Being a fitness professional isn’t a protection against body issues—be they about body image or about performance. In fact, I’d argue that if there’s any industry where these run rampant, it’s fitness—after all, doesn’t mainstream fitness profit from poking at our insecurities, and making us feel flawed and in need of fixing? So why should that be different for the women who work in it?
It doesn’t have to be like that, however, and many female fitpros—fully understanding that we have so much more to gain when we start seeing our bodies as allies, instead of as adversaries—are working to change the paradigm.
At the source of it all are often deeply personal shifts. Here, I’ve asked 13 world-class fitness professionals—and badass friends of mine!—to share theirs.
I found peace with my body when I started becoming passionate about something other than weight loss. In 2015, when I decided I’d had enough of the 9-5 grind, I started spending less time worried about my weight and more time focused on educating myself on health, fitness and business. My weight fluctuated but I finally realized whatever happened wasn’t permanent because I had full control over my choices. It was during this time that I started to figure out how to fuel my body without counting calories, and that if I appreciated my body now, it’d be a whole lot easier in the long-term to automate my lifestyle.
Finding peace isn’t settling, I accept my body as it is right now, but I still have goals I want to reach. The difference is that they are not focused on the scale, but rather on my mental and physical strength. There seems to be this idea in the diet industry that you’ve either got to lose weight or shut up and settle, I don’t buy it. I think we can make changes from a place of positivity and it’s in these moments we start uncover our healthiest selves. My health is a full circle, it’s about harmony not balance, balance indicates that there’s an “either/or” whereas harmony is continuous.
My shift from hating my body to loving it didn’t come from my doctor telling me I needed to lose weight or from someone (or myself) making a nasty comment about my body. It didn’t come from an article or blog I read. It most certainly didn’t come from the scale. So what was it? I. Was. Tired. I was tired of hating my body, of hiding it under baggy clothes, of underfeeding myself then bingeing, of using exercise as a way to burn all the calories I ate, of avoiding mirrors, of feeling pulled to weigh myself all day every day, of thinking I was never good enough, of thinking I was never attractive enough, of thinking I wasn’t smart enough…I was tired of it.
And in that A-Ha moment, a couple months before my 30th birthday, I simply chose to decide that I was the opposite of all those things. I decided that I had had enough. I decided that there was so much more to me than my cellulite and my belly rolls. I was worth so much more than feeding myself foods that I didn’t even like in order to numb whatever feelings I was trying to avoid. I was just as good as anyone else. I was just as smart as anyone else. It was in that moment, sitting in my car as I decided to pass by CVS instead of stopping in to get my binge foods, that after years and years of this awful cycle, I realized it was up to me to make the change. It was up to me to make myself happy, make myself feel like a million bucks and treat myself accordingly. No one and nothing else could, or was going to, do that for me.
I spent much of my life competing and improving my athletic performance, but always with prominent hope that I’d end up with the body of a runner, triathlete, sprinter, etc. I was chasing the training to get a specific physique. However, no training method has transformed my sense of self like heavy lifting. While honing my technique in athletics always resulted in winning a game or race, seeking outward approval, heavy lifting is about ME. It’s about how I feel, what I can do – all with very little thought of how others perceive my work/progress. Every win in the gym is well-earned and has little to do with aesthetics.
Lifting heavy (powerlifting is my love) has completely shifted my appreciation for my body. I look down at my legs and see power, where I once saw knees or thighs I had to conceal. I look at my shoulders and see beauty, where I once hid under layers to look more feminine and hide my athletic build. I value the weight on the bar rather than the weight on my body. Complete with an inspiring and bad-ass network of lifting friends near and far with bodies of all shapes and sizes, I’ve learned to appreciate myself and others beyond their ability to become compact but for ability to take up space and owning however that looks on the outside.
