How Your Shitty Body Image Is Hurting You

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I have a theory. I mean I have a lot of theories, but I feel really good about the potential veracity of this one. A few weeks ago a friend of mine posted a video of herself deadlifting on her Instagram account. Somewhere in the caption, she explained to her followers–and she has a LOT of followers–that her braced, rounded lower abdomen burgeoning from under her belt was simply her “power pooch”-her belly looked enlarged due to my friend’s bracing her abdomen to stabilize her body under load.

 

So let’s examine this sequence for a second. We have an accomplished lifter who has a very solid grasp of the principles of bracing who also has a very large, very largely female audience. Many members of this female audience are likely quite new, relatively uneducated, highly undeveloped as strength athletes or even just casual lifting enthusiasts. Keep this in mind, then, when considering my next thought: the poster in question felt the need to explain why her abdomen appears to be “pooch-y,”–aka rotund aka not idealistically flat aka oh god I’m going to say it–FAT. The poster felt the need to explain why her stomach maybe sort of looked fat if you don’t understand how the body or biomechanics work at all. As an aside, the poster in question is VERY lean. Like not “powerlifter lean” but “halfway through my bodybuilding prep” lean. She’s freaking LEAN. EVEN ON SOMEONE EXTREMELY LEAN, the act of bracing the abdomen will create a “larger”-appearing abdomen when done correctly.

 

In other words, the poster has tons of female followers and for whatever reason felt the need to address a stomach-pooch-aesthetic-situation to her followership. Given this, here we go with my theory: we continue to carry the idea that fat is a negative aspect of the body and body parts appearing fat, perhaps particularly the stomach but I don’t even know what body parts are in style to be fat anymore, it was ass and thighs last time I checked I don’t fucking KNOW, trends are so fucking stupid–body parts appearing fat carry the shame of being “bad.” So my dear friend posted an image of herself with a stomach that didn’t look perfectly flattened while she was lifting because WHY THE FUCK WOULD IT IF YOU’RE BRACING CORRECTLY and she felt the need to explain herself to her less educated audience so they wouldn’t see her “fat” stomach and conclude that she’s a failure of a fitness figure on social media. Or something. God I hate social media.

 

Ok, but the “less educated” component to this that I just referred to–there’s the key issue here that I need to remember so I don’t kill someone out of complete frustration that I have to be sitting down and writing this post at all. Sometimes I forget that not everyone is so relentlessly obssessed with sucking less at lifting that they try through all channels to educate themselves to their fullest ability as to how to get better at it. Or they haven’t gotten very far in that process. I mean I’m still a complete idiot regarding a lot of it but my obsession has probably accelerated my knowledge base’s growth a good 4-5 years ahead of where it would be if I cared about lifting as much as I care about my car being clean, which is little to no signficant level of care.

 

So I have a theory about all of this. I think that people–very often women but probably men too–sometimes unwittingly perform lifting movements with less than optimal positioning and mechanics due to deep-seated body image issues. What the fuck, Janis? Is that what you’re saying in response to my theory? I get it. But let me pose this anecdote to you as real life evidence:
I have hated, and I mean hated, my abdomen my entire life. Absolutely hated it. I still hate it, but I try hard not to let how I look be what I believe defines my existence so I just deal with it as an inconvenient truth on the same level as needing to wash my car once every six months. When I first started powerlifting I sort of understood that I needed to breath deeply into my abdomen in order to create a braced “core” so I could remain stable under load. I understood the concept but my mental programming to keep my stomach IN and small was SO strong that I now believe this hindered my breathing and bracing process early to frankly not so early in my lifting career. In other words, I subconsciously or sometimes maybe not so subconsciously abbreviated and shortchanged my abdominal bracing because I was absolutely horrified at the concept of needing to “push my stomach/absdomen out.”

