Exercise DVDs: When Bodywork and the Self Collide

A friend recently mentioned to me that they wanted to do a workout DVD called “TapouT XT” , a program similar to Insanity but with resistance bands and MMA style workout techniques.

Since I didn’t actually have the time to watch it, I looked it up anyway and began to watch the half-hour long infomercial for the TapouT thing.  Most of the things that were being presented were similar ploys for other workout programs — showing real people and their results from the workout, claims that it is the “hardest workout in the world”, etc.

tapout 1

But one woman’s testimony caught my attention. One of the “success stories” on the infomercial was a woman who stated that she started the program because “my body doesn’t match who I am”. She said it just like that: “my body doesn’t match who I am”. Hm.

I found it interesting that this woman was defining her very self, the essence of her personality, as linked to the way that her body looked. She is perceiving her body as the “embodied personal self-projection” (Jan Brace-Govan), where her physical body is believed to communicate to the rest of the world for her.

The concept that this workout was serving as a form of bodywork (Brace-Govan), or conscious activity to create a specific physicality for all of these people, led me to look at other infomercials for workout programs. I happened to find infomercials for Insanity, P90X, and Jillian Michaels’ Body Revolution. Unsurprisingly, I noticed similar themes to the other video: participants “didn’t feel very good about themselves.” There was emphasis on time spent on their bodies, and a negative connotation associated with people who had excuses that prevented them from engaging in bodywork.


The point that I’m trying to make is not that I think these workouts don’t work and that they are the spawn of Satan himself. What I wanted to highlight was the fact that these videos use the unhealthy body image perceptions of their audience to convince them that they absolutely must invest in their product to gain social worth and acceptance. There is an inextricable link between morality and your body, and too often this is exploited so that people use their bodies to do all of the talking. This link is a social practice that is not based in any scientific data. And while the fact that women (and men, in this case) are compelled to believe that the only way to become who they want to be is by controlling their bodies is a whole different argument, it is important to remember that this kind of thinking is out there.

Body Revolution1

People are absolutely entitled to get in shape in any way that they desire — I just think that it is important to think about why we are making the choices that we make and what pushes us to work our bodies in different ways. How does your body define your person? Should it define your inner self?

The Dove Real Beauty Campaign

A Dove Real Beauty Campaign poster

A Dove Real Beauty Campaign poster

This is an incredibly appropriate and poignant video that I think everyone should see.

Right now.

Watch it.

This video flooded my Facebook newsfeed earlier last week, and the first time I saw it I was pleasantly surprised. At the time I was hoping to find a little nugget of interesting news that would be the subject of my next post. And, just before I began the customary “Brainstorming Dance” (which, by the way, I discovered was a very real thing only after I wrote that snarky comment), the universe graced me with this gem!

When I first saw this video, I thought “YES! This is perfect!” And a choir began singing in my head, complete with orchestra accompaniment. Because what this video did was explain the reason that I started this project in the first place: whether we know it or not, many women have become accustomed to negative body image perception that has unfortunately become the social norm in society. It’s a pretty uncomfortable thing to admit too, but Dove’s attempt to capture these moments of truth helped to concretize the issue and bare it to the viewing public, specifically women.

The man behind the sketches doing his thing

The man behind the sketches doing his thing

In Eve Ensler’s book The Good Body, many women were interviewed from around the world to talk about their bodies and how they felt about themselves because of their bodies. She wrote that, “Except for a rare few, the women I met loathed at least one part of their body” (Ensler xiii).

Now how many of us can relate to that statement?

I know that I most certainly can, being a perpetrator of that type of thinking and a witness to that behavior my entire life. Looking back on my past, I heard this kind of talk for the first time when I was in middle school. That’s what, when I was 12 years old? Yup, twelve years old and I was hearing girls complaining about their legs and stomachs and their (usually lack of) breasts. By the time I was in high school, it was integrated into the vernacular of almost every girl that I met. The few years that we had to develop this type of demoralizing bodytalk in middle school really showed — now we could articulate the very small details of ourselves that we found disgusting, hideous, or downright wrong, compared to what was considered beautiful in the world around us.

When did it start for you?

When did it start for you?

It wasn’t that every single girl that I met took part in this type of negative body talk. But I know that many of us did, and still do today. As I said before, I am a perpetrator of the same negative body image talk that I am describing, and I have yet to escape its dangerous grip since falling into it years ago. Trying to imagine what my own beauty sketch would look like had I described myself in the same situation as these women  is a little worrying, to be honest. And that’s exactly the point of this video — it is meant to shine a light on something that has been embedded into social interaction and cultural practice, with far too many consequences for the parties involved.

You can see a few other videos by going to their website here, to see more of the interviews of the women in the main video.

