Woman’s rejected weight-loss photo sparks body image debate

The health and fitness industry is selling a dream: “If you do these workouts and follow these programs, you, too, can look like the smiling beauties who help sell our products.”

And you know what? Some people can! Some people have the genetics to support the model-like figure, and some people do not. Take me, for instance — I may have model height at 6 feet tall, but I don’t have a model shape. I’m small up top and big on the bottom, and no matter how lean I get, my proportions are what they are, and that’s OK.

As someone with two degrees in exercise and sports science, I find myself walking a fine line between encouraging people to push their limits and achieve their best self — physically, mentally, and emotionally — and encouraging people to respect and appreciate their bodies for what they already are. It’s a balance, and it’s a tough one.

The trouble is, the health and fitness industry often spends so much time pushing the “beautiful people” angle that they fail to adequately acknowledge that healthy bodies come in all shapes, sizes and visual representations. People need to know that not every healthy body features a six-pack or cellulite-free derriere.

Brooke Birmingham

Image: Brooke Birmingham

Case in point: Brooke Birmingham, of Brooke Not on a Diet, lost an astounding 172 pounds by eating healthfully and exercising.

After hearing of Brooke’s story, a popular women’s magazine reached out and asked to feature her online in a success stories piece. Brooke did the interview with the writer, then sent through an image, as requested. The image was of herself in a bikini.

Here’s the thing: Brooke lost 172 pounds. With extreme weight loss, skin rarely bounces back quickly as the weight is lost, and in many cases, the skin remains loose unless surgery is performed. Understandably, Brooke has loose skin around her stomach where she lost the weight. This is real. This is normal. This is not something to be ashamed of.

But the editor came back with a request to send over a different photo — one with Brooke wearing a shirt.

It’s not just fitness mags that perpetuate the “If you’re healthy, you must look like a model” double standard. It’s health professionals, online outlets, TV shows and almost every other person walking down the street. Be honest: Have you ever judged another person’s health based on his or her appearance? My guess is the answer is “yes.” And as I mentioned, it’s a tricky subject. Beautiful images do sell products and services, and of course, everyone wants to look their best. Nothing wrong with that.

But when you’re living healthfully, eating right, exercising regularly and treating your body with respect, but you still don’t look like the cover of a magazine, you shouldn’t be made to feel bad about where you are now.

Kim Prytherch of Barking Mad About Running shared another sad story. “About 14 years ago I was chosen as a Collage Video monthly story. I sent in my before and after. They fattened my before pic, and changed my hair color and straightened my teeth in the after pic! It was insane! I got $125 in free DVDs out of it, but it wrecked my self-confidence!”

So here’s the deal.

If you don’t have a fitness model’s body, welcome to the club. It doesn’t mean you aren’t healthy.

Take the time to do a self-assessment of your current lifestyle. I approach the term “body love” with a bit of wariness. I prefer the term “body respect,” because respect is earned, and love is born out of respect. It’s easier to learn to love your body when you’re respecting your body and giving it what it needs to be healthy.

As long as you’re respecting your body — eating well, exercising regularly, laughing often, sleeping enough — then your physical condition should be applauded. It’s not easy to find positive representations of healthy bodies in all shapes and sizes, but seek them out.

And if you feel comfortable sharing your own bathing suit pics to stand in solidarity with Brooke in an effort to promote images of what health looks like at every stage, head over to Girls Gone Sporty’s Bikini Body Beauty Linkup to join in the fun.

More on body image

Marathoner mocked for running full glam in false eyelashes
Bikini mom proudly bares postnatal stretch marks
From thigh gap to finger trap: We’re measuring beauty all wrong