Body Image and Running

If you are struggling with severe body image problems, you may need to seek professional help. If you are looking for more information, there are many places where you can learn more about body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and eating disorders, including the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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I can remember it like it was yesterday.  I was maybe 8 or 9 years old, going shopping with my grandmother for my birthday, a tradition we had been doing for years.  We walked all around the department store, looking for the girls section.  When we found it, I started looking for and finding clothing that I liked.  My grandma took me by the hand, walked up to the salesperson nearest us, and asked him where we could find the half sizes (plus sizes for little girls), because I had some extra meat on my bones.  I immediately felt embarrassed, silly for looking at “regular” sizes, but also confused.  My mom never once mentioned that I needed half sizes.  In my understanding, I shopped where all of the other little girls shopped.  From that moment, I started to think of myself as “fat.”  Approaching puberty and already beginning to feel the first feelings of being self-conscious and overly aware of my body, I felt like something about me was different from everyone else and that wasn’t good.  This moment was pivotal for the way I saw myself for the good majority of my life.

For as long as I can remember, my parents have done a great job of telling my siblings and me that we are beautiful and helping us see our dignity and worth.  My mom was extra careful to never say anything that would make us feel anything but good about our body image (perhaps because her mother—my grandma mentioned above—didn’t do the best job of that when my mom was a child).  My mom has struggled with body image her whole life.  I remember her trying on a pair of jeans a few years after she had my brother and acting disgusted when she saw that she could only fit into a size 8 (a perfectly healthy size!)  I also remember being shocked that my mom would be disgusted by the way she looked; to me, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever known.  Everything she wore always looked so lovely on her.  Though she cared deeply to ensure that we never felt less than beautiful, the mere fact that she didn’t view herself as beautiful made me question the way I viewed my own appearance.

In middle school I was extremely self-conscious.  Part of that comes from being a middle schooler.  Part of it was because I had a terrible view of myself.  It was around this time that I started calling myself fat.  One day at the mall, my friends and I all got shorts with princess names on the butt (right when those terrible components of American fashion history were coming in style).  All of my friends ordered a size small.  I probably could have fit into a small too.  I ordered a pair three sizes too big, because I viewed myself as bigger than I was.  I was afraid that if I tried on the shorts in front of my friends and they didn’t fit, I’d be mortified.  And as far as I knew, I needed to be shopping in large sizes.  I had a distorted image of myself.

Fast forward to college.  I was a student at Franciscan University, and I was attending a Festival of Praise (FOP—a night of praise and worship, prayer teams, and occasionally Eucharistic adoration).  I went into the night not really looking forward to it; I had tons of schoolwork, along with a million other reasons for why I shouldn’t go.  About a quarter of the way into the FOP, I heard the voice of one of my good friends say into the microphone, “There is someone here struggling with a distorted body image.  Maybe your dad told you you were fat or made you feel less than beautiful.  Jesus wants to heal you tonight.”  All of a sudden it was as if someone had kicked me in the back of my knees and I fell straight into my chair.  Even though my dad wasn’t the reason for my distorted body image, I knew my friend was talking about me.  Images of my childhood flooded through my head:  the incident at the mall with grandma, the princess shorts in middle school, along with countless other instances when I felt less than beautiful, to say the least.  Jesus was there in all of it.  He was in the fitting room.  He was at the cash register.  He was there in every scene that filled my head.  His was not a voice of condescension, of passive aggressive name-calling.  His was a voice of confidence in who I am, of sincerity, of goodness, of love.  He was holding me.

I truly believe Jesus healed me of my distorted body image that night.  After that experience, I started seeing myself in the mirror as I truly appeared.  I stopped calling myself fat in front of my friends as an effort to try to get them to convince me that I wasn’t.  I began to thank people when they complimented the way I looked, instead of trying to diffuse the compliment or change the subject.  Now, as my body goes through change after change and I move from the postpartum stage for a second time, I have the confidence to accept the stage my body is in and to be proud of what I look like.  I’m not saying I have it down perfectly; there are many days when I feel like I haven’t taken care of my body well, and that manifests itself in the way I see myself in the mirror.  But while I do not have a perfected view of myself, I firmly believe God healed me that night at the FOP.  And I am doing my best to claim that healing and rest in it, knowing that there will always be temptations to believe bad things about the way I look, but trusting that God healed me of that and I have no reason to go back to feeling poorly about myself. 

How does running tie into all of this?  I am often tempted to view running as a safety net for my body image.  If I’m running, I look good.  If it’s been a while since I’ve had a good run, I look flabby, saggy, and bad.  This is irrational and not true.  During periods when running defines my self-image, I don’t enjoy running.  When I run because I want to and because I love it, I feel truly alive during the run.  That being said, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to run because we want to be in shape and feel/look good.  In fact, if that’s your starting motivation to run, so be it.  But eventually I pray that we can start to run because we know it makes us feel good, not because we need it to help us look good.  Looking good comes from within.  Knowing God loves us is what makes us look good. 

Not everyone will have a life-changing moment like I did at the FOP that night.  But there are ways we can help our view of ourselves on a practical level too:

1.  Every time you think of it when looking in the mirror, say a Glory Be.  Let your image reflect the glory of God, and let your prayer be a reminder of that concept.

2.  When you catch yourself thinking something negative about your body, ponder how you’d feel if a little girl heard you say it out loud, or think about whether or not you’d hear a child say this about herself.  If you wouldn’t want a child to say this, don’t think it about yourself.

3.  While it shouldn’t be the only factor in how we feel about ourselves, exercise and eating healthy is definitely a factor when it comes to our body image.  When we exercise and eat healthy, we predispose our bodies to feeling good, simply on a natural level (endorphin release, balanced level of hormones, nutrients, etc.).  But it also helps our mental approach to body image because we know we’re doing everything we can to look and feel good.

4.  Ultimately, if you’ve been wounded by others’ opinions about you or even your own distorted body image, pray for God’s abundant healing graces.  This is a gift that I think God wants to give to so many of us.  It’s time we start opening ourselves to overwhelming healing so that we can see ourselves as he sees us:  lovely, radiant, and wonderful to behold.

Katherine Finney is a high school religion teacher turned stay-at-home mom to her daughter Miriam (and one on the way!) A New Orleans native, she loves cooking (especially creole dishes), dancing, and doing karaoke with her husband. Kat originally started running because she was inspired by her husband's zeal for running. Now she loves it herself and has discovered many spiritual, emotional, and physical benefits to it. Kat's primary goal in life is to become a saint with God's grace. She hopes that through this online community God can make her a vessel to both give and receive wisdom about what's truly important in this earthly life.