Monday, September 15, 2014

Body Image Issues

Hi.  My name is Kurt and I have body image issues.

I have been an athlete almost all of my life.  I've never been overweight.  I've never had a doctor tell me I need to lose weight, stop a bad habit, or that I was anything other than perfectly healthy; even superiority healthy most of the time.  I am a swimmer turned triathlete.  I am a scientist turned fitness coach.  And ever since...  maybe junior high?, I've had body image issues.


As everyone seems to start these discussions, this is hard to put into words.  But it's not hard because I struggle emotionally with it.  It's hard to describe.  I'm not the stereotype, so I don't fall into a category that has already been hashed out half a million times this week alone.  I've never been overweight, so I don't fear that.  I've never been stricken by an eating disorder.  Heck, I've always eaten just about anything I wanted; even up through this past year of being a vegetarian.  I am symmetrical, so I can't blame malformations or physical oddities.  And I have some muscle, but nothing to stand in front of the mirror flexing with.

I am me.
But for many reasons, I've never fully accepted who that is visually.

Where to begin?!...

Why am I writing this?  Many people consider those with more prevalent issues - obesity, eating disorders, malformations, or even body builders - to have body image issues.  A part of me wants to tell you that that's only the Hallmark story, the majority and more apparent occurrences.  As a fitness trainer, I've come to realize that many many many many more people have or have had similar questions, thoughts, or troubling times.  This year, some things have happened that have helped me get over my issues.  I am by no means cured, but I have some tactics in place now that get me over any issue that comes up.  So I am writing this so that more people will be aware of how the people around them feel.  I don't want you to be 'more careful' about what you say because heaven knows we don't need to be more censored, but instead more supportive of one another and open to different perspectives. 

So...  let's dive right in. 

High school.  Ha!  You can't talk about any body image issue without going through the most grueling time in most people's lives for comparing themselves to others.  One classmate of mine shot up to 6 feet tall in 6th grade and as far as I could tell, never grew another inch.  Another friend of mine shot up 6 inches over one summer and his voice dropped about two octaves.  Girls start to get their curves.  We're all pretty awkward at that point in our lives and for some unspoken reason, we hold it against one another.  Why?  Beats me! 

My personal battle at the time was acne.

It's typical.  I had it on my face, chest, and a large portion of my back.  I still do today, but have somewhat outgrown it and/or learned how to deal with it.  But in my early teenage years, it bombed how I looked at myself.  I very much disliked going shirtless and because of how embarrassed I was, I let that filter into my self-worth.  In my mind, I wasn't the desirable jock or one of the cool kids (as very few of us ever really were).  I tried lifting for a time to counter my skin by building some muscle, but it never took.  I stayed just as scrawny as ever.  I figured I was bound to be second rate or worse even forever.

Having said that, I want to point out that I LOVED high school.  I had a great group of friends, loved learning, and until shortly after graduating, I would have chosen to rewind time and repeat high school any day!  I simply did not think highly of myself. 

Now, one key to this story is that there was one place where how I looked never crossed my mind.  The swimming pool. 

The pool.  That was my dominion, my safe haven, my no judgement zone.  I had been a swimmer well before getting to junior high and spent 7th through 12th grade living as a swimmer.  It's a funny comparison that taking off my shirt outdoors was absolutely out of the question at that time of my life, but walking around in a speedo while in the pool area didn't make me blink.  I never cared what I looked like.  I never had much muscle.  I didn't care what my skin looked like.  I could swim and my focus was not distracted once I walked through those doors.

In college, I didn't swim.  I realized that pinching skin off of your bod is normal.  It wasn't until my freshman year of college that I had ever been able to do that.  A part of me really wants to go back and get tested for body fat.  I was below 4% I know.  But overall, my feelings about how I looked remained the same during those years.  It also didn't bother me as often because I had plenty of other things (studying!) to keep me busy.

Fast forward again and I'm now in grad school.  I had started to feel like I had outgrown my acne.  I felt a liiiiiiittle more comfortable if I was to take my shirt off say, at the beach, but I still would avoid going shirtless under most circumstances.

I have gotten better since,
but I've never outgrown that insecurity.

Now, remember how I couldn't put muscle on in high school?  In grad school, I decided to really try and focus on that.  For whatever reason (I can't exactly remember what the trigger was), I wanted to improve how I looked.  I joined a gym.  Over 6 months or so, I leaned out a bit, put on about 5-10 lb of muscle, and began to be happy with the thought that I could end up where I wanted to be; happy with how I looked.  The problem was (and if you had asked me then I would have eventually admitted the same thing), I knew it was only a journey.  I would never truly be happy.

I see myself as my junior high self.
It will take a long time to overcome that ingrained identification.

