Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Bodies and how we see them

Like many (most? all?) women (people?) I’ve had my issues with body self-perception. Thankfully, with age things have changed, a lot. I no longer fret as much about all the imperfections, maybe because I don’t have the time or mental energy available to do so. That doesn’t mean I don’t still see things that I dislike, just that they don’t consume me. But I’ve noticed something recently that seemed strange to me, and worth a post.

What is this strange thing? It’s that as I get fitter and leaner, some imperfections seem to get bigger. An example, last year for the first time I noticed some dreaded ‘back fat’. As I was losing fat overall, some areas seemed to get worse! Another one, this year, my spare tire, that I have had since my teens in the front, was now also clearly on my sides. At first I though that maybe the positive changes I saw were all imaginary. But no, my husband was had independently commented on the fact that I looked better (in a very supportive way, and he never comments in a bad way when I'm going the other direction). Or maybe just those spots were getting bigger? Nope, in reality, neither of these had actually gotten bigger as other parts of me were getting smaller. Nor had they just appeared - they been both there for a while when I really thought about it. So was I just noticing them because I was paying more attention to my body, caring more about how I look, and so the lumps and bumps started to matter more? Probably not. Upon a few seconds of reflection I ruled that out; it wasn’t the case that I cared more. And what’s more, they weren’t actually bothering me much. I am 47 years old, and although I don’t have the body I did when I was in my 20s, I feel better about how I look. I feel like I look great for my age (other than being haggard and tired a lot of the time). More important, I enjoy being active and now more than ever, dress for comfort and movement, not looks (although I have been trying to look like I feel good about myself when I dress too, I just won’t sacrifice comfort). I care less, and feel better. And as I slowly get fitter, I feel even better, not worse. So if that’s not it, what is it?

I think it’s that they really are standing out more. Not perceptually, but physically. As some of my lumps and bumps have gotten smaller, things that they are attached to or next to shrink at slower rates. The result of this is that things get uneven, and the bits that are slower to shrink suddenly do stand out, because they are not proportional. So when I had a nice even layer of fat all around my middle, none of it stood out. But when I started to lose it, the parts that were shrinking more slowly suddenly looked bigger – even though in reality they were also smaller than they had been. So I noticed my back fat when I was losing it, not when it was at its peak. The comparison made it look worse than it really was. My main motivation in getting fitter hasn't been to lose weight, or look better, it has been to feel better, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it's nice to feel like I look better too. Side effects aren't always negative.*

My solution has been to find the right comparisons. For example, compare the whole to the whole. And over longer time periods I can also see a difference in the slower to shrink lumps and bumps. I just need to compare them to them, not to the bits of my body next to them. Bodies and our perceptions of them are funny. But luckily, they seem to be flexible – I can decide what to look at and how to see it. (At least I was comparing myself to a version of myself that was approximately the same age. If I had been comparing myself now to myself in my 20s or even my 30s I think I’d have a much harder time dealing with things. I think that this is just a memory issue. I can remember what my body looked like a short time ago, but have no real memory for what it looked like 20 years ago. Sometimes our cognitive limitations are good!)

There wasn’t supposed to be any grand message in this post. But as I wrote I thought about other sorts of comparisons, and it seems that it is always important to compare to the things that make sense. I am motivated to keep working toward a healthier, fitter whole. For me that means not taking things too seriously and keeping things fun. If I compare my fitness with that of many of the people I know through cycling, etc., I am so not keeping up with them. They are running marathons, doing Ironmans, etc., even with kids and busy careers. I can’t seem to do what they do. Sometimes I compare myself to them and feel crappy about what I am doing (I clearly am not as committed, don’t have the self-discipline, etc...). But if I can stop to compare my life with what I’d like my life to be in totality (work, home, etc.), I see a different picture. I see things I would like to change, and can decide to work on. But mostly I see things I like. Their lives are not mine. I am happy they are doing things they like, but I don’t need to feel like I need to be the same. (They don’t tell me I should be the same, but sometimes I do.) But again, the whole is good. Some parts are not great, and I can work on those (or not, depending on how much I care/time I have). I’m not saying that focusing on your whole life will magically make it all seem fine – it may or may not, your whole may not be good – just that a change in perspective can help things look different.

*Lately I've lost more weight than in the past 3 years combined, but due to a hopefully now resolved health issue. The compliments I've gotten on how I look because of it are a bit unsettling - but that's a topic for a different post that I may get to at some point.

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