It takes a photograph for a lot of us. Now and then, we are surprised by our own reflections where we didn't expect to see them, like in a plate glass window. Usually, though, it's a photograph, because they're everywhere now. People are constantly demanding group photos. I need PROOF that we had lunch together! Hold still! We have that many more opportunities to see ourselves how others see us, or, in other words, the way we actually look.
The graying hair. The slouchy posture. The pinched and crabby facial expressions. The body.
There are no full-length mirrors in our current house. Our last two houses had mirrored closet doors, so a full-length reflection was unavoidable in both the bedroom and my office. That was a coincidence. Now, like most people, when we look at ourselves, we see ourselves from the chest up, in the bathroom medicine cabinet. This is a setup that allows for maximum mental fadeout. I can avoid ever thinking about or wondering about how I look from the collarbone on down. If I wear baggy enough clothes, a lot can happen to my body outside of my conscious awareness.
Believe it or not, this can go all sorts of different directions. One thing that happens to everyone is simple aging. No matter our build, things happen to our skin. Medical things. A problem with pretending we don't exist below the brain is that we may not notice things that turn up on this, the largest organ of the body. Focus and awareness pay off. What we love and accept, we notice, and what we notice, we care for. We must love the skin we're in, literally if not figuratively.
To me, 'body' and 'body image' are totally neutral terms. They seem to be culturally loaded right now, though. I can tell you that my dog's body image is that of a much larger dog, probably triple the size he is. My parrot's body image is a glamorous one of iridescent feathers, flirty eyelashes, and the scaliest toes possible. She kisses her reflection in the mirror, while, to my knowledge, the dog has never noticed his. Imagine what it would be like if you thought your own reflection was utterly adorable. Imagine if you were genuinely oblivious to it.
Physical changes can happen a lot faster than our mental image has time to adjust and accept. Some examples of this would be forgetting that you're wearing a costume and then catching a glimpse of yourself, or noticing your new sunburn about an hour before it starts to hurt. Perhaps more interesting is what happens when you Finally Reach Your Goal Weight.
A few years ago, I made the decision to perform an experiment and reduce my body weight until I reached the "healthy weight for my height." I had no idea whether I would like it or not, and I hadn't committed to stay at that size. I just wanted to feel what it was like. I wanted to find out for myself. I did it, and I liked it, but a lot of really confusing things happened. I couldn't find clothes in my size. My bra size radically changed. Then I ran a marathon and even my SHOE SIZE changed! I wound up having to get rid of all the shoes I had bought before the marathon, because even the shape of my foot is different now. I eventually figured out where I could buy clothes that would stay on my new runner's hips, with some challenges. It took me about two years to be able to hold up a garment and tell at a glance whether it would fit or not. In my mind, I was still a size 12 for many years after I got smaller (and also the stretch of time when I was bigger).
I live in my head a lot. I don't particularly think about my body; I feel restless, or there's something I want to do, or something I want to look at, and so I get up and move. It's like I'm driving my eyes and brain around to distract them when they get bored. During the moments when I am bathing, or dressing myself, or exercising, I'm me. I look like myself. Oh, hello, me, how am me today? I don't really feel any different than I did when I wore any of the previous seven clothing sizes that I have worn for at least a year each. It tends to be when I see myself in a mirror or a photograph that I realize, Oh yeah! I remember now. I look different.
I notice it more when I stand next to someone else.
That's the problem with body image. It's a pernicious form of social comparison. On the one hand, we compare ourselves with others who look different from us, and someone winds up on the losing end of the comparison. Whether it's yourself or your body image opponent says a little bit about your general mood and attitude toward life. On the other hand, we compare ourselves with those who look the same as us, and we are then satisfied that all is well. We can relax and quit noticing. The problems start to come in when we notice our friends being hospitalized one after another. Once we pass the age of forty, we can't pretend anymore. Things happen to the body.
Aging in reverse is weird. It's confusing. It tends to bother people. Show up with visible muscle or improved posture, and suddenly everyone else seems to have lost the game. Guess what? Nothing physical is inevitable. Body image tends to come with a complete package of learned helplessness, resentment, and pessimism. Personally, I was often told I had "birthin' hips." Nobody says that anymore, possibly because I'm a crone now and I've demonstrated that I did not, in fact, have "birthing" anything. Probably, though, because I wear a size XXS. What I do have is visibly more energy, health, strength, vitality, muscle tone, and agility than I had half a lifetime ago. Plus slightly more gray hair. The older I get, the more my physical appearance says things about me. My body announces certain proclivities. People can actually make accurate judgments about some of my behaviors just by looking at me. This will become more true with every decade that goes by.
The surest sign that someone's body image has not yet caught up with reality is the baggy workout t-shirt. Mine were all size Medium, old shirts, some of which had been too tight for a while there. Then suddenly they were flappy. They started to become physical obstacles for exercise purposes. They didn't want to stay in place during inverted yoga postures. I finally understood why athletic people insist on wearing fitted workout clothes. They fit the body. That requires an awareness of our physical outlines that we may never have had before.
We might as well practice accepting that our bodies change with time, because they do. The only thing is that they can change in far more ways than we realize. There are plenty of octogenarians who discover their inner jocks for the first time when they reach an advanced age. It isn't out of our reach. Whether it is better to let our outsides match our insides, or vice versa, is an interesting puzzle. How much do our inner pictures of ourselves reflect struggle, acceptance, or triumph? What would we wish our external selves to reveal?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.