Yusef is a competitive gymnast, powerlifter, medic and one of the coaches at PropaneFitness. Jonny and Yusef have helped thousands of clients to get leaner, stronger and happier with their physiques by prescribing simple rules that produce dramatic results.
“One understands one’s self-worth when one no longer identifies or defines one’s self in terms of these transient things” – Anthony De Mello
An article about body confidence…a bit rich coming from a fitness coach, somebody whose role it is to change physiques, right? But trainers and coaches see more often than anyone that chasing a goal physique or dieting endlessly isn’t the path to body confidence. We would be failing a client if we didn’t step in to objectively say “that’s enough” when they’ve been dieting too long. That one doesn’t make us too popular.
Get abs, feel like a boss?
There’s a subtle, not-so-simple interplay between your physique and how you feel about your body.
Our evolutionary programming has wired us to want approval, often seemingly gained by being attractive. It’s also wired into most of us to find leanness – typically having a low body fat percentage and thus visible muscle – attractive. On top of that, we’re socially conditioned to see lean people as stereotypically sexy, wealthy and intelligent. And that conditioning runs deep – we’re not going to uproot it overnight.
You vs Your Programming
We all find ourselves in this world at the mercy of our programming and social conditioning, and this leads us to think one of two things:
1) ‘If I could just get leaner, my body-image will improve and I’ll be happier and more confident’
2) ‘I’ll just learn to completely #LoveMyImperfections and accept my body
Both are pretty reasonable responses. I call them the inside-out vs the outside-in approach.
However, taking either approach alone will most likely lead to suffering. You need to burn this candle at both ends. I’ll explain why:
Detaching yourself from your image
Unless you can become a zen master and TOTALLY detach your self-image from how you physically look, my experience is that to become 100% body confident, while sporting a physique you currently don’t love, is not a realistic goal. Pressures from within and without – from society and internal comparison – are too universal for us to become completely immune to, even if we try to pretend they aren’t.
The ‘healthy at every size’ and fat-acceptance movements are nobly choosing not to play that game. So why isn’t it necessarily gaining momentum? For most of us, our in-built inclinations are too deep-rooted and attraction is often an instinctive choice.
Comparison: A dangerous trap
The more we compare ourselves to others, the more we set ourselves up for disappointment. Scoring an A in class feels great until you see the swot next to you gets an A+. Social comparison is even shown to be directly related to unhappiness: one study demonstrates that when performing badly in a test, seeing a peer perform worse softened the blow. BUT the amount of pleasure that participants got from seeing others perform badly predicted how unhappy they were in general.
Another study showed that people would rather be ranked higher than their peers than take a salary bump!
“The man who has no money is poor, but one who has nothing but money is poorer. He only is rich who can enjoy without owning; he is poor who though he has millions is covetous”. – Orison Swett Marden
You’ve seen all the phony before-after photos, the idealised and photoshopped bodies – the cruel truth is that not even the models actually look like that in their daily lives, when they’re walking around eating their quinoa and mung bean salad. They’ve carb-loaded, water-depleted, and photoshopped themselves to the hilt for that one moment.
Getting super-lean has its own downsides too:
– Constant hunger, risk of binges
– Reduced sex drive
– The elusive feeling of never ‘getting there’, no gold at the end of the rainbow
– Sacrificing time to dedicate to muscle growth
Becoming a perfect 10
So why is body confidence not simply related to how OBJECTIVELY ‘good’ your physique is? The reason is that we lose sight of how lean we are, chasing the dragon. Throw in the mindset of somebody who invests a lot of their identity into their physique and how it is judged by others (e.g. models, competitive bodybuilders), and you have a recipe for problems. These guys objectively have the ‘best’ physiques according to the industry and judges of the sport, yet have the HIGHEST prevalence of disordered eating and body insecurities.
“When you want to look good to others, you’re placing your worth in their hands. The desire to use your beauty to exert control over others ends up enslaving you to those you hope to control.” – Thanissaro Bhikkhu
This tension not only makes the process more painstaking, but also destroys your sense of empowerment. The more you associate your body image with your identity, the more you disempower yourself to change.
Even if you have a great physique, tying your sense of self to it runs the risk of narcissism – an unattractive trait in itself. Dick Talens, who used to be known as ’the fat kid’, now turned fitness coach has seen both sides:
“By tying being fat to your sense of self, you are literally eliminating the possibility that you can change and become a better you. As an awesome human being, you deserve to be the best you possible. Limiting yourself in this way is the exact opposite of self-compassion. It is self loathing. True acceptance means being able to forgive yourself and look at things objectively without judgement so that you can become a better person. Being fat isn’t part of your identity. It isn’t like being gay, black, asian, having a small penis, having a large penis, etc.. There is nothing to accept because people aren’t fat, so much as they have excess fat.” – Dick Talens
You are not your bodyfat percentage.
Where does that leave us?
The good news is you do not need to become Mr/Mrs Olympia to attain body confidence. Seeing a RELATIVE change in yourself is more important: the empowerment from effecting improvements in yourself is what counts. Incremental change is the real source of lasting sweetness from personal growth.
If we trace the feeling of dissatisfaction with our body to its endpoint, we find that it’s not ultimately about how we look. It’s about feeling like a failure. Feeling unloved. Feeling powerless. Feeling like you can’t do it. Demonstrating that initial success to yourself is all that’s needed to break the cycle.
The result is that we start to approach training and dieting from a more playful, carefree headspace. Now that’s sexy. We’re cultivating acceptance of our current body, while nailing the inputs.
You can now enjoy the process. The pressure is off: you’re doing all the right stuff at the ground level, and there’s no compulsion to self-sabotage!
Putting it all together: 6 steps to attain bulletproof body-confidence
Inside Out vs Outside In – there’s no conflict. Remember, you can burn the candle at both ends:
- Understand your programming and your biases, such as comparing yourself to others.
- Strive to withdraw your identification with your physique
- Rekindle your drive for physical, mental and spiritual growth, rather than using the gym to fuel approval-seeking patterns
- Start on a time-tested, evidence-based training & diet approach, and prove the results in yourself. Fall in love with the process.
- As you gain momentum, the sense of accomplishment persists beyond the physical. Allow that to permeate the other dimensions of your life.
Using the above approach, we’ve helped hundreds of clients get back into a loving relationship with their own bodies. Set yourself up with the six steps and experience it for yourself. You could even invite a date along on your journey!