Behind the Fat & Muscle

Neghar Fonooni is a coach, a speaker and a writer, but she got my attention, because she is also a fitness model who decided to stop counting calories and obsessing about the scale. The result: she gained about 15 pounds and felt a lot happier:
In 2009 I was 120 pounds and 12 percent body fat. I was ripped out of my mind and also ACTUALLY out of my mind. I counted every last calorie and worked out about two hours per day. I was in an abusive relationship, lacked confidence, and only felt good about myself when I was lean. I weighed myself every single day and allowed that number to dictate how I felt about myself. – Neghar Fonooni
Today, Neghar exercises less and enjoys red wine and local cuisine when she travels. She describes herself as active and strong but no longer “ripped,” and she couldn’t care less. She now coaches other women towards self-love and authenticity. To paraphrase one of my favorite things she’s written: ‘Know how you get a bikini body? Take your body, and put a bikini on it. No diet necessary.
Neghar has been criticized for shaming the uber-fit by publicly describing how miserable she was back in 2009, but in response, she says she in no way means that every person with rippling muscles is unhappy; her point is 12 percent body fat does not necessarily equal happiness, and when she was in pursuit of ultimate lean-ness, she came at it from an unhealthy angle. Life must be balanced with physical, mental and emotional health all considered, and neither body type – the super-hard nor the softer – is better than the other.
I’m going to take this a step further and say you can’t look at someone and know whether or not they are happy (as in, happy with life in general. If you come upon a stranger screaming at a grocery store clerk, you can safely assume that, in the moment, that person is not happy.)
As soon as we can stop looking at people’s appearances and assuming they are healthy or unhealthy, happy or unhappy, we can begin to see people for what they are – whole, complex, dynamic systems. While generalizations and statistics can be useful when thinking about large groups, dealing with individuals requires the realization that no person fits neatly into one, limited category.
We all do it – make those assumptions based on looks the instant we meet a new person. The trick is not necessarily to berate yourself for those assumptions, but to check yourself. When you see a larger person and assume they don’t eat healthily or see a muscly person and assume they’re stupid or unhappy, give yourself some grace, and then gently remind yourself to suspend that judgment. And, if the opportunity and inclination arises, get to know that person better. You never know what hidden gems you’ll find under whatever their exterior happens to be.
I get weekly emails from Fonooni, and they always make me smile. You can visit her website  to read more about what she does and sign up.

The Middle Way

In the original teachings of Buddha, there is a concept known as “the Middle Way.” It means avoiding extremes and adhering to moderation. The origin of this concept comes from the Buddha himself. Born into a wealthy family as Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha became dissatisfied with his life of riches and left his family to wander and seek happiness. He tried out abject poverty, eschewing all material possessions and found this didn’t lead to happiness either. What he eventually came to was the Middle Way: possessions are fine, even good, but it’s important to avoid becoming obsessed with them. They can bring some happiness, but letting the craving of them overtake you can lead to your stuff owning you instead of vice versa. Buddha applied the Middle Way to all aspects of life – possessions, status, sex, money, etcetera.

It occurred to me just today that this is applicable to something I’ve wrestled with in my head for a long time: the aesthetics of the human body. On the one hand, I fully believe media and society has led to a lot of our unhealthy striving for a certain kind of body, with very narrow, unrealistic parameters. We all see media images and, at least subconsciously, think, “I’m supposed to look like that – be that thin, that muscular, that young, that color.” This is definitely a negative. On the other hand, there is no denying the human form. We exist as physical entities, and it is in our genes to look at a group of people and prefer how some look over others, even if we’d been raised by wolves, devoid of media contact.

We are all exposed to media images. We can reduce our exposure, but we can’t eliminate it. We can’t pretend we don’t see physical differences, either. But, it would be folly to go about pretending we feel good and healthy about ourselves always trying to look a certain way. I have, at times, gotten to the point where I am scrutinizing myself in the mirror at close range, noticing all my supposed flaws – wrinkles, sun spots, sagging this, too small that. That is obsession, and it isn’t useful.

Where is the Middle Way in this? Well, there are a few pointers for finding it. First, limit your negative media exposure. Second, look at your whole person in the mirror ever so often and find all the good things your body does for you – “whole person” and “ever so often” are key. Acknowledge that you find certain people more attractive or less attractive, but don’t focus too much on it. The people you meet are more important to you for who they are, not how they look. As for clothes, wear the stuff that makes you feel good and comfortable – colors you like, soft fabrics, but don’t obsess over picking out just the right thing or how you look all day. Focus on being present in the things you do.

This applies differently to each person’s life. Everyone has different negative tendencies to overcome. But, I wanted to offer this because I’ve found looking for the Middle Way in a lot of things in life that bother me has put them in a comfortable perspective. Perhaps it will help you with a few things, too.