Having a healthy body image was never in the cards for me. My mother was small and thin and “frowned upon” fat people. To my mother’s horror, I inherited my father’s family fat genes, and she declared war on those genes the moment she could no longer cover up my roly-poly thighs with little dresses and lace. I was a very active and outgoing kid. Our neighborhood had a lot of other kids my age, and we’d roam all day. In an effort to keep me somewhat presentable, Mom kept a large stash of cute little rompers handy and would bring me in for a clothes change a couple of times a day.
If you opened up a photo album of me from ages three to five, you’d see countless pictures of a tanned, sun-bleached-white-headed little girl with dimples, scraped knees, dirty hands and a pristine romper. And if you were going through the album with my mother, you’d hear: Here is Jennifer when she got her first bike…see the training wheels? And look at those rolls in her thighs! Oh, and here’s Jennifer trying out the new swing set…look at the belly on her.
I was trained from the beginning to see my defects. Even now when I look at pictures of myself, I do a hardcore evaluation of my thighs, stomach and arms.
So when I saw that my coach had posted a video on Facebook of my doing a strict pull up, I felt a momentary surge of panic. My thighs look huge – or do my calves look too small? And my hair…do I really look like that? Yet (and this is completely true, I swear!) my pride in that video successfully pushed away the initial doubts. The woman in that video looks strong, confident and happy. That woman is me.
CrossFit promotes strength over skinny, skill over beauty, achievement over appearance. I’ve written previously that my motivation for joining CrossFit was to improve my appearance. Just lose weight and look cool with a barbell over my head. What I didn’t expect was how quickly my desire to be skinny became a secondary goal to being strong. And my strength increased faster than the number on the scale decreased.
This week we worked on snatches and overhead squats. For the last year, overhead squats have plagued me. I couldn’t even get to parallel. I Googled on it, whined about it, obsessed over it, practiced with a Rogue War Bar in my kitchen while cooking dinner – Why the hell did I have such a bad overhead squat? Well, I still don’t know what my problem was or how I fixed it (maybe a lot of practice?), but Coach said I had the best overhead squat he’d seen all day. (BIG SMILE) And not only were they good, they had a decent weight of 75 lbs (yep, I deserve to brag a bit).
Then we started talking about how things were just starting to click. In the last couple of weeks, movements like pull ups, double unders and my overhead squats are making more sense, as if my body and mind are finally working together. I’m moving more efficiently in general and I don’t get nervous when I see these things in a WOD.
But, seriously, CrossFit Gods…it takes over a year to get to this point? Gimme a break.
It takes time and practice and patience to develop a skill. Despite my immediate success with weight loss and strength gains, I still hated the way I looked. Let’s take a hypothetical look through a current photo album: Here I am in a back squat with a heavy barbell…look at that belly roll. Here I am doing a 230 lbs deadlift…wow, my arms look fat. See! I’ve had a few decades of practice for searching and finding faults in my appearance.
A few months ago it occurred to me that I really hated looking at pictures of myself. I hated feeling disappointment in what I was seeing despite how hard I was working and how much progress I was making. And it was time for it to end. I didn’t deserve the way I was treating myself. How could I reverse this behavior?
The first step is acknowledging that you don’t deserve the negativity you’re dishing out to yourself. It seems obvious, but you really need to believe it. For a long time I thought that if I didn’t offset my positive self-image with a negative, then I was ceding to my faults. To use our CrossFit training as an example: the first time I hit parallel in an overhead squat with more than a PVC pipe over my head, I was thrilled. Was there more work ahead of me? Did I need to keep pushing? Yes and yes. Did I care at that moment? Nope. I didn’t need to use negativity to propel me forward. Believe it or not, I was able to develop a damn good overhead squat with positive motivation. The same is true in the development of a damn good self-image.
It is really important that you not only believe that you’re finding fault with yourself needlessly, but also that you identify how you do it. My personal preference is to find something good about my appearance then crush it into dust with a negative. But that’s just my style. Maybe you enjoy skipping the positive altogether and going straight to the negative. Perhaps you combine the two and just feel blah about it all. No matter how you roll, you need to figure out your modus operandi.
Not really, but kind of. Using my cell phone, I started taping myself doing WODs. Then I would watch the video. Initially, I had a really hard time keeping positive. I mean, I was giving myself 15 minutes of material and I wasn’t supposed to be negative about the way I looked or moved at all? Well, it does take practice, so some negativity crept in, but ultimately I was fascinated. Many times I would rewatch the video, each time becoming more absorbed in the way I used the thighs, stomach and arms that I thought were so hideous. I could see the muscles moving, the flow of a power clean, the force of a push press.
What started as a simple exercise in self-acceptance became a useful training tool. Being familiar with the way I moved helped me better understand the feedback from my coaches. Ultimately, I became more comfortable with myself in general.
You need to force yourself to find good in the places where you’re seeing the most bad. If you can find something attractive about yourself (and believe it!) in the most unflattering conditions possible, you’ve made progress.
Remember Your Goal
Be on alert. Remember, you’re trying to change behavior that you’ve been reinforcing for a long time. It’s easy to slip back into the old routine. That’s what we’re comfortable with. But the effort to make the positive outweigh the negative is worth it.
A couple of weeks ago at a CrossFit competition, one of our coaches took hundreds of photos. A few of me were horrifyingly bad. And, after a few minutes of restraining my desire to put a paper bag over my head, I forced myself to come away with something positive about my appearance. And I was able to laugh off the rest.
It’s like anything else, it just takes practice. You’re not going to have a positive self-image unless you practice positive self-image. It takes more than wearing a Strong Is the New Skinny tank. You have to live it. You have to actually believe it.