 

I mean this makes sense, if you think about it. Take Lifter X. Lifter X has spent actual years being acutely aware of their shitty relationship with Body Part Y. Lifter X gets into a maximal strength sport and is instructed as to the proper ways to move in order to “be strong” for said sport, and some of the ways Lifter X has to move asks him or her to move Body Part Y in a way directly oppositional to how Lifter X ever allows him or herself to move that body part at any time during his or her waking hours. Like, ever. I spent actual decades holding my stomach in, and now you’re asking me to fill it with air and PUSH IT OUT AGAINST A BELT. Good luck getting me to do so without some resistance even if that resistance is subconscious.

 

Maybe some woman is really self-conscious about the size of her ass. I mean, ok, I know that’s what everyone is obsessed with now and people actually get glute implants but a few decades ago this was very much not the body part trend. So someone’s self-conscious about their ass size and you asking them to sit back into their hamstrings and glutes to perform a hip-hinge. How do you think that’s going to go with that person’s mental programming, potentially? Right? Yeah. It might not go well for a minute until the lifter mentally identifies self-restriction and removes said restriction, which will probably be a process and take some work.

 

So that’s the positive in all of this–the sooner you are aware of how you might be working against yourself, even if you didn’t realize you really were, the sooner you can change your actions for the better. That works in this example very well but for a lot of other aspects of life too. Hmmmm. In order to change ways in which you are potentially subconsciously restricting your movement patterns you are going to have to go through a two-step process:

 

1. Identify the issue. Maybe you are like me and hate your abdomen and it has restricted how you engage it during lifting. Take a mental self-inventory to identify mental hangups. Proceed to…

 

2. Every time you’re under the bar for the next few weeks, take the extra mental energy to remind yourself you need to work extra hard to override your current mental programming. Breathe deeper than you think you need to. Sit back harder than you think you need to. Overcorrection is necessary to override or neutralize stupid hangups.

 

The fact that stabilization is an extremely key element to remaining safe under load is a fantastic reason to get over your mental bullshit challenging your ability to fully commit to generating it. Recognizing and acting in accordance with this in a very conscious way has been one of many components of my own improved relationship with my body. Go forth, be extra aware, conquer, get injured less. 
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My Life as a Dot

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I think I write less than I used to out of a particular fear, split in half. One part fears being misunderstood and the other part fears, perhaps more, being understood. I realized this as I pulled myself towards sitting down and writing and immediately quipped “well, everyone feels misunderstood if they’re honest enough with themselves, so there’s a great point of commonality you can capitalize on, Janis! Go! Write! Be read!” And that felt too simple a way to coax myself into saying what has happened to me in months past and what I can draw from it. Because what has happened to me at this juncture in my life has been…a lot. And that largely has come from choices I have made from a place of greater self-determination than in years past—in other words, I have made decisions for myself from a place that was truer to myself, to what and who I actually am, than for the large part of my adulthood. And doing so has made me at once happier and less happy, because it has led me to reach a greater understanding of my own strangeness, a firmer hold on why I have literally always been a freak.

Let’s talk about that. I have found myself having to repeat the following story more in the last few months than I ever have in total in my life. Somewhere between the ages of five and ten, my parents noticed that my height was significantly less than that of my peers. I mean, I’m short now, standing a little over 5’2”, but back then it was around a five inch height differential in relation to my classmates. I stood out—or stood under, rather. Whenever my height was taken, whether at school or medically, and they showed where my height mapped out in relation to all other children my age, my height was way way WAY down the end of the “short” range. I basically WAS the end of the spectrum of possible child height data. I remember seeing the dot clusters that mark graphs showing this type of data and wishing vehemently my own dot, pointed at enthusiastically by whatever adult professional was showing me or my parents or teacher how I wasn’t like the other children, was with the other dots. Closer to the cloud that seemed to congeal into a solid shape, a shape made of dots connecting to one another, I imagine you can see where I’m going with this. I remember seeing a visual representation of how I was not with the others around me, at ages six, seven, eight, repeatedly shown that I was not part.

