Everything you need to know about fitness modeling… which is enough to turn me off it

April 22nd, 2010  |  Published in Stumpblog  |  24 Comments

First of all, fitness models are no slouches. It requires years of difficult training and months of rigid, restrictive dieting even to make it on an amateur stage — never mind a professional one. It’s a hard road, so much respect to the women who do it.

However, it’s hard to argue that as a practice, fitness modeling really highlights athleticism — i.e. the performance of tasks. This video kind of sums it all up for me.

Physique competition is better understood as a body modification subculture, not a sport, nor — this is key — a role model for most women’s fitness. Ironic, of course, since “model of fitness” would be implied by the job title. Also ironic that women competing as fitness models do have an all-round athleticism — strength, flexibility, fluidity of movement, work capacity — that would be a great thing to emulate. However, sadly, the athleticism of these women is generally overlooked in favour of the fitness-industrial complex chewing them up into supplement hawkers and spitting them out as metabolically damaged (as Scott Abel has extensively critiqued).

I maintain that a wicked “fitness model” competition would dump the eeny-weeny bikinis, makeup, and Lucite heels, and get the ladies running some bitchin’ obstacle courses!


  1. felipe says:

    April 23rd, 2010at 4:39 am(#)

    I got mixed feelings on this all the way around. Not about fitness modeling, per se, but about the link between looks and fitness. This has been making the rounds:


    And part of me wonders about the emphasis on looks vs. what you can do, part of me thinks — frankly — that a some of those women look pretty good in the “before” shots (sometimes better? but why can’t that girl zip up her jeans?), and part of me recognizes that we all want to look good. But looking “good” isn’t the same as fitness. At the same time, who am I to judge? And I can go around and around in circles.

  2. Simma says:

    April 23rd, 2010at 7:21 am(#)

    “Physique competition is better understood as a body modification subculture, not a sport, nor — this is key — a role model for […] fitness.”

    YES. This is how I feel about bodybuilding as well, and why I scratch my head when people call bodybuilders “athletes” or refer to bodybuilding as a “sport”.

    I have nothing against anyone’s desire for body modification. But it’s important to remember that people are judged in these contests based on criteria that have nothing to do with health or fitness.

    That’s why it completely weirds me out that so much of mainstream “fitness” culture–the advice people get, the protocols recommended for training, the perspective that trainers bring to their clients, etc.–is based so much in bodybuilding, in which what you can DO is completely irrelevant.

    In fitness competition’s “defense”, at least the women have to show they can do certain things (a one-handed pushup, a split, etc.). which is more than a bodybuilder has to demonstrate. All the same, nobody’s going to convince me that fitness competition is ultimately anything other than a beauty contest with a different set of standards by which one judges the contestants.

  3. Suzanne says:

    April 23rd, 2010at 11:50 pm(#)

    That video is hilarious in a twisted way. And you’re right, it sums it all up perfectly.

    Krista, do you remember in the early days of women’s fitness, there was a contest called “Galaxy”? It was an obstacle course that tested women’s fitness capabilities. It also had the whole beauty pageant portion as well but it was pretty inspiring to see the women run, jump and climb through the course. Brandi Carrier won the first one. I don’t know how many years the contest ran (will Google – pretty sure it’s extinct) but it was a nice alternative to the fitness competitions that require gymnastics.

  4. greengirl says:

    April 24th, 2010at 12:43 pm(#)

    Re: the Crossfit website – I was looking at some of the before and after photos of the women on this site, as well as the quoted bodyfat percentages accompanying the before and after photos. Maybe I’m wrong, but I thought that some of the bodyfat percentages in the “before” categories were healthy for women? (eg. between 18% and 25%). Some of the ladies are now saying they have 12% to 15% bodyfat. Isn’t this the range at which a lot of women start to have hormonal imbalances and menstrual cycle irregularities, due to bodyfat being too low? If I’m right, then I’m confused as to why this is being promoted as a healthy, positive change.

    I agree that so much fitness advice is given along with comments about “now you will look better when you weight less!” It actually kind of irks me. One thing I really, really like about Stumptuous is the focus on health and actual fitness (e.g. what your body can do), and not on looks.

