Category Archives: Body Image

What Good Is Life Without Your Health?

“The first wealth is health.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

“When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless, and intelligence cannot be applied.” ―Herophilus

Hello friend,

I spent some days last week in a hellish level of back pain, so bad that my mind was pulled toward a topic I had no wish to visit: suicide.  To be clear, I was not suicidal; I was merely pondering suicide as a concept, examining it from multiple angles, considering the motivations.  The pondering itself, and even more so the strength of the magnetic pull to the topic, was telling of my state of mind.

It took me back nearly two decades, the last time my back exploded and had me almost delirious in pain, culminating in a body full of drugs and an emergency surgery.  Through all of my days of agony prior to the surgery, one subject came through clearly in my otherwise desperate mind: suicide.  I had never thought so much about it in all my life (and haven’t since).  My mind was all over the topic: the how, the why, the who, the aftermath.  The everything.  I couldn’t seem to clear it from my brain.  I am fairly sure the obsession stemmed from the fact that, racked with pain at a level I had never imagined possible, for the first time in my life I could totally get why some people no longer want to live.  Honestly, I don’t know how much longer I could have gone on like that if I didn’t believe a cure was coming.  Pulled from an otherwise blissful life, I suddenly had absolutely no capacity for joy.  It didn’t feel like a life at all.  It just felt like misery.

Some years before that episode, when I was in graduate school, one of the professors in the department was suffering from bowel cancer or colitis or some other very serious disease of the digestive tract.  And when I say “suffering,” I mean truly suffering.  I hadn’t known him well and had only heard that he had something and did not understand its severity until I took a brief visit to the bathroom one evening before class.  It was a tiny bathroom, and I spotted someone’s feet in the single stall as I stepped up to the lone urinal.  That’s when I heard the sounds of a man in the throes of pain and anguish, still trying to keep quiet.  I felt terrible as I rushed out of there, haunted by another human’s suffering.  A few months later, I heard that he committed suicide.  I understood why.

I have been wildly blessed throughout my life, probably in no area more important than my mental health.  I mentioned to you in a letter once that one of the things that has surprised me most in my years on this Earth is just how prevalent and truly commonplace mental illness is.  When I was a kid and learned that a family member had an eating disorder, it absolutely floored me.  I never dreamed someone close to me would have psychological problems, and I was sure it shouldn’t be mentioned to anyone.  As an adult, the more I learn, the more it feels like almost everyone is dealing with some measure of addiction or other mental illness, or at least has dealt with it.  I am grateful to have been mostly spared.  Because of that, my only insight into depression (or other)-induced suicidal thoughts is from Psychology classes and lots and lots of memoirs.

So, though it is a fascinating topic to explore and one that I would like to know more about, I am not here today with strictly mental states on my agenda.  Not the kind that decide it is preferable to be dead than alive based only on how dark and painful it is inside the mind, anyway.  Rather, I want to know about how physical pain and disability shape one’s sense of the value of one’s own life.  Because one day I was feeling physically fine, with a few aches and pains like anyone my age has, and I was thinking I was living a great life full of blessings that I wanted to keep experiencing indefinitely.  And the next day I was doubled over in pain, wondering if it was all worth it to go on.

I admit, that instantaneous loss of my life’s value freaked me out a little.  Okay, maybe a lot.  I mean, is the value of existence so fragile that once the body stops cooperating, the whole game needs to be forfeited?  If so, what of all these emotional and intellectual gymnastics we constantly perform to keep ourselves believing how sturdy and enduring our many blessings are and how they will carry us through the low points in life?  The love of our families and friends, our connection to the Divine, our sense of accomplishment from the work we have done, the creations we have provided the world, the dreams we are on our way to fulfilling.  If it all collapses with the slip of a vertebrae, how solid was the ground that sense of Value was built upon?  I am being haunted by that question now.

I am thinking of the many times an injury has kept me from doing the things I wanted to do.  I have always been an active guy, and I have had my share of injuries along the way.  Usually, I just play through it, as I cannot stand to be inactive.  But even so, when I cannot do everything I want, I know that I don’t enjoy myself as much.  Just this Summer, when a slow-healing gash on my foot kept me away from my favorite activities for a couple of months, I found life much less fulfilling.  Sure, I found other things to do and enjoyed them, but it was much less satisfying than what I wanted to do.  I swallowed my frustrations and did my impatient best to be patient and positive, but that was because I knew the end was in sight.  But I wonder: What if there was no end in sight?  What if I could no longer swim or run or play?  Would my base of happiness start to erode?  I am fairly certain it would.  And then, how quickly would it erode?  And even bigger picture: when I hit my low point with it, would that level still be called “Happy,” or would it be something very different?  Would that something different be something I could go on living with?

