Last week, I watched my daughter become aware of her body for the first time.
“Mommy,” she asked, “how come I’m not skinny like you?” I’m pretty sure I felt my heart stop at that moment. There really are no words for what I felt at that moment. I asked her what she meant, and she said, “my tummy pokes out. I can suck it in and make it like yours but I can’t keep it like that. Is that what other people do all the time?” I felt like I had just been dropped off the side of a cliff. At an age where “beautiful” means a long dress, and “rich” means ten dollars, it makes sense that “fat” means a big belly—including her beautiful child’s tummy. I was crushed.
I wanted to scoop her up and run with her all the way to the North Pole, where I could find a cabin and hide her away from the world. But I realized that the world isn’t the problem yet—she is human, and she is simply understanding her Self in comparison to Others. Isn’t this one of the natural stages of development?
Instead of panicking (ok, maybe in addition to panicking…), I took a deep breath and listened. Really listened. Now, if you haven’t experienced a deep conversation with a seven year old, then let me tell you—it’s harder than it sounds. But you don’t know what you’re missing. We talked about our plants, friends, shiny things, tummies, TV shows…and luckily, I began to understand that the crisis I was prepared to face really wasn’t a crisis at all. She was just genuinely curious. It still has not crossed her mind that different equals bad, or that her body might be somehow flawed. She had simply observed a difference and was trying to make sense of it. But how amazing to be present for and aware of this critical moment in her life! Now it is my job to introduce her to the different ways of appreciating her body, and to make sure she grows up plugged into things that make her body make sense to her.
As a personal trainer and coach, this is very similar to the situation I’m in with my clients–only they’ve had years to make sense of things in their own ways. I have become the confidant of all things body related, the listener to the rambling thoughts of the body conscious, and the answerer of all questions health-related. I am often the first person to explain body types, to help them understand why they have fought with their bodies for so much of their lives, or to introduce even the concept of non-aesthetic body goals. Often, I find myself wishing I could go back in time and catch everyone at age seven and present a greater variety of body ideals. The body best suited for sprinting, for instance, may not do so well in volleyball. The body best suited for gymnastics may not excel as well in ballet. If someone could have told us these things early, how differently might we perceive our bodies now?
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
It is not enough to simply put people on a cookie cutter workout plan or meal plan that will help them burn a few calories and lose a few pounds —I must instead attempt to plug each one into a style of training that best suits his or her body and interests, and help to re-program his or her understanding of body ideals, health, and fitness. “Fit” for an endomorph is quite different than “fit” for an ectomorph—and without that understanding, we will get absolutely nowhere in setting, defining, and reaching goals. And I think this is the step where many people get lost and give up. They resign to being “too skinny,” or “too fat,” or “too muscular” and simply give up—or worse, fall into unhealthy habits that set them further back in the long run. We could prevent this simply by setting performance goals that are appropriate for our bodies.
So how do we quantify non-aesthetic goals? Can we conceptualize a fitness goal that has nothing to do with pounds or inches lost? In some cases, these are critical goals that can mean the difference between health or a future with life-threatening illnesses. But for many, these could really be seen as peripheral goals. I promise that with good nutrition and training programs in place, we can make inches and pounds disappear. Why focus so much of our attention on how our bodies look? Why run for the sake of weight loss but hate running? Why not focus more on what we can do when we apply ourselves at something we enjoy? What kind of life will you lead if every day is spent in misery over the pursuit of an image in the mirror?
Here’s where you can call me out. But Sheena, you may be thinking, aren’t you involved in a purely aesthetic sport? And yes, I am. But believe it or not, I am not motivated by an aesthetic goal to train every day. Even the best bodybuilders I know understand that the pursuit of a perfect physique has to come in cycles in order to be effective—that is, to look our best for one night on stage, we have to be willing to step away from that as an immediate goal and focus on strength, rebuilding, and repair. And we all set goals during that time—a bigger bench, a stronger squat, a faster sprint—that keep us motivated even when we’re taking time off from the immediate aesthetic reward. I am not saying that we shouldn’t care about our aesthetic outcome—I am suggesting that we consider our bodies in other ways as well.
This week, don’t look at your tummy (yes, tummy…) and wonder why it doesn’t look like someone else’s. Don’t envision what your body will look like when you grow up…er, I mean, reach your goal. Don’t look in the mirror and wonder if it could be different—not today. Don’t skip breakfast because your jeans were tight this morning. Look at the bigger picture—learn to understand your body in a greater sense. It would have been great to have started at age 7, but it is not too late to start now.
I am challenging everyone to set (and achieve!) a non-aesthetic fitness goal. Push yourself in a way you normally might not. Get stronger, get faster, get moving when you often wouldn’t, or achieve consistency when you think you can’t. Get started, or get re-started. Get through one training session without being motivated or shamed by an aesthetic outlook. Test yourself and fall in love with what you can do.
Example: that’s my daughter in the photo at the top. She hiked Blood Mountain at age 6. In the dark. On New Year’s Eve, in the cold. The second time, just a month ago, she looked up and wasn’t sure she could do it. That photo was taken at the top. Now, she defines herself as a good hiker who set a goal and achieved it. 🙂