Many of us here are pure-hearted strength fanatics who would carry on training even if all the mirrors in the world were broken (how many years bad luck would that make?).
That said, we might also harbour a notion of a corporeal geometry, a desired shape or look that bespeaks the things we want to project about ourselves.
Looks are important for two reasons, neither of which need have anything to do with vanity:
- They are part of how we present ourselves to the world
- They are often the first sign that something might be awry
It might seem noble not to care at all what you look like to other people, but turning up to someone’s wedding, for example, unwashed, unkempt, in your oldest jeans might be disrespectful to your hosts. So, on some level it does matter what you look like.
Likewise if you notice you are gaining a little extra podge, this might be a useful signal that you’ve let your discipline falter on your diet.
The great thing about training is that if you do it right (and that includes the recovery and eating part too), you’ll look better. But often it is helpful to have the visual signal to tell you how well you are doing…or not.
Being sensitive to changes in your body, whether or not they are easily visible, is important in measuring and understanding progress. It’s not as simple as picking a number.
Take me, for example. I am stronger, fitter and hotter than I was ten years ago. As it happens, though, I am heavier in terms of scale weight and my body shape is different (hips are smaller, shoulders are bigger).
So if I’d said to myself back then that I wanted to be x weight and fit into x dress, I would have needed to take a different path. Frankly I probably wouldn’t look as good – and I probably wouldn’t be as strong, fit or happy about my physicality.
In other words, rather than picking a number, I just got on with it (“it” being getting fitter and slimmer) and used the changes I saw in the mirror as feedback with which to refine my tactics.
For me, visual feedback worked and it taught me a lot about body composition along the way. How did I truly comprehend, for example, that adding muscle mass actually makes it easier to lose fat? Because I saw the results in the mirror.
I remember the first time my abs starting showing. I hadn’t been aiming for this as a goal and it took me by surprise. I’d been working hard (I was doing a lot of break dancing at the time) and counting my calories and suddenly there they were. So then I had a marker for what it takes to get to that point.
I’ve got a similar marker with diet. I wonder if any of you experience this? I can draw a conceptual line, a meridian if you like, where on one side I’m happy with the way I look and on the other side I am dissatisfied.
This meridian isn’t in an unhealthy place; it’s a place where my weight is normal and my dress size is normal for my height. It’s even in a place where several bits of me aren’t exactly how I’d choose but I gave up those battles long ago.
This meridian denotes a place where I feel happy enough to walk tall, to dress up if I choose, not feel inadequate in social situations, smile, laugh and generally be relaxed in my own skin.
Staying on the right side of the meridian isn’t difficult but it does take some concentration and discipline. It requires the embedding of good habits to maintain.
Do you know what you need to do to stay on the right side of that meridian, without taking it to an unhealthy extreme? Do you know what your diet and training look like to keep you there?
There are obvious dangers to relying on visuals to tell you about yourself. People who become unhealthily obsessed with body image can end up with eating disorders or body dysmorphia.
There are some people who end up on the extreme side of the issue, like there are some people who exceed the speed limit, or train to exhaustion. There has even been a new disorder coined, orthorexia, for people who are obsessed with eating healthy food.
Obsessive-compulsive behaviour is rarely healthy, whether it manifests itself in how we eat or not stepping on the cracks in the pavement.
But a healthy interest in how we look can alert us to issues that might turn into health problems later. If my dad had been more concerned about his weight earlier in life, he might still be here instead of shuffling off this mortal coil at the age of sixty.
So how do we do it? How do we maintain a healthy relationship between our bodies and our psyche? Something written by Dr Steve Bratman, who coined the term ‘orthorexia’, caught my eye:
Orthorexia begins, innocently enough, as a desire to overcome chronic illness or to improve general health. But because it requires considerable willpower to adopt a diet that differs radically from the food habits of childhood and the surrounding culture, few accomplish the change gracefully [my emphasis]. Most must resort to an iron self-discipline bolstered by a hefty dose of superiority over those who eat junk food. Over time, what to eat, how much, and the consequences of dietary indiscretion come to occupy a greater and greater proportion of the orthorexic’s day.
That notion of accomplishing it gracefully is an interesting one. Whether it is health, body image, athletic performance or something else that motivates people to start paying attention to diet and training, if you go at it desperately, violently, guiltily or angrily, you might well become unhealthily obsessed or at least piss everyone else off in the process.
To follow the path with grace means both to accept yourself now and the better you that you want to become. We need to have patience with those around us who don’t understand what we’re trying to do and try to explain our actions while not imposing our views.
We need to be fair to ourselves too: it’s tempting to beat yourself around the head when you screw up, but that doesn’t seem to help in the long run although it relieves a bit of frustration at the time.
There’s also a need to accept the learning process. You probably won’t get it right first time and there’s no reason why you must. What else comes that easily in life? So learn, use feedback, keep an open mind and try things out. Over time you find out what works for you, and those things gradually become habits and are embedded into your life.
More from gubernatrix
Inspiration and motivation in neat little packages!
- A philosophy of strength training – Lecture DVD by Dan John
- Strength Rituals – Training methods and movement philosophy DVD from Bodytribe
- Everything’s over my head – Training methods DVD by Dan John
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