I could be totally off and just weird myself, but I feel pressure to prove to the world that I am actually taking care of my body. Taking care of my body is one thing. But proving to other people that I am doing it? This is what I have started calling fitness virtue signaling.
According to the sage of the modern age (aka Wikipedia), virtue signaling is “the conspicuous expression of moral values by an individual done primarily with the intent of enhancing that person’s standing within a social group.”
With social media so integrated into our lives (and I'm not saying that's a bad thing), we project our morals and values in what we post online. We often treat fitness as a moral issue, even though it's not (read more here). We feel pressured to conform to a certain fitness morality, to participate in the grand fitness quest that will take us to the land flowing with non-GMO almond milk and hand-gathered agave nectar. The fitter we are, the taller we stand, metaphorically speaking.
Fitness virtue signaling is the messaging we send to other people to reassure them that we are on the right side of health--or at least, trying to get there. It can be subtle (like ordering a salad in public instead of a hamburger when you really want that burger) or it can be pointed (like opening with this statement when you come home for a visit: “Before you say anything about the weight I’ve gained, know that I am going to the gym three times a week”).
Fitness virtue signaling is how we present ourselves as pursuers of our culture's perception of health. It can include but is not limited to the following: checking in on social media at the gym, instagramming a post-workout photo, talking about how guilty you feel for eating bread.
Please hear me out: Some of us just love working out. Some of us just love sweating. Some of us just can’t eat bread. All true. Some of us use such social media posts as an accountability strategy. Some of us use social media posts related to fitness to promote a legitimate business that brings good to individuals and communities. I’m not talking about these.
I’m talking about the need I feel to prove myself. So I made some visuals of what I really mean when I feel compelled to satisfy the cultural demand to be thin or die trying.
I might post these inspiring photos with words:
But I'm really trying to signal my fitness virtue with these messages:
(Dang. I look cute in these photos. And anyone who knows me well knows that chocolate consumption is not a rare thing for me. I almost just typed an excuse as to why I deserve chocolate almost daily. But I don't need excuses.)
Our culture's bias against fat people has created a socially permitted hostility towards us, and we find ourselves walking targets for other people's unsought commentary on our bodies. Such input, even when well-intentioned, takes its toll.
As a Christian, I know my worth is found in being created good by a good God who loves me and has made me for relationship with him and with my neighbors. My focus is on living out the greatest commandment--loving God with all that I am--and the second greatest commandment--loving my neighbor as myself. (If you're interested, you can read about my new year's resolution to do just that.)
I'm trying to analyze the situations that prompt a desire in me to guard myself by using fitness virtue signaling. I've found that usually there’s something deeper going on inside of me, something connected to fear. What am I afraid of? I'm afraid of these situations happening, over and over again: the stranger in line behind me that comments on the healthiness of what I just ordered; when I’m out on a nice walk and my neighbor tells me I’m doing a good job trying to lose my baby weight; when (unprompted) an acquaintance raves about this book she read on losing weight and asks if I’d like to borrow it from her.
Like the fear I experience when I think, "I shouldn't bring this Panera cup into my doctor's appointment, because it will send the message that I just ate a bagel." If I did eat a bagel, it was probably delicious. But bagel or no bagel, I deserve to be treated with the dignity inherent in being a human being. That dignity means that I am more than fat. I am complex. I am sensitive. I am intelligent. I am curious. I am good at stuff. I am valuable to my community.
When situations like these happen over and over again, I get the message that I’m not loved and welcome as myself. It echoes the condemnation I hear in my head that I’m not worth listening to, or that I literally don’t fit in, and that I should stay quiet and in the background.
I’m fat. No matter how I got here, it’s where I am now. I am allowed to be myself without justifying my existence to others. I have the right to enjoy my food. I have the right to exercise without the goal of losing weight or gaining muscle. I have the right to go about my business, proving nothing to nobody.
That's why I resist the pressure inside myself to practice fitness virtue signaling. I am choosing to enjoy my full days without having to justify myself or my size to anyone (including myself), while eating, moving my body, resting, and taking up as much space as I need to be fully myself.
So if you’re like me, and you feel the need to make excuses for your weight, your size, or your shape, know this:
You can eat bread. You can work out. You can be fat. You can take walks. You can order a salad. You can rest. Do what brings you peace.
(And that might just mean posting cute pictures of yourself at the gym. For real.)
Enjoy your life and the freedom God has given you to be loved just as you are.
And, hey—remind me of that when you see me, too, okay?
Postscript: If you are a Christian and want to respond with comments about the importance of being healthy for the kingdom, and how that fits into discipleship, I'd first ask you to read the following blog posts before commenting:
To All the Fat Girls
Dignity: 2017's Word of the Year
The Luxury of Weight Loss
The Morality of Fatness
Is It a Sin to be Fat?
What Your Fat Friend Needs from You
Are You Biased Against Fat People?
Making Room for Fat Christians
Talking With Your Kids About Fat People
Cultivating a Holy Love for Your Body
Fitting Back Into My Body After Pregnancy (for the 4th time)