There is a growing movement afoot, both figurative and literal, that is redefining society’s image of beauty and health, while raising basic questions about national strength and preparedness.
The beauty pendulum is always in swing, of course, whether in the time of Peter Paul Rubens or that of Miss Twiggy. But health and preparedness are matters not as easily dismissed by shifting tastes and subjective standards.
Stories are rife about how much slower today’s runners are than the previous generation. At the recent New Balance Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod, old-timers recalled the days when nearly 50 men would run the serpentine 7-mile course in under 35:00, sub-5 minute per mile pace. This year only eight men accomplished that goal. At the same time, the top end of the sport is faster than ever. Yet the days when that excellence would trickle down to the rest of the field has long since ended.
Scientists now say running even as much as 50 miles a week alone won’t lose you any weight. Not running hard enough, they say, to burn off the necessary calories. That’s the ugly little truth about today’s marathoners. That’s why there are so many one-and-done bucket listers. ‘I thought this unpleasantness was supposed to pare me down.’
There is a backlash, too, against the rail-thin, airbrushed model of beauty that has defined societal norms since the days of Miss Twiggy in the Swinging Sixties. The rise of plus-sized models, whether on the cover of Sports Illustrated, or on the catwalk of Heidi Klum’s Project Runway show, ascribe a turning point that has already begun resetting society’s views.
In the racing world, instead of full-blooded speed, events throughout the 21st century have ridden the pale horse of participation as if that plodder alone would sustain interest in a game once defined by speed and excellence.
Is size 0 an attainable – much less healthy – standard of beauty? Is pure speed the only measure of running success? Of course not. But there are some aspects of health and fitness that carry far greater consequences.
As far back as 1960 President Kennedy wrote in Sports Illustrated about what he saw as a declining national fitness. (Thanks to reader Luis Armenteros for the find). By the late 1990s the military began relaxing its educational standards in order to meet its recruitment goals. Then in 2014 the Pentagon found that some 71% of the 34 million 17-to-24-year-olds in the U.S. would not qualify for military service based on standards of health, physical appearance, and levels of education.
But rather than rededicating themselves to a greater rigor, aspiring to a higher standard, institutions instead continued to simply lower their bars.
Before 2016, the highest acceptable body fat percentage allowable for a navy recruit was 22% for men, 33% for women. But January 1, 2016 those standards were lowered to 26% and 39% respectively. Also instituted was a 35-inch waist limit for men, and 39 1/2 inches for women. The navy never had such limits before.
Grade inflation and social advancement over competence in schools, an unending debt-limit ceiling in Congress, plus-sized models, participation trophies, they are all of a piece.
Just as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma revealed how thin the nation’s infrastructure support is when put under great stress, military standards, and even road racing stats reflect a general national softening that likely isn’t escaping our adversaries’ planning sessions.
According to a Running USA national running survey, there has been a slow, but gradual reduction not just in the finishing times of today’s runners, but a drop in the number of race participants over the last three years.
But really, in the current environment how could they expect to grow a sport based on physical discomfort and delayed gratification? After all, Apple just announced its new iPhone X. You don’t even have to press a button anymore to get it going! Just point your fat face at the screen, and it will do the rest.
And so it goes.