As so many of my competitor friends enter their offseasons, and as the holiday season quickly approaches, I have seen a lot of talk on social media about body image struggles. How hard it is for so many people to accept their bodies at their current stages, even though they look phenomenal.
It’s very difficult to watch your body transform as you lean out for a show or shoot, just to loosen up the reins and quickly gain back fluff. The average person who doesn’t “lean out” for a specific cause probably doesn’t understand the effect this has on your mind. It’s very different from being on a gradual fitness journey, where your body changes slowly and healthily over time. Where you know what to expect each day. While you are constantly dropping weight and size (or whatever your goal may be), it’s a slow process.
When “in prep,” whether for a photo shoot or a competition, athletes will drop substantial amounts of fat over a very short period of time. For some, this involves substantial caloric deficits and a lot of cardio. Honestly? The way many, many athletes approach this is not very healthy. (Of course, you can make the process as healthy as possible. You can also reverse diet wisely and enter a healthy offseason, where you build up your food intake and grow muscle. You CAN make it easier on your body.)
But I digress. My point is, it’s very difficult to watch your body change so rapidly over such a short span. To wake up each morning and not know what to expect when you look in the mirror, because the changes are happening so fast. Maybe your face shape changes. The shorts that always fit you perfectly are now slack around your waist. Maybe you have visible abs for the first time in your life. It’s exciting, but it’s fast and aggressive.
And, seemingly in a flash, it’s gone. Our face fills out a bit more and our abs soften. The pants that were hanging off our hips 2 weeks ago are snug again. How did 10, 12, 16 (or more!) weeks of hard work disappear in such a short period of time? It doesn’t seem fair. Add to that the fact that our social media feeds are flooded with gym selfies at juuussstttt the right angle. Tanned babes showing off their ab flexes with the perfect amount of lighting. The sad, soft, makeup-less reflections staring back at us in the morning seem even more inadequate than ever, thanks to Instagram.
We all hear it and many say it, but I think some of us don’t want to believe it deep in our minds. So I’m going to say it again, both for you and for me: it’s not possible to be “stage lean” year-round. Sure, there are some outliers who seem to be pretty dang lean most of the time — but how healthy are they? How is their metabolism and are their adrenals fatigued? Also, are they that lean simply because of diet and exercise, or is there more at play (ie: performance enhancing drugs)? You don’t know what goes on behind the curtain, but you must know that being in competition-ready shape just isn’t sustainable every day.
This applies to women especially. Our bodies require an essential body fat of about 12%, the minimum just for hormone regulation and metabolic function. And honestly? Our bodies reaaallllyy want us to hold onto a lot more than that.
For the vast majority of women, trying to maintain a “below average leanness” is a constant uphill battle. Our body will fight us every step of the way. If you’re on hormonal birth control, you’ll have an even harder time, as you are introducing additional hormones into your body that actually affect fat utilization and storage.
I say all of this merely as a reminder. “Nothing in nature blooms all year.”
Tulips emerge from the cold earth in early spring, throwing their bright colors against the remnants of snow. Lilies fill the air with their fragrant scent only when the temperature is just right. Roses bloom from their tight buds when the sunshine-filled seasons hit. In autumn, apple trees release their ripe fruit, and earthen vegetables are finally ready for harvest.
Would we appreciate all of these things if they stuck around all year? Would DC’s beautiful cherry blossoms mean nearly as much if they were ever-present? Could you really appreciate the act of harvest if it weren’t seasonal? Hell, who would honestly flock to Starbucks in March for a PSL (complete with a selfie, #fortheinsta), if they were available year-round?
Things hold more value in our lives when they are limited. We appreciate what we have a little more if we don’t always have it. It doesn’t mean that what we do have isn’t as wonderful or as beautiful. It just means that we can’t be in a constant state of “bloom.”
Now, I know I’m focusing on this in a physical, fitness-related sense, but this thinking really applies to EVERY aspect of your life. We go through periods of kicking ass in our jobs, only to fall into slumps where we drop all the wrong balls or feel stuck. Our relationships feel like a honeymoon for a little while, only to be rocked by periods where you’re constantly on each other’s nerves. Or maybe you have life perfectly on track and feel like Parent of the Year — life will 100% knock you down a peg by tossing you a curveball, and you’ll feel like an utter failure for a little while. Sometimes, we flipflop between these highs and lows from day-to-day, even!
No matter where you are, it’s important to find some pride in what you are doing. Maybe you didn’t rock that meeting this morning as hoped, but your awesome efforts have increased sales this quarter. Maybe you have had a bad week and didn’t make it to the gym once, but you still packed your meals and stayed on track. Or maybe you’ve gotten your kids to school late every single day this week, but hey, at least their folders were signed and they had on clean clothes.
Find pride in your achievements, rather than focusing on the shortfalls.
So, love where you were when you competed or had your photo shoot or leaned out for your sister’s wedding. But also, love where you are right now. Love where you’ll be after eating pumpkin pie with your grandma this Thanksgiving. And love the fluff after sharing cocoa and cookies with your nephews this Christmas Eve. Celebrate birthdays and engagements and promotions, and eat that slice of cake.
Don’t abandon your goals, of course, but remember that life is all about balance. If you’re dedicated to a healthy lifestyle, you can maintain that while still enjoying life.
If your goal is a certain kind of training, of course you should stick with it. THAT is what should make you most proud right now. Your efforts toward your goals and the things that drive you — six pack or no six pack, that shouldn’t change. But we all need mental breaks and our bodies need breaks, too.
You can still be driving down the same highway, even if you’re just coasting for a few miles.
You won’t always be at your peak, but that’s what makes your peak so special.