Last week, Laura and I watched the documentary “Miss Representation,” a film about the media’s power in shaping our (narrow, shallow) assumptions about women’s roles in society. In addition to making me really pissed off and disgusted the whole time I was watching it, the film also made me think hard about the role that I play in shaping opinions about what’s expected of both women and men. Specifically, I thought about how the fitness industry thrives on the belief that people should want to have amazing bodies capable of performing amazing feats of physical strength, endurance, speed, etc. But increasingly, I find that holding those ideals up as a model actually makes people less healthy.
Having a standard of near-perfection creates so many barriers to good health. Emotional and psychological costs like depression, substance abuse and thoughts of suicide have long been common side effects of our obsession with having the perfect body, but there’s a burgeoning list of serious physical threats emerging now as well. As an aging population becomes ever more obsessed with emulating the young, perfect figments the media puts in front of them, they are increasingly turning to fad diets, radical workouts, questionable pharmaceuticals and surgeries – all of which put their health at great risk.
It is difficult for me to reconcile these threats with those facing a nation where two-thirds of all adults are overweight or obese. For a long time, I thought that being thin was a mark of health, but now I wonder whether, in some cases at least, it is perhaps only just a lesser evil. The real question becomes: How thin/fit/muscular and at what cost?
How healthy can a 1,200-calorie diet be, and what if invasive surgery or morbid obesity are the only alternatives?
How many Baby Boomers will send themselves to the orthopedist this year because of an injury they sustained while exercising?
Is it healthier to lose an hour of sleep every day if that hour is spent at the gym?
The truth is that the answers to these and many other questions are uniquely different for each person. We’ve gotten into trouble because we allow the media and the companies that use it to sell their goods to tell us that there is a one-size-fits-all answer.