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Women, body image, & training: 5 ways to stop worrying about your looks and train for other reasons

Karina Inkster | Online vegan coach

Here’s an all-too-common scenario for you: A new female client comes to my gym for her first session. She tells me she wants to start training because she’s incredibly unhappy with how her body looks and wants everything about it to change. (If this is you, you’re far from alone.) She points out her “problem” areas and sighs with frustration. What she doesn’t realize – or refuses to believe – is that countless other women would kill for her physique.

We all want to look awesome and feel good about our bodies. Nothin’ new there. The problem is so many active women don’t feel good about their bodies, and are training for reasons that won’t serve them well long-term. We also tend to waste energy yearning for what we don’t have, instead of being thankful for what we do have.

Here are some examples of women I see:

• The 30-year-old with an 8-year old daughter who feels she can’t bare her abs because she’s embarrassed about her stretch marks. (She showed me; they’re hardly even visible.) She realizes she needs to be a better, more psychologically healthy role model for her young daughter but doesn’t know where to start. She can’t believe the majority of other moms envy her leanness and muscle tone.

• The 51-year-old in incredible shape who could easily out-perform most 20-somethings who avoids wearing shorts because she feels her thighs aren’t firm enough. Little does she know she’s serving as a role model for other clients in their 40’s and 50’s who want to kick as much ass as she does.

• The 40-year-old who gave birth for the first time only 3 months ago and is recovering from pregnancy and C-section more quickly than most 30-year-olds. She’s depressed about how her body looks and often comments on how “big” her stomach looks. She wants to shed her baby weight as quickly as possible.

• The 35-year-old who, at 5 foot 4 inches, weighed 105 pounds when she started training with me and felt she needed to lose weight and decrease her body measurements.

Body image has been discussed and written about to death. But because I train so many women, it’s something I’ve wanted to address for a long time, even if it’s just to lay out my approach to training. I realize it’s idealistic to assume we can all just “snap out of it” and stop using looks to judge ourselves (and each other). It's also unrealistic to be 100% happy with our bodies 100% of the time. But I am suggesting 5 ways we can move toward accepting our physiques, training for reasons other than looks, and staying sane in the process.

1. Train because you love your body, not because you hate it.

Training solely for aesthetics isn’t healthy or sane. (That’s why I don’t train people for physique competitions, but I’ll get to that in a sec.) I realize that people whose #1 priority is changing the look of their bodies also have other reasons they want to increase their fitness, like keeping up with their kids, increasing their strength, being able to hike mountain trails well into their 80’s, or moonlighting as a superhero. Making these other, more meaningful motivations your top reasons for being healthy and fit will help to make fitness a positive aspect of your life, rather than something you dread. You want fitness to be something you get to do, not something you have to do. And that, most likely, means you’ll stick with it long-term.

Very often, a female client starts training with me because she’s unhappy with how she looks. Her sole motivation at the gym is to change her physique. Once she starts training regularly and realizes what her body can do, she continues training not because she hates how she looks, but because she’s amazed at what she can do and she wants to keep doing more and more amazing things. Training for non-aesthetic goals will most likely have an effect on your physique, anyway! How’s that for a win-win?

As hard as it is to accept, however, genetics play a huge role in how we look and how we respond to exercise. You may not see any outward physical changes, but that doesn’t mean you’re working out in vain. If you set goals, consider training for performance instead of aesthetics. Working toward and achieving performance-based goals is much, much more empowering, and will keep you focused and motivated even if you don’t see the physical change you’re after.

In an article titled “Ripped and Miserable”, Neghar Fonooni – an internationally recognized fitness professional and kettlebell instructor – describes her endeavour to get as lean and shredded as possible. Sporting a sixpack and 12% body fat, she certainly got there. But she was far from happy.

Neghar writes, “Inevitably, I fell apart, because what I was pursuing wasn't fulfilling. I didn't love who I was, and no amount of leanness would change that. What I would eventually discover is that true contentment comes from a place of self-love and compassion. Lifting and eating nutritiously are only sustainable if you do it because you love your body, not because you hate it. When you know, with the utmost certainty, that you are enough right now - not 10 pounds from now - only then can you begin your journey to the highest expression of you. Only then will fitness enrich your life, as opposed to detract from it.”

Training just for looks doesn’t fit into my approach to health, so I don’t work with people who want to take part in physique competitions. When it comes to competing, I think it’s borderline pathological to focus so much on aesthetics, and it sends many, many people into negative spirals of self-loathing and problem eating – even among professional fitness coaches. Several coaches I know ended their competition prep early because they realized a short-term result wasn’t worth sacrificing their long-term health.

If you’re one of the very few people who can compete in a healthy way, go for it. But my problem with the industry is that many people (probably most people) need to force their bodies to extremely low levels of body fat, and need to sacrifice their long-term health in the process. It’s common for female competitors to lose their periods for several months because their body fat percentages are so low. That’s a major risk for health problems down the road, especially osteoporosis. In my books, that’s not worth it.

This “stage-ready” look also happens to be the one we see in the media of so-called fit people (who look like that for only a few weeks of the year, by the way), which sends a completely unrealistic message to the other 99.9% of us.

