Pride in Ability vs. Pride in Appearance: Why Sports & Fitness Matter

Pride in Appearance vs. Pride in Ability : Why Sports & Fitness Are ImportantThe 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!

beyonce-crazy-in-love-meme beyonce-strut beyonce-walking

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.

eastbound-down-real-sports-memeAt 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.

Woof.

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 …

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor 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!

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Comments

  1. Fantastic blog today! And such an important train of thought. Lifestyle is a critical component to a fitness regime, and probably the one component that influences the success of our fitness goals. I have battled over the years about giving up wine so I can “look” a certain way but have realized in recent years, sharing wine with my husband, friends, and family is a sweet blessing and pleasure that stirs up great memories of fun-filled times together. Striking that balance is key, and at fifty, I am loving what my body can do. I felt like a warrior yesterday after doing 7 65-yd sprints, with 15 broad jumps and 15 side-to-side hops/leg after each sprint…..at 2:00 in the afternoon Dallas, TX heat. I probably looked like a sloth moving through mud, but in my mind, I was Xena, Warrior Princess. Ability slam dunks appearance!

  2. Excellent article, thank you for posting! This is something that has been on my mind a LOT lately, and you put into exact words what I’m striving to achieve – balance. My whole life the only reason I’ve ever exercised was to try to lose weight or change my appearance. I never played sports as a kid so I didn’t even have the ‘ability’ thought in my head. Now that I’ve been regularly exercising for the past few years and also crossed into the dreaded 30s, I’ve been thinking more about ability. It really is one of the most thrilling things when I’m able to do something new or do a whole workout without modifying or taking a break. I’m really trying to focus my thoughts towards ability and also just keeping my joints and muscles healthy as I age. But the appearance thing is so engrained in my brain! It’s really a struggle to not focus on that so much. Like you said though, it’s probably about a balance of both. Thanks again for the great post!

  3. This is such a great post to read. I think it is so important to change the mindset we have as a society on body image. Just like you, I played sports up until college. Once I stopped, it was such a weird feeling to have to make myself go to the gym and workout. So I never really did.

    I recently have gotten into Pilates and it has totally changed my view on fitness. My body has changed in appearance some but mainly in ability. I think it is so important for young women to find an activity they can enjoy that will give them small wins like being able to do a regular push-up.

    • It’s amazing what finding a workout you enjoy and are passionate about can do for your body image and self esteem! Hell yeah, Pilates! 🙂

  4. This is a great blog post I enjoyed reading. I went through that same phase you did, a little later in life though. I went through a body image crisis about a year ago because I had just turned 30. I listened to negativity from certain people about how my appearance would decline rapidly (weight gain and wrinkles) and I fell into a deep depression about it. I started exercising religiously, but for the sole purpose of achieving that unattainable Victoria’s Secret beauty you describe (I think all women can relate to that). I’m grateful I started exercising, but it was not about ability for me, it was about my looks, how thin I could get, I wanted to look perfect. I constantly thought I was fat and looked bad no matter how small I was. This lasted about a year. I had extreme anxiety at this time about being a bridesmaid in my friend’s wedding due to my perception of myself as fat and unattractive. It was only after I looked back at those photos that I realized I looked fine, I was fit, and I was pretty. I finally just accepted myself, despite being imperfect.

    I’ve accepted aging but I continue to work out, I love it and I find it motivating. I ran my first half marathon in May and it was awesome to achieve a goal like that. Thanks for sharing this post that describes this struggle so much more eloquently than I ever could 🙂

    • I’m so happy it resonated with you and thank you for sharing your experience! Congrats on the half marathon — isn’t that feeling when you cross the finish line the best?! THAT’S what it’s all about. 🙂

  5. Loved reading every word.

  6. Hi Nicole! Personally I love reading your longer posts about fitness and your experience. It’s something I’ve been struggling with lately–balancing working out and eating well with maintaining a social life–and it’s nice to hear about it from someone who’s been there. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  7. This was an awesome read! And totally true.
    If you ask any sprinters, such as myself, why they like running, most will you they don’t. We hate running. What we enjoy is knowing we’re improving. Destroying a past PB/PR. Knowing that not many other people can do what we’re doing. It’s that feeling of accomplishment that really motivates and helps a lot of people.

