Clothes piled on the bed, shoes kicked across the floor, already late for the event, and still you feel: I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO WEAR! Relatable? This is a very common issue. Uncertainty about what to wear on different occasions leads directly to accumulating more clothes, which only makes the situation more complicated next time. Let’s get into what we’re signaling with our wardrobes, and how we can feel more confident in our choices.
We’re most likely to get spun up about what to wear when we’re going to meet unfamiliar people, in an unfamiliar setting, and perhaps at an unfamiliar type of event. Why, though? If these are people we aren’t going to see often, a place we might never visit again, or a type of event we don’t usually attend, then why would it matter? We allow ourselves to fret about WHAT THEY’LL THINK (whoever ‘they’ are) because only after the event is over will we know how we fit in.
I once attended an evening wedding in New York. It had ice sculptures. I dressed up, making my best effort in a floral-print linen sundress with sandals. As soon as I walked in, I understood that I’d gotten it wrong, because the other women were in evening looks with satin dresses and heels. I had no idea what a blowout was, nor was I wearing makeup. What happened? I shared a table with my date and a nice couple who kept us laughing all night. The bride and groom are still my close friends, and we’ve been on vacation together a couple times. (In fact even my date has been out to visit, because we’re still in touch). As far as I know, I never saw any of the other guests again.
I walked away with a pretty clear image of how to dress for a formal evening occasion. I knew right away that I could have picked up an appropriate dress at Goodwill for $15, and nobody would have known. In fact, I can repeat a special-occasion outfit at multiple events, because my husband doesn’t care and nobody else will notice.
The longer we take to get ready, the less satisfied we are with our appearance. That’s what research says, anyway. It makes sense to me. It takes me about ten minutes to “get ready” and leave the house, half an hour if I’m doing the full Las-Vegas-nights routine. If someone doesn’t like how I look, then great! Someone that shallow and superficial will stay clear of me, leaving me free to have interesting conversations with people who have their priorities straight. People value my company for my sense of humor, storytelling, and ability to be a good listener. None of those qualities has anything to do with physical appearance. On the contrary. If I looked too polished, maybe nobody would believe I could be a good listener or a funny storyteller.
What are we signaling with our clothing choices?
Friendly / aloof?
Relaxed / fussy?
Competent / wacky?
Professional / casual?
Married / single?
Stressed / happy?
It seems like one of the strongest style statements that many people make with their casual wardrobe is what type of music they’re into. Rocker, country, punk, skater, raver, goth, and I’m sure many others I’m too tragically unhip to recognize. We know who we are when we put on casual clothes. We’re only wearing the stuff we trust to fit and be comfortable. We’re signaling a bit about ourselves, enough that someone who’s into the same style might approach us and strike up a conversation. That’s how I met a guy at the cafe who was willing to answer a few questions about jiu jitsu for me - his t-shirt advertised it. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all what you wear on casual days; I’ve seen people out in public wearing everything from pajamas to bikinis to, a couple times, nothing at all.
We feel more out of our depth when we’ve been invited to a wedding, party, or job interview, am I right?
This is what people do to make their clothing choices more difficult.
Keep everything, even when it doesn’t fit
Keep everything, even though it NEVER fit and the tags are still on it
Keep everything, no matter how old it is
Keep everything, even if it’s stained or full of holes and the unworn clothes aren’t
Keep everything, even if it’s scratchy or uncomfortable
Keep everything, even if it doesn’t go with a single other item and there’s no way to wear it
Keep shoes that cause blisters and actual bleeding
Buy things because of their price, not how they fit or how they look
Buy things out of obligation or guilt, not wanting to disappoint the sales clerk
Decide on garments individually, not on how they play into the wardrobe as a whole
Having hundreds of garments in every cut, style, color, and print, and several sizes, can only send inconsistent signals. Wearing clothes that don’t fit, or combining items that are too tight and too loose, doesn’t send a clear signal, except maybe [does not use a full-length mirror]. Limping from impractical shoes, tugging things into place over and over, makes people worry if you’re okay. Showing up late because of one too many head-to-toe outfit changes makes you look, at best, frazzled, and at worst, inconsiderate. All you really need is something clean and a warm smile.
My entire wardrobe fits into two suitcases. This is because I only feel like I need a few changes of clothes for each of my different roles. Casual summer, casual winter. Business casual summer, business casual winter. Workout summer, workout winter. Camping clothes. A few cocktail dresses. Boom, done. When I get tired of something or it gets worn out, I replace it with something else. I had to replace my entire wardrobe when I reached my goal weight, and since I’ve settled into one clothing size, I’ve been able to figure out how a capsule wardrobe works. Every single thing I own:
Works with at least three other items
Can be machine-washed and, mostly, machine-dried
This is why I’m confident when I walk out the door. I’ve made my choices in advance, and I’m wearing things I’ve worn many times. I also choose where I go or don’t go, and it’s very rare that I would feel obligated to go somewhere where I wasn’t sure how I fit in. Mostly, I feel confident enough in my social skills (now) that people are a lot more likely to remember what I said than how I looked.
I’m trying to send a few clear messages with my wardrobe
OMG A GUY JUST LEANED OVER AND TOLD ME: “YOU LOOK GREAT”
(I’m married, and not looking for male attention, but it was funny that it happened while I was writing about clothes and appearance).
I’m trying to send a few clear messages with my wardrobe, namely: Married, friendly, competent, smart, entrepreneurial. There are other signals I can’t do much about, such as: middle-aged, fit, Western, distractible, more eccentric than I wish I were. When I decide whether to buy new clothes, I can ask, Does this send the message I want to send?
