Friday, December 30, 2011

The Sweaty Side of Beauty

In honor of this blog's name, everyday beauty, I continually try to find ways to enhance the beauty that surrounds me, both inside and out. And while a good, sweaty workout doesn't make me look particularly pretty, it has such far-reaching benefits I can no longer deny its importance. It sounds like I am stating the obvious, but it took me a long time to get back to this belief.

I am a natural mesomorph with endomorph tendencies. I was extremely active and athletic as a youth. I spent all my free time outdoors, would be called inside for dinner, and then went back out until dark--year round. Bike riding, sailing, skate boarding, roller skating, tennis, mountain climbing, canoeing, ice skating, soccer, ballet, volleyball, long walks on the beach (no, this is not a personal ad), swimming, and just walking everywhere. As an undergrad I waited tables, and what great exercise that was! All that running around and lifting heavy trays ... and then after work, we'd all go out dancing.

After school and my first desk job, my life became more sedentary. I had never been a gym goer, and almost all of my previous exercise had been incidental, done out of fun or necessity (e.g., get from point A to B). I was no longer doing much of that, and I gained a few pounds, and here is where I made my first mistake. I was not willowy. I was curvy and muscular, with a J-Lo bubble butt, which was not the same figure I saw splashed across glossy magazine ads in the 80s and 90s, where models first appeared with their skinny-fat girl-boy figures, with no muscle tone or boobs, and which later morphed into that hideous "heroin chic" look. How I ever believed scrawny and dirty was an attractive look is completely beyond me now, but when I started looking into taking off a few pounds, these images in Vogue or Elle, and the laughably skinny models in Shape magazine were what I saw. None of those women was shaped like me, even at my ideal weight.


Interwoven through all that model weirdness came the new Food Pyramid, the second worst thing that ever happened to me (and to the world, in my opinion, but I'll save that rant for a future article). I followed the 90s diet religiously, eating tons of carbs and 10-20% fat, but I was hungry all the time. I felt like I had no willpower, a moral defect in character. I'd starve myself only to give in to the hunger such that I would overeat, getting ready for the next famine. As you can imagine, my body dysmorphia was already full steam ahead by then.

When I look back at photographs of myself from those two decades, I am amazed that I ever thought I was fat. What I would give to avoid all the trauma and self loathing I had put myself through. But like so many of us, I took what I read and saw to heart. I messed with nature in my attempt to have thighs like a racehorse and slender arms and put myself through long cycles of abstinence followed by bingeing, which caused unwanted weight gain.

In hindsight, I can safely say that the worst thing I ever did was go on my first diet because that set in motion a pattern of weight gain. Yes, I dieted myself fat. I'd lose 10 pounds quickly and then slowly gain back 15. Lose 10 again, and gain back 15, never quite losing the whole amount I had gained back each time. Rinse, repeat. Thus, a slow but steady weight gain became my life, almost unnoticeable at first, when it occurred in those 5-pound increments. Denial is a powerful thing, and I managed to convince myself that my pants had shrunk in the dryer. If you've been there, you know exactly what I'm talking about. That this apparel "shrinkage" occurred during a time when all pants started including lyrca in them, even jeans, those small gains weren't as noticeable because everything stretched and the thicker material held back the flub. I also encountered, for the first time, vanity sizing. Since the size of apparel I pulled off the rack wasn't increasing at an alarming rate, I was good, right?

The media wasn't all bad in the 90s. One of the best things to come out of that decade was a new magazine called Mode. It positioned itself as a plus-sized magazine (and featured models up to size 22), but most of the models were between size 12-16, which had become the average size for women in the US. And the clothes were glorious! No poorly-made Lane Bryant or Fashion Bug for we fatties. No, inside those glossy pages I found designers such as Roberto Cavalli, Marina Rinandi, Tomatsu, Ellen Tracy, Donna Karan, Kenzo, Versace, Ralph Lauren, Eli Tahari, Eileen Fisher, and more! In some ways, Mode was like the plus-sized version of Voguebecause it showed current trends from the runway, interpreted for larger models. It was beautiful, and Kate Dillon was one of its most gorgeous models.


I was so depressed when the magazine was canceled. I guess even fat women didn't want to see fat women in their fashion magazines, and there has never been another plus-sized magazine to take its place.

Now that I am older and wiser, I mourn for my sad, younger self who tried so desperately to reshape my body with diet into something nature had never intended. Getting older does give one perspective--it's really a shame no one was available to set me straight back then. I could have avoided a lot of mistakes.

