I Want to Look Like Gwyneth Paltrow! managing unrealistic expectations

by: Leo Desforges

In this article, I will be offering some thoughts on managing expectations concerning body weight, appearance and aesthetics.

Many people’s primary motivation to eat well and exercise more is aesthetic; they want to look better.  This often means one of the following: thinner, leaner, taller, more muscular, differently shaped muscles, rounder butt, slimmer thighs, flatter stomach, “abs,” bigger arms, etc.  I know this because people tell me so when we discuss their goals before beginning personal training sessions. (Very importantly, there is nothing wrong with this).  I expect that many reading this article could relate.  We eat less and work out more or harder with the end goal of looking great at our wedding, on vacation or at the beach.  Aesthetic change was probably my number one motivation for learning to lift weights in my parents’ basement when I was fourteen.

So if wanting to look better isn’t a problem, why am I writing this article?  I’m writing because I believe that our expectations of how we should look are often completely unrealistic – hence the title of my article.  I’ve actually had three separate people suggest to me that they wanted my help in looking like Gwyneth Paltrow.  It could just as easily be any other celebrity, fashion model, actor, pro athlete or fitness model.  This goes for both men and women although women get a much shorter end of the stick on this issue (thanks to eons of patriarchal norms).

We are constantly and aggressively bombarded by images of the super fit whether in movies, in TV shows, in magazines, on the internet, on our facebook/instagram/pinterest feeds and even on boxes of food. (Special K protein bars, I’m thinking of you!)  It is worth noting that unless you live in Manhattan or L.A., you will rarely see people who actually look like supermodels or bodybuilders in real life.  There might be a handful of very fit-looking folks at your gym, but surely they are the outliers, not the norm.

Certainly there are some folks, even people you know as friends or acquaintances, that look pretty darn good.  I’ll use myself as an example here.  Most times of the year, I look like I’m in pretty good shape for a 31-year-old man.  (I hope this is not too presumptuous.)  To give some perspective on how hard I’ve worked to look like I’m in “pretty good shape,” here are a few pieces of my history.  I’ve been lifting weights for the greater part of 17 years and a serious athlete since I was 10.  My birth father and mother were both tall and thin, which provides me a decent genetic head start.  I’ve been studying nutrition since I was fifteen and figuring out how to eat well through constant experimentation.  I’m a fitness professional, which means it is literally my job to look “in shape.”  I spend all day in a gym moving weights around, squatting, lunging, demonstrating exercises and not sitting much.  This further boosts my daily metabolic rate.  Being 31 (still pretty young, hormonally) and male helps a ton.  At 6’ 4” tall, I usually weigh about 225 pounds, which boosts my metabolism further.  (The more you weigh, the higher your metabolic rate.)  And last, but certainly not least, most days I’m genuinely happy to do some form of activity and eat pretty well.  I’ve conquered a lot of my demons after twenty years of consistent effort.

What’s my point?  I hope it shows how much effort, time and genetics have gone into looking “pretty fit.”  And this laundry list is true for most folks I know who also look “pretty fit.”  Most of them have decent genetics, work really hard to figure out what works for them, execute workouts consistently, eat well 90% of the time, are young, have never been more than 50 pounds overweight and genuinely care about fitness as part of their identity.  There certainly are a few outliers: folks who barely try and look great.  Unless you are one of those outliers, keep reading.  The takeaway from the last few paragraphs should be this: to look “pretty fit” requires a lot of time, effort, trial and error, and hard work.

Continuing to use me as an example, I look NOWHERE close to one of the fitness models on the cover of, let’s say, Men’s Health.  The guys on the cover of Men’s Health appear way leaner and muscular, and they have a much more “ideal” muscle shape/structure.  The same is true for many of the “pretty fit” women in real life.  They look incredible but rarely like Gwyneth Paltrow or one of the women on the cover of SHAPE magazine.  And there are a few very important reasons that we “pretty fit” folks don’t look like cover models.

For me to look like a Men’s Health cover model would, most likely, be impossible.  Fitness models, actors, fashion models, etc. are literally paid to look good.  It is their job to look a certain way, and they get fired if they don’t.  So, not only do we get bathing suit photos of professionals, but we only see the best of the best.  The “crappy” fitness models never make the covers/runway. These professionals spend much of their time working out, preparing food, sleeping, getting massages, facials and just relaxing.  They work incredibly hard to look how they do and certainly deserve a ton of credit.  Many of them also use legal and illegal drugs to help them achieve a certain level of muscularity, thinness or leanness.  Stimulants (usually pills) are popular among models, and anabolic steroids, growth hormones and appetite suppressants are all effective and very common.  Additionally, these folks are genetically predisposed to look a certain way.  Whether it is the small joint structure (small joints make muscles look bigger and rounder in comparison) and an uncanny predisposition to muscular growth of fitness models or the 5’11” height and extremely slender skeleton of fashion models, many of us physically can never achieve what these professionals can.  The world of these “aesthetic professionals” is truly exclusive.

Topping it all off, most of these professionals don’t even look like their photos/movies.  There are a myriad of tricks used to make them look better on the day of their photo shoots or big bikini scenes in the movies.  Lighting, makeup and special body paint are all used to create the desired look.  Photos are touched up in Photoshop, and the images we see in our favorite fashion magazines aren’t even real.  No human being actually looks like that picture in the magazines.  I’ll let that sink in. No living person actually looks like that photo.  Of course, not every photo is touched up with computers, but most – especially the covers/billboards – are.  Cellulite is erased with the wave of a mouse, and wrinkles are deleted with a few keystrokes.  It’s cheap and easy to do and makes the product being sold even more desirable.

Additionally, fitness professionals all use special diet plans and/or drug protocols to help them look their best on the day of the photo shoot.  Basically, these professionals only look that lean, skinny or muscular a few days of the year.  Many professional bodybuilders weigh 250 pounds in April and step on stage at an incredibly lean 200 pounds just 16 weeks later (thanks to a monk-like focus, unbelievable determination and very well applied drugs).  A great example: Henry Cavill, the handsome star of Man of Steel, talked about how they filmed every one of his shirtless scenes on the same day, after he had basically starved himself down to his leanest, so that he could eat normally for the rest of the movie shoot.  Many other actors use CGI (computer generated imagery) to create the superhero physique.  That’s right: computer abs.

The previous 1,300 words of this article have been written to prove one very important and troubling point:  Essentially, no one looks like the “aesthetic professional” – not even the professional himself.  Additionally, many of these impossible physiques are achieved at great health risk to the individual. Yet, these are the bodies many of us try to emulate!  Whether consciously or not, most of ­­us absorb hundreds of these images daily. In this environment, it is very challenging to develop a realistic picture of what “normally fit” bodies look like and sets us up for guaranteed disappointment when we fail to look “professionally fit.”

Even the “pretty fit-looking” folks work really darn hard to get there.  Hopefully, these folks serve as a more realistic expectation of what nonprofessional fitness enthusiasts look like.  Getting stronger, getting more flexible, increasing endurance and, yes, looking better take time and practice.  It is time well spent.

Ultimately, I hope this article improves your chances of being truly successful on your personal fitness journey.  I believe that adjusting body-image expectations will help tremendously and make the path a bit less daunting.

Next month, I will talk more about a multifaceted approach to building and sustaining the long-term motivation needed to reap these rewards.

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