- Harry Sutton and Kel Glaister
CW: weight loss and dieting mentions
In the early days of the 20th century, sports teams tended to select people with an "average" or a "typical" build, for all sports. It was presumed that the most typical human shape would produce the greatest performance. When selection for normativity was scrapped, and entry opened to people with previously unwelcome body types, not only did sports teams see an immediate divergence in body shapes between sports, they also saw an increase in average performance in those sports. This seems obvious, looking back. Gymnastics will tend to select for short people, as short bodies experience less stress during lever holds and tumbling skills. High jump, on the other hand, tends to favour tall, light bodies.
However, in some sports, something similar has happened in more recent years. For some time, athletes in gymnastics teams, footy teams and the like all had to be under a certain percentage body fat. The assumption was much the same as the assumption back in the day: being really lean is just better. Therefore, if you're a young kid and you want to achieve Olympic greatness on beam, by gawd you'd better be under 15% body fat. If you're a teen thinking of kicking the winning goal in the grand final, you'd better be lean enough or you're going home. The fitness industry is built on this idea; that the leaner and harder and veinier your body is, the better you'll be. However the reality, like so many other things, is far from as clear-cut, and just like with the body shapes example, the eventual scrapping of the body fat percentage requirements lead to a reshuffle in national teams' layouts. It turns out that some body compositions aren't healthy for everyone. Every body has a 'set point', a weight their body likes to be at. Higher or lower, their ability to do things will suffer.
We've been talking about elite, competitive sport all this time. However, movement is not an inherently competitive activity. You don't win at parkour training. There are places where you can compete (at parkour, or fitness, or just about anything) but fundamentally what we do is a personal, mindful dialogue with our bodies and our environment.
Therefore, talking about weight loss isn't just unhelpful as we've already discussed, it's irrelevant. Melbourne in Motion is weight-neutral. We won't ever tell you to lose weight, and we won't give you advice on your diet. We are not dieticians, and we're not doctors. We are not interested in getting you a 6-week bikini body, or getting you Viking fit, or whatever. There are a lot of trainers, Instagram celebrities, and fit-looking people happy to give you promises of suspiciously dramatic body changes, all for suspiciously high prices. These people are selling you snake oil.
The truth is, diets don't work. It can be true that for some, who maybe want to get better at specific things (like climbing or a muscle up) or in sports with weight classes, losing weight might be worthwhile. But it is equally true that gaining weight might be beneficial - to lift heavier, or be stronger. Or to just not be hungry and miserable and thinking obsessively about food all the time. In any case, weight change is the means, and never the end. The process is the important part. Meaning, if you end up losing weight or gaining muscle, it shouldn’t be because you've been told you're ugly or because you're angry at your body. It'll be because you've found an active way to connect with the world around you, and the world within you.
We do care, deeply, about your health. But we know that the human machine is so infinitely and infuriatingly complex, each individual a maddening web of genetic, historical, social, economic, political and idiosyncratic influences, that oversimplifications like thin = good, and thinner = gooder are worth literally nothing, and actively harmful.
Too many people suffer from body dysmorphia, or are struggling with eating disorders, to take this issue lightly. Fat does not mean unhealthy, and thinness will not make you happy. Not to mention that cycles of yo-yo dieting, where an overly restrictive diet or overly intense training phase is followed by an inevitable binging phase when the stress (because your body thinks its literally starving to death) becomes too much, can lead to long-term damage to your health, and your ability to understand your own body and its hunger signals.
Not to mention that standards of beauty and body like this are inherently classist, and change with circumstance to become more difficult for poor and working class people. (Fat was the highest standard of desirability when food was scarce, and now high-calorie food is abundant but time is scarce, the standard is thin and/or two-hours-in-the-gym-a-day jacked)