Abs[ence] of Self-Love

From a young age, I always noticed that I had a "belly". So much so that I hated the word "belly" with a fiery passion. To this day, the word still makes me queasy. But I always felt like I was overweight in some regard simply because I had a "belly". What exacerbated the situation was that I chose to be competitive in swimming, where I would wear a simple Speedo brief. And I felt like I stood out (or rather stood "rounder") in the way I didn't want to: I was one of the "fat" ones in a sea of tall, skinny swimmers.

This feeling was a predominant issue throughout most of my swimming career, when I first started swimming year-round at around age 5. For nearly 16 years of competitive swimming, I never felt comfortable. I always felt like I didn't belong physically. Again, adding to that sense of non-belonging, I would compete at Nationals, standing 5'9"ish with a midsection of some fat, while a large majority of my competitors were tremendously lean and tall. Perhaps it drove my competitive spirit because I felt like I had to prove the majority that I could still compete, even with an atypical body.

I specifically remember my sophomore year of college, I started to develop a serious eating disorder. But I dropped at least 20 pounds and I was getting compliments from many directions, teammates, competitors, coaches from other teams. My performance was the best it had ever been. I broke one school records and a conference record, qualifying for the NCAA Division I National Championships. When I finally reached my lowest weight and I thought it was enough, I got greedy. I wanted to lose more and I became obsessed with the goal. My workouts took a major hit and my parents finally intervened. Even with the weight loss, while competing at the National Championships, I still only noticed the fat around my midsection and that I was substantially shorter than most of my competitors. Here I was at the peak of my swimming career, and ashamed of how I looked.

That feeling has regularly been a part of my thought process. But I was never willing to acknowledge it out loud. Men feeling inadequate or ashamed of their bodies wasn't something ever talked about, it wasn't something I heard anyone else speak of, and I sure as hell wasn't going to be the first one to talk about it.

Unsurprisingly, the feelings haven't gone away since my college swimming career ended 10 years ago. It has always been something on the forefront of my mind. As part of my time as a Black Iron Nutrition client, I worked hard to prove to myself that I could get rid of the love handles and have the abs that I never thought possible. And I did it. I worked really, really hard for it. But I got it. But, again, even when I got to my lowest weight, I still couldn't help but dig at the imperfections I saw. I didn't have all my abs visible, I had four regularly showing and six on a really good day. I still had a little belly pouch in the front. And my love handles were still there to grab. The perceptions remained. I still was unsatisfied, wanting more when I physically wasn't able to do anything more. In that, I started to learn that having abs didn't change how I deeply felt about myself. Being skinnier and having abs didn't make me any happier. It turned out, I was the same person. Just a skinnier one, with some visible abs.

Over the course of the last year in my goal to gain mass, I must admit, I've spent a few too many minutes in front of the mirror obsessing over the parts of my body that I don't like. I still stare at where that little belly fat still sits, I see four abs on occasion (but not as often as before), and my love handles seem to be a bit more grab-able than what I'd like. And for that reason, I feel the need to acknowledge to all of you, especially men, that your body can be sculpted and made in the way that you want it to. But it all means nothing until you are able to love yourself and to acknowledge that you are loved, regardless of whether you have abs, whether you have love handles to spare, or whether you have extra skin.

As a man who is aware of his mild self-diagnosed body dysmorphia disorder, I need my Black Iron Nutrition clients, as well as other men who have spent hours in front of the mirror pointing out the flaws in their bodies to realize that you are not alone. And it is completely acceptable for us to discuss this topic more regularly, so that we don't suffer in silence. Acknowledging it is not a weakness and it will not draw more attention to your self-perceived flaws. Indeed, I contend that as a result of understanding your thought process and speaking with someone you trust regarding the same, you will start the path towards a greater sense of love and kindness towards yourself.

So my issue still has yet to be resolved, but I'm in the process of learning. In my years of desiring to love myself and my body, I am recognizing the need to change and finding ways to allow the love to come within. And with that, I invite you to do the same. 

Author: Zach Anderson, Black Iron Nutrition Coach, @motionsustained