Balancing the Mirror

Like most women who discover strength training for the first time, my perceptions and expectations of my body have changed dramatically since I started CrossFit 2 years ago. I’ve never really been overweight, but I’ve never been an athlete (my athletic background mostly consists of aggressive show choir choreography) and I gained some weight after college that I wasn’t terribly comfortable with. I wanted to look like a 5’3-tall version of a Victoria’s Secret Model–long, thin, graceful, and yet somehow still vaguely athletic. I used to think that you achieved these things by eating canned tuna and raw spinach and going on hour-long runs twice a day, which was a problem, because I hate running, can’t stand raw spinach, and the only way I’ll eat tuna is if it’s equal parts mayonnaise. So, needless to say, I didn’t get very far.

But then I found CrossFit and weightlifting, and my Pinterest-board images of lithe women holding dancer’s pose with one hand and a water bottle full of detoxifying lemon-ginger water in the other hand were replaced with gifs of Camille doing muscle ups and Diane Fu hang-snatching, and I learned, most importantly, that there is no one-size-fits all approach to fitness and health. So I put my scale away, and I haven’t looked back.

Or at least, that’s what I tell myself.

But the truth is that I still care what I look like, and while I no longer have an “ideal” body type, sometimes I look in the mirror and can’t help but think that I put in way too much damn work to still be this squishy. But on the other hand, I am constantly hearing that I should care more about what my body can DO than how it LOOKS, and so I shouldn’t worry about putting on weight in the pursuit of performance.

However, I’m pretty sure that the squish that I’m talking about has nothing to do with my back squat and everything to do with the nachos I had for breakfast yesterday morning. And while a lot of people I know have been embracing the “Eat to Perform” or “Eat Big Lift Big” mentality lately, I just can’t get on board. I tried Eat to Perform and constantly found myself having to coach myself through big meals, which felt almost as unhealthy as depriving myself of food. The result has been an awkward combination of clean eating and extremely un-clean eating that has, in all honestly, gone beyond “experimenting with my diet” and now leans more towards just being lazy.

But more than anything, as I got more and more sucked into the Eat to Perform message forums, I started feeling like unless I was a bikini or fitness competitor, it was no longer ok for me to say that I want to lean out. In fact, I’ve sort of been feeling like being vocal about my aesthetic goals somehow will give off the impression that I’m not that serious about my strength and fitness goals.

I don’t know how I’ve managed to swing this far on the other side of the pendulum, because I’m pretty sure that most athletes would agree with me that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get rid of body fat. But somehow I’ve gotten to the point where I’m almost embarrassed to talk about aesthetic goals, because I feel like I should be a better role model for embodying the concept that it doesn’t matter how you look, as long as you’re healthy.

So, just for the record: I want to look like an athlete, and that, to me, means having visible muscles and a flat stomach. I have strength and performance goals, but I also have aesthetic goals, and that doesn’t make me less serious about my fitness. I have a feeling that almost nobody who’s reading this would argue that point, but for some reason, that is the mindset I’ve gotten myself in… so now I guess it’s time to get myself out of it.

  • Carol Setters

    Consider how strength and performance goals are just as much an optional choice as aesthetic goals. I mean, what greater good are we serving by being stronger than the average woman? So we can protect the clan if we come under attack from the savages in the next valley over?
    Aesthetic care may not equate as completely as strength to longevity and health, but a lot of it does, and it can reflect the more intangible quality of harmony within. I enjoy seeing women who value beauty in a mastery of personal style.

    • kristinagadbury

      well said carol. i love that last paragraph.

      and i love love love this post claire. i relate 100 percent!

  • Recee

    Just wanted to say thank you for saying everything I have been thinking for like forever! I have been reading your blog for the past 4 months or so and I have enjoyed every post…they are so real and relevant. I have been doing Crossfit for the past 9 months and yes I have gotten stronger and feel better but my body has not totally morphed in to muscles and a flat stomach and I know it is what I put in my mouth but knowing and doing is two totally different things! So just want to say you are not alone at having it all strength, performance, and aesthetic goals! I try to believe it is all about balance, but finding that balance is not that easy!

