The impossibility of body image objectivity

I’m 5’2.  Currently, I weigh around 114 pounds, ish, maybe more like 117, whatever, I don’t keep track at all, I’m just guessing,  But I once weighed in at 138, which was fine.  This is technically “overweight” on the BMI scale.  When I found out, I was appalled.  Sure, I could stand to lose some weight–and I in fact hated myself for not being able to–but overweight? No way!  I look normal.

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This is a phenomena I’ve heard a lot of people talk about.  Our only frame of reference is the mirror.  The person we see looking back at us changes so slowly that we can’t ever see past how normal we look.  Even when we have standardized measures, such as scales and tape measures and body fat percentages to give us objective numbers, and even when we see concrete muscular changes, we still lack a truly objective lens.   We just can’t see everything, and certainly not in a time-sensitive manner.  This fact is exacerbated enormously by internal and external pressures.

I always knew that I wanted to lose weight, and I was always trying.  Still it was not a matter of managing overweight to me, or even of health.  Just vanity.  A couple pounds.   I look… like I always look.  normal. A little bit overweight. And it’s true– here’s a photo of me, not quite at my highest weight, probably around 130 or so, but it’s the best one I can find right now.  I had a whole lot of muscle, I ran long ass distances, and I lifted just as heavy weights as I do now, but no one could ever tell– it was all filled in with body fat.  I also had a bit of a chubby face, which is more visible in the second photo.  In any case, just a couple of pounds, I thought.  I look normal.

Not too bad, eh?  If you like ‘em curvy– goodness, I didn’t even know I was curvy then, just NORMAL–I certainly had something going on.  Looking at this photo now, I see a healthy size six, athletic, curvaceous woman.  I like what I see.

But I also look at photos where my larger spots are more obvious and think: “God I was big.“  (I’m sorry, this is society’s fat phobia reaching it’s ugly hand into my psyche.)

My dramatic weight loss occurred about 18 months ago.  As I mentioned before, throughout the whole period everyone expressed their concerns, and my pants kept getting bigger and bigger, and I couldn’t pinch as much fat on my hips as I had been able to before, but it didn’t really make a difference.  I couldn’t really see the difference.  I definitely felt more confident about my appearance than in my old body, but other than that I didn’t really have perspective on what I looked like to other people.  To me, it was just normal. And I was, of course, “a few pounds away.”

Observe:


Yeah, haha, laugh it up– they’re both ridiculous photos.  But I chose them because they show, as best as any photo I can find, the differences in my body.  I recognized some of these differences at the time, but many I did not.  For example, I knew that you could see the muscles in my arms and my legs and my abs, and I loved it.  I knew that my breasts shrunk considerably, too.   I was willing to make that sacrifice.  I also knew the ribs in my back were visible when I bent over.  Some things I didn’t know were that my hands had gotten a bit gnarly, that the width of my shoulders basically disappeared, my legs looked really fucking thin from different angles, and that my collar bones were prominent.  I just didn’t see a lot of changes because they happened so slowly, and they happened in places I didn’t know to look.  My body was drastically different from the time of the first photo to the time of the second two photos.  But I never really felt it.  I looked n o r m a l.

What’s more, at every single stage I could always “stand to lose a few pounds.”  This applied at 138, and it applied at 108.  I always pinched my inner thighs and thought– “Sarah Jessica Parker doesn’t have fat there, and she’s healthy, so clearly I can do the same thing” — … Ridiculous.  Look at me.  Do I look like I could have lost another pound in that final picture and still have been healthy looking?  Attractive?  I don’t know.  Not from my perspective.  Not now, anyway.

When I got down to around 108, a friend of mine told me that he used to find me sexy but didn’t anymore.  I was devastated.  I couldn’t win.  I can’t be attractive when I’m big, and I can’t be attractive when I’m small, and goodness can’t people tell I’m always a flawed body?

Which I guess is what it all boils down to.  It is possible to have objective measures.  And I know that it is easy to observe concrete changes, such as muscle emergence.  These are things worth celebrating!  Huzzah!  But when we live in a world in which our feelings about our bodies are determined before we even get an objective look at them, when we are never perfect, when we are watching ourselves change in the mirrors so closely that we actually miss the big picture, we are viewing the world through a legitimately fucked up lens.