Remember that you can love your body while it’s changing – you don’t need to wait until you achieve a specific goal. If you think you’ll be happy with your body once you lose 2 inches around your waist, or once you gain muscle definition in your triceps, or whatever else, you’re probably wrong. You’ll most likely find the next thing to nitpick about. We need to learn to love our bodies right now. Tell yourself, “I’m happy with my body now, while I work on improving what it can do and changing how it looks.” Or “I’m content with my body now, but I’m open to change.”

2. Detach your self-worth from your physical appearance and current fitness level.

Your physique and current fitness level don’t define you as a person. Your mission is to detach your self-worth from your physical appearance and athletic ability. Easier said than done, of course, but it’s very important to staying healthy – both physically and mentally – and being able to stick to healthy living and fitness habits long-term.

You’re already awesome, right here and right now. Being upset with your current situation is fine, and happens to all of us. Being upset with who you are based on your looks or current fitness level is destructive and isn’t going to get you anywhere.

I could write an entire article on the pro’s and con’s of CrossFit, but here’s an excellent quote from one of their CrossFit Games videos:

“There are people who spend their entire lives allowing the reflection in the mirror to determine their self-esteem, submitting to a cultural judgment established decades ago. But in CrossFit gyms all over the world, mirrors are conspicuous by their absence. Fitness is gauged in reps, in speed, power, virtuosity. And beauty is measured in joy. And in pride…”

3. Stop worrying about the number on the scale, already.

Our cultural obsession with the scale might be declining, but it’s still very pervasive. Just as physical appearance and current fitness level have no bearing on who you are as a person, neither does an arbitrary number on a scale. The scale isn’t a great measure of most people’s health and fitness levels, anyway. In many cases, as fitness level increases, so does the number on the scale. If a client’s waist measurement is staying the same or decreasing, and his/her weight is going up, I see that as an excellent sign of having built lean muscle.

I have a client who started training with me and had never before lifted weights. In a few months of training, she lost 3 inches around her waist. I showed her comparison photos (with her permission, of course) to a doctor client of mine and asked him to guess how many pounds she had lost based on how she looked. He said, “Between 20 and 25 pounds.” In reality, she’d lost only 3 pounds on the scale. That meant her body composition had changed: less fat and more muscle.

4. Stop comparing yourself to others.

Comparing yourself to others is not doing you any good. Everyone’s goals, training schedules, priorities, experiences, lifestyles, genetics, and resulting physiques are different. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard things like “I want her shoulders” or “I want her legs”. Well y’know what? You’re never going to have her shoulders or her legs. And she’s never going to have your shoulders or your legs.

Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. Did you finish your first year of weight lifting, look at someone’s 10th, and think, “I’ll never be as strong as that”? Did you finish your first race, look at your age group winner’s 200th, and think, “I’ll never be as fast as that”?

Constantly comparing yourself to others means you’ll never feel good enough, and you’ll always struggle to celebrate your achievements. Use others’ achievements to inspire your own.

Ernest Hemingway wrote, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”

5. Stop worrying about your perceived flaws and instead focus on what makes you awesome.

We all have perceived flaws. Whether or not we spend time obsessing over them is our choice, and will have an effect on how we approach health and fitness. Also remember that you’re the one who is most critical of yourself; most others don’t even notice the things you’re nitpicking about.

In case you’re wondering, fitness coaches like me aren’t immune to this issue – far from it. I could write a brand new book manuscript on the negative things I catch myself thinking about my body, even though I’m very happy with it overall.

I try to focus on being proud of what my body can do and the consistent effort it took to get there, rather than bringing attention to “flaws”. In the interest of illustrating a point, however, I’ll share one. While having a discussion on this topic with one of my clients recently, I told her that sometimes I catch myself wishing for a more curvy hourglass figure, instead of my ectomorph/stick-like/no-curves shape. My client said, “But your shape suits you! It’s just…you!” Damn right it is! She had a great point. What you need to realize is that whatever you’re complaining about is you, too, and everyone else thinks it suits you.

To stop worrying about your so-called flaws, start by adding in more positive thoughts, and focusing on all the awesome things your body can do (as opposed to how it looks).

One of the five points in my service agreement for new clients is the following:

“I maintain a complaining-, body shaming-, self-blame-, negativity-, and ‘can’t-do’ attitude-free zone. This doesn’t mean I expect you to be sunshine-and-rainbows all the time. But it does mean that you commit to focusing on the positives as best you can during your quest for increased health and fitness.”

It’s OK to feel down about yourself sometimes. We all do. But what’s not OK is to obsess about perceived imperfections while you’re training with me. I aim to foster a positive workout environment where we focus on all the awesome things your body can do. Your thoughts and feelings are entirely legitimate, and I always encourage you to share them with me, but expect me to call you out on repetitive negative statements about your body so we can start thinking about something more positive instead. Looking in the mirror to criticize how “big” your stomach looks 32 times in 20 minutes does nothing for your mindset or your fitness goals.

Amber Rogers, one of the most important voices of reason in the fitness industry today, says, “We all have flaws. They do not define you. Trying to get rid of them takes mental energy away from the far more important task of being awesome. None of us will ever be perfectly flawless, so focus your mental energy on what makes you awesome.”

So, let’s go forth and be awesome!

Comments? Questions? Suggestions? Thoughts on life? Get in touch with me; I'd love to hear from you!


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