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Exercise Psychology Tip #6: Some (Productive!) Thoughts On Body Image, Self-Esteem, & Clothing Sizes

Posted Oct 18 2008 4:08pm

I seem to be having a lot of discussions lately with people, especially women, about body image & clothing sizes. Maybe it's just something that's been on mind a lot lately, as my body & mind are transforming into something completely different, but I've had this discussion multiple times over the past few weeks. It always seems that, although the women may vary in body size & attitudes, the focus is always the same trinity -- weight loss, body image, & self-esteem.

These people have been family members, friends, and sometimes even complete strangers.

Now before you think I'm totally bonkers to talk to strangers about this subject, let me preface this by saying that most of the "strangers" I've spoken to on the subject are actually "familiar strangers" -- i.e., other bloggers who've commented on related posts or retail shop gals at my local mall. (After all, a girl needs to buy new clothes when the old ones no longer fit!)

Here's a brief sampling of some of those conversations:

One lady I spoke to, who was in her mid-50's, said she lost 75 pounds over the past year. She said that she didn't exercise at all in order to lose the weight, but rather had had a sickness that the doctors apparently couldn't diagnose. They ran all sorts of tests on her but weren't able to find anything physically wrong with her. She said she eventually recovered from her illness, but had no idea why she dropped all of the weight. Of course, she was very happy to lose the weight, but a certain part of me, the part with medical knowledge (!), balked at how she'd lost the weight & couldn't help but wonder if her health had really returned to "normal." As unexplained weight loss can often be the result of more serious medical problems, I was rightfully concerned about the competence of her doctors! Of course, I gingerly told her how unexplained weight loss could signal more serious health problems, & also asked her if she was planning to seek a secondary medical opinion to make sure her health was really OK, but it didn't sound like she was too interested in following that course of action.

I guess what really bothered me about our discussion is that she wasn't more concerned about what the weight-loss might mean medically-speaking. Typically, a person doesn't just lose 75 pounds without any effort unless they are under extreme duress/stress or something is medically "wrong" with them.

Also, I question how long she'll keep the weight off, as it didn't exactly sound like she had significantly modified her overall lifestyle in conjunction with her weight-loss.

Now, I obviously have no way of knowing that, other than directly asking her, which I wasn't about to do, because it bordered on prying/nosiness. And since we barely knew each other, I didn't feel that it was entirely civil to ask questions like that. Of course, it would be different if she'd been a close friend; if I'd have known her better, I might've asked.

Keep in mind, she was the one who openly revealed all of this information. If people offer the information, that's one thing, but I don't believe in prying into other people's business. I hate when people do it to me, so I rarely do it to others.

Anyhow, as I was saying: As she was a 50-something woman with no prior history of exercise & probably questionable nutritional habits at best, I wasn't convinced she was going to keep the weight off.

As most of you already know, the people who keep the weight off are those who significantly modify their lifestyle to incorporate healthy eating behaviors & regular exercise. Furthermore, those who manage to adopt proven, medically sound practices, based upon factual, scientific evidence, in combination with gradual, moderate changes in fitness & diet, considerably strengthen their chances of long-term success. (I believe that both Western and non-Western medicine have a lot to offer towards this end, but that is altogether another topic for another time.)

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One of my friends, who's thin, said she recently felt "fat" standing next to women who were thinner than she was. (I'd like to add that many of the women to whom she was comparing herself were also smaller in stature & body frame, which isn't exactly a fair comparison.) Keep in mind that she's around the same height as me, & we are very nearly the same clothing size. Of course, she doesn't look "overweight" in the least. But in reality, this mindset has nothing to do with "being overweight," but instead, has everything to do with "feeling overweight." In other words, it's about our mental self-image, how we see ourselves. I didn't say much to her about it at the time, as I was still processing the information, but I'd like to say something now about it.

