Thin or healthy – which is it going to be?

// 15 November 2007

The Guardian today has a worrying report on the latest figures that suggest that 80% of women and girls are failing to take enough exercise.

A study by the Womens’ Sport and Fitness Foundation has found that social pressures portraying sport as “unfeminine” and encouraging girls to be thin rather than fit are a major barrier to women and girls participating in exercise, and that negative experiences of sport in school and poor body image are also important factors.

This definitely rings true for me – I have lots of not-so-happy memories of being forced to wear tiny shorts at a time when I was self-conscious about my developing physique, being hissed and spat at by boys who didn’t like the idea of a girl playing football, and coming down with hypothermia from having been standing around in goal in my tiny shorts all lesson. However much you liked sport in general, PE sucked.

These days I train in taekwondo several times a week and compete on a national level. If I’ve missed a few training sessions, I’ll start to feel depressed and desperate to do something active. Exercise is for me one of the greatest pleasures in life, along with food and sex. Many women already shun food in favour of low-fat, low-carb excuses for food. Now it seems that they may be avoiding exercise too.

The report finds that sport is still seen by some as “unfeminine”, with thinness often coming above healthiness in female priorities. A quarter of women surveyed for the study agreed with the statement “I hate the way I look when I exercise or play sport” and a third of 18- to 24-year-olds and nearly half of 25- to 34-year-olds feel under greater pressure to be thin than to be healthy.

I hate the way I look when I exercise or play sport. I go bright red. No matter how meticulously I have tied back my hair it ends up looking as if I’ve had 10,000 volts. I sweat like a politician in a sex shop. I look like hell at the end of a training session. Everybody says so – even the children at my club have nicknamed me “Sweaty Betty”. But there are more important things in life than looking perfect all the time. Looking like I’ve just been dragged through a hedge backwards is temporary…at least, so I would like to think! If regular exercise made women look sweaty and dishevelled on a permanent basis, then I could understand them being put off by it. But I’m slightly dubious about the assumption that because 25% of women hate the way they look when they exercise, this must be the reason that they avoid it.

However, much as it might be an unfair assumption to make, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a lot of truth in it. We are taught that women are supposed to be immaculate creatures. We are supposed to be flawless, to be perfectly slim and not at all muscular, to sit down, smile gently and look pretty. Ladies don’t sweat, they glow. Yeah well, I glow like a pig, and anybody who thinks I’m less of a woman for being sporty can kiss my gluteus maximus.

The aim should be to encourage women to be healthy rather than thin, Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation said. “This is not about body size, but through being active you can have a positive impact on those body image issues that are so crippling to girls’ self-esteem.

“Charging around and getting sweaty and hot and feeling good about it is a very liberating thing for women to do in these body-conscious times.”

The idea that women are failing to enjoy sport and exercise because they can’t stop worrying about how they look is desperately sad. But I’m a bit confused about the underlying thread that runs through this article – that women would rather be thin than healthy – implying that we have a choice between the two and that exercise will prevent us from being thin. There are plenty of women who are both thin and healthy, and lots of exercise is surely the most effective way of achieving this combination. For those women who aren’t destined to be thin, exercise avoidance is never going to transform them into a leggy supermodel, and being fat and fit is surely preferable to being fat and unfit.

What with the “size zero phenomenon” and the “obesity crisis”, the media seems hell bent on telling us these days that you can’t be healthy and fit unless your body mass index falls within a very narrow band. I don’t think I need to point out that this is untrue, and that physical fitness is absolutely not the sole preserve of those of an “ideal” weight.

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