Thursday, June 28, 2012

Facing my body image demons

I haven't really talked about body image on the blog before because I try not to dwell on it.  But after I posted about the Hot shorts and I got a few comments about how some readers didn't think they could wear those shorts, I thought I would talk a little bit about my own struggle with body image and weight.

Let's first go back a few years...

I played three sports in high school - soccer, basketball and track.  I never really thought about my body and I never really thought I was skinny.  My body allowed me to play sports and have fun and basically eat whatever I wanted.  I knew that I wanted to play basketball in college, so when everything aligned and I got the opportunity, I jumped at it.

I entered college and as a recruited freshman for the basketball team, I met with my coach and I was given a weight lifting and running schedule.  After the second week of school, we met six days a week (often in the mornings) to run, lift weights, and play basketball.  By the time I had my school physical at the start of the season in late October, I had gained 15 pounds.  I was a solid 160 pounds and built like a basketball player.  As a 5 foot 9 inch forward, I was strong and I could hold my own against the bigger, taller girls.

Gaining the weight didn't really bother me because I was in the best shape of my life.  Plus all my clothes still fit, so I felt like I had gained more muscle than anything else.  In pre-season for the freshman year of college, I ran my official fastest ever timed mile in 6:11.  I didn't really play a lot my freshman year but I did work my way to sixth man and first off the bench.  With the end of the season came post season which meant less training but more lifting. I continued to lift weights and I still remember my mom's reaction when I came home for summer break - she said my shoulders were massive and very muscular!  The summer after my freshman year was the first year I ran a real race because I wanted to run it - The Boilermaker 15k - and I fell in love with running for real.  I had been running for years and years but it wasn't until that race that I started to run for fun and not for training for a sport.

Fast forward to my senior season of basketball in college - I was the starting forward and captain.  I was in charge of my team and it had been a great three years so far of basketball and college.  Not to say there weren't times when things were hard but I was pretty excited about being a senior and leading the team.  I was still pretty happy with my body - it helped me to play the best basketball I ever had and to lead the conference in rebounding.  Of course sometimes I wanted to be leaner and skinnier but my body allowed me to do great things and so I was content.  But there were problems around me on my team.  Many of the freshman were facing body image issues and at first I thought that maybe things would get better once the official season started but when a freshman collapsed in practice, I knew I had to speak up and take action.

Eating disorders are common in women but they are most common in women athletes because of the demands and pressures to be in good shape and to be the best.  I feel the reason some women had trouble on my team during my senior year was because our coach forced us to have our body fat measured.  It was an awkward and horrible experience for me so I can only imagine what the other girls went through.  I was forced to come int the training room in shorts and a shirt and have my fat measured with calipers.  The male trainer measured my stomach, my quad and my arm.  At first he did it wrong so I had to go back again and have it done a second time.

Getting help for my teammates was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make and it did not get easy until we were able to over come it together and move on.  Once my team faced the issues of disordered eating, I think we became stronger as a team and we ended up having a very successful year.  At the end of that season I was feeling confident so I joined the college track team.  The coach of the track team had been after me since I was a freshman to join the team but I had declined in the past because I was focused on basketball.  With my basketball career over, I felt it was time to move onto something new.

I came onto the track team and was welcomed onto the girls team but I didn't feel like I fit in.  I had the body of a basketball player while I was surrounded by lean runners.  I felt out of place and I definitely did not feel comfortable in the track uniform.  I actually did not do to much running my first season of track; I threw the shot put and ran a few 800m races.  At the end of the season, I knew I wanted to be faster like the other girls on the track team.  I wanted to not only run like them but look like them.  I wanted to shed my basketball body.

Over the summer before my 5th and final year of college (I was in a 5 year program), I started running more and more.  Thanks for my best friend from high school, I signed up and ran my first half marathon.  I felt like I was building a great endurance base going into the indoor/outdoor track season.  I ran a 5k PR just a few days before the pre-season started and I thought I was ready.  But as I started practicing with the girls, I still felt big.  I felt like I wasn't skinny enough to wear the same clothes as them.  I felt most comfortable in bigger shorts and shirts and avoided wearing anything tight.

