I recently saw Embrace, a 2016 Australian documentary directed by Taryn Brumfitt of the Body Image Movement. And although it revolves around her personal story — and the finding that 90% of women are “highly dissatisfied” with their bodies — it gave me a chance to reflect on my journey of finding comfort in my own skin. Like Taryn, I also think sharing my story can help some people. So let’s being.
From the ages of 16 to 26 I ‘lifted’ — I worked out. Like the majority of gym goers today, I wasn’t a competitive athlete but I easily spent over 10 hrs intensely exercising per week; took regular progress photos; researched various training and nutritional approaches; tracked my macronutrients; ate the exact same bland pre-prepared meals multiple times per day, either force-feeding or restricting myself depending on whether I was ‘cutting’ or ‘bulking’; threw my money at the latest supplements that fell far from their claims; and controlled my social schedule so I could have enough time to sleep, eat, and train. It very much was a full-time gig. But I say this all casually only because this behaviour has become so normalised.
I’ve come to realise that the lifter’s lifestyle and mindset is comparable to a hamster wheel. Regardless of how you get on, once you’re on, you. Just. Keep. Going. You get bigger, you get faster; and in response things get easier, so you just push harder. And so the wheel spins.
At the time, I honestly considered ‘having a problem’ to involve absolutely disregarding one’s physical health and condition — the opposite of what I was doing. Here I was striving for improvement, so how could that be a problem? Unfortunately, in the world of athletic pursuits and #fitspo quotes, obsession is often awarded as dedication.
People can be obsessive about anything: motor sports, videos games, fashion — the list is endless. But the thing about lifting is that there’s no downtime. In comparison to a singer who has to first open their mouths or the soccer player who needs a ball; as a lifter, you’re always on display — or at least it feels that way. Yep, it can be a serious mind f*ck. I’ll be clear that I understand that not everyone has a problem. But just like Taryn, I’m leading with my own story here. So let’s get even more personal.
What made me so susceptible was how and when I started. As a teenager, I was the skinny kid that often felt overlooked because of his size. The first time I worked out I immediately felt strong and capable. I was hooked — but still so doubtful anything would come from my new found pursuit that I kept my dumbbells hidden under my bed. Three years later — after joining a proper gym and getting more serious — I had achieved results that I never thought were possible. I had broken many preconceived notions about myself. I had a six-pack, developed muscles in all areas, and strength respectable for my weight. There was no denying I worked out. Far from being embarrassed or secretive; I was now proudly rocking v-necks and everything slim fit.
However, the hamster wheel keeps spinning. My time spent immersed in the fitness world had not only inspired me, it had also submerged me under a familiar sense of inadequacy. The goals posts had moved once again — as they would keep moving. I was stuck in the mindset that things would be so much better if I just drop this amount of body fat, get this body part to catch up, or lift that amount of weight. Regardless if these goals are achieved, there are other benefits to be enjoyed just through the process of trying. These are mostly psychological and I’ll go through some now.
It’s an outlet — as an anxious and emotional person, lifting was often my way of coping. The cocktail of chemicals it released were my drugs of choice when it came to managing stress, anger, and sadness. It’s an identity — the gym allowed me to spend time with my friends, make new ones, and feel like I was part of a wider community. It provides routine — there’s no doubt it forces you keep a tight schedule. It provides a sense of meaning and mastery — both important for our mental health. Adding plates and losing weight provides measurable proof that you’re working towards ‘something’ — regardless of how much that something is actually worth. (I still remember the first thing I did after hitting 170kg on deadlifts was to setup for 180kg with the hopes of finally being in the ‘4 plate club’.)
You may have noticed that I’ve left out self-worth. There’s no doubt lifting makes you feel good and more confident about yourself… but that’s also where the slope starts to get rocky. Where I slipped was ‘putting all my eggs in one basket’. In other words, I considered this whole thing to be far far more important than it was. I didn’t feel I was better than anyone; I just felt like I was someone and worth something because of how I looked; that I was adhering to what was desirable and expected. It helped me to be, and feel, noticed. It was a big part of my identity and the less I felt fulfilled and successful in other areas of my life, the more I clung tighter and tighter to what lifting had given, and made, me. I say, we’re all broken in different ways looking for different pieces in different places.
