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Social media can be a wasteland populated by self-loathing, self-aggrandizing and cats. But it can also provide insight into the human experience. What happens when virtue and appearances of virtue are blended together until you can’t tell them apart, valued by objective numbers of likes or clicks? It can become the world’s shallowest performance review, and we’re all invited.
My favorite recent example was a Twitter user who posted photos of their motorcycle adventures. The young woman sometimes got 1000+ likes on photos! As the BBC recounted, some followers got suspicious when a reflection in a photo showed an arm that looked like a very hairy caterpillar. It turns out that the young woman was an older man with proficiency using a simple photo-editing app. As he said, “No-one will read what a normal middle-aged man, taking care of his motorcycle and taking pictures outside, posts on his account.”
I like that story because it has some humor-infused sadness. But so many other stories are purely heartbreaking. Anyone can do anything with photos and videos nowadays. Can you imagine what it’s like to be 16, uncertain of who you are, judgmental of what you look like, with the option of loving your unvarnished self or loving the edited version? Oh, and just in case you have a naturally strong sense of self-acceptance, you are judged by likes and algorithms that are all internalizing the same impossible standards of strength, health and beauty.
I have heard stories of people spending hours on these edit apps, smoothing it out and packing it in. Small, harmless changes (they won’t even notice!) add up and add up, until what actually looks back at us in the mirror is the unreal version, at least when life is played out online.
The amazing, painful movie “Eighth Grade” zoomed in on what that can feel like. Director Bo Burham said he got the idea for the movie when he saw a girl alone on a bench, lighting up with a smile in front of her phone camera. She’d turn it around to judge the photo, the smile vanishing. Camera back up, big smile! Then frown. Repeat for a few minutes, a few years, a few decades maybe.
And social media just magnifies the problem. Long before fancy apps and algorithms, there were magazine covers and movie stars. Maybe we were internalizing enhanced standards to begin with–photoshop, steroids, surgeries. Or maybe we just internalize genetic anomalies–the seemingly-impossible bodies just highly improbable, with the ideal DNA to fit whatever happens to be the mold of the week.
I remember feeling it for the first time when I was 10. At the pool, uncomfortable in my own skin, I was already internalizing standards of what I thought healthy bodies should look like. I had read some random article in Sports Illustrated on six-pack abs in male athletes, and that harmless article burrowed itself into my brain as a verdict on my stomach. Those pool photos are a bit funny now, in that sadness-tinged way: a kid at the edge of the group, white shirt sopping wet, totally see-through (shirt, you had one job!). Grimacing to look tough, or grimacing to hide sadness, I don’t remember.
I’d like to say I’m totally past that. I should be past that. Heck, I know we all die and none of this stuff really matters. I get to spend every day with the love of my life who loves me unconditionally. I even love my damn self. But I’ll still find myself running by a car window in summer, glancing sideways at my reflection and becoming that kid on the edge of the group all over again.
And societal pressures can be so much tougher for women, non-binary and BIPOC athletes. In training logs, I get a little glimpse at how hard it can be on all types of people. For some athletes, every step in a sports bra is spent waiting for a catcall, every step in front of a mirror incorporating impossible societal touchstones of what we could look like if just SOMETHING was different. Like all societal issues, those standards are so intertwined with sexism, racism, other terrible bullsh*t. Throw in an online game that we all know is rigged, but we basically have to play, particularly post-pandemic.
Running can add to the difficulty.
Think about the stomach that you associate with the best performances on the cover of a running magazine. Chances are that it fits a certain general standard. But that standard likely has nothing to do with functionality, and everything to do with genetics (or photoshop). In the saddest cases, maybe our understanding of the ideal stomach is based on someone that also played this ideal-standard game, going down unhealthy paths to fit the mold. What looks like a triumphant cover photo could be the flip side of emotional and physical pain. The same goes for Instagram or Strava.
Or not. And that’s the point–what our bodies look like relative to external standards is independent of what is healthiest for us as athletes. The goal is to find our strong, and what “strong” looks like for each of us is so profoundly variable. With stomachs, some people will find their strong and have that six-pack I read about in Sports Illustrated. Other people will look totally different. All are amazing. They can all achieve amazing things, from running their first mile to winning the world’s biggest races. The problem is never our bodies, it’s the standards.
Finding your strong is way easier said than done. I coached a champion athlete who had done years of work to embrace their strong, working their way to podiums and to self-acceptance. On one podium, though, things changed. “Your body doesn’t look like the other runners’,” someone said as the athlete stepped back into the cheering crowd. That commenter probably didn’t mean harm–after all, they are dealing with the same internalized standards. But that comment stuck like old gum under a 3rd grader’s desk. It became easier for that athlete to go back to thinking that every tired day running up hills was due to not meeting that irrelevant standard, rather than just being a bit tired. That athlete moved forward with more hard work and love, but the standards remain in the background like the unease created by a horror movie villain. Make one wrong turn, and who knows what’s around the corner?
This article is not going to solve body image issues magnified by societal forces and social media. I rarely make the time to wash my legs in the shower, so I’m not sure I’m solving big problems anytime soon. But hopefully someone reading this will feel just a bit more seen in their internal worries about their body.
The human brain has a powerful capacity for self-judgment. If you have those types of thoughts sometimes, it’s OK. Talk about them (therapy is great) and try not to act on thoughts that don’t actually want what is best for you.
I have seen so many athletes undercut themselves to satisfy a critical voice screaming in their ears. I have also seen tons of athletes learn to love themselves more and more, and to achieve their wildest dreams in the process. Most still have that critical voice, though. It’s a question of decibels, turning down the volume to where you can have a conversation, and learning to whisper back:
No matter what, we are enough.
You are enough as you are, not because you achieve some standard, but because you transcend any standard.
Move your body in the ways you enjoy (I assume that’s running if you’re reading this, but it can be anything!).
Treat your body with love through mental health awareness and self-care.
Treat yo’self with food you love.
What does that end up looking like? That’s a question of genetics and background and circumstances. But whatever it looks like, that will be your strong.
Move, eat, love, repeat. You found your strong. And your strong is perfect.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.