Image: ‘Study for La Grande Odalisque’, Ingres, 1814

Editor’s note: This piece contains discussion of disordered eating. 

Humans are good at complicating things. We are physical animals, creatures that need food and shelter and sex like any other, but we are also burdened with self-awareness – the consciousness that many interpret as the mind, soul, or spirit. So it makes sense that we’ve always felt an uneasy tension between our human bodies, and our humanity. In the west, thanks to a strong underpinning of Judeo-Christian religion, we understand the physical body to be the site of our worst sins: fornication, adultery, murder, gluttony, sloth. Early Christians (and many who came after them) addressed this tension with something called ‘the mortification of the flesh’: the punishment of the physical body in an attempt to elevate the spirit and achieve religious sanctity. Choosing to mortify themselves in order to imitate Christ and his crucifixion, these ascetics fasted, wore hair shirts and celices, and abstained from worldly pleasures like speech, sex and drinking. Spiritual leaders, monks and nuns of other religious orders often undergo similar ascetic rituals of self-denial for similar reasons – to free the spirit from its prison of flesh.

Women understand that self-denial is not just for the religious. We have been encouraged to deny ourselves all the pleasures of the flesh for a very long time. To do otherwise would have meant risking our virtue, our femininity, and our chances at marriage. But I shouldn’t speak in the past tense – it’s not like things have changed much, in the fraught relationships we are required to have with our bodies.  On Facebook, on Tumblr, and particularly on Instagram, I have noticed a trend that mimics the mortification of the body in all ways but one. You will have noticed it too, I’m sure: #girlswholift, #cleaneating, #fitspo. Every facet of what I’ll call the new fitness movement is focused, undeniably, on the pursuit of fulfilment through mastery of the physical form.

In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf describes the phenomenon of the shrinking woman: as her civil rights expand, her body contracts under the pressure of a billion-dollar diet and exercise industry, fuelled by a trillion-dollar retail and advertising industry. Women are required to not take up space (ask anyone in the Fat Acceptance movement what it’s like to step outside that clear feminine boundary), and in order to comply, we must forego food and comfort in favour of fasting and physical exertion. The pressure to self-deny has come in many forms; fitspo and its brethren are just the most recent.

The new fitness movement is a great example of the cyclical nature of the demands we place on women’s bodies. The 1970s and 80s saw a boom in aerobics and gym memberships, with Jane Fonda’s exercise videos rhythmically exhorting her followers to ‘feel the burn’ in pursuit of the ideal body of the time. The 90s, with its heroin chic movement and advent of the supermodel, swung the pendulum away from physical exercise and towards dieting, and rates of eating disorders among young women began to rise. Now, deep into the era of CrossFit, #cleaneating, protein shakes and fitspiration, the pendulum has swung back, this time in an explicit conversation with its predecessors: how many fitness memes have you seen containing the words ‘strong is the new skinny’?

Women… have been encouraged to deny ourselves all the pleasures of the flesh for a very long time.

Unfortunately, the images that accompany these words are, overwhelmingly, of thin, white, female bodies. They may have muscle definition, but there’s no doubt that they are still, to any casual observer, ‘skinny’. It’s easy to see new fitness’s line of inheritance from another online body-trend: thinspo. Short for thinspiration, thinspo consists mainly of idealised images of thin bodies – usually stomachs and thighs – and slogans designed to bolster women’s willpower. Here is where you will find Kate Moss’s famous phrase repeated over and over again: ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.’ Thinspo is the realm of pro-anorexia bloggers and young women with extremely disordered eating habits, so it makes sense that the proponents of new fitness would try to push back against their forbears. But in a health and fitness-obsessed society, ‘strong is the new skinny’ is not the opposite of ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’; it’s the logical continuation.

I spoke to my friend James Butler, who has written on disordered eating, about all this. James has an eating disorder, and finds the clean eating movement disturbing and triggering. He distilled the issue neatly: ‘There’s this crossover between clean eating and thinspo that seemingly no-one wants to acknowledge. People get really funny about it because there’s this crux of health that goes with clean eating, as opposed to what goes with thinspo. But it’s still promoting this one way that the body should be, and it’s still really aesthetic – there is an image of clean eating that is white, thin and a woman, so it’s still this idea of making the body look a certain way. It’s just different paths with a similar end point. But no-one wants to see it as a crossover, or even consider that it could be triggering to someone.’

