Nearly every fashion magazine features a regular spread offering to help women “Dress for Your Body Type.” They’re about finding the right jeans, or the best pencil skirt, or the optimal top for various body types: apple, rectangle, curvy, wedge, triangle, full figured, boyish, curvy, hourglass, and athletic, to give a sampling. But aside from the obvious problem of reducing women’s bodies to geometrical shapes, fruit metaphors, and thinly veiled insults, there are some deeper issues sparked by this framework.
One of the most problematic body types described by publishers is “athletic.” Not only is it vague and confusing–some magazines use it as a synonym for broad-shouldered; others use it to indicate larger thighs or hips, and so on–it can also cause a whole slew of insecurities beyond what we’re already sucking up from media imagery. For girls who aim to be fit and healthy, the term can be affirming, but it also distills an attitude present across sports coverage and media platforms: as women, we either have the body of an athlete (perhaps of a particular kind of athlete) or we don’t.
It not only reinforces the idea that you’re either born athletic or you’re not; it’s an understanding of athleticism limited by the physical appearance of your body. If you don’t look like a runner, or a tennis player, or a surfer, you simply cannot be one.
Jessi Kneeland, a personal trainer at Peak Performance in New York City, defines athleticism by a whole different set of criteria:
To me, athletic means feeling empowered to use your body. Most people don’t think they will ever feel athletic because they see it as a special quality reserved for people with good genes or a lifelong exercise habit, but I think anyone can be and feel athletic. It often requires getting more mobile, getting stronger and getting your endurance up, but most importantly it requires proving to yourself over and over again that you can do things physically that you didn’t think you could do.
Athleticism is a daily practice, not a magic gene a woman is born with. Lacey Stone, of Lacey Stone Fitness, agreed, adding that “[athletes] practice every day to get better at their craft, and they take their weaknesses and practice to turn them into their strengths.”
Being athletic can simply mean setting and achieving physical goals. It can also be learning to take failure— for example, in the inability to reach these goals within a certain time frame—while still choosing to move forward and not give up. But, if that’s the case, then why does athleticism still feel like an exclusive club, particularly among women?
Partly, the media’s “athletic body” myth creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Girls who don’t feel athletic are often vindicated by media coverage, and are less likely to exercise as they get older. Without the regular practice of physical activity, many of us simply don’t have the opportunity to dispel their negative self-image and begin an athletic pursuit.
The emphasis on the athletic body both creates and re-enforces a false idea women have of themselves. In the course of discussing how the idea of an athletic body affected women, particularly her own clients, Stone noted:
I had a client who actually never played sports… and she said to me, ‘I’m not athletic.’ And I was like, ‘But you’re very coordinated and everything you’re doing is very athletic.’ And she responded, ‘But I never played sports and my body isn’t athletic.’ And I was like, ‘But you are athletic!’ I think a lot of women believe that if they didn’t play sports and they don’t have a body type that looks athletic, they don’t think it’s possible for them.
Katie French, an actress living in Los Angeles, recently trained for her first 5K. Growing up, however, she felt the same way Stone’s client described:
[It started] really early, actually. I realized in the process of [recently taking up] running that it was during Presidential Fitness Challenges in elementary school. Because I don’t remember being able to do any of [the challenges]. I couldn’t do a single one. That was the first time I was conscious of other people feeling me to be un-athletic, that I didn’t fit an outside standard for fitness. Because I had danced—ballet, tap, and jazz—from when I was 4 years old, for three or four years at that point.
For French, understanding her body as one that did not fit within the mold of athletic arrived a bit later. “I didn’t have that awareness, until I saw Seventeen and they have those spreads,“ she told me. “It wasn’t until middle school and high school,” she remembered, “And you see the track girls and you see they’re all lanky and thin and that’s not what I look like and I thought that I probably can’t do that.”
These are just a couple of examples, but many of us can name those among our female friends who openly declare themselves to be un-athletic. It’s a self-conception that starts young, but that we continue to re-enforce through adulthood. As a culture, we emphasize physical appearance to the point that women accept their skills and capabilities based on outside standards of what their bodies ought to look like in order to perform these activities.