1 Problem with Being Lean

I met this sweet woman earlier this year at the Fitness Business Summit. We had a great conversation in the lobby. We both agreed about the #1 problem with being lean.

NegharHer name is Neghar Fonooni and I’ll let her explain…

There was a time when I was uber lean. I mean shredded. Completely ripped.

I walked around at 12% body fat–all the time. Surprise beach vacation? No problem. I was always bikini ready. I maintained my lean physique year-round, regardless of holidays or vacations.

And you know what else?

I was downright miserable.

Don’t get me wrong–It wasn’t because I was lean, by any means. You can be lean and not be miserable, and be miserable without being lean. The relationship isn’t strictly inverse.

And sure, the fact that I had to diet constantly was uncomfortable, especially because I became obsessed with my nutrition, and allowed it to rule my life. But that wasn’t the root of what was making me live in misery.

The real problem was why I was working towards getting and staying lean. In truth, I really didn’t like myself. 

I hated my body, and detested every little bit of fat that I could pinch. I would look in the mirror and scrutinize myself, and I would berate myself heavily if I happened to go off my strict nutrition plan. I was living with some deep-rooted body image issues and had demons that I wasn’t yet willing to face.

And because I had yet to face my demons, I strived to maintain a lean physique simply because it was how I defined my self-worth. I was good enough if I was lean, and if I fell off the wagon, I was a failure.

With this line of thinking, I never felt that I was skinny enough, and as a result, that self-loathing pushed me into a cycle of extreme dieting. I shamed myself over mistakes, and worked out harder because I was afraid of getting fat. I lived in a world where a one pound weight fluctuation could send my world into complete and total chaos.

Essentially, I hated myself into leanness. 

This was years ago, of course. Today I never I feel the constant, obsessive need to stay lean. I accept my body as it is, and care for it accordingly. I authentically and automatically love myself, regardless of the number on the scale, and my happiness isn’t tied into my body fat percentage.

I still workout every day but the intensity and duration fluctuates, always integrating into the flow of my life–and I always do it because I love being strong and fit, not as a form of punishment.

The majority of the time I eat a clean diet, but I indulge intelligently, and I drink wine when I really want it. I live a much more moderate lifestyle, and instead of being 12% body fat and miserable, I’m roughly 17% body fat, and happy as hell.

These are the incredible results of a significant mindset shift that stems from habitual compassion and acceptance. It took some time and a great deal of practice, but today, I absolutely love my body–shredded or otherwise.

My journey to self-acceptance taught me something unbelievably important as a coach: Self-love and compassion are truly integral components of any fat loss journey.

Sure, we talk about nutrition, exercise, sleep, hydration…but what about love? What if we loved our bodies right now, in this moment? Wouldn’t that allow us to enjoy the fat loss process, thereby making it more sustainable?

And most of all, I learned that the way we think about our bodies is actually the most important tool we can hone in terms of physical and mental transformation. Bodies will inevitably fluctuate, but if we’ve developed a solid, positive mindset, there isn’t a chance we can base our happiness on our bodies alone.

I teach these concepts to women all over the world, through my coaching program, my blog, and my newsletter. I’ve helped women repair their relationship with food, and learn to love exactly who they are right now, all while working to get into shape. What it all comes down to is this:

You have to believe you are enough right now. 

Not minus 30 pounds from now. Not only if you look like a bikini competitor. Not once you reach your arbitrary goals. NOW.

That doesn’t mean you can’t improve or that you’re complacent. Positive psychologist Tal Ben Shahar calls this approach “Active Acceptance,” the concept that acceptance without action is resignation.

He says, “active acceptance is about recognizing things as they are and then choosing the course of action we deem appropriate and worthy of ourselves.” We can choose the appropriate course of action when we choose awareness and acceptance over judgment and shame.

Once we learn to love and accept who we are now, we can have the clarity necessary to not only develop sustainable healthy habits, but to give ourselves some grace when we slip and fall.

This means that if you gain a little weight, or have to skip a workout here and there, you wont spiral out of control, because you know that it’s not going to define you. Mindset has to come first, in order for fat loss to really be sustainable.

You have to believe that your worth, and your physique, are not tied to each other. 

You have to detach your worth and your happiness from a number on the scale. While I’ve learned this throughout my years of mindset practice, it really set in for me earlier this year when I was asked to model for Refinery29.

It was the first time I’d showed up to a modeling gig without dieting, and the first time I was what you wouldn’t call “photo shoot ready.” You see, I used to look like the photo on the left all the time, so when a photo shoot came up, I was always ready.

But as my mindset shift started to happen, and I began to live less obsessively, naturally put on a little body fat (which is not a bad thing when you consider how lean I was). This meant that every time a shoot opportunity came up, I had to diet for 2-4 weeks to “lean out” and be photo shoot ready.

The picture on the right is what I look like all the time now–about 14 pounds heavier than in 2009. Now, as you can tell, I’m still in good shape and very athletic, but not fitness model lean by any means.

The thing is, I decided I don’t care about being fitness model lean. I’m not getting on stage and posing; my career doesn’t depend on being uber lean, and neither does my happiness.

I don’t want to turn my life upside down to get ready for a shoot. I’m fit and strong and healthy, and I want to show up just as I am–because who I am is worthy of wearing a bikini and being in a photo shoot, no matter what the scale says.

So, instead of dieting and prepping for the shoot, I showed up just as I was. I didn’t change a single thing about my diet or training habits, and arrived at the shoot exactly as you see me in the picture on the right. In fact, I was actually a bit softer for that shoot than is normal for me these days!

And do you know what was the worst thing that happened? Absolutely nothing. The shoot went well, the pictures turned out amazing, and it was a great experience.

The profound effect that this experience had was that it gave me confirmation that I no longer attached my self-worth to my physique. I no longer derived absurd amounts of meaning by how lean I was, and I could live a vibrant, healthy, happy life while still maintaining an athletic physique.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to lose body fat or change your physique. Quite the opposite! With mindful eating, compassion, and a great training program, you can lose fat, build strength, and increase performance.

I’m not saying that being lean equals being miserable, either. What I am cautioning you against is allowing physique pursuits to take over your life–don’t let leanness be your only dream. You have so many other reasons to live joyfully and radiate love, and none of that depends on whether or not you lose or gain weight this week.

I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I made. I don’t want you to hate your body until it resembles some ideal vision you’ve designed or until it reaches an arbitrary number on the scale.

I want you to love yourself, taking care of your body because you want to nurture it and show it compassion. In turn, you will love yourself lean, with positive self-talk and a nourishing diet.

Compassion, acceptance, and love are sadly not things we inherently show ourselves. They take daily practice and constant reminders. But, they become easier to embody when you think of the alternative: hardship, misery, self-loathing.

Nothing worth having should ever make you feel miserable and alone, and no amount of body fat lost will make you love yourself. You’ve got to dig deep for that. And when you do, I think you’ll really love what you find.

Neghar Fonooni
Creator of Lean and Lovely

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