Let’s take a moment to talk about the impact of fitness on body image…
I’ve never attained something that I would call “physical perfection.” That may have been the goal when I picked up a pair of dumbbells for the first time ever. Back when I thought that all you had to do to look like the people in bodybuilding magazines is to do a couple of push-ups and maybe go for a light jog.
Oh, the insouciance of youth.
I’ve drastically changed my body shape and overall condition since those naïve days, but I certainly don’t look like a fitness model or a bodybuilder. And that’s ok.
Facts: I’m not 20 years old, have never taken anabolic steroids or aim to have 3% body fat.
Where I land most of the time is in a certain meeting point of muscle mass, fat percentage and the all-important “mirror test”. When I look into the ultimate truth-teller, I want the feeling of being comfortable in my own skin. To me, that is “success.”
Now, I feel it’s important to clarify – I’m not saying that a person shouldn’t feel a certain level of ambition when it comes to taking good care of themselves. You absolutely should pursue your next level, but there are measures of success that are far higher in value than the bathroom scale or the measuring tape. Those have their place, and sometimes when our eyes don’t see the good in the mirror, they can tell us otherwise and be just what it takes to keep going.
But let’ set them aside for a moment. This article is about what I consider the best method of measurement.
Contrary to the visual messaging we get from seemingly everywhere, the fact remains that if we aim for perfection, we aim to fail. If we aim for improvement, we’re far more likely to succeed.
Images of remarkable physical transformations on social media can be incredibly inspiring catalysts for change, but they can also mislead.
The image they create is that transformation is attainable and easy. It’s absolutely attainable, but It’s that last part that’s tricky. The road between the “before and after pic” has many ups and downs. There can be mental and physical struggles, pitfalls, the reworking of strategies, questioning just why you’re doing all this… Oh, the tapestry is rich, varied and never a smooth line – but I assure you – always worth it.
Body image plays a massive role in all of this. Chances are that it’s the leading reason why people embark on a fitness journey. But if it’s in a bad place, it has the power to take away the shine of your success and even make you stop whatever you are doing to improve yourself.
The way we see ourselves is influenced by so many factors that there wouldn’t be enough space to fully unpack the topic here, so instead, I’d like to share three personal mini-stories about this subject.
Due to my long history with food addiction and its reliable partner obesity, my body has been left with many scars of this battle that affected my body image profoundly.
Crash and Burn
When I was 17 years old, I had to have my gallbladder removed due to the speed of weight loss on my first crash diet prescribed by a weight loss clinic. 790 calories per day are apparently not enough for an infant, let alone a developing adolescent. As I always say when I touch on this topic: kids, don’t ever do this!
Without a full spectrum of knowledge on the topic of obesity, we all thought that calories in and calories out means that if we take our bodies to the absolute brink of starvation, the pounds would come off forever.
Well, nothing lasts forever and I assure you, the fabulous results that a drastic diet like that gives you is just a setup for an ongoing struggle and a nearly-destroyed metabolism.
The surgeon who was to remove my gallbladder told me at the time that due to having to cut through my abdominal wall, I will never have that coveted 6-pack. Not that this was a major goal of mine back then, but when you hear someone say that you will never have something, there is a small part of you that from that point forward wants it.
The surgery left me with a 4-inch scar on my abdomen.
The Skin I’m In
After initially losing 140 pounds, I thought that I would finally have a better body image. However, what a lot of people don’t count on is that the skin all-around your body that you spent years stretching doesn’t just snap back to your new shape. Oh no, it hangs there as a constant reminder of your lowest points in life.
In this case, one is left with two choices:
- Do nothing and learn to live with it
- Skin removal surgery
I decided on option 2. I didn’t come this far in order to continue to be miserable about yet another thing that was destroying my self-confidence. Besides, the hanging skin was an ever-present potential for infection.
The recovery from this type of surgery can be absolutely brutal. I was unable to walk upright for three weeks and needed assistance with almost everything. It wasn’t until the third month that the swelling all around my body started to subside.
This surgery left me with a 20-inch scar going across my lower abdomen from one side of my flanks to the other.
What Comes Naturally
Last but certainly not least, I was born with a condition called “Scheuermann’s Syndrome.” This mouthful of a diagnosis is when vertebrae grow unevenly during childhood development and can manifest as skeletal deformities in teenage years. I’m quite lucky in this regard because it’s a mild case, but as a teenager lacking any self-esteem whatsoever, this was a huge focal point that spilled into my adult life.
As far as physical effects are concerned, I’ve had to adjust several types of exercises to accommodate certain limitations in range of motion, but my body image was affected by this condition for a very long time.
It’s impossible to change this one, but exercise gave me better proportions that mask the problem to the point where it simply doesn’t bother me anymore.
So why am I telling you all of this?
Although I’ve come a long way, the many pieces of evidence of my past struggles are always on display in one form or another. I can improve some things, but I can’t erase them and that, too, is ok.
Negative body image can hold you down so much. It can do so for a long time; wasting precious years of our limited time on earth, whispering “you’ll never change this” into our ears when we’re most vulnerable. However, your reactions to it can be the drivers to get you into a better space. A space where you find the power to initiate change.
Shifting the focus to the many things that can be changed instead of the things that can’t is a powerful tool that we all have in us. It’s really a matter of choosing it.
I have chosen fitness as the vehicle.
Exercise, solid nutrition and real commitments stretch beyond the obvious. It ignites a certain survival instinct that’s like flipping a switch in your brain so that when you look in the mirror you don’t see someone whose life is just the collection of ongoing wars, but someone who deserves to be cared for and loved.
When you gain self-confidence and self-belief, none of the irritants or “hangers-on” of the past that you were uncomfortable with have the kind of power they used to have.
The most important part of it for me is that becoming a fit person shifted the value of how I’m perceived by others to how I perceive myself. This is the “mirror test” I referred to earlier.
The goal should always be – improvement. Whether that’s a week, a month, or even measured in years – patience, perseverance and faith in yourself will be the vehicle that guides you down this road.
No matter what scars from the past you carry, I hope that whenever you look in the mirror, you see your true, amazing and capable self and that you choose a road that gives you the eyes to always see it.