My Excuse? Elevating Others, Not Putting Them Down

Last week, the internet lost it’s mind about a photo of a “fit” mom and her three kids with the text “what’s your excuse?”. You may have seen it.

And no, I won’t link to the original because frankly, I’d rather give the traffic to other websites/blogs.

I kept seeing all sorts of blog posts, articles, facebooks statuses, etc. throughout the week  about it ranging from overwhelming support of this woman to demonizing this woman and her message. At first glance, I just rolled my eyes at this photo - it came across as soft-core fitspo that was trying really hard not to be fitspo. I simply scrolled past it and continued about my day but I may have been in the minority in that - it clearly affected tons of women and they weren’t afraid to say so.

I’ve read the posts both in both camps of the argument and saw valid points in both - two of my favorites thus far have been “Shaming Maria Kang is Your Problem, Not Hers” via A Gutsy Girl and “Maria Kang: Inspirational or Fat-Shaming” by Molly Galbraith. I agree with several points in both: Everyone has their own interpretation of the photo and message based on their own experiences - we impose our worldview on everything that we see and interact with. We take the message in our own way - our interpretation IS our own problem. I also agree with Molly that I don’t think this women set out to shame anyone - she was trying to be inspirational and empowering. But, to paraphrase Jen Sinkler, her execution missed the mark because “look at me!” is not as effective of a message as “come with me!”.

I think trying to decipher this woman’s intent as to what she was trying to do or not to do with the photo is a moot point. I make no judgement about the women in the photo, her character, work ethic, etc. I don’t know her so I can’t judge her.  I would rather take the photo as what it is, how it is displayed, and possible interpretations that could occur. Again, I don’t care about the woman’s moral fiber or whatever, I just care about the messages being displayed and how it can impact and guide our interpretations.

So here you go:

Maria Kang Mike Byerly Photography

Here is a photo of a woman and her three kids. The focal point of the photo is the woman. She is wearing a traditional “fitness” type outfit of a sports bra and shorts. She has her makeup and hair done nicely and fits all of the conventional standards of beauty - exotic, thin and lean with some muscular definition, posing in a way that showcases her feminine assets (boobs forward and highlighted, attention drawn to pelvic region, slight curved torso to accentuate a traditionally feminine shape)...pretty standard fitness photo stuff. It looks like the photo hasn’t had major retouching, lending some “realness”. By all standard definitions, she is in shape. Her figure is very “woman's magazine friendly” striking the balance between “toned” (I really hate that word) and womanly. That’s just what we see.

Now, we may infer that she must have worked really hard to get that body - she must have really watched what she ate and spent hours in the gym. Maybe we think that she must have really strong willpower. We may wonder what her “secret” is.

 Our attention is then drawn to her kids that are sitting around her. The age of the children is notated - they’re all pretty young and close in age. Again, we start to make our inferences. Most people’s reaction is “WOW, that must be tough! Imagine having three young children to take care of”.  I agree, I bet that’s tough (I don’t have kids so I don’t know).  Our next thoughts might be “Wow she looks SO good for having three young kids”. We  may wonder how she can manage to spend hours in the gym, eat so well, AND care for three young kids. We infer that she must be very organized and dedicated...she has mommy superpowers to have such a busy life AND look like that. (The glorification of the “super mom” is an entirely different topic but one that can’t be ignored here). Again, we may wonder what her secret is and how she does it.

 At the top of the photo are the words “What’s Your Excuse?”. We may think to ourselves - “If this woman with three young kids can do it, then I can do it. She must be SO busy but has time/makes time to do those things.” We infer that she is dedicated and tough and has “no excuses”. We infer that she is “empowered” to take care of herself despite her busy life. We infer that she has a ton of willpower and dedication. And then we may think,  if only we had THAT much dedication and determination and want it bad enough then clearly, we can have it too.

We doubt our own dedication and mental resolve. We doubt our strength and beat ourselves up for succumbing to “temptation”. We feel shitty about that chocolate cake we ate or that wine we drank. We just need MORE willpower, MORE dedication, LESS excuses. We need to be tougher on ourselves. We need to have “NO EXCUSES”. Maybe if we can do all those things and be in shape and be superwoman, we too can look that good and that happy (see what I did there? Happiness & life satisfaction are often tied to jean size...at least that’s what the media like’s to think).

 Now, this is my interpretation of a photo based on my own experiences, education, and worldview. As a person who struggled with weight for a long time and desired to look like that at one point, I bring that baggage to the table when I look at this photo. I also bring a very critical analytic feminist perspective. So yes, interpretation matters in a big way. This is my honest assessment of this photo - these are the thoughts that ran through MY head. I'm in no way saying this is what most people think, just what I think.

Regardless of that,  there should be a conversation about the way in which “fitspo”-esque photos are crafted to guide our interpretations (and I’m not talking about the photographers here). Now, I genuinely believe that most people who craft fitspo aren’t trying to shame anyone or make anyone feel terrible about themselves. They’re simply trying to use some basic psychological learning concepts to “motivate” people to do something. However, at the core, at least in my view, this photo isn’t empowering others. The word “excuse” smacks of judgement - it’s connotation isn’t necessarily a nice one. It does have the potential to rub people the wrong way. This feels like stepping down on others in other to elevate something (not necessarily her, but the concept of a physical fit mother) - and THAT is my major issue with this photo.

 Lots of women are saying that people are overreacting to the photo because women are just “catty and bitchy” towards other women.  (P.S. - way to put down your own gender and simultaneously try to elevate yourself above the pettiness by reducing  people to media generalizations.) I think that’s bullshit. I think women are reacting in different ways because the photo is ambiguous - it’s just fitspo-esque enough to piss people off BUT it’s just not so ripped-abs-squatting-in-panties-and-sweat-is-fat-crying fitspo-esque that it is deemed outright ridiculous. It’s a more realistic representation of the messages that women (and men, but since this is a female photo we will focus on the ladies) face every day.  This notion of putting down others to elevate yourself is something that happens all the time. We do it to others every day. Why do we feel the need to elevate ourselves by putting people down? It seems like a much better idea to tell people "let me help you do that thing you want" rather than "look at me doing that thing you want".

This photo is forcing people to think about where they stand on this issue. And I can tell you, I’ve got plenty of “excuses” to offer up in response to this photo.

So you want to know what my excuses are? I think celebrating hard work, dedication, and sacrifice in pursuit of goals is a more relevant way to help people rather than trying to make them feel like they need to shed their “excuses”. That approach just doesn’t work for me or jive with my general experience. My “excuse” is that I don’t want what the photo is selling - not even a little. I don’t want to portray myself as a superwoman who can do it all and have people infer that I am a fortress of resolve and willpower. Because I’m not. My “excuse” is that I think we should elevate others, not push them down.