Or, you can check out an interesting alternate opinion on the Dove Beauty Sketches, which I would love to talk more about, but I don’t want to write a novel on here quite yet! Here is the link.

Let’s start with a little bit of learnin’! What is body image exactly?


Alright, people, back to the basics! Can you guess when the phrase “body image” was first coined? The era? Century? Month?

Would you have guessed that it was first used in the 1930s by a psychiatrist named Paul Schilder?

Don’t feel bad if you don’t know this little nugget of trivia — until about a half an hour ago, I was also stuck in a state of indecision. When I thought about it long and hard, I realized that for all of the time that I spend thinking about body image, I could not even place a specific time or definition to body image! That’s when I did what any self-respecting college student would do — popped open a browser and asked the powers that be (in this case Google Chrome) to work some magic for me. (Well, that’s only slightly true. First I checked Facebook, which is a little unsurprising.)


Paul Schilder, pioneer of the body image definition

I eventually made it to a source that appropriately defined body image as Paul Schilder did in his book The Image and Appearance of the Human Body. Schilder describes body image as “the picture of our own body which we form in our mind” (Schilder pg 50). The definition was surprisingly vague to me, and almost a little too self-explanatory. It sounded too simple in my head, so I moved on in my search.

According to dictionary.com, body image is defined as “an intellectual or idealized image of what one’s body is or should be like that is somtimes misconceived in such mental disorders as anorexia nervosa”. This was more along the lines of what I had been expecting from the original definition, considering the context of the time period in which we live. To be consistent, however, I checked one more source to see what they could tell me about body image.

Body image in context of eating disorders

Body image in context of eating disorders

Merriam-Webster’s definition of body image is similar in many of the same ways: “a subjective picture of one’s own physical appearance established both by self-observation and by noting the reactions of others”. Of the definitions that I found in my web search, I felt that this definition was the best description of the body image that I have defined myself growing up. It establishes the connection between the internal and external forces that dictate a person’s perception of their body, where the person’s internal observations of their body and the external judgment of social and cultural norms play significant roles in shaping their body image.

The most interesting thing that I noticed about my search is how diverse and varied the definition of the same word actually is. Compared to more modern explanations, Schilder’s original definition was so broad and ambiguous that it no longer feels appropriate to apply it to the 21st century. And, as we can see from more recent definitions, they are incredibly specific and in some cases address relatively recent dangers of poor body image, like eating disorders.

Body image and its many interpretations

Body image and its many interpretations

This is an example of what is called “semantic change“, when the meanings of words change over time to create a completely new meaning within the context of the social and cultural influences of the day.  Like so many other words in the English language, the definition of “body image” has changed, reflecting the social and cultural significance of the concept at the same time that it is being defined. Perhaps this was a good thing; perhaps it was not. That is still up for discussion.

So what is body image? I could find you more definitions from print sources, psychological analyses, and web articles. I think that the most important thing, however, is that body image is embodied and created in myriad ways. Maybe the versatility comes from the wide array of definitions it has collected over the years. Regardless, the pervasive nature of body image in society and culture remains an important theme to understanding how it impacts how many institutions and persons are defined today, for better or worse.

Welcome, readers!

Hello, and welcome to “Do These Pants Make My Butt Look Big?”, a blog all about body image and its many impacts on women and our representation in modern media, culture, and society!  I’m so glad that you’ve taken the time to either:

a) find my blog through your own devices,

b) follow the link that I have spammed onto the far reaches of Facebook, or

c) heard the name, laughed a little, and decided to take a peek at what this could possibly be about.

My goal for this blog is, surprisingly, not to incite riots in the street, or inspire something like this. Rather, I want to acknowledge the very real truth behind the concept that the “cultural norm” for women is to have some level of dysfunctional and abnormal body image thinking. It has been a difficult thing to ignore as a teenager and young woman growing up in this modern time, and this type of thinking has had an incredible impact on my life. The purpose of this blog is to illuminate body image for what it is, why it is here, where you might find it, and how it unifies many women in American culture.

I’ll be writing about just about anything that I think is relevant to this blog, including (but not limited to) movies, chick lit, music, images, articles, television media, nonfiction books, social media, and even my own personal experiences living on campus day to day. In the process of finding these topics of conversation, I plan to incorporate some of the more academic resources and thoughts into my writing to give these discussions a little more flavor. And — if I can ever figure out how to do it– I would like to try and leave some questions for you, readers, to think about and give me some enlightening feedback!

Oh, right, and I also want all of us to have a good time while we’re all here, reading and thinking and reading and thinking some more! Who doesn’t want to have fun, right? Maybe a few people out there, but not enough killjoys to stop this shindig!

So, on that note, let’s get this show on the road! Fasten your seatbelts (and bra straps, if that helps, too) and enjoy the ride!