Lately I’ve noticed that while it seems ok for guys to work towards bigger biceps and quads, if a woman train for aesthetics it’s a “slippery slope” of self-loathing and failure. I call this training-for-aesthetics shaming, which raises the ire of those more concerned with body acceptance than body sculpting. It also wrankles people who believe you should only train to increase performance or functional movement.
After I wrote this post I took the longest pee of my life; obviously I feel passionate about the issue because this entire blog is about owning it in the weight room and beyond. I even wrote about why vanity rocks (gasp!) back in 2011.
This blog is about sculpting the body you dream about using weightlifting and clean eating. It’s about aesthetics, yes, but also about feeling powerful, athletic, and beautiful inside and out (which I did not for much of my life). It’s also what I teach my clients.
It’s an unfortunate fact that many women have fought against a negative body image and distorted expectations most of their lives. Roni Noone of ronisweigh.com and with whom I recently discussed this issue, talked about how she hid her body in baggy clothes as a child and felt unattractive and unworthy of love. Her relationship with food consisted of yo-yo dieting and binging, and she gained (and subsequently lost) 70 pounds. Today she is passionate about having goals that have nothing to do with how she looks.
I’ve got genuine empathy for Roni and other women who’ve suffered this way. I didn’t always love my body and suffered from depression, insecurity, and self-loathing the majority of my life. But none of this makes non-aesthetic goals more valid or “healthier” than aesthetic ones.
Roni admits that she rolled her eyes when I said there was such a thing as training-for-aesthetics shaming (she wrote this blog post about our convo). It’s a “cop out,” she said, to call it shaming when a woman’s aesthetic goals are questioned.
No. Shaming can happen any time something is declared unimportant, invalid, or unworthy, and often it’s subtle. Obviously, if the only source of someone’s self-worth is her appearance, that leads to no good. But I’m talking about a woman reaching out and asking how to get “Michelle Obama arms” for her wedding and being told she should just be happy with her own arms. That having aesthetics-based motivation is wrong. And the resulting conversation that stirred up passionate views about motivation, goals, body image, and role models.
I know I won’t change any minds with this post and that’s alright with me. My main goal is to support women in feeling good about whatever goals they choose. This comes from the perspective of a personal trainer who teaches women how to own it in the weight room and beyond, and also as a woman who enjoys training for aesthetics as a goal.
“Intrinsic Goals are Superior”
I love the results I get from lifting – poppin’ delts, biceps that poke your eyes out, and an ass that fills a pair of jeans like a glove. They motivate me to push harder and it excites me to improve. You could call the results you get an extrinsic goal, or one that’s based on an external reward.
But I would not lift weights if I didn’t love every moment of it. There are so many things about lifting I love that I couldn’t even come close to listing them all – the challenge of building muscle and strength, feeling strong and powerful in an area that is traditionally male-dominated, being energized at an intergallactic level all day, and being a student of lifting. These are all intrinsic motivations… they’re based on personal growth and my relatiionship with myself.
So my motivations for lifting involve both the process and the result. The process (or “journey”) is intrinsic and the results are extrinsic.
It’s well known that external motivation isn’t as powerful or long-lasting as motivation that originates from within. And this is one argument against training for aesthetics. But studies have shown that starting with external motivation can lead to internal motivation – that inner drive to do something that feels good.
For example, you decide to start lifting weights because you want gorgeous arms for your wedding or a tight tush for the tropics. Or you just want to improve the way your body looks overall. You don’t love lifting – you just want to look hot or develop a certain area of your body. What may start out as an external reward may result in you feeling more energized, confident, and strong. As a result, your motivation becomes intrinsic, and you’re more likely to continue that behavior.
On the other hand, if you lift for a few weeks and get impatient that you still don’t have Michelle’s arms, you’ll probably quit. To sustain a long-term training program, it’s important to tap into your deeper “why” and purpose. But starting out with an external goal – “I want defined arms” – can be a great entry point into getting fitter and even finding a new passion.
So as it turns out, extrinsic goals can be a good thing.
“Women Should Just Accept the Way They Look”
When your goal is body acceptance and you’ve reached that goal, I’ve got nothing but respect for that. My blogging colleague Roni Noone lost 70 pounds and has kept it off – a major feat and an understandable source of pride. She said in our recent convo on developing one’s physique:
Some things are just not possible… I will never get twiggy arms, ever and it’s what I always wanted. Once I accepted my “Roni arms” and stopped worrying about what I look like things clicked for me.”
I’m not going to try to change anyone’s mind whose goal is body acceptance. Who am I to say, “You should try harder! You could get the arms you want.”
