Off-season body image battles

Do you approve of what you see in the mirror, or do you cringe when you put on certain outfits? Are you proud of what your body can accomplish, or do you critique every little factor you see? 

How we view our bodies and the emotional result of this assessment is our body image. The evaluation we have of ourselves can make or break our day, and no one is immune to body image issues. Everyone can experience good and bad days, and it can even develop into serious health problems, so it’s an important concept to understand.

A consistent negative body image of yourself can easily cause someone to take extreme measures to “fix” what they see. Crash or extreme diets, over-exercising, and even laxative or diuretic use may be used. These behaviours can be classified as disordered eating (e.g., anorexia or bulimia). Taking control of your body image outlook and appreciating your body can keep you in a more positive mindset, and away from dangerous behaviour.

As I said, no one is immune to body image issues, including fitness competitors. I’m currently 7 weeks post-show and a quarter of the way through my off-season, which means I’m just watching the scale climb higher and higher. Obviously, weight gain after competing is to be expected, but that doesn’t mean I’m always happy with it. Some days I feel great and look at the changes in a positive way, and other days I convince myself that I’ve gained too much weight and just want to live in sweat pants… ok, I actually want to live in sweat pants all the time, but who doesn’t??

7 weeks post-show. Notes: don't have high expectations for leg flex pic immediately after leg day. Classy bodybuilder-style pic with the pants around my ankles.  Oh, and I really need a tan.

7 weeks post-show. Notes: don’t have high expectations for leg flex pics immediately after leg day. Classy bodybuilder-style pic with the pants around my ankles. Oh, and I really need a tan.

The mental challenge of being a competitor doesn’t end when you step off stage for the last time of the year.  If your off-season is focused on serious muscle growth, weight (and body fat) gain is unavoidable– you need a surplus of calories for the strength, energy, and growth to happen. Making sure you don’t go overboard with an unhealthy weight gain should be a concern. Sure, eating burgers, pizza, and cupcakes are great at the time, but when next prep rolls around and you have to lose that excess body fat, you might regret those extra treats as you log your cardio time.

As an athlete progressing through this sport, my own body image is constantly changing. Expectations shift as reality shifts. I can no longer compare how I’ve looked, felt, or weighed in the past to now – I’m nowhere near the same person. I have no idea what weight I’ll get up to this off season, or what I’ll weigh when I step on stage in June. While the number truly doesn’t matter, everyone (even me) likes to have some concrete facts to guide them. I struggle when I feel like I don’t have complete control or knowledge of what’s going to happen, and this is one area totally unknown right now. All I can do is follow my plan, train hard, and hope to be pleasantly surprised next year.

For these reasons, the name “off-season” is a little misleading. There isn’t any time off, these months are vital to improving and changing your body. It comes with a new set of pros and cons different from competition prep:

Bonuses to off-season

  • More food and more variety of foods
  • So much strength in the gym… thanks extra food!
  • Hormonal balance has been regained
  • Improved focus, memory, and energy
  • An alarming intake of peanut butter & yogurt-covered pretzels

Struggles with off-season

  • Watching your body “fill out” and definition disappear
  • Needing a new wardrobe every few weeks, or feeling like your clothes are suffocating you (especially sports bras – they’re like torture devices)
  • Regularly worrying that the weight you put on isn’t all “good” and how hard it will be to lose it during next prep
  • The mental impact of stepping on a scale and the highest number you’ve ever seen blinks back at you
Or peanut butter on... everything?

Or peanut butter on… everything?

Everything is relative

I obviously know I’m not fat. Actually, right now at this weight, I’m falling in the upper-middle section of the healthy BMI zone for my height. BUT, in relation to how I looked seven weeks ago, I’m much larger and feel huge.

I stepped on stage at ~10% body fat and now I’m up around 17% (estimated values as I never get my BF measured). I see and feel a massive difference. After seeing your body at one level, it’s always going to be tough to deal with a change towards the larger size. But, 10% is unrealistic to maintain as a female – it’s unhealthy first of all, and with the limited nutrition needed to keep that, I’d never be able to grow and improve my physique.

Sometimes I need to stop my train of thought and appreciate the process. Sometimes I just need to avoid the mirror for a bit. Focusing on the positive things, such as the increased strength and energy helps during “down” times. And sometimes, I just need to put on my baggiest sweat pants and cuddle with the puppies – they don’t care what my body looks like as long as I feed them regularly. I need to think more like them…

As I keep saying to Kyle, “It’s going to be a long five months…” LOL.

About Ashleigh

I'm passionate about health and fitness. I work as a Health Promotion Specialist, a group fitness instructor, and also a coach for physique competitors / weight loss clients. I grew up as a competitive athlete, and have continued with this passion as a Women's Physique competitor. Research and writing is another interest of mine, which I use to share my knowledge with the general public.
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