Unlocking Self-Recognition: Transforming Our Perception of Body Image

By Sarah McVanel, Chief Recognition Officer, Greatness Magnified

Last week, we discussed all kinds of yummy things, from accountability to flipping failing to unconditional recognition. If you missed it, you can snack on it here.

I have been thinking a lot about this since I met Anna.

image of an airplane aisle from the back of the plane showing people sitting in their seats and a flight attendant in the distance at the front of the planeAnna (not her real name) was this friendly, animated lady sitting beside me on a five-and-a-half-hour flight to a speaking engagement in Vancouver. She was positive, quick to compliment, and had a joyful “joie de vivre.”

About 20 minutes into our flight, which is to say 18 minutes into becoming new besties, she “got real” (her words). She began to explain how she has been gaining weight since a crash diet challenge with her sisters. “I worked so hard and frittered it all away.” This was a BIG deal to Anna, and I was ready to listen.

She shared that at the beginning of COVID, she and her sisters joined a well-known weight-loss program, were super disciplined about it, and lost all kinds of weight fast. They felt fantastic.

This was more than a goal, she shared. It was conquering a lifelong unhealthy relationship with weight. Coming from a toxic, judgmental and shame-based family of origin, body self-concept is a measure of worth. It had long-term consequences. One sister was dangerously underweight all her life, and the three eldest above-recommended BMIs.

You Can’t Talk Your Way Out of Emotional Pain

Anna knew the root of the issue. She knew it stemmed from unhealthy beginnings. She knew those were in the rearview mirror, and in fact, a few of the folks who fuelled the ridicule were no longer alive. Yet, she said, one of the things that made her so mad was that no matter where she lived or how successful she became, that negative self-image followed her everywhere.

“I am just so mad at myself for gaining the weight back. I always do this. I fail every time. I’m sick of being a failure.” She made clear that this was a core narrative in her life, one that was causing problems in other aspects of her life.

She implored: “If you ever get a chance to speak for a women’s group or young girls, tell them you are not your looks and to find your own person before the world tells you it’s validated through body image.” (Which is why I can share her story with you.)

Good advice.

I wish Anna could take that advice and bring it with her.

You see, Anna was rejoining the program that helped her lose weight but was restarting from a place of self-angerment and disappointment. “The last time, I started hopeful and ready for a new start. This time I’m so damn angry I’m going to fight my way back to my ideal body weight.”

image of the book by Brene Brown Atlas of the HeartI wish I had brought my copy of Brene Brown’s “Atlas of the Heart” (which is now a series on HBO) so we could have labelled the emotions that were driving the ship rather than let her narratives run the show. (That might be my “over-functioning” lurking in because, after all, who awarded me the seat mate quasi-therapist role?)

Now, I’m not an expert on body weight, health and nutrition, or eating disorders. However, I am an expert on recognition. If we cannot recognize ourselves, we have a huge uphill battle recognizing anyone else.

Non-Negotiable Self Recognition

I couldn’t do much for Anna – she had been on this journey her whole life – but I could do this: express a sincere compliment.

“Anna, you are absolutely beautiful. People literally pay money to get cheekbones like yours. You have an incredible sense of style – I’m ready to hide your scarf on you and stuff it into my purse. And you have the most dynamic personality.”

Sure, it’s true that she – like me – wouldn’t be asked to walk down the Victoria’s Secret runway any time soon (thank goodness…chilly! angel wings! glitter! yuck!) However, that is for the infinitesimal few, and the rest of us can be perfectly imperfect collections of fabulous elements.

You may wonder what a corporate recognition expert is discussing regarding weight loss. For this reason, I can relate to her story. This article is personal.

Stories of Failure Can Stay With Us

When I was a teenager, I went from being a string bean kid to a tween, with a little money from my part-time job in my pocket and a hankering to eat every piece of junk food that I could get my hands on. Our ultra-healthy and homemade everything household didn’t have a predilection for chips and junk. Now, with a little pocket change, I could finally “supplement my cravings” with chips and sugary cereal.

Between the ages of 13 and 17, I gained 40 pounds. I didn’t think of it that way until I wrote this blog post. Anna’s descriptions of herself rang a far-off bell in my head. That was how mad I was when I gained that weight. I remember not being comfortable in my clothes, comparing myself to other teens, getting “small” in my body posture, and constantly mad at myself.

image of a woman holding dumbells wearing a leotard, headband and kinky hair looking like she's from an 80s workout videoThroughout that time in my life, I would start and stop various exercise programs that I was “going to stick with until I lost this weight”, none of which I really liked, and often led to feeling even worse about myself (thanks to VHS tapes full of super bendy stick figure yet voluptuous supermodels trying their hands at being fitness teachers). I tried dieting. I’m completely humbled to admit to you that I even tried to make myself sick a few times. (Fortunately, I was not very good at it.) The only thing that stuck with me was the self-loathing.

By grad school, a psych degree in, and a new hubby who met the non-stick-figure me, I have realized that for me, dieting was for the devil, and I didn’t care so much about a few extra pounds. It was just part of me. As we wrote about in another blog, I think I realized that I was interested in being healthy and fit, but I wasn’t committed to the extremes I needed to go to. Particularly since I was already extremely committed to school, teaching, and, of course, hub.

