While my job is done at a computer, there’s a lot of photos of me involved: race photos, social media photos, etc. Instagram is it right now for social media and marketing, and with that comes Instagram running stars who might as well be models: perfect hair, skin free of sweat streaks and the redness of hard effort, a thin and highly toned body.
I’ve never struggled with my weight; I’ve hovered around a healthy 125-135 pounds on my 5 foot 9 frame throughout my 20s. I lean down to racing weight during training and then subtly but certainly gain a bit of weight back in the off-season. I’m okay with my weight: I’m at a weight that allows me (emphasis on me as an individual, because every runner is different) to run hard without risking injury.
But the comparison trap sets in: I have a straight shape to my torso, muscular glutes and quads, and skin so fair that it reveals both any blemish and the fact that English-Irish blood courses through my veins. All that combined and I don’t always look like the Runner’s World cover ideal of a runner. Usually, I don’t really care.
After a recent hike, I scrolled through the photos that my husband Ryan snapped. I hiked without a spot of makeup on my face, a hat covering my ponytail, my legs still swollen from the combination of speedwork and strength training in the past week. I cringed at the photos and thought, maybe I should have worn some makeup, or a more flattering top, or brushed my hair. Did my pants look tight or stomach soft? I asked.
I have done the same with race photos, as I am sure many of you have. Forgetting the joy of running hard and the adrenaline of crossing the finish line, self-scrutiny emerges when those race photos arrrive. What’s that face I’m making? Are my thighs really that big? Why do I look like I’m just shuffling along when I was running my hardest? Or (if you’re like me), why do my arms look like those a T-Rex? We are all our own worst critics.
But never in those moments, while hiking up a mountain or running a marathon, do I pause and ponder how I look. In those moments, I’m really proud of what my body can do and is currently doing.
And I want you to be too. Who really cares how you look in race photos or hiking selfies? And if the answer is you, that you care – which I’ve been there too – think of which matters more to you: how your body looks or what your body can achieve.
Exercising improves body image; it’s a simple fact. But at the mirror-lined gyms with machines targeted to “tone” specific areas, exercise and appearance remained heavily intertwined. A common fear of the gym expressed by new runners is that they are worried others will judge how their bodies look.
Outside, whether it’s on the side of a mountain or an urban running path, no mirrors constantly remind you of how your body looks. Motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, and other runners pass by, absorbed in their current task. Exercise becomes more focused on what you can do when it’s just you out there on the road or trail. Can you hold your tempo pace for that mile? Can you finish 10 miles strong? Can you reach the summit of that mountain? When you see that mile split or reach the peak, you don’t care how your hair looks or if your muscles look “big” – you are elated at your achievement.
Outdoor exercise has a tremendous power to improve body image by shifting the focus from how does my body look to what can my body do. Whether your goal is to summit that peak or run a marathon, the goal is only achieved if you train your body to work hard. You’re rewarded not by aesthetics, but by a lasting sense of accomplishment and heightened confidence.
Maybe you’ll lose weight, gain muscle, or look the same on the outside, but running outdoors or hiking has transformed you in other ways. You become stronger, faster, and more confident in your body and its abilities.
Each time I want to pick apart a photo for messy hair or my muscular legs, I stop. Would perfect hair and skinny legs have improved my experience? Would they have made me achieve a better finish time? Chances are, no – because it’s what the body can do, not how it looks, that leads to running that PR and climbing that mountains.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t want your body to look healthy and strong and that you shouldn’t try to lose weight if you need to get down to healthy weight. I’m simply saying: focus on what your body can do, and you’ll be amazed at how much more confident you feel in your body.
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How do you feel while looking at race/running photos of yourself?
What made you feel more confident recently?