Role Models

I recently stumbled upon a blog written by a prominent celebrity trainer. In it, she lamented the overly sexualized and suggestive images of some women in the fitness industry.

"If their goals included becoming porn stars, then congrats they succeeded! But as a reputable fitness expert who has worked my ass off to be an inspiring and motivating positive role model for women, girls, daughters and moms I find it to be reprehensible and demeaning to women in our industry and women in general. It’s also unnecessary. Jillian Michaels doesn’t pose like that...Jane Fonda would have NEVER reduced herself. And they are all UBER successful and super talented!"

I couldn't agree more with the point that showing off an athletic, attractive woman need not cross the line and become objectifying or crude. But should Jillian Michaels and Jane Fonda really be considered role models? Both have had plastic surgery to change their appearance. Of course that's their prerogative, but if you're trying to make our "women, girls, daughters and moms" feel good about themselves, I'm not sure that women who used surgery to change their appearance are the ideal role models to accomplish that. (Whether Ms. Michaels or Ms. Fonda are qualified to dispense exercise advice is another topic for an even angrier post, but I'm referring here to their being called role models.)

Open any fitness magazine and you'll see ads for supplements or exercise programs with spokesmodels who have been nipped, tucked and otherwise altered to Barbie-like proportions. Rather than questioning the propriety (or lack thereof) of the poses struck by the spokesmodels and "fitness authorities", the bigger issue is how any of them (or the products they endorse) can have any credibility. (For the record, I posed this question in a comment at the aforementioned blog, and also wondered why she attacked one "fitness professional" by mentioning lawsuits against her but neglected to tell her readers about the multiple lawsuits brought against Ms. Michaels. The blogger chose not to publish my comments.)

To be very clear, opting for plastic surgery is a choice that every individual is entitled to, and under most circumstances, I couldn't care less what any man or woman elects to have done. I have friends who have had plastic surgery, and that choice has no impact on my opinion about them. My only objection comes when someone's appearance is presented as something that can be achieved via diet and exercise when it was created by other means.

Regardless, what I find far more disturbing, and far less nuanced, is known users of performance enhancing drugs being considered role models. Consider that Arnold Schwarzenegger was once the Chairman of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. A man whose career was shaped by the use of steroids advising children (or adults) on the benefits of exercise is far more obscene than any risqué pose by a spokesmodel. And if you think that steroid use among kids isn't an issue, think again. According to a study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (the official publication of the American College of Sports Medicine), 1.6 percent of students reported using steroids. Similar research from the government's National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, found in 2005 that 4 percent of kids in grades 9 through 12 reported steroid use. According to an MSNBC report, among those students who admitted to steroid use "57 percent said professional athletes influenced their decision to use the drugs and 63 percent said pro athletes influenced their friends' decision to use them. Eighty percent of users — and 35 percent of non-users — said they believed steroids could help them achieve their athletic dreams."

The unfortunate truth is that there are far too many examples of athletes and celebrities whose careers have benefited from PED use. Do you really think that the aforementioned former Mr. Schwarzenegger would have risen to prominence, become Governor, or a movie star were it not for the notoriety he gained from his PED-fueled physique? Would Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson have become a professional wrestler and then action hero if he had stayed clean? How many million dollar contracts in major league baseball or the NFL are the result of performances enhanced by drugs? (And how many athletes who chose to stay clean never made it because the playing field wasn't level?) Is it any wonder that both kids and adults are attracted to doping? They see the glory and adulation, and rarely (if ever) do they see any consequences - because there often aren't any. Even when a doper gets caught, they can usually console themselves by checking their bank accounts which are as inflated as their muscles. If you doubt that, look no further than Alex Rodriguez, who has a $275 million contract to help him get over the embarrassment of having been caught a few years ago.

This scene from the Simpsons takes a not-so-subtle jab at Arnold.  While amusing, is also sadly accurate.

Simply put, the fitness industry and society in general need to consider who we're making into role models, and we need to stop rewarding those who have chosen cheating and shortcuts with magazine covers, movie deals and endorsement contracts. Creating cartoon-like physiques through surgical alterations and drug use perpetuates the cycle of implausible goals, low self-esteem, and often drug abuse.