I never looked at a VHS fitness tape again. And I didn’t miss it.

I didn’t realize how deeply it bothered me that I had not “lost the weight” until I was pregnant. Carrying a baby gave me the perfect reason to have a few extra pounds. I was growing a baby! It was healthy to eat! Eat for two! And you can’t tell if a bit of extra weight was from “the chips years” or if it was my baby bump.

People told me the first time, in I don’t know how long, other than my adoring hub, that I was beautiful. That I glowed. I looked great for being X months along. Because in my mind, weight was still conditional, and the fact that I gained the “normal” amount of weight, finally, I was doing weight “right”!

I lost the baby weight quickly, but not how you would want to. I had deep and dark postpartum depression PPD), so I didn’t want to eat. I ate to survive so that I could produce enough milk for my son, but like everything else in my life then, there was no joy in eating. It was a necessary reality. How ironic when I was sad and hopeless, I was “finally” a size 10.

Over the next couple of years, I lived on practically no sleep (insomnia had set up residence by then), PPD reoccurred with baby Simonne, and my weight dropped lower and stayed that way. Size 8.

Redefining What Self-Recognition Looks Like

I returned to work, got my mojo back, with a slimmer size I was proud of, and accomplished more designations, diplomas, and career progressions that made me even prouder. I would prove my worth despite having been that bullied kid and slightly pudgy teen. I was a career woman with two healthy kids and a hub who loved me. I didn’t care about weight, right?

Well…those social constructs hang around and hang around. Although hitting my 40s was yet another milestone of self-acceptance related to weight. Yet when I stepped into my role as a professional speaker, one aspect of the nonnegotiable job is that you need to be visible to people…on a stage…with them looking at you…for an HOUR! Oh geez. Can you see where this is going?

I found some frocks that suited me, put on my kicking boots (you likely know the ones) and tried to be freakin’ awesome on the stage so the impact would be 100x more important than how I looked. It went pretty well.

Then COVID.

image of a pecan pie and assorted home baked goods on a tableI don’t know about you, but I baked my way through COVID. And I am a good baker. I made cakes, cookies, bread, pizza, loaves, muffins, and scones (am I making you hungry yet?) Since the whole fam was home and I had two teens, the food didn’t last long, but you can bet I was at the front of the line when those goodies left the oven.

Now, remember, at this point in my story, I am less entangled with weight-related self-identity. However, in a society like ours that idealizes beauty, do any of us actually truly escape our inner self-concept of being 100% attached to how we look?

Fortunately, in 2021, glimmers of events coming back in person were on the horizon. And then suddenly, bam! Anxiety hit me.

I was actually nervous to get back on stage. I was nervous, as at the start of my career. Sure, I had the privilege of delivering a litany of virtual presentations (damn well, I might add), so my speaking craft stayed fresh. However, the stage performance aspect required new practice. It also occurred to me that for the first time in years, hundreds of eyes would be staring at me as I delivered my message.

I made a list of the things that I could control, and I needed to practice hardcore to be ready and confident enough to speak in front of a live audience again, and one of those things was my physical presentation.

Call me vain, but one of the things I prioritized was daily exercise, cutting desserts, tracking my food, and doing daily weight checks. I wasn’t dieting; I was “intentionally eating.” “Did I really feel like that second glass of wine?” “Do I really want a snack, or am I just bored?” “Am I actually hungry before bed, or do I just eat cereal out of habit?”

What was different about years gone by of “self-loathing dieting” from a place of criticism to a practice of intentional confidence building to be able to perform at my best? I didn’t feel like I had let myself down. I didn’t feel I would be unable to do my job if I didn’t lose weight. In fact, I had been about 155 pounds for so long, but I didn’t think I could shift from it. Instead, I saw the intentional eating, exercising, language lessons, reading, story crafting, presentation of content in my office, re-creating my slides, and a litany of other activities to get stage-ready again, all as practice. I’m a professional. I need to get ready to be in front of people again. There are many things I did. My intentional eating and exercise were two important parts.

I became about practice. It wasn’t the outcome. I didn’t even have an outcome in mind.

The pounds came off, ever so slowly. I practiced intentional diligence daily in many aspects of my life – water intake, calories, alcohol, sleep, steps, and writing thank-you notes. The momentum of taking many small actions every single day uninterrupted made me feel ready and confident to perform at my best.

What I Wish We Knew Then

So here’s the advice to my younger self, to the lady on the plane, and for my future self: practice what is important to you.

Make the goal progress. Make intentional reflection a constant practice. And view your improvements – whatever they are – as a part of you being a well-rounded performer in what is most important in your life. That means, by default, those goals are for you, not anyone else. Comparisons – to the past, to others, to ideals – can guarantee the whole process to be drudgery.

Every day became a gift to myself. “I deserve this.” It didn’t work. It was holistic self-care for perhaps the first time in my life.

image of the Flip Side of Failing book by Sarah McVanelAlmost five years after writing the “Flip Side of Failing,” I could re-read it through another lens and get even more from it. I was ready for imperfect practice and fluctuations in daily measures, yet I had a solid sense of healthy purpose that would insulate the fear of failure that was lurking in every corner.