Developing her arms is not a priority for Roni – she wants to stay at a healthy weight, fit, and strong. Those are common goals… they’re my goals, too. I work to increase my strength and conditioning and improve my balance and cardiorespiratory health. Building stronger glutes helps me move in a more functional way and reduce the chance of injuries. But building poppin’ delts, a huge bootay, and ripped hamstrings are the primary outcomes I’m looking for (it’s called hypertrophy training in the weightlifting and personal training worlds).
So why is it that if a woman dreams about attaining a certain look, her goal are not as valid as the goal of being fit and healthy? (Which comes with training for aesthetics anyway.)
And why is losing weight a socially acceptable goal but training for a V-taper is seen as shallow and a “slippery slope” to self-esteem hell? Don’t tell me you’re not losing weight to look better – you know you are. Also don’t tell me you couldn’t care less about the number on the scale – an extrinsic goal.
A bit of a side rant: I get frustrated when people blame their body type on “never” being able to attain the physical features they admire. True, if you want to look like Twiggy and you’re not a small-boned ectomorph, that’s a pipe dream. But saying you can never get muscle definition because it’s not your body type is misinformation at best and an excuse at worst. No matter what your body type, you can make a difference in your body. Yes, you have to train and eat differently depending on your body type. You also need to understand that your results will not look exactly like someone else’s results – they will be uniquely and beautifully yours.
“Women Shouldn’t Compare Themselves”
One area of contention is whether we should strive for some ideal, usually based on a celebrity or perfect-looking fitness model.
I flat-out hate “fitspiration” and borderline-porn yoga pics. That shit just bums me out. But what inspires other women is their business. It’s not for me to judge. If you have five different models you’re trying to look like for five different body parts, more power to you. You’re lifting, you’re fit, and you’re becoming more confident. Those are good things.
As a personal trainer, if a client tells me she wants Michelle Obama arms and a Kim Kardashian butt, it’s my job to help her develop those areas of her body. While she’s doing that she’ll also notice crazy increases in her energy, all-over strength and conditioning, and improved body composition, among many other benefits.
Yes, those benefits are all the result of an intelligently designed training-for-aesthetics program.
I’ll also tell my client that her arms will never look exactly like Michelle’s and her butt will never look exactly like Kim’s. Just like “toning your arms in 7 days” will never happen, neither will changing your DNA. We all have to work within our genetic abilities while also being allowed to have individual ideals that inspire us. But I guarantee that even if my client’s arms do not look exactly like Michelle’s, if she follows my plan she will be damn proud of what she achieves with her own arms.
And come on – if you really think you can become a fitness model by doing a few Pinterest workouts or other random free workouts on the internetz, you’re just naive. Fitness models are not only genetically blessed but they train and eat clean for a living. So think about the commitment needed for what you want to attain.
And Finally: The Personal Trainer’s Role
Personal trainers are hired to help produce a result, whether it’s performance, health, or aesthetics-based. I’ve learned over the years that I have no right to judge anyone for what they want to achieve – it’s entirely personal.
But I do see some personal trainers and coaches discouraging clients from working on appearance-related goals. Strength and conditioning coach Jordan Syatt brought this up on his Facebook page recently:
Why has it become taboo for fitness pro’s/enthusiasts to say they want to have a 6-pack or look good with their shirt off?
Ever since the “functional training” kick began years ago, many coaches started to look down on others for expressing their desire to look a certain way.
“It doesn’t matter how you look,” they’d say. “All that matters is how you perform!”
Why can’t you perform at a high level AND have the physique you want?
Having a 6-pack and performing at a high level are not mutually exclusive.
Far from it.
As industry professionals we need to quit perpetuating this false dichotomy and appreciate that *wanting to look fit is NOT bad or wrong.*
It’s actually pretty damn normal and going through the process of leaning out and maintaining a certain physique will likely help both you and your clients achieve better long-term success.”
I tend to agree.”
I was talking to JC Deen of JCDFitness.com about this subject recently and he also made a good point about aesthetics training:
I also think it’s meeting the person where they’re at mentally.
I prefer the training style that yields the best aesthetics because it’s easiest on the joints, and safer, in the long term — much safer than trying to squat or pull the heaviest weight.”
I’d add that besides being a respected strength and conditioning coach, JC prides himself on having studied “Vanity and Selfishness” at MTSU. Ha!
If we all just backed off on judging what a “good” goal is, we might even expand our own horizons. And a touch of humor never hurts either.
My suggestion is that if you want to improve your physical appearance, find a coach who supports that. You don’t have to lose your sense of self when you train for aesthetics or look to role models, and you can take advantage of your own genetic abilities to create the most beautiful, confident you.
This article originally appeared on www.workoutnirvana.com.