For the first time in a long time, I have been consistently working out for an extended period of time. I am gaining strength, flexibility, and energy. My clothes fit better, my muscles are more defined, and I was actually looking forward to trying on swimsuits this spring.

Then I walked into the dressing room. You know, the one with the fluorescent lights and the side mirrors. The dressing room that highlights every. single. flaw.

When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see the muscle I’ve built over the past few months. I didn’t see the flexible hamstrings. I didn’t see the light in my energetic eyes. Instead, under those fluorescent lights, I saw the parts of me that weren’t perfect yet,  the flaws that would never change. The stretch marks and the scars. The sag and the cellulite. Thirty-six years of Earth-living.

I didn’t buy the swimsuit.

The next day, I asked a diverse group of women to give me their honest reasons for exercising. Not one of the twenty-five women said, “To look perfect in a bikini.” Here are the top five reasons they gave for working out: To stay healthy, to feel better, for the endorphins, to prevent injury, and to challenge themselves.

The women also talked about the trickle effects of working out, like more self-confidence, better sleep, improved eating habits, and mental clarity. At the very bottom of the list were things like clothes fitting better, losing weight, and looking good.

We know the right reasons for working out, so why does it all fly out the window the moment we step into the dressing room? Aside from boycotting stores with fluorescent lighting, what can we do to improve our self-image?

Here’s the thing: body kindness is not a natural instinct. Looking at yourself in the mirror and liking what you see takes effort. We are our own worst critics, after all.

So let’s make the effort.

Let’s remember why we exercise. Let’s remember what we’re after. We are not the fitspiration generation. We are moms who set a good example for our children. We are women who chase endorphins and challenge our aging bodies. We are women seeking a release from the stresses of this world, not perfect washboard abs.

Let’s make the effort to be a self-champion, not a self-critic.

Take time to find your answers to these questions, so that the next time you feel tempted to critique yourself in the mirror, you’ll have some tools to be kind to yourself:

  • What are all the incredible things your body has done for you? Make a list.
  • If looks had nothing to do with anything, why would you exercise?
  • How do you want your kids to feel about exercise?
  • How do you hope your daughter looks at herself in the mirror?