Even at this point in my aging/erosion process—I am almost half a century old—I can’t do so many of the things I once could due to previous injuries and simply the reality of a body at this age.  I can no longer go out for a real run.  Bending over to lift heavy things can take me out of commission for weeks.  My elbow hurts after I play tennis, and I cannot serve even half the speed I once could.  Believe me, the list goes on!

For a guy most at home when playing a sport or sweating out an outdoor adventure, this new reality is deeply frustrating.  I was tempted to say it is awful, but it only relatively awful.  That is, when I imagine how much fun it would be to still be doing that stuff, it feels awful to my heart.  And yet, I definitely don’t find that my life is awful.  I am quite happy (just maybe less satisfied than I could be).

I can’t say how it will be as I age and gradually lose more and more of my physical capacities–perhaps my mind will continue to adapt as well and find increasingly innovative ways to find Joy in my little world and offset the thrills and satisfaction of physical exertion and mastery–or if I suffer an injury or illness that renders me instantly unable to perform.  This is something I would like to interview some elderly and physically disabled folks about—the ways they have adapted, and what their perception of their own happiness is compared to how it might be if they had all of their physical tools working at full capacity.  Do we all just go through our journeys constantly adjusting our standard for Happiness and Fulfillment based on what seems realistic given our physical circumstances, most everyone finding themselves able to say, “Yeah, I’m doing alright” even if they would have felt sorry for someone in their present circumstances no so long ago?  Are we that wisely and graciously adaptable, or are we deluded suckers?  I hope it’s the former.

With my foot injury this Summer and at other times in my life, such as when limbs were in casts, even though I was unable to use the limb, I had the benefit of not being in constant pain.  So, even though I may have been frustrated—which I may have described as “misery” at the time—I was not in physical agony.  As someone who has suffered the worst kind of back pain, I can tell you that that is where this whole issue turns into something different.  When you are racked with an extreme, unrelenting physical pain that leaves you simply unable to enjoy anything—no, it’s not that you can’t “enjoy,” but rather that you can feel only anguish, only suffering–we are in a new realm.  This is, I am guessing, where my old professor was.  It is where I was in the days before my back surgery.  The only difference was that I believed that surgery was going to improve my situation; I would have deemed it unbearable if that wasn’t an option.  He didn’t have any assurances.  I understand the route he chose.  “There, but for the grace of God, go I…”

I see now that this is where the discussion really splits and there is a need for two separate inquiries.  Loss of the use of your physical abilities—even with some accompanying moderate pain–is one thing, but severe pain is quite another.  I am coming to believe through experience that I will still be able to be grateful and happy if or as I lose my athleticism and flexibility and such.  I am less sure that that I will feel fulfilled without that physical element, but I believe I can achieve happiness.  I have faith that my life can still feel fun and valuable to me.  I don’t have that same confidence when it comes to living with chronic pain.

I would like to believe that it is simply mind over matter and that I could find joy, gratitude, and peace of mind in any physical state.  But I remember the pain I was in last week as I tried to get out of the car and walk down the sidewalk without collapsing and without crying.  And I still shiver as I think about those days before my surgery years ago, my body stuck in a wholly unnatural position due to the spasms from the herniated disc in my back and me barely able to breathe without sobbing uncontrollably.  That was not a life that could be maintained.  If it had value, I couldn’t see it at the time.

In the end, I guess my answer is YES, my life can still be quite valuable without all the things I love about being fit and active, but that value probably begins to deteriorate once chronic pain gets past moderate intensity, with the value then becoming inversely proportional to the pain as I move toward full-on agony.  It’s a theory for now.  I hope I don’t have to find out the truth.

