Body Image at the Gym

What is your body image self-talk when you are at the gym?  Standing in front of those long line of mirrors, we often check ourselves out under the auspices of making sure we are in good alignment. But what else are we checking out?  And how does it affect our self-image and self-esteem?

If you are anything like me, the body image self-talk at the gym is not always a pretty picture. I wish I could say that my first thought was from my inner cheerleader, “Damn those are some strong, beautiful arms!” or “You are looking good girl!” But unfortunately, my inner critic is usually the first to appear, “How in the hell are those hips so wide?  Is that real? Compare yours to the women around you.  Yep, these are a freak of nature?!?“   

That’s the thing about learning to love our bodies. We often don’t have control of the first thoughts. So, part of the practice is learning how to hear the inner critic when it perks its well-meaning but nasty little head, and then take steps to change the next thoughts.  
If you are lucky, you might have someone on the outside, like a good trainer, being an outer cheerleader. Several of the teachers at Scorch in Asheville are brilliant at this. They say things like “You are so strong!”  and “Yay baby…you got this.”  My old spin teacher at the Asheville YMCA use to say, “Dig deeper!” and “Just about the time you are ready to give up, that’s when you get stronger.” I’ve internalized these cheers and try to use them as that “next thought” for almost everything now, including when I want to succumb to those first voices of despair and disgust around my body.
I used to avoid gyms when I was first learning to love my body.  I needed to stay away from mirrors.  I also needed to stay away from the collective unconscious of women getting fit.  I swear I could hear their inner dialogues -- The fear in the footsteps on the treadmill, “don’t get fat, don’t get fat, don’t get fat” or the shame at the swimming pool, “I hate my body, I hate doing this.”

Learning to love my body meant learning to love moving it just for the sake of moving it, not for the number of calories it would burn or how it would help me look better in some way. So, I took up dance…and hiking…and anything that was fun and got my heart moving but wasn’t tied to losing weight.  And nothing that had mirrors. 
Today, I’m back at the gym because I sprained my pelvis and I need to strengthen my core to heal.  I also wanted to get fitter. So, I’m revisiting the mirrors, and those negative voices, and the body image stuff at another layer. Oh the fun! 
But I have more resources now.  Instead of focusing on what I hate for the whole class or comparing  my body to others, I replace it with things like “I have kick ass arms” or "I'm so thankful I'm healthy". I feel so excited when I hear my girlfriend in class says something like, “I love how I’m feeling stronger in my body,” instead something about her weight.  It all feels like powerful steps in the right direction. 
No matter what reason any of us have for going to the gym, our biggest goal as we learn to love our bodies and stay away from shame as we do it.  If you are working out because you fear fat, or because you want to burn calories to try to attain the unattainable standard of beauty, or because you want to make your heart stronger, or simply because you want to feel your body move, the biggest goal is to love yourself the whole way through.  The last thing we want to do is heap additional shame for our motivations in addition to any shame we might feel for the not already meeting the standard of beauty, weight and healthism.
So, move for whatever reason you want.  And do whatever exercise you want – whether it is 5 minutes of walking or 60 minutes of CrossFit.  Just getting into your body and moving it is so incredibly awesome and does so much for us outside of fitness.

There is nothing more you need to do to be amazing just you are. And if you want some assistance to become your own body image cheerleader, here are a few suggestions for reclaiming positive body image as you stand in front of all those mirrors:

  • Name a part of your body you love or even like.  FOCUS on it often.

  • Notice how you FEEL while moving your body?  Make sure you keep doing things that feel GOOD and FUN.

  • Notice your body's strength and flexibility, even if it is small to start.

  • Notice any negative self-talk that includes shaming yourself for your size or shape or fear of being something you find less pleasing.  Remind yourself you are a f@#king amazing no matter what shape your body is in. 

  • Find your favorite cheers.  Maybe you heard them from a trainer, in a movie, or imagined them yourself.  Some of my favorites include:

    • You are a rock star! 

    • Your body is f@#ing amazing (I need curse words to motivate me.)

    • Yay you for taking the time to care for this body.

    • You have kick ass arms!

    • This body is aging every day, so you might as well love it as it is today!

    • That women next me, she has a kick ass butt and she is rocking this crazy world just like me.  Just like me, I bet she struggles in some ways and just like me I bet she often doesn’t know how amazing and beautiful she is.  We are getting stronger together.

So, take that mirrors!  Take that inner critic!  And keep taking those small acts of power to love this body every single day, just as it is, because it is amazing...and you are worth it.

jackie dobrinska