The Myth of the Perfect Body and Lies We’ve All Been Told

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to teach 15 girls about the importance of healthy habits, including healthy eating.  First of all, let me tell you that the other Girls on the Run coaches are all moms and/or teachers and they make it look incredible easy to instruct more than a dozen children when it REALLY is NOT easy! Herding cats, I tell you!  Anyway, when the girls were asked to talk about some of their healthy habits, I was surprised to hear many of them talk about restrictive eating… “do not eat a lot of chips, do not eat a lot of sweets…” One girl even said that she made up for “eating a lot of sweets one day by eating mostly vegetables the next day.”  Girls on the run teaches the importance of moderation for fats, oils, etc, but these girls already know more about how they should NOT eat than how they OUGHT to eat to be healthy women.  And that is exactly the kind of relationship I had with food when I was fourteen years old and began starving myself.

It didn’t last for too long… maybe a year, if that.  My parents figured out that I hadn’t been eating when I bought them outrageously nice Christmas gifts; my only “income” at that point was the money they gave me for lunch and it had clearly been spent elsewhere.  After that, my mom tried to enforce my participation in dinner but my parents really couldn’t control how much or how little I ate when I was at school.  I looked at the girls who were popular, who had boyfriends or guys who wanted to be their boyfriends, and they had a lot of things I didn’t but one thing they had that I could, too, was a thin body.  So that’s what I set out to achieve.  I was so malnourished that my body even began to develop a fine downy hair, called lanugo, which is normally found on a newborn baby to help keep the infant warm.  Lanugo also develops on severely underfed individuals, frequently anorexia patients, because they lack the necessary body fat to maintain warmth.  My boyfriend at the time had his hand on my back one day when my shirt had come up some (this was long before the era of tunic blouses, mind you) and commented that my back was hairy.  I was mortified… but had no idea at the time that I had caused the hair to grow by refusing to properly nourish my body.  Finally, one evening before I left to watch a high school basketball game, my little sister came up to give me a preemptive goodnight hug, and I came to a turning point.  She wrapped her arms around my waist and said “Oh, Courtney, you’re so skinny!”  That’s why I knew I was doing something wrong.  I knew I had to start eating, again, and stop setting such a terrible example for my little sister.  Thank God I love that little brat so much.  I had been of the mindset that being feminine was being wispy and light… even weak.  But that is not what I wanted for my sister.  She probably saved my life.

Somehow, I just sort of drifted away from the self-deprivation strategy.  I began to eat more and I compensated by working out.  I found that I could eat comfortably and not gain weight if I were physically active on a regular basis.  I joined the cross country team, which I had been a part of in junior high, and I also participated in track and softball.  I put on some weight but I was okay with it.  I was still self-conscious and monitored my body very closely but I felt no desire to starve myself.  Then, my freshman year of college, I gained a lot of weight when I laid in bed for nearly two months with mono (yea yeah, the kissing disease… I was a college freshman, what do you expect?).  I was in the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) on scholarship at the time when the Marine Officer Instructor informed me that “You are fat.  You are an embarrassment to your uniform.  Lose weight.”  Now, I certainly was out of shape and bordering on overweight but a simple “You really need to get into fightin’ shape” would have sufficed.  My restrictive pattern of eating began all over, again, though not with the same rigor as my efforts in high school.  Instead, I supplemented with exercise this time and began running to and from all of my classes with a book bag packed with my heaviest text books.  I lost the weight and started keeping up better on our weekly group runs.  I was praised for my efforts.

In 2010, I began more goal-oriented running and no longer looked at the activity as simply a means of staying in shape.  Since I was running more often and with purpose, food began to take on a different role.  I needed to be strategically fueled for my workouts, but there was still an element of food-as-reward that led to “earning” treats.  This isn’t a horrible strategy for weight maintenance but when I became injured in 2011 and was unable to run consistently, I put on weight and became very restrictive during my efforts to get back down to my pre-injury size.  In fact, I broke down in tears when my then fiance gave me an Easter basket with candy because I had just discovered that I had a fractured heel and couldn’t run for three months – the candy, I said, would only serve to make me fat. *sigh*