How about you?  How does your health dictate the value of your life?  Open up your journal and your memory and search for times when your health shaped the way you value your life.  What are your very worst experiences with your health and physical abilities?  Are they illnesses that knocked you flat and made you feel like garbage?  Migraines?  Are your worst times from acute injuries that brought your pain immediately to an extreme intensity?  Do you have chronic pain at a high level that shapes your perception of your life’s value?  Whatever your worst experiences, did they ever reach a point where you began to wonder if you could go on much longer in that state?  Did you ever, at your very worst point, realize that it no longer even felt like living, but instead just endless suffering?  If so, how did that realization play on your psyche?  If you haven’t experienced this level of physical agony, do you know someone who has?  How closely do you believe you can empathize with it?  Who in your life has lived for long stretches in the greatest physical pain?  Was it from an illness—like cancer or arthritis—or from injury (e.g. spine trouble or concussion)?  Have they adapted and created a happy life in spite of the pain?  Do you think you could be happy no matter your level of chronic pain?  Do you believe there is a level of pain that would lead you to take your own life?  Do you have any judgment about people who do?  Okay, let’s switch gears.  How much does a diminished physical capacity affect your mindset?  Have you ever been incapacitated with an injury that limited you enough that it affected your happiness or life satisfaction?  What did it keep you from doing or feeling that you missed so much?  Did you find a substitute for that previous ability to fill in the happiness gap, or did you simply adjust your standards?  Was your loss temporary or permanent?  What can you no longer do that you once could (e.g run, play a sport, garden, etc.)?  How has that loss affected you?  Do you harp on it psychologically, reminding yourself how much you miss it and maybe cursing your luck?  Have you given yourself grace as you have aged, letting abilities go without too much bitterness or mourning?  Have you found that life can be just as good without the physical gifts of youth?  Can you think of a physical loss that would almost certainly cause you to devalue your life (e.g. paralysis, blindness, obesity)?  Is there a physical loss that you can imagine making life seem no longer worth living for you?  Are you at all embarrassed to admit to that last answer?  Are we weak and shallow for tying so much of our happiness and life satisfaction to our health—rather than, say, spiritual peace or wisdom–or is that just the reality of the human condition?  Leave me a reply and let me know: What good is your life without your health?

Be as well as you can,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with your community.  We rise together!

P.P.S.  If this way of self-exploration appeals to you, consider buying my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers.

The Pitfalls of Vanity: Do Your Looks Shape Your Life?

“Vanity is becoming a nuisance, I can see why women give it up, eventually. But I’m not ready for that yet.” –Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye 

“How beautiful would it be if we could just see souls instead of bodies? To see love and compassion instead of curves.” –Karen Quan, Write Like No One Is Reading 2

Hello friend,

“Is my hair good?”

This is the question that my son poses to me every morning before he leaves for school. The question follows several minutes of primping with his comb and product. “Are you sure?” he questions after I assure him that it looks great (and inwardly wonder what I have done wrong as a parent). Then, as I pull him in for a hug and kiss good-bye, he fends off any part of me that gets too close to his hair. He zips up his big coat but carefully avoids his hood or hat, willfully ignoring orders from my wife to cover his head against the frigid conditions outside. And off he goes into the world, not minding one bit his mismatched socks or ragged sweatpants but obsessed with the placement of every last hair on his pretty head. Did I mention he is nine? Dear God!

Meanwhile, when I leave for work a few minutes after him, the last thing to have touched my hair was my shower towel. No combs, no products, nothing. Not because I have lost all of my hair with age, but rather because I have made the conscious decision to look worse just to be sure I am not walking around like my son all day, constantly worrying how my hair looks.

As part of my job in this frost-bitten land, I go outside for extended periods a couple of times per day, then return inside and resume normal work and life events. In order to avoid hypothermia, that means attiring myself in snow hats and balaclavas and such, which, of course, are guaranteed to make an awful mess of the best of coiffures. As a person possessed of no small amount of natural vanity, I was initially vexed by this situation. Last Autumn, as I pondered the upcoming daily embarrassment of a messy mane, I figured I had two real options: 1) accept my vanity and bring some hair gel to spruce up each time I came inside, or 2) shave my hair down to a length that nothing can mess it up, essentially “conquering” my vanity by becoming willfully unattractive. I went with the second option. It is counterintuitive, I know, and dripping with irony, but it somehow made sense to me.

The day I first shaved my head, it took a lot of self-talk. “It’s just hair! It will grow back if you want it to. Other people have no choice about this. How bad could it be?” For a guy who has enjoyed compliments on my appearance for most of my life, it was a challenge. I will never forget when my wife first saw me post-cut: she looked startled at first, took a moment, then said, “Okay…,” and walked on (clearly a well-disciplined product of the old “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” admonition we all learned in kindergarten). Lovely. I couldn’t quite believe I had actually chosen to become less attractive. And all to avoid acting vain? But now would I become more aware of my appearance? I was spinning inside. In untangling my hair, I had somehow managed to tangle my psyche.

