‘I don’t want to look like that!’ Challenging body image expectations

How has powerlifting changed our perceptions of body image?

Societal pressure affects perception, especially in teenage years

During my teenage years, I, like many others, struggled with dealing with how my body looked in comparison to what was ‘ideal’ in society and the media.

Left: 2014 43kg Right: 2018 68kg

I would scroll through various social media feeds full of small, skinny girls with thigh gaps and visible collar and hip bones and idealise them. This is what society told me I should look like so I forced myself to lose weight to try and obtain this unnatural image of “beauty”. Eating less and losing weight on the scale was a measure of success. It was only when societal ideals started to tend towards a slightly more “toned” female physique, that my goals changed.

Similarly, in his teenage years, Raghul saw films like Rocky and admired the physiques, thinking it would be desirable to be large, muscular and lean.

Both of us felt the pressure to look a certain way – what society deemed as “most aesthetic”.

Bodybuilding is a common starting point but can have negative effects on body image

For many when they start gaining an interest in weights, bodybuilding is the most accessible form of training. It requires less specialised equipment and is generally based around easier movements than powerlifting and weightlifting.

Certainly for Raghul, who began his foray into the gym with bodybuilding, this was the most appealing route. I also initially found most of my information and inspiration from various bodybuilding competitors.

Because of the strong aesthetic focus in bodybuilding, it can be easy to lose yourself in the sport and become obsessed with body image. When progress is based upon the growth of particular muscles, or losing fat to get leaner, it can be easy to get into the habit of picking your body apart.

On his initial journey to getting bigger and gaining muscle, Raghul did manage to maintain a level of self-awareness and objectiveness that the weight and fat gain he was seeing were both temporary. However he did become more obsessed with evaluating his body, often pinching parts which he deemed were carrying excess fat.

I struggled with seeing various bikini competitors on her social media feeds, with seemingly perfect bodies, following regimented diets to maintain their leanness but also seemingly gaining muscle simultaneously. Seeing the scale weight start to increase then led to negative developments with my relationship with food.

Moving the focus from what the body looks like to what it can do

Starting to take powerlifting seriously as a sport helped both of us shift our focus from body image to performance. The ability to lift more weight soon became much more important than the amount of body fat being carried. Sessions became focused around pushing weights and improving technique, rather than picking bodies apart.

Certainly, neither of us forgot about our appearances entirely, and the sport does allow for some degree of control over body shape and composition. Taking the sport more seriously also brought a certain degree of aesthetic, in fact. Naturally, if you push the body to its limit, it will be forced to adapt, for example by growing more muscle in the legs to be able to squat more.

To be an athlete means having to sacrifice a degree of autonomy over your body shape, since performing the best means you have to allow it to adapt for your sport.

Dealing with the Mental Side of Bulking

Both of us have recently decided to move up a weight class to improve performance. This has resulted in the need to confront the mental side of gaining mass, especially coming from a place of being quite lean. But this was aided by surrounding ourselves with people who see bulking as beneficial due to the performance benefits it brings. Coming from a history of wanting to constantly lose weight, it definitely was an internal fight for me, but have found it to be a win overall.

Becoming part of the powerlifting community has also been beneficial for coping with body image issues. Since powerlifters don’t tend to be as lean as bodybuilders, it becomes more “socially acceptable” to be less lean.

Additionally there is scientific backing to suggest there is a level of body fat below which performance is negatively affected. That isn’t to say that we can just bulk ad infinitum – there is also an upper bound for competitive lifters, as you want to be carrying as much muscle mass as possible within your weight class to give you an advantage and potential to lift more weight. But this gives more flexibility and hence a healthier, more moderate approach to body composition.

There is much more leniency within powerlifting as to what an “acceptable” and “aesthetic” body looks like body fat-wise and muscle mass-wise due to the variability of body types in the sport.

Changing your Social Media Feed

Surrounding ourselves with powerlifters has also extended to what we expose ourselves to on social media.

Having a greater interest in functional performance results in a different social media feed, one more focused on seeing people lifting weights rather than just seeing selfies of lean individuals. This likely has a feedback type effect, with seeing more people lifting for performance, making us want to perform better too. Of course, this can have a negative side: whilst maybe you no longer care to look like what you see, you may desire to perform like them. And if you don’t at the moment, that may not feel great. But the routes to perform better are healthier, in our experience, than the routes to look ‘better’.

Takeaway: Performance-oriented goals > image-related goals

We’ve found that setting goals aligned to how we perform at something (whether that be how much you lift, how many pressups you can do, your 5km time etc.) can lead to a better relationship with your body.

Whilst we may never look like what society deems as ‘ideal’, we can always work to increase our strength, our endurance and our skill. And often, we look and feel healthier as a result.

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