Saturday 11 July 2015

What's the point? Why fitness is about more than skinny jeans.

What are you fighting for?

I've been thinking recently about fitness, conditioning and our motivation for working at it.

I cross train, alongside my dance for a host of reasons, and I have noticed that almost almost all of the fitness classes or DVDs on the market have weightloss or aesthetics as a primary focus. That is to say, they are not marketed based on what your body can do, but what it looks like.

My favoured source of non-dance centred conditioning is Jillian Michaels, who does talk a lot about health, feeling strong, getting fit etc, but also spends a lot of time shouting about how we will feel when we get to go skinny jeans or bikini shopping. I know how I will feel incidentally, sweaty and awkward. Even though I no longer feel awkward (there's no escaping the sweaty) while completely owning her workouts.

Recently, when I was part way through writing this post [which has been sat as a draft for a week...] an aspiring professional dancer posted on a social media group for professional performers, asking about their fitness regimes. At the end of her question, she put a little caveat, that was along the lines of "please don't think I'm being shallow, this isn't about looks, it's about improving my dance".

While a commercial dancer will find her job opportunities limited by her looks, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with working to optimise that, if she chooses. The fact that she felt pressured to explain, to a group of dancers, that fitness was important to her in terms of her physical ability to dance, is very telling.

What does a bellydancer's body need?

I've been working on classes that I want to offer and how to market them. I really want to do a class that is purely conditioning and basic drills. Nothing fancy, just the solid foundations, the stuff that Zoe Jakes calls "dance vegetables".

I wanted to call it "body for bellydance", but then I realised that this would likely be interpreted as being slim with a flat, but not too muscular belly that would be considered widely socially acceptable in  a skimpy stereotypical 2 piece costume. I am not the postergirl for this concept.

I can live with this as I know that these criteria are not what is necessary in a bellydancer's body. Conditioning is important to reduce the gap between artistic vision and physical capability, not to make a dancer "the right shape". What a bellydancer needs is:

  • Control
  • Co-ordination
  • Strength
  • Speed
  • Balance
  • Flexibility

You can have these at a size 6 or a size 26, but no one gets it without training.

Measuring progress in conditioning should never be about chasing unicorns.

Training goals need to be achievable. If they are not, then we give up. If my motivation for conditioning was centred around my dress size I know that I would never stay motivated on a tough regime. In the last 6 months of intensive dancing and conditioning, my dress size has remained stable while the factors that really matter have come on in leaps and bounds.

They also need to be positive. Any goal that shames your current state is a poor goal. To care for your body you need to believe that it is worth caring for - too many weight loss orientated goals ignore this. At best it leads to apathy or self sabotage, why bother when you are worth so little? At it's worst it leads to unhealthy regimes, overexercising and dieting to the detriment of your health.

What does fitness look like?

I have a bit of a rant, fairly regularly, about the lack of diversity in images of fitness. It becomes very clear as a blog writer, searching for images to illustrate fitness writing. A "fit" woman, according to stock photography is:

  • Slim built
  • Lean
  • Conventionally attractive
  • White
  • Usually blonde
  • Made up
  • Wears a sports bra and hot pants.

Here she is:

 Very lovely she is too, but if this is the only acceptable look for a fit and healthy woman, then I, along with the vast majority of people, am not it. Why is this important? Well, if this is what we are aiming for, most of us won't get there. Not being stupid, most of us will realise this and give up feeling bad about ourselves, losing all the benefits of a good fitness regime.

A few months back I discovered this project, a startling quick reference that demonstrates that a fit body does not have to fit the fitness model stereotype. Athletes at the top of their game, men and women selected not for their look, but for their accomplishments, for the superior physical function of their bodies.

Take a careful look through all the images on the link. Even among top athletes, there is an enormous variety in body shape, size and composition. Even between individuals competing in the same field.

Most have low body fat and high muscle mass, but we see tall, short, broad shoulders, slight shoulders, slender legs and powerful bulky thighs. Fitness doesn't have a single look, so why are we pretending that becoming fit will make us look a certain way?

I'm really heartened to see increasing visibility for diversity in fitness.Yoga teachers coming forward and breaking stereotypes, dancers showing us that you don't need to fit the ballerina aesthetic to excel in as an artist. In the bellydance world, Bellydance at Any Size seeks more acceptance for diversity in our danceform, because everybody deserves to dance.

So why do I work out?

I love the effortless leg lifts and arabesques that come from hours of pilates. I love how squatting down to pick something off the floor isn't a big deal. I love throwing a 20kg feed bag over my shoulder and confusing the pet store owner. I love being able to dance a 10 minute drum solo without pausing. I really love the strong feeling when I move and I know my muscles are working, but it doesn't feel like a struggle. I love the endorphin rush and satisfaction when I have got through a tough workout. I love how the strength in my leg muscles means I get less joint pain. I am proud of how I can now actually do burpees - hate them still, but I can do them!

Our understanding of how build and body composition relate to health is improving all the time. We don't have all the answers, but what we do know is that being active keeps you healthy. So let's focus on keeping our bodies healthy, not a particular shape.

PS - have you bought your hafla and workshop tickets yet?

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