Thursday, March 27, 2014

Weight and Self-Image

I've been putting off writing about this for a long time, because I don't like to write about my more unattractive personality traits, no matter how human and normal they might be. But someone's gotta do it, damn it. If no one ever wrote about unpleasant things, nothing real would ever get said. In part I've been inspired by The Divided Mind by John E. Sarno, M.D., in particular a part where he talked about one of his own episodes with psychosomatic illness. He developed symptoms while on vacation with his wife (you'll have to read the book to find out what kind) and he had to admit that he resented taking her on vacation before the symptoms would let up. As he said in his book, this wasn't a very nice thing to have to admit, and he didn't like that about himself at all. It made him feel like a horrible person. That's the awesome and scary power of the unconscious. Sometimes it's easier on our egos to feel physically ill or cripple ourselves than admit that part of us is whiny and selfish, or whatever else might be going on. When I'm done with this book I'm going to check out some of his other ones. They sound fascinating.

Anyway, I've been fighting with my weight most of my life, even when I was skinny. I just didn't know I was skinny at the time. That tells me that I don't see myself very clearly. It makes it extremely difficult to know where I'm at. I can't look in the mirror and say hey, I'm huge or hey, I'm looking pretty good right now. I have a very athletic body and so I weigh a lot more than other people my height. Although I use the scales, it's better for me to use a tape measure around my waist and my pant size to gauge where I'm at. So, at 5'6", I'm about 175 pounds (right now less, two weeks ago I was a bit over) and wear a size 14. I know of very few women who are my height and weight that weigh as much as I do. So, there's the visual distortion, there's the weight wackiness (I feel ponderous whenever I look at the number on the scale), my intellectual goals which want me to be at a healthy weight where I can do all the stuff I like to do without hurting myself, my rational goal of maximizing my longevity and quality of life, and my not-very-subconscious goal of looking great and feminine and sleek (sleek's not going to happen with my shoulders. Just sayin'.)

Most of the time I'm okay with my size, and I'm strong and I have decent endurance though more cardio training is always good. I haven't done that in a long time now. Months.

Here's the ugly part, the things I don't like to admit.

Somewhat big doesn't trigger this–I grew up with a family where some members were perpetually round and I have some wonderful friends who are round that I consider healthy. But I'll see someone really big and the wow, how the hells, why the hells start going around in my head. I'm instantly ashamed of myself. And then I often imagine what it would be like to be that big, and to see that in other people's eyes every time they look at me, and I think, crap, I might never leave the house.

I have days when I want to do nothing but sweat so I don't have to face the scale at a given weight. I get really twitchy when I start to approach my pregnant weight. At the 175 mark I'm within five pounds of that. Maybe ten, if I'm generous with myself. 180 is the number in my head, but I think I went over that slightly when I was pregnant.

Pregnant. I'm almost as heavy as I was when I was pregnant with my first born child, with no child in my body. That slays my hopes and dreams and desires to be that super-fit grandma I might become someday if I'm lucky, the one who charges up and down mountainsides and goes skiing and fishing and all the things my mom does and other older women I admire do.

And now that I've said those things about my weight, I'm scared that someone I love and care about will think damn, if Kami thinks that's heavy, what does she think of me? I fear I'll hurt someone who has the same or worse self-image problems that I do, or that they'll hate me for thinking these things when they believe that I've got it good compared to them or whatever, and I start to make myself crazy and fearful.

So add to this mix of emotions that make me loathe myself, I have people I love that can't do all those things and I see them as beautiful and strong. One of them is very ill and believes they look fat. They don't. In my eyes, that person is thinner than I am. And that person probably is. I bet if we adjust for height and everything, that person is slimmer than I am. But that person doesn't see themselves that way, because that person's self-image is all messed up. Just like mine.

So I see someone super-heavy by my internal scale, and I try not to stare and try not to think the awful thoughts that I always do about how someone can 'let themselves go' and I think about myself and think, like I have room to talk, I have rolls like the Michelin Man, (but hey, my arms are totally like that, so, bonus!) and I go into a death spiral of shame and self-loathing and pity for the other person and I have this desire to try to help and encourage them. How awful is that, on top of everything else.

