I was sitting across the desk from my nutritionist, Kim Porterfield, at the Institute of Eating Management in Houston, Texas, anxiously awaiting her to tally up my numbers so she could let me know where I was in regards to body fat. After a few moments, Kim put down her pencil, looked up with a smile and exclaimed, “Congratulations, Elizabeth! You’re at 17% body fat! Great job!” I remember nodding my head and saying, “Oh…ok. So can we re-vamp my meal plan so I can get leaner?” Kim’s smile faded. “Elizabeth…why do you want to be leaner?”
That was an excellent question: why did I want to be leaner? I had the body fat of an athlete, yet I wasn’t satisfied. Why? The sad truth was, I still saw myself as chubby. And if I’m being totally honest with you…I still do. I still look in the mirror every morning and pinch at my stomach, pinch at my hips, and frown at the folds of skin I see in my back when I rotate my trunk. I shake my head, breathe a deep sigh at the “chubby chick” staring back at me, and mumble hopelessly, “Whatever.”
I call my condition “proportion distortion”: logically, I know I’m not overweight by any far stretch of the imagination. However, I take a look in the mirror and a myriad of imperfections manage to catch my eye. When I walk away from the mirror, I’m able to go about my day with no issue. However, when I get home and brave the mirror again, chubby me is there waiting in all her glory.
I blame my condition on two major events. The first event involves the one-year mark after the birth of my first daughter where I still weighed in at 185 pounds. I am only 5’5” on a good day and I promise you, none of that 185 pounds had anything to do with muscle. I had gotten comfortable with my size and it wasn’t until I saw myself in a photograph that I realized what I had allowed to happen to my body. So I changed my eating habits, began working out, and eventually got back to my pre-pregnancy weight of 125. I vowed I would never allow myself to become overweight again. As a result, I became overly critical of myself and any number on the scale that went above my magic number of 125 was a travesty.
The second sequence of life-altering events involved my participation as a natural bodybuilding competitor from the years 2011-2013. I decided to compete in figure because it gave me a new physical goal. However, no one warned me of the real possibility that I may never be happy with my normal physique again. If you have never competed before, let me just tell you that you get ultra lean! In the weeks leading up to show, I had abs for days, quads to die for, and muscles in my back and shoulders were visible that I didn’t know existed! I was thrilled! I wasn’t so thrilled with the post-competition me. The weight came back and I was once again “normal” Elizabeth. To me, though, the “normal” and healthy Elizabeth was chubby. I wasn’t the 185 post-baby Elizabeth, but I certainly wasn’t super lean competitor Elizabeth either. I had become average Elizabeth who weighed 135 pounds, ten pounds over her “magic” number, and I wasn’t very happy with her.
My story is not unique by any means. I have come across many people in the last five years who, like me, experience “proportion distortion” to some extent. My client, Cris, is 58 years old but by her appearance, you would never know it. She is 5’8”, has an amazing physique, and a self-assurance radiates from her in such a way that when she walks into a room, her presence commands attention. However, in the safety of the gym and enveloped in the comfort of myself and her workout partner Nichole, Cris paints a much different picture of herself. She admits to being hypersensitive to criticism and one misconstrued statement can really mess up her mood. “Keep in mind,” Cris says, “that I grew up in the ‘Twiggy’ era where thinner equaled better. Blonde, leggy, and skinny was everywhere.” Ironically, Cris has just described herself: blonde, leggy, and….well ok, she’s not skinny. Rather, she is lean, muscular, and strong. For Cris, then, the generation in which she was raised framed her mindset to see her current self as overweight, in spite of the fact that her thick, muscular frame is what many women in today’s current society seek. “I have to make a conscious decision…to create my reality,” admits Cris. “I am what I think… ‘You are really good!’ and ‘You are really amazing!’” are some of the words Cris uses in an attempt to put the “thin is in” mentality behind her. Some days when she walks into the gym, I can tell her conscious decision to see herself in a positive light has prevailed. Then there are days where I can tell no amount of positive thinking can pull her out of her funk, as she bemoans her “puffy” appearance and as I catch her frowning at her reflection in the gym’s mirrors.
Proportion distortion isn’t limited to women, however. Eric Peratino, co-owner of Center Stage Figures and Physiques, a company specializing in bodybuilding competition posing for females and males, notes that he, too, sees himself in a somewhat skewed light. “When I was 200 pounds, I never wore a shirt…I just didn’t care.” Eric stands at 5’7” so at 200 pounds, he admits it “wasn’t pretty…[n]o working out of any kind.” However, the “I don’t care” attitude left him once he began competing. He had dropped to 145 pounds for his first show so when he achieved a normal, healthy weight of 165 post-show, he suddenly felt “out of shape” and “soft.” He explains these feelings by pointing out he had allowed himself to literally be judged based on his physique so once he stepped off stage, he “felt people were still judging me…people were looking at me to look like that all the time” so the extra weight was not perceived as healthy; rather, it was perceived as unacceptable in the new world of bodybuilding he found himself in. Today, Eric deals with his proportion distortion by simply gauging how he feels as opposed to how he looks: “I don’t feel good at 170 so I don’t go there…it’s past my comfort zone.”
So how does one deal with proportion distortion? Eric’s solution of just paying attention to how he feels is certainly one effective way of coping. Tina Peratino, Eric’s wife and co-owner of Center Stage, offers another effective coping mechanism by suggesting the person “change the message in [her] head…find the things that look great and concentrate on those things.” Ashley Sherbert, an ISMA certified personal trainer in Annapolis, MD, actually utilizes this strategy with her clients who have body image issues: “I have them look at themselves in the mirror and find three things that they love about themselves…and it can be anything: their hair, their nails, the dimple on their nose…anything.” Eventually, she finds that her clients start looking for the good so much that they forget about the perceived bad qualities. Finally, Cris suggests that we work on being aware of triggers: the words or actions that get us caught up in the “negative self-perception trap.” Once we identify the triggers, she suggests we can then adopt techniques that will help us overcome our negative self-perception and focus on all of the positive, unique aspects about ourselves that make us so great.
As for me, it’s still an everyday struggle to not criticize myself. However, I’m fortunate in that I have a great support system of friends who “keep me real” by pointing out the simple fact that at 45, I can still out run and out lift a lot of women ten, even twenty years my junior. So when proportion distortion rears its ugly head and chubby Elizabeth starts her taunts, I try to remember where I once was and where I am now and I remind myself I’m doing more than ok…I’m doing great!
Elizabeth Anastasopolous is a NASM Certified Personal Trainer/NASM FNS (Fitness Nutrition Specialist); TRX Certified Trainer and Lean Body Coach
To contact Elizabeth visit her website or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org