I once participated in a Dartmouth study on body image. As a subject, I was asked how I felt about various parts of my body.  I have always felt fine about my glutes, so I told them that.  My stomach was flat and attractive at the time, so I liked it, and told them that too.  Yet most importantly: I had always loathed my thighs, so I told them that.   Then I was put in an MRI.  And I was shown shown computer generated pictures of women with body fat stored in different locations, and asked to rate their attractiveness.  What I discovered about myself was that I thought all of the women with larger legs were the ugliest, and the ones with more fat in their butts or stomachs I still found attractive.  This means that I took the things that I hated most about myself, and I turned them into an obsession in general.  I thought that–objectively, seriously– people with larger legs were the least attractive.  I had taken my own insecurities and magnified them onto a huge scale, such that a part of me someone might find neutral or even attractive was an abhorrent abnormality.  Objective my ass.  My (and society’s) obsession with perfection compelled me not just to lose my objectivity but my love, and to replace it with an inability to ever see my body as a stranger might.

Ugh.

My takeaway points, thus, are as follows:

Do you hate your body?  Do you hate specific parts of your body?  Take some pictures of yourself from time to time and try to comparing them to others. If you saw that body on the street, would you like it?  Why or why not?  These are super important questions.  If you end up having that sort of loathing, recall what I just said about the study in which I participated.  You are not objective.  You are you.  Bodies are bodies and are not meant to be designed and weighed and balanced and measured but cherished and utilized.  Breathe, and step back as much as you can, and smile, goodness, because isn’t that the most attractive thing of all?

If you are losing weight, and you are making progress, and it’s healthy, AWESOME!!! I’m so proud of you I could just up and die, float along to paleo heaven, and lounge happily for the rest of eternity.  But know this, and know it well: your body IS changing, but the society and environment in which you live is NOT, and it will always be pressuring you to seek perfection.  Don’t let it.  Throw it the bird.  Tell it to fuck off.  Weight loss helps with body image and with confidence, but it does not necessarily make you love yourself.  Accept your body and your metabolism for what it is, and achieve the best health you can.   That’s the best thing you could ever possibly do for your body and your spirit.  Trust.

Tying up loose ends note: I am not currently as thin as I was in the two photos I posted above.  I put on some weight when doing hormone therapy this winter, but I am currently losing.  And this post is relevant to me right now because I’m debating how low I want to go.  How do I know when to stop?  Am I objective enough to stop before I get too thin?  Yeah, I like to think so.  Do I like food too much for that to really be an issue?  Yes, that might be true as well.  But– well, if you have any ideas, I’d love to hear ‘em.

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02 2011

11 Comments Add Yours ↓

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  1. 1

    FANTASTIC post, and I’m so awed by your honesty. Especially with the pics – I cringe at every photo taken of me, no matter the size I am, because in my mind I am always terribly, critically flawed. I’m the classic “apple” shape and if there is one area that I loath, it is my belly. I don’t think I’ll ever get past that.

    Your advice is spot on; society isn’t changing (well, it is, but even more slowly than my body! ha!), and it’s lose/lose either way. The key really is to love ourselves…and yet, most of what I feel is negativity.

    One thing I think is vital is getting a realistic grip on how women REALLY look, as opposed to what we see in airbrushed ads or television/movies. I love the picture blog FYCG (http://fuckyeahchubbygirls.tumblr.com/) because women post photos of themselves, as they are, proudly. Honestly quite a few who post there I would NOT call chubby or overweight, but THEY think they are. It’s revealing.

    It’s also why I so willingly share my weight, even though I’m ashamed of it. I tell people I’m 195# and they gasp in horror – literal, visceral horror – and then go on to tell me that I “don’t look like it”. But I DO look like it. THIS is what 195 pounds looks like, FFS. *shakes head* Perceptions are so warped.

    • pepper #
      2

      Hi. Thank you so much for sharing. That’s a wonderful website, and also a wonderful insight/sentiment about your own weight… you’re right that we have this totally skewed idea about numbers. I’m thrilled and impressed by your honesty (too) and .. yes, thank you, again. Sincerely.

      • 3

        Hey – I tried to find a way to send this link to you via email or PM, as I don’t want to look like I’m spamming your blog, but could not find any links. :( Anyway I wrote this post after reading some of your posts, and while I don’t mention you in it, you were certainly influential, and I wanted you know about it:
        http://www.kimboosan.net/ayold/2011/03/05/scared-to-sprint/

        ::::kbs

  2. 4

    Love this post. A great reminder that half the battle is dealing with our preconceived culturally implanted biases. Thanks for the reality check!

  3. Beth #
    5

    AWESOME post!!! I pretty much feel the exact same way, it’s kind of scary. I’m 5’5″, and in the past few years I’ve been between 120 and 145 pounds, but I’ve always felt like my thighs looked the same as they always did – too fat and horrible. No real worries about my stomach, even though it must have been more defined at some points and flabbier at others. But while my pants have been too tight and too loose, I never felt any good feelings about my thighs.