    latest blog @ http://www.activelygemma.com/blog

  8. Hi Nicole! Perhaps my favorite thing you’ve ever written, because it’s so empowering. Feeling strong and healthy is something that should be a huge source of happiness for people. I’m super impressed by your push-ups in wheel pose, by the way. And I love that you share my same “indulgence in moderation” philosophy. Thank you for this one! 🙂

  9. Such a great post – I read the entire thing! 😉 Everything you said rings true. I’m so much happier now that I exercise for fun, as a reward, rather than as punishment for overeating/drinking like I did in college. It’s like being a kid again! You’ve inspired me to work toward a real pushup (also a life goal of mine haha). You’re awesome.

  10. I loveeee this post! It’s so in line with the way my thinking has shifted over the past year or so. I’ve started following some pretty terrific female fitness experts who focus a lot on this (Jill Coleman- JillFit, Neghar Fonooni, Jen Sinkler)- they are so empowering and I just wish more women could read things like this because seeing what your body can do rather than how it looks is just a way better way to live. I totally do the 80:20 rule because living without indulgences just so you look a certain way takes out all the fun in, well, living!

  11. Lisa G. says:

    What a great blog post topic! So many women and men struggle with this so I am glad you can speak so candidly about it while offering encouragement and support. In my 20’s I also danced up through college and it was a shocker after I graduated how different I felt. I was very thin but had no strength. Then something happened, I turned 30 and overnight my metabolism changed, my butt dropped 3 inches and I could actually pinch and inch around my mid-section! I have never been over-weight but it was a wake-up call when I actually had to start working for the look I wanted. Then, something else happened. As I began lifting weights and running, my physique changed from being thin and weak to being strong and defined. I think I weigh more now then I ever have in my life but my strength amazes me! Do I look 25? No! I’m not supposed to…I’m 35! Do I look healthy and strong and do I feel confident? Heck yes! I finally have a butt! It took 35 years but I no longer have flat, skinny, white-girl bum! Woohoo! I enjoy my share of beer and food but I stick to the 80:20 rule, count my macros, and work out with my husband. I dreaded my 30’s but honestly, I feel more beautiful now than I ever have. As far as my recent ability goal…I can now do 10 unassisted pull-ups!! Seriously??!! Go me!

  12. Ditto.

    And, more, please.

  13. What a great topic! I am 100% in agreement with you about the 80/20 outlook on sticking to a healthy diet and lifestyle and remembering what your body can do and not just what it looks like. We are visual beings and that sometimes causes contradiction with how our bodies actually work and function. Great post and I think something a lot of us need reminding of from time to time.

  14. I rarely comment but I had to tell you that this is a great post. It is very relatable and I really appreciate the candor

  15. Beth R. says:

    I needed this today. I constantly have to remind myself to take pride in all that my body can do and not focus on how it looks. This is such a difficult lesson for anyone to learn, and it can be all too easy to let the mirror or scale dictate our moods and our lives. We are so much more than a scale number or a flat stomach. And it’s also a challenge to learn that a flat stomach doesn’t indicate strength. I think that once a person learns the lesson of pride in appearance versus pride in ability, it can be very freeing. I recently started working with a dietitian and my diet was tweaked. My physical appearance is slowly changing and responding, but as a result, I’ve noticed my workouts are becoming far more powerful. Whereas my current results are not what I intended or expected, I’m impressed with what my body can do. I’m nailing track workouts, swinging kettlebells like a boss and am so close to getting my first pull-up.

    • I will literally cry with joy when I get my first pull-up (haha). And I agree–from magazines/images online, we can’t help but associate a six pack with strength and fitness, but one does not always indicate the other and there are so many other factors involved.

  16. This is an amazing post. I hope EVERYONE reads this. I completely agree with you – a lot of people, myself included, get into fitness as a means of looking better or losing pounds, but as the fat is lost and muscle gained, the focus becomes more on ability. What a great, well thought out post, Nicole!

    I think the biggest shift in “ability” for me was mentally. Once I started really getting into working out, and eventually teaching group classes, my self-confidence grew tenfold. I was always shy and HATED getting up in front of a group of people, but fitness instruction forces you to get over that pretty quickly! And never in a million years would I have thought I’d be comfortable standing in front of the weight rack in a gym curling dumbbells with the guys. 🙂 That’s something I’m proud of ability-wise.

