Girl Power: How Teens Are Changing the Face of Fitness
The Body-Image Issue
Yet the absence of "team spirit" -- especially in a fitness-club setting -- worries some experts. "When you're working out at a gym, everything is focused on you," points out Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber, PhD, a professor of sociology at Boston College and the author of The Cult of Thinness. "You are surrounded by mirrors magnifying your body." If the focus of fitness becomes solely about looking good instead of feeling good, Hesse-Biber says, it ceases to be healthy.
While girls like Brianna and Sasha hit the gym for the fun factor, there's no question that others simply want to squeeze into size 2 jeans. Karen Jashinsky, founder of the teen-only 02 Max fitness club in Santa Monica, California, admits that for many kids who come to her club, looking better in their Facebook photo is a big concern. For girls at risk for an eating disorder, this motivation -- combined with increased cardio outlets -- is worrisome.
Still, the general consensus is that for most girls, any form of exercise will do more to boost self-esteem than harm it. When you consider the relative impact of obesity (affecting 15 percent of girls) versus anorexia (affecting an estimated 1 percent), it's hard to argue. And watching a daughter's transformation from couch potato to fitness fan is reason enough for most moms to encourage her to continue. "My friends and I played softball as kids, but I haven't picked up a bat in decades," says Kathy Young, 44, one of three moms who founded Healthy Girls, a self-esteem and fitness program for elementary- and middle-schoolers in Portsmouth, Virginia. "The other women my age who didn't exercise as kids still don't work out. We're all late on the fitness learning curve. We want our daughters to be ahead of the game."
In fact, it's the moms to whom Marla Past, cofounder of Underground Fitness, wants to reach out these days. "My dream is to have mothers come in for separate, adult-only exercise and nutrition classes," she says. "It kills me to see how many overweight, overworked women stop by to drop off their children but do nothing for themselves." As for the kids -- all shapes, all sizes, but all grinning with enthusiasm on a damp afternoon when they could easily be Web surfing rather than Spinning -- they're all right.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, September 2008.
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