Mental Health October: Exercise and Body Image

In the summer of 2008, I was on vacation with my family at Disney World. After a long day at the parks, I spent every moment we had in the hotel room watching the Beijing Olympics. This is when I fell in love with watching gymnastics!

I remember watching Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin and the rest of the women’s team absolutely destroy their events – doing flips! spins! splits! tumbles! the rest! (I don’t know gymnastics terms!) I was enthralled! I wanted to be as strong as them, fly through the air like them, be as confident as them, the whole thing!

While watching one night, one of my family members commented on how chubby the girls looked. Why were they wearing leotards when their legs were so fat? If they worked out so much, why weren’t they all skinny?

My brain started short-circuiting. They’re some of the strongest athletes in the world! It’s all muscle! They responded, Eh, is it worth being so strong if they look so chunky? I wouldn’t want to look that heavy.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to reckon with these conflicting values. Do I want to be strong and healthy? Or do I want to look thin and “beautiful”, according to traditional values?


The one, singular exercise routine that got me to reliably lose weight was marathon training. (That’s right, just train for a marathon! Run five to six times a week, including a multiple-hour long run, for eight to ten weeks! Drop 5 pounds! Maybe!)

Beyond losing weight, running has given me a greater appreciation for the power of my body and what it can do. Whenever I get down about any individual part of my body, I think about how it carried me through a marathon, which is likely the hardest thing I’ve put my body through thus far. Yeah, my legs are big, but they’re strong! They carried me through running 26.2 miles over more than 6 hours!

I’m definitely not advocating for everyone to run a marathon – it sucks! – but gratitude in general has transformed my mindset in several aspects of my life, and can be applied to even smaller moments throughout the day. You know how you don’t appreciate being able to breathe through both nostrils until they get clogged up when you have a cold? It’s like that!

Obstacles, Both Mental and Physical

I have always been a slow runner, so I knew very quickly that I would have to stop comparing my race times to other people’s in order to actually enjoy the sport. While I learned this lesson quickly with running, it has been harder to apply this lesson to other forms of exercise. For example, I am constantly comparing the amount of weight I can lift with other people when taking a class, and feel self-conscious about not being able to stretch my heels down when doing a downward-facing dog pose.

Last year, I did my first Tough Mudder and Spartan Race. I did the Tough Mudder as part of a team, and though they assured me that they didn’t mind hanging back to wait for me, I still couldn’t help but feel like I was holding everyone back with my inability to complete tasks as quickly. (Actually, on the contrary, every time they offered to hang back for me, it just reminded me more of how far behind I was and stressed me out even more – not their fault, obviously! But still a tough situation!) On the other hand, I did the Spartan Race by myself, and while it was nice to not have to worry about keeping up with others, I will admit that it was lonely in comparison!

I wish I had an answer to shutting down these thoughts. Even with my own self-awareness and ability to tune them out when running, they still bother me when doing other exercises. I’m always happy to complete another workout or another obstacle course race, but the battle to the finish is as much mental as it is physical.

The best advice I have is simply to always keep the end goal in mind. At the end of the day, no matter how much I struggle in a race, or through a class, or through anything else, I’ll always make sure to push through until the end. “No pain, no gain,” has become a cliche at this point – but it’s true! I know in the back of my mind that I will never be like the people that I look up to without putting in the work, as grueling as it may be.

Looking Inward

Do you want to hear something terrible? When I got my pictures back from the Berlin Marathon, one of the first things I noticed, and made me happy, was that I looked thin in my pictures! Not that I had finished a marathon! No, my first thought was that I was happy that I looked thin while finishing the marathon!

Again, I don’t have any great or novel advice for overcoming body image issues because I’m still struggling with it a lot. I still feel sad when I wake up feeling bloated in the morning. I bought a pair of jeans, and sized down based on other reviewer’s suggestions, and then was stressed out when the jeans were too tight around the waist. I even get frustrated when my hair is too frizzy! The list goes on! Welcome to womanhood!

The only thing I’ve found that kind-of-sort-of works is movement, coupled with, as mentioned above, gratitude. For me, gratitude works because it forces me to look back on past experiences and find the good in them. Therefore, incorporating more movement into my life gives me more experiences to reflect on and be thankful for later on!