  17. This blog post is seriously exactly what I needed to hear after a fun 4th of July weekend and not feeling like myself the past few days. I need to be better about being proud of my accomplishments rather than focused on trying to look a certain way (I’m going to Mexico in three weeks, so being in lots of pictures in my bikini is all I can think about). I was the same and did sports in high school and never had to worry about ‘working out’. And I had a very similar college experience to yours of being a cardio bunny and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Now I have learned that while I enjoy going for a long run, I love creating my own workouts using equipment and my own bodyweight and feel so much stronger. I always use your workout posts for inspiration!

    • I love hearing that! And have A BLAST in Mexico. 🙂 I too let visions of myself in a bikini take over my brain before beach vacations, and it’s a conscious effort to remind myself that it’s what I DO on vacation that matters, not what I look like (admittedly easier to accept in the pre-Facebook/social media days haha).

  18. Agree with you 100%! I actually did a post about this recently because I have had people reach out to me on social media asking why I write a fitness blog and I don’t “have abs”. I love powering through obstacles and walking around like Beyonce! lol! Fitness is so much more than how you look, and usually the people who try to change their body only because of “the look” are the people who can’t stay motivated.

  19. Literally just sat here reading this nodding and going, yes, preach! It took me SO long to realize this. I don’t think I really grasped it until I had my son and I was like, woah, my body can do some crazy things. I love taking my body to the limit and seeing what else it can do.

  20. I already tweeted but I love this article. It’s exactly how i feel. I could give up food, social events, sweets and things I find fun to try to eat clean and get abs but I’d feel miserable. I too hold weight in my little lower belly so I feel ya. #beeroverabs

  21. I (very!) rarely comment on blogs, but I just wanted to say thank you so much for writing this – it’s exactly what I (and seemingly a lot of people!) needed to hear. I definitely don’t give myself enough credit for what I can do rather than what I look like!

    • We’re our own worst critics–sometimes we forget to focus on the positives. So glad the post resonated with you–these comments made my day! 🙂

  22. Great post – I so enjoyed reading this. Abs are an elusive thing and I appreicate how honest you are about what you would need to do to have “that perfect six pack.” Social media often makes it look like you can have a beer and a pizza and still have it all if it fits your macros. Not really the case, but it truly comes down to what makes us happy in the end.

  23. I had never worried or thought about my weight until I got to college. With everyone mentioning the threat of the “Freshman 15”, I became paranoid about weight gain and was determined to keep this weight off. Instead, I lost 20 pounds and developed a mind-set that I had to “punish” myself with a workout if I ate something unhealthy. I would get anxious if I knew I wouldn’t have access to a gym for more than a few days in a row. But I managed to make it to a size 2, so I didn’t care. I had reached this semi-unobtainable size and I was so happy with the way I looked. It was as simple as that though, I wanted to be skinny and I was. But I could not maintain my habits that allowed my to be a size 2, plus they were mentally and emotionally unhealthy. I have since graduated college and have more recently developed a healthy respect for my body. While I do workout to look good, I am also basking in the physical achievements I have pushed my body obtain and those I continue to work towards. Coincidentally, as I was running a sprint interval this morning (before I read your post this afternoon), I was thinking how “easy” this is now compared to how I would have felt three months ago and was proud of the countless sweaty hours I had put in to reach this point. Needless to say, thank you so much for sharing this post, lack of pictures be damned.

    • That happened to me after I lost my freshman 15–I was so petrified of gaining it back that the thought of missing a day at the gym would sent me into a panic. It’s a tough mindset to be stuck in and I’m so happy to hear you’ve come a long way from it. Cheers to crushing sprint intervals! 🙂

  24. First ever comment on a blog. This was a really awesome post to read – easily one of my favorites and easiest to relate to, through and through. Thank you for sharing it!

  25. So much yes to everything here!!! I have to admit that I still get too caught up in comparing myself to other people on social media and thinking, “If I could just get my act together with my diet than I could look like that too” when in reality I am eating really well most of the time and just like to go out and have fun. I started doing yoga recently and that has really changed my mindset from “look at what I look like” to “look what I can DO” and I can TOTALLY related to walking out of class and having that Beyonce moment!!

