It’s that time of the year: New Year’s Resolutions, fad diets, pressure to “lose the holiday pounds,” and so forth. Everywhere I look, I see advertisements and products designed to encourage weight loss- particularly weight loss for women.
I have a long, hard, complicated relationship with my body and weight. As someone who was socialized female, I felt- and sometimes, still feel- the pressure and expectations to look a certain way, to have a certain body type. I developed an eating disorder in my late teens that manifested as an addictive process- an addiction to ephedrine-based diet pills.
When I stopped taking diet pills, it was partially because I looked at myself in the mirror one day, and it was like I was seeing my body in focus for the first time. I looked emaciated; you could count every rib without trying too hard. I looked straight down at my stomach, though, and realized that, from my perspective, I still looked fat. Still had a small pouch of untoned skin that I needed to get rid of.
I knew then that if I didn’t stop, this would kill me.
My weight, moreso even than my gender, is where most of my body dysmorphia is. I am larger-framed for a woman and small-framed for a man; even my body doesn’t like to conform to social expectations. I am, by BMI charts, still considered “overweight” at 5’9” and 160 pounds- never mind that my bone structure and frame aren’t taken into account for things like BMI.
I have an incredibly warped understand of what I think my body looks like versus what my body actually looks like. One of the most amazing (and, in many respects, healing) things I have done is look at photographs of myself in rope suspension. In those photographs, I look strong, competent, capable. My body looks how I mostly want my body to look. It’s disorienting and difficult, sometimes, to reconcile the images I see in photographs with the person looking back at me in the mirror, but I do that work every day.
This time of year is particularly difficult. With so much social pressure to lose weight and get in shape, I feel that pressure viscerally. I feel the old urges and habits creeping up. I have had to learn to differentiate between habits that support me getting healthier versus those that are aimed at getting thinner, and critically analyze whether I am doing something because I want to get closer to the internal image I have of myself, or whether I’m doing something because I want other people to see me in a specific way.
And that’s an important point: I have a habit of dating people who are physically in much better shape than I am, and compounded with my already-warped understanding of my body, makes me feel incredibly self-conscious when lying naked with people who have well-developed abdominal muscles and lean, thin frames. I have to remember (often with conscious mental reminders) that I do not need to change my body for the people I am attracted to. Clearly, if I’m lying naked beside them, they are already attracted to me!
I remember, about two years ago when my partner and I were actively trying to get pregnant, I was on prenatal vitamins, which shifted my weight distribution to make me curvier (and I’ve already got plenty of curve). Several of the women that lived near me commented that I was getting “thick,” a phrase often used in the black community to compliment a women on the size of her thighs and butt. I remember having incredibly conflicted feelings- recognizing that the comment was a compliment, feeling self-conscious about how I was carrying my weight, recognizing that beauty standards and “thinness” are incredibly racist constructs that discount the body shapes of many women of color, feeling uncomfortable about people making comments about my body at all. I’m not sure I was ever able to reconcile those feelings, beyond recognizing that discomfort with having my weight distributed in a particular way was an incredibly racist outlook on bodies… but I still didn’t know how to shake my fear that I was gaining weight.
This past weekend, I attended a two-day rope suspension intensive with a sweetheart of mine that culminated in each of us doing a series of different ties that focused on transitioning a body through various positions in rope. The person I was with videotaped first him tying me, then me tying him. As I watched the videos later, I was astounded at what my body looked like in someone else’s rope (I usually tie myself in different positions, and don’t have as many images of being tied by other people). He chuckled a bit as I kept exclaiming, “But… is that really me?!” at the video as we watched it, reminding me that that is what I look like. Watching that video felt eye-opening to me, to really see and experience how my body moves, where the musculature is well-defined, how my first person perception is immensely skewed when compared to the third-person perspective I got to see through watching the video.
These two experiences stand out vividly as reminders that what other people see and appreciate about my body are not the things I see. They are reminders that what we see is based on our own experiences: gender, cultural, racial, social, socioeconomic, etc. What we see and value, both in ourselves and in others, is directly connected to the things we are taught to appreciate through social and environmental influences. As a result, it can be difficult to divorce what we do for ourselves from what we do to gain approval from other people.
It’s hard to differentiate what actions I take because I want to look good for other people, and what actions I take because I want to get closer to my internal “ideal” of what I think I should look like- particularly when that “ideal” might not be attainable for my body type (I will never, for example, be a 6’4” cis man with broad shoulders, which is what I think I should look like about half the time. I will also never be a 5’4” cis woman that fits into petite clothing, which is often the other image I have in my mind of what I think I should try to look like).
I think it’s good to be healthy. I think it’s good to do things that promote a sense of comfort in our own skin. But in this culture- one that pressures women (in particular, although I absolutely appreciate that there is pressure on men as well) to look a certain way (particularly for the benefit of attracting men)- it can be hard to differentiate what we do for ourselves versus what we do for the benefit of other people.