Entering my 40’s I was an unstoppable human, with a body that I respected and loved for the things it allowed me to do each day. That was until I hit perimenopause—talk about hitting me with a sledgehammer! The wind was knocked out of my sails, the life force that literally defined me was gone and I realized that I had become a shadow of my usual self. This is not news, in fact this is what the majority of women experience during this phase of their life.
It was during the past two years, at the height of this hell, that I realized that I needed to adopt a level of acceptance of what my body needed and what it was capable of doing. Taking a negative and sometimes resentful attitude to my now limited resources was just exhausting. There are some days where I wake up and say to myself, “I can’t!” and that is totally OK with me now. I know this is what my body needs: it needs me to listen to it, it needs me to slow down when it asks and it needs me to pick up the pace when it’s capable. This is another phase in my life that will pass and embracing it with a positive viewpoint is essential to my mental sanity.
For me, the biggest aha moments that have helped me with the way I view my body come from my journey in strength training. I love learning new-to-me skills or reaching new PR’s that seemed unattainable to me in the past—each one is totally a celebration of what my body can do!
Getting focused on strength goals has really helped me to focus on how capable and resilient I am, and how my body functions, instead of being preoccupied what my body looks like. Getting into strength training has been a game changer for the way I view my body.
I spent the vast majority of my life hating my body. Sure, I was on the smaller side and at a healthy weight and body composition, but all I could see was my big, muscular thighs, cellulite, and belly pooch. It didn’t matter that those legs helped me excel on the soccer field. All I wanted deep down was to fit into a smaller pair of jeans and feel confident in a swim suit. But hating my body and picking it apart in the mirror never got me anywhere and didn’t really motivate me to take better care of my body. It took up a lot of mental bandwidth and added to my daily stress.
The more I read about the power of appreciating your body, gratitude, and self-compassion, the more I saw my body as something powerful and worthy as is. And the more positively I looked at my body, the more I wanted to take better care of it. I wanted to eat healthier and fit in more movement throughout the day and more enjoyable forms of exercise. This mindset still takes daily practice, as I can be very critical of myself, but it’s gotten easier over time. It feels so good to let go of some of this emotional baggage I carried for so long. And as my body changes from month to month, year to year, I can roll with it and not attach my self-worth to my appearance. I can feel grateful for what it can do. I can let myself feel powerful and strong.
My relationship with my body changed when I noticed that my body tells my story. And, while that story hasn’t always been the healthiest with periods of under- and over-eating, getting too much sun, and occasions when I’ve been injured, it’s also the story of success and accomplishment when I competed in the Hammer, ran a marathon and worked at all types of fitness.
Putting all of those chapters together into a single form, my body, and being able to see the history is incredibly powerful and changed the way I exist in it.
I got into physique competitions awhile back. It did lead to some body image issues specifically trying to stay competition lean all year around. I eventually realized this was an impossible feat and was hurting my body and my mindset. I had to step back from the stage for awhile to heal my mind and my body.
I started to focus on what my body could do versus what it looked like. Focusing on what my body could do helped me heal my relationship with food as well my body. I started to work on strength goals which requires you to eat more, and along the way, I realized that you can love how you eat and the reflection in the mirror. Now, not only do I look good in the mirror, I can crush pull ups like a boss, eat all the foods I love without a diet mentality, and to frankly put I’m Strong AF, and I love it!
My AHA moment was when I hired a coach for myself—yes, coaches need coaches, too! He was a movement specialist who targeted some challenging areas of movement for me. I really began to pay attention to my body, and I became more aware than ever of how it moves and performs. It was around that time that I stopped trying to “shred fat” and “lean out”. I started focusing on performance and strength gains in functional ways.
I started showing gratitude to my own body for all of the things this vessel allows me to do—and whaddya know—the leaning out phase still worked itself out without having to put all of the attention to nutrition and calories burned and yada yada yada. I honestly love my body, even the arthritic knees that hinder me at times. I’m stronger than ever, and that strength continues to make me better at everything—and I’ll care more about THAT in 20 years than the size of my pants!