    • We all need some Beyonce moments in our life! And yoga has done the same thing for me–it’s like ooo look at this cool new trick (pose) I can DO 🙂

  26. This is an amazing post and just what I needed. I have been doing CrossFit for a while now and do not have a six-pack. I love pizza, love wine and beer and don’t always eat clean. I hear a lot of people at my gym saying they are striving for a goal weight or a six-pack but I never am that way. I choose to strive for a ability goal. I have not stepped on a scale in months and I am finally comfortable with my body. I have a little extra body fat but I can throw up more weight than I ever thought possible and have become more mentally and phsyically strong. Thanks for sharing this. I definitely just shared it with my CrossFit gym. Keep inspiring.

    • Ditching the scale is such a smart move! Unless I’m at a doctor’s office for a physical, I never touch those things 🙂 Thanks for sharing with your gym–I’m glad it resonated with you!

  27. Thank you for writing this eloquent and honest post. An excellent discussion for fitness goals in the today’s society. Cheers!

  28. I read this on my morning commute and it set the tone for the rest of my day, such an awesome post! It’s so easy for me to focus on the negative aspects of my body and forget physical accomplishments. This post reminds me to celebrate my athletic achievements and strive for a more balanced lifestyle.

  29. great post. spoke to me and my struggles with food/body image.

  30. I definitely went through a similar story in college after 3 seasons of sports & 5x per week ballet since I was 3. The moment I realized my body would not look/feel the same with my new college lifestyle was a tough pill to swallow. That combined with a massive surgery junior year that left me out of the working out game for awhile had me going into my senior year with a lot of negative feelings. I started working out with my sister & her trainer and definitely switched to the ability mindset and felt SO much better. I always had twig like arms but suddenly could do real push-ups / lift heavy weights and realized that thin is not the best goal. I felt healthy and happy and now look forward to trying new types of workouts / distance races to test my physical and mental endurance.

    Anywho, great post N!

    xo

    – Amy

  31. The fact that you personalise your blog with posts such as this makes your workouts more of a go to place for me! I can identify with so much of what you say: working out was a way to get rid of pregnancy weight, then it took me through depression, made me feel like a person instead of just a mum and has become a way of life for me. I love the fact that people notice how toned I have become, but I love even more that realisation that I have become stronger, fitter and more toned through sheer hard work! And if I can achieve that, well then I can achieve anything else I want through determination and sheer pigheadedness! Keep up the posts, Nicole, they are great and I love the fact that even here in rainy London, UK I can share the workouts of you all in sunny Boston!

  32. I feel like you were telling my story. Over the last week I tried wakeboarding for the first time and actually got up — and realized my body is so much stronger than it was even two years ago. Still can’t do a pushup, but I have overcome my fear about how my body looks and now take pride in what my body can do. It’s so frickin’ cool to.

  33. Yes, the post was a little long but so worth the read. You now have a healthy mentality and it was inspiring to read. Keep up the good work!

  34. So well written! Just found this post through Pinterest, and I love it!

    You strike a great balance between acknowledging that yes, we all want to look good and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we need to keep that in check and make other types of goals.

    Thank you, and I love your corner of the internet 🙂

  35. Hi, Nicole,
    Ability was HUGE for me! My moment happened on a playground with my kids.

    I was morbidly obese as a kid, and was always self-conscious about my arms. My arms are covered in stretch marks that eventually faded from bright red to silver after I lost 100 pounds. I hate exposing my arms like some women hate exposing their bellies.

    I never lifted anything heavier than my kids until I was 30. On a fluke one day at the playground, I tried “walking” the monkey bars. Shockingly, I made it all the way across! I have never felt more proud than I did that day. Oh, and in gym class as a kid, I could never do a single pull-up, push-up (other than knees) or anything involving upper body strength.

    Ability means so much more, especially as you approach middle age.

    Keep up the great (long) posts, Nicole!

  36. Hi Nicole,

    I just found you via Pinterest and I must say I love your posts. Following a similar path here in Germany, I just have to do your workouts – they are amazing! Thanks for all your inspiration – keep strong!!!

  37. Great post. I think the game changer for me is having an 11-year-old daughter. I want her to see a strong mom, and to commit to fitness for the right reason. I’ve still got a long way to go…thanks for sharing this Nicole!

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