An Honest Talk about Body Image
It was like any other morning, I crawled out of bed, passing by my bedroom mirror noticing how frizzy my curly hair was, I washed my face and brushed my teeth all while thinking about what I had planned for the day. As usual, it started with walking my dog and heading to riding, so I walked back into my room and contemplated what outfit to wear to the barn. I usually asked myself the logical questions like what temperature is it, how long am I riding, am I having a lesson or not. Once I got that figured out and put on my outfit I scrambled to get my stuff in order so I had enough time to walk my dog, and that’s when it happened. I passed by my mirror in half a second but felt a nagging urge to do a double-take. Do those breeches really make my legs look that big? Is my stomach seriously that bloated today? Suddenly, an issue I hadn’t even considered the first twenty minutes of my day is taking over my body and I am left with a little ball of shriveled up self-esteem sunken at the bottom of my heart. So now I’m walking my dog, and I then head to my barn, ride my horses and do any other tasks and finally I head home doing homework in the car. When I get home the first thing I do every day is run upstairs, rip off my breeches and put on some comfy running shorts. Does anyone else just love the feeling of ripping off sweaty, dirty breeches and putting on shorts that let your legs scream “I’m free!”? At this moment I feel not only comfort but relief. It’s something about breeches that makes me self-conscious, maybe it’s the modern skin-tight look or the unappealing beige color at shows or even the weird sizing. My legs are really long compared to my upper body so I always have to find size long and the waist is always too big compared to the leg size for me. I’ve always felt way more comfortable and confident in running shorts, but why? I’m the same person, my legs are still the same size they were when I put on my breeches that morning. Perhaps it’s symbolic of my identity as a runner, representing myself as strong and muscled rather than big boned or fat.
Do you relate in any way to the story I just shared? The fact of the matter is that it wasn’t a one-morning story, it's a compilation of countless experiences I have had in my life struggling with body image. I have never talked about this on a personal level publicly before. However, I thought sharing this could be beneficial for others that have the urge to say, “me too” and help break the stigma around body image in the equestrian world.
It’s hard to go a day at a show and not personally compare myself to riders that I watch compete. Normally I really take note of the horses in the ring and even watch the professionals with my jaw dropping at how talented and tactful they are no matter what horse they ride. But when I watch fellow juniors, perhaps my competitive nature and self-consciousness kicks in and I start comparing myself like my riding, my round versus their round, my accomplishments versus theirs. I’m not proud I feel the need to do this, I certainly just keep it to myself but in the equestrian world there is this balance between keeping friends and immersing yourself in supportive communities while also aiming to find a competitive edge in the ring. The only difference in my mentality with this now is that I’m no longer personally comparing myself by what I look like versus them, or my accomplishments versus theirs, I am only comparing my round (or future round) versus theirs I just watch. By doing this, I keep no hard feelings with other riders, I am emotionally not draining myself and I am not filling myself with self-hate or low self-esteem as I head into the ring.
I have found after my whole life battling with body image issues in and out of the horse world that this is not some challenge I need to tackle, this is a journey I am on the rest of my life. Body image will always exist, it’s how I interpret my own body image that makes all the difference. It’s hard to determine when I started having self-doubts about my own body image, I don’t think it could have been any later than kindergarten. I always felt like I was chubby and not as pretty as other girls. Now, if I walked past my kindergarten self I wouldn’t think I was fat, I would probably judge myself for my ridiculously short haircuts that my mother enforced, but not the ever-consuming self-doubt of my weight. I remember when second grade was near the end I was growing really tall and I thought to myself this is the perfect opportunity to lean out as I grew without having to starve myself. Years later I found a journal my mother kept on me to track my progress in elementary school and she noted I had lost two pounds. Reading that did not make me feel proud of myself for accomplishing my goal, it made me feel pity for my younger self. If only girls, and boys, and everyone, could grow up without having to worry about their appearances. My upbringing in regards to health wasn’t out of the ordinary, I didn’t have a mother or parental figure that judged my appearances, I ate well at my home and my school. So the fact that me, a child from a well-off family, not immersed in a very negative environment still felt these body image insecurities makes me wonder and worry about all those children in the world who experience far worse. I can only imagine what they went through and still go through to fight these insecurities.
So what have I done since this point in second grade? Well, I have been riding my whole life and kept with that which was really pivotal for gaining self-confidence and a compassion for caring for others, which in turn helped me learn to appreciate myself. However, it was no sunshine and rainbows, it was a roller coaster and one that I now realize I should have asked for support through. Seventh grade was the lowest of lows in my life, in short it was miserable. My whole life I kept these insecurities to myself but that year I couldn’t anymore. My self-hatred was seeping through my pores and affecting those I loved. The only things that got me through that year was riding, my dog and a sense of responsibility to make my family proud which at the moment I know they weren’t because I wasn’t proud of myself. A very transformative outlet I found was running. I was always active as a kid but riding was my priority so I was never motivated to keep a serious program in other sports. Running was the most convenient and enjoyable so I started doing that in eighth grade more regularly. I admit, at first I did it because it was a great calorie burner and I wanted to get skinnier (not stronger). The more I ran, the more I took it seriously as a sport and not a calorie-burning hobby and furthermore the greater my self-confidence and desire to care for my body so I could continue this passion. So I stopped restricting myself from eating when I was hungry, I transitioned to a healthier food diet (not a fad diet but an overall eating pattern), and lastly an overall healthier lifestyle that focused on caring for myself both physically and mentally. Fast forward to now as a junior in high school and I have a substantially higher level of self-confidence. I eat a much more balanced and healthy diet, I strength train 2-3 times a week using TFE workouts and gym equipment and I run 4-6 times per week in a regular program. I now see myself as a strong athlete, with long legs that can carry me through a half-marathon and help me jump 1500lb animals over big tracks. I admit, there are definitely days I don’t feel as confident as others but that’s inevitable. The most important thing is that I found positive outlets that worked for me and immersed myself among specific people I know will support me through thick and thin.
So turning this back to the equestrian world, like many other sports where we wear pretty revealing outfits like for gymnastics, or ballet, etc. I think a community that openly shares about people’s journeys and success stories of dealing with body image would be really beneficial. This can happen right now, by being supportive of fellow riders in and out of the ring, sharing your own stories if you are comfortable and lending a hand or an ear for those that could use support or someone they can talk to. Looking back, I wish I had reached out to my parents or guardians to seek extra support. I still got to a positive destination but it took a long roller-coaster I hope others do not have to endure in the future.
Junior jumper and equitation rider from New Jersey