But the single best thing I can do for my looks and mental state is to work up a sweat. I look around at women who are older than I and observe that the most beautiful ones are all physically active. They might not be doing anything as structured as going to the gym (though my mother goes to Curves 5 days a week), but they are all quite active, whether it's a morning walk with the dog, vigorous gardening, yard work, or whatever they enjoy doing. Mrs. Perkins who lives down the street must be at least 85, and she and her husband still do all their own raking in the fall. I am guessing their level of activity has kept them in good health into their advanced years and will keep them fit and vigorous even longer still.

I was so happy and full of joy in my active years, but I had gotten quite lazy and depressed in the 90s. Combining a desk job with a frequent case of The Awfukits from having gained weight, I felt like I had so far to go, and so it all seemed so pointless. But there I go with that black-and-white thinking again. Getting started is hard, but when I set small and reasonable goals, the task ahead did not seem quite so insurmountable. Having once been an athlete, I was happy to discover that my body had excellent muscle memory.

Incidental exercise is more challenging now. I live in the suburbs where nothing is close enough to walk to. My office building has no stairs. My weekends are so full with chores, I have almost no time for anything fun. So I actually had to ponder doing intentional exercise. I thought CrossFit looked like fun, but my one and only experience with that had me barfing in the bushes, so I needed to do something more appropriate for my current level of fitness. And that is where I discovered kettlebells. After doing various workouts, I discovered the SKOGG system (not affiliated), and I actually find myself looking forward do it. The whole point is to maximize my pleasure over time, and this fits the bill.


All I need is one kettlebell and not much floor space. And after several weeks, I have discovered that a half hour is an easy commitment. And it has started to make my life look and feel more beautiful.
  • Prevents loss of lean body mass (that 5-pound muscle loss that experts say we experience every year)
  • Increased blood flow provides a beautiful lit-from-within glow that blush can only hope to mimic
  • Flushes out water retention, so no more puffbelly or cankles
  • Higher body awareness translates to deeper self respect
  • Higher activity means better sleep, and we all know why they call it "beauty sleep" because nothing ruins a pretty appearance faster than dark circles and sallow skin
  • More energy to do other things
I don't make New Year's resolutions, but my primary goal this year is to slowly and consistently increase my fitness because when I feel good in my own skin, I make better choices for myself overall.

Do you get the level of activity you think your body needs?

13 comments:

  1. Good for you! I fell in the same trap as you, wanting to look like the models in magazines but there is no way I could ever achieve that goal. I starved myself, lost weight, then gained it back plus more. A few years ago, I decided to start eating small amounts all day, exercising and staying busy and have slowly but surely lost 74 lbs in 4 years. The weight did not come off fast but that was ok, I just kept at it. Now I am not fat and not skinny but just right for me! I wish you nothing but success in your quest, please share on your blog time to time how you are doing. KatherynR in McRae, GA

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  2. I really enjoyed reading this. As you know, I'm trying to increase my fitness levels. Starting exercise again did make me feel so good about myself, although I've fallen off the wagon over the holidays, I'm keen to get started again in the new year.

    I can identify with so much of what you've written. Right down to clothes shrinking in the wash. The 'it's not me, it's them' mentality. I'm going to focus on setting small goals for myself like you've mentioned. I really want to remain positive this time and avoid The Awfukits!! Now, time for me to watch the video :D

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  3. Thank you so much for this post. It is one of my new year resolutions to be healthier. Reading this post just made me realize how important being healthy is. Fads don't work; proper eating and exercise is the way to go.

    Happy New Year!

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  4. I've been very lax this year; I used to work out 5-6 days a week and was much stronger and more flexible than I am now. SKogg looks really interesting.

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  5. What an interesting post, I think you are right about getting active, I think its easier in some ways to focus on diet rather than the prospect of excercise.
    It is tricky though finding the time, as I feel I am either working or entertaining/looking after my little boy. I do hope to make some positive changes for 2012 though, even if its just small steps :)

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  6. Everything you said in this post was spot-on and I wish you well in your fitness venture. But, Zuzu, the pictures of those skinny-skinny models are horrifying. Oh my God, was that the model norm back in the 90s? I remember thinking I was fat then, too, but was never really into magazines. Now I understand why Crystal Renn, even at her skinniest, is such a revelation.

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  7. Yeah i agree this blog is truly interesting. Great! Hope to see more good post from you. Thanks!

