I’m going to make a guess about something. I’m going to guess that of all the articles I’ve posted, this one will receive the most hits. Not because what I have to say is profound or offers any groundbreaking insight, but because I used the word “weight” in the title. Come on, admit it, that one little word drew you in faster than a sex addict to the Playboy Mansion. It’s the oldest marketing trick in the book — slap “weight loss” or “melt fat” on the cover of any magazine and you’ve got your readers by the, well, you know. (See? I just used the word “sex” which will probably keep you reading this. Pretty darn tricky, eh?)
I’m also going to guess that this — for lack of a better word — obsession with weight is more common among us women folk. That’s not to say men don’t struggle with body image, but I don’t think an actual number on a scale throws them into quite the same funk. (If you’re of the male persuasion and beg to differ, please give me an earful in the comments section!) Back to us ladies, though.
So here’s a question for you: do you feel anxious about getting weighed at the doctor’s office? Do you find yourself looking away or asking the nurse not to tell you? Or, like me, do you ask to skip the whole weigh-in process altogether? My medical charts show years of height checks, but no weight. (Although I’m happy to report that my height has stayed a very stable 5’ 3” — so put that in your pipe and smoke it!)
Seriously though, here’s what’s stone ass crazy about this: like most athletes, I’m fit and healthy. But one day, someone threw a number at me, and ever since, my self-image as an athlete has been very tied to that number. Sound a bit familiar? As endurance athletes we are the fittest of the fit. The problem is that somewhere along the way, fit became synonymous with skinny and skinny became synonymous with triathlete. And these errors in definition have led us down a very dark and critical path.
To make matters more complicated, there is a lot of focus on achieving an optimal “race weight” or power-to-weight ratio (working weight such as muscle, bone, ligament, tendons and fluids versus weight that’s tagging along for a free ride —adipose tissue, a.k.a. fat). And there’s no denying it – your power-to-weight ratio does play a huge role depending on how competitively you want to race. I really can’t argue against that — I’d get slapped silly by science. But I’m not concerned about a slow movement toward a short-term, race-focused, rationally-planned, lean body composition. What is worrisome is the aesthetic concern about weight that’s completely out of context with both race performance and where an athlete is in a training and race cycle. And I see this evidenced all the time: the athlete who cannot take time off because of weight gain concerns and ends up injured. The athlete who won’t take off their cover-up at the beach because they feel their identity as triathlete will lead to greater scrutiny of their body and — gasp — imperfections. The athlete who gains a few (sometimes much needed) pounds in the off-season and feels “fat” instead of rested and healthy. The athlete who doesn’t have the “typical” super-lean body and feels somehow inferior as a result. The athlete who does have the stereotypical body type and believes it means they work harder than other athletes. Obviously, there are a lot of variations on and attitudes about this theme. And you’re probably thinking that I should cancel my subscription to yesterday’s news: athletes have always been at risk for an out-of-the-range-of-normal weight focus. After all, if you’re wearing the athlete mantel, there’s a boatload of pressure to sport a body that matches.
So how do we stop this destructive thinking, even if it doesn’t lead to destructive behavior (and especially if it does)? Because it’s exhausting to worry about it all the time, don’t you think? I’m going to lob out a theory: I wonder if the people (and not just athletes) who spend the most time obsessing over their own weight also spend a lot of time thinking critically about the bodies of other women. It kind of goes hand in hand. If you’ve set the bar so high for yourself in terms of physical appearance (or body fat percentage or a number on the scale) then you probably need to use other people to measure yourself against. So, ask yourself this: do you ever see another woman in a race and think, “How is she running/cycling faster than me when I’m lighter/skinnier/have lower body fat?” Or, the converse, patting yourself on the back when you are faster than someone who looks like they should mop the floor with you? If this describes you, then I’m going to guess that you probably spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about your own image. And, lest you think me about as deep as a birdbath, I think the vast majority of us have been caught up in this negative thought process at one time or another.
Quick tangent that I promise will lead back to my main point (however convoluted). I love Kristen Armstrong. Yes, Lance’s ex. She wrote a lot for Runner’s World and I would literally jump with glee when her column came out. She has such a nice way of keeping it real — and of keeping it classy at every turn. Anyway, she wrote an article awhile back that was so simple yet so profound. She wrote about dedicating an entire day to replacing the words “I have to” with “I get to.” For example, I get to go to the grocery store (because there is healthy food there I can afford) and I get to go pick up my kids at school (because they are healthy and they’re remarkably lucky to attend a school in a safe, loving environment) and I get to pick up around the house (because I have a house that keeps us warm and safe). Pretty cool how changing that one word can totally alter perspective, huh? I still think about that when I’m tired and rundown and sick of carting small kids all over town. I don’t have to do it, I get to do it. (Although I guess legally I kinda have to feed the kids, but I digress.)
So this has to do with body image how? Well, it gets back to altering our thought patterns. It’s about not only being kind to our own bodies, but appreciating the bodies of other women as well. Because if you’ve been around the sport long enough, you recognize that there is not one triathlete body type. I’ve beaten the pants off of tiny little whippets and I’ve had the pants beaten off me by those who don’t fit the runner/cycling stereotype. So if you feel your thoughts heading towards critical-ville, replace those negative thoughts (a la Kristen Armstrong) with something positive. For example: Wow, that woman is powerful. Wow, she has some serious athletic talent. And as hokey as this might seem, if you change your thoughts about others, your critical thoughts about yourself might — strike that — will change. It’s a win-win for all of us, yes?
Also, just so there’s no misunderstanding, this is not a call to stand down competitively. Oh, no little grasshoppers, indeed not. This is a call to continue sizing up your opponents. Just not based on size. Because fitness is a choice — it’s something you have to go get yourself — and depending on your body type it may or may not correspond with being skinny. Let’s not confuse the two: you can be fit, and not skinny. And you can be skinny, but not fit. And everything in between.
In the end, isn’t it really health and fitness that makes us feel good? Isn’t it really the accomplishment or the competitive experience of the huge physical feat that is triathlon (or whatever your passion is) that really brings us happiness? If you’re looking to be competitive, then knock yourself out and aim for an ideal power-to-weight ratio — but be careful about using others to feel superior. Because Planet Superior is a lonely place. And there are no good restaurants there.