Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Body Image Issues

Body dysmorphic disorder is a serious mental illness in which a person obsesses over a real or imagined flaw in their appearance. This obsession leads to significant stress and can greatly impair one’s quality of life. While fortunately most of us will not experience this disorder, many of us will battle body image issues that will lead to depression and impede us from becoming the best versions of ourselves.

I was a skinny kid. When I graduated from high school, I weighed 165 lbs. At 6’3”, that is skinny. I hated my body. I also hated my ears. When the movie Dumbo would play, I felt so self-conscious. Funny to think about now that a Disney movie would make me feel this way. While many did not know, I had a very low self-esteem. I was often depressed over the way I looked.

Like many boys in high school, I lifted weights. Unfortunately, I had no one to teach me the correct way to train, so I saw little success. When I finally started training the right way, I saw results. Now, my body weight stays around 220 lbs at 11% body fat. Still, when I look in the mirror without my shirt, the first thoughts that usually enter my mind are “I’m not muscular enough.” “My chest is to small.” “I’m getting love-handles”. It’s not uncommon for me to have days where I change my shirt a couple times to find the one that doesn’t make me look “skinny”. I frequently ask my wife, “Do I look skinny in this shirt?” I used to wear a swim-shirt because I was worried I would “disappoint” people with the way I looked. I thought people would be surprised by how skinny I was or how little muscles I had for a strength coach. Some family and friends would ask me why I was wearing a swim-shirt to the pool. I would just lie and say I didn’t want to get sunburned.

I know feelings like this are common, especially with women. I sometimes train with a woman who in society’s view has an ideal body. Yet, she frequently talks about her need to lose weight, or “fix” how she looks. I cannot even begin to understand her perceived need, but in her eyes she is flawed.

I need to point out that I’m not suggesting we stop trying to improve ourselves. Believe me, I still want to get stronger and more muscular. That’s a big reason why I train and eat well. What I’m saying is we need to stop obsessing and stressing over it as much as we do. If our body image is depressing us, if thoughts about our flaws are taking up a large amount of time, or even frustrating us to the point we don’t even see the point in trying to better ourselves, then we have a problem.

So, how do we overcome our body image issues? How do we see the good in us, and not the real or perceived flaws? There is no simple answer. Human psychology is complex. Still, I have found the following to be helpful. First, we need to confront our flawed way of thinking. As difficult as it was, I ditched the swim-shirt. I also started training and running with my shirt off. I wrote this blog-post identifying my insecurities. I’m basically saying this is me, like it or not, I don’t care.

Second, we can focus more on performance than on aesthetics. So, instead of worrying about losing “x” number of pounds, concentrate on increasing your squat “x” number of pounds, or decreasing your mile “x” number of seconds.

Third, surround yourself with loving and supportive people. Be around people who build you up and who encourage and support your goals. If there are people in your life who are negative and critical, dump them. Don’t let them around you.

Finally, reach out to support and encourage others. When we turn our focus “outward” instead of “inward”, our concern will be for others and not so much ourselves. Plus, as we help others our own sense of peace and happiness will increase.

None of us are perfect. We are all flawed. That’s okay. So, next time you find yourself in front a mirror, instead of pointing out your perceived flaws, glory in how perfectly imperfect you are.