better body image or overall state of body and mind.” Maybe. But cases vary widely from individual to individual, and not all individuals choose to maximize these goals and states over others, and they may have good reasons not to. A single standard of health and fitness – most of the images and messages employed revolve around a more-or-less stable series of images of thin/fit – doesn’t fit everyone. And the subtle coercion of individuals into pursuing these standards contributes to physical and psychological suffering and trauma. The standard works for some, but for others it is devastating, contributing to the proliferation of eating disorders and other psychological and physical challenges and illness, thus undercutting the putative point of the movements.
What might an alternative order of inspiration look like? In general, I’m okay with the idea of inspiring people to become fit. I look outward for inspiration on a regular basis, looking to athletic, academic, and artistic heroes of mine as beacons of excellence and overcoming. But that’s me. We need to open up space for a variety of approaches to inspiration, ranging from posters of fit athletes to, well, nothing at all.
French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about “practices of freedom.” He argued that as subjects we were necessarily going to be shaped by relations of power, including the way we speak about things, the images we present, and the ethical narratives that we derive from these discourses. But, he added, we can encourage practices of freedom through which we can resist normalization and through which we can alter power relations – that is, through which we can resist being exclusively shaped by others. In this same spirit, American political theorist William E. Connolly argues that deep pluralism – a state of openness towards and engagement with diverse ways of living, within certain boundaries – requires that space be created so that, at any given time, a number of ethical paradigms can be supported by a state and its people.
How might these two programs be applied to the phenomenon of body images and dialogues surrounding them? First, the number of body types that count as ethical should be pluralized, perhaps infinitely, provided that this pluralization is based on body images that are chosen freely, more or less. Rather than put forward a narrow range of body images as “good” for all, we should evaluate images relationally. Each individual has a story, a context, and, presumably, goals. The body type of that individual will be unique to them in relation to those factors, and should be respected as an ethical choice. If that individual has their own reasons to want to change their bodies, reasons that are, ideally, not driven by pathological commitments to imposed social norms, then we can engage them to assist in their transformation. Society has a role to play here for one simple reason: we all work to create one another; no one becomes themselves alone, and no one changes themselves alone.
Accordingly, the body types projected by advertisements, films, television programs, magazines, images circulated through social media, and other transmitters of cultural messages should be pluralized without stereotyping these projections. That isn’t to say that Olympic runners should be occasionally depicted as being “overweight,” (since a particular kind of body is required to perform at an elite level of running), but rather that, as much as possible, social roles (e.g. mother, actor, model, etc.) and states (e.g. happy, satisfied, healthy) should be opened up to include a wide variety of states consistent with individuals who fill those roles or who are able to fill those roles in their own way.
When it comes to society, we are all in this together. Through the words we speak, the images we transmit, the glances we give, the facial expressions we adopt, the posture we strike, the books we publish, the entertainment programs we green-light, the songs we sing, and the judgments we render, we create ourselves and one another. Accordingly, most of our decisions are social decisions in so far as they have implications for both the social structures that emerge from them and from the types of individuals they, and those structures, make likely, unlikely, possible, or impossible.
Given a scarcity of resources and the many ways of living and ethical paradigms that support these lifestyles, we may never live in a world in which we never run up against or hurt one another. But we can choose to hurt one another less rather than more. Through ongoing, deliberate practices based on a re-evaluation of current social structures and ways of living we can open up space for diverse ways of being in the world, including an increase in the number of body types that are placed on the ethical register – that is, accepted, understood, and reflected back as “good.” In so doing we may well decrease the deep pathologies that pervade today, including eating disorders, depression, social isolation, and even overt violence.
While this undertaking is massive, it starts at the micro-level, the level at which we live our day-to-day lives, the level at which we make the majority of our decisions and encounter the majority of those we encounter. And while the project may need to grow to permeate all sites of social life, it might just start by changing what we choose to pin up.