While I have, as the year has proven, become more conscious of my hair and its downgrade in appearance in certain circumstances–when I meet new people, when I have to be in a picture, when I appear in public next to my very attractive wife, etc.–I have definitely embraced the freedoms it has brought. I wear a cozy winter hat more than ever rather than sacrifice my comfort to keep my hair sculpted. My baseball caps come on and off during the day without a second thought, as do the hoods of my hoodies. I increasingly seek out opportunities to swim or play in the rain. It is a new brand of freedom, and I quite like it.

It has made me all the more aware, though, of what people–myself included–sacrifice in their lives to work around their appearance. I notice my wife’s hesitation every time swimming is mentioned, knowing how much time and effort it takes to get her and my daughter’s hair clean and styled. That feels like a tragedy to me, as I tend to think of my time in the water as a source of Joy and profound Peace. I see people avoiding activities that make them sweat because of the work required for their hair or make-up to be redone, or that they don’t look attractive enough when sweating (to say nothing of insecurities about how they look in workout clothes or swimsuits). They go out in the cold or the hot sun without a hat, like I used to do, and freeze or burn rather than get their hair messed up. They avoid biking because of the helmets. The list goes on.

Of course, it is difficult to disentangle our vanity with our desire to feel healthy and confident, making this a sensitive and confusing topic. I go to the gym every day, and I can’t say for sure how much of my effort is aimed purely at being healthy and how much is to avoid looking a way that seems less attractive to me. I am sure when I started lifting weights when I was a teenager, it was much more about vanity than it was about my health. Probably it has only swung the other way out of necessity in recent years, cognizant as I am of the aches and pains of my aging body and wanting to delay any major malfunctions. And though body image is way too big of a topic for today’s letter, suffice it to say that vanity is still heavily at play in my life even now, as I move to this age when I don’t imagine myself to be physically appealing to anyone.

Maybe it is this relatively recent shift in perspective that best explains my willingness to shave my hair for the sake of practicality. In a way, I suppose I have given up. Not in a “poor me” kind of way, but rather just in a way that is more accepting of aging and my place on both my life’s trajectory and on the pecking order for our society’s definitions of beauty and appeal. The reality is that I am past our standard mating age and that they don’t show pictures of guys my age in the fashion magazines. Instead of resisting those simple facts, I am beginning to acknowledge them and flowing accordingly. Acceptance. It is not as though I am giving up hygiene and social skills; I am just not pretending that I might be attractive anymore. I don’t think anyone will fight me on the idea.

But speaking of society and our social norms, this topic of vanity and the freedom to age “normally” has stirred up some thoughts that aren’t about me so much but about you and everyone else in my world. Like this one: Why has it come to be expected that women dye their hair? I understand that some people–men and women–of all ages do this for fun or “something different” at all ages. Whatever, I like creative expression. But think of how few women, especially, that you know who actually have grey hair. I don’t know very many. I just think of all the time and money people spend on this–not to mention the emotional energy–and can’t help feeling it is all such a waste. And yet I know society has trained me not to judge them–which I don’t seem to–because it is so thoroughly “normal” (though I must admit that, for reasons that I can neither explain nor justify morally, I feel myself being critical about men who color over their grey). Still, I can’t help noticing and feeling some extra bit of respect for those few women I do see who have embraced their grey. Unconsciously, I think I do the same when I see women who have adopted an “easy” hairstyle or wear little or no make-up even if it makes them appear “less attractive” according to our current standards of beauty. Maybe I am finally opening my eyes to the damaging effects of patriarchy and our collective shallowness, and it is leaving me disgusted enough to appreciate anyone who bucks the system.

