Wellness

A New Way to Think About Body Image

Can you love your body and work to change your body at the same time? Yes, you can.

Member Exclusive

Become an Active Pass member to unlock this story and receive other great perks.

Join Active Pass

Already an Active Pass member?

Sign In

People come to running for a variety of reasons: to kickstart a healthy lifestyle, find community, lose weight, participate in races to challenge themselves or go for the win, or any combination of those things and more. However you find your way into the sport, it doesn’t take long before sports media and culture starts throwing a lot of talk about weight in your face.

And while running is a great sport for helping people build and maintain a healthy body, it is also a sport that can push extreme messaging and breed a negative body image.

We are coming out of a period of time marked by severe fat shaming based on generalizations not fully supported by research. We now know that you can’t simply measure health on a scale—you can be thin and very unhealthy, as well as fat and healthy, and everything in between. Line up at any road race and you’ll see a variety of bodies ready to accomplish the task with grit and grace. The “health at every size” paradigm fundamentally challenges what many of us have been brainwashed by mainstream media to believe. Embracing this new way of thinking helps us remove our judgement of others based on body shape and size. It can be extremely liberating to abandon the assumption that health looks one way. As it turns out, exercise has so much more to offer than a calorie burn.

Can you love your body and work to change your body at the same time? Yes, but don’t be afraid to:

  • Challenge the assumption that you need to change it.
  • Consider the possibility that your body is beautiful and enough just the way it is.
  • Gain confidence from what your body can do rather than what it looks like.

A few things I learned from body image expert Dr. Melody Moore and her nonprofit work with the Embody Love Movement: A feeling of “enoughness” will never be achieved by a number on a scale or clock. Enoughness comes when you can love yourself unconditionally, which is totally possible and available to you right now. And that unconditional love for yourself makes it easier to love others unconditionally. How cool is that? Think about what that does for the world. What would we choose to do if we could free up the space in our mind we’ve used to tear ourselves apart?

Health and High Performance

When it comes to high performance, conversations around “race weight” can be particularly toxic. While basic physics and exercise physiology tell us that carrying less unnecessary weight around makes us faster, what does this really mean? How far should we take this?

At the elite level of sport, from high school on up, I see most athletes in pursuit of one particular body ideal—the super lean, shredded athlete. The specifics of this “ideal body” are unnecessarily limiting.

In an attempt to “optimize body composition,” body fat is often viewed as dead weight we are forced to carry around, thereby lowering our VO2 max. Considering body fat in the context of a single variable is a mistake. Body fat contributes to hormonal balance, immune health, neural function, and bone health, among other things. Furthermore, even when we look at the body as a performance vehicle, there is not one correct body fat percentage or “look” that is ideal for every athlete. You may look the part but repeatedly wind up getting sick or injured, or suffer the myriad consequences of RED-S syndrome (relative energy deficiency in sport).

I fumbled my way through what I now realize was RED-S for many of my early professional racing years. While I had some good performances, I also experienced injuries, missed opportunities, and lost potential. I wish that I had embraced my own genetics sooner and put my energy elsewhere. What’s the point in looking the part if you don’t consistently make it to the starting line?

What if your ideal performance physique doesn’t look like the pictures in the magazines? Chances are, it doesn’t. The physique celebrated and circulated most often is from a moment in time—usually just before or after a peak performance on a global stage. Even celebrated athletes don’t look like that 99 percent of the time. But the pull toward an idealized physique is strong and the restrictive diets required to attain it are dangerous. You cannot tell from a photo of a body what internal health looks like. Even professional athletes achieving outward success might have bone density problems or hormonal health problems brewing under the surface.

Bottom line, the sport of running can encompass different approaches to body weight depending on one’s personal health and performance goals. Whatever those might be, all of us deserve to enjoy running free from judgment and negative self-talk.

  • If high performance is your goal, there is no shame in putting energy toward optimizing your own personal genetic build to find what works for you.
  • If you want to use running as a way to achieve a body physique desirable to you, go for it.
  • If you need to alter your weight for medical reasons and want to use running to do it, go for it.
  • If weight has nothing to do with your relationship with running, great.

There is room for all of us, and no shame in any of it. Just don’t sacrifice your health and never hesitate to ask for help when you need it.

If Healthy Body Changes Are Your Goal

Long-term change has to start from a place of self-love, not self-loathing. It’s a frame of mind. So what is an appropriate way to approach change?

  • Forget the words skinny or thin. For an athlete, those words imply weakness, fragility, the inability to stand firm in a storm. Strive to make your body “athletic”—healthy, strong, and built to thrive.
  • Appreciate the variety of body shapes performing well, and select a role model with a body type similar to yours. There are parts of your body that are genetically hardwired and parts you can adapt. Learn the difference. Any moment dwelling on the unchangeable is a moment wasted.
  • Limit your exposure to negative body imagery. Unfollow that Twitter feed. Unsubscribe to that magazine. Instead, create, seek out, and share the sources that are doing it right.
  • Honor your body; don’t talk crap about it. Think about what you want your body to do for you rather than what you want to remove from it.

Body Talk with Dr. Melody Moore

Five reasons to resist making small talk about our bodies.

  1. Beginning conversations with body talk subtly conveys that our value begins (and ends) with how we look.
  2. Offering “compliments” can create a dependency on positive body feedback; when we don’t hear it, it’s deafening.
  3. People often lose weight from illness, grief, depression, or disordered eating. Saying “you’ve lost weight!” or “you look fit” may not be landing in a way that is helpful.
  4. When we show up in our body confidently without tearing it down, we give others permission to do the same. Confidence is contagious.
  5. It’s much more meaningful to tell someone how their actions impact you, or how they make you feel, rather than how they look. It feels better to hear it, too.

Advanced call to action: Commit to caring more about how people feel about themselves in your presence than whether or not they approve of you.

If you’re concerned about yourself or a loved one, visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or call their helpline: (800) 931-2237.


Adapted from Believe Training Journal by Lauren Fleshman and Róisín McGettigan-Dumas, with permission of VeloPress.