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Basing Happiness on Body Image and Athletic Performance

Updated on October 13, 2017
Sacha Elms profile image

Sacha is 20 years old, with a passion for Jesus, Fitness, food, learning, and helping people to achieve their potential.

It seems these days that many people think that if they reach their ideal body image, they’ll be happy. Or if they’re able to snatch 110kg, and have a sub 3 minute Fran, they’ll be satisfied. News Flash – if you base your happiness in body image and athletic performance, you WILL be miserable.
Media today is no help. Cultures all over the world support the “ideal” body image. In Western culture, the general consensus is for women that if you aren’t incredibly slim (but don’t forget you’re not feminine unless you have a large bust and bum) – then you are something short of perfect. In Africa, if you’re slim and don’t have curves, you’re also short of perfect, or of the ideal woman. For men (mostly), if you’re not muscular (but not TOO muscular and not TOO slim), you are also apparently something short of the ideal.
Now I’m not saying these body types are bad or unhealthy. That would be stupid. Every single person has a unique body type – when you become unhealthy in the pursuit of a certain body image or athletic achievement is a different story.

This goes deeper than media and culture. Almost everyone you talk to is in some way unhappy, or is hoping to improve themselves in some way. Again, pursuing the most healthy you is great, I’m all for it. If you want bigger quads? Go for it! If you want to lose a little fat around your belly, awesome. But I don’t think people understand first being able to value themselves as who they are, before trying to improve themselves physically.
How on earth do you think you’re going to be happy with who you are when you reach your physical goal, when who you are in essence isn’t physical at all? Your personality, what you believe, your soul…that is an entirely different ball game.

Too often I’ve seen friends of mine crumble when they haven’t been able to train. It might be just a week’s rest out of their whole career, but for some reason it seems like the end of the world. Why? Because of the intrinsic desire to keep going, to refuse nothing is wrong. Maybe if you don’t acknowledge there is an issue, it will go away (this even extends to issues like depression or anxiety, or even physical injuries people refuse to deal with. Then later on in life it comes back to bite harder than it would if it was dealt with it in the first place. Often much harder). For some people it is the fear of falling behind. For others it’s the fear of putting on weight, and for some people it’s a combination of the two.

Photo by Dean Sheridan Photography

Don’t get me wrong, I get irritable and in a weird headspace when I don’t train. I like to move and sweat and work hard. I like to feel like I’ve done everything I could in that moment to make myself better in some way – be it mentally or physically. But I’ve learnt the lesson about drawing the line if it will damage me mentally or physically if I keep going. I’ve had anxiety attacks when I’ve been training, and it’s not fun. I had to learn to swallow my pride and ego to look after my mind. The same goes for injuries. When my shoulders haven’t been doing too well, I’ve again had to grit my teeth and do something I wouldn’t prefer to do. Why? So I can live to fight another day. It’s a constant battle and I’m still learning.

That was a slight tangent, but back to my point. It takes a lot for a person to be happy with themselves. I’ve listened incredulously as I’ve seen interviews or conversations even with top level athletes, or people I’ve thought have an incredible physique – and they stand there and say something about their body they’re not happy with. “I’m not lean enough”, “I have love handles I need to get rid of”, “My abs aren’t as jacked as my training partners’”.
What the heck? How is it that people who are meant to be so comfortable in their bodies and their strength (which is normally the case, but there are still moments of discomfort), can still find things about themselves they’re not happy with?
Again, looking to improve yourself is awesome. When you get upset and down about your body or performance because you’re not where you’d like, is not. You are worth so much more than what you look like or how well you go athletically. You are a human being, darnit.
Too often I catch myself thinking “I need to lose this fat off my upper thighs”, or “I need to lose this fat off my stomach. It’s been there all my life and I’m so sick of it.” Sometimes I’ve even been upset seeing photos of myself lifting something heavy, and somehow I manage to focus on the parts of my body I’m not happy with, and it makes me feel smaller. A year ago I would have been stoked with what my body looks like now. Why should my confidence come solely from the way I look? I find myself scrutinising my body instead of celebrating the fact that I just got a personal best, or finished a climb I’ve found difficult. It’s kind of scary.

We also don’t just scrutinise our own bodies, we are often looked at this way by others at some point (and more often than we'd like to admit, look at others this way), and sometimes it’s not great. Sometimes we say or do things to draw attention to parts of people's bodies they aren't happy with, and it isn't helpful. 98% of the time, the person KNOWS that they want improve on wherever you are highlighting. They don’t need others making a bigger deal about it already. The majority of the time people are already sorting through their own head about what they need to improve, and having someone else point it out (often without thinking) is not constructive. I believe coaches, parents and very close friends are ok with talking about this, but in a sensitive and kind way. Everyone’s already so obsessed with what they look like, anyway.

Photo by Dean Sheridan Photography

Here’s a handy Bible verse that helps put things into perspective:
“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight.” 1 Peter 3:3-4

What Peter is saying here is that your confidence and you beauty shouldn’t come from your outward appearance (even though taking care of your outward appearance is more than fine), but from who you are on the inside. It sounds cheesy, but doesn’t basing your value on your looks sound shallow and sad? I’ll take “cheesy” any day.

What I’ve been shown lately is that personally I’ll never be happy if I ground my joy in good performance and body image, because I’ll always be pushing to be that much better. Happiness comes from deeper things. From knowing your value and worth as a foundation, and continues on to the bonds you can form with others. Let’s all take a breath and focus on what’s actually important, shall we?


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