Updated: Oct 9, 2019
If there's one thing that has completely changed my body image, it's strength training. If not for my focus on getting stronger in the last 18 months, I seriously doubt that I could have resisted the temptation to diet again, far before I should have even contemplated cutting calories. For all the times that I felt frustrated about my climbing weight, or the return of my cellulite, or the softer abs, or the clothes that didn't fit, I recognised that I'd find it more frustrating if I didn't fuel my training properly and couldn't progress each session.
I remember filming my back squats one day to check my form, feeling excited about my session. I played the video back, and my gaze immediately gravitated to the cellulite under the seam of the tiny blue shorts that had become tighter and tighter as the months passed. I freaked out. I deleted the video. I didn't send it to my coach. I banished the shorts from my shelves. And in my head, something snapped. I decided that's it, I couldn't handle it, I 'had to' be leaner, and I'd start dieting that afternoon.
I didn't. I managed to calm the mind fuck that accompanies putting on fat after being insanely lean. The major factor that did it? I refused to self sabotage my training. I wanted to be stronger. Even though I had far bigger health reasons for not dieting, that's the ace card I could play in my head. And it worked, every time.
This battle in my brain has subsided. These days, I don't have to tell myself to chill the f*?! out about my body composition (well, almost never). I actually just feel ... good in my body. If you'd have told me that I'd be 63 kg + and saying that a year ago, I'd probably have slightly smiled but there's just no chance I'd have believed you.
Strength training didn't just keep the irrational desire to cut calories at bay. It also changed the way that I envisaged my body. I started to see it as functional and capable. I focused on performance more than aesthetics (although funnily enough, lifting heavier weights has actually created changes in my physique that I really like!). I trusted my body and stopped putting limits on it. Training to increase my lifts, rather than just reaching for the same, < 10 kg set of dumbbells on repeat, put me in control of my body at a time that it hadn't been cooperating as I'd have liked.
Seeing your body as functional and capable boosts positive body image
It's not just me, either. A recent European study tracked the experiences of 15 female and 16 male young adults that developed positive body image after reporting negative body image during adolescence. This is the first study to look at the common turning points and traits that characterise the change from a negative body image to a positive one. It found that some of the most common features of positive body image related directly to 1) the functionality of the body and 2) finding agency and control from excelling at exercise and sport.
The majority of the participants expressed an appreciation for the features, functionality and health of their bodies. Some talked about friends that had health problems, and said that they felt grateful to be free from similar symptoms (eg, back pain or IBS). Others referred to health problems in their lives and their journey to manage that and heal from it. The participants recognised that the body is innately vulnerable, and from this realisation came gratitude for their healthy, functioning body. They also accepted the things about their bodies that they couldn't change (eg, bone structure, height, features).
Putting this into practice: I'm grateful that I can train, recover and then come back and do it all again. I'm not seriously injured, my body is sometimes a little fatigued but not enough to hold me back me in my sessions. In contrast, I used to feel tired, flat and inflamed most of the time. I appreciate that my body is in a healthier place today because I realise the difference it makes. Training consistently has helped me to listen to my body and be more attuned to these signs.
Also, nearly all of the participants did some form of exercise that they enjoyed. They didn't see training as a chore. The participants had selected physical activities and sport that they liked to do and excelled at. It's not just exercising alone that did the trick - it's choosing a mode of training or exercising that you enjoy and feel capable doing. Exercising promoted autonomy and control in their bodies. But that feeling of control related to the body didn't just stop there - it helped people to become more autonomous, in control of their lives and at ease in their skin.
Putting this into practice: I love to train. Not just lifting to feel fantastic (although it certainly does that, too). My focus is on becoming stronger. I'm consistently excited about increasing my lifts and building a stronger body, not just a leaner one. And as soon as I committed to that, I started to make a hell of a lot more progress than I did while clinging to the safety of my lighter body and tightly controlled calories. For example, instead of replaying that freak out moment each squat session, I could focus, shake it off and increase my lifting intensity. Under the guidance and programming of my coach, I've been able to take my deadlift from a 102.5 kg 1RM in October 2018, to 110 kg in late May 2019, to 130 kg in late August 2019. Seeing as I'd been hovering at a 100 kg 1RM since 2016, these are all numbers that I'd never really believed I could lift until I embraced getting strong. It might sound cliche, but I have no doubt that building a stronger body has fostered a stronger body image and a broader sense of wellbeing across all facets of my life.
To recap, there's some valuable lessons in lifting that you may not have really contemplated.
Training doesn't just build muscle. It also builds autonomy (feeling that you are living your life in a manner that's just being you) and competence (feeling confident and believing that you can succeed in a particular task or area).
If you feel like you're too critical of your body image, lift something. Play a sport. Attend an exercise class. Try a fitness app. Move your body. Choose something you like to do and make small attempts to do it a little better each time. If you're patient, you'll find gratitude for the things your body is capable of doing. And trust me, that's a lot better than obsessing about your reflection in the mirror. For me, strength training is far more than just moving a heavier steel bar around ... although, that's pretty freaking cool too.
Gattario and Frisén, From negative to positive body image: Men's and women's journeys from early adolescence to emerging adulthood, Body Image (2019) 28, 53