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A.J. Walkley Headshot

Setting a New Female Ideal: Fit Instead of Fat or Thin

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Last week I found myself put off by an article in the New York Times titled "Female Stars Step Off the Scale." The writer discusses how more actresses in starring roles are coming out of the woodwork with what could be considered "normal bodies" -- think Mindy Kaling of The Mindy Project and Lena Dunham of Girls -- aka women who are a bit chubby or slightly overweight.

While I am happy that there is a bit of diversity in the shapeliness of our leading Hollywood women, I cannot help but be surprised that we are now going from one side of the "weight obsessed" spectrum to another. What's troubling is that we're still focusing on the scale at all. Where is the discussion of health and fitness in all of this? Isn't it time for the "ideal female figure" to be the epitome of physically fit and healthy?

I'm all for self-acceptance, don't get me wrong, and I think it is wonderful that young girls have a variety of female role models in television and film to look up to in multiple ways. However, in a nation that is struggling with an obesity epidemic, it seems like our focus needs to shift to a new paradigm for both women and men; we need to move away from seeing a certain number on the scale to be "beautiful" and move towards being more active and physically fit. We are barraged in the media with "skinny" and "fat," but the "fit" is missing, and that's a problem.

The thing is, technically "fat" people can be fit and "skinny" body types can be prone to a slew of health issues. A lot of women and girls I know, including myself, are so inundated with media telling us we need to be thin that we focus on the numbers we see on the scale, then count and cut calories from our diets in an effort to reach "perfection." Many people don't include exercise in their efforts to get skinny, perhaps because of the impression that building muscle will only add to that number on the scale. When you cut too many calories and aren't getting active as well, it is likely that your body will not only burn fat, but muscle, too. You may appear skinny, but that doesn't mean you're healthy.

Getting away from the "skinny is beautiful" line and heading toward the "slightly overweight can be beautiful, too" tract is not instilling anyone with healthy ideas about their own bodies. Yes, diversity is beautiful, but embracing being overweight can be dangerous, too. Should we be telling people that eating an entire cake á la Lena Dunham's Emmy sketch last month is okay if you have self-acceptance? Or should we be teaching people, especially today's youth, that a well-balanced diet and ample time spent doing a physical activity should be considered as well?

Ironically, one of the best role models currently on the air might be Jillian Michaels, a celebrity trainer famous for whipping obese contestants into shape on The Biggest Loser. She may be on a show that sensationalizes obesity for entertainment value, but Michaels is the embodiment of strong and healthy. She used to weigh a lot more as well, making her an even stronger (pun intended) celebrity to look up to. She serves as a muse for the contestants and the audience, personifying the goals they are striving to reach.

I'm not immune to the pressures of our culture. I've battled my own weight and diet issues as most females I know have, and continue to do so. Looking for figures in the public eye to look up to as I continue my own personal quest for better health and fitness has been difficult and it shouldn't be that way.

The focus of beauty needs to shift to accommodate health and, until media portrayals begin to shift in the same ways, it's hard to believe that anything will change on the front of eating disorders, self-esteem, self-confidence and weight-related health concerns for all genders of all ages.