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October 15, 2014

Do Only Certain People Have the Right to Body Esteem Struggles?

I’ve been wanting to write this piece for a while — ever since my birthday post last July when I revealed that I was the most content and most comfortable with my body than I’d ever been, despite also being the softest I’ve ever been.

That’s the absolute truth. Both parts. It’s a fact that I am the highest body fat I have been in my adult life, and despite that, I feel more confident and sexier than I ever have. Good things. And wow, I received so much amazingly kind and considerate feedback that it totally floored me, literally hundreds of comments — thank you.

But one thing I was not ready for were the handful of comments telling me to “stop complaining” about my love handles … in the post, I said, “Could I get my love handles down a bit? Sure. But the mental and physical output it would take it just not worth it anymore.” This, part of a long post about how content and happy I was with my body — just to give you context.

Out of the entire post, what several people clung to was the comment about the love handles. Many took is personally, like, how could I, looking like I do, ever even have a single negative thing to say about my body? They felt I wasn’t justified in my assessment, even though the comment was actually not negative at all — in fact it was 100% about body acceptance — and some even lamented that they could never show my post to their children because it sets a bad example, and WHY ARE THERE NO FEMALE FITNESS PROS WITHOUT BODY DYSMORPHIA???

Can you see how disorienting these comments might have been, when the entire post was about celebrating a body that I love? You can read the entire post here.

October 2014

ANYWAY. This blog isn’t about the psychology of online discussion (that’s a post for another time), but it really got me to thinking …

… do only certain people have the right to their body esteem struggles?

Like, once you drop down below 15%, now you just have to STFU? Now you don’t have the right to still struggle?

This was so interesting to me, especially coming from a competition background where there are many women competing at 10-12% body fat who are still not happy with their bodies. In Pumping Iron, Arnold Schwarzenegger even says that you have to be dissatisfied with your body all the time in order to stay motivated — it’s required in order to push yourself.

I think that’s a bunch of bullshit, and a discussion for another time. But I also see that regardless of your actual measurements, body esteem has practically nothing to do with it. I’ve seen women at 10% who hate their bodies and women at 30% who love every inch.

It’s an individual journey.

The body anxiety struggle feels very lonely.

I remember years ago when I was competing year to year, being in my “offseason” and probably actually looking exactly like I do now, but feeling so much shame and embarrassment because “people had seen me much leaner” and what would they think?? They would think I was weak and undisciplined and lazy. So I wore these big Hanes mens white t-shirts around town to hide my body. My shame was incredibly high, despite still being in the top 1% leanness of all people. I was myopic to the point that I did not have perspective to understand the bigger picture, and I was miserable because of it.

And if someone came to me and told me to “suck it up” and “get over it,” I wouldn’t have been able to hear it anyway.

So the actual mental, subjective side of the equation (how you feel about your body) has very little to do with the objective measurements (how your body looks). Your self-perception is always a choice. It just is. And yes, it can be tough to overcome the insecurities and self-doubt and what-ifs and I’m-not-reaching-my-full-potential of it all, but ultimately, that’s all just mental aerobics. The negative self-talk can act as a distraction from the real issue, which is finding a solution and simply showing up in your life every day and doing your best.

But you have to actually want to change your outlook.

On Empathy

But here’s the thing. The notion that certain people are justified in their struggle, while others are not, is simply garbage. Each person has their own journey and obstacles and challenges and process. And to assume that we can ever understand the mind of someone else is not only self-righteous and arrogant, but it’s downright ignorant. And it also doesn’t inspire change or help us get lasting results.

Empathy is the first step.

People want to know they are understood before they are preached to. So the idea that telling someone who is struggling with their body image (regardless of their measurements) that they should get over it or “what do you have to complain about?” is not only tactless, but not helping.

I’ve seen it all. Women way within normal and even above-average body composition struggling like no other. They are struggling just like anyone else. And while you or I might look at them and think they look amazing, in their head, they don’t. So is the answer to just insult them into change? Or is it to first relate and understand, show empathy and then slowly over time, educate and encourage the journey?

Yes, taking the time and engaging in the process is more work, but anyone who has overcome body esteem struggles understands that you don’t just wake up one morning and get it. You have to work at the process, you have to stay aware of how you are talking to yourself every day, every moment and then harness that tiny piece of self-trust to find something, anything to be appreciative for or to help turn around the negative self-talk. Over time, that turnaround happens quicker and quicker and with less effort, until it’s just “how you see yourself.”

On Complaining

But the answer is not to complain and whine and stay mired in the struggle of it all either, which can easily happen. Empathy is not the same as enabling. So for those who say that giving credence to the insecurity by acknowledging also need to be recognized. This is, in my opinion, the difference between talking in circles about a problem vs. finding solution and applying usable tools.