What is your ideal image of yourself? Is it something that is attainable? Why is that your ideal, and how is it different than how you currently see yourself? Are there any roadblocks that might prevent you from seeing or realizing when you have hit your ideal image of yourself? And most importantly, regardless of anything else, how can we learn to love, appreciate, and honor the bodies we have now- even as we take steps to support the health of our bodies? We must ask ourselves these questions before giving in to the latest diet, the newest weight loss miracle drug, before we start obsessing over calories and starving ourselves so that we can “afford” to have a piece of cake. These things are things that have the potential to do harm to our bodies if not done carefully and with a lot of critical thought.
We must learn how to love the skin we are in, so that, if we decide we want to take steps toward changing it, we do so with love and not from a place of self-deprecation and shame. This is something I remind myself every day, because we are all still works in progress.
I had hoped for 180, or at least 182—it was 183 the previous Monday. For more than two months, I have been using an iPhone app called “Lose it,” seeking to reduce my weight from 202 to 180. I have done well with this easy way to track my caloric intake and exercise. Despite this setback, I remain confident that I will get to 180.
Why am I doing this?
For one thing, I realized that as I age (I am now 71) my health will be more stable without excess weight. The friend who introduced me to this app, a man of similar age and build to me, had similar thoughts—and when I saw him it was clearly working. So I decided to try.
But, and this is a big “but” (my other butt is not huge but ample), I also admit I want to look good. This is especially so now that I have become an avid nudist, hanging out when I can with other naked folks (and by myself too). Further, I am seeking to do some life (nude) modeling for artists and photographers. Wouldn’t it be great if I lost much, if not most, of that “spare tire” around the middle? Wouldn’t I look better, as well as feel better?
For whom? For me, or for others? Or is it both?
I had not done much self-analysis about all this until Malachi and I talked recently. As he described the pressure woman-identified people feel from society to look a certain way, to be thin, to fit into a bathing suit without any fat showing, to wear certain types of clothing to look sexy in alluring bodies, I realized that men, especially gay men, are not immune to this either. But I know the most severe social pressure is applied to women to “look good.” In our patriarchal, sexist-dominated culture where abuse and rape run rampant, that translates into “look sexy.”
All this is big business, too. Weight-loss products and anti-aging treatments and surgery are highly profitable for many companies and others. In that sense, it is hard, perhaps impossible, to stay centered in a seeking one’s own well-being without simultaneously viewing our bodies as commodities to be trimmed and shaped and made acceptable and desirable to the greater culture.
I want to push against all this pressure. I will say here, as I often say, every body, every single body, is beautiful and worthy. Period. All God’s creatures are beautiful! I believe that with all my heart and soul.
And I also know that I can draw back in some horror, I pray not disgust, when I see someone, of any gender, in what medical practitioners would consider a very obese state (but of course, I am not a medical professional, and besides no one asked me for a diagnosis). I do correct myself, and do my best to suspend any judgment, even seeking, where appropriate, to be friendly.
So the social rules and patterns are powerful. We are victims and we are perpetrators, too. At least I am, based on what I know are my own reactions. I suspect others can feel my judgment even as I try to reign it in. As several friends have told me over the years, they assume others are judging them for their weight, and it colors their own sense of self and behavior.
What a loss for them, and for the rest of us! We are helping people, good people, feel bad about themselves, and that inevitably means they can, will, be less productive as individuals, less positive about life, and less willing to participate to the vitality of our common life.
As part of my preparation for this piece, I checked on my BMI (body mass index), that medical model of adult body fat, and discovered that when I started my effort at losing weight at 202 pounds I had an “overweight BMI” of 26.7. If I had weighed just 26 pounds more, at 228, I would have had an “obese BMI” of 30.1. Yikes, I can tell you I was above that not too many years ago.
And when I reach my goal weight of 180, I will register a “normal BMI” of 23.7. Whew! A normie. I actually reached “normality” at 189 pounds. Thirty-nine pounds (on my height of 6’1”) separates me from obesity and “normality.”
Make no mistake. I am glad to have lost weight, and part of that is because I like how I feel. I also like being able to wear 36”-waist jeans instead of 38s (and to think there was a time when I wore 42).
I also enjoy looking at myself in the mirror more than I used to, partly because I like the fact that my little dick and balls hang better and thus look bigger, now that some of my abdominal fat is gone.
But this is also reflects my desire to claim what I feel is my inner spiritual identity as a lean and lanky cis-bodied man. So, this weight-loss effort is part of a self-improvement, self-actualization, project. I realize that until I began to take seriously living naked as much as possible (not so possible at this cold time of year) I did not treat my body all that well. This change has been good.
Our motives and intentions matter. And it is vital that we understand at the same time that we do not engage our own bodies, and the bodies of others, in a social vacuum. My dream for myself is to shed the pounds and the unhealthy attitudes, and to activate, claim and honor, from my deepest soul and body, the whole human being I am created to be. And my dream for our world, certainly our body-phobic, body-obsessed U.S. culture, is that everyone can do that.
Stop the blame, stop the shame. Honor, respect and care for all.
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How do you feel about your weight, your body image? Do you judge yourself for being overweight, or over-skinny, or for something else? Is your health more important to you than your appearance, or is it the other way around? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.