Enter Triathlon.  When I started triathlon, it functioned just like swimming used to.  It was my domain.  I didn't care who was looking at me or what I was (or wasn't) wearing.  I was so focused on performance that nothing else mattered.  (*Cue Metallica*)  Maybe that's why I loved it so much and still do.  It brought back into my life a way to escape from the world for awhile as well as a focused goal to work towards.  I was addicted. 

Then, as I started to dream of getting better, I started looking around and naively tried to pick out who was better than me.  I wanted to emulate them, to pick apart how they train or race.  Whether I picked out the right people or not, I noticed that the fast athletes tended to look rather fit.  They weren't big and muscular, but they were lean and good looking.  My own insecurities crept right back in!

'How can I beat these guys?
I don't look anything like them.'

Fast forward 4 years.  I started triathlon in 2010.  I spent 2011, 2012, and 2013 with those thoughts in my mind as I sized up the competition.  I would do that REPEATEDLY.  Thankfully, since people jostle positions a lot during a triathlon and coming into the sport a strong swimmer, I tended to come out of the water towards the front and got a taste of glory.  That has helped keep my triathlon career alive and enjoyable. 

As of this year, my 5th year in the sport, I am starting to revert my way of thinking.  When I'm at a new race, I still look at my competition and think 'I don't look as good as he does.  There goes the podium,'  but I have the experience that no matter how I look, I've proven I can perform.  I regularly podium at the local sprint races.  I came in 6th at Rev3 Cedar Point.  Yes, there are still a lot of better athletes out there, but I recognize that this sport is visually deceiving; looks have nothing to do with rank.

Looks have nothing to do with rank in triathlon.

Now, shortly after triathlon entered the picture, I switched careers and instead of doing neuroscience research, I became a personal trainer.  It was because of triathlon that I'm in the career I'm in now and it's in large part because of triathlon that I remain here.

Personal Training.  Walk into any gym and you are often greeted by a staff that visually look very fit.  If you asked people to pick out someone in a line up that is a personal trainer, they'd probably pick out the most muscular person there.  It's a stereotype.  It has historical reference too, which keeps me from getting too upset about it, but if I'm going to be honest, there have been multiple times when I've dealt with people doubting my knowledge and ability as a trainer because of how I looked.  That goes both for potential clients as well as other trainers.  It can be frustrating.

Why do I have to look like a body builder
to help you lose weight or get in shape?

I admit that it's easy to think that if someone looks fit, "buff," or built, they must know how to get that way.  But there are plenty of people that have the knowledge and decide  not to put it to use on themselves.  I am a fit person, but line me up next to other 6 foot, 165 lb guys that might be regulars to a gym and I don't look much different.  Thankfully, my experience with triathlon has helped me brush off what people say about my professional abilities.  I like to think to myself 'Let me show you what I can do.  Then we'll see who's talking smack.'


Overall, No.  I will never be able to fully shake my own self-perceptions.  However, I can do my best to keep them from causing me any emotional grief.

I've never been happy with how my skin looks and am still embarrassed by it.  It has gotten better as I age through my 20s, but I doubt it will ever go away and the scars from the years that have gone by will always remain.

I've never been a muscular guy.  I never thought I got sucked into the social desire to be lean and muscular, but maybe I did along the way.  However, now I also don't want to be.  If I'm going to continue as a triathlete, the extra muscle will only slow me down.

Professionally, it will always be a struggle as a personal trainer.  I don't have the body that market's myself like I know some do.  However, if my triathlon career has to suffer for the sake of my professional career, then I'm good with struggling.  As long as I'm persistent enough, I know I can change people's opinions and hopefully their own perceptions.

I am who I am.
Thanks to athletics, I am learning to accept and enjoy who that is.


1.  Have you ever had issues with body image?

2.  Are you affected personally, socially, or professionally by a stereotype?
I do not "look the part" of a typical personal trainer and many potential clients as well as other trainers doubt my knowledge and abilities because of that.



AdjustedReality said...

I've read your blog for a while and have always thought you looked like one of those guys that are always on the podium :). So, take that as you will. It takes effort for me to focus on what my body DOES, not looks like (I look more like a slightly out of shape swimmer/power lifter than a triathlete) but as my times improve it's easier! :)

Robert said...

Interesting read! Being on the bigger side it's interesting to see the your perspective. I swam and ran in high school and while larger than average I didn't have insecurities until I started triathlon years later. After high school I managed to do 0 exercise for a solid 7 years. Needless to say I added a few pounds to an already larger frame. Setting up for transistion at my first tri was possibly the worst I've felt about my body image. All these little guys in spandex while I competed in jogging shorts and shirt. Fast forward 3 seasons and I'm still bigger than most in transition however I regularly podium, while fielding questions about how I can be so fast at my size (6'4" 225lbs). People are most baffled by my running pace. Trying to put an end to the "big people are slow" myth. Still losing weight, but with my frame, anything under 200 would be tough. Sorry so long winded but thanks again for a glimpse at the other side of the spectrum.