Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Powerful Weight

Changing the Conversation on Body Image
Article by Emily Gindlesparger
Photos by Jade Beall

center02Stand among any group of cyclists waiting to head out on a ride, inevitably you’ll hear someone – shrink-wrapped in Spandex and vulnerability – complain about his/her body fat.
Aimee Snyder said it’s group-ride gossip. She’s heard it before.

“It’s a standard conversation that you hear them grumbling about,” she said. “One of the men on the team is 220 pounds. He’s a large cyclist, but it’s all muscle. He calls himself ‘fatamasaurus’.”

There’s the more avian-bird-frame guys, and they’re going up this hill, and they started joking about how his legs are like belly flops against the wind. And yet, belly flops and all, her team has done amazing things: in late July they completed RAGBRAI, a seven-day ride across Iowa, raising enough money for Honor Flight to fill an entire plane with Southern Arizona veterans to visit memorials in Washington, D.C.

It broke Snyder’s heart when, in her middle school class, she wanted to show how they could integrate math into their health lesson by calculating body mass index.

“It was a disaster. I will never, ever, do that again,” she said.

Oh, the BMI, you know how little this number describes your lifestyle and your health.

centerAs the students plotted their numbers on a graph, “I was watching them put their dots on and thought, ‘no, wait, this is horrible!’ And I told them, ‘this is not real math this is just norm referencing! No one’s going to say that you’re not normal, everyone’s normal.’ And they were just like, ’I’m too fluffy,’ and I was like, ’no you’re not, you’re beautiful!’

From then on the scope was always, your body is a tool and it’s going to take you everywhere and you only get one of them.”

From her classroom, and from the bike lane, Snyder was seeing how difficult it was for people to love their one beautiful body.

Jade Beall understands. While at her photography studio, Beall was embracing a similar roadblock. After posting photographs of her post-pregnancy body, she received stories from all over the world from women who had struggled with weight and self-image. Those stories now comprise a multi-volume book project called “A Beautiful Body.” Seeing some of the photographs for the first time made her realize how awesome the world would be if everyone felt so beautiful, so whole?

Beall wants to change the conversation, reverse the complaints we have about our bodies. Listening to the pre-ride coffee shop chatter, I couldn’t help but think that we could stand to change the conversation in our clique, too.

center03In cycling specifically, riders have a clever excuse for their idle talk hidden in the power-to-weight ratio. A lighter, powerful body will pedal faster uphill, and I’ve heard cyclists trash talk each other about shaving weight off components when they should be shaving it off their spare tires. Some small amount of shame seems built into the equipment, too: the avian bird guys cruise on featherlight rims. The fatamasauruses have to buy special rims for their heavier frames.

“I wonder if that makes it any worse,” Snyder suggests.

Conversely, she explains, long, hard rides cause the body to store fat, not shed it. As a PhD public health student into endurance sports, Snyder combed through research to explain why – longer distances – had her body weight stay the same.

“It’s an extreme amount of exercise and so in a way your body goes into shock. Your body’s like, ‘I’m going to save these calories and store them away because I’m going to need it.’ And so sometimes we’re training our bodies to do the opposite of what we’re actually intending to happen.” The research explained that to shed pounds, you’re better off keeping a workout duration to an hour, or 90 minutes at most.

But who would give up those long rides? The problem as I see it is not that cycling won’t produce a desired body type; the problemis that we can’t manage to revel in healthy bodies and a sport that takes us places. Perhaps for professional riders whose careers are at stake, it’s worth the short periods of carefully monitored weight control to perform a few seconds better in a race. (Although a study among competitive cyclists found 20 percent had signs of eating disorders, only half knew it.) So, why do we let that obsession trickle down to the coffee shop rides?

“I like to focus on my body taking me places. My body is going to take me across Iowa, and it doesn’t matter what it looks like because it’s powerful,” Snyder said as she was preparing for RAGBRAI. She doesn’t like the way she looks in her kit, but photos say otherwise. She’s beautiful, beaming.

Beall has been blown away by how beautiful and how self-critical her models can be.

“In some sense I feel like athletic women have an opportunity to suffer more. But all the women I’ve worked with who have ’standard beauty’ have deep stories of self-loathing and being called names, being judged,” she said. “Women are taught this.”

Yes – I thought – women, cyclists, and any other group that holds audience to some standard conversation about how we should look and perform is amiss. I’m ready, and I hope others are too, to just shut up and go for a good long ride.

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