American fitness is one of my areas of specialization. I teach a class at the University of Maine at Augusta on the topic and I wrote a book about it, published almost a decade ago: Women and Fitness in American Culture. Not a lot of people have read my book, but not a lot of people want to read my book because it requires that we face the myths of American culture that promise that if we work hard enough then we can have whatever we want. The reality is that no matter how hard we work, there are some things that just won't be available to us because of biology, or social structures, or the limitations of time and space. The idealized, fetishized, whitewashed, airbrushed "perfect body" is one of those things.
So, if the "perfect body" does not actually exist—or at least if we can agree that it is out of our reach—we might think: why bother? Why am I doing all of these squats, counting all of these calories, tracking my every step, denying myself sleep and quality time with my family, and more, only to keep reaching toward an impossible goal? But it is not so much the things that were are doing, as it is the way we are approaching the things that we are doing. For starters, the more we beat ourselves up—mentally and physically, metaphorically and realistically—the less likely it is that we are going to meet even the most modest of goals, The mindset we have when we approach physical activity shapes the results, or lack of results, that we get. The language we use to talk about fitness, health, and wellness is part of the problem.
Here are some words and phrases that you will not hear at The Spiral Goddess Collective, a Center for Mind/Body Movement: shred, swole, grind, results, plateau, workout, goals, cheat day, gym, in shape/out of shape, burn it off, no pain no gain, high impact, routine, regimen, work off that ____ that you ate last night, go harder, move faster, calories in calories out. These words and phrases fit a philosophy that punishes the mind and body and sets a standard that is nearly impossible to achieve. We chase the dreams of perfection offered by products and services that will never be able to deliver what the glossy images and catchy names and taglines promise.
At The SGC there is no scale to weigh yourself and the only mirror you will find is above the sink in the bathroom and it is surrounded by positive affirmations. When we "weigh" our fitness by different measurements, when we see ourselves without the negative self-image lurking in the background, we can start to transform ourselves and our lives. We change the way we show up for ourselves and the ways in which we carry ourselves. We change the way we relate to people and the ways in which we show up for the people we love.
Every body is different and there are no simple answers, no simple solutions, no magic pills, no miracle workouts. American fitness is a sham and we have bought into it individually and collectively exactly because sometimes it works.
But if you have been riding that roller coaster of weight loss and weight gain, if you have been stuck in that perpetual loop of not enough or too much, if you have tried all the diets and specialized equipment and you still aren't happy with what you look like—then something has to change. That something is not you—that something is the larger culture that shapes these trends, but changing the way you think about yourself and the way that you approach fitness is an important start.
Here are some words and phrases that speak to our offerings at the SGC, a Center for Mind/Body Movement: mind/body and mind/body/spirit (those were obvious, weren't they?!), practice, authenticity, neuroplasticity, process, trauma-informed, balance, nervous system, functional movement, holistic, whole body, do what feels good, in the moment, listening to our bodies, health at every size, feminism, pleasure, joy, embodiment, rest, relaxation, mindfulness, contemplation, feel it to heal it, meditation, mental health, tap into your inner guide, feel, breathe, opening space in our minds and bodies.
What happens when we change the language that we use to describe our fitness routines? When we don't think about moving our body as "working out"? What happens when we change the ways we approach moving our bodies?
Now, I hate to make it more complicated, but that's what I do. Many of these words have also been morphed into the world of manufactured fitness and have been sold back to us as part and parcel of the world of American Fitness. (Stay tuned for my newest book, American Yoga Demystified!) Yoga is big business and as people start to realize and recognize the benefits found in mind/body approaches to health, wellness, and fitness, ancient practices (and modern innovations on these practices) are becoming even more commodified.
The market is being saturated with inexpensive online yoga teacher training programs (especially since covid proved that we could do anything online if we wanted it badly enough), branded yoga approaches, stylish (and expensive) outfits, specialized gear, luxury spa vacations, and more "self-care" practices that bypass conversations about responsibility, integrity, and social (in)equality. In fact the good old "perfect body" myth has been rebranded as the "yoga body," and sometimes more specifically, the "yoga booty." This is the new whitewashed, fetishized, airbrushed ideal and it is just as toxic as the old one.
So, now that we're feeling pretty discouraged, let me share some hope. We can—literally and figuratively—change our minds whenever we want to. And when we change our minds, we also change our bodies. And when we change our bodies and minds, we shift our relationship to ourselves. We learn to move authentically and to approach movement as practices rather than routines and regimens. We learn to love ourselves and to be compassionate to ourselves and this transforms the way we are in the world and the ways in which we interact with others and react to stressful situations. We learn to respond rather than react. We learn to let go of unrealistic expectations, to be in our bodies as they are, and to respect other people's bodies as they are.
Maybe this all sounds too good to be true. How can changing the way we think about ourselves and the way we think about how we move our bodies transform us? The only answer is another question: how do we know if we don't even try?