For example, I did my first strength training workout (in months!) last week. I was sore for the next few days after, hobbling around the house and wincing every time I sat down to use the toilet! Instead of being angry at myself for neglecting strength training for so long, I instead chose to be happy that I picked the habit back up again. As one of my friends said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Soreness is how you know the workout is working!”

Looking Outward

While fighting your own internal demons is one struggle, dealing with all kinds of external stimuli is an entirely different battle. I often can’t help but compare my own body to those of the people around me – it’s human nature! That includes not only those people that I see in my every day life, but also those notorious Instagram pictures, commercials, and ads that we all know are airbrushed and edited to hell and back, but we often can’t help but aspire to anyway.

For me, part of my acceptance of my own body is realizing that I’ve put a lot of work into myself. This includes physical exercise, of course, but it also includes mental resilience as well. I’ve found that the more secure I am in my own skin, the easier it becomes to recognize self-sabotaging and self-conscious thoughts as they arise and consciously disregard and side-step them. Additionally, I am a big believer in hard work paying off, so even the knowledge that I’ve been working hard toward my goals gives me the security to feel comfortable within my own skin.

Finally, in my experience, the hardest external factor to shake off is actually critical conversations with people that you love. For me, this includes comments from family members about my weight and talking to my friends about our diets and exercise habits, which can quickly spiral into toxicity if left unchecked. These are still conversations that, frankly, I’m still learning how to navigate!

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You are more than your body! Don't let the media, the beauty industry and their absurd standards tell you otherwise. Of course, your body is a vessel and you must treat it as such so you can remain healthy, but how you feel about yourself should have nothing to do with your appearance. So, the next time you look into the mirror, try to really look, look deep within you, past the physical you and into the metaphysical you. Introspect, acknowledge and appreciate all those qualities that make you the amazing person you are. Self-love shouldn't be only about loving your body, it should also be about loving the kind of person you are. I have always found it difficult to see past my physical self and actually see the good qualities in me(hello imposter syndrome) but drawing this forced me to think about it. How many of the words you see in the picture would you say describes you? Are there any that I missed? Be sure to check out @beyondbeautifulbook @i_weigh for a deeper understanding of body neutrality. —————————————— @ladieswhodesign @ladiesofillustration @womenofillustration @womenoftype @womenofcreation @creativewomencommunity @creativeasswomen @feminist.jazzy @typingfeminism @femalecollective @ladieswinedesign_mumbai @weloveillustration @illustration_daily @femalepositivity @girlsmakingmagic @atribeofwomen @justgirlproject @natashanoel001 @madwomxnmagazine @feminist @i_weigh #ladieswhodesign #ladieswinedesign #womenofdesign #womenoftype #womenofillustration #womenillustrators #selflovejourney #feministjazzy #femalecollective #illustrationoftheday #bodyneutrality #bodypositivemovement #womenwhoillustrate #creativewomencommunity #creativewomen #atribeofwomen #girlsmakingmagic #procreateart #intersectionalfeminism #youaremorethanyourbody #womxnempowerment #womxnsupportingwomxn #bestofillustration #illustration_daily #illustratorsofinstagram #thedesignfix #lwdtuesdays #creativeasswomen #bebadass

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As with many other aspects of my life, I’ve had to learn that my standards and values are my own, and I can’t always expect others to meet them when everyone else has their own values and expectations. This is even more important when discussing body image, where conversations already require a high degree of vulnerability, and flat-out denying other people’s realities in these spaces will almost never be effective or affirming.

(Mini rant: From experience, even saying something simple like “You’re not fat!” to someone who is expressing that they very much feel that way can feel like a shut down! When other people have said this to me, instead of feeling thankful for the well-meaning words, I’ve felt like my feelings were invalid and that I needed to ignore them in the name of… someone else’s comfort? someone else’s idea of women’s empowerment? When I’m in a “down” place, it feels like invalidating comments like that come from the speaker wanting to feel like a good, comforting friend, instead of actually caring about the way that I feel. Wow, aren’t feeling weird?)

Instead, again, I’ve learned to lean on my own self-acceptance to not let other people’s comments get to me. I’ve also reflected on my own journey to self-acceptance in order to recognize that everyone is at different points of their own journeys! At the end of the day, people just want to feel heard when they open up about difficult, vulnerable subjects things like body image – so the best that I can do is to be that ear for them!

All that said, if anyone has a good rebuttal when a family member comments on your weight, please let me know – I still haven’t figured out a universally respectful way to deal with this! 🙂 🙂 🙂

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