The Body Issue

Be impeccable with your word – this is the first agreement that you should make if you wish to be free.” – Don Miguel Ruiz

As a heads-up to readers – this post may stray into the realms of over-sharing. I suppose that, for a number of mounting reasons, I thought it necessary to share anyway.

There were a number of motivating events for this article.

Most recently, I was listening to an interview with natural body-builder Steve Cook, where he touched on the not-so-glamorous, and perhaps downright harmful, elements of the world of competitive body-building – specifically, the severe body dysmorphia, eating disorders and bouts of depression that can easily accompany a life spent hyper-analysing one’s physique. This is only amplified by the fact that success and accomplishment in such an objectively bizarre sport rests only on the subjective opinions of four judges, all of whom seek to identify minute flaws in the mountain of hours you’ve spent manipulating your physiology.

An awareness of my own insecurities with my body had been gradually accruing over the years, and so hearing someone as prolific as Steve and interviewer Ross Edgley discuss it openly was perhaps the trigger for me putting my growing thoughts and realisations to paper.

My conscious awareness of it may be relatively new, but the symptoms are as old as my entire (albeit brief) career in athletics to date.

Skin-fold testing by the Sports Institute at my school in eighth grade left me with the ingrained habit of pinching the skin on my abdomen on a multiple-times per day frequency. The frequency of ‘tests’ would fluctuate wildly, depending on what I had eaten that day, and its perceived ‘goodness’. This unfortunate impulse continues to this day. My levels of frustration and anger, things I now understand to be expressions of a diminishing self-esteem, would ramp up over the years if I spent just one day without training. I came to realise, only in the last eighteen months, that my largest sense of self was dependent on physical fitness – and largely reflected by external measures of validation. I realised I couldn’t imagine genuine comfort with my own self if I wasn’t at a certain level of physical fitness, and if my body didn’t appear in a certain way. Despite trying to pride myself on a lack of ego, and limiting vanity as best I could, I found myself reluctant to head to the beach or pool unless I could try and get in a quick weights session beforehand. Things that I cringe to write, but true nonetheless.

I’ve been using the past-tense when I describe these unhealthy symptoms of body insecurity, and I really shouldn’t be – moving away from this is a daily-practice for me. It’s something I have to consciously try to resolve. The habits of excruciating self-analysis and critique are pretty deeply rooted.

The reason I am sharing this is because I think experiences of body dysmorphia, disorders of diet and a grossly unhealthy relationship with one’s physical body are far more common in men than is typically discussed. A conversation with a training partner, himself in phenomenal shape, around the time of my marathon-swim further highlighted just how not alone I was in having such toxic thoughts swirling in my mind.

Within the field of gender studies, the measurable effect that Barbie dolls have on the body-image of young girls has been well-documented – with Barbie herself possessing an almost impossibly-petite physique found in less than 1 in 100,000 Australian women, and theorised to have a body-fat score so low that menstruation would be prevented altogether.

When one stops to consider the shapes of the male action-figures that are presented to young boys (traditionally), a similar image is quickly painted. My Saturday mornings as a growing child were filled with the bulging biceps, ridiculously-chiselled abdomens and shredded-quadriceps of the likes of Tarzan, Batman and Hercules – all expressing no emotions except anger, never experiencing fear, and solving all their problems through easily-justified violence. Early adolescence saw a shift to the steroid-riddled physiques and CTE-inducing antics of professional wrestling.

In the aforementioned interview, Ross and Steve discussed the stark contrast between the GI Joe action-figures of the seventies, and the modern versions of the same toy – the present-day soldiers possessing massive chests and arms that would surely leave the admittedly ‘normal’ looking originals feeling totally inadequate. This gradual hyper-masculisation of children’s toys has been theorised to have helped contribute to the number of teenage boys using illegal metabolic steroids more than doubling between 2009 and 2012.

Realistically, there are probably an infinite number of factors that effect our perception of our bodies and our selves, and our increasing societal obsession with the inherently impossible pursuit of physical perfection.

I would hope that it would be evident from my writing and my time in endurance sport thus far that I am completely in favour of pursuing physical improvements, and of expanding our capacities for strength and stamina. Chasing personal development through endurance sport is entirely central to my sense of self, and by its nature, seeking to improve one’s self physically is not inherently unhealthy.

I would argue, however, that we can easily brush over the blatantly unhealthy and detrimental elements of physical pursuits like this – pretending instead that behaviours that may well be genuine problem areas in our lives are simply examples of our ‘passion’, or our ‘obsession’. We gloss over unbelievable perfectionism, or binge eating, or calorie-restriction, or a complete obsession with physical vanity, as mere signs of our dedication to the pursuit of gaining strength and stamina. Our relationship with something that should be bringing real joy and comfort, the act of moving and using our bodies as they were meant to be used, can so easily swing into the realms of toxic behaviour, in this era of social media-equipped personal trainers lighting up our news feed with topless gym pictures, of ‘eight week challenges’, and ‘washboard abs in five weeks’ magazine headlines.

As athletes, I think it’s crucially important that we all sit back every now and then and properly consider our relationship with training. It’s not necessarily an easy question to answer, that of ‘am I doing this for the right reasons’. The Passion Paradox authors Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg argue that the answer can be found in the balance between how much of what we do is motivated by intrinsic forces, rather than external sources of validation – instead of pretending that humans are immune to the often-nice feelings of ego and pride, they present that so long as the ratio is at least favouring intrinsic sources in the majority, then we are probably doing okay.

The problem is that these internal conversations are not happening enough, I feel, particularly within men. It took me, at least, over a decade of consistent physical training to even begin having that discussion with myself – leaving me now with ten years of unhelpful thought patterns and toxic behaviour to try and reprogram. As I said before, it’s a daily practice – it takes applied effort, just as training does, and patience, and self-compassion.

The most useful tool thus far has been this practice of real compassion with myself – ‘cutting myself some slack’. Our modern idea of high-performance training drills into us from the outset ideas of unrelenting hard work, of never-settling or missing a workout, of always pushing ourselves – again, done well, these might be useful characteristics to possess. I’ve always felt compelled to get in the gym or pool, despite how sick or tired I may be feeling, and that a failure to do so on a given day was representative of some kind of personal failure at large. That’s not at all to say that I have never backed off or missed training sessions – just that whenever I have, I would be filled with feelings of inadequacy and regret. A recipe for an unhealthy long-term relationship with a passion, evidently.

Now, I am constantly trying to assess how I am feeling about my training, and question what is driving me. When I have these natural feelings of exhaustion, or reduced motivation, I try to be gentle with myself. Rather than meeting these normal experience for any athlete with frustration, I try to be ‘impeccable with my word‘ to myself, and to just accept whatever my best effort may be that day. I’ve tried to reorient my personal goals to be far less influenced by external factors – rather than achieving a certain physical look, I am trying to improve my strength or power. Rather than concerning myself with body-fat percentage or resting heart-rate, as I have been known to do, I’m trying to find joy in the fact that I can do things now that ten-year old me would have been amazed by. Rather than concerning myself with winning certain events, I am trying to focus on goals that are dependant only on myself.

And its tough – it’s a genuine uphill battle. But what good is all this physical work if it leaves us battling demons and mental anguish that is so totally unnecessary? I was reminded of the line “riding your bike to your job at Monsanto” by my partner the other day, in reference to one unhealthy habit undoing all the hard work done in other areas.

If you’re anything like me, and you read this article, I hope that it can start to spark a conversation that we all should be having with ourselves – and one that I wish I had started ten years earlier.

The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, but the second best time is right now.