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Mira Sucharov


Don’t ask me about my abs

by Mira Sucharov, March 24, 2011

Purim, the holiday we just celebrated, is a holiday of disguise and inversion. As we celebrate having dodged another historical attempt at Jewish extinction, we are told to imbibe “until we don’t know the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai.” We also don costumes, changing our physical appearance for a day.

But -- and I direct this to my fellow women in particular -- what would happen if, when the costumes come off this year, we take it all off? What if, instead of focusing on our inner selves as a path to personal fulfillment and psychological meaning, we were to focus on our outer selves, and, dare I say it, tread the path of vanity?

But to do it right, we need to do put away the scale and embrace the mirror.

Why “nay” to the scale and “yay” to the mirror? Scales are blunt instruments for measuring physical vitality. They can also be mentally destructive. Along with the fashion industry and its awful magazines, scales effectively tell us: shrink yourself away! Get down to a size 4 or 2 -- or even 0! In fact, it’s better that you don’t exist -- in any spatial sense -- at all!

Instead, we need to embrace the mirror. But not just any mirror: a mirror that doesn’t let us focus on the minutae of our face: nose too big? Eyelids drooping? Skin loosening? That kind of self-obsession -- while certainly enriching the pockets of plastic surgeons and the cosmetics industry -- doesn’t lead anywhere good. Instead, I suggest we go to a mirror that focuses us on the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of our bodies: namely, our muscular anatomy.

When my trainer at the JCC told me recently that my lats and traps had never looked better, I did a double-take. His comment diverged from society’s regular physical messages. It made me think of my body not as something that needs to be shrunk, nor as an object primarily of sexual interest. It made me think of my physical being as a subject, something with its own power to achieve optimal mechanical functioning, and the beauty of line, dimension and angle that goes along with that.

Certainly, obesity is a widespread problem on this continent, fueled by the processed food and fast-food overeating cycle. We have a public health epidemic on our hands that needs to be addressed. That much we know.

But the remaining physical messages we receive daily from the media are about our sexual potential. Are our breasts and buttocks the right size and shape to invite attraction? Men face similar, though somewhat different, societal challenges, of course.

But what if we thought more about maximizing and enjoying our own physical potential -- rather than focusing on shrinking it away, or putting it in the service solely of the mating dance?

We know that our bodies weren’t made for the intensely sedentary lifestyle that technology and changing modes of work have contributed to. Our ancestors hunted animals, gathered plants, and fled predators, all activities requiring endurance and agility. Once tools were invented, they too required the user to apply a range of muscular motion to use them effectively.

Passing mirrors the next few days after my weight training session, I realized I had adopted a new, heady vanity. I lingered over my lats, traps, delts and tris that I’d worked hard to challenge over the last two years. Following my regular cardio routine, I stuck around to engage in the fitness pastime that is more often the domain of men.

But this newfound vanity was sustaining, not depleting. As long as I continued my gym regime, my muscles would continue to be shaped, honed and strengthened. I wasn’t chasing an anorexic runway dream; I was building a most visceral power -- physical capacity.

Not all vanity leads down the road to health and agility. Think models who starve themselves, body builders who push their bodies to ridiculous extremes, or the greasers in Grease. Danny Zucko and his buddies never met a mirror they didn’t like. Combs always at the ready, they kept Brylcream in business. But take those vain bodies to the gym and they simply fell apart. In Danny and Sandy’s world, fitness was for the jocks. The self love of the greasers was a vanity of cigarettes and motorcycles, not of appreciation of the human form as it was intended.

This year, following Purim, I will think about strength, force and agility as a counterpoint to ancient Persia. Unlike Vashti’s appearance that was used -- and denied -- in the service of male amusement, the muscular form is one that is intrinsically empowering and universally beautiful. Just don’t ask me about my abs. Those will have to wait until Yom Kippur.

Former Winnipegger  Mira Sucharov is an Associate Professor of  Political Science At Carleton University.

[Editor’s note: an academic with fine lats and traps—go figure] 


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