I think back to my 15-year-old self and how she got caught up in the belief and pursuit that to be a better runner, she needed to shrink herself to be faster, to be better, to be enough.
Now, as a nutritionist, I think about young athletes I’ve seen come in; feeling pressure from their coaches to be a certain weight, feeling guilt around certain foods or fixated with body composition.
I think about you, reading this right now, and I want to keep you safe from all the misinformation and harmful comments around food and body image. While I cannot protect you all from this, I do want to share 5 ways you can change the way you think about your body, performance and health – things I’ve learned that have helped me to develop a more positive relationship with my body, food and movement.
1 - Think About Your Why.
Let’s start by daydreaming for a minute – think about some of your big hopes and dreams. Whether that be going to study, travel, sport, work ambitions or bungy jumping it’s likely the way your body looks doesn’t come into question when thinking about your big goals in life.
A favourite question I ask my clients is ‘What do you think you need to do to get better at your sport?’ More often than not, this digs deep into your why, below the tip of the iceberg of surface goals and thoughts.
On the surface, it may feel like all you want to do is gain X amount of muscle – but ask yourself what’s under the surface of your goal? Is it gaining muscle to feel stronger, for your love of lifting, performing at a higher level or accomplishing goals you’ve set out?
You may not know your why behind certain goals, and that is more than okay. Give it some thought, think about your why, sit down and write it down or talk with a friend.
2 – Rethink your Measures of Progress.
I want to encourage you to move away from thinking weight is the sole measure of your athletic and personal success. What the scales don’t show is your muscle mass, your energy levels, your mood or how you feel and perform.
Using body composition and changes alone as a measure of success is limiting and more often than not, harmful. When making changes in your life, think about a range of measures to track instead of focusing solely on the scales.
Are you feeling more energized? Stronger? Faster? Training well? Calmer? Recovering better? Getting sick less often? Hitting new PBs? Less stressed? Have more freedom around food? Happier? Sleeping well?
All of these things will help your performance, health and happiness more than any number on the scale. Your body will go where it needs to when fuelling appropriately for the demands of your sport and life as you grow.
A simple way to track your measures of progress is in a daily log whether that be in your training diary, or for females in your menstrual tracking app. Having a place to note down any changes, how you feel can be a helpful tool to look back on yourself and when seeing health professionals.
3 – Realise that Food is Food.
Let’s stop thinking and talking about food as ‘good’ vs bad’ and ‘healthy’ vs ‘unhealthy.’ Have you ever felt guilt or shame for eating a supposed ‘bad’ food? Caught yourself thinking ‘ah I should really go for the good option.” I’ll let you in on a little secret, food is simply food. My favourite example of this (an oldie but a goodie) is Chandler and Rachel stealing a cheesecake in this episode of Friends. Yes, Chandler and Rachel may be bad for stealing and eating not one but two cheesecakes from their neighbour. However, the cheesecake itself is just cheesecake, it didn’t do anything bad.
4 – Hold back on the Body Comments.
When you comment on your friends’ body or appearance, you usually have good intentions, right? No matter how great our intentions, these comments reinforce the message that peoples value is in what they look like.
By cutting out body comments yourself, you show your friends, teammates, friends and family that you value them (and yourself) for more than how ‘fit’ or ‘toned’ they are. Raise yourself and the people around you up with words about their efforts, what you admire and love around them. They matter, you matter – far more than your physical appearance.
Here are some compliments to get you started:
- I’m so proud of you
- Tell me about your upcoming comp. I can’t wait to hear how it goes!
- I admire your dedication.
- Congrats on your new PB, I know how hard you’ve been working.
- You look so happy on the court.
Ps. If your friend has spinach on their teeth, or toothpaste on their face – do let them know. As a rule of thumb if they can fix it within 15 seconds, a comment on their body is okay!
5 – Remember, just because something is common doesn’t make it normal.
There are some pretty strange behaviours that are normalised in society – and particularly in sport. Comparing what we are eating, restricting food groups, being obsessed with health or feeling pressure from your coach to look a certain way.
All of these may be common but that doesn’t make them normal or healthy. It isn’t normal to be consumed with thoughts about food, constantly getting injured or ill and criticising yourself for ‘being naughty’ or ‘falling off the wagon’. Avoiding your favourite foods because they’re ‘bad’ for you, missing your period and ignoring your hunger to listen to an app or calculation, not your body – none of this is healthy. Just because someone is doing it at your club, or on your social media feed, doesn’t mean it is good for you.
It breaks my heart to see people thinking this is normal and okay. If you are experiencing any of the above, please reach out for professional support. A healthy relationship with food, sport and your body is invaluable.
For support with disordered eating, eating disorders and body image issues – reach out to your GP or one of the following helplines.
If you are in Australia, call the Butterfly Foundation at 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 2673)
If you are in New Zealand, call the EDANZ helpline at 0800 2 EDANZ (0800 3 33269)
I hope after reading this that you feel more empowered in yourself, your skin and your sport. I’d love to hear if you give any of these a go, and what it does for you.