I'm ashamed to admit that I have the nerve to want to encourage and help someone who doesn't know me and would find it incredibly intrusive and arrogant and horrible to have a stranger try to be supportive about something so personal, when they have absolutely no knowledge about what I've done and been doing or not doing about my weight. I have my decisions to make and no one can make them for me. Our friends can keep us going, but a stranger has no business butting in. Just because someone is a certain size, or has twins, or moves with the aid of a wheelchair or whatever does not make them public property to ooo and aahh and approach with praise or sympathy or whatever. And yet people do this. And I think it.

Is social pressure to change our bodies all bad? I don't think so. Some social pressure is good. Social pressure reminds us to not be jerks, and helps motivate some of our other better natures including picking up trash, volunteering, etc. It's not the entirety of a given behavior (at least I don't think that people do everything just to please others and fit in) but it can be a valuable piece of a motivational spectrum to help get me off my butt. But some social pressure motivates people to distort their natural beauty, to carve up their faces and bodies until they don't look like themselves anymore, or to become housebound because they can't bear the stares. And some of that social pressure is entirely imaginary, about what I think people see when they look at me, versus what they really see. Some of that social pressure is distorted by a culture that is itself distorted (think the scary-thin models) and some social pressure is motivated by cruelty and our less-attractive selves. I don't like that part of me that stares at huge people, but others revel in it, laugh, make awful comments, and use weight as license to demean people and think less of them. I'm not sure that my desire to help overweight people become healthier is any better than the people that make fun of them. It's just as intrusive, but in the opposite direction.

There's nowhere I can take this. Society is what it is, I am who I am, and people are who they are. I just wanted to write about this because I'm a talker and a writer and I feel compelled to get this stuff out of my head and into the light. I think it's important to poke at this stuff, figure it out, and then do something positive if at all possible. I don't expect to change the world, or make people be nicer to each other. But maybe I can start a dialogue (or monologue.) This stuff has all been discussed before by others, but maybe not by all my readers, so, here you go. You've got thoughts in your head. What are you going to do with your thoughts, if anything? They're yours to keep, or to share, whatever you want or dare to do. If they're not what you want them to be and you're willing to fight to change them, I'll be here, silently cheering you on. I wouldn't dare actually cheer you on unless you asked me to, because ... well, you've read this far, so you know.

I'm scared to butt in where I'm not wanted.

I almost deleted this post. I don't know what it means that I didn't, and I don't know what it means that I put it up despite my qualms. I just hope that getting the thoughts out of my head will help someone or something someday.


Kai Jones said...

Intimacy is hard.

Science, hard evidence, hasn't figured out that much about health and weight and food. So why do we expect ourselves and other people to have a particular shape? It's because of social pressure-we see pictures of how people are supposed to look, we see editorials in magazines (even if only on the covers-which also have those pictures) about weight loss and advertisements for weight loss products and systems, and we get a repetitive message about a standard we are supposed to meet.

I try to examine and confront my socially-mediated Puritanism, which is the basis for a lot of how I unfairly judge other people. That is, I remind myself not to attribute conscious choices (like how much to eat, what to eat, how much to exercise, how to exercise) to visible consequences (like body size), and not to confuse correlation with causation, or to get the directional arrow reversed (which came first, the unfitness or the excess weight? is either really caused by moral weakness or lack of self-control?) and just plain not to judge a book by its cover or a person by their body.

I mean, I've been basically constrained from most exercise (that is, I pay a heavy price for it) for the last year and a half (vertigo); spent 3 months in bed last year recovering from two surgeries; have had a disease that is associated with weight gain that went undiagnosed for an unknown amount of time (sleep apnea); and have been taking prescription medicines that interfere with my metabolism and are known to be associated with weight gain for years now. I didn't choose most of that, who would? And yet I'm fat, and I don't have the energy or the stamina to do a lot of things I'd like to do-nor do I have the mental ability to do all the things I want to do, which is another symptom of the particular cause of the vertigo I experience (cognitive deficit *and* memory loss, lucky me). Only the fat is visible, and other people judge me based on it. They don't judge me about not being able to make a sewing project, or to cook, because they can't see those things. And because bigotry about body size and shape is still socially-approved.

