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We're a pretty sharp group of women in this country. But our ranks are suffering, it seems, from a lack of focus, particularly when it comes to our own health and happiness. Regardless of our size, we all seem to be staring into the mirror feeling too "this" or too "that." This extremism is zapping our ability to see ourselves for who we really are: strong, free to make choices, intelligent, creative, and beautiful. Sure, sometimes we idolize fit women -- Serena Williams and Gabrielle Reece and Hilary Swank -- but more often, we let red-carpet celebs and runway models set standards of beauty without really thinking about how they got the bodies they have. "We hear of beauty inside and out, but I tell you, beauty takes work. Having to work for my new body has made me a stronger person on all fronts. I have worked tirelessly to change my entire state of being -- spiritually," Kirstie Alley told FITNESS recently. "If we are not beautiful to ourselves it would be very difficult for others to view us that way."
This month, wipe your mind clean of your preconceived notions of skinny, fat, or obese -- and start thinking about calorie burning or slimming or toning (whatever your goal!) as crucial to your health. We need to help support the idea of healthy, fit women. There should be a stipulation that if you're healthy and fit, you're a role model. "Regular exercise can reduce stress, stabilize your mood, improve immune function, lower blood pressure, improve cardiac function, boost energy, and improve sleep. And did I mention it can make you feel sexy, strong, and powerful?" says Sarah Harding, Ms. Fitness USA (2004 and 2006) and spokesperson for the Foundation for Chiropractic Progress. "The aesthetic benefit is the icing on the cake."
While loving the way you look is a fine goal, we need to aim for our own personal best (not someone else's image), and recognize that beauty can come in all shapes and sizes. When FITNESS launched its real-women campaign last year, vowing not to put celebrities on the cover but to showcase, instead, real women and athletic models on our pages, we got overwhelmingly positive feedback. Feeling enlightened but in need of more information, FITNESS began further testing of images and headlines: We showed women "get healthy" messages alongside promises of quick weight loss and body toning. Guess what happened? Women overwhelmingly chose the quick fix. It's human nature. It's very American. But, it's a problem.
We asked national experts how to solve the split between how we think (make me skinny too!) and what we say (don't show us unhealthy models!) -- here's what they want you to know. Their main point: Never forget that feeling well and fit is the key to happiness. It's about movement, being able to do what you want, and maintaining good health. But we're not all there yet, say our experts: "Americans are in denial. We need to begin a journey of mental and physical transformation. We need to recognize that being fit or being a healthy weight is about wellness -- not about a number on the scale. Wellness is a gift you give yourself. Ask yourself, if not now, when are you going to stop searching outside for an answer to how you should look inside?" says Pamela Peeke, MD, a FITNESS advisory board member and author of Body for Life for Women and the new book Fit to Live.
Another problem experts identified: When it comes to our bodies, we're always reaching for that unrealistic brass ring. We can never achieve it, so we think, Why bother, right? "In the U.S. there's a tiny segment of the population -- the super-slim -- that has incredible ability to influence the rest of us. It shouldn't," Martin Binks, PhD, director of behavioral health at Duke University Diet & Fitness Center, told FITNESS. "When it comes to body image, the key is to focus on how you feel, not on the number on the scale. There's a broad range of numbers and weights that are healthy. Some skinny, some heavier. Not just one. Exercising and eating right -- if you do those things, then you're at your healthy weight," says Rene Zweig, PhD, director of eating disorders and weight management at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York City.
Experts that FITNESS spoke with said that we need to look inward and tackle the problem, mind and spirit. Start by giving yourself a simple definition of wellness and remind yourself of it daily. Wellness means being fit to live, not just to survive but to thrive: eating on a regular schedule, exercising daily (even for just 20 minutes), and not obsessing over the hot diet book or shockingly skinny celeb of the moment.
If you need a fast fix to get you jump-started on the road to body positiveness, well then, maybe a headline like "Get the Body You Want" or "Drop Inches All Over" isn't a bad reason to pick up a copy of FITNESS. The quicker we can get you started on a path to health and wellness -- whether that be dropping weight because your BMI is over 25, working in 5 or 10 minutes of toning moves in the morning, or finding inner confidence -- the better.
Our mission at FITNESS: To help you start truly believing that beauty comes from the inside out. "I've started exercising and eating right and I've started to love my self-image, which I think is closely related to beauty," one reader recently wrote. Another explained, "Three words come to mind when I think about beauty: natural, healthy, and fit." View yourself as a work in progress, says Leslie Bonci, RD, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, "Figure out things you're willing to do to achieve your goal, to improve yourself, and say, Aren't I worth it?"
Remember the words of curvy-proud Queen Latifah the next time you look in the mirror: "My body is my body and it is more of a question of health and not a question of becoming someone else. I think health is not just about weight but it is about mind, spirit, and emotions. I have accepted me," she told FITNESS.
Be inspired by positive role models -- Rachael Ray. Meryl Streep. Ellen DeGeneres. Jennifer Hudson. America Ferrara. Serena Williams. Penelope Cruz. Denise Austin. Diane Keaton. Helen Mirren. Queen Latifah. Tyra Banks. Christy Turlington. Margaret Cho. Jamie Lee Curtis. Meredith Vieira. Kate Winslet. Beyonce. The list goes on. Just like you, they want to be recognized for who they are and how hard they have worked to get there, not just for how they look in a bikini or strolling down the red carpet. Or, to put it another way: A healthy attitude -- not sizes or labels or eating plans or workouts or the skinny starlet and model of the moment -- will help you be the best you can be.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2007.