I’ve been thinking a lot about Balpeet Kaur lately. If you don’t know who Balpeet is, she’s the Sikh woman who rocketed to internet fame after some mean-spirited soul posted a photo of her as she stood in line in a university library, purportedly to make fun of her turban and facial hair. I, like many others, found her response warm-hearted and compassionate, and she made the snide mockery that runs rampant on the internet seem rather small and pitiful.
There’s one part of her response that I’ve been turning over and over in my head, a part that really struck me on such a deep level that I felt compelled to write about it. This is the part:
By transcending societal views of beauty, I believe that I can focus more on my actions. My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body because I recognize that this body is just going to become ash in the end, so why fuss about it? When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, heck, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can.
A lot of the rhetoric that surrounds fitness uses phrases like “building your best body” and “being the best possible you,” as if “the best possible you” is one that has firm triceps and a tight ass. It’s not about being more compassionate or helpful or kinder or braver. Perhaps that’s because cultivating the intellect or developing a set of ethics is beyond the scope of most fitness media, but I do think it’s striking that the language chosen to convey the benefits of fitness is one that equates a fit body with the “best possible you.”
I read Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s “The Body Project” while on vacation several weeks ago, and in it, she writes about the shift in ideals that has happened among teenage girls over the last century or so. At the turn of the 20th century, teenage girls used to write in their diaries about their desire to become better at certain skills or to cultivate certain personality traits.
But Brumberg argues that larger social shifts, including the widespread popularity of private bathrooms with indoor plumbing and mirrors, led girls to begin focusing more heavily on their appearances – their skin, their hair, their clothes, their figures.
By the time the 1990s had arrived, teenage girls were framing self-improvement as wearing the right clothes, finding the right hairstyles, losing a few pounds. Brumberg says teenage girls had made their bodies the central projects of their lives.
I’m not pointing fingers like I’m somehow better than all of this. I’m certainly not what you would call high-maintenance, but I do things like get my hair highlighted and get facial waxes and I put on a bit of make-up most days. My weight training is in part motivated by vanity. I mean, I like to feel strong, but I also like the way muscles look and I’m willing to put in the time at the gym to build and maintain them.
But there’s got to be some balance here. After all, what good is it to have cut biceps or a head of silky hair if you are mean-hearted or incurious about the world? Being “the best possible you” shouldn’t be simply about being able to lift heavy weights or run for long distances. We are multi-dimensional creatures, after all. We are not just bodies. We are hearts and minds and relationships. We have dreams and ideas and creative pursuits. Shouldn’t any concept of our “best possible selves” include all of these things, not just our bodies?
Ideally it all fits together. Our physical selves do not exist separately from our emotions, which are not separate from our minds. I know that when I’m eating well and getting enough physical activity, I feel less stressed and calmer, which bleeds over into my interactions with my coworkers, my friends and my loved ones. I know that my athletic achievements have helped me become braver and more confident, which has in turn brought me closer to being the kind of person I’d always wanted to be.
I’m not suggesting that we all adopt the Sikh philosophy toward our bodies, just that we acknowledge that there is so much more to developing the “best possible you” than making your body look a certain way.