My body is a part of me, but I am not my body

February 11, 2015

This past fall I started watching the 16th season of The Biggest Loser, because the show is featuring former athletes as contestants. Many of them were elite in their day including a WNBA player, a Wimbledon finalist, an NFL player, and a three time Softball Olympic Gold Medalist. I watched not because I was shocked that they were there, but because I could relate. Many people assume that if you have been a top athlete that it is easy to stay fit and healthy. However, elite athletes are human, too. We are not immune to the stresses and circumstances of life that make it challenging to stay healthy as life progresses, especially when exercising and performing are no longer part of our job description.

For those of you avid watchers out there, please bear with me. I watched a few episodes over a decade ago and haven’t watched since. As I watched the beginning of the first episode I was reminded why. The first thing that struck me was the shaming. These people were made to stand on a scale in minimal clothing one by one while their fellow contestants and the viewers watch along as their weight is posted on a digital sign larger then life. I realize that this is part of the drama of the show, and that these athletes signed up for this. However, for someone who has struggled with her weight, body image, and an eating disorder this seems to me to be one of the worst things you can do to start a journey towards health.

For many of the athletes, their weight gain can be traced to and associated with a life event that caused them emotional stress such as the death of a spouse or a series of miscarriages. All of the participants’ situations are complex and cannot be reduced to a number on the scale. While the scale provides a tangible and measurable benchmark to track progress and keep score, I feel there are a number of other health markers that could be more beneficial to chart and do not have the stigma that weight has. Furthermore, these athletes are not overweight because they don’t know how to exercise or eat healthy, there is something else going on. Being fit and healthy is so much more than calories in and calories out. As the show goes on we see more of the emotional obstacles and challenges that these athletes are facing, and the process of the show does give them an opportunity to work through these with the help of the trainers.

I sincerely hope that the experiences that these athletes have on the show help them to make the changes in their lives that they are looking for. However, as I watch this, I can’t help but wonder about the way that our society approaches health and fitness, and I question what we may be teaching our children and young athletes.

I gained 30 pounds when I retired from competitive swimming.

I’ve come a long way in my journey toward finding a healthy balance in my life, and I am proud of what I have learned. For me, the biggest change that I struggled to make in my thinking about myself and my body was that while my body is an important part of who I am, I am not my body. When I gained 30 pounds after retiring from competitive swimming (yes, you read that right) I realized that I was still a good person. I was still a good friend. I was still a productive member of my community. Was I as physically healthy as I could have been? No. But was I healthier in other ways than I had been in a long time? Yes.

This was groundbreaking for me. As an elite athlete my body was so intertwined with my identity that I equated my swimming performance and my physical appearance with my worth as a human. It sounds funny to write it now, but in our society it is not as hard to do as one might think. I worry that not only do we judge ourselves this way, but we also teach our children to do the same without realizing it.

On the show there is talk of failure, giving up on life, and shame and embarrassment for having gained so much weight. These are amazing and upstanding people! They are not failures. Many talk about getting back to being the athletes they once were. I think that is a mistake.

They shouldn’t be training to get back to where they were, they should be training for and celebrating who they are now! They can and should be exercising in a way that allows them to be the best parent, coach, and professional they can be.

Sure, appearances do matter. There is no way around that. They are one of the ways that people draw conclusions about us, but they are not the only way. I have come to realize that many times if we take care of what is happening on the inside, the outside takes care of itself.

I happily discovered that when I stopped being embarrassed or ashamed of my body regardless of my weight, and when I stopped fighting against my body that I naturally and easily took better care of it. When I realized that my body was not my enemy, but rather my best friend, I could make healthy decisions without feeling deprived instead I feel empowered. When I wasn’t obsessed with how I looked, I was able to enjoy eating, enjoy exercising, and sustain a healthy weight, which allowed me to do all the other things that I enjoy doing.