But then came cycling.  After months of pool running and using the elliptical, I begged my coach for a way to get outside and get in my workouts.  Dai loaned me a crossbike and… I fell in love.  The rest, really, is the history of my nascent triathlon career.  What is most astounding to me, though, is that triathlon totally transformed my relationship with food.  Within the last year and some change, I’ve finally begun to focus more on what fuels my body NEEDS.  Suddenly, I was thinking less about what I “shouldn’t” eat and more about what I “should” eat.  And another thing… I started putting on more muscle.  You know what?  Strong abs are NOT flat abs.  My body changed drastically when I began Crossfit last winter, SO much so that I did not even understand the changes.  “Flat abs” and “Flat stomach” are all over the media.  Those words are highlighted in women’s magazines and they float across the advertisements at the side of my Facebook page but when my I started to get stronger, my abs did NOT flatten out.  In fact, they became lumpy in places… because they were becoming more muscular.  This was so new and confusing to me that I HONESTLY thought I had matching hernias on either side of my lower abdomen/groin area.  It wasn’t until I saw another female Crossfitter sporting some low-waisted shorts that I realized I was just developing muscles I’d never really used before…  I literally almost made a doctors appointment because I was so clueless about what a strong female body actually looks like.

More and more, I’m finding that my experiences are not unique.  And the most frustrating part is that there really isn’t an ideal body!  Depending on the sport in which you participate, there might be an expected body, a supposed ideal… AAaaand women are told contradictory things.  “You should be skinny, skinny is attractive.”  “You should have large breasts.  Large breasts are attractive.”  Ummmm… I do realize there are some exceptions but… breasts are fat and, generally, the stronger and leaner you get the less of them you have!  We need to start paving a new road for young women and girls who don’t yet know better.  Let’s give voices to our struggles and let’s call out the myths about having the perfect body.  Let’s focus on what makes us strong and healthy and UNIQUE!  I’ve asked some of the most amazing women I know to share their experiences with body image, athletics and life.  They all come from different backgrounds and they all participate in different sports with different ideas of the “perfect” body type.  They are brave and strong in their openness and honesty.

RACHEL

Rachel is a professional triathlete.  She and her husband specialize in long-course triathlon and both are on the Zoot Ultra Team for multisport athletes.  I’ve only known Rachel a short while but she is full of life and determination.  Below, she is pictured before running her first 5k, finishing her first Ironman, and competing in her first race as a professional triathlete.  You can learn more about Rachel and her husband and their sponsors by visiting their blog, Team Jastrebsky.

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Growing up, I was always little, which may make the reader wonder why I would be writing a bit about body image. I was really little though, scrawny little. I was teased for being so scrawny. I remember eating a butterfinger after every cross country practice and still nothing. Once I hit junior year in high school and developed certain assets, all of a sudden the boys that had teased me were talking to me. Throughout high school I was never very sensitive about my weight, but then again I didn’t care much about appearance overall. I wore somewhat baggy clothes, never matched and didn’t even learn how to put makeup on until I was 18. I didn’t really follow trends and was terrible at “accessorizing.” It wasn’t until college that I started to worry about my appearance. I started to notice things. For example I became sensitive about my muscular legs, something I had been super proud of in high school. I felt like I was too muscular, which now seems ridiculous. I didn’t want to be labeled as “butch.” Once I started to become more competitive in triathlon, I realized that it didn’t really matter what my body looked like, but it did matter if it could help me accomplish my goals. It became more a matter of what my body could do rather than what it looked like. Recently I’ve noticed a sort of movement towards fitness rather than starving. I love these signs of strong women going around that say “strong is the new skinny.” We are moving towards a society that accepts strong, fit women as more attractive than the starving models. I now understand that those muscular legs that I was sensitive about, are carrying me towards accomplishing my goals.

DAWN

Dawn currently owns and operates her own Crossfit gym in Virginia Beach.  While working enthusiastically with the Crossfit community, she is also pursuing personal goals in running and recently completed her very first ultra marathon.  She is pictured below at the point when she consciously decided to make changes to her body, during her peak in fitness competitions, and in a more current photo representing who she is, today.  You can learn more about Dawn’s Crossfit training by visiting the Crossfit Unparalleled website.

