It felt the same as it used to when I was a kid. On Tuesdays, we’d catch the bus from our village primary school to a swimming pool in a nearby town. On the way, I wasn’t thinking about the fun I’d have with my friends or getting my 500m badge, I was thinking about taking my shirt off in the changing rooms and walking to the swimming pool in my trunks, and I hated it. Years later, while I was at a course learning to take skinfold calliper measurements, I felt the same feeling as I used to on that bus to Carnforth as a 10-year-old.
I was taking the role of model for a demonstration in front of a class of students. I had to stand on a box wearing just my shorts while my skin was pinched and pulled for everyone to see. One fellow student said later that evening “at least you have abs”, but that’s never been the point. Body confidence for me was much more than whether I had a six pack or not.
I’ve had clients that are 120kg that will happily wear a boob tube and hotpants without a second thought (and not just the women!), and I’ve had clients that are 60kg that won’t come to the gym without a jumper on. Understanding what makes us feel good in our body can’t be as easily linked to our exact weight, so what makes the difference between volunteering for the full Monty, and wearing shell suits and sarongs on the beach?
Body confidence is simply how we feel about the way we look. If we’re body confident, we except the good, and bad bits about ourselves. Not being entirely happy with my body is something I’m completely used to, but the reasons for it are harder to put my finger on. Being a geek 24/7 so you don’t have to, I had a look at the scientific literature to see if I could make sense of any of it.
- How we view our own bodies is complex, but it can be divided into perceptual and attitudinal
- Perceptual is how we judge or body size, shape or weight
- Attitudinal involves the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours about our body. It’s this that determines body confidence.
- it’s also important to recognise that body image is in constant flux. It’s not something set in stone. Although negative body confidence can start in childhood, it should be seen as a process rather than a product
This last point is important. If our body image is a moving target, that means we have the ability to change how we feel. More on that in a second. First, let’s look to see if there are any differences in gender or background on how we perceive ourselves.
In terms of how fat we think we are, there are significant gender differences.
- 31% of male Europeans say they think their weight is too high
- 43% of female Europeans say they think their weight is too high
- Women are more prone to feel overweight at any BMI than men
Not only is there a gender difference, but there’s also a difference between the perception of your current weight and your level of education.
- The most highly educated people are more likely to view themselves as overweight
- Although these people do make comparisons to other people, for instance comparing their size to their peer group or friends, they are more concerned with their own weight.
If you’re educated, it seems that being the same as your friends don’t cut it. It’s likely you hold yourself to a higher standard. The great news is that this is in our control. We just need to stay focused on what the goal is.
I can try and get all motivational and talk about empowerment, and loving yourself or whatever, but I’d be lying if I said it was that easy.
Comparing ourselves to our own ideal, or trying to beat it is human nature, but how do we get past that so it doesn’t turn into a negative? The answer is we make a change.
When I work with clients who want to look and feel better I concentrate on two things; maximising muscle mass, and minimising fat. It doesn’t matter if you’re a guy wanting to look like the next jacked Men’s Fitness cover model, or a woman wanting to turn heads in her bikini on the beach, the means to get there are the same. With a combination of diet and training, not only can you change the way you look, you can change the way you feel about the way you look.
You might think that making these kind of changes is overwhelming, but if you break them down, it’s simpler than you think. Here’s how.
- You can still do cardio, sports, or anything outside of the weight room, but to change your body, you should train with weights at least twice a week. Even if you don’t want to get jacked, being “toned” or “shaped” or whatever still comes down to no just minimising fat, but also maximising muscle. You don’t have to want to be the next big shot bodybuilder, but you still need to train like one, until your goals, however modest, are met.
- The biggest predictor of a change in muscle mass is strength gains. Make sure your program supports getting stronger and don’t just rock up and lift the same weight each week, aim to beat it.
- If you’re a woman and you’re afraid of looking like a bodybuilder or getting “bulky”, trust me when I tell you that it isn’t going to happen. In a study by Taspinar et al lifting weights improved self-esteem and body image more than Hatha yoga. Lifting weights won’t make you massive if you’re a woman, not without lots and lots of pharmaceutical help, but it will make you more confident.
Say fuck you to functional training
- If you think your gym session should involve standing on a Bosu ball on one leg while overhead pressing 2lb dumbbells, you aren’t going to get very far. Squats, deadlifts, and presses should form the meat and potatoes of your program, and the wobble board should be thrown in the bin.
- To lose fat you need to eat in a way that ends up with you consuming fewer Calories than you consume. There are tonnes of ways to do this but my favourite is to track what you eat with an app. For a while at least. Honestly, the amount of times someone has come to me saying they are eating 1,000 calories and not losing any weight only to find out there eating twice as much after I’ve taught them how to track is crazy. Tracking gives you an understanding of how many cals are in the foods you eat.
- If you don’t know where to start with Calories, for a super quick estimation of the Calories needed for fat loss, take your weight in kg and multiply it by 22 to 26. Use the lower number if you’re fairly sedentary, and the higher number if you’re not.
- Protein is beneficial to a diet because it helps you stay full, and helps build muscle
- If you’re following what I said above, aim to get anywhere from 1.2g per kilogram of body weight and up to twice as much as that if you want to get super lean and or jacked.
Still, eat the foods you love
- Being on a diet doesn’t mean sticking to bland uninteresting foods forever. If you want to fit in booze and burgers like my clients do, you can still do that if you still pay attention to the number of Calories you consume.
- In fact, leaving out certain foods might actually make your diet harder to stick to. In a study by Loria-Kohen et al, two groups of women went on low-Calorie diets. One group were allowed to eat bread as part of their diet, while the other group were not. The women who were allowed to eat bread actually stuck to the diet better and got better results.
Confidence in how you look isn’t built by setting overly vain, or unrealistic expectations; it’s achieved by taking small steps, one at a time, to get the body you want. Use the starting points outlined above to start building body confidence now.
I might never look in the mirror and think “that’s good enough” to myself, and that’s ok; but by striving to be a little bit better, and not giving myself a hard time, I can improve my body confidence bit by bit, and so can you.
Build a roadmap to your physique and health goals now and learn the skills to stay on the path forever: