In the age of social media, we are over-exposed and caught up in the race to look and live a certain way. To be healthy and fit in today’s world is easier in some ways than ever before with cutting edge developments in science and medicine, and the boundless knowledge of the internet at our finger tips. But to what extent should our demanding modern lives be dictated by what we commonly perceive as fitness goals, healthy living and mindful eating?
With the influence of social media and unrealistic depictions of how men and women look in our films, dramas and songs, an obsession has developed with maintaining a healthy lifestyle and certain level of fitness unlike ever before in Pakistan. ‘Healthy’ of course is used loosely if left up to the media, with heavily processed foods, such as chicken nuggets, chemical heavy cleaners and beauty products commonly advertised as good for health and natural.
A green tea’s recent ad campaign is entirely based around the tagline “Ab hongi mein fit” and promises weight loss if you consume the beverage. A slew of already slim female models are depicted in the advert worrying over the weighing scale and going for runs in lush green gardens so they can “lose 4 kgs” and fit into their favourite pants. This is just one example of how the media uses men and women’s insecurities and desire to be ‘healthy’ to successfully market a product.
Living in the age of social media and the selfie, it isn’t surprising that most people these days are eager to attain and maintain the ‘ideal’ body. Unlike ever before, instantly sharing a picture with an unlimited audience is not only possible but also the norm for younger generations on platforms, such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
Feeling your outfit? Share it on instagram! It’s your sister’s wedding? Upload a video and photo album to Facebook so loved ones can see! Just had a grueling workout followed by a healthy snack? Don’t forget to Tweet about it! You see, there is a saying that exemplifies the mentality surrounding our online personas: “Pics or it didn’t happen.”
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Nowadays, with elaborate lawn launch parties and GTs (get togethers), special occasions seem to be quite frequent, well photographed by the media and thoroughly publicised by social media ‘influencers’. Unlike the pre-Instagram era when a bad hair day or a few extra pounds could be soon forgotten, pictures of the aforementioned uploaded to the internet serve as an eternal reminder. Gone are the days when you could starve yourself in your quest to stay thin in private, and tell the world, “Oh I was just born skinny”.
Trying to achieve a certain dress size or waistline is definitely not a new trend-crash dieting before weddings or important milestones was the norm in the ‘80s and ‘90s in Pakistan: anything sugary, and carbs in the form of chapatis or rice were the enemy and had to be avoided at all costs. The only difference between then and now? What was deemed common sense on how to lose weight back then now has fancy names and formulas like the Ketogenic Diet (low carbs, high fat), the Paleolithic Diet (no grains, no sugar, no processed foods) and the Whole30 programme (no grains, no dairy, no legumes), just to name a few.
Diets like the ones above promise life-changing results: fans and proponents claim massive weight loss and an overall improvement of health as some of the benefits of these regimes. However, one glaring difference between today’s health movement and our parents’ approach towards fitness is that these fancy, modern day diets demand lifestyle overhauls. Whereas the men and women of a few decades ago usually viewed dieting much more loosely, being healthy has turned into an entire industry now with catering services cooking calorie counted meals and various elite gyms offering a multitude of workout options.
One such cult favourite workout programme has transformed the bodies and outlooks of many individuals. A rigorous bootcamp style programme, everyone who enrolls receives a standard, typically restrictive diet plan and must attend intensive daily hour long workout classes where large groups of people train together with the help of a couple of trainers.
Another fitness and exercise-centered establishment, with several classes offered for each level of fitness, provides 6-week intensive diet plans on request to participants, with handy diagrams for what a ‘healthy’ diet consists of and food dos and don’ts, essentially an attempt to teach the individual a new way to approach food.
However, the dramatic transformations that are a result of such fitness programmes makes one wonder about the sustainability of these new ‘healthy’ and ‘fit’ bodies — can participants walk away and return to their old lives, looking better than ever before? Or must they continue to eat clean and workout excessively to maintain their newfound physique?
Wardha Saleem, a blogger who tried a boot camp programme noted, “Due to that horrible experience, my knees were affected very badly for a year. I couldn’t wear heels or walk up the stairs. The damage made my life very difficult,” and went so far as to say, “To me, the challenge is a rat race; it will help you lose weight temporarily, but can cause serious damage to your health in the long run.”
In many cases, such change is simply impossible to retain unless you also maintain the rigorous workout and diet regime. A slim waist and rippling muscles are impossible to preserve without clean eating and regular exercise. Moreover, when a class of 30 or more individuals are sweating it out with only a few trainers and performing demanding physical moves, such as burpees, squats and mountain climbers, injuries are inevitable and could set back the individual for life.
It goes without saying that these fitness and diet plans are an extreme privilege that only a certain cross section of our population can afford or enjoy: with nearly 39 per cent of our population living in multidimensional poverty, measuring how many grams of protein and complex carbs one consumes in a day or paying upwards of ten thousand rupees for a month-long exercise class is obviously a luxury few Pakistanis can avail.
What we really need is a reframing of the word ‘healthy’; it’s not just about consuming a particular beverage or enrolling in that exercise class, just so you can talk about it with your friends and family. Yes, a sedentary lifestyle should be avoided; yes, exercise is good not just for the body but also the mind; and yes, we should all try to avoid unnecessary sugar and processed foods. But if all of it is coming at the cost of your wallet and your sanity, and you are left with a lifelong injury that is a bigger setback to your wellbeing and fitness than those pesky extra pounds you wanted to lose, is it really worth it?