When I’m out for a run, I have a tendency to check out my reflection when I run by store-front windows (maybe it’s a little narcissistic, but at least I don’t take selfies). This morning I ran by a particularly large set of windows, and as I caught my reflection, I realized that’s how I tend to see myself–large.
As a teenager I was fortunate enough to be simultaneously rail-thin and muscular without any conscious effort on my part. As a swimmer and a runner, I actually had an endless appetite and ate just about anything and everything…to the point that my friends’ parents would hide food when they found out I was coming over. Not only was I proud of my appetite, but I never thought twice about how others viewed my body, my muscles, or my body fat percentage. All I cared about was what my body was able to do; how fast it could go, how hard I could push it.
When I got to college as a track and cross country athlete, however, I was introduced to words like BMI, caloric deficit, macro-nutrient, and even anorexia and bulimia. I learned that at the collegiate-level, it was all too common for female distance runners to develop an unhealthy association with weight and performance; girls didn’t want to just be fit, but they actually believed they could be faster if they were skinnier.
When I would hit the starting line in cross country races, I couldn’t help but notice that, compared to most, my swimmer-shoulders were seemingly twice as broad, my upper thighs twice as thick, and my butt twice as rotund. For the first time in my life, I started to feel…fat. A guy I dated at the time even “complimented” me on my physique by saying, “You’re not built like those other runner girls…you’re thick.” FYI guys, that was one of the most deflating compliments I received as a freshman.
Throughout college, my self-esteem and self-image became inextricably linked to my body shape and size. If I fluctuated more than a few pounds off my “ideal” weight, I needed to run more. If my jean size threatened to creep up past a four, I needed to eat less. If my stomach hung over my shorts when I bent over, I could definitely forget qualifying for nationals.
The entire time I was in college, I saw myself as big, thick, chunky, blah blah blah. The fact is, for most of my college career, I maintained between 9% and 13% body fat…and I thought I was fat. Now, when I look at pictures of myself back then, the adjectives I would use to describe my former self are TOTALLY different; lean, strong, thin, muscular, beautiful. Even in the immediate years after college, I continued to carry those negative, destructive thoughts about myself–only now my long-delayed “Freshman 15” had finally set in. I continued to run recreationally and even ran a few marathons, but I couldn’t help but think: I’d be faster if I lost 10 pounds. No self-respecting athlete has love-handles. I’m getting a double-chin.
Today, with a pregnancy behind me and nearly two years of motherhood under my belt, I look at pictures of myself even THEN and can’t believe how good I looked. I wasn’t nearly as skinny as I was in college, but I was still fit, and I wasn’t anywhere near as “fat” as I thought I was (or think I am NOW).
What’s the lesson in all this? It’s that most of us will NEVER be satisfied with how our bodies look right now. We spend our entire youths judging, criticizing, and lamenting things as trivial as the shape of our tummies, our biceps, or our butts, when five years from now we’ll likely be salivating for the bodies we had in years gone by. I’m also ashamed to admit that I’ve never cried over the fact that we haven’t found a cure for cancer, or AIDS, or world hunger, but I’ve totally shed tears over my soggy belly, cellulite, and jiggly arms.
What I’ve discovered is that I am my own worst critic. And while I’m aware of the fact that I often judge my appearance far too harshly, it is SO hard to stop doing it…because I still do it. Instead of worrying about the number on the scale, my body fat percentage, or my waist measurement, I should go back to focusing on what my body can actually do. I’m proud of the fact that since my son was born, my running mileage is back up. That thanks to CrossFit, I’m lifting more weight than I ever have. That thanks to motherhood, I now have Herculean biceps and can simultaneously carry my son and six bags of groceries up the stairs, all in one trip.
I should also spend less time focusing on how I look in a bikini and more time actually doing things that could benefit someone besides…well, myself. Imagine how AMAZING this world would be if we spent as much time, money and energy serving others as we did researching weight-loss, buying diet pills, or tearing ourselves apart in the mirror.
I’m not saying don’t weigh yourself or don’t track your progress or don’t try to be healthy; I am the world’s #1 advocate for health and fitness. I am saying we should stop hating ourselves for how we look today, because it’s probably not as bad as we think. If you are unhappy with your weight, do something about it in a positive, constructive way. Make realistic goals and plans so that you can get yourself to a point where you are healthy and fit and feel good, NOT so you can look like whatever skinny version of YOU you have in your head; chances are, you’ll never get there, and you’ll probably feel miserable about yourself in the process. And even if you do become that skinny-minnie you’ve always dreamed of being, you probably won’t realize it until long after the fact.