Body Image: What Do YOU See In the Mirror?

IMG_1667“You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.” –Amy Bloom

Hello friend,

In November, basically for the whole month, I was having lots of tummy troubles. After lunchtime, I felt bloated and yucky and could hardly eat the rest of the day without feeling even more awful. It was distressing and puzzling, especially since, despite my shrinking diet, my belly seemed to grow bigger and softer with each passing day. I have never been a fan of the scale as an indicator of health—preferring leanness and energy as my guides—and I don’t often get around to standing on one, but I was pretty sure of my weight when I wrote “200” on my driver’s license renewal form in early October. So, in mid-December, when I decided to try the scale in the locker room at my gym and saw “208,” I just about fell over. It really freaked me out. I was both alarmed and seriously disappointed. I guess I had hoped that I had been delusional about my new and growing mid-section, that maybe it was just temporary bloating. The scale made it clear that I was not. So began my version of a psychological mini-crisis.

I have spent my whole life believing I could look and feel great if only I exercise often, mostly ignoring the nutrition side of the argument. So, after the holidays wrapped up, I ramped up my workout schedule. I added a few minutes to each session, and I eliminated the day or two off I often took on the weekend. I had a streak of 76 consecutive workout days before a travel day broke it, but I haven’t missed one since. I also became slightly obsessed with checking the scale at the gym each morning, begging for good news. Sadly, it has not budged one bit in the right direction. Instead, it is only reminding me that I have become the overweight, middle-aged guy I swore I would never be.

It has really forced me to come to grips with the idea that I may never look physically fit—and what I think of as attractive—ever again (at least not without such desperate measures as eliminating sugar, which I really don’t want to do). It is a reality check, and not just for my middle-agedness.

I guess I have always had a complicated relationship with my body. For most of my years, I have sworn up and down that my physique was not appealing, and I picked at it regularly. For some of those same years, though, I was willing to talk with modeling agents or audition for plays that required a shirtless, attractive body. I didn’t mind doing yard work in just a pair of shorts. I think that under my verbal façade and perfectionism, I must have had some belief that my body was attractive.

I also know that despite my general attitude that says, “ I am not trying to impress anybody,” I am vain. I would prefer to look good. I have mostly conquered my demons with my prematurely grey hair, and I am doing my best to make peace with my body hair (which I really hate, by the way). But the actual physique is another matter. Though I have never tried to dress to impress—I am mostly a sweatpants guy–it is fair to say that I always wanted to be seen as someone who looks good in various states of undress.

I think this complicated view of my humble/vain self has revealed itself quite vividly in recent months with my new belly fat. It is a check on that part of me that always said I wasn’t attractive. The new body is rubbing it in that guy’s face, saying, “So, you want to claim ‘unattractive’? Well, now you don’t have a choice! You’re stuck with it! Now, how does it really feel? Not so good, huh?” It has been a difficult process for me psychologically, I fully admit.

Which brings us to my recent adventures of being bare-bellied in public….

As a mini-Spring Break, I took the family to a waterpark for a couple of days. An enormous and popular destination, we were packed in there by the hundreds. In very close quarters. In our swimsuits! When you are inching your way up those stairs at an elderly snail’s pace, your face is about six inches away from the next person’s bare back. Seeing another person’s body that close doesn’t bother me at all. No, the part that preys on my insecurities is the knowledge that there is a person one step below me, staring at my expanding, hairy back from just six inches away. Are they back there studying how much pudge is hanging over the sides of my suit, how many moles I have, or the uneven patterns of hair growth?

Or, are they freaking out about the person right behind them, whom they believe is judging the girth of their hips or the birth mark on their shoulder?

I am not very judgmental about other people’s bodies in these public pool/lake/locker room situations. I never find myself thinking, “That is gross!” or “What a pig!” or “He should get to the gym!” No, I ogle everybody out of pure curiosity. My comments in my head are more like, “Isn’t it interesting how that guy has such hairy legs but only a few sprigs on his chest, while that guy next to him has no more hair than the first guy on his legs but is covered on his torso, front and back.” Or, “That lady’s stretch marks make a really cool design.”   Or, “Wow, everyone’s breasts are so different, even from the other one on the same body!” I think I am unusually fascinated by people’s bodies. I could easily do an experiment of sitting behind a two-way mirror in a men’s or women’s locker room for a day, just studying the many ways we look: where the fat gathers, what sags and how far, where the hair grows, and all of our different shapes and sizes. It is endlessly interesting to me!

