Body Image Issues, Insecurities and Why I Compare Myself to Myself
Not my usual style of blog posts but after walking my crazy dog in this sunny lockdown weather and listening to a podcast about body image, I had a few ideas on things to write about. So here we go.
So, I’m not really one to talk about myself.. It’s just not my style. Not a great trait when it comes to job interviews, but you can’t win them all!
My interest in training, diet and fitness all really started while I was at university between 2009 and 2012. I was always interested in sport but only enrolled onto a sport science degree because I felt it gave me options. Anyway... academia aside, I gained about 2-3 stone in the first year of uni. That’s probably about normal for university students but for someone who for the last 18 years had been able to eat anything he wants and still almost float away in strong winds, it was a shock.
So the summer after first year and during my second year I started to get into fitness, weight loss and exercise. Then in my third year I was obsessed. I was in the best shape I had ever been in terms of having a low body fat, and still to this day I’ve never got back to the levels I did then. I’ve gained more muscle as I’ve got older, got “fitter” and stronger but in terms of body fat, I was the lowest I’ve ever been in my third year of uni.
But to do that I was in the gym 5-6 days per week, playing football on a Wednesday and eating food that wasn’t pleasant (to put it politely) just because Men’s Health told me it would make me “ripped” - which in fairness... it did. I avoided nights out through not wanting to consume empty calories and would feel guilty if we had a “team dominoes” at the weekends. I would skip lectures that I didn’t really find useful so that I could go to the gym in the day, and play fifa with my house mates in the evenings without feeling like a slob.
This is where my personal image “issues” (if you would classify it as that) began. I now compare myself to that 21 year old in 2012 with the abs and sub 10% body fat every single day. From then on, if I was to ever put weight on, I would beat myself up about it. I would and still am not ever happy with the way I look because I know my body fat was lower back in 2012.
I had an operation towards the end of 2012 which changed everything. Not because I was unable to exercise long term, (I did lose 1 stone of muscle in 10 days but that’s minor in the grand scheme of things) but because I now consequently have a scar across the side of my lower abdomen. This scar and the scar tissue associated with it (after being cut straight through my abs) now means my stomach is a bit wonky. You can’t really notice it at a first glance but from the side it makes me look like I have a permanent little pouch of fat at the bottom my stomach. I’m really self conscious about it because I feel like it looks like I’m fat... even though I have chicken legs and a below average body fat % which can occasionally show some abs... on a good day! Again, because I’m comparing back to how I looked at uni. What I should be doing is concentrating on the fact I’m well below average in most aspects of body composition and fitness.. it’s like that because of the scar and I didn’t die but just have the scar as a war wound! And also, most importantly... no one is judging me for it!
I’ve had the odd comment about putting weight on etc, but who hasn’t? I’ve probably had the same (if not more) more positive comments but you don’t pay attention to them, especially when the negative ones highlight what you already feel self conscious about. But that’s normal... and if you have experienced the same, you’re not alone!
A study I once read reported that people in better shape actually receive more negative comments about their appearance than overweight people do. That’s bonkers. But if you think about it, models, celebrities and sportspeople are constantly on the end of negative comments and abuse. I’m not sure about the reasons behind it and I’m not saying only socially desirable people get abuse, but my point is that just because someone says something negative to you, doesn’t mean it’s the truth or you should feel the obligation to make any changes to your life.
In terms of my approach to fitness as a personal trainer, I would preach how not to judge and compare against others whilst doing the exact same thing, albeit comparing myself to an older version of myself.
The reason I’m explaining this is because now we’re in lockdown, a lot of people are spending a lot of time on social media, maybe living a more sedentary life than normal and not feeling great about the way they feel/look especially comparing themselves to an already false world of fitness.
James Smith said on a podcast I listened to recently, that personal trainers are some of the most insecure people in the gym. Yet you might look at them as one of the most confident and maybe even a role model when it comes to fitness and body composition. But if you think about it, their whole job relies on body image and changing that to meet goals. If that isn’t a warning sign on insecurity, I don’t know what is.
Living a healthy lifestyle has obvious benefits and that’s a completely separate blog post. But there are limits. If you are overweight and losing it, there is a point where you should stop... but would you wake up and realise you’re there? Probably not. No one will ever be happy with the way they look. Do you know anyone who is 100% happy with their appearance and wouldn’t change a single thing? Think of someone you know that you see as having the “ideal” body. I can almost guarantee that they won’t be training to stay exactly the same. They might want to drop 1% of body fat, or increase their bicep size by an inch; but essentially, they aren’t satisfied and likely never will be. You might even be that person to someone you know...!
Now think of your happiest friend. It’s rarely the most “attractive” one that trains the hardest and eats the cleanest. Sometimes it’s actually the “fat one”! In the words of Jay from The Inbetweeners...
“The fact ones are always jolly”
Obviously that’s playing on a stereotype but there’s an aspect of reality in it.
Back to your happiest friend... Do you think they are happy about their appearance? Do you think there are aspects of it that they would change? Do you think it gets to them as it might do the “attractive” one of the group? If the answer to any of those is “probably not”, then there’s food for thought there.
Question: Would you rather be perfect and miserable or average but healthy and happy?
This is transferable to life outside fitness. You will probably know someone who posts all over social media about how great there life is, often posting expensive items of clothing, cars, amazing holidays. Again, these people are often the most insecure, posting these images portraying that they live an amazing life. Whereas in reality, they are just looking for public gratification in order to settle their insecurities. How many people do you think actually care that Steph from round the corner wears Louboutins to her office job and drives a Range Rover? And then how many people do you think “Steph” thinks cares about those things? That will give you two different numbers. The people that it actually impresses, being the lower of the two.
The richest, most successful and secure people in the world, do not publicly portray a lavish life. Some don’t have social media at all. With sportspeople aside, think of Richard Branson and Bill Gates. If you didn’t know who they were and walked past them in the street, you wouldn’t know they were billionaires. Because showing the world how rich they are brings nothing to their life. And spending £500 on a pair of (horrendous) shoes because they have a fancy sole isn’t at the top of their priority list, and never will be.
My point is, that not as many people care about these things and you might think; and it’s the same when it comes to fitness. Yes you might get a few double-looks on the beach once a year but in day-to-day life, what difference would it make if your body fat is 16% rather than 18%? Nothing.
With these things in mind, think about how much you beat yourself up about eating unhealthily. It could be just one Easter egg, or one chocolate bar. The rest of your weekly calories seem void because you’ve “ruined” it with one snack.
I beat myself up when I have a bad day of food, or even a bad snack like I mentioned above; in fear that it’s detrimental to my training and will stop me getting back into the shape I was in at university. I would go to bed miserable just because I’m bloated after nailing a box of Lindt... even if I’ve eaten hardly anything all day and trained in the morning. And that’s partly thinking that I’ll be judged for gaining weight. Even though I probably won’t gain weight. Sounds mental doesn’t it! It’s even more mental that I’ve spent 6 years in higher education, teach my clients the principles of calorie balance and still beat myself up for eating a snack! Mental...
I’ve tried a range of supplements at uni and ever since, to speed up my training “progress”. The majority of these didn’t do anything. Some may have had some effect, some aren’t even legal anymore... but what I can say for definite is that any positive effects they did have could have been achieved a lot more easily through being more conscious about eating a balanced diet and managing recovery after/between training sessions.
I don’t use any supplements now other than a daily multivitamin (because I hate vegetables so need the vit’s!) and protein shakes to increase my protein intake.
When looking at supplements, ask yourself:
- What’s does it actually achieve?
- Has it been adequately researched and shown consistent results? (Side note: creatine and caffeine are two of the only ones I’d even consider)
- Who care about the effects?
- Would you be any further in life if the proposed benefits actually happened?
Your answer to the final question being valuable. What will spending £50 on a supplement bring to your life? Is it worth it?
How many years have you spent endlessly training in the gym to improve your body composition. Do you have a measurable goal? Or is your aim of training to just become more desirable?
We are all guilty of just going to the gym to lose weight, build muscle, become “more attractive” at some point in our lives. Have you ever got there? Did you ever reach that goal? Probably not... because it’s ever changing. As I have already touched on, you might made progress but never be satisfied by how you look so keep training towards an endless goal and inevitably give up.
The same happens in January. The gyms are full of people training to “get fitter” or “lose weight” to give up a month down the line because they’ve spend the whole month eating far less than they need to and doing exercise they hate, in the hope to change their body composition; to not see immediate results.
There’s a commonly used example explaining the correlation between body composition changes and style of training. Competitive swimmers pose a physique often desired, specifically by men. The broad shoulder/slim waist physique comes from the style of training swimmers participate in. However their goals are to become better at swimming; more specifically, they could aim to reduce their 800m freestyle PB by 20 seconds in a season. A side effect of this is that the experience hypertrophy (muscle growth) of their upper body along with a reduced body fat percentage. The produces the “V” body shape. The point here is that the swimmers are concentrating on what they love to do - swim. The body composition changes are an added benefit. They often swim from a young age well into adulthood, continually training for performance rather than body composition.
This can be translated into daily exercise. Aim to enjoy your exercise. It doesn’t matter what that is. Some exercise/sports have different effects on body type than others but as long as you’re exercising regularly and enjoying it, who cares?! You’re a lot more likely to stick to something you love than torturing yourself through running on the treadmill for an hour at 6am, 5 times a week!
CrossFit have implemented this mindset over the last decade, and their popularity has blown up. Although I don’t agree with all of their workouts where form is sacrificed to complete a workout faster; a hugely eclectic demographic take part and are seeing huge health benefits, enjoying exercise and sticking to it as part of a community.
Let’s commit to taking part in exercise that we enjoy and concentrate on enjoying it rather than aiming to improve how we look. It doesn’t have to be a sport, but it’s as simple as if you hate HIIT’s... don’t do HIIT’s!
Tag me in what you do to keep fit @onlinephysio.app and let’s get the hashtag #favouritefitness trending!
Take Away Points
- Not as many people care how you look than you think
- Concentrate on the bigger picture, not “magic quick fixes” to make small wins
- Don’t compare your outtakes to someone’s highlight reel
- People judging are probably insecure themselves
- Exercise for enjoyment, the rest will follow