Abs Didn't Solve My Problems
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Getting a six pack won’t solve your issues.
All my life, I’ve desired a six pack. I was convinced that rippling abs would be the answer to all my problems and that with them, I could conquer the world. All the money, fame, and *insert unfulfilling metric of success* would fall into my lap.
While it may seem an obvious truth that my egoic pursuit of aesthetic perfection lacked the capacity to create a positive self-image, it’s important to note…a visually pleasing body brought me very little self love or sense of fulfillment in and of itself.
Growing up, I was chubby. Not off the rails, by any stretch. I was athletic, intelligent, and always had friends. Yet for as long as I can remember, I’d hyper-focused on my physical appearance and how others viewed me in that regard.
This obsession could be attributed to any number of things; the media’s perpetuation of the “perfect figure”, learned self loathing/body shaming from elders and loved ones whom unwittingly passed it down in spite of their best intentions etc. etc. etc.
While I believe such an explanation to be important to understand and helpful in changing the way we relate to ourselves and each other, it is not the point of this post.
Body shaming is pervasive. So many people, particularly those in younger generations, are ashamed of how they look and focus only on their imperfections.
Too skinny, too fat, too this, too that.
I’ve thusly come across many people who shared the dreams of my adolescence. The ones of being that ripped guy in the magazines and the movies. Achieving reverence and fame and all that we want in life simply by looking good.
I distinctly remember my mom telling me that I would never have a six pack. That it simply wasn’t possible. That my genetics negated my ever having one. And since I can remember, I’ve loathed being told what’s possible and impossible. Refused to accept, largely because I have so often accepted, the limiting beliefs of others.
On the one hand, this mindset led me to become a tremendously disciplined and hardworking individual. I haven’t allowed myself to be molded or bogged down by what others tell me I can or cannot do.
Yet, in this instance, the reason I refused to accept this “truth” was that I couldn’t stand the self-loathing anymore. At the time, I thought that changing my body was the only way I could love it and myself.
It was this assumption, that I could not be loved or accepted as I was, that fueled my campaign to change.
Similarly, it is this assumption that drives so many people towards guilt and shame.
After that infuriating little pep talk, I remember standing in the shower: my sacred think tank. I was habitually pulling at the roll of belly fat that had become a dear friend of my midline when I told myself, for what seemed like the millionth time, that I would make a change. But this time, it stuck.
My journey towards physical fitness was a slow road, as is the case with getting good at, well, anything. I was, as many are, misguided by the get slim quick traps, fad diets, and myriad of other money-making fitness schemes, but I was committed to and guided by the simple principal: move more, eat less. And I got in relatively good shape, but still wasn’t satisfied.
I didn’t look perfect.
Then, entering my freshman year in university, I experienced my first true heart break. A girl, whom I thought myself to be in love, with told me she couldn’t be in a relationship. She had just split with her partner of several years, so I figured she needed some time and space.
Then she started dating this guy that lived down the hall from me. He was cool. I liked him, admired him in fact. He had a lovely way about him. He seemed present, authentic, and possessive of genuine love for others as he did himself. And he was ripped.
So, under some misguided perception, I determined that it was for this reason that my heart had been broken. It couldn’t possibly have been my fear of intimacy, or my long suppressed sexual anxiety. Nope. It must have been the fact that, while athletic and in shape, I wasn’t ripped; he had a ‘better’ body than I.
I then started to take a look at what made the best physique. I found bodybuilding, which gave me a relatively clear cut route to reverse engineer a body that mimicked that of Thor or Tarzan (I say reverse engineer in that these bodies are not functional nor practical, but that’s a topic for another time).
I starved myself, drank lots of whey protein, and worked out, often twice per day, until I looked like this:
I remember this moment as clear as day. I looked a bit dead to myself. My eyes were sunken. I was exhausted mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Albeit poorly, I was trying to balance school, a social life, and an absurdly constrictive diet. But hey, I had veins in my abs.
This period of my life was, as it tends to be for most uncertain college students, a time of immense transition and change. Determining who and how I wanted to be in this world, I lost sight of the fact that I was dedicating a tremendous amount of time and emotional energy towards this physical pursuit (at the cost of other cherished things).
Taking this picture, I finally admitted to the the fact that I had actually achieved, to some degree, the goal I had set out to achieve. I was then forced to confront the question: “is this it?”
I didn’t feel satisfied. I didn’t feel worthy. I didn’t have any of the things that I had initially thought abs would bring me.
It’s worthwhile, vital even, that we ask difficult questions of ourselves. Is the end goal really going to make us feel fulfilled? Or is there some underlying issue that must first be addressed?
What are the values that are driving us? For me, I made the decision to value physical appearance above, for example, time with friends.
Exercise is a wonderful thing. Afterall, if your body isn’t healthy, where will you live? But a physique that looks good doesn’t necessarily make it a healthy one. If your goal is to look good, I’d be willing to bet that if and when you achieve it you, like me, will not be satisfied.
My hope is that my story leads you to reevaluate the basis for your actions. A few years down the road, I am far happier and fulfilled. I love my body. I love how it can move in diverse ways, doing things that I find to be FUN. My body climbs mountains, rocks, and trees, and finds rest when it needs to. It gets me out of bed in the morning and back in at night. And I love how it looks, unlike any other.
This love exists despite the fact that I no longer have rippling abs, striated delts, or veiny biceps. More importantly, however, I also don’t have sunken eyes, an abhorrent relationship with food, and the fear that people won’t love me if I don’t look like Chris Hemsworth.
I made a commitment to speak about my relationship to my image. To cultivate meaningful relationships that weren’t predicated on appearance or social status. And to ask for help with those whom had gone through similar things.
Let there be no illusions. I still have residual body image issues, still sometimes check to see what my abs look like in the mirror, and still have anxiety and a myriad of other emotions that, believe it or not, EVERYONE HAS. I frequently push myself to hard, and don’t eat some things that would make me happy because I’m scared I’ll wake up as that chubby kid again.
Establishing a dialogue with your inner child, the one whom may have been shamed or put down or told he/she was wrong, can be so important in changing these patterns of negative self talk and self-deprecation. Saying, out loud, “I am enough”, has been tremendously helpful for me in this regard.
The love that others have for us, if it really is love, is not based on aesthetic perfection. It is without condition. It is non-attachment to the way we want one another to be; appreciation for meeting us as we are, imperfections and all.
As I learn to love and accept myself, I am then better equipped to extend this love outwards to others.
If you have any issues that you think I may be able to support you through, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
I hope my story, my vulnerability in sharing this, helps you start a more wholesome dialogue, whether with yourself or with others.
Give yourself a hug and a smile in the mirror. You deserve it.