I have been one of those people who have never (to date) had to really watch what I eat. Whilst my mother was obsessed with her weight and seemed to try every fad diet going (there were a lot of diet books around the house growing up), it was never an issue for me. I ate what I wanted and stayed the same size and shape. I was always pretty comfortable with how I looked and never really thought about trying to change it.
I took up running (and exercise in general) in 2011 after 10 years in a sedentary job post-university. At university, the only exercise I got was walking to and from campus (I was too cheap to pay the bus fare), and jumping around on nights out. During my office years this was much the same as I walked to and from first the office and then the train station. I still jumped around on nights out and attended occasional dance classes (mostly ceroc). My reasons for starting to run and exercise were that I had run out of excuses not to and I wanted to get my body fitter and healthier than it was (a number of deaths in quick succession reminded me of my mortality and how I wanted to extend my pleasurable time on this planet). I was never motivated by what the container looked like, just what the contents could do.
This is just as well, as having been exercising fairly regularly for the last 5 years (at least 3 times a week), my body shape has changed very little. All of my clothes still fit the same with one exception: a ballgown that I wore to a film premiere back in 2003 will no longer do up as I now have some back and shoulder muscles. And I am still pretty happy with how I look.
I am self conscious about a couple of things that I have noticed in photos of me running: my upper arms can look slightly flabby from some angles when I am wearing a straight-cut vest, and when wearing a low-rise pair of shorts then my cheese stomach can make an appearance.
Both of these issues are easily solved by sticking to either racer-back vests or t-shirts as much as possible, and wearing either longer tops or higher-rise shorts to keep the cheese stomach hidden/under control.
My comfort with my body was challenged recently at the England Athletics South West Cross Country Championships in Bicton. The standard was high, and I came in 26th out of 47, 9th in my age category. I didn’t really notice it at the time, but as photos of the event came out afterwards it became obvious that my thighs were twice the size of some of the other competitors. This bothered me more than I was comfortable with.
I reminded myself, however, that unlike many of the other competitors I am primarily a recreational runner, and one that has been running for under 5 years. Dropping some weight would mean that I had less of it to manoeuvre around and would probably lead to an increase in my speed, but at what cost? Sure, I could probably cut out cheese and reduce my sugar intake (which isn’t huge), but life is short and I really like cheese. I don’t want to be like my mother, hyper-aware of how many calories every item she ate contained, weighing herself daily (I don’t own a set of scales, I only know my weight because my GP has me weighed once a year) and depriving herself of foods that she enjoyed.
My clothes fit me, my body does what I ask it to do (for the most part, sometimes it complains), I am happy with what I see in the mirror. I may still grimace slightly when I see photos of myself that I consider unflattering, but I am not going to let them stop me running, or hide myself away as a vision of black in an effort to look smaller (give me bright colours and lots of them, probably all at the same time). I am going to remind myself to judge my body by what it can do, rather than what it looks like. Could I deprive myself of some foods, hit the gym more and get a washboard set of abs? Probably, but I’d rather be able to eat cheese when I want to and just be that little bit slower. I’m still going to run and exercise at the gym, but I’m doing it for the same reasons that I started – to be fitter and healthier (with an added goal of getting faster now that I have caught the running bug), not to change what I look like.
Life’s short – enjoy it.