Gymnastics (like many aesthetic sports) has a long and complicated history with distorted body image. The basis of our sport is about being judged on how close you can get to perfection - unfortunately, sometimes the line between judging the skills and routines and judging the person gets blurred.
There are so many stereotypes in the sport of gymnastics that are built on assumptions and folk-lore.
"Gymnasts have to be small."
"Lighter girls fly higher."
"You need to have a gymnast body."
Sadly, many gymnasts feel like if they don’t meet this “thin, lithe” standard of the “gymnast body”, then they are not going to “make it.”
It is so important for you to remember that there is no one “gymnast body”.
All bodies are meant to be different and that is normal. Trying to make your body look a way it was not meant to be will only lead to injuries, decreased performance, mental stress, (and the very real possibility of developing a serious eating disorder).
The reality is, body image actually has very little to do with physical shape and way more to do with how you talk to and treat yourself.
So, here are some things you can do to help build a better body image.
5 Steps to Build a Better Body Image
1. Build Awareness Around Self Talk
Take a moment to think about your body. Did you compliment yourself or say how good you feel and look with your body? Or, did you point out the things you hate or wished were different about your body?
Unfortunately, more often than not, we speak negatively to ourselves about our body. Would you speak to someone you love the way you do to yourself? Probably not.
Instead, challenge that negative dialogue. Consider why you talk down to yourself and what makes it okay to say these things.Then, challenge those thoughts and beliefs with a positive framework!
2. Detox Your Social Media Feed
Comparison is the thief of joy. Social Media is full of what we think are “perfect bodies” which only adds to how we think about ourselves when we compare our bodies to those carefully curated and posed images. No one is perfect and neither is any one body type, even for competitive gymnastics.
Be mindful of the messages you feed yourself. Take some time to unfollow accounts (no matter how famous or good at gymnastics they are) that make you feel bad, inferior, or put toxic ideas in your head. Instead, follow accounts that create a positive feeling about your body image or make you feel genuinely good about yourself.
3. Wear Clothes That Fit
Your body is meant to grow, change, and adapt. Stop holding on to clothes (including leotards) that don’t fit your body today and find clothes that fit you here-and-now.
When shopping for clothes, workout gear, or leos, start with a comfort test. When you go into the dressing room, try on the clothing facing away from the mirror first. Without looking, feel the item out. Does it fit well? Is it tight or scratchy? If it doesn’t fit well or feel good, take it off without even looking in the mirror. When starting with positive, happy, comfortable feelings, we eliminate the chance to beat ourselves up.
4. Give Yourself Permission To Be Human
As a gymnast, I know you strive for perfection. However, so often, that perfectionist mentality (and all-or-nothing, black-and-white mindset) is actually holding you back from being your best self. It’s easy to let a mistake or outcome define you. And it’s easy for that definition to become a negative cycle and a downward spiral.
Give yourself permission slips at every opportunity you need. Permission to not be perfect, to eat food, miss a workout, rest, WHATEVER. When we don’t give ourselves permission, we hold our lives to an impossible standard and beat ourselves up when we don’t achieve that goal.
When you begin to give yourself permission, set realistic goals, and celebrate the small wins, that’s when you start to build trust with your body again.
To create a positive body image you must give yourself gratitude. A practice I love to use with athletes I work with is making a body gratitude list of all the AMAZING things that your body does for you every single day. Keep a running list of everything your body does or allows you to do. It can be your body as a whole or an individual body part. No matter how small, be sure to acknowledge how incredible your body is.
Your relationship with your body is the longest relationship you will ever be in! It’s time to start investing to make it the healthiest relationship possible. This is not about going from one extreme to another, or waking up and proclaiming "I love my body" (although that can be pretty awesome too!). This is about curiosity and honesty so you can start to build a better relationship with your body in order to give it the kindness, empathy, and compassion that you give to others.