As the season continued on, we had out first indoor track meet and I nervously put on my uniform.  The top was fitted and tight.  The shorts were very fitted and very tight.  They were my first pair of hot shorts and I was embarrassed to wear them. I felt like everyone could see every imperfection in my body.  After the meet, I saw photos of myself and wished I looked skinnier.  I hated my legs and how they looked into those hot shorts.

I slowly started to become more comfortable with my body as the season continued but I was never truly happy.  My body was doing great things - I made it to regionals in heptathlon (Day 1 and Day 2) and ran my fastest 800m time ever but I still looked at myself and thought I needed to be skinnier.  My hatred for portions of my body never got so bad that I stopped eating (thank goodness) but I did start to think more about what I was putting in my body.

I think the only thing that saved me from going off the deep end was the fact that I was actually doing well in my sport.  If I had been struggling with my workouts and my events, I think it would have pushed me to a dark place where I was so unhappy with my body and just everything in general.  It definitely takes a lot of mental toughness to be happy with the body you have and to push forward.

After college, I started running more and more.  Whenever I had to take a break from running, I would immediatly get worried about gaining weight.  And in fact, most times that I have been injured I have gained a little weight but the fact that I have slimed down again to running shape has given me confidence that I can make a change to my body in a healthy and controlled way.

Even today, three years since I graduated from college I still have issues with my body.  Some days I feel great and others I am self conscious and annoyed at how I feel gross or fat.  I think it is a daily thing to remind myself that I have a nice body and it allows me to run and do everything that I can imagine. 

We all have areas of our body that we wish were tighter, leaner, better.  But sometimes its just not meant to be that way.  Coming to terms with the parts of my body that I dislike has been an ongoing thing for many years.  Since college, I have lost the bulk muscle that I had for basketball and transformed my body into more of a runners' body.  It feels good to see the change and to know that I am faster because of it. 

For me, the area of my body that bothers me the most of just below my hips on my outer thighs.  I am the most self conscious about that area and wish it would just disappear.  I think I have a pear shaped body and often I just wish it was a little less pear.  There are part of my body that I do like and I know I should focus on those.  I like my shoulders and my abdominal muscles, especially after a tough pilates class!  I don't know if I will ever get over the portions of my body that I dislike, I do try to focus more on the parts that I like.

And so I wear my hot shorts to practice because even though I may not have the skinniest, slimmest body, I feel good in those shorts and they make me feel like a confident runner.  And I think that is what running is all about - finding the confidence inside of you every day to run farther and better than you did before no matter what type of body or body shape you have. 

So for your next intense workout, wear what makes you feel good about yourself and what makes you feel like a fast and strong runner.


RunningJunkie said...

Awesome post! I think this is something that the majority of females (especially athletes) has dealt with in their lives.

Marlene said...

Thank you so much for writing this! I think it is something that many/most of us struggle with on an ongoing basis, and it takes a lot of guts to put it all out there. Body image issues are a huge part of my life, though I find it hard to put into words.... maybe one of these days I'll be able to write a post like this too.

Willie said...

Hi Morning Runner,

This is a first comment from me, but I've been following since this past winter. The title of your blog caught my attention as I used to be an avid morning runner but have been challenged to get back on that schedule. I will get there again, but until then I make the best of my given schedule. I'm inspired by your loyalty to keep running and maintain a positive attitude.

I related to many aspects of this post as I was on a college sport (track, xcountry) and our coach did the weekly body fat caliper competition. Who was the leanest on the team? Not the fastest or the stronges, but the leanest? All us females were stressed to the max and some resorts to eating disorders to maintain their body composition.

I admire how you continued to make healthy choices, accept the body you are given and make the best of it on natural terms.

When you posted a photo of your hot shorts, I immediately wanted to go out and get a pair. Yes they are tight and short, but they are supposed to be. They make us feel fast like we should be on a track or big road race tearing it up. It's fun to dress like a champion and feel empowered and funny how a pair of shorts can do that for us. You are right, wear what makes you feel good. That's what people notice is the smile and look of confidence that you carry yourself with. Keep running tall and proud! It makes a difference.