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  8. Hi Elizabeth, I chose extreme examples of the models to make a point, but they weren't that far off from that waifish look made so popular by Kate Moss in the 90s.

    Crystal Renn is gorgeous! I would also love to see Christina Henricks model underwear or bathing suits. I realize these women are probably considered fat, but I think they are spectacular, and I know that Mr. Petals prefers curves and secretly lusts after CH, as do many men. Given a choice, he said he'd choose fat (but healthy and active) over Skeletor any day!

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  9. KatherynR, congratulations on your impressive fat loss! Doing it slowly, over time, is definitely the way to go because you have learned new habits along the way and now have a much greater chance at keeping it off.

    I have the most success when I pay very close attention to my body and its internal cues, but sometimes that is hard when years of self loathing can make one quite numb.

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  10. Jane, I also got out of the exercise habit. The funny thing is I was mode disciplined while I was working but got "too busy" while on holiday, when I actually had more time ... even though it didn't feel like it. I am the Mistress of Self Sabotage™, so I need to plan accordingly and get back on track.

    The absolute stupidest thing of all is that exercise makes me feel better, so why on earth do I come up with excuses to not do it??

    Many years ago, I got up every morning for a 3-mile walk, but eventually I started making excuses as I lie there in the dark at 6AM. Like, "It might rain." It's not raining now, but it might. LOL. What a dork.

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  11. Tao, happy new year to you, as well. I am sending you positive, healthy, motivating vibes!

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  12. Ammie, I had no idea you were such an athlete. Good for you for sticking with such a dedicated program.

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  13. Replica, I agree it is easier to diet than exercise in some ways. Metabolically speaking, you don't need to exercise--certainly not the hour a day that has been recommended for what seems like forever. If we consider the lifestyle of our hunter-gatherer ancestors (temporarily ignoring infection and harsh winters that made their lives more difficult), it's not hard to imagine that they had plenty of down time, certainly before they chained themselves to a life of hard work that the birth of agriculture and animal husbandry caused. Before that, they likely spent most of their day walking around at a comfortable pace, gathering nuts, roots, shoots, berries ... and then some of them would occasionally sprint like mad for 20 minutes or so in order to take down a large beast that would feed them for a day or more.

    What the heathcare pundits do not tell us is that exercise makes us hungrier. The more we expend, the more our body needs. That helps explain why we work out like a dog (silly saying, most dogs I know are quite lazy) and don't see much movement on the scale. Sometimes we gain as our body increase its muscle mass! That said, I am hugely in favor of exercise; our bodies are designed for movement, but we certainly don't need to do it the way we've been told.

    As for diet, I am so opposed to the stupid 'calories in/calories out' supposition. For a normal-weight person, this may be true, but for anyone carrying excess weight it is very likely not true. Fat gets stored when there is an excess of insulin in the bloodstream, and insulin is raised in the presence of excess glucose, which is found in all carbohydrates and also in smaller amounts in animal protein (neoglucogenesis). The more weight we carry over time, the more likely it is we are insulin resistant.

    It is impossible to release fat in the presence of insulin so following the recommended Food Pyramid can only make us fatter if we are already fat. Controlling carb intake is the only way I can release fat because the body will then preferentially burn fat and ketone bodies if it has used up its sugar stores. So, there is truly a metabolic advantage to controlling carb intake for some of us. That doesn't mean I eliminate all vegetables as many lowcarb-fearing hysterics would have us all believe. I just don't omit or limit cereal grains, legumes, dairy, and starch (potatoes, corn, peas). After that there is still a ton of delicious food to eat, and the more I eat that way the easier it becomes because I stop experiencing sugar highs and lows.

    Anyway, I could rant all day on this topic, but I will stop. I just get SO ANGRY that we humans have been treated as guinea pigs the last 40 years, all because one man thought high cholesterol and heart disease were caused by consuming fat, especially the reviled saturated fat. Did these people who followed him like lemmings over a cliff all forget that out of the three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, and fat), carbohydrate is the ONLY nonessential macro?? Nonessential = carbs unnecessary to sustain life, but so many of these overly-educated "experts" consistently and chronically push "healthy" cereal grains and legumes. Don't even get me started on dairy, especially milk. Not needed. Period. If these stubborn scientists and nutritionists would look more closely they would see a direct link between excess carb intake and a huge host of diseases, some of them new and/or on the rise.

    Ha ha I really got on a roll. I'd be better off venting on a podcast. *snort*

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