The title of this post is a thought that pops into my head sometimes these days. I want you to see it so you understand the progress it’s possible to make on body image, but also see that I’m in a mental transition that is far from over, and my feelings on the issue are confusing.
Your well-intentioned inclination is likely to immediately tell me how good I look, that I’m crazy for being self conscious. My request for you is to instead think of something that you’re self-conscious about (some aspect of your appearance, progress in your career, ability as a parent) that you have shame about. You’ve probably been reassured many times, possibly to no avail. So you understand what I’m feeling. Having others respond to “I’m ashamed of ____” with “you have nothing to be ashamed of and I would be so happy to be in your place” instead of “I’m sorry you’re experiencing shame; I’m here to listen” can make it really difficult to share. But it’s a totally understandable response and when were we ever taught growing up how to help our loved ones with their insecurities?
Although I refer to the last three years as in the maintenance portion of my process, in fact, I’ve been trying the whole time to continue to lose a little more weight. Given my specific body statistics, this is safe–while I’m in the normal weight category according to body fat percentages, I’m at the highest part of that category, so I could lose more without worry that I won’t have enough body fat to be healthy. I say this to avoid another type of concerned (but also well-intentioned) response. Navigating how to respond to weight-related issues really is a mine field, huh? But I’m starting to identify and announce where the explosives are.
So, I can safely lose body fat and have continued to try to do so. Physiologically, it’s fine. But this year I’ve realized that my reasons for trying to do so are psychologically less healthy.
The assumption behind weight loss is that you’re going to feel better about your body once you’ve lost weight. What’s the point otherwise? Yes, health reasons. But… That’s not why most of us are trying to lose weight. If you want to lose weight right now, it’s probably not because you want to make it statistically less likely that you’ll develop an obesity-related disease in twenty years; you probably want to look and feel attractive. Losing the “last ten pounds” is certainly about that. (Aside: there are definitely lots of non-appearance non-health related benefits to losing weight that I’ve experienced; that will be the subject of another post).
This is where I have to tell you that it would be a mistake to assume that you’re going to feel better about your body as a result of losing weight. Or that you’re going to feel as good as you want or expected to feel.
Reflecting on my own experience, one of the times of my peak body image was when I was around 260 pounds (my heaviest). Right now I weigh about 165 pounds and I’m at another peak of body image. Doesn’t really seem to correlate with the number on the scale. I actually think that my relative comfort with my body that I developed when I was still heavy was part of what made it possible for me to lose weight. I respected my body, felt it was strong, and wasn’t desperate to change it. In fact, the article that was the tipping point of my weight loss
wasn’t about how to lose weight to look better. I identified with her because she wanted to lose weight to try to reverse knee issues (which I also had) and the fact that her weight loss was not based in the assumption that being fat is wrong/unattractive. (However, I won’t pretend that appearance didn’t play into it for me. I just don’t remember how I thought about the appearance part of weight loss).
Since part of this is about me sharing my “secrets” to a better body image, I’ll pause to answer a question that might be in your mind: how did I manage to get a relatively good body image when I was obese? I believe this was a combination of factors: I was attending a lot of queer- and women-focused events at Humboldt. Some were explicitly about body image; others just exposed me to a whole variety of people who seemed comfortable and confident (and beautiful!) in their bodies). Another factor was a romantic relationship where I could tell that my body was adored exactly as it was. That is so affirming.
So why might a person who’s lost a lot of weight not feel good about their appearance? I have some ideas but many others exist:
1. Every time you share a before and after picture along the way, what you’re calling “after” is really “during.” You get used to thinking of yourself as in progress. Even healthy approaches to weight loss (the only kind I will ever endorse) require some degree of obsession, because it requires an extraordinary degree of thought and planning, both short and long term. Along the way, you see parts of your body that make you unhappy and look forward to when you’ll have lost a sufficient amount and those will no longer be a problem.
2. When we hear about other’s experiences, it’s through a filter. If you think you know your acquaintances’ lives from what they write on Facebook, you are incorrect. There’s a self-perpetrating cycle where we’re all presenting ourselves as attractive (quick, untag any photo where I have a double chin!), put together (only post about your career when you get a promotion), a great parent of perfect kids, and in a perfect relationship (posting about an amazing anniversary date but never sharing about the painful and confusing conversations that a long term happy relationship actually demands). Weight loss is no different, especially in what you tell your Facebook friends (I do see a lot of honesty and vulnerability in online forums where there’s more anonymity and you’re speaking to people in the same situation rather to your entire social circle). So we see the one after pictures that are the very best out of the 30 pictures the person took–the one where they’re clothed, sucking in their stomach, have the perfect angle, are in their most attractive outfit. Compare that to what we see of ourselves, which is every random time we look in the mirror, with no makeup, in even our unattractive outfits, and of course fully nude.
