Body Criticism: It’s Turtles All The Way Down

Yesterday on Facebook, Krista Scott Dixon posted this:

Stump

She’s right: if you are otherwise free of pathology, there is nothing wrong with your body. This is a fitness industry-wide trap, to make you feel bad about your body as a means of motivation. Unfortunately it’s as big a trap as the one the Rebels encountered and far less entertaining.

It's a trap

The sort of self-talk that comes with this self-criticism is reactive in nature. Let me give you an example: if you decide, for some reason, that your deltoids are too small and “need” fixing before your physique is “perfect,” your goal is inherently about how imperfect you are and thus are in need of fixing. After you “fix” your deltoid size, you’ll find something else that is “wrong” and “needs fixing.” And you can do this forever, endlessly finding more and more that is wrong with you in the face of the recent “fix” you achieved, hence turtles all the way down. You may end up with a more beautiful body, but your journey there was on a wagon of self-loathing. In men, this is the root of the Adonis complex; in women, anorexia nervosa among others.

Your body is exactly the way it is; nothing to be fixed. One way to realize it is to actually do things with it that you’ve not done before. This is a proactive framework, where you add to the foundation that is you, not chip away at it. You lift more, learn to handstand, juggle, or some other skill. You take up a sport, take up yoga, take up tai chi, explore everything that you body can do. You come to realize that you’re a pretty rad machine; look at all you can do! If you were “broken” you’d never actually be able to do these sorts of things. Your body may change as a result, but that’s a side effect of learning all of the cool stuff you can do.

In Health Education, there’s a lot of discussion about intrapersonal theories. How do you teach a person a set of skills that allows them to rationalize better health decisions over their lifetime? Now omitting that there are a host of others factors that are likely more important (e.g. interpersonal factors, community factors, cultural factors for instance), these theories identify where people are in how they think and some of them point to how they think and aim to modify these behaviors. One in particular that is relevant to this discussion is the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB). The theory states that a person’s attitude toward behavior, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control, together shape an individual’s behavioral intentions and behaviors. Especially in fitness, it often goes like this: behavior (“working out = punishment for cake”), subjective norms (“everyone is so much fitter/prettier/skinnier/harder working than me”), perceived behavioral control (“But I can fix me! I can control everything and look like that!”), together shape a person’s behavioral intentions (“I’ll find every flaw, and until I do, post myspace angle photos hiding that which I perceive as such”). I’m sure I don’t have to elaborate, but a negative affect from the start will only lead to misery.

Here’s a suggestion: find something you want to do with your body (not to your body), really work at getting better at it, and stand back and be amazed at how far you were able to get when you didn’t worry about what was wrong with your body, but how many great things your body can do. It’s astonishing.

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