Hi everyone, Ash here 🌈
This week is mental health awareness week in the UK and the specific focus this year is body image - Be Body Kind is the message that is trending all over Instagram and Twitter!
With this in mind, I wanted to share my own journey with body image and what it means to me, as well as why a healthy relationship with body image is so important for our mental well-being. Here goes...
When I was a child we didn't have a lot of money. Clothes would have to last a long time, shoes would be glued when holes appeared and heating would go on for a limited time in the evening during winter. This meant there were minimal holidays (in fact I only remember one, to Norfolk) so my free time was mostly spent outdoors playing with friends, being active. I was always running, skipping, riding my bike, rollerblading - I loved to move my body, as most children do. At school I was good at athletics and this meant that I was selected to be on the school team for 100m sprint and high jump - this kept me active in my teens. As money was scarce we rarely had takeaway (I'm pretty certain I never went to McDonalds until I was a teenager, after earning my own money through paper-rounds and washing up in local pubs). The food that was cooked for us by my amazing Mum was always delicious and healthy, with treats every now and then when she could afford it, and I guess this has stayed with me as an adult - my relationship with food has always been good. I've never experienced any negative emotions towards food or the impact food could be having on my body. This meant that throughout my childhood or teenage years I rarely, if at all, had any negative experience with body image. I was a slim, active teenager and, thankfully, I've rarely compared myself to celebrities in magazines or on TV - I never aspired to look like someone else and I am thankful that I grew up when social media didn't exist!
Then I moved to London when I was 19 and discovered that people were pretty obsessed with their bodies 😆 As a gay man I was suddenly surrounded by a community who can often put a lot of emphasis on the way you look. How muscular you were, how young you looked, how shiny your appearance was... mattered. I found myself beginning to obsess over my slim frame. I was often told that I was 'skinny, for a man' and, even though this was rarely said in a malicious way, those words stuck with me. I became infatuated with trying to build muscle. I joined a gym (Fitness First Covent Garden strangely enough, a club I would later go on to manage!) and started working out. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and I was too shy to ask for any help. I did what most men do when they want to get big - I started lifting weights. I did this for years and spent a lot of money on protein shakes! I noticed some difference but then, in my late twenties, realisation hit. I was becoming obsessed with getting bigger! I never felt like my body was good enough and there was always something I could improve. I wasn't happy.
As I moved in to my early thirties I learnt to accept that my body was athletic - that I was made to jump and sprint and balance! That I was happiest when my body was moving in the way it was supposed to - this is how I discovered Functional Fitness and it's a reason I passionately advocate it to all of the SMASH community and my personal training clients. Functional Fitness trains the whole body and incorporates moves you would do in daily life - bending, twisting, reaching, pulling etc. - and it allowed me to be impressed with my body again. My posture improved, the endorphin rush from a box jump was so much greater than lifting a weight above my head and I felt healthier. Strength training and endurance based cardiovascular work definitely have their place in a balanced workout routine, but it was my love for functional fitness, as well as my discovery of mindfulness, that lead me to teaching classes and later becoming a Personal Trainer. It was my love for functional fitness that really helped me begin to learn to respect my body.
In 2017 I started running and in January 2018 I became vegan. My body began to change again and I felt those negative feelings towards my body shape return. My relationship with my body image was strained for a few months and I would constantly check myself in the mirror. Was I too skinny? Did my face look different? Should I trim my body hair a certain way to look different? Thankfully, during this time, I continued to practise mindfulness meditation and was also teaching SMASH - a class where we try to encourage you to love your bodies exactly as they are right now. I was struggling to practise what I preach but I know it could have been much worse so I was clearly doing something positive amongst the negative thoughts. After a few months of patience, and trust that what I was doing was right for me, I embraced my new body shape. I understood that running a marathon would mean some muscles loss. I knew that becoming vegan would probably change my shape but a lot of research was saying that it's the healthiest lifestyle for your heart, your lungs, your digestive system, your mind. And wasn't that more important?
You see, your body will always change. There are literally hundreds of reasons why you may lose weight, gain weight, tone up, bulk, slim down. Your legs may get bigger while your chest shrinks, your arms might sag in some places while your bum gets perkier. We can't obsess over it. Our bodies are incredible. They have brought you to exactly where you are right now, through every ecstatic moment of happiness to those times you cried yourself to sleep at night. Our bodies are our strength, our accomplishments, our dreams, our comfort, our home. We have a duty to look after them, to move when we can, to rest when we need, to fuel it with all the nutrients it needs and to treat it with kindness. Our bodies are our best friends... so treat it that way. Tell it how amazing it is. Be honest when you know you haven't been too kind to it and need to offer some comfort and respect. Feed it with love and be thankful for it.
Go ahead and look in the mirror and smile at every single, amazing part of you. If you want to get stronger, do it. If you want to lose weight or gain weight or tone up or bulk up or slim down - do it. But don't obsess over it. And make sure you are patient with yourself. Trust the process and know that your body is beautiful. Focus on today and let tomorrow look after itself, look after your body today and give tomorrow something to be proud of.
But mostly, when you look in the mirror, at every single part of you, tell yourself "I love you" - and make sure you mean it 😊
Be Body Kind. Not just today, not just this week, but every day of every year. To your body, and everybody 💙
Sam and Ash