This is me aged 14 winning the 800m Lancashire Schools trials. My time qualified me to compete in the National Schools Championships. I was proud of my achievement and the sheer bloody-minded effort it takes to run half a mile in 2 minutes 15 seconds. Until that is, I saw this photograph. I was filled with shame and all of a sudden what my body did didn’t seem to matter. It looked fat, or so I thought, and the photograph was shoved away to gather dust over the years at the back of a 90s photograph album. One of my best performances of my teenage years was reduced to a false bad memory. The only saving grace was that back then photography wasn’t instant or widely shared so I’d had a week or so before the toxicity of body image shame barged in like a bully and crushed my pride in its mighty fist.
Of course, I don’t really look overweight in the photo, I know that looking at the image now. So how could a split second moment in time back then stain a whole day of hard work, team work and months of training and discipline?
BECAUSE IT’S IMPOSSIBLE FOR SOME YOUNG PEOPLE TO MITIGATE AGAINST AN ALL PERVASIVE CULTURE OF BODY PRESSURE THAT’S WHY
The fitness industry has a big role to play in our young people’s well-being. The “celebration of strong” in recent years has had benefits but still brings some damaging pressure in the form of photoshopped imagery and perfectionism. The effects of this culture can be felt from early childhood because in those early years the brain absorbs what it hears and sees and learns by example. A Mental Health Foundation study (2022) showed that children as young as six are affected by body image issues.
I’ve now cultivated a positive body image after a long and winding road but how did I get there and how can we help our children and young people develop all important self-esteem in this area? The 2022 study also showed that parental behaviour can lessen the effects of the media on poor body image. I think there are three aspects of body image you can focus on that might help
Try to focus on what your body can do – If you are on a weight loss journey and you only focus on the end goal it can get pretty demoralising. However if you can also focus on aspects of the journey that are bringing you pride and health benefits then you are more likely to stick with it. Perhaps you aren’t at your weight loss goal yet but you are Planking for longer, achieved your first push up, ran for longer without stopping etc? It’s also important to talk to young kids about the great things their bodies can do and not just what they look like. Self-worth based on praise for how you look can be a wobbly foundation on which to build yourself. If exercise comes to embody core values such as grit, teamwork, overcoming failure and individuality, you are more likely to love fitness and what it can bring to your life.
Try to accept your body – It’s important to accept your body and its individuality. For example I’ve accepted that my body is different now to what it was in my twenties and that’s fine! Demonstrate body acceptance to your kids. Fat loss and muscle building can bring improvements in self-esteem but if there isn’t acceptance of your own individual physique, those gains can soon turn into a cycle of constant displeasure at what you see in the mirror and the end goal is never satisfying enough.
Try not to compare – We have all compared our body to someone else’s at some point I’m sure and it’s fine to be inspired by someone’s weight loss journey or their strong physique. The problem is that young people can be bombarded with unrealistic body images and so the comparisons can be constant and toxic. We should be teaching young people that fitness and activity is vital for health and well-being and not just an image competition. You don’t have to have a perfect physique to achieve great things with your body or to have a healthy heart and a healthy mind.
If only I’d been shown how to apply this thinking when I saw this photo all those years ago. We can’t change an all-pervasive culture that, at the end of the day, makes a lot of money for some unscrupulous people. But we can act as a sensible buffer to it for our kids and we can work on ourselves and our own thinking.