Dustin Hoffman, talking about the process of getting the look right for playing a woman in the movie Tootsie, said in an interview:

Hoffman talks about how he asked the people working on "Tootsie" to make his character look more beautiful. When they said they'd made him as beautiful a woman as they could, he claims he had "an epiphany."

"I went home and I started crying talking to my wife. I said, 'I have to make this picture,' and she said, 'Why?'" Hoffman recalls. "I said, 'Because I think I'm an interesting woman when I look at myself on the screen and I know that if I met myself at a party I would never talk to that character because she doesn't fulfill physically the demands that we're brought up to think women have to have in order for us to ask them out.' She says, 'What are you saying?'"

At this point, Hoffman starts crying and concludes, "I said, 'There's too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed.' That ['Tootsie'] was never a comedy for me."

Brainwashing happens. That's what society is for. But as thinking beings we can evaluate the brainwashing and reject the parts that don't help us or make sense to us.

Anonymous said...

The post covers a lot of complex issues. So it's not really about weight, it's about ingrained responses - towards self, towards others.
I could confess to exactly the same thoughts towards very large people. On the intellectual level it's "but for an accident of health/genetics/lifestyle that might be you, stop judging" but still the first reaction is wow, how do you get that big, why; how disabling is that?
The ideal is an impossible one; if you took a critical attitude to the most beautiful woman alive there's imperfections, and chances are she knows them and elevates them to the point of crowding out the things that make her beautiful... if she didn't have that inaccurate self image she'd be guilty of vanity, in someone's eyes.

On the internet we've developed a culture of offering advice/help to people we don't know, perhaps it's spilling over a little into real life. One of the forums I frequent has made a place for photos of the people who post regularly, one or two I've looked at and thought wow, I'd advised that austere experienced looking fellow how to manage his cattle better.

The idea that weight-loss = good is so prevalent that it's at the forefront of marketing, the presumption is made that everyone would be healthier to lose some. So you can be trying to gain weight and have people praising you for every step backwards, flyers coming through your door for weightloss programmes, shelves full of reduced calorie 'healthier' options in the stores and unless you've stepped over the line to severe low weights; complete incomprehension from others about any struggle you might have to eat enough and maintain enough weight :-)


Kami said...

Kai, I just want to hug you. Everything you wrote was so insightful. The Dustin Hoffman stuff ... really wonderful. And, for the record, I love "Tootsie."

Regolith: Beautiful. And getting caught between self-loathing/distorted self-image and narcissistic arrogance .... It's as if we can't ever be at peace with ourselves or the world at the same time.

Mark Jones said...

The body image distortion never lets up. It's not enough that we see photos and video of impossibly attractive, thin people and are told 24/7 that they're the ideal we should all strive to achieve. Even those impossibly attractive people aren't attractive enough, though. We've all seen (I assume) the photo comparisons and videos of just how thoroughly even those famous faces and bodies get photoshopped to be even more abstractly perfect because the actual human being, attractive as he/she may be, just isn't good enough. And if they're not good enough without makeup, lighting, costuming etc without being subjected to photographic fakery, how can any of us hope to be?

Kami said...

Absolutely. What's more, have you seen the magazines and tabloids that shred celebrities that everyone would agree are gorgeous? The 'guess who has cottage cheese thighs', plastic surgery nightmares, comparisons with who looks better in a dress and fashion disasters. How could anyone possibly find themselves remotely adequate when the world's darlings are mocked and torn down on the on the very thing that they're celebrated for–their attractiveness?

Rory said...

I think you are gorgeous and I love your shoulders. And I also appreciate your introspection and your ability to gently address a complex issue.

Kami said...

Thank you, Rory. I'm going to take your sweetness and say something about it, though, because I'm awful like that. I started out writing a comment, but I think this is long enough to be a whole new post.