You’ve completed the Whole30® – and it was a smashing success. You made it through the headaches, the cravings, the dreaded “carb flu.” You found the increased energy, reduced bloating, and clearer head that others who have done the Whole30 have promised you. You now love vegetables, aren’t afraid of saturated fats, and have learned to cook delicious and nutritious meals for yourself and your family. And most importantly, you’ve changed your relationship with food. Food now is your friend, your partner in health – not your enemy. You and food work as a team to help make your body look, feel, and live its best. It’s an amazing and freeing feeling, right? So now, we have just one question for you.
You’ve changed your relationship with food. But have you changed your relationship with yourself?
There’s been a lot of buzz in the blogosphere lately addressing the issue of the “new body image.” The premise is simple, and one we agree with – if you are concerned about your overall health and well-being, it is important to eat good food and exercise. But unlike the images portrayed in mainstream media, those in the paleo and CrossFit communities are no longer eating well and exercising to be skinny – they are doing so to be strong, lean, mean machines.
In this house of healthy eating and exercise, skinny-fat just won’t do.
As evidenced by the explosion known as “Fitspiration” (the new form of motivational posters seen everywhere on the web these days), there’s a prevailing call-to-arms to shove our old thin body image ideal into a lean, muscular, often glistening new package. The archetype around health is shifting and, through this shift, we might truly be making Fit the new Thin.
And that’s not necessarily a good thing.
“Why not?!” you ask. “Being strong and fit is greater than being skinny and weak!” But consider this: An ideal body image is an ideal body image, and all ideals can be harmful to your psyche.
Body Image: Man (and Woman) Made
Ideal body image is a social construct. What we think a woman or man should look like is a creation of the community, culture, and era in which we live. This is evidenced by the diversity of ideal body types in different time periods, different countries, and even different age groups.
The point is, where the prevailing idealized Western body image has been and still generally is thin and feminine for women, muscular and masculine for men, the movement toward fit (but not overly fit), muscular (but not too muscular), lean (but not skinny) is a construct of a new culture – one that you may be promoting without giving much thought as to the long-term implications.
Hooray! We don’t have to live on 1,000 calories a day, cardio until we can’t cardio no more, and inject ourself with HCG to be super-thin like Kate Moss anymore!
Now we just need to hit the gym five days a week, give 110% (because we can always do more), eat perfect paleo every meal of every day, get 10 hours of sleep each night, and have zero stress to be perfectly chiseled like Olympic athletes.
See…Fit IS the new Thin.
Hopefully you’re starting to see where we’re headed with this.
Why Ideals are Harmful
Shooting for an ideal makes you stop listening to your body.
When you stop listening to your body, you break your focus on overall health. When you stop focusing on your overall health, you sabotage your new, healthy relationship with food and eating. When you sabotage your new relationship with food and eating, you are back to square one.
If you’ve completed the Whole30 and have reset your system from the inside out, it is likely that you have become more attuned to how food affects your body and your mind. Some foods might make you feel slow and sluggish, while others give you more energy than you ever knew you had stored away. Over those 30 days (and the subsequent days when you added things like dairy, grains, or sugars back into your diet), you learned to listen to your body. Now, you eat when you feel hungry. You avoid those foods that make you feel puffy or bloated. You limit foods that you know will mess with your emotions and your mood. You no longer punish yourself with extra exercise or fewer calories when you make a deliberate decision to indulge something off-plan. This is your new relationship with food.
It was hard won. And you don’t want to go back to the way it was before.
Here’s the thing; we are bombarded daily with messages about what we should look like. Traditional media, social media, healthcare providers, our friends, our trainers, our moms, our significant others – all are directly or indirectly giving us cues as to what our appearance should be.
And often, the person who is giving you the loudest cues about what you should look like is you.
Whether you end up believing that you need to be thinner or more muscular or leaner, it is very likely that there is some image of an “idealized you” in your head. The fact is, 80% of women report being unhappy with the way they look. That number is less for men, but many reports show that men’s body satisfaction is also steadily decreasing.
