4 Key Changes That Helped Reverse My Crippling Negative Body Image
Like many girls, I grew up absorbing the message that in order to be liked and accepted, I had to be thin. A perfect storm of voices—from family, media, and even my doctor—combined into one declaration: You're a fat kid. Lose weight. Or else.
The thought of being unloved and not enough because my thighs were thick and I wasn't as small as other girls was enough to kick off a decades-long obsession about my body. In middle school, it meant trying to hide my body and feeling crippling self-consciousness. By the time I finished high school, hating my body was practically a part-time job, and I was hyper-aware of eating foods that had too much fat or too many calories.
Once in college, I picked up a fitness habit. On the surface it probably seemed "healthy"—after all, society praises exercise—but I'd spend hours doing workouts I hated only to wake up the next morning, get on the scale, and hurl insults at myself if the number didn't go down. If I ate something deemed unhealthy, or I ate too much, I'd stay on the cardio machines longer and longer to make up for food sins. I compulsively pinched the fat on my thighs every day for years, measuring myself like a pair of human calipers, seeking the slightest shrinkage.
By the time I was in my early 30s, I'd reached a breaking point. All the restriction, stress, worry, and weight loss diets had failed to make me thin enough. Exercise became another way to numb myself to the failure I felt I was. Thinking about my body consumed so much of my energy. At the end of the 2010 triathlon season, I hit bottom. I saw a photo of myself—in all reality, I'd lost a lot of weight through a combination of undereating and overtraining—and my first thought was, "You look disgusting." I felt resigned to a life of never feeling small enough, and it was hard to imagine there was a way out.
A multitargeted approach to overcoming my negative body obsession.
Quite by chance, I began making a series of choices in four key areas that would change the way I viewed my body and affect the trajectory of my life forever.
First, I turned to real, whole foods, minimized ultraprocessed food, and started eating more nutritious fats and protein. Second, I left the endurance world and began lifting weights. Third, I began sleeping and dealing with stress. And finally, I began questioning and working on my mindset. By making small, gradual changes over time and focusing on ways to nourish myself, I loosened the grip that negative body image had on my life. I had more energy, my moods drastically improved, and my brain fog disappeared. As I got stronger, I stopped obsessing about what my body looked like and instead directed my attention to what my body could do. Finally, I found freedom.
This experience changed my life in such a profound way that I became a nutritionist and strength coach so I could share these four pillars of health with other women:
- Eat nourishing foods
- Move with intention
- Recharge your energy
- Empower your mind
If you're struggling, start making small changes in these 4 key areas.
Feeling stronger and better in your body doesn't come from doing everything, perfectly, all at once. Rather, try to incorporate one or two changes at a time for a month until it becomes consistent. You are bio-individual, with your own unique chemistry, preferences, health history, and life challenges, so remember that what works best for you won't be what works for everyone else. Here are a few nourishing, sustainable habits you might try:
Eat nourishing foods.
- Try a savory breakfast—protein, veggies, and nutritious fats—to stabilize your blood sugar.
- Aim for half your plate filled with veggies to increase fiber and micronutrient intake.
- Chew your food well to help with better digestion.
Move with intention.
- Boost your baseline of low-key movement each day by alternating sitting and standing at work.
- Lift weights at least twice a week to experience the benefits of building muscle. Gaining strength is both physically and mentally empowering.
- Ward off tight, sore tissues with simple self-maintenance techniques. Foam rolling, yin yoga, or mobility work are all brilliant options.
Recharge your energy.
- Close those tabs and single-task when you're working on something creative.
- Help yourself wind down for the night by putting on blue-light-blocking glasses when the sun goes down.
- Step away from social media and email during work breaks to give your brain a break.
Empower your mind.
- Consider your values and identify the top five things that matter most to you right now.
- Challenge self-limiting beliefs by reframing them to positive or, if that feels too hard, to neutral statements. If you think, "I would be so much happier if I was thinner," turn it around to something positive such as, "I really like my smile." If that's too challenging, make it more neutral such as, "I'm grateful for my legs because they carry me around through life."
- Develop a gratitude practice you can do consistently each day. At the end of the day, write down three to five specific things you feel grateful for. The more ordinary, the better because it will help tune your mind to small moments of gratitude.
Experiment and find what works for you.
Experiment to find what resonates most with you and commit to taking action, a little at a time, in the areas you're not already working on. What you can stick with over time will have the biggest impact, but know that you don't have to be perfect to make a difference in how you feel.
To sum it up, pursuing an unattainably perfect body through constant food restriction, exercise as punishment, and mental gymnastics with the scale is something countless women struggle with, but you can choose another way. By incorporating sustainable practices from each of these four core pillars in your life, you'll begin to embrace your body, realize your potential, expand your possibilities, and own your inner power.
Steph Gaudreau is a Nutritional Therapy Consultant, strength coach and author based in San Diego, CA. She has a B.S. in biology with a human physiology concentration from University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She wrote the "Performance Paleo Cookbook" and "The Core 4," and hosts the "Harder to Kill Radio" podcast. Her recipes and expert advice have been featured in Self, Elle, and Coveteur.