I looked in the window’s reflection and saw my body. I mean, I really saw my body. And I felt … oddly happy.
What happened, I think, is that I wasn’t checking out my rear end, or trying to assess the flatness of my tummy, or to see if my thigh muscles were adequately defined. I was looking to see how I was doing on my recent quest to improve my running form (stride, posture, foot-strike, etc.). What I saw, looking through that lens, was something unexpected: A strong, healthy, 30-something woman running with a reasonable amount of confidence, and running, moreover, at 7:30 in the morning, when she certainly could have been doing something else.
I’m sure my running form wasn’t perfect. Goodness knows, my body wasn’t perfect, and the issue of pace wasn’t even on the table, but still, seeing myself that morning made me feel good. Because what I saw is that I’ve come a long way.
There was a time, in my childhood, where, thanks to asthma, I couldn’t run at all. There was a time, during college, where I was so weirdly insecure about my own body that I wouldn’t be seen in shorts. There was a time, not so very long ago, that I had a hard time not burying my personal priorities for health and fitness beneath a million other daily dramas. So in the scheme of things, what I saw in the glass window was a satisfying thing.
I recognize there’s a potential irony in doing a health and fitness magazine with a “satisfaction” theme. It seems that so much of the fitness industry trades on people’s inherent dissatisfaction with their bodies. And so much of the imagery set forth to inspire us — the sinew, the golden tans, the perfect teeth — has the potential to exacerbate our dissatisfaction.
We regularly get letters from readers who want to see more “real” and regular people in our pages. And a lot of the time, we think they’re right. Our talented art director, Lydia Anderson, does a heroic job of digging through (regrettably limited) stores of stock images to find those that reflect the beauty of different ages, races and personalities pursuing a healthy, authentic way of life. We take pains to show people engaged in the art of living and moving (vs. just flexing and preening), and to put health and fitness in a whole-life, whole-person context.
But it’s certainly true that in the name of creating an appealing publication, we choose many images, at least in part, for their aesthetic beauty. And, like virtually all magazines, we sometimes “improve” those images even more through the art of photo manipulation. In Photoshop, I’ve discovered, all things are possible: You can shave entire inches off a body, remove blotches and bumps, add shadows to define muscles, erase wrinkles, even give someone a perfect tan and perfect teeth if you want to. Compared to many other magazines, we generally go pretty easy on the electronic airbrush here at EL. But we do understand its dangerous power for creating ideals that are not, in reality, particularly achievable.
So what, you may ask, is the point of this mass hallucination?
Well, I do believe it’s important to have images of health, vitality, strength, energy — and yes, beauty — to hold in our minds, to help us connect to our own ideals and vision. But I have also experienced firsthand that it’s easy to let such idealized images get the better of us, to let them redefine and restrict our sense of the beautiful. And once they start polluting our appreciation of ourselves, the result is anything but inspiring.
That said, I also believe that each of us has the power to interpret the images we see, and to wield them as we choose, either for or against ourselves. If I were to take the image I saw in that plate-glass window and hold it up against any of the beautifully photographed images I see in this and other magazines, I could probably make myself miserable in a jiffy. But I also know that seeing beautiful, energizing images of athletic individuals is part of what inspired me to feel my own athletic potential and start exercising in the first place.
There’s an article in this, I know, and I know we’ll continue to hear from readers whose voices will have a place in that story. But in the meantime, I hope this issue of the magazine opens up many new avenues of satisfaction for you — including those that have less to do with appearance and more to do with experience. Because let’s face it: That’s where all the really beautiful stuff happens anyway.