    I also find a lot of sources give this “lose weight, look better” advice assuming that readers feel badly about themselves because they are not currently in shape. For example, I recently picked up a copy of Rachel Cosgrove’s new book “Female Body Breakthrough.” I think the fitness advice is very sound, and am planning to start following it in a few weeks when I’m done school for the semester and have time for the gym. However, throughout the book she talks about how women who were/are overweight felt/feel terribly unattractive, but once they get the fat off they can feel sexy and beautiful. This left me thinking “Geez, I feel reasonably attractive now – am I not supposed to? Am I supposed to feel ugly because I am a size 16? What the heck?”

  5. Mistress Krista says:

    April 25th, 2010at 5:24 am(#)

    Suzanne: Yep, I remember it, and I remember thinking how cool it looked!

  6. Ginger Baker says:

    April 25th, 2010at 8:53 am(#)

    @greengirl I agree wholeheartedly! I don’t feel unsexy (at all!), I just feel unFIT. I love my body, and I know for a fact many others do too LOL – and I am certainly not ashamed of it, hell, I take my clothes off on stage upon occasion (and always to good effect, I might add :-p ) The reasons I want to workout and eat clean again have to do with things I want to be able to do MUCH MUCH MORE than how my body looks as a result. For instance, pullups are a huge goal for me. And the fact of the matter is that by the time I get to the point of being capable to do some, I will probably have an “amazing” body as it were…but what matters to me is that HEY I will be able to PULL myself UP w00t!! And that is pretty fantastic.

  7. Emma B says:

    April 25th, 2010at 10:34 am(#)

    @greengirl, it’s absolutely true that many women do have difficulty with menstrual cycles once they get below 15%. It’s a very individual thing, though, and I think it has a lot to do with pushing below setpoints. If your “natural” bodyfat is 18% and you push it down to 14%, you may be just fine, but a woman who’s spent a long time in the upper 20%s may find herself dealing with hypothalamic amenorrhea when she gets to 18%.

    That’s what happened to me, and it was ugly ugly ugly trying to fix it. The long-term fallout included thousands of dollars in infertility treatment, a high-risk multiple pregnancy, and degenerative damage to my knee (from the extra weight gain of the multiple pregnancy) that ultimately resulted in osteoarthritis at age 33. Oh, and I gained 35 lbs during it all, thanks not only to the many months of hormone treatments but also to the damaged metabolism I got along the way, so I don’t even have the “perfect” body any more.

    Uh, not that I am the slightest bit bitter or anything about how the pursuit of leanness totally wrecked my health.

  8. Simma says:

    April 25th, 2010at 1:07 pm(#)


    Every woman is different re: what bodyfat levels pose health issues.

    Re: CrossFit, it seems to me that many of their athletes self-select for above average athletic ability. I would guess that a lot of those women are genetically predisposed to athletic success, and that includes a metabolism that is capable of or favors leanness. Getting down to 15% bodyfat might be less stressful on the body of a person whose metabolism likes to stay relatively lean than for someone whose metabolism likes to hold on to bodyfat.

    Many female athletes in lots of different sports have very low bodyfat levels. Not all of them suffer from it. And even if they do, at some level in many athletic activities, athletes sometimes have to decide on what kind of a tradeoff they’re willing to make between risk (injury, damage, etc.) and an edge in performance–and this applies to all athletes and all aspects of physical development, not just women and bodyfat.

    What bothers me about that CrossFit page isn’t that the women cultivate low bodyfat levels. It’s that the website’s spin on their bodyfat levels suggests that these women do CrossFit because of how it makes them look rather than because it helps them perform better.

    I don’t know what irks me more–the fact that these guys are using the promise of a hotter bod to sell their program (which may as well make them Bally’s Total Fitness, despite CrossFit’s stated determination to be the opposite of these kinds of mainstream fitness organizations) or the fact that it’s impossible to deny that women in general are more receptive to fitness marketing that promises them hotter bods than they are to fitness marketing that stresses performance or health.

  9. Tuesday, April 27th « Orange Coast CrossFit | Forging World Class Fitness says:

    April 27th, 2010at 2:24 am(#)

    […] I don’t know what irks me more–the fact that these guys are using the promise of a hotter bod to sell their program (which may as well make them Bally’s Total Fitness, despite CrossFit’s stated determination to be the opposite of these kinds of mainstream fitness organizations) or the fact that it’s impossible to deny that women in general are more receptive to fitness marketing that promises them hotter bods than they are to fitness marketing that stresses performance or health. Link to the whole article here. […]

  10. michele says:

    April 27th, 2010at 9:03 am(#)

    new crossfitter, longtime Stumptuous reader and Mistress Krista fan. Krista inspired me to pick up heavy things for the first time years ago. that led to my eventual decision to try crossfit.


    the Orange Coast testimonials bugged the everliving shit out of me. even as a new crossfitter, i got pretty pissed off.

