April 6, 2011

Mirror, Mirror

I've been thinking a lot lately about a topic that strikes fear in the hearts of females all over the world: body image. You could blame it on a wedding in less than two weeks (gulp). Or it might be my new-found determination to keep up with running and push myself a whole lot further than ever before (right into a big, scary race, it seems). Really, though, my history with this subject is much more complex. I've studied body image through the eyes of a high school girl with friends of all shapes and sizes. I've looked at it from the perspective of a psych student with a textbook definition and a lecture hall full of stereotypes. I've questioned it from the vantage point of a girlfriend/fiance, wondering why someone else can look at me and find something so different from what I see. I've struggled with it as someone who loves food but doesn't always love exercise. I've examined it as a girl who adores women like Jennifer Aniston and Kate Hudson, but doesn't quite find it fair that they always look so skinny. No matter how I approach it, though, I've never quite been able to wrap my brain around body image: the way I view my body, the way I should view my body, and the annoying space in between.
I was never what I would consider overweight growing up -- although I definitely was not the athletic type, I did play soccer through elementary school, swam (often year round) for years and years, and stayed in fairly decent shape. I was not, however, ever to be confused as "thin": I had broad shoulders, a round face, and chubby little thighs that used to embarrass the heck out of me. I wasn't fat, but I definitely wasn't slender. My weight didn't bother me much, and I never dieted or participated in sports specifically to drop pounds, but I do remember being jealous of certain petite, built-like-a-dancer friends. It wasn't until I got to college that I started paying a little more attention to my physical appearance, as I came face-to-face with a brand new student population which contained a fairly large number of slim, pretty females. I wanted desperately to be naturally thin, but even as a freshman I knew the reality: I just wasn't born skinny.
For a while, I kind of stopped trying. I worked out when I was able to drag myself to the gym (which wasn't all that often), I ate basically what I wanted to, I slept when I could. I lost weight during finals, or when Dan and I took a short break in the spring of my freshman year, or when the only thing appealing being served at the dining hall was salad for several days in a row. I didn't keep track of my weight or its fluctuations, and even though the desire to be magically thin took up residence somewhere in the back of my head, it remained mostly quiet and inconsequential. I never skipped dessert because of the calories, or passed up a big dinner out, or pushed myself to go running when I really didn't feel up to it. Frankly, quite often I just didn't have the time or the energy to stress about my body -- I had classes, student organizations, social commitments, friends, and a long-distance relationship to worry about. As long as it remained functional and at least minimally healthy, my body was the least of my worries.
Today, for better or for worse, my body and I are in a very different stage of our relationship. I'm really not sure what caused this change: whether it was graduating from college, moving in with Dan, the introduction of "business casual" to my closet, the purchase of a scale, the impending wedding, the impending swimsuit season, or possibly just a change in my way I look at myself in the mirror every morning. Whatever the reason, these days I have a tendency to be much more critical of what I see staring back at me. Even though, to be honest, I probably weigh less and I'm definitely in better shape than I have been in several years. I'm not exactly proud of the things I say to myself when I really stop to look, and I know that all kinds of experts would chastise me for being unnecessarily cruel. If I take time to stop and think about it, I know that I should make an effort to be kinder to myself. It is true that my body can do some wonderful things, and I am constantly amazed as it continues to adjust to the new demands that my running regimen imposes upon it. It is also true, I know, that getting annoyed with my body for the way that it looks is not going to trigger any magical reinvention -- I am what I am because of a grand mixture of genes, habits, events, and attitudes, and no amount of frustrated berating will change that. Unfortunately, these realities can be somewhat hard to see when a little bit of stomach pudge is in the way.
As a result, I've become much more conscious of my habits in the past few months. I am not hyper-vigilant, but very much aware of the calories I consume in a day, or the hours I spend exercising in a week, or (unfortunately) the trajectory of that number on the scale. I am making a concerted effort to eat healthy foods, limit my portion size, and say "no" to the rewards I used to think I deserved just for small accomplishments. These days, a trip to the gym does not earn me a trip to Starbucks. I've cut down drastically on my intake of cherry coke (although I do still drink it), my favorite pasta (it's been almost 2 weeks since my last bowl... hold me), and fast food. I rarely eat dessert anymore, don't often pour myself a glass of wine when I'm having dinner by myself at home, and have started going to bed much earlier -- not only does it keep me from snacking, but I feel a little less like death when I wake up early to run. I know that all of these changes are good for me and are likely to pay off in the long run, but they have been super tough and it's sometimes overwhelmingly hard to keep them up week after week. It's not that I mind eating well in general, but I really miss the splurges. I recognize that my body image in college had some serious issues, but sometimes I long for the days when I could polish off a large mac&cheese and not feel even the faintest guilt.
These changes in my habits have certainly helped me feel a little better about my body and appearance, but they have not stopped my self-criticism when I catch a glimpse of my stomach or waist in a mirror. I am proud of myself for taking steps to lose a little weight and get in shape, but I'm just not satisfied with the visible results so far. It bothers me a little to think that I am kinder to others than I am to myself. If I ran into me on the street, I might very well, as an outsider, consider this body thin and even enviable. After all, I don't walk around judging my friends for their size or eating habits, and to inflict such judgment on myself isn't especially fair. I truly wish that I could strike a balance between my college years and today: healthy eating and exercise habits and a moderate amount of attention to weight, but a lot less guilt and criticism along with it. I want to look my best, but not at the cost of my happiness or rationality. I want to love my body, but I also want to love food. So for now, I'm going to keep pushing my body to look better, but also encouraging my mind to go a little easy on myself. I want to work on reversing my negative beliefs about myself, and focus a little more on my abilities and the progress I've seen so far. There is a happy medium somewhere here, however elusive, and I am determined to find it. And maybe, hopefully, to enjoy the journey it takes to get there.



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