By Lindsay Kite, Ph.D.
*Trigger Warning: If you struggle with overexercising or orthorexia, please be cautious and mindful of how this discussion might affect you.
If you want to improve your body image, but you have trouble prioritizing regular exercise … join the club!
Lexie and I (BR co-directors) decided this week to renew our dedication to fitness. Not the “getting a bikini body” or “get your body back” kind of fitness, but the improving strength and capability and “using our bodies as instruments instead of ornaments” kind of fitness. Those are very different — both in terms of motivations, goals, and anticipated results. We’re re-dedicating ourselves to exercise because sometimes life gets busy and other things get in the way, blah blah blah. You know how that goes. But we know — no matter how busy, lazy, or distracted we get from regular physical activity — it is absolutely key to feeling positively toward our bodies.
So many of us have been trained to see fitness and physical activity as a means for looking thin, sexy and toned, or a punishment for eating “bad” foods. When you’re working on positive body image, it can be tempting to opt out of fitness altogether in order to avoid falling into traps of disordered thinking and weight obsession. However, forgetting about fitness does a HUGE disservice to not only our physical health, but also our body image. Tons of research, including our own, shows one of the best ways to improve your body image is through sports and exercise. Using your body and experiencing your capabilities can help shift you away from a focus on your looks — if you do it right!
Here are our tips for body-positive fitness. Follow the links for more information about each tip!
Rather than forgetting about fitness, try forgetting about fatness. Go into your fitness regimen with no assumptions about what effect exercise will have on your fat, weight, size, cellulite and body proportions. You are not a “before” or an “after.” Consciously work to separate your personal definition of fitness from your feelings about fat. While steeped in research for my PhD dissertation on this very subject, I wrote these two blog posts that go deep into the ways health is very problematically defined and measured within our culture and how it can be more accurately measured and achieved by forgetting about fat to focus on fitness.
Avoid exercising in front of mirrors. This often leads to self-objectification that can decrease stamina. If your gym or workout partners trigger you to focus on the way your body looks while you exercise, change your routine and let your partners know you’re working on getting the focus on how you *feel,* not how you look. Here’s a video of Lexie describing what self-objectification means, what it feels like, and why it is the worst.
Wear clothing you feel comfortable in and aren’t constantly adjusting. Clothing plays an important role in prompting or preventing self-objectifying thoughts. If you’re regularly thinking about covering your exposed stomach or adjusting your shorts that are riding up, your clothes are constantly reminding you to think about what you look like, whether you want to or not. Loose-fitting, reasonably covered, and properly sized clothing can be your best friend during exercise if you tend to worry about what your body looks like while working out.
Skip the scale and stop measuring yourself. Weighing and measuring leads to a focus on external appearance and size and to discouragement when those numbers don’t decrease as much as you hope. Your weight and size don’t tell you all the incredibly positive changes that happen inside your body when you exercise. Medical experts warn against the tendency to focus on thinness rather than actual indicators of health and fitness. In a fantastically-titled paper – “Beneficial effects of exercise: shifting the focus from body weight to other markers of health” – King et al. (2009) conclusively demonstrated that “significant and meaningful health benefits can be achieved even in the presence of lower-than-expected exercise-induced weight loss.” Sounds crazy, right? It goes against anything most media will every tell you about health, but it’s true. Even when you don’t lose as much weight as you think you should (and as money-making media train you to think), you’re still likely gaining some serious health benefits. When people with serious health issues like Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular issues and high blood pressure start a meaningful exercise program, their health problems often disappear or greatly improve – regardless of whether or not they remain overweight or obese. Read more here.
Measure your progress and set fitness goals that have nothing to do with your weight or size. Set goals for achievements by certain dates like “bench X pounds by this date,” “run/walk/swim for X minutes/miles this week,” “get my heart rate up to X for X minutes every day,” etc. Any physical activity goal can be tailored for your abilities, no matter how limited your abilities might be.
Avoid fixating on your looks and comparing yourself to others while you exercise by consciously focusing on how you feel and how your muscles are working. Distract yourself with outside entertainment if necessary, but try to check in regularly on how you feel. This will help you to appreciate your capabilities and monitor your levels of exertion (can I push harder, do I need to rest?). Rather than imagining your body getting smaller, try to imagine your heart, muscles, and immune system getting stronger. Imagine your endurance and stamina increasing. Imagine your body as a powerful instrument for your use, rather than an ornament for others to admire.
Opt for competitive or non-aesthetically focused activities. Sports like soccer, basketball, tennis, lacrosse, etc., are awesome ways to focus on a goal and get outside of your head. Getting into what scholars call a “flow state” is one of the most empowering ways to experience the capabilities of your body without thinking about your body. Read this fantastic guest post for a look into the way watching the Women’s World Cup opened Autumn Whitefield-Madrano‘s eyes to the beauty of women forgetting about being beautiful while focusing on what they really want. Be cautious of activities like cheerleading, ice skating, ballet and other forms of dance that include a looks-focused component. (Before you get upset about that point, please read this post.) Be cautious of any sport or activity that requires you to wear something you are not comfortable in — especially in front of spectators. Volleyball is a good example of a great sport with an often questionable dress code for female players.
Avoid “fitness” media that actually just keeps its focus on the appearance of female bodies, emphasizes weight loss, or that sparks your body anxiety. Things that might fight into this category are: social media pages that feature lots of before-and-after body images or images of idealized, Photoshopped, sexualized bodies; sites, pages and programs that exist to sell you products intended to “tighten,” tone, contour, detox, or ensure weight loss; and anything that elevates one body type above another — “real women have curves,” “skinny girls look good in clothes, fit girls look good naked,” etc. Ditch it all. Try the best kind of health cleanse you could ever use — a media fast. Read one woman’s transformational experience of cutting out all fitness media while undergoing major body changes in this guest post.
Don’t go to extremes. Don’t overdo it. Choose activities you actually enjoy doing and can look forward to. Don’t exercise to punish yourself for eating or for not being thin enough. If you have a tendency to over-exert yourself or are replacing one disorder for another (like trading anorexia for over-exercising or orthorexia), please proceed with caution. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you understand those compulsions and how to stop them.
Based on your experiences with starting and maintaining regular exercise regimens while actively avoiding the intense focus on the appearance of bodies in fitness culture, are there any other tips you would add?
Our bodies are instruments, not ornaments. Let’s use them!
Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, 8-week therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, who developed and tested this program through their PhDs dissertations.