This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.
In one word: insecurity. That’s why I took my most embarrassing picture ever.
I’ll give you some more words in a moment, but first you probably want to see my source of shame.
Here it is.
Where do I even start?
With the ridiculous photoshopped wings? The hat I wore almost constantly for 2 years? The frisbee I am for some reason balancing on my finger?
Let me start with this: when I took this picture, the number of times (total, in my entire life) I’d been complimented on my looks was 4.
This picture, which was for some time my profile picture on Fitocracy, tripled that number in an hour.
In real life, it took me years to find people that would even talk to me about workouts, let alone lift with me consistently. Trying to be in shape was surprisingly lonely.
Online, the wings were added as part of a fitness group that talked shop and compared notes (we all had wings).
The frisbee is there because my college ultimate frisbee team was the first place I felt accepted as a friend.
This picture, to me, represented acceptance – of my body, my actions, and my personality – that I struggled to find.
But the picture is a lie
There are things that are true about the picture. First of all, that really is me. Second of all, I was 20-25 lbs heavier than when I had started training as a skinny guy (I would gain another 30 lbs, then carefully drop 10 in the next few years).
But what the picture doesn’t show you is the 20 minutes I spent figuring out the best pose I could strike before the camera’s timer flashed.
It doesn’t show you the 30 minutes I spent closing all the window shades and setting up a lamp to cast just the right shadow on my abs.
It doesn’t show the 10 minutes I spend scrolling through filters and brightness settings trying to find the perfect contrast.
It doesn’t show you the dozens of failed takes.
It doesn’t show the day I spent barely eating.
My arms didn’t really look like that – the shadows, flexing, and contrast make them look bigger.
My abs didn’t look like that – dehydration, lighting, and posing make them look leaner.
And, spoiler alert, I didn’t really have wings.
What it taught me
I took this picture because, despite the positive changes to my body, I felt ugly. I was seeking validation and belonging, and trying to hide my flaws.
(By the way, I wore the hat because I’d started going bald. I would eventually embrace that fact and shave my head.)
This is the most important lesson the picture taught me: physical change helps, but it is not a substitute for mental health.
All my life I had been small and wanted to be strong. But when I started to get strong, the small person inside me didn’t vanish. It takes a careful effort to cultivate mental health and positive body image.
Two changes helped me make the shift.
1) A focus on action
I deliberately avoided common bodybuilding routines and other programs specifically designed to add muscle.
Don’t get me wrong – I was trying to add muscle. But by focusing on the process of training, I was able to take my mind off judging my body.
I trained for athleticism and speed. I got stronger. I tried new exercises because I heard they were effective – or just because they seemed interesting and fun. I learned everything I could about fitness, and learned to love it.
Eventually I was looking and thinking better without even realizing it.
2) Changing the conversation
Ever looked in the mirror and pointed out things you don’t like? I did that plenty.
So I made a rule: any time I thought something negative, I had to stop and replace it with something positive.
If I didn’t feel like I could say something positive about my body, that was ok. It could be about something else. But, gradually, I forced myself to change the conversation.
Even better – I had to say the positive thing out loud (even if sometimes under my breath). Part of what makes negative thoughts so dangerous is that they are nebulous. They are hard to pin down, and can easily spiral, magnify, and multiply.
Speaking out loud interrupts the negative cycle with the positive. It fixes your attention, and helps you make progress towards self-love.
The mental shift did not happen overnight. There were days when I put on a shirt because I somehow felt simultaneously chubby and small (remember: because of angles and lighting, your abs will never look as good from your perspective as they do from everyone else’s).
But I did recover. That picture, now years old, serves as a reminder. Your lifestyle changes won’t matter unless you can become comfortable with who you are.