If it's any consolation to my friend to hear this, I have to be honest & say that I too, used to "feel fat" standing next to other, thinner women. This was about several months ago. Now, I've obviously not lost all of the weight I have to lose yet, but I have to admit that I no longer suffer from this hang-up & rarely, if ever, feel this way anymore. So why the change, & how did it come about?

Now, some of you might say that this is because I am no longer overweight (atleast not if you measure me by standardized height & weight charts), and therefore don't feel as psychologically vulnerable anymore, which is partially true.

However, the reasoning behind my mental transformation actually something much bigger & more profound than that. In a nutshell, my self-esteem has become as strong as steel, & is able to withstand even the nastiest of hurtful barbs hurled at me by others. How did this happen?

Through physical fitness, I'm starting to realize my inner potential, & am thus, getting back to being the original "me" I used to know! While I'm not going to deny the positive overall effects of the weight loss, the feelings of strong self-esteem have honestly less to do with the actual weight-loss & more to do with my feelings of (fitness-related) accomplishment through perpetual effort & finding my inner feistiness again.

Also, if we take a longer range view of my personal development, I think it stems back to what my mother instilled in me from a very early age: I am so much more than a number on a scale, my waist size, or my clothing size. I am so much more than my body, my face, my hair, or anything remotely related to my external appearance. While it's important to take proper care of one's personal appearance, & I often find it enjoyable to do so, it doesn't define me as a person, & it's certainly not what makes me tick at my very core.

I'm very thankfully to my mother for being a strong role model in this specific way. She likes to say that she was one of the first women of her generation to exercise before it was considered fashionable to do so. She'd always been focused on nutrition and health, and at an earlier point in her career, had planned to study medicine. She ended up teaching speech therapy after attending grad school, but nonetheless, continued to learn about health & fitness. Throughout the years, she's always placed emphasize on the importance of us developing our minds & our talents, & not just focusing on our personal appearance. It is a strong signature idea like this which is my mother's lasting mental legacy to me and my sister. She is a feisty, independent woman in her own right, with a strong, healthy, vibrant mind & body, who values more than merely just what the eye can see, & it is qualities like these which make me proud to call her my mother. This, my friends, this font of self-esteem that comes from a deeper well-spring, is the kind of amazing energy I want to share with the world.

When we have negative feelings about our bodies, these feelings almost always originate from an external source, i.e., how we feel after reading one too many fashion rags, hearing other people's comments about us, or how we respond after watching other "thinner" women walk by us.

The danger of entering a mental pitfall is always in the comparison. Ladies, don't even think about it! You know where that bad boy leads, so just leave it alone! It only perpetuates your self-induced internal misery & suffering! Why would we ever willingly want to do that to ourselves! It's so unnecessarily masochistic & cruel. I think we can all do without the self-flagellation, thank you very much.

And we all know what can happen when we've already entered this mental headspace, i.e., how easy it is to let ourselves be stirred up by our emotions, especially those "feelings of inadequacy." But really, ladies, what we all need is a reality check at this point. Pull yourself out of your emotional haze, take control of those negative spiraling thoughts, & stop & think about what you're doing to yourself &/or others. Thinking that way isn't really helping you at all, now is it?

So here's my little pep-talk for those among us who have gotten off course & are losing their way:

"Girlfriend, if you would just pull yourself together, see inside yourself for a deeper sense of who you are, & then think about which direction you want to move in, I guarantee you'd see that beating yourself up does no good (& bashing on others' perceived body 'flaws' or 'shortcomings' is even worse!), especially when what you really want to do is focus on achieving your nutrition, fitness, & weight-loss goals."

On this note, there's also a much darker side to this whole equation - how we women treat other women who are feeling "down & out" about themselves & their bodies. Now, don't get me wrong. A good deal of the problem is how we ourselves respond to not-so-nice behaviors or comments made by other women (& men too, for that matter!).

However, we all need to seriously think about the "feeding frenzy" mentality & why people engage in schadenfreude, & bash others for their physical appearance. If you see someone feeling bad about themselves, are you the type of person who reaches out & help that person, walks away, or gives them an extra kick?

