Decouple body image from self-worth to find your confidence

In my mid 20s, I volunteered for a programme called Lunch Bunch where women would go into schools to talk to kids about a certain topic. My topic was ‘self-esteem and body image‘.

I should have taken my own advice. I needed all that information and validation myself and yet, here I was, talking as the ‘expert’ for these pre-teens.

The young girls loved the sessions and I loved being a mentor for them on this topic. I was far from an expert, though. I just a woman who thought she ate healthy, worked out and lost weight and felt others should do the same.

While researching for these sessions, I learned about how directly related our body image is to our self-esteem – a concept I had never thought of before and I definitely didn’t apply it in my own life.

According to one source: “Body image and self-esteem directly influence each other and a person’s feelings, thoughts, and actions. If a youth doesn’t like their body or a part of their body (poor body image) it is hard for them to feel good about their whole self (positive self-esteem). The reverse is also true”.

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Damaging body image

I don’t think at this time in my life, I realized how bad my own body image was and why I was so hard on myself.

But now, as I have started to work on my mindset and as I have begun reflecting on my journey to where I am today, I know how my self-esteem was intricately tied into how I looked and felt in my body.

I never really remember feeling comfortable with my looks. I think as a child and young teen, it was more about not feeling pretty and it really didn’t have to do with my body. It wasn’t until I was in university and gained the ‘freshman 15’ that my self-esteem and self-confidence were affected by how my clothes fit – or didn’t fit – and how I looked at myself in the mirror.

I started Weight Watchers and restricted my calorie intake so much that my lunch was just half a bagel, 1 slice of non-fat cheese and some sliced fresh veggies.

I also started working out at the university gym and hired a trainer. My obsession with restriction and over-exercising had begun. It was also the time when my internal battle began. Throughout the next 20 years or so, I continued to battle with myself.

Despite one diet after another, and cardio session after cardio session, doubled up with weight training, I never felt confident and never loved my body.

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Spinning her wheels

I got lucky and married a great guy who constantly told me to set up a photo shoot, no matter what my body looked like. I always answered: “I just need to lose 5 kilos … I just need to get my stomach flatter … I just need to …”

He could never understand why I was uncomfortable with family dinners and nights out with friends, or why it was hard for me to just go for an unplanned meal out or a simple ice cream with the kids.

And he hated that I felt that I to get up every morning to go to the gym for two hours. But I did it all anyway, for years. Yet, nothing changed. Not my body and definitely not my self-confidence.

Then the pandemic hit. Gyms closed and the only retreat to the outside world it seemed was going for walks. On one of those solo walks, I had a long talk with myself. I was 46 years old and I was tired.

I was tired of spinning my wheels. Tired of coaching women to love their bodies and helping them see food as fuel and not as ‘good or bad’, yet, at the same time, putting so much pressure on myself because I should know better and I should do better. Those rules never applied to me.

I was tired of not loving my body and for living with such battered self-confidence. I wanted a goal and I wanted help.

I came home and made the announcement that I was signing up for a fitness photoshoot and hiring a coach.

It is no secret that hiring a coach, especially for something like a photoshoot as the goal, is expensive. I almost chickened out as I had not expected to spend that much on myself. But I can now confirm that every cent was worth it.

There is no price tag you can place on growing your self-confidence and how you view and appreciate your body. It took me 46 years, but I finally got there.

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Invest in yourself

Making the decision to invest in myself by hiring a coach and putting a plan together to book a fitness photoshoot was the first step in building myself up and looking at myself differently.

Making myself accountable to someone with more knowledge and an unbiased opinion about me kept me more focused and disciplined than if I did it on my own. It is much easier to make excuses to yourself than it is to someone else who you have to check in with.

My coach also changed my usual sweaty, all-out, body-damaging workouts, which shifted my view about working out. I used to feel that if I wasn’t drenched in sweat and working out hard for two hours, I was not really working out.

With my new programmes, I cut out the cardio for the most part and did strength training for approximately 45 minutes. Did I question this? Was I afraid I made an expensive mistake? Oh yes!

By my coach simply said “where has your extensive and exhausting workouts gotten you?” when I questioned her.

And she was right. They got me nowhere. They just punished my body instead of building it. They forced me to pick myself apart and blame myself for not seeing changes.

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The mindset reset

That was the beginning of my mindset shift and I realised that to improve your self-confidence and your body confidence, it has to start with your mind.

I started telling myself that working out was not to just get skinny. I wanted to pay more attention to the muscles moving with each exercise. I wanted to feel my body move and to envision it changing.

I also started to change some of my language around food. The group I was a part of never used the term “cheat meal” but instead uses “free meals” because the connotation of cheat meals means you are cheating on something. But eating off plan is not cheating. Now we eat an off-plan meal, enjoy it and move on.

The typical feelings of guilt and the subsequent punishing cardio session the day after were no longer there.

I started to look at food as more than just fuel or as the enemy. My relationship with food became what many others see it as – an opportunity to bring together friends and family. Eating is about tradition, culture and, sometimes, just fun.

Was it easy to shift this mindset? Absolutely not. But this stage in my life, I no longer wanted food to rule me. I had to make a conscious efforts to get those long-serving thoughts out of my head.

Group think

I also believe in surrounding yourself with people who have the same goals and interests. The group I joined was full of women who had also struggled with food or body image. They were going through or had gone through the same transformation.

I couldn’t believe how many friends I made without ever meeting any of them in person. Many supported me as I got closer to my photoshoot with tips and advice and the encouragement and support I needed.

And the more I focused on my goal of getting to that photoshoot, the more my confidence grew. I dressed better and felt better in my clothes. I accepted compliments without interrupting the people who were making them.

I allowed myself to feel proud of working hard during my workouts, and for my changing relationship with food. I learned when you keep those promises to yourself, your self-love can’t help but explode!

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Make yourself a priority

We often make excuses and break promises to ourselves. We don’t typically break promises to others but we can easily push ourselves down the priority list. With every day that you don’t break a promise to yourself, you are subconsciously building yourself up!

I made a promise to trust the process with my coach, even though it was different to what I was used to and progress was slower than I wanted. I listened to her advice and trusted the process. More importantly, I never quit.

On 24 September 2021, I walked into the photography studio as one person and I walked out a totally different woman. It was not because I had this massive physical transformation – I had lost about 4 kg and a few centimetres – but I was so proud of myself.

I had put myself first for seven months to reach that point. And I pushed through every struggle and setback for me. I didn’t sabotage my efforts and I never said I can’t do this.

Every day I told myself I deserved to be free from the self-critiques and the skin pinching when I looked in the mirror.

I told myself that my body does not define my worth. My body birthed two babies, carried them for the first few years of their lives, takes me wherever I want to go, and allows me to push through some amazing personal bests in the gym.

When I left that photoshoot, I felt empowered by the accomplishments that had led me there. I felt sexy, strong and beautiful. But it wasn’t my body I was most in love with, it was my confidence and the way I carried my body. And I left there feeling that every girl and woman should feel this good about themselves.

A photoshoot may not be the thing for all, and it doesn’t have to be. But working with your body instead of against it and detaching your body to your self-worth is imperative and priceless.

By Carm Bozzo

About the author: Carm Bozzo is a health and wellness coach for women who are tired of restricting and resenting food and who want to get stronger, leaner and happier. You can find her on IG at @upandlifting

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

When he's not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He's worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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