Well Being

It’s OK To Admire Olympic Athletes; Just Don’t Aspire To Look Like Them

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naked olympic athletes
Starting with ESPN's Body Issue, our obsession with athlete bodies in the 2012 Olympics exploded–and it's still going strong. Watching athletes accomplish their goals at the Olympics can provide some of the best inspiration to set your own goals at home, but the media coverage and advertising surrounding the games can send a more confusing message. Tabloids (and even serious news outlets) have taken shocking jabs at medalists' weight and shape this year, and advertisers are–as usual–exploiting top athletes' form and athletic prowess to promote their products (including McDonald's).

So, despite athletes' inspirational performances, it's easy to feel less-than-motivated, and at least one trainer isn't happy about it. Amber, a personal trainer, health educator, and voice behind Go Kaleo (and its popular Facebook page), has posted a few times about the confusing body image messages surrounding the Olympic games, so we spoke to her about why she thinks it's better to admire Olympic athletes for their stories and accomplishments, instead of trying to mimic their physical form:

You posted on your Facebook page that you don't think people should aspire to look like Olympic athletes. Why not?

Well, first it’s important to consider my audience. The vast majority of my readers are women between the ages of 25 and 49, women with jobs and families and real-life obligations and responsibilities. Olympic athletes have physiques that have been honed through years of rigorous daily training, tens of thousands of hours worth of training. Training is their job.

The media tends to sexualize and idealize images of their bodies, especially women athletes’ bodies. I think that far too often women compare themselves to the images they see in the media, and end up with feelings of inadequacy for not being able to maintain the same level of fitness, leanness and discipline as those athletes. There needs to be an awareness of what it takes to maintain the physique of a professional athlete, and it’s more than most women should realistically be expected to maintain…or even TRY to maintain.

I know far too many women who’ve developed disordered eating, depression and other self-destructive behaviors in an attempt to both meet their real-life work and family obligations and also achieve an aesthetic ideal that realistically requires a full-time job’s worth of time and focus. It’s too much. We need to be kind enough to ourselves to set realistic goals. We can be strong, healthy and fit without having to make the sacrifices that professional athletes have to make! All of this is not to say that there’s ANYTHING wrong with professional athletes’ bodies. They are amazing, and a testament to years (or even decades) of dedication and hard work. I respect and admire them!

What do you think are the Olympics' more positive take-aways, in terms of inspiration and goals?

There are so many wonderful stories of perseverance, family support, hard work and triumph over challenges. Those stories tend to be overshadowed by opportunistic marketing, sexualized images and body-shaming in the news. But those stories are there, and the more we tell them the more power they have to inspire.

Olympic athletes represent a wide variety of body types–in fact, BBC created a tool that tells users which athletes they most resemble based on weight and height. What are the pros and cons of these kinds of comparisons?

I thought the BBC’s Athlete Body Match was a lot of fun, as there was no quality judgment involved. No good or bad bodies, just taller, shorter, heavier, lighter. I was matched up to a female shot-putter, which is awesome! I actually felt rather gratified that my body type was matched to such a strong and powerful athlete! I think things like that can start to be negative when people feel like their body is being judged as good or bad, which is more the case when the media idealizes one body type and criticizes another (I’m thinking of the media criticism of Leisel Jones specifically here).

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