3. Some aspects of body dissatisfaction are unrelated to weight loss. For example, how people feel about their nose, skin, hair.
4. Some parts of weight loss cause additional body concerns. Depending on various factors, this can include loose skin, stretch marks, and probably many other things I’m not thinking of.
5. Despite the fact that fitness magazines are supposedly catering to women at all stages of weight loss, the models featured in them are always in amazing shape. I’ve decided not to renew my subscriptions to Self and Women’s Health magazines, because while I appreciate that they take a reasonable and evidence-based approach to weight loss, it is hurting me mentally to continue to see so many unattainable bodies presented as the ideal. Writing a letter to their editors about this issue is on my agenda.
Of all the reasons, the one I’ve been thinking about the most is the extent to which we are all walking around with an inaccurate understanding of our body, others’ bodies, and how people feel about all of these bodies. We have an extremely inaccurate picture of what other’s bodies look like. The vast majority of the bodies I’ve seen in my life were those on TV, movies, in magazines, and in ads. These people are selected for their extraordinary appearance, their career depends on their appearance so they can spend a disproportionate amount of time on it, they have their hair, makeup, and clothes professionally styled, and then their images are edited to make them even more awe-inspiring! Because in our day-to-day life people tend not to be particularly provocatively dressed or oozing sex appeal, when we imagine what’s sexy and appealing to our preferred gender, it’s easy to assume that there is only a tiny proportion of body types that are sexy.
I’ll share two personal anecdotes here: A couple of months ago, my therapist suggested I go looking for images of women with my body type. I did, and I came across a picture of a model that had a body type with very similar proportions to how my body looked when I was obese. She looked so damn cute, and I had never ever before seen someone who looked like me posed and looking so appealing. I immediately started crying, a few tears escaping my eyes. It felt wonderful in the moment to see but made me so sad for my younger self, who walked around assuming that looking cute was not an option for someone with my body. I’m so glad that that model is out there somewhere, but I had to go searching on the internet to find that picture! And it’s still only a fraction of a percentage of the pictures of cute-looking women that I’ll ever see, because it’s one picture. It makes me feel a little nauseated when I think of the millions of teenage girls (and younger girls, and adult women!) out there who are going through life thinking the way I always have.
The second anecdote is from a few months ago, when I went dress shopping to go clubbing with friends. I’ve bought a lot of cute dresses since losing weight. There are way more size ~6 dresses than size 18, they tend to be cuter (which is a problem too), and the proportion of them that still look good when I put them on has dramatically increased (don’t get me started on how even the plus size mannequins are a terrible representation of what a fat woman’s body looks like, so it’s an incredibly demoralizing experience comparing how you expect a dress to look vs how it looks when you put it on…). However, since as I mentioned I’ve continued to be extremely self-conscious about my body despite being slim, I had only chosen dresses that weren’t form-fitting, because I thought looking cute meant hiding what my body actually looked like. I let myself be convinced this time to buy a dress that was very form-fitting, and I nervously wore it to the club. It was a scary experience, but I am so glad I did it. I could tell by people’s reactions at the club that they liked how I looked, and it started me down the path of understanding that I can be attractive even without hiding what I actually look like.
This is a long post (and I haven’t even exhausted all of my thoughts on the matter), but I want to end on one final piece of evidence I’ve found that “objective” attractiveness and body image are extremely uncorrelated. During my hunt for pictures of what lots of different unedited non-posed non-model women’s bodies actually look like, I found so many pictures of women whose bodies look just like the gorgeous models in my fitness magazines (slim, hourglass shape, large breasts, smooth skin) who describe their body the same way I would have described my own only a few months ago (or even a few years ago). They focus on minor issues, see flaws that no one else does, and don’t recognize that their body would be considered classically attractive. They describe how they cry looking at their body, hate it, want surgery, and other thoughts that make absolutely no sense to anyone else. Seeing these women’s stories was another huge turning point in my understanding of my own body. It made me see that being attractive is no guarantee that you’ll feel attractive. It made me realize that if those women could be so wrong about their bodies, maybe I was wrong too.
And that realization has led me to where I am now, which is well on my way to feeling pretty dang good in my own skin.