The Problem with “Fit”: On Words, Body Image, and Finding a Balance
Recall, if you can, 1991. That year, Linda Hamilton starred in Terminator 2 and got shredded for the part. I mean, rippling, sweaty biceps. Suddenly all anyone could talk about—on talk shows, among friends—were “Linda Hamilton arms.” Madonna went through a similar change around that time and got super ripped. This was a sea change from the 1970s, when it wasn’t popular for women to have any muscle tone. Everyone was just thin; call it the roller-skating and cocaine diet. But when the ‘90s hit, it was desirable for a woman to display power and strength. Fast-forward ten years, and the “ideal body”—with Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez—changed all over again.
Society’s shifting approaches to what a woman’s body is “supposed” to look like, and the words we use to describe these visions, fascinates me. The rise and fall of in-vogue words reflect our ever-changing notions of beauty and desirability, and speak to social forces at work. Ultimately the words we use to describe a body are symptoms of the larger culture and its anxieties.
Take, for example, the word “fit,” the most recent accolade for a woman. “Fit” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “in good health, esp. because of regular physical exercise.” That’s a great word, and one I would stand behind—except that, used in current parlance, it’s meant to describe someone who is thin and regularly exercises. But according to the dictionary definition, you don’t have to be slim to be “fit.” After all, skinny isn’t always the end result of regular exercise, and plenty of thin people are unhealthy.
Similarly, words with neutral dictionary definitions are understood in our society with negative connotations. “Diet,” for example, has terrible overtones today. We associate it with restriction and discomfort. Words like “discipline” and “control” evoke similar reactions. We hate those words! But if you look at the dictionary definitions of these words, they’re not so scary. In fact, “control” and “discipline” can be considered emancipating. So how can we spin these words to bring positive connotations—to mean not “prohibition” but “freedom”? To mean not “obedience” but “empowerment”?
Society’s current misunderstanding of “fit” speaks I think to fitness trends over the last five years, which have moved toward extremes. CrossFit, boot camps, cycling, The Biggest Loser—all obsessions with balls-to-the-wall, bust-it-out workouts. While exercise trends are always evolving, the reality, as any sane fitness professional will tell you, is that specific principles don’t change. Too often we assume that extremes—radical diets, arduous workouts—are necessary to exact transformation. But simply being mindful about what one eats and keeping a balance is critical to many who need to manage their weight for medically necessary reasons. “Diet” doesn’t have to mean starvation; it can be about new habits and routines. It can be a safe, non-threatening tool.
I’m currently working with a client who I admire so much. By medical standards, she is obese. But she’s 100% accepting of it. She says that other than feeling tired and achy, and that her body can hurt when she walks too much, she doesn’t feel unhealthy. Of course, she is still young; her weight may become more of a concern as she ages. Still, you can be overweight and still be strong and healthy.
My hope is that “fit” begins to mean more than just “slim and toned.” I hope it becomes not about how you look, but about how innately strong you are, and how that power shapes your health. I hope that we start to view fitness exactly for what it is: the condition of being physically fit and healthy, and nothing more. It’s not that we need to invent new words; we need to own the ones that we are given.