I won my first figure competition when I was 24. That evening, I was on top of the world – the leanest I’d ever been, sitting at 11% body fat, abs popping, my friends and family cheering me on from the crowd, elated at having accomplished something that very few people would ever be able to sacrifice enough for.
Growing up an athlete and then later as a fitness instructor and personal trainer, I’d always loved exercise. Lifting weights especially changes something in you. The physical strength you gain begets mental strength.
It’s not a coincidence that resistance training has been shown in research to be significantly effective in impacting depression. Ask anyone who is in her first year of consistent and intense training, and she’ll tell you that changing her body using the iron is a microcosm for changing her life.
It’s addicting. And for 99% of people, it’s a healthy addiction. But for me, and many who have dipped their toes into the world of physique competitions, it turned out to be not so healthy.
Within two weeks after my show, I gained 15 pounds, almost all the weight I’d lost during prep. I was mortified, horrified and depressed. How had that happened? How had I let that happen? How come no one warned me? I don’t even recognize myself. All that hard work wasted! I am a fat failure.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Well, looking back, of course it was inevitable. I had no idea about the kind of depletion I endured when prepping for a show. I wasn’t prepared, mentally or physically, and so I ate. My willpower was completely drained after 12 weeks of prep, and I ended up eating everything in sight – things I’d missed, things I hadn’t missed, things I didn’t even know I wanted, things I didn’t even like. It was as if the brakes on my self-discipline had not just eased, but completely shattered.
And so deep in my mental spiral and helplessness, I decided the only way to feel back in power was to…train for another show. And I did. And I got even leaner the next time, punishing my body with hours of cardio every day and zero-carb diets.
And the cycle continued. On and on, over the next 5 years, I used figure competitions and modeling jobs as a kind of weight management strategy. I always have to have an event on the horizon that I could prep for. They were standing goals that I needed to achieve in order to feel beautiful, appreciated and worthy.
Well this, it turns out, was a trap. After years of competing and modeling, hundreds of affirmations about my looks and my physique and congratulations on my achievements, I still did not feel good enough. I had zero self-worth outside of my physique.
I distinctly remember one night, complaining to my husband that I was “fat” during one of my off-seasons—at a size 6! After years of seeing me mentally berate myself and undermine my power, he finally just said, “Jill, you have so much more to offer than your looks. You’re a great writer, intelligent, driven, and you have your master’s degree for God’s sake! Use those things to make a difference.”
Of course he was right, but I couldn’t hear it at the time. All I could hear was the voice in my head telling me my body wasn’t good enough and I needed to get leaner, stronger, more muscular, better.
See, here’s the thing about physique aspirations. They can be transformative and beneficial, but only in so far as you can see and value your adequacy outside them. Because it’s the easiest thing to go down the physique rabbit hole, to the point that you lose all perspective. Nothing is ever enough.
The Incessant Need To Prove You Are Good Enough
The world of figure and bodybuilding is the only subjective sport on earth. You don’t win based on a time or a number of points scored. You win based on the biased mind of the humans judging your physique. And while many organizations have done a good job of working to systematize the judging and train judges to be consistent, at the end of the day, it’s still another human deciding if your physique is the best one on stage.
Fine. But remember, getting feedback at shows is also an unending pursuit. They tell you to get your legs leaner, so you work to do that, but now you complain because your strength is suffering. So then you work on building your strength, only to lose your cardiovascular capacity. So you build that back up, and now your arms are too thin because you’ve lost muscle. And on and on, an incessant need to prove you are good enough.
Can you see how unless you simply decide, on some level, that you are adequate, worthy and just fine without having to change anything on your body, the misery of dissatisfaction will never abate?
In the book ‘Happier,’ author Tal Ben-Shahar notes that for people who work toward a goal simply out of a need to prove their worthiness, the dominant emotion when they achieve it is not happiness or accomplishment, but relief. And even that relief is short-lived. Because when your self-worth relies exclusively on outside praise and affirmation, it’s a never-ending pursuit.
Pursuit With Perspective
So what’s the solution? If it’s not a continual string of fitness competitions and less and less body fat to ensure your self-worth, should we just give up?
Of course not. In fact, for many people, having a little dissatisfaction can fuel their efforts. But there is a huge difference between positive motivation and motivation driven by fear and misery. Paired with a deep sense of inner adequacy, and a learned gratitude for yourself that doesn’t depend on arbitrary standards of beauty or what someone else thinks your body needs to look like, pursuit is healthy and transformative.
Ben-Shahar, along with other positive psychologists like NY Times bestselling author Shawn Achor assert that people who report feeling the happiest and most fulfilled are those who can find ways to feel worthy and grateful in the present, while also striving for something more in the future.
In other words, they don’t need that something more to feel appreciated, but they choose the pursuit because they understand it truly is the journey and not the destination. It’s pursuit with perspective.
The key is working on the inner you. Get your mind right first, and your physique will follow. You succeed not because you have to punish yourself, but because you love and appreciate yourself.