Push Ups And Prom Dresses: A Fitness Coach Shares Important Body Image Perspective For Girls

By Kit Emcee

I run an after-school weight lifting program. Each May, my gym fills up with teenage girls frantically running on treadmills. They want to lose weight before prom. “That’s easy,” I say. “You can just cut off one of your legs. That’s at least 30 pounds you can lose right there.” Invariably, they roll their eyes. “You know what I mean,” they say. “I want to lose fat. I want to get toned.” These girls are not fat, and yet they have already internalized the message that they are flawed because they do not fit a certain mold. It breaks my heart.

Rather than focusing on losing weight, I work with the girls to help them realize what their bodies can do. It’s taken the better part of four years, but as of this September, I have had a consistent flow of girls who are finally focusing on the things that matter: getting stronger, running faster, feeling better. It took them a while to acclimate, to get off the treadmill, and to trust that lifting weights wasn’t going to morph them into body-builders. (The fact that they see me lifting every day while maintaining my petite frame at 115 pounds was a great help in convincing them.)

That’s not to say that looking good doesn’t matter. Every woman wants to feel attractive and sexy, and that is perfectly normal. But there is a critical distinction between focusing on “looking good” versus “feeling good about how you look”.

When we set purely aesthetic (and arbitrary) goals, we can be easily disappointed and disillusioned. We want to lose 5 pounds, but life doesn’t get better once the numbers on the scale drop. On the other hand, when we focus on performance each goal leads to great pride and feelings of accomplishment. Each step is a reason to celebrate and offers an improved sense of self worth because “Look what I can DO!”

And then it clicks. After completing the first chin up, or doing a proper push-up, or deadlifting with a barbell, suddenly my girls are Femme Fitales. They see their reflections in the mirror and they flex their muscles, beaming. They want to set new goals.

These girls want to look good, it’s evident by their matching workout shorts and tank tops. But they have made the shift. They care more about what they can do with their bodies than about what their bodies look like. They understand that if they continue to push their limits they will look good because they will be confident in their abilities and strong in their minds, knowing that their hard work pays off in a big way.

But these performance improvements have other benefits. In addition to the evident boost in self esteem, my Femmes support each other. They come together to work out. They encourage each other, spot each other, push each other, and support each other. They have created a strong network. Together they get things done, and have fun doing it.

By focusing on performance goals, the Femmes have become more inclined to take risks and try new exercises. They see the boys doing inversions on the pull-up bar and they want to know, “Can I try that too?” They smile more and feel rewarded after every workout because they know that their efforts will lead to something tangible – a new skill, a stronger body.

Eventually they want to know, “What should I eat?” This is a huge leap forward from the exclusion diets that mislead people to think that certain foods are “bad”. Realistically, as long as you don’t have any allergies or sensitivities you should eat everything. Food is not bad if you are using it in the right way.

Sugar is not bad to eat. If you’re in the middle of a marathon you’ll likely have sugar gels to keep you going. Just try eating chicken and asparagus on mile 13 and see what that low-carb diet model does to your stomach under those circumstances. Anything can be appropriate, it just depends on the situation.

And this is what the performance goal mentality cultivates. There is no need to feel guilty eating pizza and ice cream if that’s what your body needs to keep going. Once the girls start weight lifting, they realize that food does actually fuel the body, and they begin to experiment with choosing the best foods to help them reach their goals.

It all comes back to completing the goal. In the gym we talk about choosing the right goal, a goal that’s realistic and achievable. A goal that allows them to mark their progress as they move forward and become more proficient. Goals can always be modified and even abandoned.

One of my girls had set a squat goal for the year, but decided halfway through to begin playing tennis instead. She shifted her priorities, set new goals, and began planning for future attainment. This will serve her well as she continues to define who she is and what she wants out of life. I hope she maintains this attitude and never becomes a woman who lets her mood for the day be dictated by the number on a scale. This is my hope for all Femme Fitales.

Lift hard. Live strong.



Kit is a teacher, trainer, and lyricist. Since 2000 she has been working in schools teaching Literature, Writing, Theater Arts, and Weightlifting. She uses her platform in the classroom to spread positive messages about balanced, healthy lifestyles, and presents social commentary on women’s issues in her music and poetry.

IG @kittenemcee




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