Body Dysmorphia, Body Neutrality and Me

As a fitness professional of 17 years, I’ve always felt deeply honored to hear feedback from clients about my own health and fitness. When clients talk about their journey of wellness in a way that garners mutual trust and respect, the conversation allows us, the personal trainers to join in a healing and uplifting process.

Opening up to my clients about my own story, not only inspires them, it also allows me to continue to heal.

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Having suffered through bulimia and body dysmorphia, from age 12, and conquering the bulimia around the age of 30, one might think that in the 15 years after my initial recovery, I’d be some type of fitness saint. A fitness saint, I am not. I complain about exercise, I need a fitness buddy to motivate myself, and I have to remind myself to stay true to what I learned in talking to my amazing nutritionist: counteract negative self-talk about my body, with positive observations and thoughts. The simple fact is that focusing on being healthy and strong, is positive; but it is not a cure-all for hating the way some parts of my body looks in a mirror or the shame I experience if my clothing doesn’t fit the way that I want it to. I must be continually conscious about not shaming myself. 

Remembering my mindset when I started training clients and comparing it to my current psychology and identity helps. When I started out as a personal trainer, I was bulimic. I was secretive. I felt like a fake, in that I needed to put on a show.  I did not share any negative aspects of my self-image, only my success story about overcoming migraine headaches and competing in athletic events. The excruciating embarrassment I felt, looking at my body; how much my appearance concerned me; and how careful I needed to be when choosing my clothing, was mind-numbing and depressing.

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When we allow ourselves to simply share the truth - our truth, we allow ourselves to grow beyond insecurity and fear. In my first 5 years of personal training, I finally admitted I was bulimic and in therapy, and was so happily surprised that not one single client judged me! Everyone congratulated me and told me they were so honored that I told them the truth. 

In the next 12 years, I started to open up about the fact that my appearance still bothered me, and I felt guilty if I didn’t exercise. Surprising and lovely to learn, that we all share these challenges; not everyone is a fitness fanatic and loves to exercise.  People are on a journey, and sharing what we are learning along the way, is fun. 

When I remove the part about hating myself and just admit that moving around is emotional, and therapeutic, my passion for exercise science, ignites. The joy when I experience relief from my previous life as a self-hater is freedom.

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BDD as defined by the Mayo Clinic as: “...a mental disorder in which you can't stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance — a flaw that, to others, is either minor or not observable. But you may feel so ashamed and anxious that you may avoid many social situations.”

Through my own journey with Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), I have experienced these 3 phases of the cycle of health and fitness that were so ingrained in me: 1. get in shape 2. get out of shape 3. hate myself/my looks. This made it hard to admit that I actually do like to exercise - because it always felt like I was doing so as punishment. I would complain about it, until I was doing it.  Once I got started, and just committed to the process, all my fears would disappear, and my self hatred would take a back seat. 

Looking back on a lifetime of cycling through various stages of fitness, and creating the possibility of being at ease, while developing fulfillment and courage in the midst of my critical thoughts is an ongoing process. I wouldn’t say that it is entirely divorced from how “in shape,” or “out of shape,” I feel.

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The issue with being out of shape, is that there are a whole host of other health-related issues that come along with it. When I’m not exercising consistently, general malaise is a problem. My joints get achy and stiff, my flexibility declines, and I start to experience neck pain and back pain. But when I do my simple exercises, I can compete in Olympic-distance triathlons around the world, and heal. So, the choice seems simple. I choose to be well. I also must re-invent this, for myself each season. I am always brain-storming something new to keep me learning, discovering and engaged. 

I love to learn about how things work together. Most importantly of all, it is the partnership and the healing that I experience each and every day, being completely honest about my journey that truly makes the difference. 

Just reflecting on the past, and how I had to skip classes in college, when I couldn’t find an outfit that worked; or on the present moment, when I get dressed and wonder if my belly fat is going to return this winter, all I can do is think about how much I’d love for all of us to be free from the deep agony that is associated with not feeling like I’m doing enough. So I do what I can, I share what I know, and I feel a little bit better, every day.

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