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Is your body image friend or foe?

This article is from the November 2020 Horse Deals magazine.

One of the amazing things about being an equestrian is to be in partnership with our horse and to compete, enjoy, and relish in what our equestrian world has on offer.

I reflect on our part of that partnership, as an athlete, as a rider, and the concerns I hear frequently of being too fat, too skinny, too tall, too short, too old, too young, too…

And I wonder…. I wonder when it becomes part of our being to only be able to identify as a rider (athlete), when I meet some “perfect” criteria. When I look amazing as a rider, and I am concerned as to the criticisms and pressures we place on ourselves, our younger cohort, and at times expressions of criticism on others — expressions of mean-spiritedness. The construct of body image is often expressed negatively towards ourselves and our incredible bodies which serve us so well in living, and results in poor behaviours recognised through not treating myself well as an athlete and holding up my part of performance.

Psychologists often are required to assess and support those struggling with body image concerns as often our perceived self is not an accurate or correct representation of how I truly look or feel. The NEDC (2020) define body image as relating to our perception of our physical self and the thoughts and feelings, (positive, negative or both), which result from that perception. This definition raises many considerations for riders and for us to be able to embrace our riding and our experiences as a rider/athlete.

There are a number of ways to express body image, the first being the way I ‘feel’ about my body, known as my affective body image. This can lead to feelings of satisfaction or alternatively dissatisfaction with my weight, or shape, or even to being critical of certain body parts. This aspect can naturally be very damaging as my criticism grows to unhealthy comparisons with others. In considering this aspect of body image it is reflective to see how body image plays out in equestrian pursuits as riders compare their body shape and weight to others, and social media and other avenues reinforces a ‘perfect’ and often unrealistic ideal.

Other considerations relate to how I ‘think’ about my body, known as my cognitive body image — which may impact on setting unrealistic ideals on my shape and weight. Naturally, those of us with perfectionistic tendencies will relate to the impact of cognitions through a stream of thoughts of constant criticisms. These negative thinking patterns often hobble us as riders as they prevent us from enjoying our sport and our space within that sport.
Another key factor is ‘behaviours’ engaged in known as behavioural body image. Behavioural body image can be very destructive if one is dissatisfied with how they look, as this can result in damaging regimes of overtraining, not eating, or buying into cycles of yoyo behaviours in an effort to change our appearance. Often the unsuccessful behaviours emphasise the failures and thus a vicious cycle develops of unhealthy behaviours and then criticisms of my lack of ability to achieve unrealistic or harsh aspirations.

And yet so many aspects of our body image simply can’t be changed. That is, genetically I can’t change my height, stature such as bone structure, or certain other aspects of my appearance.

Improving Body Image

Striving towards a more positive body image is clearly important and fosters healthy behaviours which foster self-esteem and self-concept. Healthy behaviours include balanced approaches to food and exercise which support us to become the best version of self that is possible, thus allowing us to look and feel great on a horse. Self-esteem is earned through a focus on developing confidence in ones worth and ability — riding well and the work required to perform well engenders self-respect and builds confidence. These principles support one to apply themself genuinely and be accountable as a rider/athlete. Thus facilitating a kinder and more compassionate expression to myself, whilst challenging that internal critical voice.

However, being accountable also means acknowledging when I have some work to do. Consider how to provide impetus for you to live the best version of you moving forward, access what is required and take big steps of action towards those goals. This is an area I will address again as so many of us have fallen into habitual patterns that are destructive, or simply do not address their aspirations by thinking and planning the steps I need to take to move forward. Remember accessing supports to change behaviours is always worthy, athletes require coaches and the mind is your major muscle to train.

I wish for you all to focus on you as a rider, embrace and encourage yourself to pick up those reins and work towards your chosen targets.

Happy riding!

with Dr Amanda Jefferys Registered Clinical and Health Psychologist. B. Psych (Hons). M Health Psych. Doctorate of Clinical and Health Psych. FCCLP, FCHP, MAPS. Registered Fitness Professional.

with Dr Amanda Jefferys Registered Clinical and Health Psychologist. B. Psych (Hons). M Health Psych. Doctorate of Clinical and Health Psych. FCCLP, FCHP, MAPS. Registered Fitness Professional.

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