Consider not only what you are doing to them, but what you are doing to yourself & others around you. Which vibe do you want to perpetuate? Are you going to perpetuate misery in this world, barely leave an imprint, or be the happy little ripple that starts the chain reaction of smiles, reverberating your inner joys of your spirit? After all, paying it forward can work in either direction, or no direction at all. And, in the long cycle of our personal evolution, standing still is the same thing as moving backwards.

We all know what it's like to react without thinking to derogatory comments made by other women. Our knee-jerk reactions take over & we forget that we have a conscious choice to say, "No! I will not validate your unreasonable comments by giving you what you want, i.e., sending me into a self-propelled inner tizzy of sadness, loss, rejection, & misery. You are NOT superior to me, and I will not give you the negative emotional response you're seeking. I choose to not participate at all in your self-created drama." Ignoring people like this is usually the best response of all. No one likes to feel like they don't exist, and this is ultimately a much more satisfying response than slinging rude, below-the-belt insults towards others.

After all, what are those nasty people really criticizing? The body is only the shell or vessel of a person; it does not tell a person's complete story or explain their complexities at a first glance. I'd rather employ it as a tool to express all of what's inside.

There are definitely women out there, and you know who you all are, who want to make anyone larger than them (whether or not they are actually "overweight" in reality) feel fat. Of course, it's no mystery why they do it. They are massively insecure about their standing in the "food chain." (Hahaha, pun intended.) And like little birds who aren't quite sure where they fall in the pecking order, they are the ones who tend to peck the hardest. ;-)

At the same token, there are also those women who don't rejoice in the successes of their friends & others around them. They smile at you & then stab you in the back, or make passive-aggressive comments about your successes. They try to make other people feel badly about their fitness successes & weight loss triumphs, because they themselves are either not putting in the effort or have been unsuccessful for one reason or another.

Do we really need these people's permission for it to be OK to be proud of our accomplishments? Hell, no! I encourage you not to care what these people think; go ahead & proudly mention your weight-loss successes and shrinking body size. If they can't handle it, well then too damn bad, that's their problem!

Unfortunately, these types of people can't be happy for others, because they're too focused on wallowing in their own misery. If they don't like themselves & feel good about their bodies, they in turn, want to cut anyone else down who has what they don't have. I feel very sorry for people like this, because they are usually emotionally damaged souls in need of some serious therapy. Feeling like you are the body beautiful is not just about your body, it's about your mind too.

So, instead of spreading all of our frantic insecurities to others, I suggest that we instead look deep inside & see what's really making us unhappy.

Since we can't control how other's perceive us, only how we present ourselves to others, I suggest we let go of the outward-looking desire to "gain others' approval" and instead, quiet our internal noise, turn inward to self-reflect, & then focus on how we can best serve our own goals in the long run.

If we like what we see in the mirror, then we are less likely to act like grumpy, mean-spirited harpies that spit upon others' progress, hurl petty childish names at others, or scare everyone else away with our negative, hurtful energies. We can embrace what is good in our lives, and also help others to see the good in themselves.

My mother always taught me to "consider the source" before taking anyone's comments to heart.

So, when you're down & out, & feeling blue,
Don't be rash or hasty or flounder in what to do.
Tune out the distractions, and focus within,
And I guarantee you'll be a happier campier, & find the joy within.

Look past the above impromptu corny poem that just popped out of my head, & choose to see the wisdom in it instead.

(OK, I promise I'll stop rhyming now!!!!)

My final point is that when you feel a sense of inner joy, you can't help but spread it around. We need to support each other, & build each other up. Seek supportive friends that truly have your best interests at heart.

So ladies & gentlemen, let's dispense with the competitive self-comparisons, which only bring more misery into the world, & instead try to work on becoming being better, nicer, more caring human beings.

Amen, sister.
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