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The Truth About Fitness Models [Baby, I was born this way?]

Posted Sep 13 2011 10:53pm

I love this ad! I bet Death is a smoker.

Everything I learned about fitness models I learned from a stripper. Well, an ex-stripper. She was at the book-signing table next to me at local event a while back and because neither of us were selling any books (book signing = sitting and trying not to cry into the water you had to buy for $5), we ended up chatting most of the night. First, I learned a lot about the stripping business as she was selling a book about how to apply stripping principles to the business world (they have more in common than you’d think). My favorite story, included in her chapter on real estate: she used to tell her customers she had three kids and that that night she’d had to feed them “ketchup soup” because “mommy has no money.” She never had children. And she made a crap ton of money.

But as soon as she heard that I write for Shape and do workout slideshows for, she was on a one-woman mission. Despite me telling her repeatedly that I have zero input on casting models for the magazine (ZERO), she kept trying to convince me to get her friend, an aspiring fitness model, in the magazine.

“She’s got the best body I’ve ever seen!” she gushed – an accolade I took seriously considering how many female bodies she’d likely seen over the years.

“What kind of workouts does she do?” I asked out of curiosity. (For the record, I also asked her what kind of workouts she did (answer: nothing) and if stripping was a good workout (answer: pole, yes. Lap dancing, not so much.))

“Oh she can do whatever you want her to! She’s amazing!”

I considered repeating for the tenth time that I couldn’t help her friend but instead asked, “No, I mean what kind of training does she do to stay in such great shape?”

“Oh, not much actually. She runs sometimes. I kind of hate her.” This, coming from a woman so gorgeous that when she said she was in her 40′s I demanded to see her ID as I would have guessed she was 25. I kind of hated the both of them.  ”She was pretty much born that gorgeous.”

And there it was. The answer to one of the perennial fitness questions: Does your training determine your body shape or does your body shape determine your training? Also known as, “Will I get a ‘dancer’s body’ by dancing?”

This conversation was brought back to mind as I was reading The New Rules of Lifting for Women  (aff) for September’s Great Fitness Experiment (update: still on stage 2, going great!). The main author, Lou Schuler, has been an editor of several major fitness magazines (Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness) and written for pretty much all the others so he’s seen a lot of fitness models in his day. And he has an entire section devoted to, “the fallacious notion that by doing a particular person’s workout , they can have a physique like that person.”

He writes, “Let’s say you accept the impossibility of developing a celebrity’s proportions without being a clone of that celebrity. Chances are, you still believe you can achieve a ‘type’ of physique if you train like people who have that type.

“Magazines feed this notion, rarely stated in so many words, by showing tall, lean models doing workouts that promise readers a long, lean physique. Of course this makes perfect sense from the magazine’s point of view. They aren’t going to sell many copies if they show short, chunky women in their workout features. But you have to understand that the models doing the workouts are just that. They were cast by photo editors specifically because they already have what the feature promises. If the exercises in the feature are unique, you can bet the model is doing them for the first time. She had that body when she walked in the door of the studio, and she’ll still have it when she walks out. That’s why she’s a model.

“An obvious point? Okay. But raise your hand if you believe that running will make you look like a runner. If your hand isn’t in the air you’re probably not being honest.” (Emphasis mine.)

I was nodding in agreement the whole time I read it. And I still raised my hand at the end. It’s hard to look at those whippet-thin women who run marathons professionally and not think that it was the running that gave them that body rather than thinking it’s more likely they naturally excel at running because they are built like a whippet. I’m not saying they don’t work hard to be that good – I’m just saying they are attracted to the sport because they have some natural ability in it. When you look at the non-pros that run you will see every body type imaginable because lots of us enjoy it regardless of our shape. But when you look at elite levels there is very little deviation from the lithe mold. Kind of like professional models.

I think the other reason I’ve believed this for so long is because I want it to be true. I want to believe that Pilates will give me “long, lean muscles” even though I know that the length of my muscles was determined by my genes before I was even born. I want to believe that if I do Gwyneth Paltrow’s workout that I will look like her. Even though I know Madonna does the exact same one and she and Gwynnie look totally different. I want to believe it because the alternative is learning to accept and the love the body I’ve been given and that can be very hard work. But you, if you believe this myth too, and I pay for this belief. We pay in money when we buy the magazines or DVDs but even more we pay with our tears, body hate and punishing workouts in pursuit of a goal that was never attainable.

This is the best argument in my mind for exercising for health over exercising for looks. Of course workouts have the ability to help you look the best with the body you have – dropping fat and gaining muscle looks good on everyone! – and workouts do, to some extent, shape your body to the work you are performing (see boxers and their buff arms). But no workout has the ability to give you a new bone structure or more height or make your body suddenly decide to start storing extra fat in your boobs instead of your thighs. I don’t know why this is a lesson I have to keep re-learning. Thank goodness for (ex)strippers!

What do you think – do you agree with Lou Schuler that this is a myth or do you think you look like what you do? Were you as surprised as I was when he said that the photoshoot was likely the first time the model had ever tried that workout? Anyone else have Lady Gaga’s “Born this way” stuck in their head now too? You’re welcome.

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