And so I walked on my toes. This developed very, very early. I started walking on my toes I imagine as a way to narrow the distance between the dots, although I wasn’t allowed to stand on my feet in a position other than flat for when I was measured for the dreaded data collection. But in all other things and movements I walked on my toes and it gained the younger Janis a brief sense that she was taking control over her own physical difference, inadequacy, literal deficit. Toe walking became a habit. It became an entrenched motor pattern, something people who had any reason to be around me and watch me walk especially without shoes on (for whatever reason the toe walking manifests in that state very strongly) have always commented on.

By the way, you might be wondering how I went from freakishly short to just short average adult height. I don’t have the super scientific version of the explanation for you, but I will say that out of concern, my parents eventually took me to be evaluated. It just seemed like I was so much shorter than the other kids, maybe there was something wrong with me we could fix somehow? Little did they know just how losing a game that would be in the future…but anyway, let’s not even get into the mental health side of things here. I mean, I’m obviously making a case for this aspect of my childhood setting up certain patterns for me psychologically in the future—and the toe walking would set up physical patterns too—but let’s just stick to what the hell was wrong with me that was making me so strangely short at a physical level, ok? Alright. The doctors looked at images of my bones and merrily declared that my bones were growing more slowly than normal but that once I hit the hormone surges of puberty their growth would accelerate and I would be a normal short girl like all the other short girls. And that happened. Around 14 I blended into the sea of heads wandering down the high school halls very well, but not after years living as a dot far outside the cluster of other dots. By 15 I was developing an eating disorder and things progressed as they did from there.

So, physically the toe walking set me up for enormously tight quads and patellar tracking issues, particularly on my dominant side, over the course of my powerlifting career. This hasn’t manifested into actual “knee issues” until the past year and a half, and this fact has been…less than enjoyable but in keeping with the nature of this sport’s inclination to wear out whatever parts of you don’t work quite right. Indeed, this sport seems to work best for and holds the attention of those whose minds don’t work quite right even as it exposes and exploits all the dysfunctional aspects of the bodies to whom those minds belong. The broken draw strength from things that break us further. That’s rather melodramatic, I know, but it has repeatedly been my experience, particularly over the various attempts life has made to break me over the last two years. And now as I work to troubleshoot yet another aspect of my body that is screaming about being put under loads and asked to adapt to stuff human bodies are not supposed to really continuously, progressively do over time, I have had cause to return to parts of my past in order to troubleshoot the present.

My dedication to lifting has continued my lifelong undesired membership to the freakshow club. I have always had the choice as an adult to fall in line and be comfortable, but ultimately doing so would make me more uncomfortable than the discomfort of not being a dot blurring together with all the other dots. I know this. For whatever reason I’m just extreme and I have done some extreme things and while people like to watch people do extreme things, most people like less to deal with the minds behind the extreme things they watch so raptly. So I seek and have found a small home with a very very few minds that are like mine, because I could tell when I talked to them that they saw me entirely, rather than just in the freakish parts up on a social media platform, and I pledged either to myself or to them or both to serve them. Because if we’re going to be dots that don’t fall within the cloud, at least we can send bat signals we know the others will understand back and forth as we float along largely out by ourselves.

Thankfully It’s Not Like Riding a Bike

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There’s not a lot I feel very effective at in my life at this point. There just really isn’t. I’m the holder of a masters I don’t use, which is about as useful as the paper it’s printed on, which I lost during one of the multiple moves I’ve made in the last six years. I have a series of failed relationships trailing behind me–and if I had to draw a picture of how those function for me as parts of my past, I’d say they are as jarring and as useful as a string of empty aluminum cans attached to the bumper of a bicycle. I don’t really do very well with bicycles. Have you ever seen me ride one or talk about doing so? Then you know that my ability to navigate the portion of my life concerning relationships is about as good as the skill level someone might have who has ridden a bike only a handful of times–the person can get from point A to point B most of the time but definitely doesn’t do it gracefully. So not only can I not manage to ride relationship bicycles well, now I’ve got the aluminum cans marking my past failures dragging behind me making my course rougher and probably contributing to heightened annoyance levels for anyone near me as well as the person who’s wading through reading this right now. So, relationships: that’s something I’m definitely not demonstrating a level of functionality on to a great degree in my life and this doesn’t appear likely to change soon. And I’m saying this here, now, out loud in a sense, because I just find it so absurd that there’s really no reason to protect my ego in relation to it. It’s just that bad. I’ll put it out there. Let my suffering/bungling be your entertainment, at least then it will be productive in some way past engendering my own disgruntlement on a daily basis.