    1. where is the emphasis on nutrition in the testimonials? that is how you get a body like that. period. crossfit is obsessed with nutrition. you wouldn’t know it by reading that page, probably because it’s way harder to eat paleo than it is to get a pullup.

    2. if you would substitute photos of guys into all those posing, underwear-bearing, unzipped-jeans rocking shots, it would look ridiculous, and it wouldn’t fly as a marketing tool.

    3. i would have never been attracted to a box that marketed itself this way. none of the ‘before’ shots look like your average American (including me) anymore. all the blather about bodyfat and losing weight and crap – i’m sorry, it’s like reading the execrable SELF magazine or something.

    I hope I’m right in my suspicion that my affiliate would never post that kind of crap.

    — annoyed in brooklyn

  11. Chip says:

    April 27th, 2010at 2:29 pm(#)

    Re what I believe might be the referenced to Crossfit website, much of the comment above is likely based on conjecture or supposition. In reality, I know these women, they are quite remarkably normal – stay at home moms, lawyers, teachers, sales reps, wedding planners, recent college grads and the like. Almost all with no more than an ordinary high school [or less] athletic experience in their background. The thing that does distinguish them is that they are active, motivated, confident and comfortable with being challenged. They are reaching for more than walking on the elliptical, reading a magazine and talking on the cell.

    Everyone started at the same place – generally out of shape or in shape but only to do specialized activities [like run] rather than solid generalized condition. Many had 0 to 20 pounds or more pounds to loose, but were more focused on gaining fitness than weight loss or 7 day abs.

    What is remarkable to all of us who have showed up, given their 100%, been coached by pros [who know what they are doing] and enjoyed the challenge – is that everyone has achieved performance levels they never envisioned.

    Body fat % is only one of many yardsticks used to measure progress; in this case it was something to create a little fun, friendly competition and capture feedback on training progress and proper nutrition. No one really cared who was the lowest – it was about the learning process, not who was “the best”. By the way, it worked.

    Unfortunately, “Trust me you will like Crossfit” doesn’t appeal to the uninitiated, women especially. Fact is, 50% of the membership of the above Crossfit gym are women. Some fit, some not but getting fit. SCrossfit isn’t for everybody, but something appealed to them.

    I started the process like everyone else and a year later, I am stronger and fitter than 50% of the 30 and under group….. and I am 57. “You can have excuses or performance, but not both”. Gotta go practice my handstands, double-under and muscle-ups – practice makes perfect after all.

  12. Simma says:

    April 27th, 2010at 2:53 pm(#)

    In case Trishy threw up her arms in despair and isn’t going back to the website that took my quote out of context:

    Thanks, Trishy.

  13. Simma says:

    April 27th, 2010at 6:17 pm(#)


    What these women do for their careers is no indication of whether their bodies more easily deal with low bodyfat levels or whether they are more naturally athletic.

    Because of the way girls are socialized, many who may have genetic gifts conducive to athletics and sport never discover that they have these gifts or do not discover this aspect of themselves until later in life.

    CrossFit is a tough program. It’s scalable and all, but it is, as its founder himself says, “uncomfortable”. A person who is willing to stick with such a program and learn to love it is more likely than the average person to have some genetic predisposition to athleticism.

    That doesn’t mean they are athletes when they begin. They are just as likely to be out of shape as anyone else. But I would guess that they are more likely to have bodies that respond more quickly to exercise, more likely to have lower bodyfat levels than the average person to begin with, and less likely to be the body type that suffers hormonal disruption at low bodyfat levels. Sure, there will be exceptions. But I’m talking generally.

    It’s just a guess, as nobody’s done a DNA analysis of all female CrossFitters or anything. But I think it’s a reasonable guess.

    This is not to say that CF is not a good program for fitness. I personally think it’s a great program for fitness, even though I don’t agree with everything about the way the WODs are structured. But there’s a reason why some women end up there instead of in a Pilates class, and I’m saying some of that reason is likely to be genetic.

  14. Trishy says:

    April 27th, 2010at 6:37 pm(#)

    No problem, Simma :) I saw your posts, I just stopped commenting because I got the impression that no one was listening. I guess I got spoiled on this site, where critical discussions are welcome and don’t turn belligerent.