In plain speak, this means that the great majority of us have some degree of body dissatisfaction.
Unfortunately for most people, body image and body satisfaction are irrevocably linked to self-esteem, self-worth, and depression (among other things). In fact, a recent analysis of the scientific literature by an international group of experts in the field of body image and eating disorders reported:
Body dissatisfaction, the experience of negative thoughts and feelings about one’s body and appearance, is a powerful (in fact, the most potent) and consistent precursor of a whole range of unhealthy body-related behaviours. These include: unhealthy dieting regimes and problematic eating behaviours (starving, binging, and purging), clinical eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia), cosmetic surgery, extreme exercising, and unhealthy muscle-enhancing behaviours in boys and men (such as taking steroids or other supplements). It is also linked to depression, anxiety, sexual dissatisfaction, and low self-esteem. Therefore body dissatisfaction is a significant risk for physical health, mental health, and thus well-being.
In this context, body dissatisfaction can be a chronic stressor. And as we’ve mentioned before chronic stress can really do a number on you psychologically and physically. Not only that, but stress can negatively affect the way we eat. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever used food as a coping mechanism.) And as we outline in detail in Chapter 4 of It Starts With Food, prolonged stress elevates cortisol levels, which kindles cravings for sugar and other unhealthy foods.
Bye-bye, new healthy relationship with food. Hello self-medicating box of Krispie Kremes.*
*It doesn’t have to make sense that you’d be both striving for an idealized body while comforting your lack of an idealized body with unhealthy foods. Hormones > willpower, and trump any manner of right-brained logic.
Ride Your Own Body Image Bike
Now that you’ve changed your relationship with food, it’s time to change your relationship with yourself.
Even though it’s easy to blame our negative body image on everything from fitness magazines to Fitspiration, the likelihood that those things are going away or changing for the better in mainstream society anytime soon is slim (no pun intended). This means it’s left to you to realistically assess, understand, and change the internal and external messages about ideal bodies and their effects on your self-esteem and self worth.
Here are some things you can do to find peace with what you see in the mirror, and create positive body image habits.
Focus on health: Here at Whole9, we encourage you to ditch your scale – not just for the Whole30 but forever. The number on the scale does not tell you anything about the healthy changes that are happening inside your body. When you change your habits based primarily on things like the scale, or your pant size, or the curves you see in the mirror you may end up sabotaging your health. Instead, focus on other, more relevant factors. How are you sleeping? Is your energy steady and solid, or fluctuating like a roller coaster? Are your emotions on a more even keel? Are your workouts making you feel better or worse about yourself? These real measurements of health are impacted by what you eat, how often you play, how much you sleep, your exercise routine, and your interpersonal relationships – and have nothing to do with how you look.
Question the “ideal”: Between television, Facebook, Pinterest, etc., the average American is exposed to more than 5,000 media images each and every day. Some research shows that nearly 1 in 4 of those media messages includes some sort of commentary on what is (or is not) attractive. It’s time to get honest with yourself about the mold that you are trying to jam your body into. There are certain personal physical attributes that we can change and those that we can’t. There is also a limit to the level of fitness, muscularity, or leanness we can realistically achieve due to time, body type, genetics, and currently lifestyle factors. Be honest about who you are, who you want to be, and where these two people meet in the real world. Letting go of the impossible-to-achieve ideal you’ve been carrying around with you for years can be incredibly freeing.
Practice positive talk: There is a growing body of research showing that “fat talk”, or discussion about one’s dislike of their personal appearance, is approaching “normal and expected” in our society, especially among females. Fat talk only makes things worse when it comes to body image by increasing body dissatisfaction and internalization of body image ideals. Set a good example by refusing to engage in “fat talk” about yourself or others. Instead focus on what you have accomplished, and be proud of where you are right now, because if you are reading this site and have completed even one day of our Whole30 program, we know you have things to be proud of. (We’ll help you out with this one later this week, in a follow-up post.)
