A few months ago, Elissa posted about body image and gym mentality. She had read that many women avoid engaging in physical activities or sports due to self-consciousness or negative body image, and described her own feelings of apprehension and worry while running on a gym treadmill. She said:
Negative body image can have a huge impact on exercise. We all know how important it is to be active – the merits of physical activity include strengthened muscles, stronger bones, decreased stress and better sleep. But it’s no surprise that so many women feel uneasy in an environment where bodies are seemingly on display. Whether the discomfort comes from working out in front of men, the fear that they’re being compared to other women, or the disdain to be seen perspiring and red-faced, it’s there, and interferes in efforts to get healthy and stay active.
And as I read through her post, I was amazed to find that I am almost entirely immune to this particular strain of anxiety and self-consciousness myself. Everything Elissa was saying made sense to me – that gyms can feel like meat-markets, that comparisons arise naturally, that strenuous exercise makes most of us look less than lovely – but I’ve never let any of it stop me from hitting the gym. Four times a week, two and a half hours at a stretch, all year long. Here’s why:
Exercise makes me feel like a badass: Yes, I know that 20 whole minutes on the stairmaster doesn’t exactly qualify me for Hell’s Angel membership. But the types of exercise I do at my gym – hard cardio, planking for 3+ minutes, free-weights – focus me on feeling strong and tough. And I love feeling that way.
I have gym garb that makes me feel good: Even when I wore loose, formless gym clothes that made me feel kinda sloppy, I gave relatively little thought to how much scrutiny I drew from other gym-goers. But after years of tinkering, I’ve finally landed on a combination of items that makes me feel confident, cute, and LIKE MYSELF. I went from baggy pants and baggy tees to fitted tech tops and pants to my current formula: A graphic tee showing something I dig, tech capris, and a skort. I am the only person at my gym wearing a skort, and I couldn’t care less. I’m covered where I want to be covered, comfortable, and able to move. As is the case when I dress for any activity or occasion, I feel more grounded when I wear something that feels good and looks good.
I’m a gym loner: I have to imagine that any group class would be harder on me than my typical loner-gal routine. An hour spent gazing in the mirror at my body doing stuff right next to dozens of other bodies doing stuff would likely make me feel odd and awkward. But since I stretch with Husband Mike and do the rest by myself, I’m pretty focused on myself. Or whatever episode of This American Life I’m listening to …
I brainstorm while I work out: I definitely look at and think about bodies while I’m at the gym, and some of it is meandering, sexual, or comparative. But since I write this little body image blog called Already Pretty – maybe you’ve heard of it? – most of my body-related thinking yields idea seeds that sprout into post topics. Some of my best thinking happens at the gym. Much of what I’m doing is pretty mindless and repetitive anyway, so I use that time to brainstorm.
I focus on me: Maybe all of the previous points have made this abundantly clear, but I suppose it’s the heart of the matter for me. I don’t go to the gym to meet people or show off or see how I compare. I don’t exercise to get thin or look more like a model. Exercise helps me feel energetic, alive, engaged, relaxed, GOOD about my body. I go to the gym for my own health, and the other people there are a lot like scenery to me. I focus on what I’m doing, how I’m feeling, what I’m thinking, and the rest pretty much falls away. Someone told me once that the great thing about bowling is that you can play to beat your own best score and completely ignore everyone else’s. I try to transplant that mentality to gym workouts, and keep my mind on the task at hand instead of worrying who is watching my butt jiggle, laughing at my bicep curl form, or thanking their lucky stars that their hips aren’t as wide as mine. I’m sure those things are happening. But I can’t stop them from happening, and they don’t change my purpose for being at the gym in the first place. So, miraculously, I can let them fall away.
This is not to say that I don’t have crappy days, or that I don’t struggle with the enormous, warped, floor-length mirrors that encircle my gym. This is not to say that I love the gym, look forward to it, have gobs of fun there. And this is most DEFINITELY not to say that I’m some sort of superior gym-going being or that anyone plagued by exercise-related self-consciousness should just buck up. This is just to say that I feel pretty lucky that my own gym-going mentality is relatively self-contained, and my body image worries don’t tend to flare up while I work out. Maybe some of my techniques – if you can even call them that – would benefit those of you who struggle.
So tell me: Do you feel self-conscious when you exercise at the gym? Or elsewhere? Do you avoid certain types of activity because of anxiety about your body? Or avoid exercise in public altogether? Anyone else found workarounds for minimizing gym-related body image triggers?
Image via fitnesswithweights.