Why I Stopped Aspiring to an Athletic Physique

I have a long history of aspiring to an athletic body type.

When I was in high school I bought a book called “The NYC Ballet Workout: Fifty Stretches and Exercises Anyone Can Do For a Strong, Graceful, and Sculpted Body.”

That’s good marketing, isn’t it? As a vulnerable person, I believed it. Until I got discouraged and somehow forgot about the book and moved on to something else. I don’t remember what became of the effort to look more like a ballet dancer. Nothing dramatic or memorable, and obviously it didn’t work.

Then there were the various women’s bodybuilding books. Then the yoga. And the two marathons. And the frustration that came with not having a “runner’s body.” Surely if I persisted and kept at it long enough, I might look like those distance runners?

Then one day in 2011, I watched a video of a talk by Tom Naughton, Science for Smart People. In this talk, Naughton uses an example of correlation that involves athletes bodies (skip to 24:45 in the video). He talks how, if  “everyone knows running makes you thin,” because marathon runners tend to be thin, does that mean that “playing basketball makes you tall, because elite basketball players tend to be tall?” No. As Naughton says “Basketball players are tall because being tall makes you more likely to succeed at basketball, and the fact that competitive runners are thin doesn’t tell us anything, except perhaps that being thin makes it more likely that you will take up running.”

This sounds like the simplest concept in the world, but that fact that it blew my mind is…well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about THAT.

I did have one more instance since then when I fell for the whole “if I do x, I will look like people who are successful at x.” I did CrossFit for about 5 months in 2011 and early 2012. I really admired the bodies of some of the other athletes in the gym, even more than any other kind of “athletic body” I had seen before. And once again, I felt hopeful that *this* would be the thing that would change my body.

I stopped CrossFit when I was four months pregnant and exhausted.  So I didn’t have a chance to draw any conclusions about the effects consistent CrossFit would have had on my appearance.

But eventually it sunk in. I took a few years off of athletic pursuits when I had my son. I suppose my brain had time to process everything I had learned so far.

Earlier this year, when I set a goal to do weight training, 150 times, I remembered how much I enjoyed CrossFit, so I took a CrossFit approach to my programming. But CrossFit involves Olympic weightlifting, I knew I needed some coaching, as the Olympic lifts are highly technical. So, I went on USA Weightlifting’s website to find a local weightlifting club. It turned out that the weightlifting club local to me was at a CrossFit affiliate.

This time, when I walked into the CrossFit affiliate and saw some beautiful, athletic looking women,  I didn’t think to myself ” I’ll bet I could look like that if I worked hard at CrossFit.” I knew that, odds were, those women weren’t coming from the same place I was. They had different genetics and circumstances. They almost certainly did not walk into the gym on their first day looking like I did. Now, I’m not making any judgments about whose body looked “better” or “worse” on their first day; I’m simply acknowledging that we all looked different. And therefore, if I worked hard at CrossFit, I wouldn’t look like The Really Cut CrossFit Chick in My Gym Who I Just Met. I would look however *I* would look if I worked hard at CrossFit….whatever that means for my particular body and genetics.

To confirm my thoughts on the matter, I asked The Really Cut CrossFit Chick in My Gym Who I Just Met how long she had been doing CrossFit, and if she had played any sports prior. She said she ran track all through high school and college. My suspicions were confirmed that we did NOT walk through the door on our first days looking the same. I knew a big shift had taken place in my mind, because I wasn’t judging or comparing the other women’s bodies to mine, or mine to theirs. I simply noticed that we were all different, and I go there every week to do my work, and I don’t stress over how my body compares.

When I realized that focusing on Olympic weightlifting exclusively felt better to me in my present health and circumstances, I was able to let go of CrossFit pretty easily. I knew that CrossFit wasn’t going to do anything magical to my body. My body would be limited by my own strengths and weaknesses, and while I could certainly work on weaknesses if I chose, it wasn’t going to do anything magical to my body…..so I would be happier if I set myself up for realistic expectations. I work on Olympic weightlifting because it’s a fun challenge and it makes my body FEEL good. Whereas I ran because I thought it would change the way I LOOKED.

I’m not at all suggesting that people should only do sports that they are genetically suited for. I’m suggesting that if your underlying reason for participating in a certain activity is to change your body type, you will probably be disappointed, unless your genetics happen to be inclined towards that body type anyway. If your underlying reason, however, is having fun and feeling good…..you will probably have a rewarding experience, regardless of whether your body changes. Like these women.

It is my hope that by sharing this perspective, that other women who hold the same beliefs I did will open their minds a bit, allowing them to choose activities they enjoy over the ones that they hope will change them. If you are feeling discouraged with your choice of activity, it’s nothing wrong with your body – find something else that feels great to do!


2 thoughts on “Why I Stopped Aspiring to an Athletic Physique

  1. Pingback: Striving for Pull ups (so I don’t die in a Disney movie) | Power, Peace, and the Porch Gym

  2. Pingback: Role Models Part 3: Self-talk and Self-Listening | Power, Peace, and the Porch Gym

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