No one has a greater right to a struggle than someone else. Yes, some people have more weight to lose or a longer way to go, but because this is a mindset issue, all people experience dissatisfaction and insecurity the same way. It doesn’t feel good to be anxious about your body — whether you are 15% body fat or 50%. And there are no new stories.

But the answer to progressing in the mindset space is awareness + action.

What do you do when you feel that anxiety creep up? What do you choose to do when you feel bad about your body? What do you do when you want to wear big mens tshirts and not be seen in public? How do you talk to yourself? How do you move past it? How do you give up the shame?

4 Tools and Insights to Overcome Body Esteem Struggles:

1) Awareness.

This is the first step, isn’t it? So many of us talk to ourselves negatively without even thinking about it — it’s automatic. Someone gives us a compliment and we immediately think they are doing it “to be nice” and we shrug it off and don’t take it in. We get caught up in the inner dialogue of shame and guilt and not-good-enough-ness constantly without questioning it. Not only does this not serve us, but it’s keeping us from being successful.

So how do you start to become aware? You simply watch your internal language — how you speak … to you. What are your beliefs about yourself? These are tough questions to ask and even tougher to answer, but it’s the first step in awareness. Once you see how you are talking to yourself, you can catch it.

For me, I know that I am not speaking to myself in a helpful way when I feel negative emotions. I feel sad, or angry at myself, guilty or shameful, or I’m embarrassed or remorseful. These emotions, while natural, are not serving me. And it’s only when you catch them, that you can change them.

2) Acknowledge the emotions.

You feel sad? Shameful? Remorseful? Great, own it for the moment and then also realize that an emotion is not the same as a state of being. For example, I can feel like a failure in the moment, but certainly not be a failure. I can feel unsuccessful, but not be unsuccessful in life. I can feel weak and undisciplined in a specific without having to be someone who is weak and undisciplined. Emotions are transient. And stuffing them doesn’t work, because they will always pop up later in the form of resentment or depression or anxiety. Instead, acknowledge how you feel in the moment without committing to being that thing. The more quickly you can identify the emotion, the faster you can move past it into choosing something else.

3) Go to worst-case scenario.

This is one of my favorite tools. It was really scary for at first because I felt like if I even let myself consider the worst case, I would mean I suck. It was easier to not even go there than admit that it was a possibility, which would mean I was a failure.

But here’s the thing — going mentally to worst-case scenario allowed me to take more action, not less like I thought it would. It was the tool that helped me get over myself and trust myself more. I have written on this concept many times, and the end results is always that I get to do more, learn more, struggle more, win more and ultimately have a strong understanding that no matter what, I am just fine.

E.g. Worst case you never lose another pound. Would you be okay? Would you survive? How would you adjust your expectations and find a way to feel worthy and valuable and adequate and even awesome, as is? When you consider worst-case scenario and then navigate it through in your mind, guess what? It’s not all that scary, and you see that you could handle it, i.e. self-trust. So now, instead of having to lose weight to feel worthy, can you see that perhaps you can jump right to the worthiness without any changes to your physique? ;)

4) Choose a new way.

Here’s the thing. You have to actually want to do something different. You have to actually want to give up the old way. And this can be extremely difficult because in a messed up way, we kind of sort of like the struggle. Or at the very least we are attached to it because it’s certain. We need the negative self-talk because it’s familiar and it’s a shield. Think about it. In order to choose a new way, you’d have to start graciously accepting compliments without argument, instead of deflecting the praise (which has been your default), for example. You’d have to act differently. You’d have to carry yourself differently. You’d have give up the blaming and complaining and assume responsibility and take ownership of your happiness. You’d be on the defense less, and you’d have to be on offense more.

These things are scary, but the alternative is walking out your front door always stressing about how you’re being perceived and hiding under Hanes mens white t-shirts ;)

My favorite tools are 1) self-compassion and 2) finding gratitude in any situation.

When I am not perfect, I remember that I am human and it’s okay. I trust that I am doing my best, and I also trust that I am not defined by a single moment of struggle. I show myself compassion and give myself the benefit of the doubt. And I also look for the silver lining in all circumstances. It’s a simple mindset switch: do you get angry at yourself for having body esteem struggles and not having it all together, OR do you thank your healthy body for giving you the ability wake up every day and keep pushing?

Your perspective is everything. In fact, it’s the only thing.

What do you think? As usual, this post went way long and ramble-y, but I feel this is such an important discussion to have and to continue. How do you overcome those body esteem struggles? How do you honor your own process without letting the expectations and consideration of others creep in? How you do manage the journey? I’d love to know where you are!

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