| 9.2°C Belfast

'I was so self-conscious, until one day I saw myself in the mirror at the gym with greasy hair and no make-up, and I didn't care... it made me feel powerful'

As the This Girl Can campaign tackles 'unrealistic' images among fitness influencers, Abi Jackson ponders the power of not giving a hoot how you look

Close

Real deal: an image from the This Girl Can campaign

Real deal: an image from the This Girl Can campaign

PA

Abi Jackson

Abi Jackson

PA

Real deal: an image from the This Girl Can campaign

There's no denying perfectly-fitting, well-designed gym kit can make you feel amazing. But I recently discovered an even bigger fitnesswear buzz, one that took me by surprise.

Basically, I discovered the joy of looking like an absolute mess at the gym. I know, who knew?!

Laundry logistics are to thank. Packing my gym bag one day, I realised all the 'good' kit was in the wash, so I had two options: A - skip my workout, or B - rummage through the darkest depths of my drawers and make do with whatever I could find that was vaguely suitable.

There was a time when it would almost certainly have been option A. I was hideously self-conscious at the best of times - there's no way I'd throw fuel on my body-hating fire by not at least attempting to mask my 'flaws' with a semi-decent outfit.

But times have changed. I ended up at the gym in a heavily-bobbled, baggy old T-shirt and tatty bottoms that probably had once resembled leggings, but whose 'stretchy' prime had long passed.

Halfway through my workout, I caught sight of myself in one of the floor-to-ceiling mirrors (yes, those same mirrors that used to induce a severe bout of shame and self-scrutiny). This time though, my eyes quickly darted back to my reflection and lingered there for a moment. A glorious, fuzzy, soul-soaring moment.

Alongside the anti-fashion outfit, my greasy, unbrushed hair was shoved scraggly into a hairband, there wasn't a scrap of make-up on my face - and I didn't care in the slightest. Which made me feel... powerful. Realising how much had changed felt like a deep, meaningful victory - and I can't deny, it was a total thrill.

It might sound completely unremarkable to some people - and in an ideal world, it would be completely unremarkable for all of us.

But the reality is, poor body-image and low self-esteem, whatever you want to call it, is a huge, widespread issue that can have an immense hold over us.

Like so many women, I'd spent large chunks of my life worrying way too much about what I look like, convinced I wasn't good enough and that the world was judging me for it.

Although I've always been sporty and active, for a long time, any joy I felt in moving my body was always accompanied - and often totally eclipsed - by a nagging sense of shame, ranging from a distracting discomfort on good days, to spiralling self-loathing on bad ones.

And like a lot of people, I'd fallen for that insane lie we're so frequently sold - that exercise is just something women do to lose weight or 'improve' their appearance.

Aerobics classes went hand-in-hand with being on a diet. And fit, active people looked a certain way. Slim and toned (but not too muscular, ladies). Things are thankfully starting to shift on that front, but there's still work to be done.

A new survey by Sport England looking at attitudes around social media fitness influencers, found 63% of women who see slim, toned bodies on social media say this has a negative impact on them, and 24% who follow fitness influencers say they make them feel bad about themselves.

The figures were released with the launch of the latest This Girl Can ad. Now in its fifth year, the campaign - which famously features 'real women' (of various ages, ability levels and demographics, plucked from leisure centres and communities up and down the country) - has been a huge success, inspiring millions of women to get active (2.8 million in its first year alone).

But as Lisa O'Keefe, director of insight at Sport England, points out, although it's getting smaller, there is still a gender gap when it comes to participation in sports and exercise, and 40% of women are still not getting the recommended 150 minutes of activity per week.

Tackling 'unrelatable' images on social media and encouraging more diversity and realness is a key theme for This Girl Can this year.

"We're trying to change the stereotype that sport is just for the young, fit and talented. To do that, we have to change the images we see on social media. We are urging everybody to think about how they can provide more diverse images," said O'Keefe.

Now don't get me wrong, I have nothing against stylish gym kit or wanting to look decent. And if investing in super-gorgeous kit gives you the boost you need to get through the door, that can only be a good thing. But realising I was finally free of those insane body-conscious shackles and worrying what other people might think of my appearance (largely self-imposed, I know), gave me a sweeter joy than any bum-sculpting leggings and matching crop top ever could.

There wasn't a magic switch though. This was the result of years of experience and slow, patient change.

Forging new habits and shifting focus. But the biggest key to it all was disconnecting with that spirit-limiting notion that exercise was a means to a skinnier end.

While in my 20s, I'd only ever venture into a gym because I hated my thighs or belly (and surprise, surprise, never really enjoyed it), in my 30s I was there to heal - quite literally, from spinal surgery. It's so easy to take your health and mobility for granted, but when they are taken away from you, everything changes. After my surgery, it took weeks of very basic physiotherapy before I was even able to get into the gym and step up my rehab.

At first, my goal was to restore the pelvic floor function and balance I'd lost pre-surgery due to nerve damage, so I could get back to doing things like dressing myself without difficulty, and strengthen my legs so I could go for long walks.

There was a big question mark over whether I'd get back to my big loves: dancing and cycling.

But I did. It took a lot of patience, and slow, steady commitment - but with the help of an amazing rehab trainer, and a massive wedge of optimism, I got there.

The gym became my lifeline. My happy place. And I fell totally in love with keeping myself strong.

Of course, as lots of people discover, once you've cracked this, you realise the biggest benefits of exercise are the mental ones too - that feel-good factor and calm that spreads through every part of your being. Exercise really can make you feel good, inside and out.

This shouldn't be something we have to discover after a health scare or major life event though. We should be encouraging this gift from day one - not setting each other up to battle insecurities until something clicks.

So buy those fancy leggings and crop tops if you want. Or go to the gym looking like a mess - and revel in claiming your space for the joy of it.

Honestly, it really is quite a buzz.

Belfast Telegraph