Be content with reality.
Running like Usain Bolt or swimming like Michael Phelps are talents that few will ever possess. It doesn’t stop us from running or swimming, but for the most part we understand that performing like an Olympian isn’t realistic. When it comes to beauty and fitness, however, even the most reasonable, rational, and grounded individuals lose their minds. SPOILER ALERT: You are not going to look like Brad Pitt or Jessica Alba. Your body will never again be the 20 year old version of itself. I don’t care how hard you work or how long you try, it ain’t gonna happen. Why people continually rake themselves over the coals in pursuit of an air brushed fantasy is beyond me. But they do it, day after day.
Now, the realization that few of us will ever look like a fitness model shouldn’t be a discouraging truth. Chasing an ultimate pipe dream isn’t a good way to stay motivated, and it certainly isn’t the best way to foster success. The fact of the matter is that the daily grind of small accomplishments is far more satisfying and fruitful. They are attainable, tangible, and immediate goals that don’t leave you groping for your self esteem. Still, for some reason we’re programmed to look beyond such baby steps and focus our efforts on some monolithic, ego-robbing unicorn instead. Why? Where does this compulsion for over-expectation come from?
First, our egos are innately competitive. Call it capitalism, call it human nature, but from our sports to our politics we love a knock down, drag out, mano y mano battle. We love determining winners and losers. This is a good and healthy thing, in my opinion. The problem is that when you couple it with vanity, “winning” takes on an obsessive and toxic quality. We look across the office or the parking lot and wonder, “why not me?” Why is she wearing that designer dress and I’m not? How come he’s got a BMW and I’m stuck driving this beater? Your internal monologue might not be so blunt, but whether it’s fine clothing, the newest iphone, or a luxury car, we covet that which we do not have. We measure our status and success against the competition and see how we stack up.
When it comes to beauty, fitness is fast becoming the standard unit of measure. Once upon a time the women gracing magazine covers were stick thin and all cheekbones. Now they’re hard bodies with curves. Gym memberships have become as regular as car payments, diet plans as common as IRAs. The premium for looking and living strong has never been higher and people everywhere are sizing themselves up. Take a look at what’s available for perusal at the checkout counter and you’ll see what I mean: 5 dedicated to celebrity gossip (usually about someone who has lost or gained weight), 4 to health/fitness/beauty directly, and 3 to the alien abductions of celebrities that were once fit and/or beautiful. There’s no Economist or Wall Street Journal. No classified ads. It’s kind of a joke, but one that is indicative of how important fitness has become in measuring our self worth.
This brings me to a second important point: expectations are sold. Between commercial concerns in cosmetics, fashion, entertainment, and fitness, society at large is hell bent on convincing us that world-class beauty is for everyone. Everywhere you turn there are age-defying skin creams, foolproof diet plans, and anti-gravity jeans. Monthly issues of health/fitness magazines consistently roll out new exercise ideas guaranteed to sculpt your chest and abs to match the fitness model demonstrating on the page. These are not advertisements concerned with real change. They are concerned only with the desire for change. Do you wish your stomach looked like this? Do you wish your wrinkles were gone? The answers are simple and easy. YES. Who wouldn’t? But wanting change and actually changing are two very different things.
So you go into a gym to act on your desires, and you’re introduced to a member of the globo gym membership team. This is a cast of numbers driven charlatans who gladly shepherd you towards the you you’ll never be. “Yes Mrs. Jones, you too can have the body you always wished you had. JLo’s ass, Jillian’s arms, and Jennifer’s legs. Just sign here.” Nevermind that Mrs. Jones has a knee replacement and a 60-hour a week job. Nevermind that she hasn’t been self-motivated since middle school. This is a marketing plan presented as an exercise plan; and it’s getting swallowed by a million trusting guppies every day.
It isn’t until months later that we realize how unrealistic our expectations were. We’ve been in the gym 3-4 times per week for an hour a day and have been diligently ignoring facts like age, health history, time management, and camera angles. After six months we check the mirror and—total shocker—our arms and abs look nothing like the cover of p90x like we’d hoped. Reality settles in and guess what? We’re not winning.
You might think that at this point, the average client would see through the advertising campaigns and the membership sales routine. You might even think they’d be offended at being so blatantly misled. But no. A rash of excuses rise up to explain the failure (insert dog ate my homework story here) and the fantasy is thus preserved. Better to believe that it was a mean series of coincidences that conspired to prevent success than own up to the fact that you bit off more than you could chew.
This is an inadvertent defense mechanism that protects us from reality. As a society, we don’t have the courage to accept inequality so we’ve programmed ourselves to believe that anything is possible. This is blatantly false. We are not created equal. We are not standing on a level playing field. There are advantages and disadvantages everywhere in life that contribute to a decidedly unequal distribution of talent and potential. This is reality. What’s more, this is okay! The idea that everyone can achieve their dream body is a Disney-fied load of crap meant to keep you paying your membership. Save your breath and your bleeding heart if you think it’s unfair. “Unfair” won’t help you deal with the fact that your body doesn’t look like a fitness model even though you “put your mind to it.” What will, is an honest moment of self-reflection and re-direction away from the standard methods of comparison.
Let us suppose for a minute that we re-imagined fitness as a subjective state of being and not an objective measurement. That the idea of being fit, or of being beautiful, wasn’t determined by comparison to others, but by comparison to self. For example: “I can do more work now than I once could, therefore I am fit.” Or, “I can wear these clothes better than I once could, therefore I am beautiful.” It doesn't matter how many pullups he can do, only how many I can do. It doesn't matter how good her legs look, only how good mine look. This type of outlook rewards modest and attainable expectations. Every day is a victory because every day is an improvement. It no longer is “I want to look like them,” it is, “I want to look like me, but better.” The latter is a realistic goal for everyone. The former will never be.
Accepting the truth of our limitations is actually liberating because it frees us from the burden of expecting that which we know to be impossible. Deep down, Mrs. Jones knows she can’t look like J-Lo, Jillian, and Jennifer. She’s fighting against time, injuries, and DNA to try and convince herself that she can, but she knows she can’t. Better to embrace this knowledge and focus on something attainable. Better to give herself something realistic to shoot for. The accumulation of small successes will leave her happier, more motivated, and far fitter than the obsession with a single monumental goal ever will.