A friend asked me recently about exercises for toning her legs. Which, to reinterpret through my own window – how do you make your legs look better? Or how do you help someone feel better about their legs?
Sometimes I struggle with these sorts of questions these days. Personally, I try not to pander to the desire to ‘look sexier’ anymore – not like I used to. When I was at my thinnest, I still thought I was fat, and somewhere I made a different decision: I had done everything I could, and I thought – well, if I can’t be thin, I’m going to be big, damnit!
And I started lifting weights, and eating like a weightlifter. I made a lot of progress, and I started to feel much better about my body. Not because of how it looked, but because I had decided to embrace it and play to my strengths. I enjoyed weightlifting for its own sake – not because of a vague promise about how it might make me look in the future, but because I enjoyed the training, and I enjoyed feeling strong.
And I discovered that I enjoyed being big. It’s different. I enjoy taking up the space I inhabit with pride, space I used to be ashamed of, and I like looking like someone who knows how to have fun – and who is strong and graceful – as opposed to someone who is strong and fit, but who looks like they’re just too hard on themselves.
But in the end – I don’t know. These too, are vague assumptions. Who really knows what they look like to another person? You kinda look the way you do and the terrible and liberating truth is that if someone thinks you’re hot, gaining or losing a few kilograms isn’t actually going to change that, and if someone does not think you’re attractive, losing weight isn’t going to help you. Attraction is more than a size-issue. You can drop ten pounds, and nobody’s going to notice but you. And you can drop thirty, and you’ll still be the same person.
But I didn’t get into that sort of discussion with my friend. I just gave her some leg exercises to do which will help make her stronger. And you can’t go too far wrong with strong legs. Women who want their legs to look good – the thing I like about that dynamic is that it’s not difficult to get women to train their legs. Sometimes it’s difficult to get men to train their legs. But of course, I don’t like feeding insecurities or promoting the beauty standard, even indirectly.
The thing with toning is that it doesn’t exist. It’s a vague term to refer to a vague aesthetic. It’s about ‘looking fit’. In physical terms, it probably relates to a small degree of hypertrophy – a little muscle growth, while still having some fat on your body. The muscle gives you a certain shape, and the fat smooths out the edges, and then you look toned – especially if you’re walking around flexing your calves all the time and creating excess tension just for the fuck of it.
But toning isn’t actually a thing, not on a cellular level, not in the muscles, and it’s not something you can directly train for.
And as much as I told my friend, hey these simple exercises – lunges, squats, calf raises and glute bridges – are good for your legs, for strength and mobility and maintaining healthy joints – I often wonder about motivation.
I’m not a motivator. I don’t know how to do that. If you care about one thing, but not another, I don’t know how to change that. If you don’t care about anything, I don’t know how to change that. I’m not going to try to shame you in an effort to modify your behaviour, because I don’t like feeling like an asshole while setting people up for failure. I will try to encourage you to do things you like, that are good for you, simply because they’re good – but that’s a lot harder than you might think.
Maybe my friend will train a bit because she wants to improve her legs, and maybe she’ll give up, and maybe she’ll persevere. Maybe she’ll achieve results, maybe she’ll become resentful of the training, or maybe she’ll become intrigued by weightlifting – I don’t know. Any of this might happen, but it’s not really my business.
But I wonder sometimes – I wanted to look different, I started training differently, and somewhere along the way I became dissatisfied with myself and the process. I did myself a degree of harm. But somewhere else along the way, I started to enjoy a different process. And I learned things I did not expect to learn. Things never turn out quite the way you would have thought. I didn’t start looking like a fitness model, but I did start to look like a weightlifter. And I enjoyed lifting weights. I came to something positive, but I got there via expectations that were a bit off and a poor sense of self worth. I was motivated by the kind of ambition that is usually applauded, but in truth is actually based on a deep sense of worthlessness – a sense that you must be changed and improved to be made a worthwhile human.
So these days I struggle when people ask me how to ‘improve’ a certain part of their body. On the one hand, it doesn’t need improvement. But I think it’s good to train, to exercise, to experience your body in motion. And it’s good to have a physical sense of turning something you hate into something you don’t hate. But of course this doesn’t really happen on the level of appearance. This is a state-of-mind issue. You can, with training, become friends with a body part you used to despise.
And I try to emphasise something like that. I think some of my clients hate their bodies a bit less when they train with me, because if they want to work on a thing, I’ll try to help in whichever way I can – but I won’t reaffirm that their problem area actually is a problem area. And that’s got to be a positive thing. Because if you can practice moving your body, training your body, without that self-critical mind being reaffirmed, maybe you can find value, a kind of freedom in the process. Maybe you’ll find that you enjoy the movement, or the strength, or the grace or coordination you learn. Maybe you’ll enjoy training and hanging out with someone who doesn’t try to motivate you with fear.
Many of us resent training. It doesn’t deliver on the promises, it requires commitment and all it gives us is a sense of frustration. But the expectations are off. If you train strength in order to get strong, you really can do something. Your training can be about something. If you want to be more flexible, you can train for flexibility. You can train for coordination, rehabilitation, and sporting performance. There are specific things you can do. But if you’re training because you feel unattractive – the problem is not your body, it’s your perception of your body, and if you never address the feeling of unattractiveness, you’ll never resolve it. You might feel like you start to look better, but it will remain such a vulnerable, fragile thing. And the closer people get to that, the more easily they are derailed.
I don’t mean to be gloomy. Quite the opposite. Pandering to the demands of the beauty standard never really made anyone happy – it never fulfilled anyone. It was never the path of self-knowledge or self-actualisation. But you can work on yourself, your perspective, at any size. I had a thought recently – we know that a person can feel ugly at any size or shape. Why then, do we try to solve this problem of feeling unattractive by trying to change our size and shape? There is something else, something worthwhile you can do, and then when you do exercise, you’re not just compensating for feeling shitty about yourself, instead you’re free to work on something that you like, something that helps you to grow or develop, or simply feel free in your own body – a body that maybe you’re friends with now.