  15. CaliLove says:

    April 27th, 2010at 7:21 pm(#)

    @ Michele

    1. There is an entire section of the website devoted to nutrition… you should check it out. These girls aren’t hardcore dietitians so I’m not surprised they didn’t specifically mention exactly what they ate in a 2:00 Youtube clip. These are just normal everyday girls who show up to the box everyday and kick ass.

    2. I only rock that style of outfit on a super intense WOD day, however, if you are real nice (or real mean, I kinda like that) a picture could be arranged.

    3. Sorry to hear that OCC isn’t right for you. These girls are consistent top finishers in local Southern California competitions and what they’ve got going on has worked for them. Pretty impressive considering pretty much all of them have been CF’ing for less than a year. It’s not all about looks and physical appearance for these girls.

    P.S. Isn’t everyone annoyed in Brooklyn :)

  16. Al Amato says:

    April 27th, 2010at 11:15 pm(#)

    Before I begin, I will preface my response telling you my wife recently switched to OCC, and I train at another affiliate. The reasons she (and so many other men and women) trains at OCC is because they are close knit, have a great comraderie, train very hard, and the affiliate owner is passionate about CrossFit. OCC typically has the most competitors and supporters at local compeitions. There are just a few things of many.

    The beauty of CrossFit is there is no right or wrong. These women feel great, empowered, and strong in every sense. Who are we to say what is right or wrong? If a lady is squating in a bathing suit in the snow, people complain and make negative comments. If a woman appears masculine and “hard” (i.e Kris Clever), people complain and make comments. CrossFit is about everybody of every size, look, and physical ability.

    These pictures were after a 6 week Paleo Challenge. These women are proud of their hard work and obviously feel OK to be “marketed” on a website. The last I heard CF boxes are a business too and I don’t know too many businesses that want to lose money. OCC continues to see growth from current members’ word of mouth, other CF boxes, and yes your globo gyms such as Bally’s and 24 Hour Fitness all while having three other boxes within a 2 mile radius. I routinely here people comment that if they only lived closer to OCC, they would join.

    The main point that truly matters is how the individual feels. These ladies feel great and as someone else mentioned, they are your everyday “average” women within society. They are not ex-olympians. My wife is 40, cares for two year old twin boys all day, and CrossFits with our 17 year old daughter at night. At her heaviest she weighed 215 pounds, and now she doing everything a man can do and competing on OCC’s Affiliate Team at the Regionals in May. Aside from our 17 year old, we have a 20 year old in the Air Force who also Crossfits. She fell in love with Crossfit during a trip home last December and workout with her Mom. She and her sister both have changed their “lifestyles” which encompasses diet, outlook on life, self-worth,and so much more. I couldn’t be more proud of them all and everyone else who feels good about what they’re doing.

    I realize everyone has the right to comment and voice their opinions, but remember the people you comment on read these comments as well. Hopefully, this inspires them and they aren’t affected by someone elses insecure or jealous comments. I doubt they will be. They’re too strong in every meaning of the word.

  17. Simma says:

    April 28th, 2010at 7:52 am(#)


    Oh for the love of all that’s holy. NOBODY is criticizing those women personally on the CrossFit website. I’m sure that they, like thousands of other CF athletes all over the world, work very hard and get great results.

    We are simply discussing the way fitness marketing directed at women stresses appearance over actual fitness. I’m sure we can all agree that this is a bad thing. If your gym needs to market to that unfortunate aspect of social reality in order to survive, that is your business. But I just would rather see more people getting away from stressing womens’ appearance and instead promoting women’s strength and fitness above aesthetic concerns. If you seriously think social criticism like this is based in insecurity and jealousy regarding your female athletes personally, then you are demonstrating all the cognitive sophistication of an eight year old.

    For the record, I think the women featured on your website look great–although I would have been more interested in, say, their max clean & jerk, and I would also have thought they looked great throughout a range of bodyfat levels and sizes. I’m happy that they have found a fitness program that they love, especially one like CF which has made and will continue to make them tough and strong. But I still don’t like the way the gym is marketing to women or about the ways that gyms in general market to women. Sorry–that’s my world view. Love it or hate it, ignore it or engage with it, but don’t try spinning our discussion into some kind of catfight just because you want to dismiss our point of view. Much as you’d love to cast us all as bunch of sniping bitches, our issue isn’t with your female athletes at all. It’s with the sexism in society that values what women look like over what they can do and the people who perpetuate that unfortunate state.