Further things about me one could say are at a significant level of dysfunction, at least on some spectrums of judging it: I keep doing risky things like distilling my belongings down to what I can fit in my car and driving to a different state without a job lined up because I want to live there and be around the people and industry that’s there. I got a job by the way but that was one of those “hahahaha, what the hell are you doing” sorts of sequences I don’t feel like a lot of sober people judge to be a good idea. I moved into a house with two other strength athletes and live like a college student at the age of 32 because it “saves money.” I have been wearing the same pair of monthly contacts for probably five months. I’m avoiding dealing with health insurance signup for the new year. I don’t know what my macros are. I wear three sweaters and just keep washing them over and over. I tell people I don’t know embarrassing, not-aggrandizing things about myself because I don’t know what else to do at this point, everything just feels that hopeless, why not, why don’t we turn this into some sort of comedy?

But…but. Here is the other side of this. I am also a strength athlete. And there, despite severe stress, moving, losses, betrayals, natural disasters, and not being able to ride a bike very well, I am doing quite well. I mean, to me that means my training is going well. I’m not really hurt anywhere, there’s a general trend towards improvement, and psychologically I am very content with how the work now fits into some greater whole. I am patient. There is no judgement. There is no time limit. There is only the beauty of being able to put training session after training session together, into place, done, next one, done, next one, into its little slot as part of the mileage that accumulates on my body. My body is fallible. It could break at any time. Something could happen at any time, an accident, a misjudged movement, a freak event. I understand everything about my physical self to be transient, never static, always in search of equilibrium. I am always in search of moving that equilibrium’s set point and thus I am always knocking my body out of balance, slightly, hoping I give it the recovery it needs to adjust itself back over into the new point of balance only for me to slowly do it again. This process is beautiful to me, as I said. There is nothing to it that is a construct. There is no good and bad, there’s just either going forward or backward. And so here I am, in Columbus, Ohio, and the things I’m best at are prodding my center of balance as it relates to my training along and telling people too much about myself. But I believe that if I give a little bit of how I think to people I don’t know, someone in that mass might find it useful, might see something about what they’re trying to do themselves they didn’t think of.

It doesn’t really hurt me to share how broken I am. If you think I’m broken, how does your perception hurt me? I’ve probably never talked to you in my life. By the way, I know you’re broken too. We all are asked to give energy to existing and we all don’t really know how to allocate that energy in an entirely balanced way. The weak links break, just as they do in the body over time through lifting. You can keep up your facade and I won’t blame you for it, but I know you’re broken. And I know you’re just trying to manage the damage and possibly become less broken, and I know you’re more or less of an asshole as you try to do this, depending on a whole host of values you hold. The more patience you have with your lifting the better it will go for you. The more conservative, the more calculated the risks, the better your development as a maximal strength athlete will progress. Here’s where I think life and lifting deviate though. The body doesn’t exhibit fear, but you do. And the fear your mind hosts holds you back from doing the things necessary to be better, to be a better person, to do greater things. If you do what you have to do in lifting, you will get better. If you hold yourself back from what you have to do in life, your life will not.

What, then, did I just tell myself? If there are parts of my life that aren’t going well, I am willing to bet you fear is at the root of why. Fear keeps me from doing what I need to do, the hard things I need to do, the risks I need to take. I took a risk and moved to Columbus because I did what I had to do and removed what was holding me back from doing what I needed to do for myself. It has and will pay off. If there is something I feel confident in saying now, based on the experience of the last few months, it is that most of us need to take fewer risks in lifting and more risks in life. And yet, the way people lift and behave, it appears the inverse is the easier path. Don’t take the easier path. And don’t wear contacts for five months when they should only be worn for one. Jesus, Janis.