[Interview] Overcoming A Negative Body Image: Molly Galbraith’s Top Tips
Girls Gone Strong’s Molly Galbraith’s struggle with weight, body image, and fitness is one many of us can identify with, but it’s her courage of conviction that sets a new bar. We sat down with her this month to talk to her about overcoming a negative body image.
Have You Always Been Athletic?
No, absolutely not. In fact, I think I was the poster child for anti-fitness for a long time. Growing up, I was a competitive gymnast, which is hilarious because I’m almost six feet tall and I do not have the body type for gymnastics whatsoever. I did that for five years, and I was a cheerleader in high school for a couple of years, but my diet was always pretty atrocious. Luckily, I was able to out-exercise my nutrition for a long time. I grew up in a household with a single mother and two sisters. My mom started law school a year or two after she and my dad divorced. It was a kind of a fend-for-yourself situation.
Was There An Aha Moment?
At the end of high school, I got really sedentary and gained a significant amount of weight. It was in February of 2004, almost 13 years ago, when I realized I was unhappy with my body. I was like, I like lots of other things in my life—I’m getting good grades. I have great friends. I like my work. But the one thing that I’m unhappy with is the one thing that I thought I had complete control over, which was what I ate and what I did with my body.Even If We Agree That Men's Body Issues And Women's Body Issues Are Different, We Both Have Body Image Issues. We're Both Held To Unattainable StandardsClick To Tweet
I Think That In One Way Or Another We All Have Felt Like That, Regardless Of Age, Gender, Ethnicity. It’s Not How Many Times You Fall Down, But How Many You Get Up, Right? What Was Your Plan Of Action?
I decided that I was going to get in shape. But I had no idea what it meant to get in shape. I hired a trainer, but as a broke college student, I couldn’t afford too many sessions. About six to eight months after that I started dating a guy at the gym who was a trainer, which was much more economical. [Laughs] He was into bodybuilding and powerlifting, and the people that he worked with and trained with were all into that. I was thrust into the world of hardcore lifting very quickly, and I did my first meet in 2005.
A Year After You Started Exercising You Were Already Competing?!
Yep. And after that, I competed in figure from 2006 to 2008. For people who aren’t familiar with figure competitions, it’s kind of like a mix between bikini and bodybuilding, so you’re going to be more muscular than someone who does bikini modeling, but less muscular than someone who competes in bodybuilding. I competed three times, and I really pushed my body very hard. That was my goal, and I decided this is what I’m going to do, end of story. I didn’t really care how I felt or that I had brain fog. I didn’t care that my limbs felt like they weighed 700 pounds each.
After Pushing Yourself So Hard For So Long, Waking Up The Day After The Competition Must Have Been Strange?
I rebounded badly and gained a significant amount of weight again. After almost every competition, I gained 15 to 20 pounds in about a two- week period, and it was horrifying. My skin hurt, my body hurt, I had developed this relationship with food that was completely disordered. It was really, really tough. But my body would rebound and in my head, I would think that the only way to get my body back was to do another competition. I did that cycle for the first two competitions, and then I finally decided to get healthy and repair my metabolism—whatever that means. I just wanted to get my body back to functioning the way that it used to. And so, I did. I was looking good, feeling strong and I was lean. Then I decided to compete for a third time in 2008. After that, things were different.
About five months later, I started having a lot of problems. I was physically depressed. I wasn’t so much emotionally depressed, but my body felt like I couldn’t function. I couldn’t get off the couch. All I wanted to do is sleep.
That Brings Up A Very Important Point: We Must Listen To Our Bodies. What Did Your Doctor Say?
I was diagnosed with autoimmune thyroid disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome and adrenal dysfunction. My doctor’s theory was that I was predisposed to these things; that the amount of stress that I put my body under pushed me over the edge. It was tough for me for me to hear. I was about five years into my health and fitness journey, and I had spent those last five years getting a lot of praise for how my body looked and for being this crazy fitness girl. My identity had become very wrapped up in being lean and fit and then, all of a sudden, it was taken away from me.
For People Who Like To Workout, That Kind Of Diagnosis Can Be Mentally And Physically Devastating…
Well, I had to face the fact that I couldn’t control the way that my body looked anymore. I had these health issues that I had to deal with, and they had to be prioritized. So, I decided to get really, really strong and compete in another powerlifting meet. I loved getting strong, loved the idea of focusing on performance, but I realized that I had built a big house of strength on a teeny-tiny foundation that was about to topple over. It was then that I resolved to get back to basics and build my strength from the ground up. I was on a road to building a truly strong foundation and then January 4th, 2012, my dad passed away unexpectedly. A couple of months after that I ended a six-year relationship moved back home with my mom. Basically, my life was falling down around me.