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I’ve done it for so many years that it seems second nature. I’ve called myself an ex-fat girl, and I AM in fact an ex-fat girl. It’s a label and persona I’ve given myself that I realized has done two things for me. It has served as a badge of honor and it has acted as a really sneaky excuse of sorts and a “security blanket” at times. The badge of honor part has always been apparent. I went from someone with no real confidence that was scared of everything…to a woman that still gets scared but knows I can face any challenge. I went from overweight and UNFIT; trapped in a body I hated…to a person that is fit and can be proud to walk down any beach in a bikini. As for the other part…well it’s the part that not many people see; the part that is hidden by confidence that is sometimes real and sometimes fake. It is the sneaky part that lives in my head and takes up space that could be better used. It’s the part that still sees woman in magazines or in physique or fitness competitions who have the “perfect” body, and then sees myself as that same ‘fat girl’ in the mirror. You see, I realized that as long as I keep thinking of myself as an ex-fat girl…it gives me an excuse to settle…because ANYTHING is better than where I was right? WRONG. It’s been 5 YEARS since I started that journey and honestly, I don’t know why I keep that girl in my head and heart. ”She” does nothing but bring me down and make me see things in the mirror that are not there! “She” makes me afraid and “she” allows me to settle and/or do things that are against what I know to be healthy in order to prevent becoming that “Ex-Fat Girl” again. I don’t like that. I know that I have allowed the media and my insecurities to cause this battle I’ve had within myself. I WILL conquer this, as it has no place in me and I want all of the women who read this to know this is a battle no one should have… don’t allow it!

It’s like climbing a mountain. You want to look up and focus your energy on rising rather than constantly looking back at the ground below. There’s a reason that when you are high up, they tell you not to look down. It scares you and makes you start thinking about “what ifs” rather than taking it one foot upward at a time. I don’t think this is any different. I’m afraid that I have lowered my expectations in some ways and been too hard on myself in others. Sounds confusing, right? You should live it. It’s time to tighten the harness and look UP. It’s time to let go of the past and all the hurts and disappointments that got me fat in the first place. It’s time to fight for even better and believe that I deserve it it. I think of my ex-fat girl as a “nearly 70lb weight” pulling me down slowly…making it harder for me to continue to progress and be truly happy and strong. This is essentially that weight tied to me by rope. There’s no one to cut the rope but me and it’s time to find a knife.

Don’t drag old things with you. Let go of past hurt…of the old you…and move forward with greater ease. Allow yourself to reach new goals and stop letting those things be a silent excuse to be less than you want to be. Look up, not down and allow yourself to be strong.

Even more so, don’t let the media ruin the beautiful way you see yourself both inside and out! Healthy, fit, strong and beautiful bodies are not what you see in magazines! They are not the bodies of women in the fitness contests necessarily either, as they often have been on crazy unsustainable diets to get them stage ready, and they are usually not eating the type of diet someone could sustain on a daily (lifestyle) basis. The negative type of ‘self talk’ or negative ‘self portrait’ saps your energy and drains you of you true strength.

Embrace the beauty of what eating a healthy diet and leading an active lifestyle brings you. Many of us who started our journey to be healthy, fit, and stronger have come to realize the image we had in our mind of how we would look is not like that of the a cover model. Yet, we are lean, strong, and beautiful. This is the image we should all embrace and love … true beauty.

RENEE

Renee is a local celebrity in Virginia Beach as she is one of the top local female runners.  Only a few years ago, I could be said to have a “girl crush” on Renee.  I had only briefly met her out on our local trails but I was in awe of her and her talent as a runner.  She and I have since become close friends and I now respect her and stand in awe more than ever.  She is pictured below winning the Disney Marathon (which has won the last two years in a row), cuddling one of her pups, being goofy with some of her closest girl pals, and smiling with the love of her life and best friend, Andy.  You can learn more about Renee, her training and her sponsors by visiting her blog, VB Runner Girl.

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I’ve had body image issues since I was really young. I can remember being around 10 years old and being told that I was scrawny. I remember being told I’d never have boobs. And I remember my grandparents calling my aunt fat and my mom overweight. So even at the age of 10 I knew being overweight was bad, not having boobs was bad, and that my 10 year old scrawny figure was not attractive either. I was constantly comparing myself to older women in fashion magazines and the tabloids and wishing I looked like them. So by the age of 10 I already didn’t like the way I looked. I had already learned to not like myself. As I grew, I became more and more unhappy with my figure. I wanted to be skinny and attractive. I didn’t like any part of myself (including hair, face, body, the whole package). I didn’t love myself.

When I entered high school I decided I wanted to take charge of my figure and I tried to make myself skinnier. I kept looking at myself thinking I was fat. I began starving myself. I would go through these binging and purging episodes. I don’t think I ever lost weight but I do remember it made my eyes look sunken in and made the circles under my eyes darker. My mother found out about my binging and purging and tried to help me through it. She would watch me eat. None of this really helped my body image issues and my unhappiness with my body was still there. I had been interested in running since I was 10 and I decided to really throw myself into running. I joined the cross country and track team. I quickly found out that I had some talent when it came to running and I was addicted.