    My question for you is… where do you think these crazy warped body image issues come from? Of course society in general is contributing with ridiculously airbrushed and edited photos and the pressure to be thin, but I’m wondering about more specific influences too. Personally, my mother told me that women in my family, definitely including me, did not have good legs. She probably only said this a few times, and I’m sure she didn’t mean to completely fuck me up, but I honestly did not wear shorts for years because of this. This issue, mothers passing on to daughters negative body image is something that greatly interests me and I could ramble on about it for a loooong time. I think it’s evident in many cultures, black women with changing their hair, asian women and wanting their eyes to look more western (at least in america for both of these examples). I have a lot of ideas about why this might be, but mostly it just makes me very sad.

    Again, excellent post, and thanks for sharing about the Dartmouth study, that was fascinating! And since I know we all need some encouragement, I you to know that you look beautiful in all your pictures, and absolutely stunning in your profile picture.

  4. Casey #
    6

    Hi Pepper!
    Ive recently started lifting weights and doing primal exercises…Do you have any suggestions for types of workouts? Maybe for a post could you do something like show us a week’s worth of your workouts/exercises??
    Thanks!!

  5. Clarissa #
    7

    Hi Pepper,
    I’m a newcomer to your blog, but have really enjoyed reading your postings. You are just so honest and real…a delight to read! I think all of us women can relate. I’ve been paleo for 6 months and have lost 18 lbs, down to a size 6 now, with much better muscle tone. But what do I see in the mirror? Jabba the Hutt! Can’t help comparing myself to everyone who is thinner than me, and saying to myself “Just a few more pounds and THEN I’ll be happy”. Right! Anyway, body image is a great posting topic, and it’s always nice to know that others are going through the same things I am. Good luck with your own journey!

  6. jules #
    8

    aloha beauteous!

    again, get outta my head! :) I also am/was/am a normal, healthy weight strong woman who went through the cycle of losing a few too many, and enjoying the strange high that came with that “power” (ascribed socially of course :( of being skinnier than virtually any pre-pubescent (girl or boy) – until realizing that my brain was in a fog, behind my smile I was miserable, and it really wasn’t all that attractive or healthy to be double digits (I’m 4’11″ and at the worst was 85 lbs! YIKES! I’m now a healthy/strong/paleo 115.)

    Though I am happy to have my brain (and health) back, it feels a bit “hefty” for me (even if I am able to paddle an outrigger canoe across the open ocean!)
    We women wage this everyday battle between insidious societal messages and instinctively knowing our worth has nothing at all to do with what the mirror reflects- moreover with what our hearts reflect and how we serve the world around us.

    PS: I hear you on the thigh neigh ;) I myself have that hang up :) They are so beautiful & serve us SO damn well… I remind myself to be grateful every day for the countless gorgeous hikes my legs have taken me upon and incredible journeys they have blessed me with…

    PSS: I agree with Beth… Your profile pic is hot, girlie! :D

    me ke aloha pumehana,with warmest aloha~
    j

  7. 9

    yeah nice

  8. 10

    I got lost reading this post, I am afraid!

    Are you saying you prefer looking as you do in photo number 4? I have to say in the first photo of you, you look gorgeous and healthy and by the 4th photo I was in despair at how thin and gaunt you appear.

    I am 43, Mum of 3, and have always hated how I look either thin or fat. I am now eating paleo (nearly 2 weeks in) and just wanting to feel better. I have been unwell since 1994 :-o To be honest how I look is currently irrelevant for now. Please don’t get too thin! xo

    • pepper #
      11

      Nope. That’s why I said this: ” Ridiculous. Look at me. Do I look like I could have lost another pound in that final picture and still have been healthy looking? Attractive? I don’t know. Not from my perspective. Not now, anyway.”

      Image is important to me now, sure, I can’t help it. But it’s definitely secondary to my health. Which is something I love desperately about the paleo movement.

      The point of this post is that it’s incredibly difficult to be objective about our bodies– I have a really hard time knowing what I “look” like. When I was “gaunt” I didn’t know it, and when I was “fat” (I KNOW, not true) I didn’t know it then, either. It’s all relative, and I don’t want anyone to bear any self loathing because of their skewed ideas of what their bodies look like. I just want people to seek optimal health and to be psychologically free of body image and food control issues, and to love themselves as profoundly as possible.

      Thanks for hoping I don’t get too thin. Me, too. It’s a tricky game when you’ve been a disordered eater for so long, but I think I’m doing quite well these days. Perhaps I’ll put up a “current” post some time soon.


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