When I am not being fascinated by other people’s bodies, though, I am being self-conscious of my own. I wonder if someone nearby is disgusted by my body hair. I wonder if my physique is still appealing to anyone there, or if I just blend into the “out-of-shape, middle-aged dude that I wouldn’t look at twice” masses. I wonder how I rate and how far that rating has fallen. That is A LOT of stuff churning through a mind just to go swimming in public!

That’s why I wonder if other people are going through the same drama. After all, I still showed up, still pretended it was no big deal to be hanging around a large group of strangers half-naked. So did they. Are we all just great actors, or are they not as self-conscious as I am? Maybe people’s bodies and the feelings they have about them are so fascinating to me because it seems like such a taboo subject in our society. I simply don’t know what other people think and feel about their bodies, because I have never had those conversations! I have them with myself, but I have no idea if I am representative of the population at large.

The body parts of others are fascinating—not gross or embarrassing–to me, as I said, but I am guessing that they, like me, judge all of their own parts harshly, and, consequently, feel some level of shame about each. It is this shame I wonder most about.

American society has sure saddled us with some serious hang-ups about our bodies! The Hollywood and Madison Avenue version of the human body is not just difficult but completely unrealistic for most of us to attain, not to mention maintain. It is easy to get sucked into the spiral of self-loathing when it comes to our bodies. Too easy. I have seen it too many times in my friends and extended family. I still hate listening to teenage girls, who seem most prone to internalize the message and harm themselves as a result.

But honestly, I think we are all victims of it to some degree. I know I am. I think back to the few days I worked as an extra on the TV show “Baywatch,” how everyone on the set had that model body. What do they all look like now? More importantly, how harshly are they judging themselves now? It is weird how we played into the message, even while we were victims of it simultaneously. Of course, twenty years later, I am still judging my body by the same standards I did then. Even though I understand intellectually that it is a silly waste of energy to attach any emotions to my body, and that it has nothing to do with who I really am, I keep doing it. It’s a bad idea, I know, but that is where I am right now. I just don’t much like how this old bag of bones looks anymore.

How about you? How do you feel about your body? Open up your journal and dive into this sensitive subject. Which direction do your thoughts tend to go when you look into the mirror? Do you immediately focus on the parts of your body that you don’t like? Are there parts of your reflection that you really like, and do you allow your mind to appreciate those parts, too? Which parts of your physique do you wish you could change? How strong is that wish? Are there any parts that are truly embarrassing for you? Do you have any parts that you like to show off a bit? Overall, on the spectrum from praise and confidence on one end to shame and disgust on the other–with “I don’t give it a second thought” right around the middle–where is your relationship with your body right now? How has that changed over the years? How comfortable are you in talking about this subject with friends and family? Why do you think that is? I know that one of my reasons for not engaging others in a dialogue is that it seems very easy to offend others’ sensitivities, as we all have different standards for ourselves (e.g. a person who is usually extremely lean and fit but gains 10 pounds may feel awful about their body, but complaining about it to her friend who has spent a lifetime battling obesity just seems a recipe for ill will). How judgmental are you about other people’s bodies? More or less judgmental than you are about your own? Does it make any sense to feel actual shame about a body part, something that doesn’t reveal anything about your true character? Do you feel it anyway? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do you feel about your reflection?

The real you is beautiful,

William

P.S. If this letter helped you to know yourself a little better or think in a new way, pass it on. Thank you for your support!

2 thoughts on “Body Image: What Do YOU See In the Mirror?

  1. Celeste

    All I can say is there is no hope for the rest of us if you feel this way!! Seriously though, I see my body steadily sagging and aging and sometimes it bothers me a lot. But then I decide that the people who matter most to me, my husband, my kids, my grandkids, my parents and other family members all don’t see it and think I’m beautiful. They love me for who I am. I also see how beautiful my parents are and see how adoringly they still look at each other with that steady aging even more pronounced, and know that it will never matter. Sure, I could deprive myself of some of life’s great pleasures to try to regain that elusive girlish figure, or even resort to drastic means to recapture youthful tautness that is probably unatainable, but for what? In the end would my life have been happier or would people have loved me more? I think not!

    Reply
    1. William Rutten Post author

      Bravo, Celeste! I love your outlook. It is what I keep striving for. As is my way, though, I seem to want it all: to indulge in the great pleasures you mentioned, but also to have the girlish figure. I am learning that I am almost certainly not going to have it both ways, and I am doing my best to make peace with that. It is an ongoing process. Fortunately, I am not tying my happiness and self-worth to it. It is mostly just annoying to me. What a ride is Life! I so appreciate your thoughts and your beautiful soul. Keep being you! –William

      Reply

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