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Appearance Matters

by Miriam Axel-Lute on July 6, 2011

Last year I gave in and began to exercise.

It’s not that I was opposed to exercise. It’s that I was opposed to exercise that wasn’t also something else. In my ideal world it would be achieved as part of an active lifestyle: walking or biking where I want to go, taking the stairs, dancing, gardening, hiking. I was one of those people who scoffed at those who drove to work, took the elevator, and then stopped at the gym on the way home.

But then, of course, there’s reality. I work at home. I am usually traveling with a kid. There’s winter. And there was my ever-present nemsis: migraines, for which the eminently sensible tome The Migraine Brain strongly recommended at least 30 minutes of cardio exercise every day.  Once a month contra dancing and a few neighborhood strolls at toddler pace wasn’t going to cut it.

I needed something that I could afford to do daily, fit in my schedule, and not have dependent on weather. The options were few. Embarassing though I found the idea, exercise DVDs it was.

Now you might think you can find anything on the Internet. But here’s one I couldn’t: Reviews of exercise DVDs that explictly ranked them by attitude toward body image. As in “I want to feel healthier about my body after doing this, not worse.”

Dear makers of exercise DVDs, allow me to list for you the reasons I exercise: to reduce my migraines, to sleep better, to have more energy and focus, to have more endurance and strength for things I enjoy (dancing, hiking) and for being more self-reliant (hauling heavy things around, biking), to reduce my chances of long-term problems with heart disease, stroke, or diabetes, to improve my balance and reduce my chances of injuring myself.

Here’s what’s not on that list: “lose tons of weight,” “get washboard abs,” “achieve the ultimate buns and thighs.” Losing weight can be a legitimate goal of exercise, but it’s not the only one.

There have been a lot of people writing worriedly lately about the rise of this twisted sort of girl-power “feminism” where girls and women are empowered by embracing their sex appeal, not having to shun their femininity or give up getting gussied up to demand equality. I sympathize with that attitude. Anti-porn feminists (who are very different from those who want to improve porn, mind you) drive me bonkers. I’m pretty fond of the idea of SlutWalk.

But boy do I understand the concern. Because embracing sexy and feminine without changing what counts in those categories is dangerous. And emphasizing pride in appearance is still a misplaced priority.

Recently, author Lisa Bloom posted an article that made the rounds of social media called “How to Talk to Little Girls.” In it, she notes that “fifteen to eighteen percent of girls under twelve now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and twenty-five percent of young American women would rather win America’s next top model than the Nobel Peace Prize.” And then she describes how when she meets a young girl she squelches the desire to coo or comment on her looks or what she’s wearing, and instead introduces herself and asks something like “What have you been reading lately?”

It’s hard to stifle that impulse. But as the mother of two girls, the older of whom it seems gets a barrage of compliments on her looks every time she steps out the door—to the extent that I cut off her long ringlets a few years ago partly to make hair brushing easier and partly because I wanted it not to be the first thing anyone who met her said about her—I’m recommitting to learn how.

Not to get weird and authoritarian and futilely try to keep my girls from dressing up or believing they are beautiful. I think they know full well that we see them as complex, well-rounded people. But to refuse to participate in or quietly accept the unintentional messages being sent to them and their counterparts that their appearance is the first and foremost thing anyone is going to notice or care about them.

After all, what your parents say to you at home does not by itself set your understanding of what the world values, much as we’d like to think otherwise. And it’s not your parents who determine your success in the wider world—it’s peers, colleagues, bosses, clients, audiences, professors, etc. If girls and women believe that their parents care about their minds, and even the health rather than the look of their bodies, but no one else does, it won’t take them very far.