New fitness gurus are keen to distance themselves from thinspo, because eating disorders are clearly unhealthy – and for new fitness, health is capital. Instagram and Facebook have allowed enthusiastic laypeople to gain expert status almost overnight, and worldwide booms in superfoods and ‘clean’ diets have launched some of these experts into superstardom. Consider Ashy Bines, whose Bikini Body Challenge diet plan instructs its participants to ‘avoid sugar like the plague’, make ‘naughty’ mousse by mixing cottage cheese and protein, and never, ever eat pasta – all under the triumphant banner of Clean Eating. Ask any dietician or nutritionist and they will happily tell you that there is no such thing as ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ foods – that you should eat carbohydrates, that the normal body fat percentage for women is around 25% and anything below 10%-13% can compromise your immune system. This doesn’t matter; new fitness’s health is faith-based.

This is a model of health and happiness that is dictated by a capitalist patriarchal culture.

Indeed, the many articles and interviews with concerned medical professionals have not stopped thousands of women from joining a movement that fetishises self-denial in the most gleeful way. Pro-anorexia bloggers often talk about the thrill of denying themselves food, but new fitness does not even allow for that direct an explanation. Looking at the history of female self-denial, we find that denial in pursuit of spiritual purity was easily replaced by denial in pursuit of a feminine ideal; now, however, we’re told it’s in pursuit of ‘health’ – and if the picture of ‘health’ happens to be the ideal female body, then what a happy accident!

Our bodies, and our relationships with our bodies, are deeply intimate – not everyone wants theirs to be a subject of discussion, criticism, or even praise. But if you follow new fitness you are encouraged to follow it publicly, tagging your #fitspo posts to sit alongside 34 million others. The implication is clear: what you’re doing is for the approval of others. It doesn’t matter how often people say that their exercising and meal-planning and shrinking is for their own health or happiness – this is a model of health and happiness that is dictated by a capitalist patriarchal culture. And of course, while new fitness exponents are happy to peddle a rhetoric of ‘health at every size’ and ‘love the body you’re in’, they are equally happy to only distribute images of thin, white, idealised femininity.

Christian philosophy tells us that humanity contains the ‘germ of sin’ – original sin (thanks, Eve), which inclines us to evil and ‘self-love’. True love, the Church teaches, is love for another, not love for the self; thus mastery of the body through mortification, penance and self-denial teaches us to turn our love outwards, and our spirits to become more like Christ. A quote from Saint Jose Maria Escriva: ‘To defend his purity, St. Francis of Assisi rolled in the snow, St. Benedict threw himself into a thorn bush, St. Bernard plunged into an icy pond… You… what have you done? If you realise that your body is your enemy, and an enemy of God’s glory since it is an enemy of your sanctification, why do you treat it so softly?’

Women who are obsessed with clean eating, health and fitness call themselves their ‘own worst enemy’. ‘No excuses’, they tell each other; ‘If it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t work.’ New fitness transmutes the discipline of the Christian ascetics into the shape of a dumbbell, and uses it once again to shame women for the way their bodies are. It tells them to rejoice in their poverty of joy. It replaces God with a capitalism-sanctioned Ideal Female Body, and tells its followers that one day, that body will be theirs.

New fitness transmutes the discipline of the Christian ascetics into the shape of a dumbbell, and uses it once again to shame women for the way their bodies are.

But the promises that new fitness makes are as unattainable for many women as a Christian paradise. Most living women who have jobs, families, responsibilities and interests will never look like Ashy Bines in a bikini. It is a fantasy, and it’s heartbreaking to think of the thousands of women denying themselves the pleasure of a cheeseboard and a glass of wine in pursuit of something that cannot make them happy, because it cannot come to be.

I don’t think it is healthy to participate in a culture that passes moral judgements on women’s bodies, whether it comes from a place of ‘caring for your health’ or a place of religiosity. New fitness is as rigid as any cult; there is good, and there is bad – pure and impure, clean and dirty – and between them, there is no room for reality, pleasure, indulgence or self-acceptance.

At the end of The Beauty Myth, Wolf urges her readers to ‘be shameless. Be greedy. Pursue pleasure. Avoid pain. Wear and touch and eat and drink what we feel like. […] And once we break through and change the rules so our sense of our own beauty cannot be shaken, sing that beauty and dress it up and flaunt it and revel in it.’ I can’t trust that there is more to life than this one body that I’ve got. I want to love it, and live in it, however it looks. To do otherwise would be the worst act of self-denial.