F – Fail
L – Learn
I – Ignite
P – Praise

The failures in healthy body image were a gift of perspective in my 40s. I would not do dieting like drudgery and self-loathing. The learning was that self-criticism was a de-motivator and momentum crusher. I was ignited about the energy of getting ready for an exciting new phase (versus anxious I couldn’t perform.) I measured a comprehensive set of progress measures so that I could celebrate and self-praise every day, even if it were just the consistency of the practice.

(There is a funny story about the irony of the first event back in person in 2021; a new client to me booked the Flip Side of Failing keynote, and they were the cruellest audience of my career, but the mental fitness of this journey is one of the ways I survived it and now think it’s so funny I tell it from the stage!)

I hope Anna, my children, my husband, my friends, my clients and every one of you dear readers can unconditionally value yourself, including the aspects that you’ve wanted to change for so long. When we shift our relationship with stories of failure, it unlocks that story and enables us to create a new and more aligned story to where we are at in this phase of our lives.

This wish I have for you is broader than the self, too. What aspect does your team, organization, association, or industry negatively associate with, and how is lack of recognition – self, group, institution – fuelling negative loops of lack of progress, competition, mistrust and criticism? How might recognition help to rewrite stories and invite new conversations in our own minds, in our relationships, in our boardrooms, on our shop floors, in our union negotiations, and in our strategic planning forums?

If you think self- and team recognition is in the cards for 2024, please reach out. We are here to help individually and one-on-one through coaching, training programs, speaking, and virtual programs. Shall we have a confidential exploratory call?

Take a second helping of these previous posts that offer up more tasty tidbits to help you with self-recognition:

Disclaimer/Humble Brag Moment: 100% of this content was human-generated (by us folks here at Greatness Magnified). We are committed to authorship integrity and will inform you what percentage, if any, AI is generated.

“There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.”

– Mother Teresa

Deb Rakonjac

Organizational Development, Purolator Inc.

"Sarah nailed it!  She worked with the planning group to learn about the organization, the audience, the desired key messages and integrated it seamlessly into her keynote. Her energy was contagious! We received rave reviews of this portion of our event and Sarah was able to speak to all members of our organization in a way that motivated them to recognize others everyday. Our executives were extraordinarily pleased and integrated FROGging into their recent board meeting. Purolator is grateful to Sarah for dropping the pebble and we continue to see the ripples from this session across the organization. Working with Tami was phenomenal and the supports were easy to integrate to ensure the session went well. Thanks to you both!!"
Douglas D Swift

President & CEO, Swiftco Inc.

"I have had the Sarah experience in numerous settings: As a keynote, around a table with several other business owners, one on one over coffee, chatting with others at a conference reception, dining with a small group of colleagues. No matter the setting you always get the same Sarah: engaging, attentive, interested, inspiring, motivational, genuine. And always with an infectious smile. Do yourself, your company, your association a favour. Get the Greatness Magnified (Sarah) experience. The payback is priceless."
Judy Kucharuk

Director, Marketing and Special Events, Encana Events Centre

"Funny, full of energy and incredibly motivating – all words to use when describing Sarah and her passionate stage presence. We were fortunate to have Sarah join us as a speaker for Spark Women’s Leadership Conferences and her presentations about leveraging greatness hit the core of our objective at SPARK: “A rising tide lifts all boats”. I would not hesitate to recommend Sarah to other organizations that are searching for a well-prepared, well-organized, thoughtful and passionate storyteller."
Shelley VanVeen

Learning & Development Manager, Libro Credit Union

"Sarah brought so much energy and enthusiasm to our International Women’s Day event at Libro! Her message was uplifting, thought-provoking and truly appreciated by our team. Dealing with Sarah was wonderful – she was open, professional and willing to work with us to customize her message to incorporate our culture and connect to our topic and participants. During the session, she was a pro with a powerful message and a fantastic delivery. We had wonderful feedback from all that attended and can’t wait to have Sarah back for another session in the future!"
Sylvia D’Intino

Executive Director, Community Living Hamilton

"THANK YOU so very much for leading the engagement activities today! You’re a constant professional, with an amazing attitude and always seeing the great in everyone. I am grateful for how you have helped us this year to transform our in-person staff recognition events into virtual and on-location events. Our staff feel more inspired, appreciated and motivated after they hear you speak, and I know our amazing in-house team here looks forward to designing engaging appreciation events with your support."
Melissa Chaulk

Manager of Professional Development

Canadian Dental Hygienists Association

"We work hard at CDHA to give our members a wonderful conference experience, so we were thrilled to have received resoundingly positive feedback on Sarah's opening plenary keynote. It was the highest attended of the entire conference for both dates!"
Jamie Campbell

Director, The Center for People in Organizational Development, Sheridan College

"Smart, challenging, innovative, committed, dependable, and reliable, I highly recommend her for all your recognition needs. I have brought Sarah into my last two organizations to help build a culture of recognition and celebration. The focus on appreciation is more important now than ever."

Some of the Great Organizations We Serve