What it's like to Workout When You Have Body Image Issues
Initially, I sat down to write a standard workout guide about building muscle. But after reading Necko Fanning's recent article about issues of body image during Pride Month, I felt like I needed to shift directions.
You see, I'm 6'3" (190.5cm tall) and have a 31" waist. By most measures, I'm what you'd probably describe as being somewhere between lanky and on the thin side of average. It's been this way for most of my adult life. Around the time that I started college, I started running on a near-daily basis and got to be quite trim. Later on in my college career I started lifting more and doing yoga and put on some muscle as well.
But, even when I was in the best shape of my life and running a 19 minute 5k, I wasn't happy with my body. I avoided situations– like going swimming with friends– that would have involved taking my shirt off in front of others. In my dorm room, I'd take my clothes into the bathroom with me so that I could towel off and get dressed in private, and not have to walk around in a towel in front of my roommates.
I was ashamed of my body. In instances in which my body would be visible, I was terrified and would do everything I could to conceal it. Throughout my daily life, I would go to classes and go to work making every attempt to be fashionable with my clothing. In fact, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I went to class in a shirt that didn't have a collar. I'd be uncomfortable and I'd subject my feet (which, by the way, I knew had some musculoskeletal issues and needed significant ankle support) to hard, impractical shoes. I wanted people to see my clothes and my sense of fashion. I didn't want them to see me.
"I wanted people to see my clothes and my sense of fashion. I didn't want them to see ME."
At the time, I thought I was just dressing nicely because I liked to dress nicely. And a part of me still has a deep appreciation for nice clothes. As I've gotten older and (debatably) wiser, however, I now understand that where I once felt the need to always come across as smart and stylish, I was actually just feeling the desire to be seen in a positive way.
So how did a tall, skinny kid with a conventionally "good" physique end up with such a view of himself? Let's step back to middle school.
The First Time I Saw Myself as Fat
Let's start on the same page: middle school essentially sucks for everybody. With everybody's body changing, hormones going crazy, and many kids having new experiences for the first time, it's a whirlwind period of life that makes absolutely no sense. It's terrifying and uncomfortable. That's just a part of life.
Also just a part of life: kids putting on weight before growing in their teenage years. I was no exception. As I started middle school, I put on a little weight. In retrospect, I now see that that weight was merely fuel– between the ages of 14 and 17, I grew a little a lot. I started high school as the shortest boy in my grade, just about 5'4". By the time I graduated, I was getting close to 6'3" where it seems I've finally stopped growing.
At the time, however, I just thought that I was getting a little chubby and needed to exercise more. Besides, being a little chubby wasn't even my biggest concern. When I transferred to a new school in eighth grade, the fact that the other boys in my grade were started to look like teenagers and I still looked like a little kid was a far bigger concern. They had whiskers and armpit hair. One was even already shaving multiple times per week. It was far more horrifying for me that they were already well into the puberty process while my body was still getting ready to thrust me into the pains of puberty.
So, I was already insecure about one aspect of my body but had managed to not feel inordinate pressure to be skinny. Until, that is, one day at lunch. Going to a small private school, the middle school and high school ate lunch together, and all the guys grouped together in one section of tables. I felt a bit out of place but tried to enjoy it since it meant that I was in close proximity to the cool high school boys that I wanted to be like. Teachers and students alike liked them and applauded them, and I wanted to feel as accepted as they were. From this desire, I took advantage of being in close proximity to them, hoping to gain clout from their approval.
Yet one day at lunch, the two coolest high schoolers were playing a game in which they called themselves fat and laughed, amused at labeling themselves as fat when they were visibly in great shape. Somehow this devolved into them going around the table labeling the other guys as fat if they were thin and skinny if they were fat. Nobody seemed to really pay them any attention. It was just a stupid game between the two of them, but I noticed when they got to me and hesitated. Their hesitation was followed by a "hm... skinny" and peals of laughter.
Suddenly, I was struck by the realization for the first time in my life that someone saw me as fat, and I had been conditioned to think that fat and ugly were synonymous. The kids I aspired to be like saw me as other, and it became painfully clear that I was not one of them and I wasn't likely to be seen as one of them.
From there, I spiraled into a place where I felt nothing but disdain for my body. I resented it for all that it wasn't and couldn't yet do. We had gym class one day per week, but I dreaded it each and every time it rolled around. I'd get nauseous and have stomach cramps in the morning because I was so anxious about the fact that I was going to have to be physically active with my peers, and I realized that they may see me struggle to keep up or see that I had to do "girl" pushups or that I jiggled when I ran.
