‘”Having the perfect body isn’t all it’s cracked up to be” is one mom’s answer to the now infamous Maria Kang, a.k.a. Fit Mom, a.k.a. the What’s Your Excuse lady. As I’m sure you recall, Maria made news for posting a pic of her bangin’ bod next to her cutie-pie kidlets, one of whom was just 8 months old with the caption “What’s your excuse?” It ignited a firestorm of controversy that has only increased as she’s continued to do interviews. But one response in particular caught my eye and it’s from a mom who says she’s been where Maria is now – the fit mom – and gave it up because the sacrifice ended up not being worth it to her.
Taryn Brumfitt of Australia posted a different sort of before and after picture than we’re used to seeing:
She then told a similar story to Maria’s – of never loving her body and then having three babies in a short amount of time and hating it even more, of crying on her husband’s shoulder and never feeling beautiful. It’s a story I think a lot of us moms can relate to, frankly. From there both Maria and Taryn threw themselves into getting fit, shedding the baby weight and, ultimately, posing in tiny workout outfits with their babies as “proof.” Taryn even went on to compete in a figure competition. But then the stories diverge. Where Maria went on to make a media empire out of telling (or shaming) women that they can and should look like her, Taryn… decided it wasn’t worth it.
In a beautiful blog post titled “Dear Maria Kang, This is my Excuse” Taryn wrote that while she looked “perfect” on the outside, she felt something lacking on the inside. She began to resent the time her training took away from her family. She was saddened by how food had lost its joy and how her austere diet often isolated her at parties and other “fun” gatherings. So she quit. She stopped caring about her bodyfat percentage and how she looked in a bikini, instead saying that she now focuses on eating healthy, working out three times a week and enjoying all parts of her life. In her post she emphasizes that she hasn’t given up on being healthy and fit – those are still important to her – but rather that she’s given up on looking perfectly healthy and fit.
She says she’s regained about twenty “squishy” pounds but that it’s worth it because she’s also regained her life. Of Maria, she writes, “‘To look like she does is (for most people) completely doable, if you are willing to sacrifice most of the things that you love…” She continues, “There is darker, untold side to having a body like Maria’s – she’s hiding it (I know), it’s just behind her razzle and dazzle.”
Taryn explains that during her “fit” phase, she often felt selfish “obsessing over diet and exercising” instead of spending time with her kids. As a person who has struggled with exercise addiction and endless dieting, I understand her sentiment perfectly. To this day, my greatest regret about my 6-hours-a-day cardio habit is how much of my kids’ childhoods it made me miss. Thankfully they’re very forgiving and loving of me but still, I can’t get that time back.
Taryn concludes, “‘The irony is I think I’m healthier now than I was when I was in the competition,’ she says. ‘Health encompasses your mental health too and I think people forget that.” She adds, “If what you value is your health then you’ll treat your body like a vehicle, not an ornament.”
As I read Taryn’s and Maria’s stories, I found myself fascinated that two moms in such similar circumstances could come to two such opposite conclusions about what was worth sacrificing – and what wasn’t – for their fitness goals. Now, I’m NOT saying that Maria neglects her children or that Taryn is a lazy hater but rather that each of us has to decide what we’re willing to give up to get what we want and, even more importantly, if what we think we want is what will truly make us happy.
One of my favorite parts about my job is getting to watch people do amazing athletic feats and then interviewing them about how they did it. The human body is a mind-bogglingly beautiful piece of machinery and I never cease to be amazed at what people can accomplish when they try. (And I love the stories of “ordinary” people doing things that are amazing to them just as much as I love the stories of pro athletes breaking world records!) But the flip side to that is also getting to see what they do to get where they are, how the proverbial sausage gets made. And I will tell you this: I’ve never interviewed a single athlete that hasn’t sacrificed, often immensely, to get where they are.
For some athletes I’ve interviewed, like figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, their sacrifice had a lofty goal and paid off big in the end – she is an Olympic gold medalist, after all. But for many more people – people who put just as much time, effort and tears into their training as Kristi did – their successes weren’t quite as grand and some never reached their goal at all. To use Taryn’s body building example, I’ve had the privilege to talk to many, many body builders and figure competitors. They train as hard or harder than anyone I’ve spoken with. For instance, the traditional body builder diet is far more austere than the one the U.S. ski team told me they eat, not to mention that body builders log more gym hours than almost anyone. Yet most of them are barely known outside their sport and with so many different divisions, often not even known in their sport. So was their sacrifice still worth it?
Of course I can’t answer that. None of us can. Only the person themselves, Kristi included, can decide if all their sacrifices got them where they wanted to go. The only answer I can give is my own.
