The university gym doubled as my place of employment throughout the majority of my college career. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in that building. My job as a gym employee involved “monitoring”, which really is a fancy term for people watching. It was a psych major’s dream come true.
While this was one of the best jobs a full-time student could ask for, I often struggled with being immersed in a culture that focused almost exclusively on appearance. I somehow felt like a fraud – that I was not fit or attractive enough to work at a fitness center.
Every day I watched as beautiful people walked in and out of the gym, and I could not help but think that I could be doing more to look like them. No, not could. SHOULD.
Now don’t get me wrong, friends – as frustrating as it was to be reminded of my insecurities everyday, I would not trade that experience for anything. The things I watched and observed from behind that desk revealed a lot of truth about the way we treat our bodies, and eventually inspired the research behind my thesis. Here are three of the biggest truths that I learned as a gym employee:
1. Better bodies don’t equal better body image.
If you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of really, really fit people who work out at gyms. The truth is, there is no connection between people who are more fit and those who are happy with their bodies. Not only is this supported by research, but I frequently witnessed it. The most beautiful people struggled with the exact same insecurities as everyone else, regardless of how perfect their physiques were.
As much as the gym promoted “loving your body”, there was still an incredible lack of contentedness. It was easy and natural to view your physical state as something to tolerate only until you’ve moved on to the next level.
I found that when I fell into this mindset - which was often - I struggled with being close to God. My mind was preoccupied with fitness. Appearance began to compete with my faith and my relationships. The moment I met a fitness goal, I began chasing after the next one. I was a stranger to contentedness and thankfulness, and it began to affect other areas of my life. I was attempting to find something in fitness that only Christ can provide: confidence and security.
2. Not all healthy habits are actually healthy.
There is a fine line between being physically healthy and being preoccupied with health. Should we eat foods that are good for us? Yes. Should we be active? Absolutely. But what happens when all our thoughts are bent on food and exercise? Well, it doesn’t leave much room for anything else. I only say this because I have spent a lot of time dancing with (and studying) that line.
During one of my first shifts at the gym, my coworker and I were given small chocolate candies as gifts from senior staff. I began to eat my first piece without hesitation while my coworker popped a piece in her mouth, chewed for a few seconds, and spit it in the trash.
“I’m on a diet,” she sighed. “I just wanted to taste it.”
I wish I had that kind of self control, I remember thinking. Miserably, I placed the rest of my chocolate aside and went back to work.
There were several healthy responses that I could have chosen at this moment, but instead I went with jealousy and guilt. I admired and envied my coworker’s incredible self-control. It was just a tiny piece of chocolate, and yet she was able to say “no”. I also could not help but think that she must be so much closer to reaching her fitness goal than I was to mine, and I was ashamed. I made an angry promise to myself to do better and be healthier.
What I didn’t realize in that moment is that I may have given up one type of health for another. The stress, guilt, and preoccupation with treating food this way took away my peace of mind. The truth is, physical and mental health should never be at odds with one another, but this realization only came after years of experiencing more guilt, shame and anger over my eating habits.
3. Guilt is a poor motivator
The gym I worked at was state-of-the-art. We had a three-story climbing wall that was the envy of all other gyms. From my desk, I could see the wall and all of its climbers as they would come and go everyday. There was something different about the culture in that part of the gym. People were not there to lose weight - they were there because they loved to climb. Their goals were not appearance-driven, but skills-driven. Everyone just wanted to be better at a sport that they enjoyed. For them, fitness blended seamlessly into a hobby that brought them great joy.
There are two types of exercises: the kind that people engage in only because there is some distant physical goal they want to achieve, and the kind that people engage in because they genuinely enjoy that activity. The first is driven by guilt and displeasure with the body, while the second is founded on our physical giftings and abilities.
There is more power and grace in approaching your body in a way that allows you to appreciate and celebrate what it is capable of doing.
God delights in his creation (aka: you). He has created the human body to do beautiful and incredible things, and our workouts can be a wonderful opportunity to celebrate this truth. We cannot live out our bodies’ intended design if we are focused on what we hate and what needs to change.
Emma recently completed her master's in psychology, where she researched the effects of exercise on body image. She has since become an advocate for the importance of balance between mental and physical health, and is delighted to be a part of a team that takes Biblical and spiritual approach to eating and exercise. Emma is currently working for a behavioral team that works with developmentally disabled adults.