I love the gym. I work there. I live there. It’s a second home. My gym bag is perpetually packed with the various things one needs to workout, ready to go at any moment. And the gym makes me feel good. It was not always this way, though.
Working out has become the ‘go to’ thing to do when you feel unhappy with your body. And yet, the gym can feel like one of the worst places in the world to address body image. There you are, wearing some manner of fitness clothing, much of which is deigned to fit tightly around your body, hugging the curves with all it’s sweat-wicking technology. You are under the bright lights and surrounded by mirrors. You might make your way though the rows of treadmills, past lean, joggers with fancy shoes who look like they were plucked from fitness magazine. Or you might dare to venture into the weight room. Your eyes scanning for some familiar looking device among the crowd of machines that 1) won’t make you feel stupid and 2) you can actually do. All around you are people grunting as their vein-rippled, sun tanned shoulders gleam with beads of sweat under the harsh florescent lighting.
Yes, my friends, I have been there. And as I walked those aisles of equipment, with all their bleeping lights and strange levers and pulleys, I felt ever so aware of the extra padding on my fleshy body. How I might jiggle around the middle. Worried about the way I was going to look to all these other people pretending not to look at each other in silent judgment. And the creeping realization that grey is definitely the worst color to sweat in, ever.
Body image has been an issue for me. Body image can stop people from going to the gym. Body image problems can also keep people obsessively committed to the gym. I can say that I’ve come a long way in how I feel in my skin, and consequently I find that I enjoy taking care of my body. That in turn helps my body to improve. But how to get through to the other side – how to start this positive cycle – when you feel so uncomfortable at the start. It takes a little hope and a lot of guts.
Firstly, let’s acknowledge that poor body image can happen to anyone, regardless of who they are and how they look. Even athletes can have problems with how they feel about their bodies. And although negative body image has been seen as primarily a woman’s problem, men are increasingly stepping forward to say that they struggle, too.
And secondly, let me point out that lots of body image problems are not really about the body. The trap of poor body image is that we believe other things will be fixed if we can perfect our appearance. It could seem that if we just fixed that thing we don’t like about how we look we will feel confident, happier, less worried. Or that our relationship, job or social life will improve. While these things might be helped with healthier lifestyles, the hard truth is that we often have to address our emotions and relationships first, or at least alongside, the changes we aim to make in our body.
So what can you do about a poor body image? Whether you’re fat, thin, muscular or not, here’s some steps I suggest to change your body image:
1. Adjust your perfectionism – perfectionism is different from the drive to succeed. It is an unrelenting and unrealistic demand to be perfect in some or all areas. Perfectionism is linked with depression, eating disorders, anxiety, not to mention also a destructive force in your fitness goals. While perfectionism can offer some motivation, it causes problems in the longer term because it doesn’t allow us to deal effectively with set-backs, barriers and flaws that are a normal part of everyday life. A perfectionistic perspective also forces a an extreme focus on flaws. They become larger than life, gaining importance beyond what they deserve. Next time you’re feeling down about your body, try to gain some perspective. Ask yourself ‘What is going through my mind?’ and write down all the thoughts you have been thinking, without censoring. Then wait a moment, until you are calmer and revisit your thoughts, asking yourself, ‘Could these be more helpful, reasonable or realistic?’. Or ask, ‘If a friend told me this, how would I tell them to think, instead?’ Write how you think they could be more useful to you and practice this regularly.
2. Resist Comparison – Everyone has something they would trade in if they could. Everyone has a flaw, a bump, a lump, a something that isn’t perfect. Comparisons give a false perspective – that you would be happier if only that one thing was yours. The problem is, when we are busy comparing, we are not spending anytime being grateful for what we have. And there is always something to be grateful for. Make a list. It doesn’t have to be just about your body. Once you start seeing the value in things that might not be perfect, your perspective will start to shift for the better.
3. Don’t let society into your head- Pay attention to the kinds of information you absorb. And be ready to reject the B.S. that surrounds us! We choose what to read, watch, who to follow on social media. If photos of skinny girls make you insecure, stop reading Cosmo. Society is full of an endless variety of messages that we can choose to digest or ignore. For some of us negative messages are closer to home. Family, friends, school mates can leave a lasting impression on body image, whether with a small comment or sustained bullying over years. Begin to recognize that the viewpoints of one, two or even 500 people do not represent the viewpoints of society, or humanity as a whole. Even if no one has been kind to you, be prepared to be kind to yourself. Start by treating your body with care and attention. It deserves that, no matter how it looks.
If you’re like me, coming to terms with my body is a long, and often continual process. Don’t wait until you feel perfectly comfortable in your skin to get moving, active and into fitness. Take it from me, we all feel a uncomfortable at times. Deep breaths, face those fears and don’t worry about how sweat looks on gray workout clothes. We’ve all been there!