The other day in a yoga class, I did 10 inverted push ups in wheel pose with ease and was amazed at what my body had just done. I felt strong, flexible and capable. I was filled with a sense of pride and kept thinking about how cool it was that I could now do things like that. I strutted out of that yoga studio like I was in a mothaf***in’ Beyoncé music video. In my (humbly deluded) mind, everyone I walked by on the street was throwing up their hands and yelling YASSSS QUEEN!
And I’ve had countless moments like this since fitness has become a part of my everyday life: crossing the finish line of my first half marathon; my first push up not on my knees; nailing my first unassisted headstand; getting through an entire ab block on the megaformers without taking a break—the list goes on.
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the significance of these types of accomplishments: They’re all things my body did. I’m taking pride in my body’s ability. What a far cry from my college years when the focus was 110% on my body’s appearance—and my God what a healthy shift!
Before I go any further into this random-stream-of-thought post, I want to clarify that I do care about my appearance. I’m not trying to come across as preachy or condescending to those who workout to change their appearance. A desire to look good is one of the reasons why I stay motivated to workout and eat well, and it probably always will be. And that’s ok! I mean who doesn’t want to feel confident in a bathing suit?? The shift in mindset I’m discussing in this post is taking that tunnel-vision focus on appearance and broadening it to include other performance and ability-based goals. By doing that, “looking good” becomes a bi-product of the other accomplishments, rather than the only end goal.
Ok so now that we’re all on the same page and are crystal clear that I’m just as shallow as the next twenty-something… 😉
Bringing Ability Back into Focus
I think my life’s arch of fitness is one a lot of people probably relate to. Growing up, the concepts of “fitness” and “working out” didn’t really exist—because they didn’t have to. I was active playing outside in the woods or at the beach with my brother, neighbors, cousins, friends; I always played sports in youth leagues and then for my high school; I danced from third or fourth grade on through college. Without realizing it, sports and dance were my workouts. And with these activities, you take pride in performance and set goals based on ability. You practice so that you can do better. You take pride in hitting home runs, beating your PR, hitting all your free throws, perfecting your triple time step and one-footed wing.
Then comes college. I was decent at the sports I played in high school, but by no means was I good enough to play on a college team (especially UNC Division 1—sweet lord, no). I did join a student-run tap dance team, but soon lost interest. The activities I’d been doing as my unintentional workouts all my life were suddenly gone, and when you add to that lots of alcohol consumption, being away from my mom’s healthy pantry, and stress from schoolwork … hello, Freshman 15. Except it was actually a Freshman 20 for me.
My pants wouldn’t button, my boobs were being suffocated by my bras, and to my sheer horror, my belly would jiggle a little if I went over bumps in the car or even brushed my teeth too vigorously. Aw hellllll to the nah (said as Whitney Houston … R.I.P.). I realized I would now have to put thought into this whole fitness thing, and I couldn’t just rely on sports—I had to go to the gym. Talk about a buzzkill.
At this point, I really didn’t know the first thing about how to effectively workout, but my sole mission was to lose weight. I wanted to look like a Victoria’s Secret model. Had to look like a Victoria’s Secret model. So, ya know, I had a very realistic, obtainable, healthy goal in mind.
Those college years of killing myself with cardio to try to look thin and struggling with horrible body image issues, depression and a wildly unhealthy relationship with food probably deserve a blog post/series/400-page novel of their own. The bottom line is I was working out for the wrong reasons, beating myself up trying to reach unattainable appearance goals, and as a result was never satisfied.
The shift for me back to ability was unintentional and gradual. After college, I mended my body image issues and, for lack of better words, got my sh*t together. I had started to get into at-home HIIT workouts, and as I became more knowledgeable about how to effectively workout, I continued to enjoy it more and more. Working out made me feel good, so even though I was happy with my body, and the weight I’d gained and yo-yo’d with throughout college was gone, fitness continued to be a part of my everyday life.
Little things would happen that would give me a sense of pride and keep me motivated. It sounds silly, but seriously guys I couldn’t do a push up from my feet all my life. The first time I did one, I think I may have cried. I contemplated ordering one of those little plastic trophies you get as a kid in tee ball off of Amazon as a reward. I felt like Xena Warrior Princess. Before I knew it, the things I was taking pride in were ability-based again. Crushing a workout had become my new no-hitter softball game. I wasn’t a pitcher in high school, but whatever, you get what I mean.
And don’t get me wrong, noticing muscle definition in places I’d never before also gave me a major sense of accomplishment, but the pride sources were healthily balanced. The beauty of fitness is that improved ability tends to go hand-in-hand with improved appearance.
The Problem with Making Appearance the Only Goal
There are the obvious problems with relying on appearance for self worth: Aging is inevitable; Our genetics and body type can make certain aesthetics unachievable; It’ll stunt the growth of your personality if you allow it to consume you. But I actually want to focus on something else. Oftentimes our appearance goals are (unintentionally) unrealistic because they don’t align with the lifestyle that makes us happy. We often want some ridiculous lingerie model body without realizing that the lifestyle required to achieve that appearance is actually the last thing we want.
And yes, I realize that the same thing could be said for someone who wants to win a gold in the Olympics–it has nothing to do with appearance, everything to do with ability, and still the lifestyle required to achieve it is definitely not for everyone. For the sake of my very thoughtfully written blog post, let’s just focus on my side of the discussion. That’s how these things work, right? Right?! 😉 Ok, back to it …
For me, I’m a huge fan of cheap beer on the beach with friends; cozying up with a bottle of wine and a good Netflix marathon; and drinking a silly amount of mimosas with my girlfriends over weekend brunch. While all these indulgences are only done in moderation, it’s still an 80:20 balance that I need in order to be happy. That healthy-to-splurge ratio would have to be like 98:2 for me to have washboard abs (that’s in part due to my body type–I tend to hold weight in my low belly). Some people can live with that regiment happily and healthily, but I personally would not be able to. You just have to understand where your own individual priorities lie in order to be happy. And coming from someone who has struggled with depression in the past, trust me: Happiness is one of—if not THE—most important component to a healthy lifestyle.
My (invisible) six pack used to bother me a lot and was always something I was striving to “fix” in the back of my mind, but shifting my focus to what my core can do has helped me find a lot of peace with it. My abs are strong. I can hold a plank for, like, ever. I can stabilize my body in a headstand. My core has great ability, regardless of its appearance. Eating especially clean and drinking a ton of water and no booze can certainly make my abs look better, but at the same time, drinking a few beers on the weekend with my friends is not going to weaken my core strength. It’s all about balance!
I do love the way my body looks (most of the time), but my goals are no longer defined by it and my happiness is no longer solely dependent on it. I wish that same inner peace to everyone, and that’s why I encourage you to find a sport or activity that you enjoy and stick to it. Yoga, basketball, CrossFit, Pilates–doesn’t matter. Incorporate an activity (or multiple activities) regularly into your life that makes you appreciate what your body can do in addition to how it looks. It’s so empowering!
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this whole pride in ability vs. appearance topic! From which do you tend to draw the most satisfaction and motivation? Have you had any big performance-based accomplishments recently?
Sorry for the super long post and scarcity of pictures–I know no one wants to read these days haha. Sometimes I can’t help myself once I get writing!