Having such negative attitudes toward my body during such a formative period predictably led to destructive behaviors. As a young teenager, I often found myself wondering how I could sneak laxatives or conceal that I wasn't eating from my family. I was desperate to not be seen as fat or out of shape, so I tried to think through how I might most easily have what I knew to be an eating disorder. I didn't have anybody in my life at the time who could introduce me to concepts like fat shaming or body positivity; all I knew was that I was fat and the popular kids didn't like me at least in part because I didn't look like them.
Even as I got taller and thinner, I couldn't help but compare myself to other guys my age. Suddenly I wasn't chubby, but I wasn't muscular like they were. I still didn't have body hair where they did. I had acne where they didn't. I had moles and they didn't. They could tan and I didn't. Every little thing I could find about my body that didn't match the bodies I saw around me was a detail I could dwell on and use to tear myself down.
Unfortunately, insecure people often end up seeking validation in ways that further tear them down, and so it happened that my first romantic encounters were with people who had a knack for making me feel inferior. My bodily discomfort transformed into an overwhelming sense of never being enough of anything– I certainly wasn't skinny enough to be loved, but I also didn't believe that I was smart enough, attractive enough, experienced enough, or sexual enough.
I thought that going to college and being away from everybody I had known would be a clean start, and in some ways it was, but my relationship with my body still wasn't in a healthy place. When I started exercising on a regular basis, it wasn't because I wanted to be healthy, but because I wanted to change who I was. I felt like if I managed to get into great shape, I'd be worthy of friends and romance in my new, collegiate setting. Even though I was making an effort to eat healthier and exercise regularly, my self-worth was still ascribed to things outside of me.
Reframing (and Reclaiming) My Self-Worth
Two very important things happened to me late in my college years that worked to reframe how I saw myself:
- I did a study abroad program in Finland.
- I started attending yoga classes.
Going to Finland to study abroad was a major turning point for me. Not only was I entirely on my own on the other side of the world from where I grew up, but I was also in a cultural context that was entirely new to me. The initial culture shock was so intense that it felt like I was relearning how to function as a student and a human all over again, and along the way I forgot myself in doing so– I got out of my own way and just let myself flourish.
Yoga classes that I started taking shortly upon returning to the United States only further emphasized the lessons that I learned about getting out of my own way. For the first time in my life, there was a framework and an outside voice encouraging me to be in the moment and to respect my body for what it could do rather than resent it for what it couldn't do. I think I will always be thankful for my first yoga teachers and the way that they encouraged me to move my thoughts inward; in doing so, I started to hear my internal dialogue for the first time. Their lessons also provided me with a leaping point to dive into studies on meditation, mindfulness, and self-kindness.
After several years of letting these lessons marinade and take hold, and starting on some much-needed anti-depressants for chronic anxiety, I've arrived at a very different relationship with my body.
At first, I noticed it in no longer feeling like I had to always dress like I was on my way to a fashion show. Then I noticed it in not feeling like I always had to put pomade in my hair. I even noticed it when I started getting tattoos just because I thought they looked nice.
While I recognize that I still have insecurities to work through, when I start to hear those voices that tell me I'm not good enough, there's another, louder voice that reminds me of all that I can do. I have the mindfulness to recognize when I'm comparing myself to others at the gym and the presence of mind to replace the "you can't do what he does" narrative with one of "you're getting stronger each time you do this exercise."
In essence, I've learned to shift my perspective so that I'm not focused on the end results, but rather I am focused on the process. I've decided that it's less important for me to look jacked or have 8% body fat than it is for me to feel myself getting stronger and feeling healthier on a daily basis. My outlook is now much more aligned with one of Willa Cather's (my favorite author) quotes. In a lecture, she is quoted as saying, "When people ask me if it has been a hard or easy road I always answer with the quotation, 'The end is nothing, the road is all.'"
Going to the gym 6-times per week while recovering from having self-destructive views of myself certainly poses a unique set of challenges, but having this shift in perspective has been– at the risk of sounding melodramatic– life changing. By removing the pressure of having to have a specific set of end results, I've been enjoying my workouts more and have been making progress faster than ever.
So I'll sum up by saying this: the energy that you send out is what will come back to you.
If you beat yourself up and view your body in a derogatory way, that's the narrative you'll internalize and where you will trap yourself. On the flip side, if you learn to focus on where your body is and the progress you've made, regardless of where your starting point was, that's the narrative– one of progress– that you'll live out.
Written by Blake Reichenbach
He/ Him/ His pronouns. Blake is a writer, gym addict, dog dad, researcher, and general life enthusiast. He's passionate about helping others reach their goals and live happier, more fulfilling lives.