Rebecca said...

You are GORGEOUS girlie!! Great post! Strange that when I think back, I really had no major body issues until I started running. And now, with all the running I do I am pretty thin -thinner than I was in college! - and still worry about how I look. I feel like I will always have a small part of me that wished portions were different. But I am trying to love my body. I think like you say, focusing on what your body can do is key.... and that it can't do that if you don't nourish it.

Rebecca said...
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Steph said...

Great post...definitely something that I needed to read this morning.

Jen Feeny said...

This was a very raw post and I can only imagine how hard it was to reveal this much of yourself to your readers. I'm fairly certain we all struggle with body image issues but I can only imagine how much worse it is for collegiate athlete's. Being a "casual" runner outside of competitive running, I find I am less apt to compare myself to those around me because we are all just regular joes trying to beat our last PR. I'm so glad you have worked through these emotions and realize that you are a strong and beautiful athlete. Rock those shorts girl!

Amy said...

GREAT post! Thanks for sharing with everyone. I think we as women need to be more supportive and open about body image issues.

Being Robinson said...

what a great (and brave) post. you're awesome! and you're right, we all have some parts we don't like. mine is actually the same as yours. but i just throw on my hot shorts regardless. they makes us faster :)

Jamie said...

I can definitely relate to this as a former swimmer! I have definitely gotten better since then and I am happier with who I am now.

RunToTheFinish said...

great post, kudos to you for stepping up for your team! I hope they have all carried the lessons with them.

I definitely have been working consistently to love my body for what it does all the time and criticize less

Erica Gorman said...

Thank you for your honest post and for sharing. It is a shame we can't be more confident with our bodies and at times, I wish I were less of a pear too. But like you, I understand my body allows me to do the things I want. My thighs help me run so I need to try to stop picking on them and loving them more.

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Kim said...

I didn't know you did the heptathlon! Very cool! And very cool that you helped the girls who needed it on your basketball team. Is it common to measure body fat? Geesh. It seems like if you perform well... you perform well, right? Like you did in running, even though you did not think you were as slim as the other girls.

It's interesting that the different sports require a different body type. And we may or may not be built for the sport we like! I do not look like a runner at all. I am very muscular and can lift very heavy things. But I don't care that I don't look the part because I love it and running makes me happy!

Thanks for sharing this!

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for sharing all that. I think it's really great that you have made so much progress in this area!

I'll come right out and say that I used to be anorexic. For about 5 years. And when I discovered running (races-- not just treadmill for calorie burning) I had another numbers-based goal to validate me rather than the number on the scale. So I was seemingly cured, although I hadn't really worked through much.

Just to share with you, I see many of the same eating disorder issues in how I approach my running-- perfectionism, unrealistic expectations, black and white thinking, etc. Even though I am recovered from anorexia, I do realize I still struggle with the underlying issues.

It can be very difficult not to compare yourself to others, but recently I learned that making such comparisons is just a bad habit. This post speaks to me not just in terms of body image, but in comparing myself to other runners. I wanted to thank you again for putting it out there!

Anonymous said...

Great post! Luckily I never had major weight issues, but like many females, I wished many times to have a better body and especially leaner abs. When I started to run my body image improved and I feel so much better now!

Anonymous said...

I needed this post today. Thank you for reminding me that as a female athlete I am not alone when it comes to body image issues :)you look great!

Nicole Orriëns said...

I'm pear shaped too, and that is one of the reasons I like running skirts so much. They hide all the bits, I don't like.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this post. I guess I never really thought about what pressures you might have had to deal with as a college athlete. And that we all have our issues with body image. I know I personally do, but I try so hard not to let them over rule me. I remember how strong and amazing my body is and try to let that win out over what I may be feeling inside. Thanks again for this heart felt post!!

Lauren @ Sassy Molassy said...

Amen. Body issues are a continual struggle for so many women, as I just posted this week about my fears of taking off my top during running. I just wore my short shorts last night to run group and yeah, they reveal a lot, but dang, I've worked hard for my strong legs and arms. Gotta show 'em off sometime... :)