Eventually I did start to reflect on my relationship with exercise. I thought about how much I was putting in compared to how much I was getting out. As a ‘natty’ (steroid free), progress was slowing and pushing myself was only resulting in injuries that was would leave me feeling deflated in many ways. I needed to get away; I wanted to do other things with my time, but I couldn’t imagine life without something I had known for so long. The more I invested in it, the more I needed it. I seriously worried about who I was without ‘lifting‘. And that was when I realised I had a problem… and that I had no idea what to do about it.
In the timely way that life unfolds, I got offered a chance to break the habit via a volunteer position overseas. I knew going would bring a series of needed changes my life. I just didn’t realise how challenging things would be. My anxiety and feelings of unease came back harder than ever. It’s describable as an itch that I only knew one way to scratch. I noticed my body changing; I felt so naked and unnoticeable. Of course no one remotely cared — no one ever really did — but I certainly felt different about myself which is probably the most important relationship a person can have.
There was one gym on the island, but I avoided it for as long as I could out of fear that I would fall back into my old habits. Eventually, I realised that I needed to learn a few things about balance and moderation. I took things easy with a few weekly sessions, developed other hobbies; and realised that without ‘lifting’, I didn’t evaporate like I imagined.
I returned home after a year with the assumption I’d head right back to the gym — but I remembered I went away for reason. “My amour had fallen” — revealed was a psychologically unhealthy and damaged mentality that lurked under my physically healthy and strong appearance. I had always been interested in self-development and awareness so I recognised I had a new challenge at hand: learning to appreciate myself for being who I am, rather than looking like I’m told I should.
Its taken some work, but I’ve changed my outlook. I’m starting to feel like me again. I was never void of personality to begin with: people say I’m funny, caring, wise, and a good conversationalist — but where I could doubt these things, it was much harder to deny what was tangible and looking back at me in the mirror. It doesn’t help that this culture of celebrity crushes and right swiping places such a large emphasis on appearances and less on other attributes and achievements.
So… what now? Well, it goes back to that lesson on balance. I still exercise, but it’s no longer about some unattainable idea of ‘perfection’. It’s about feeling good in the moment, prolonging my life, and improving my health. There are still times when I remember how things used to be, but they’re becoming less frequent.
Embrace really explored this subject in regards to women — who undoubtedly face the most pressure. But men do feel it and the conversation is starting to come up. In the same way that anoxia has been long recognised, now is ‘bigorexia’ and muscle dysmorphia. ABC recently did a great audio series on it. There’s also a video segment by the BBC which I’ll embed below.
Before you check it out, I’m going to sign off by saying thanks for ‘the spot’ and reading my story. Its been great to get this off my chest (heheh). I know I didn’t discuss any solutions — maybe action movie heroes and toy figurines be less jacked; maybe gyms should have slogans on their walls saying, “read books too” — but I really hope I’ve helped out someone who has been feeling worn out in the wheel. If you know someone that needs to read this, please share it with them. They may not have a problem yet, but they might benefit from slowing down now. Maybe even spending their time exploring other hobbies.
For those puzzled or perhaps thinking that I’m exaggerating — trust me, I’m not. I’m well aware I was still an ant compared to some guys (and girls!) in the gym. But I only ask that you don’t judge someone’s journey from where they end up; consider how far they’ve traveled and the effort they’ve put in.
Last year, I had the chance to meet Ronnie Coleman. For those unaware, he’s the world’s most accomplished bodybuilder to date. Retired and in older age, he’s now injured and not exactly in good health. However, he has posted online that his only regret is not pushing himself harder. This goes to say that we individually decide what is or isn’t a life well spent. I mean, here I am blogging to my tiny following. Go after what makes you happy because you might just end up… happy.
I recognise that lifting gave me so much and it paved the way for me to also apply myself in other areas of my life. If I could rewind ten years and catch myself with one arm curling a 3kg dumbbell with a garden brick tied to it and my other arm holding a protein shake… I’d probably just laugh and leave. But maybe on my out, I’d stick a note on the bathroom mirror that says, “remember, there’s more to you“. If I could condense my entire story into a single sentence for you, it would say the same.
This is a great read Ricky! It is truly inspirational and hopefully Tonga had in some way no matter how tiny contributed to the new goal set stated after you realised “you had a problem” and OFA LAHI ATU to your new journey in life!
Tonga taught me so much about myself and the world. It helped me to see beauty in so many places. With out going to Tonga first, I would never be where I am today!