You’ve learned a lot from your Whole30 experience, and have taken control of what goes into your body. Now it’s time to take control of what goes into your mind. Lose the ideal. BE REAL.
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What a wonderful, timely, important post! I hope this message gets through so a lot of people. Thanks for writing this!
This one is so, so hard for me!! I still haven’t ditched my scale….but I’m working on it. My Facebook news feed is filled with these “ideal body image” pics of ripped women. Thank you for always posting just what I need, when I need it!!
Such a great post. Crossfit and Whole30 have totally been game changers for me when it comes to body image. The Whole30 made me hyper aware of how my body FEELS, especially when I eat things that it doesn’t like. That has made me evaluate my eating habits in a totally different way. I no longer look back on the prior week and judge my diet my how much weight I lost but, rather, on how I felt. Crossfit has changed the way I look at exercise – I no longer gauge my success by the scale but, rather, on how hard I pushed myself and on the successes I have in the gym (i.e., moving up to a smaller band for my pull ups). Training our brains to look at our body image in a new way is absolutely critical to this journey. I can’t thank you two enough for the difference you have made with mine.
As usual you two always have a well written article regarding food, health and fitness. Just what I need to keep remind myself not to strive for something that I’ve seen on the media..those ripped six pack hard abs women that’s been going on around my FB pages and feeds. I should just work on myself to love the way I am and strive to be better in health. I have no problem for not looking at the scale but I do still have that obsession to get that “six-pack-abs”, those nicely cut biceps/triceps whenever I see myself in the mirror.
I see a new Whole9 tee in the making – Lose the ideal. Be Real!
Kara F. says
I needed to hear this today – thank you for all you’ve done for me and what you will do with the new book. We have a lot of minds/paradigms/cultures to shift… this is a great start. Cheers!
This book changed how I see my body. I think her title is unfortunate, it’s more about what you so clearly described, reality. But it was really important for me to change my relationship to my body before getting results from paleo and exercise. Her instructions go deep and have been long-lasting for me. It’s very different to thank my body for all of its work than to cringe at the sight of it.
David Csonka says
On point, bravo!
Melissa @Whole9 says
CrossFit was a game-changer for me, too, in terms of improving my body image. Focusing on being strong and fit instead of skinny (and doing my first Whole30 in April 2009) was a huge part of what helped me change my relationship with food and my body. But like anything, some is good… more is not necessarily better. I became TOO focused on getting that “CrossFit look” and less focused on whether I was making myself healthier. I ended up over-trained, under-muscled, and broken.
This is not CrossFit’s fault. This is not Paleo’s fault. This is MY fault, for looking outside of myself, comparing and contrasting myself to others who don’t live my life and aren’t in my context, and believing the pervasive messages of the media and society that if I don’t look a certain way (whatever that may be), I am less than worthy.
It took me a while to find balance.
I now focus on feeling strong and fit – but strong and fit for ME, not compared to some CrossFit Games competitor, a Sports Illustrated model, or a Nike ad. I’m realistic about what I can do based on my context – how much time I have to train, to recover, the lengths I’m willing to go to get that six-pack back. (I’m not willing.) Finding that balance is key, and looking INSIDE to set your own personal, realistic, attainable goals will keep you in a healthy place long-term.
I love this article and I have made huge strides to be more real with myself and body such as throwing out the scale, taking rest days, healing my relationship with food through whole 30 and I feel pretty happy and confident with myself.
But I still want a six pack and I love to look at fit women for inspiration. Is that bad now?
I have been noticing this a lot in the media recently as well (and I touched on it here: http://dailyhap.com/articles/literally-how-to-have-body-confidence), but I thank you guys for putting together such a well-written and thought-out analysis of the phenomena. Great work!
Skyler Tanner says
I’ve had nearly a decade of repair in the opposite regard: when I first started weight training I gained a good amount of muscle in a short period of time and thought “Hey! I look great! Check me out!” Old girlfriends were impressed, friends who hadn’t seen me in years were complimentary to how much muscle I had gained.