A couple of years ago I was being interviewed for Fitness and the writer asked me, “What is the number one thing you wish you had known when you were first starting your health and fitness journey?” I get that question A LOT. (And I’m guessing you guys do too.) Usually I answer something like find an exercise you love – “fitness should be fun!” – so you can make it a lifelong passion. And that’s not a bad answer. (Or if it is, feel free to disillusion me in the comments.) But that day I just couldn’t say it. Because if I could tell my pre-kickboxing, pre-yoga, pre-vegan, pre-assault self just one thing it wouldn’t be that saturated fats are not evil or that short-and-intense workouts are the golden ticket of fitness or even that ground flaxseed and water can be substituted for an egg in any recipe and have it turn out exactly the same! (Although all those things are awesome and I’m glad I know them.) No, what I would tell myself is this:
My body is a means to an end, not an end itself.
I realized the other day that I really don’t have any fitness performance goals anymore. I have a list as long as an unrolled roll of toilet paper (of which there are many in my house, thank you kitty – my kids have finally outgrown that phase and now the cat’s taken over) of fitness-y things that I think would be amazing and fun and rewarding to do. But I am not trying to beat a personal best or do X number of pull-ups or lose XX pounds or even, heaven help me, make a shot in basketball that isn’t an accident. Not that those types of goals aren’t great – they can be! – but right now in my life what I want most is to find happiness in the moment; joy where I’m at, not at some specified time in the future. My goals are aimed more towards balance, gratitude and thriving instead of just surviving.
So fitness for me now is becoming more about training my body to be healthy so that I can do the things in my life outside of the gym that I want to do. My arms, no matter how cut or powerful, are only as good as how many kids, bags of groceries and rogue bicycle helmets they can juggle. My buff legs are only as good as how fast I can run to a friend in need.
And the more I have shifted my goals the more I find myself at odds with the health and fitness hegemony (the Maria Kangs of the world, if you will). Everyone wants me to be training for something. There’s this whole attitude in the fitness industry that if you look good, then the rest of your life will fall into place. And while there is some small truth in that, personal experience has shown me that it more often works better the other way. The more I focus on doing good things, the more confident I become and subsequently the better I look and feel.
This is why living a healthy lifestyle cannot be primarily motivated by wanting to look good. It’s so easy to get caught up in this self-perpetuating cycle of working out to look good and looking good to workout, especially because it receives so much public adulation. But in the end what are you? A living trophy? I am not ornamental! And neither are you!
We are not ornamental!
This preoccupation with the surface is not just vanity. I do think it’s easier to measure changes in the body than in the spirit. A pants size is a much more concrete fact than, say, integrity. And it’s so much easier for other people to recognize an awesome six-pack than a forgiving heart. I’m not saying that the two states can’t go together – there are many people that are beautiful inside and out – but rather that focusing all my time on my outer aspects actually robs me of inner peace. The time that I looked my “best” (I even had a woman tell me I had “the perfect body” buwhahah!), I was never more confused, upset, fearful and self-hating. Because now that I had “it”, I realized I couldn’t keep it. To be honest, I wasn’t even entirely sure how I got “it” in the first place. Not to mention I was in the depths of an eating disorder and mental illness at the time. No one can keep “it” indefinitely, not even Giselle. And if your sense of self-worth is tied to that beautiful body then who are you when it’s gone?
Being healthy and fit are not bad things. I’m not saying that one should eat junk food and watch Say Yes to the Dress all day every day. The body and spirit are so intertwined that sickness in one inevitably produces malady in the other. What I think I’m trying to say is that despite all the slick monolithic marketing telling us otherwise, the more effective healthy changes come from the inside out, not the other way around. It’s about finding balance in a very unbalanced world.
It’s about creating beauty instead of settling for just being beautiful.
All of this sounds terribly obvious now that I write it all out – call it a “duh” rather than an “aha” moment – and yet it’s taken me years to really understand it. And I’m not really sure what this means for me except that more I think about it the more my cognitive dissonance grows. I need to close the gap between who I am and who I want to be and no amount of sit-ups is going to do that.
I’m not knocking Maria Kang. If she’s happy then I’m happy that she’s happy. Nor am I saying that Taryn Brumfitt’s answer should be your answer. Each person has to decide what their priorities are right now and those can change depending on your stage of life. You do you and all that. All I’m asking you tonight is to look at what you’re giving up and decide what level of sacrifice is worth it to get what you want. And then to ask yourself if getting what you want is what will make you happy. Anything worth having is worth sacrificing for but is everything we sacrifice for worth having??
What do you guys do to make sure what you’re doing is in line with your priorities? Where do you draw the line between acceptable sacrifice and too much? What do you think of Taryn’s story??