You’ve already heard me talk about Michelle Lelwica’s book, “The Religion of Thinness” (I highly recommend it) but I wanted to expand upon a chapter she has in the book about the “Community of Thinness”. In it, she describes the benefits that we humans, as social beings, get out of belonging to communities of like-minded individuals, be they religious organizations, political groups, community service groups, labor unions, fitness clubs, or support groups. Communities like these support, encourage, and uplift us. They can call our attention to the fact that we are losing our way, acting as a moral compass. But, the very same communities can have detrimental effects: they can lead us toward rigid, black and white thinking, until we find ourselves engaging in what sociologists call “groupthink”, in which opinions that differ from the majority of group members are not welcome. Tightly knit communities can become judgmental of those who don’t embrace all of their philosophies and can be quite exclusive. I’m sure each of you can think of an organization to which you once belonged (or still belong) that has had both benefits and drawbacks.
The first one that comes to my mind is the gym I belong to. You see, gyms, fitness clubs, and even weight loss support groups are “Communities of Thinness”. They promote the following ideas: 1) Your body is imperfect; 2) You will be happy (i.e., “a success”) if you lose weight and/or gain or tone muscle; 3) You can’t lose weight or tone muscle alone — you need the group; 4) The more focused you are on weight loss and muscle toning, the easier it is to succeed. Michelle Lelwica’s warnings about the drawbacks of these communities of thinness came to mind this past week when I participated in a workout class at my gym.
As I entered the “spin cycle room” and started adjusting my bike for my height and leg length, I gave myself a mental pep talk: “Meg, you are gonna feel so great after this! You can do it!” I was already buying into the idea that I will be happy (happier) if I lose weight or tone up. As the music started and the BPM went up and up (along with my heart rate), I reminded myself to tune into my body’s energy levels (this is NOT encouraged in this particular community of thinness…working out until you are exhausted is valued). 30 minutes later, I was beginning to feel fatigued as the instructor shouted, “Come on! Keep going! We’re climbing a steep hill! Think about how toned and sculpted your glutes will be! Think about how great you’ll feel!”
About 45 minutes into the hour-long class, I felt slightly breathless and decided to slow down my pace and back off the resistance level on my bike. No sooner had I done that than the workout instructor screamed into her mic, “Don’t back off! Keep going! Push harder! You can do it!” I don’t know for sure that her words were aimed at me, but it was an interesting coincidence. And, it left me with a decision — try to please my workout instructor (and the community of thin-aspiring bikers around me) by picking up the pace again OR honor my body and its current energy levels and needs. I opted for the latter and was fine with my decision. At the end of the class, however, it was clear that the community of thinness around me noticed and disapproved; the instructor told me I would get stronger each time I took the class and encouraged me to keep trying. Clearly, this community believed that the more I focused on toning, the greater success I’d have.
After recovering from the class (and from the days of sore muscles that followed it), I’ve been thinking about how little I enjoy being a part of the Community of Thinness. At my gym, I am confronted with posters of thin, happy people and bombarded with nutrition and weight loss advice on the overhead TVs. I hear workout instructors “motivating” (aka – screaming at) people to work harder. I see painfully thin individuals running on treadmills every day for 60 minutes or more. I see overweight individuals seeking help from personal trainers and being worked too hard and improperly for their fitness level. This week, my mind is screaming, “Where is the mindfulness in all of this??” When do we stop listening to what other people tell us is good for us and start listening to what our bodies already know is good for us?
It is our human need to be a part of a community, to belong somewhere. I just hope that we can fulfill this longing for connection through outlets other than the community of thinness. If we weren’t so focused on weight loss and toning, where else might we find connection and relatedness with others?
Peace, joy, and health.