And then I got on some bodybuilding forums.
Suddenly the mirror wasn’t for admiration but criticism. The “Adonis Complex” is certainly a real thing and, which I have all of the science in the world showing the genetic limits of muscle growth for most people, the psychology is a harder nut to crack. I occasionally still get the desire to GFH and fill out a t-shirt, health be damned, all because I’m making comparisons to genetic freaks and steroid users. It’s less now, though.
Also another great tip that I’ve been using recently: stay off facebook, twitter, and forums. There is no perfect routine, diet, or supplement that will make you look like the primped and posed fitness model. Whatever you are is what you are and that’s perfect. Be the best you that you can be.
Really great post!! I haven’t gotten rid of my scale yet. But someone called me skinny in the last month and I responded with there is no such thing as being skinny at 150lb, I’m strong and fit. I *may* have been slightly offended at being called skinny. And I now always think of my thighs as ham because of something Mel Joulwan posted recently. And I love them more and more!
Laura Flack says
Wow you guys. Have you been looking at my FB account??
The reason being is that I found a website called I Heart inspiration quotes. Some of them don’t have anyone in them, but others do. Since I’m only 2 months into Crossfit, I’m not sure what I’m going to eventually turn out to look like. I’m not sure if I’ll ever have a six pack (but I want one LOL).
I was thinking about this last night replaying all the other times I’ve tried to get into shape, got the shoes and the right workout gear but never did anything about it. I’m now doing something about it, but wondering if maybe, the inspirational quotes are just too much….. I don’t ever want to look like a fitness model. I just want to be a much stronger, healthier, and better looking me (without any medical intervention thank you very much).
I’m thinking that maybe too many inspirational quotes could end up being like not being idealistic about where you are. Does that make sense?
Melissa @Whole9 says
Carla, there is nothing wrong with having a body comp goal, or looking to others for inspiration. As long as you are realistic about what you can and cannot accomplish within your own context (achieving a six-pack as a woman is HARD…) and you’re not holding yourself up against those other women. They are them, and you are you, and you can look to wherever you want for motivation, as long as that motivation never makes you feel bad about YOU.
Skyler, great points here. The images we get in the media aren’t even real! They’re posed, faked, pumped up and airbrushed. Holding yourself up against something that’s as fake as what we see in magazines is a recipe for disaster.
Tracy, I’m not offended when someone says I’m skinny, the same as I’m not offended when someone says I have too much muscle for a girl. Those kinds of comments say nothing about YOU, and everything about the other person’s preferences, biases, and background. If loving your thighs as hams feels good to you, go for it! I’m always talking about my junk-in-the-trunk, and while I’m always going to be booty-er than most other “fitness model” girls, I dig that about myself!
Laura, only you know whether the motivation you’re looking at is healthy. If these posters actually get you off your butt and into the gym, and help you feel good about yourself and your efforts, I’m all for it. If they shame you, guilt you, or make you feel less than worthy (and so you go to the gym), I’m not down with that… and you shouldn’t be either. Make sense? Judge for yourself, because everyone has a different “line.”
I love the idea of a “Let go of ideal. Be real” T-shirt…pretty (or should that be fitty?) please?
Wow, what a fantastic post. I have been paleo on and off for 2 years. My body has completely changed, in a good way, and at 44 I am in the best physical and mental shape of my life. Thank you for giving me the green light to love my body how it is now, instead of trying to get “that CF look”. I have made huge changes in my diet and have started the Whole 30 three times and half way through each time, I lighten up a bit because I realize that I am already very close to eating that way all the time, and as you pointed out, all the other things that make this way of eating so great are the things I experience everyday, like excellent sleep, even moods, and energy throughout the day. I guess calling you for a consultation two years ago, has really made an impact on me and I thank you for that!!