  • Terri

    It’s about finding the best various of YOU that YOU want to find, right? Leaned out… strong and healthy.. or that magic number on the scale. No two humans have the same fitness goal or aesthetic goal. Keep doing what feels good to YOU.. (unless it’s an entire cheesecake after a workout :)

  • Jacki

    Right there with you Claire. For the last few months, I was “eating to perform”. I told myself putting on weight meant I could lift heavier things. Know what happened? I may be able to lift heavier, but my body doesn’t handle this weight well and I die in anything that requires any amount of endurance. As a Crossfitter, I need to be balanced.

    I also ended up with excess weight around the middle that screams “Not an athlete” when I look in the mirror. And not fitting into last year’s spring & summer clothes is depressing (although most of that is the thighs and butt pulling at the seams)..

    Yes, I want to feel like the best version of me, but I also what my outsides to reflect that. No, it won’t look like my 20 year-old self (I’m 38), but it sure as heck shouldn’t be squishy.

  • http://beauty-and-the-box.com/ Shelly

    I competed in Fitness & Figure several years ago and while I am grateful for the experience, I would argue that the typical competitors diet is not sustainable. Not to mention it was incredibly difficult to stabilize my metabolism after a show. I’ve recently switched over to CrossFit and have fallen in love with the fact that it is based purely on athleticism. I think the body of a Crossfitter is far more attractive than that of a Victoria Secret model or fitness/figure competitor.

  • Rebecca

    I have the same thoughts about ETP as you do and struggle with the same things. When I did it last year, my strength shot thru the roof (but that was coming off of 2 months of CNS where I lost a ton of strength) but my size did as well. They preach that it is a gradual process, and I totally get that but I’m not as serious about my CF habits anymore as I was, say, a year ago. And I’m okay with that. I want to lose the excess fat that has accumulated around my hips and belly (and don’t get me started on the back fat rolls!) but I also see stuffing myself with food just to hit my macros as detrimental to my sanity as micro managing to make sure I don’t go over my carbs or fat, and it started to mess with my head.

    My strategy now? Taking it back to basics, ala Marks Daily Apple. Eat when I’m hungry, stop when I’m full. Eat intuitively. If I want some sweet potatoes, have some. Limit my sugars. I know that ETP is all about CARBS CARBS CARBS but my body and my insulin resistance is not hip to that. And once I start to add rice in on a regular basis, then other stuff starts to follow: chocolate, ice cream, then I’m off the wagon for 2-3 days eating everything I shouldn’t be eating, feeling like crap and hating myself.

    But. I still love when my quads pop after a squat session :)

    I’m ready to get off this train.

  • Donna Eckstein

    I so completely agree! It’s something I have been struggling with since I started crossfit, but I think you hit the nail on the head here! I love how I feel after smashing a WOD and I am so happy to know that I am getting stronger, but that doesn’t mean that I suddenly am above caring about how I look. I work out to feel my best and part of that is looking in the mirror and liking how I look! There will always be parts of our bodies that cant be changed, but beyond accepting those things, it’s always nice to look in the mirror and see the results of our hard work in the gym! I think it all comes down to eating and force feeding ourself to make gains or telling ourselves its ok to eat things we know are unhealthy just because we work out hard, is just detrimental to achieving our goals, if your goal is, like mine, to fuel my body without gaining body fat! great blog post

  • Kelsey Ann Yoki

    This post = my brain and thoughts RIGHT NOW.
    And honestly, your challenge and my gym’s challenge could not have come at a better time. I have been wanting to zero in on my eating, and I think this will help me to figure out my squishy. There was a point that I was putting on muscle, but my clothes were fitting right…and now that has changed. I agree – I LOVE what my body can do now and never thought I could be and feel this strong – but I still have a little bit in my mind of what I want to look like as well.

  • Gabby

    I LOVE THIS. I think people forget that your goals are just that…YOURS! No one’s goals are better than anyone else’s whether they involve a six pack, a double bodyweight deadlift, or both. I also think it’s kind of necessary to experience both sides – eating super clean and then eating a whole heck of a lot. I personally have done both and find myself now with the opportunity to be able to lean out a bit (woohoo for almost off-season) and still maintain my strength. ETP is good, paleo is good, it’s all good but ultimately, it’s all about experimenting and finding what works best for you.

    Shaming others for wanting something different is just not nice – if we discourage doing it for things like wearing makeup to the gym, we shouldn’t do it to other people’s goals. Just play nice everyone!

  • Amy @ The Little Honey Bee

    Amazing post.

  • Lauren

    This really resonates with me. Thank you for sharing!

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