Body Image – The Mirror Paradox

By Coach Gregg

What you’re in for:

  • ~1300 words
  • 8-10 minutes reading time

You hire a coach or start a diet for one reason and one reason only right? To get you in shape.

Just tell me what to do and I will do it!

I don’t care what it takes – just get me into shape for that, insert -*contest/ photo shoot/ holiday/ social event *.

That’s all that matters.

So what happens if you get into that shape and all is not well?

What if the sacrifices you have made have come at bigger cost than you expected?

What if there is more to be consider than someone’s physical appearance?

Is your appearance all that matters?

Whilst appearance is commonly the only variable we consider when gauging the progress of a new diet and training regime is that all that is really affected?

Anyone who has dieted for an extended period will tell you a whole host of your life “variables” are impacted.  Sure, your appearance is the primary variable you want to change, but what impact do these changes have on secondary variables?

What happens to your social flexibility? Can you still go and enjoy food out with friends?

How is your mood?

Energy dipping?

Body image?

Self confidence?

Your relationship with food and the time you spend contemplating food choices?

What about the time you spend exercising?

Whilst your appearance may be looking better and better the rest of your life could be getting worse and worse. This is what I call the Mirror Paradox.

**Please be aware I have pulled the following arbitrary numbers out of my ass. I have simply used them as a tool to highlight how a diet may impact more in your life than your waist size or reflection in the mirror. If done well you may expect to see lots of these secondary factors improve**

Pre Diet v Contest Ready

Screenshot 2015-05-14 12.45.44

Let me be upfront and say I am not a contest prep coach. I do however fully appreciate that getting stage ready is a huge commitment, far greater than most people realise when they undertake the challenge to compete.

When you sign up to compete, I hope most are informed enough to expect other parts of their life to suffer regardless of how good their coach is. It is part and parcel of stepping on stage.

So briefly looking at the graphs, what might have changed come show day compared to your pre diet state?

  • Appearance – Come show day, you’re now looking your best. This can help self-esteem. People tend to feel confident when they are looking their best… funnily enough.
  • Lower calories – This often leads to less energy and a lowered mood state (if you’re anything like me you are not exactly a ray of sunshine to be around if I’m constantly hungry). Lower calories can also restrict your dietary flexibility as calorie dense foods are no longer really an option.
  • More time exercising means less time to spend with family and friends, thus social flexibility is reduced.
  • Low calories can give people a fixation with food (all they want to do is look at, talk about , think  of and eat food) therefore their relationship with food can become borderline disordered.

There are innumerable permutations to how people will change.  I just wanted to use these examples to highlight that more than your appearance will transform.

Would the two representations of pre diet and post show (when you are no longer as lean as you were show day but still on low calories) be similar? I think we could present a strong argument to say yes!

But what about those of us with less lofty goals?

Those of us who want to look good naked or feel comfortable in our own skin walking down the beach?

This is where the mirror paradox can become even more pronounced.

Looking like a million dollars but feeling like shit?

We have all seen it on social media. Coaches posting up pictures of their clients’ amazing transformations. They don’t even look like the same people some of the time! It’s hard not to be impressed.

In just 8,10,12 weeks these people have been transformed into model condition. They look a million dollars and have the smile to prove it.

How many of us have taken the time to consider what is going on behind the rippling abs and voluptuous glutes?

Sure we can see the physical transformation but what about the mental and social changes that undoubtedly occur?

All transformations are not created equal!

Some “transformation coaches” will ban whole food groups, demand specific meal timing, demonise certain macros and prescribe endless hours of cardio . Will it get a physical result? Potentially, but what is the impact to the client’s life?

Could similar results be achieved with a less anal and more inclusive approach whilst minimising the disruption (and long term damage) to people’s mental state and general well being?

The Extreme v Sustainable approach may look something like this:

Screenshot 2015-05-14 12.45.15

Again, I would like to reiterate that I am not saying that all quick results or even “extreme” approaches are bad for everyone. Certain individuals at certain times may thrive under such conditions. We must however still be considerate of the wider implications that such severe and drastic changes will have on the majority of individuals (not to mention the potentially disproportionate number of already mentally delicate people that may be attracted to such extreme changes as a transformation package).

So am I saying that all transformations and diets are inherently bad?

Hell no!

I recently attended a seminar by James Conci-Mitchell (founder of Six3Nine in London). James is renowned for transformations done ethically and underpinned by an evidence based approach. You can get people in great shape without leaving them a disordered mess at the end of it.

So I don’t believe all transformations are “bad”. What I do believe is we need to take a more holistic approach when it comes to people looking to change people’s lives.

As a coach, I believe I am responsible for more than my client’s appearance.

Do I want to get them results? Of course I do, but I don’t want results at all cost.

I have to assess the social and psychological implications that may manifest themselves due to changes I make in order to achieve the desired physical appearance.

What happens to somebody’s energy, mood, sex drive if I put them on really low calories?

How would my client’s relationship with food develop if I introduced a list of banned foods that are common with many exclusive dietary approaches?

Will they still have the time and energy to do their day job and enjoy time with their kids if I put them on 6 hours of cardio a week in the pursuit of a transformation picture?

Who cares if they are a broken wreck when I am finished with them. I got them abs in record time. I did my job, right?


Can I keep this up?

Will you be doing this in a year? Often to maintain your weight loss you have to keep doing what you have done to get where you are. So ask yourself – is this realistic long term and will I be able to maintain some semblance of life outside of the gym?

Looking beyond the physical

Next time you see a transformation on Instagram or consider a new diet and training plan take a second to look beyond the physical.  Assess the impact it will have, not just on your appearance but on your life as a whole.

If we truly want to help someone transform their lives long term, we must look beyond the physical and start considering a more holistic .