(Re)Constructing Myself: Sports’ Influence on My Self-Image

Our self-image is constantly changing as we grow older: it is constructed, defined and re-defined by influences from both our own internal thoughts and our perceptions of the environment around us. Sophia Rommel highlights how her own self-image has been shaped by her colourful experiences with sports from a young age. She emphasizes to us that by loving yourself holistically, we can tackle our insecurities and negative thoughts head-on; ultimately promoting self-love and happiness from within. 

Image Credit: Sophia Rommel 

Image Credit: Sophia Rommel 

‘Results: Because looking good on the outside starts inside’. This phrase, which I’d cut out of a sports magazine, has guided me through life. As a child, there wasn’t a day when I wouldn’t be doing either flips in gymnastics, breaking wood in Kung Fu or swimming laps in the pool. Sports has always been paramount for me: I personally find it to be good fun, rewarding and a great stress reliever. However, from the age of nine, I cut back massively on playing these activities for a variety of reasons, which included the bullying that I was experiencing at school. The general positivity which I’d once felt for myself (and the sports that I so loved) faded, supplanted by unhappiness.

Soon enough, the combination of a lack of physical activity and puberty led to weight gain. Moreover, I was barely seen at school, because the bullying became so bad that it caused me to fall ill often. So, when I finally started high-school, I decided that this would mark a fresh start – a chance to de-construct my tarnished self-image and reconstruct myself to create a happier and stronger me, reminiscent of the energetic child which had been buried under the layers of harsh words from others for so long.

It was during this low time in my life that I stuck the aforementioned phrase on my wardrobe as a reminder to myself that, regardless of my physical appearance, my happiness and self-love began from within. If I could regain this positivity and construct a self-image rooted in self-acceptance, which made me able to love myself for who I was (including anything which could be labelled as ‘imperfections’), then I’d radiate this self-love from the inside-out.

In hindsight, my beauty was, I realised, not defined by a scale or mirror, but by myself. Crucially, I used sports as a medium to establish and strengthen a mind-body connection which, in turn, helped me find and define myself again. Sports enabled me to push myself, set targets, let go of the bullying experiences and, on a superficial level, change my body to match the beauty ideals engraved in my mind.

With this mindset intact, I took a leap of faith and signed up for swim training. Two years down the line and I’d become a competitive swimmer, as well as a national water polo player for the under-18s team. My passion for sport and my happiness had resurfaced and I’d shed my excess weight, developing an athletic build. I believed that I’d ticked the box for ‘looking good’ inside by rediscovering myself through sport, which in turn helped me look good physically.

Although rigorous training and exhilarating competitions provided me with feelings of accomplishment and what I’d thought to be ‘real happiness’, unbeknownst to me, a small seed of control had grown in my mind. Namely, the need to control what my body looked like. At first, I barely noticed this seed; I’d convinced myself that I was training seven days a week solely because I loved it and for no other deep-seated reasons. When my mother advised me to reduce my exercise regime just a little to give my body enough time to rest, I drowned her advice out. Sub-consciously, I’d latched on to sport because I knew that it kept me thin and fit. It helped me reach the beauty ideals which I’d constructed, perhaps adopted, in my mind.  

However, with this control also came irrational fears, such as ‘if I miss one training session, I'll gain a kilo of fat’ – something I couldn't possibly let happen. No matter the cost, I didn't want to sink into my nine-year-old self’s unhappiness again.

Image Credit: Sophia Rommel

Image Credit: Sophia Rommel

Though my love for academia dominated over competitive sport at the end of high-school, I continued throwing myself into as much exercise as physically possible. Unfortunately, I also began to perceive my body in distorted ways. When I looked into the mirror, I didn't see the athletic girl I was - I saw a bulky giant. On my voyage to losing weight, be athletic and create a self-image enabling self-love, I’d fallen into a mindset of control and into the habit of altering the way I saw myself. If this mindset festered, I’d be back to square one - I may have regained some happiness, but I was nowhere near self-love.

While sports have positively shaped parts of my mindset, the excessive control was engulfing my passion. University promised another chance at a fresh start, so I decided to try new activities, purely for fun, such as long-distance running and yoga. However, I couldn't shake off the craving to maintain my body image. These control issues also started spreading to the ‘exceptions’ I allowed myself to have. For example, I’d banned myself from eating cake and panicked when I didn't exercise after a large meal, for fear of gaining weight. Again, though my passion for sport was present, it was intertwined with an increasing need to manage my body’s appearance.

Thankfully, during the summer after my first year at university, I had important discussions with my mother and friends, pushing me to cognize fully the extremity of what I was doing to myself and admitting to myself where my need to control was actually coming from. By recognizing my physical insecurities as the root cause, I was able to begin mending myself, first and foremost by being completely honest with myself. Though I’d thought I’d been on the right track by attempting to look good on the outside by ‘looking good on the inside’, my need to control had got in the way.

To remedy this, I began a journey which I'm sure many people can relate to. I started accepting how I looked, ‘imperfections’ included, allowing my inner-self to embrace my outer-self. ‘Looking good’ on the outside indeed begins from within, but our mindset’s perception about beauty is also defined by how we view and compare ourselves to our environment (be it in the mirror or through society’s beauty ideals). Once we acknowledge this, we can find ways to promote a healthier, positive way of thinking about our own body image.

Over time, looking into mirrors without immediately pointing out my flaws became my new norm - I stopped seeing the warped image in my mirror when I stopped mentally constructing it. I also gained a strong interest in nutrition, which highlighted to me how intricately intertwined our mental and physical selves are. This insight was reiterated to me through practising yoga (which has also aided me in letting go of my issues when dealing with cravings, and in finding balance in my life).

Strengthening the connection between our mental and physical selves allows us to understand ourselves more holistically, promoting our self-love and happiness. My ‘craving control’ has since greatly subsided, allowing me to do sport out of pure passion and not out of excessive control to sculpt my body image. These experiences have taught me that once you love yourself holistically, you can face your insecurities head-on and harness the negative thoughts, transforming them into positive ones.

However, accepting yourself as you change and grow is an ongoing process. The earlier we realise that all we have to say is “Hey, I'm happy with myself, I can choose to improve myself or not, and I'm who I decide to be,” the happier we’ll be, as we’ll have found acceptance from within, allowing us to radiate it from the inside-out.

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