I think it’s a journey to like and accept yourself, and give yourself permission to grow, and become the best you can be. It’s a challenge too—uncomfortable growth—like a dance: not every day will be easy, yet it will be so worth it. I think learning to accept my body and work with my thoughts positively happened gradually, until one day I just realized: you gotta love you!
I coach so many people who don’t like themselves and yet I can see just how damn awesome, kind, strong, and beautiful they are right now. And for sport, adventure and competition, it’s kind of the same: our fears and doubts are safety nets, yet they limit our boundaries for growth and possibility. It’s a risk to go all in, and you may not achieve what you set out to do, but you will learn so much more than if you didn’t go all in. And this will help you grow more, unlock your potential and light a spark within you of inner confidence and courage to shine.
After I graduated from college, I gained several pounds and was really depressed about how my body looked. I started going to the gym regularly and running became a huge part of my life. Eventually, I started training for road races. I competed in a half marathon and then several other shorter distances. I lost the weight I’d gained and then some, but my relationship with my body didn’t change. It felt like something was missing, so I started incorporating more strength training into the mix. Whereas before I just dabbled, I made a commitment to myself that I would focus on getting stronger—instead of smaller—for once. If it didn’t work, I could always go back to the other way.
I was training at a YMCA at the time, and the cardio and weight training sections were completely separate—and completely segregated. Stepping into the “men’s lair,” was so scary at first, but after only a few visits, I knew my way around and realized I belonged there as much as anyone else. As my physical strength grew, so did my confidence. It soared, in fact! I finally started to understand that the better I treated my body (how I spoke to and about it, how I fueled it, etc.), the better it would respond to the training and the better I would feel. For the first time in my life, I became more focused on what my body could do rather than how it looked. I give strength training—and the guts to cross over into the weight room!—all the credit for that!
I remember the exact moment where my mindset shifted on the way I viewed my body: it was the Fall of 2014; we had taken our very first family vacation with our daughter Reese, who was 4 at the time. We went down to Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks. It was the first time we were to see the ocean, and of course we were going to be on the beach… which meant I was going to be in my swimsuit! So I had to make a choice: was I going to loathe being in a swimsuit and act like I had no business being on the beach as I wasn’t super shredded and looked as though I walked straight off the cover of any popular woman’s magazine, or was I going to be the role model that my daughter needs and learn to embrace my body, stop worrying about what anyone else thinks of it, and enjoy this amazing moment with my daughter and husband?
We made some amazing memories that first year in the OBX. My daughter had an amazing time and so did I. I felt free AF walking around on that beach in my swimsuit, and have since never looked back. Because the moment I decided to give myself permission to love and accept this body of mine, life has been nothing short of amazing. Something happens when we flip the switch from hating our body to loving it: we find the happiness we had been desperately seeking all along.
As a dancer growing up, I spent a lot of time in front of a mirror and comparing myself to other girls’ bodies. I envied how they looked in their leotards, and I found myself wishing my legs could look like this one’s, my stomach like that one’s, and so on. My body simply never felt good enough to me, and this mindset carried forth into my adult years. In my young twenties, I had a cardio addiction and hated myself thin through excessive exercise. I still spent a lot of time in front of the mirror, poking and prodding at what I perceived to be imperfections with my physique.
It wasn’t until I started lifting weights that somewhere a switch flipped. I will never forget the day I hit a pretty fun deadlift PR for a newbie. That same day was the first time in a LONG time that I looked in the mirror and didn’t think something mean about myself. I decided in that moment that I was just TIRED of being so hard on myself, and I wondered if maybe it would be a much happier way of living to appreciate my body for what it was capable of doing than to continue being my own worst critic. It certainly didn’t happen overnight, but since that day, practicing gratitude for my body has helped me nix the comparison trap with other women, be a whole lot kinder to me, and live more fully!