That Sounds Horrendous.
I ended up gaining quite a bit of weight back—within a pound and a half of where I started in February 2004. My body looked quite different because I had a lot more muscle than I did before, but I started getting criticism from everywhere. People were commenting on YouTube and Facebook, saying things like, “I don’t understand why you’re not as lean as you used to be.” I had a woman in my hometown telling other women not to go to my gym because they might look like me. I had a fellow male fitness professional stand in my gym in my office and insinuate to my staff that I was fat. I’m almost 5′ 11”, and I was 183 pounds at that time, and really solid. Not that that matters at all, but just to give you an idea of what we, as a society, think fitness professionals are supposed to look like.
In Your Opinion, Why Do You Think That People Feel That It’s Okay To Comment On Your Weight?
I think a little bit of it is ignorance. But for the most part, I think it’s because people are unhappy with themselves. I did it for years. We do it to take the spotlight off of ourselves and why we are unhappy; we shine that light on someone else.
Do You Think That People Would React The Same Way As If You Were A Man?
My good friend Erin Brown said something really interesting —she’s a body autonomy expert and activist and advisory board member of the Girls Gone Strong—and it was that “Even if we agree that men’s body issues and women’s body issues are different, we both have body image issues. We’re both held to unattainable standards. There’s something very different about expecting a man to be bigger, faster and stronger, and expecting a woman to be skinnier, smaller and less.”
How Is Your Approach Different When Speaking To Women As Opposed To When You Speak To Men?
Understanding where women’s heads are at is really important; How women think about themselves and their bodies. The way that we have always bonded is by talking about what’s wrong with our bodies, with self- deprecating comments. This is the inner dialogue. But for us, the most important thing when it comes to speaking to women is body autonomy. The idea that you, as a woman, are in charge of your body and you get to make all of the decisions that you want without shame or judgment. And number two, once you have decided what you want for yourself then we help give you the tools to get there.
How Is Girls Gone Strong Different Than Other Companies Aimed At Women?
I think that there have been a lot of well-intentioned companies, websites, and messages out there. “Strong is the new skinny.” “Real women have muscle.” They are trying to promote this strong, fit woman. But we shouldn’t be preaching this to women. We should be giving them a choice. Girls Gone Strong started out as an organization that wanted to preach the gospel of strength training to women and now what we’re saying is women should do whatever the hell they want with their bodies. We hope that strength training is one of those things, but we want women to understand that there are so many possibilities for their lives and their bodies, and it’s up to them to decide what they want for themselves.
What Is The “Modern Woman’s Guide To Getting Strong”?
That came out in April 2014. I opened my gym and had started working with my former business partner in 2010. Loads of women who walked in the door were interested in getting started with strength training, and they had absolutely no idea how. Even women who were more intermediate were coming into the gym and saying, “I need help.” I took my experience working with clients at the gym and online and decided to put together a simple, easy-to-follow program that could be modified to fit their schedule, ability level and goals. There are three levels of training programs that are 16 weeks long each: beginner, intermediate, high-level intermediate and a level-four bonus program for advanced lifters, which is another 16 weeks.
Who Is It Aimed At?
These are for women who want what I call a balanced intersection of health, aesthetics, performance, and lifestyle. Women who want to look better, feel better, get healthy and feel strong, but they don’t want fitness to overtake their life. The program can be modified so they can work out two, three
or four days a week. There are cardio recommendations for all different goals. If you are interested in general wellness, strength and muscle gain, fat loss or if you’re really time-crunched, there are recommendations for that as well.
How Much Does Diet Factor In Your Program?
It’s a three-pronged approach. We do nutrition training and mindsets with nutrition being the biggest piece because there’s so much shame and disordered eating for women when it comes to food. We use a habit-based approach. We don’t give meal plans or diets. We help give women
the tools to navigate eating that allows them to perform the way that they want to perform in the gym and also achieve whatever aesthetic and health goals that they have for themselves. We teach them how to eat instead of telling them what to eat.
For the last two and a half years we’ve been working on a pregnancy project, we are tentatively calling Moms Gone Strong. It’s a nutrition, training and self-care program. We have almost a dozen experts— Ph.D.’s, MD’s, OB/ GYN, Naturopathic doctors, physical therapists, pre- and postnatal fitness experts, registered dietitians—who have all come together on the project. For a long time, physical activity was discouraged for pregnant women. And then, as the pendulum always does, it swung to the other side and we are seeing women running 400-meter sprints and doing CrossFit at eight-and-half- months pregnant. It’s leaving women more confused than ever seeing these conflicting messages. We’re excited to clear the air, lay down the evidence and say this is what women should be doing if their goal is to have their healthiest, strongest and fittest pregnancy possible.