I would love to think that this is just part of the process of my maturation and learning the wisdom that old people sometimes arrive at: that there is no inherent worth in physical appearance and thus no use in giving it so much power over our self-confidence and our time. But maybe it is a convenient bailout for me at a time when my appearance–other than my whiteness and maleness–is finally failing to give me any rewards. Because, while I have often chastised myself for “flaws” in my natural physical appearance, I am also quite willing to admit that I enjoyed the unearned privileges of being considered “attractive” when I was younger. I have no doubt that it helped me in the eyes of teachers, employers, peers, and prospective mates. I am grateful for that, as I know it shielded me from a lot of things that I have never even considered and colors my perspective on everything, including this very topic. It is highly likely that now, as just a regular, middle-aged, grey-haired dude who nobody looks twice at, I am finally getting on the bandwagon of “wisdom” and wanting to be more dismissive of appearance. Maybe rather than enlightenment, the best explanation for my evolution is that I don’t want to play society’s game anymore because I can no longer win at it (I’m taking my ball and going home!).

In any case, I am highly aware of the messages our society and the people around us send to everyone, but especially to kids and women, about our appearances. In the last couple of years, I have made a conscious effort to say nothing about a person’s appearance. No compliments, no critiques, nothing. I sometimes fail, but I am aware of it now when I do. As a parent of kids whose bodies are constantly changing and who are becoming full consumers of the barrage of messages out there in our society–my son is 9 and my daughter is 11–I am hyper-vigilant about what I say to them. Occasionally I will soften my stance and tell them how adorable I see them to be, but mostly I try to say nothing about their natural appearances. I try to choose other things to compliment them on, such as their kindness, empathy, or hard work.

Although I consider them blessed with physical beauty and likely to be deemed “attractive” by their peers as they mature, I don’t want them to get any more attached to their appearances than society will already mold them to be. I especially don’t want them to equate their appearance with who they are. I also don’t want it to be so much work, physically or emotionally. It’s why it disturbs me so much when my son obsesses over his hair before he leaves the house. He cares too much.

Is there any way to be a member of our culture and not be a little bit obsessed about your appearance? I was going to say it is to get so old that no one is looking at you for your attractiveness, but even most of the elderly people I know seem very focused on getting their hair just right and looking fresh. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t have a problem with wanting to look good. I guess I just don’t want myself or my kids to miss any opportunities for fun and adventure because it might mess up our hair or cause our make-up to run. And mostly, I want us to walk through the world knowing that our value is not in our appearance, no matter what our society tells us. I want to let go of my vanity as best as I can, not to justify looking bad but just to live more freely, with one less master to serve. I may not turn any more heads on my path, but at least I will be choosing my own way.

How about you? How much does your appearance shape the way you go through the world? Open up your journal and your mirror? What do you see staring back at you? First, just describe your appearance without judgments. Next, throw in some judgments, first of your own preferences and then of what society would say are your best and worst features. Who do you think is easier on that person in the mirror: you or society? What accounts for the difference? Regardless of your personal judgment of your appearance, how hung up on it are you? First, how much time do you spend on it? Do you spend your morning in front of a mirror trying to get it just right? Do you go to a salon for cuts and colors? How about manicures and pedicures? If you exercise, is it primarily for health or appearance? What other ways do you spend your time focused on how you look? At what age did you spend the most time on your appearance? Were you most or least satisfied at that age? How about financially? How much money do you spend on improving your appearance? Has that amount increased or decreased as you have aged? What other aspects of your life do you sacrifice financially to be able to afford your beauty upkeep? Do you feel like it is a good investment? Finally, how about the emotional investment? How much of your heart do you leave vulnerable to the way you look? Does it stress you out? Do you think of your appearance as who you are? How has that affected your self-confidence throughout your life? With all of that investment of time, money, and emotion attached to your to the way you look, how has it determined how you spend your time? What activities do you avoid because they would mess up your look? In what ways has your ambition to look good limited your enjoyment of life? Have you ever been so disgusted with your vanity and its hindrance to your life that you did something to make yourself look worse just so you would toughen up? Have you done anything to your appearance purely because it was easier to maintain or allowed you to live more freely–shave your head, let your grey go, given up cosmetics, etc.–even though it made you feel less physically attractive? How did that work for you in the long-term? Were you able to stay committed to it, or did you return to your higher maintenance look? Even if you can’t quite commit to looking less than your best for the sake of comfort and convenience, are you still willing to admit that our society has an unhealthy fixation on appearance and lots of unrealistic and damaging ideals that we are expected to conform to? Are you more likely to resist or conform? How has that changed as you have aged? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do your looks shape your life choices?

Be a beautiful soul,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you today, please share it with your community? Let’s rise together!

P.P.S. If this brand of self-reflection feels appeals to you, consider buying my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.