    I like many things about CF, but if there are two generalizations I can make about it, I would say that 1) its membership as a whole trains really hard and in very productive ways, which is great, and 2) its membership as a whole faces some serious reading comprehension and critical thinking challenges, which turns a lot of you into defensive douches whenever you smell the slightest whiff of anything that resembles criticism.

    As I said on the OCC site: chill. Your program stands up to criticism. It’s not as though your organization is in mortal danger any time someone doesn’t love every single thing it does 100%. You don’t have to act like wacky cult members. Take a clue from Rick, who seems to understand that he has a great gym and a great program, and who was both able to understand and place in context my remarks about fitness marketing and women, whether he actually agrees with me or not, and didn’t feel the need to villainize us simply because we weren’t 100% rah-rah about everything OCC and CF.

  18. Simma says:

    April 28th, 2010at 8:14 am(#)

    Also, Al, isn’t CF about getting tough? Do you really think the great, strong women in your life and gym are going to crumble and cry because someone on some random website decides to criticize one aspect of the marketing strategy at your gym?

    I’m sure those women don’t need you defending them, and if they’re as awesome and tough as you say, then they’re likely to NOT appreciate you charging in trying to “protect” them by insulting other women who are discussing sexism and its ramifications for fitness.

    Like I said, CFers should by all rights be strong and confident in their program. Act like strong, confident people, dammit, not like whiny, oppressed victims–and give your female comrades some credit for also being strong and confident.

  19. Justin_P says:

    April 28th, 2010at 8:51 am(#)

    IMO, the bigges irony about figure models/BB’ers is that they look best when they’re not training for a competition.

    The overwhelming majority of gyms in North America are not serious places… by a long shot. I don’t think that’s ever going to change until women are encouraged to train in a manner that makes them strong and healthy and doesn’t encourage them to conform to aesthetic ideals. I might add that for the past 120 years of the the existence of gyms, those ideals have little or nothing to do with health or strength.

    That’s unfortunate.

  20. Trishy says:

    April 28th, 2010at 9:03 am(#)

    No one here has disparaged how the women featured on the OCC site look, and no one has suggested that they don’t work really, really hard. This discussion was originally about whether it is healthy to use appearance to market fitness. It seems that many CrossFit proponents believe that it is. Some others disagree. There is no judgment of the CrossFit program in that, it’s just a difference of opinion.

    Also, having a single criticism of an overall solid training methodology does not indicate jealousy or insecurity, and it does not constitute an attack on CrossFit. Constantly saying “oh, you’re just jealous” when any criticism is voiced stifles intelligent discussion, and if CrossFit proponents would like to encourage more people into their training community, this kind of defensive response is not the way to do it.

  21. michele says:

    April 29th, 2010at 12:24 pm(#)

    oh thank god, thank you Trishy and Simma! y’all just made my day.

    we talked about this at my affiliate last night. between that and these additional comments, i no longer feel like a freak for pointing to the white elephant in the room and saying, “yo, that’s a white elephant.”

  22. Liz says:

    April 30th, 2010at 11:29 am(#)

    I’m another Crossfit-er who’s glad my affiliate doesn’t advertise like this. I think the OCC women look great in the before pictures and fantastic in the after pictures, and I’d be lying if I said that appearance wasn’t a reason I joined, but I didn’t like the tone of the site.

  23. Jill says:

    May 4th, 2010at 6:27 am(#)

    We have this brilliant programme on before Doctor Who on Saturday nights called ‘Total Wipeout’. Which is a bunch of men and women running, jumping, climbing, and (more often than not) falling over, around and through obstacles, often to land in mud or water.

    Ok, it tends to be that a man will win more often than a woman, but meh. Everybody kicks butt. Especially the crazy gymnast woman who made it across the most difficult obstacle in the competition without falling off. Was the first one to do it too.

    It makes me wish my local park had a giant assault course…still, I can always climb trees.

  24. Claire says:

    May 27th, 2010at 8:25 pm(#)

    I like how that video says that vascularity should be minimal. Don’t know about anyone else, but I have little control over my level of vascularity. They started coming out around year three of weightlifting and a few have gotten reasonably prominent (though they are not yet at the level of a bodybuilder on competition day). I know veins can be enhanced by various methods, but it seems to me to be just more BS – the message is, if you have the right physique but your veins stand out, you’re not feminine enough.

    Also, Krista has some good information about bodyfat levels and women on this site. You can’t just go by the percentage – nutrition has a lot to do with it. Many women will be fine with low bodyfat if it’s due to increased muscle mass and not too few calories.

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