I loved running because it made my body feel strong. I liked feeling strong and healthy. Running was my way of being strong and healthy. I knew that because of running I’d take care of myself and stay healthy. Running has kept me healthy. Running has taught me to live a healthy active lifestyle. Through running…I learned that I was likeable if not loveable. Running and my problems with food has helped shaped my career choices as well. Because of these issues I’ve become very interested in sports nutrition and the wellness of women. It will continue helping me down the path toward my future goals. I’m not saying that today I look at myself and I love what I see. There are times I still struggle with the image in the mirror. But what I’ve learned after 32 years is to love myself and to be kind to myself. I’ve learned to love who I am and to embrace every part of me. And I’m good with that.

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Did these women speak to you?  Please, don’t be silent about your struggles.  Let’s get this out in the open.  Let’s dispel these myths and work together to set a strong and healthy example for the next generation!

17 thoughts on “The Myth of the Perfect Body and Lies We’ve All Been Told

  1. KrisLawrence says:

    One of your best posts ever Courtney. Thanks for sharing such a personal experience so honestly. Way to take control of those food and body myths and great job with the Girls on the Run.

  2. What a great post Courtney. As someone who works in public health and specialized a lot more with these issues when working on a college campus-it saddens me even more. It’s so hard to believe how young some of these females (and even males) are having disordered eating.

  3. Jen says:

    Courtney this is a great post and one I can definitely relate to. I wish I could say that I have found the strength these ladies have but I’m still working at it. Great job!

  4. Eileen Glenn says:

    Absolutely hit home. I could have written their stories. I believe we are all the same. I love the look of “strong” and I work at it everyday. It keeps me sane. I want to givevup the “fat” girl in my head and the mirror

    Thank you girls for sharing and than you Courtney for taking the time to share with us.

    God Bless you all and your efforts.

  5. JennyB says:

    Really inspiring, so happy i came across this blog. Great words: Don’t drag old things with you. Let go of past hurt…of the old you…and move forward with greater ease.

  6. Michelle says:

    Great Read, as I was reading it I was just thinking about my struggles with weight and body image until I got down to Renee’s and she pointed out that her issues started at 10. Then I remembered I had a little girl myself and thought, OMG I need to protect her from all this. Thank You for the reminder.

  7. Amanda Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr says:

    I experienced something similar to you, but in junior high. Running definitely helped me, and if I ever get to change my work schedule, I want to sign up as a Girls on the Run coach, as they just opened a chapter in Kitsap County (Washington state).

    • cdog781 says:

      Amanda, I’m so glad you overcame that struggle! I love the GOTR coaching experience, even if I’m not that great at it, yet! haha. I think I’m going to try to do it in the Spring, too, but it does get tough to work the schedule around! I’m lucky I have the flexibility of a student right now.

  8. mary says:

    Great post!
    In middle school, I was told I was too skinny, when I had basically a perfectly normal 13-year-old girl physique. That was the only time the negative statement was an outright statement from another person, but media messages and the unspoken messages from other people were always “your breasts are too small, your feet are too big, you just aren’t attractive or sexy.” After my daughter was born, I worked out obsessively, limited my diet excessively, and dropped to 115 pounds, which on my frame was skeletal. Now I call that my period of exercise bulimia. It ended when I started eating again, and couldn’t stop. Unfortunately, I quit exercising regularly, but I also made a major career change into nursing, and quit worrying so much about my body. Once I turned 40, I realized that I was missing part of the equation, and did need to worry at least somewhat about my body. But with age had come wisdom, and I realized that it wasn’t how my body looked, but what I could do with it that mattered. Now at nearly 50, I have a whole new set of physical issues to deal with, along with the media and societal messages which tend to be unkind to older women. Dawn says it beautifully, that we need to lose old baggage, and stop negative self-talk. We need to support and appreciate each other more openly. I love the video of the women describing themselves, and then describing each other, and how different the forensic artist’s depictions are. Despite media messages, we really are, very often, much lovelier to other people than we believe ourselves to be.

  9. You said you “almost made a doctors appointment because I was so clueless about what a strong female body actually looks like.” I just wanted to tell you that I live in the Chicago area and most married men feel the same way! 🙂 Physical fitness is not exactly a high priority in The Windy City (among both males and females).

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