Getting my husband to eat the same way however, has proved to be a bit more challenging ;)
Thank you for this! Ever since Pinterest, people are obsessed with those “inspirational” images. They always bothered me, and now i see that was for a good reason! And not so much the quote, but the image… some of those images have nothing to do with the quote! And i believe the image (of that perfect large breasted, skinny waist, muscular woman in barely anything on) is what is getting people obsessed! I can say some crappy “motivational” saying and as long as i pair it up with an R rated image, people will praise it. And maybe I’m completely wrong, but just seeing the type of friends who posts these on FB, i can tell you that lots are working out that 110% at the gym, starving themselves, and are still nowhere near… And i am nowhere near perfect myself. I still want to loose the belly fat, I want to see more muscle, and i still struggle with wanting flavoring syrup in my iced coffee :) But i need to stop looking at others for that perfect image, instead I need to look in the mirror and see how much my waistline shrunk since i’ve been sticking to Whole30, my new shoulder muscles, my new leg muscles… and just enjoy my new lifestyle.
Thank you for this post!! I definitely struggle with this and see this in all of my clients. Getting healthy and strong is never enough…people aren’t satisfied until they are 15% body fat which is highly unlikely unless you are a fitness model or genetic freak. I am a Type-A personality who is always seeking perfection and this contributes to why I also battle with these ‘ideal’ body images. One thing that I found really helpful was to tell myself “I love my ass. I love my thighs” every time I looked in a mirror for 1 month. The positive affirmations really helped me re-wire my thinking and allowed me to stop the negative self-talk. I need to start doing this again as the little negative b*tch in my head has come back lately. I am starting today!
Thank you so much for this article. I’m going to share it with my teenage daughter too :)
Mariah Thompson says
Exactly the stern talking to that I needed. Thanks, as always, Whole9. You bring together the compassion, balance and honesty that is necessary to make long lasting changes from a place of love rather than shame.
For all the guys, and girls out there
“I have never met a truly strong person who didn’t have self-respect. I think a lot of inwardly and outwardly directed contempt passes itself off as self-respect: the idea of raising yourself by stepping on someone’s shoulders instead of doing it yourself. When I see guys working out for cosmetic reasons, I see vanity exposing them in the worst way, as cartoon characters, billboards for imbalance and insecurity. Strength reveals itself through character.
Muscle mass does not always equal strength. Strength is kindness and sensitivity. Strength is understanding that your power is both physical and emotional. That it comes from the body”
a”nd” the mind. And the heart”
Henry Rollins, The Iron and The Soul
Well said. Thank you.
This is something I have been struggling with lately. For me, the “ideal” is in performance, not just body image. I want to lift a heavier weight than I can. I want to go deeper into yoga poses than my body will allow at this point in time. Injury and illness are finally convincing me to slow down and listen. Thanks for the reminder!
I love this article! I’ve felt bad before because I find it so exhausting to incorporate very much high intensity cardio into my life (as a means to lose body fat, get fit, and move down a clothes size) when I’m busy already, and it usually ends up in me becoming stressed out, calorie deprived, getting skin breakouts and over indulging in bad foods whenever an new stressor enters my life. I’m planning to start doing low intensity cardio and more strength training, and eat healthier on a regular basis. I’m on day 20 of the whole30, and have gotte. Over the food boredom slump, and yesterday, for the first time I can recall, I didn’t feel tired or brain-foggy all morning when I was substitute teaching!! I was only aittle tired at lunch, but something was definitely different. I think that this is quite likely an effect of the whole30. So happy :)
Thank you for this post, I am on day 27. I have been struggling this past week. I caught a summer cold and I have struggled to stay clean. Previously I used food for comfort, I have managed to not eat junk. But I have over used nuts and nut butters for some comfort. I have realized that I’m still not over using food for comfort when I’m feeling bad, sad, or boarded. I still have to yet feel energy, maybe not tiger blood. But something would be nice… I was exercising everyday before I started this and I have yet to finish out a week! Feeling a little defeated in this area. And yes I know this to shall pass. Looking forward to this cold being gone, and finding energy from my new found eating habits…
I will get thru this test, with my head held high, and the belief that I can do something for 30 days. I can do hard things!!