I will start by explaining the title. As many people will have experienced different ways of training, different exercises will change and alter your body in different ways. As a woman who often chooses powerful, strength-based sports, I have always been conscious of how it has changed and shaped my body. Although exercise has greatly helped my mental health, I have also dealt with crippling body dysmorphia, and I wondered if sport helped or hindered my body image.
In an attempt to be open and honest, I’ll start by explaining my complicated relationship with my self-image. When I was a teenager, I suffered pretty severely from depression, and to cope, I started self-harming. At this point, I was still a reasonably self-confident person. I’m not sure what changed, but I think my body confidence got lost when I started covering up, hiding my body to cover up the scars. It’s hard to describe self-hatred, but that’s what it was.
I’ve always been an active person; I started Karate at the age of 7, got my black belt some years later and when I was 16, I joined a gym! But, being asthmatic, I really struggled with high-intensity cardio workouts. So, all the exercises that keep you slim and slender, i.e. running, were off the cards. So, naturally, I look up powerlifting instead. I was an exceptionally good powerlifter. I was focused and dedicated and gained strength and power quickly for someone 5’2.
Admittedly, I quite enjoyed people’s reactions when I stacked 160kg on the leg press, especially as I was around 53kg. Powerlifting changed my body; I was incredibly toned, but my legs and triceps became quite obviously muscular. To be honest, I liked how it changed my body. The only issue was when I would get comments from people (including a guy I liked), about how muscular women weren’t attractive. Of course, it’s easy to say ignore them, but when you are a very self-conscious person, any comment that validates your low opinion of yourself will simply imprint them further.
When I got to University, the gym wasn’t equipped for Powerlifting, so I took up rugby instead. I really enjoyed playing, it was great fitness, and all the strength and power I had built up had made me into an unexpected ‘pocket rocket’. The only downside is that I continued to feel ‘big’ and ‘chunky’ throughout University. Toward the end of University, I didn’t have time to play anymore. When I stopped, I didn’t have anything to take my mind off the anxiety, and as a result, I lost over 1 ½ stone. It made me very ill; I don’t think I’m built to be that small. However, frustratingly, I was getting a lot of compliments about how slim I looked. I cannot tell you how damaging it is to believe you are only attractive at an unhealthy weight.
When I was 21, I took up hiking properly, I was out every weekend, I managed to put the weight back on, and I was again seeing changes in my body. For some reason, I put on muscle so much easier than other women, which has resulted in big legs, and, thanks to hiking, big calves too. I was always self-conscious of this and would rarely wear dresses or skirts. When I did, I would always get comments saying how big they were or how big they made me look. I do think I am genuinely unlucky in my encounters with people. My confidence has never really recovered from it either.
So, I guess the question is, if a sport changes your body to make you feel self-conscious, do you continue to do it? I think it partly depends if the benefit of the exercise outweighs the negative. In my mind, I am never going to have the body or figure I would like, not unless I grow a few extra inches. But, the benefits of exercise, especially hiking, outweigh the negatives. Exercise allows you to push yourself in a healthy way. It keeps your mind and body active and being in the mountains is such an amazing experience. I have struggled with self-confidence almost all my life, but what I should be doing is celebrating my body. It allows me to climb mountains and do what I want to do in life. I’m slowly learning this as I get older; my effort needs to be put into building myself up and saying thank you for all its allowing me to do. So, I guess the moral of the story is to do what you enjoy and don’t be so hard on yourself.