I look like myself, just like you probably look like yourself. (Unless you’re trapped in a work uniform). Sooner or later, the people around us will figure out what we’re like. Core personality shines through eventually. We should focus more on what kind of friendship we can offer and what roles we’d like to play in life, and less on WHAT THEY’LL THINK about how we look.
“Don’t overthink it.” This is something I hear in martial arts class all the time, maybe even as often as once per class. I understand why. That doesn’t really make it easier, because what’s happening is complicated, at least from my end. I’m trying to learn what other people have acquired naturally. From their perspective, it looks like I’m adding unnecessary layers of complexity to something easy. If I didn’t overthink it, I wouldn’t still be training.
Overthinking is my way of explaining something to myself that is otherwise confusing.
As the “last kid chosen for team sports,” small for my age and young for my grade, I was slow and awkward. This is automatically reinforcing. Those of us who felt humiliated and out of place in gym class tend to quit exercise for life. Our reluctance to be active in any way, shape, or form means that we deliberately miss out on the hundreds or thousands of instances when other, more active kids are practicing physical skills. We think they’re “natural” at it when really, they just put in 100x or 1000x more effort into this stuff, starting in early childhood.
As adults, when we set out to do something about this sorry state of affairs, we’re trying to build physical and athletic skills that a “natural” or “real” athlete might have mastered by the age of eight.
What kinds of skills?
Internalizing the rules of various games and sports
Vascularity, lung capacity, bone density, muscle strength
Eyes adjusted to bright sunlight
Stoicism as regarding bad weather
Tolerance of boredom and repetition
Linguistic adaptation to jock lingo
Awareness of altered states derived from athletic pursuits
Respect for achievements of athletes, both professional and amateur
Curiosity about one’s own athletic potential
I didn’t have much or any of that as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult. I had nothing but contempt for people who liked that sort of thing, having felt bullied by mean kids and gym teachers. I had nothing but disgust for the idea of getting all sweaty and dirty and somehow being absorbed into some sports cult. I had no idea what I was missing. Now, as an adult, I just really wish I had figured out a different approach.
All I can do now is to be patient with myself and keep trying. That’s why I’m still doing this thing they call “overthinking it.”
To an experienced athlete - I won’t say “natural” because I understand that this is something taught - every athletic pursuit is like dancing. They see and know what to do. If someone throws a ball, they can run toward it and catch it, because they’ve developed their proprioception and depth perception and all of that. They also feel a connection in those situations. If someone is throwing a ball, that is an invitation to a kind of party. My dog would agree. He doesn’t need to overthink anything involving a ball.
An athlete can watch someone go through a set of physical movements and then copy them. Actors are trained in this as well. I remember in grade school that a theater troupe visited and put on a show for us. They invited volunteers from the audience to walk across the stage, and then one of the actors would follow them and mimic their walk. It was hysterical, an innocent and playful trick that involves the same proprioception used by athletes and dancers.
For someone like me, a bookish and late-blooming middle-aged athlete, copying someone else’s movements is really, really confusing and challenging.
This happens in every class. I’ll watch a demonstration between the instructor and a partner, either another student or one of the other instructors. Then we’ll break into pairs and take turns going through the forms. My partner will usually get it right. I will somehow manage to combine the motions of both parties. I’ll strike with the opposite arm, step forward when I was supposed to step backward, step right when I should have stepped left, and on and on. One of my best tricks is to “bob and weave” directly into a punch instead of away from it.
Instructors are always rushing over to help. They can take one look at me - one single look! In one single split second! - and instantly see that once again, I’ve gotten myself all mixed up.
It was the same in ballroom dance. I was trying to learn the basic steps of the rumba. My dance teacher paused and asked what was going on, why I was struggling with this. I said, “My third leg keeps getting in the way.” “Your... third... leg? Your THIRD LEG?” He was incredulous. In my poor overthinking mind, it felt true. I did eventually get it, and in fact with tons of practice I became a pretty fair ballroom dancer. I just had to practice a lot more than most people. I practiced those three basic rumba steps at the bus stop, at work, in my kitchen, while brushing my teeth, hundreds and hundreds of times until it entered my body memory.
I’d do the same with boxing combos if only there weren’t so darn many of them...
I’m not so great at watching someone and copying them. I am pretty good, though, at talking to myself. I’m also good at communicating and asking questions, and I’m not ashamed or reluctant to do so. I can explain, “Oh, I see, I missed that step to the left and that’s why I was striking with the wrong arm” or whatever other blunder I just made. Thinking in text helps me to visualize and remind myself of what I should be doing. Also, I count, just like I did when I played clarinet in band class.
It isn’t hopeless. We’re never too old, or too clumsy, or too awkward, or too dorky. At least we aren’t if we believe we aren’t. We can draw upon our other strengths to help us learn to do these new things. As we keep at it, eventually we find that people think we are “natural” at it as well. Some time after that, maybe it even becomes true.
“If you lower your standards, then your standards are lower.” We were setting up for a day-long meeting and debating whether the nearest cafe was close enough to give us time to grab breakfast. One guy rejected the coffee at the event, saying he didn’t want to lower his standards. I responded in the manner above. We made eye contact, burst into simultaneous laughter, and instantly became friends.
I don’t even drink coffee.
The reason my new friend and I connected was that when you share a philosophy, it often takes only one sentence or one behavior to make that connection. A lot of people signal this sort of thing through their clothing, which is of course why they wear it. (Otherwise, wouldn’t jumpsuits, togas, or Star Trek-type uniforms be so much more convenient?)
Context says a lot all by itself. Here I am at seven AM on a Saturday, an hour before this day-long event, with maybe a half-dozen other lost souls. My very presence says a series of things about my commitment, interest level, ability to be organized, and willingness to volunteer for thankless tasks. Add in my wardrobe choices, facial expressions, vocal tone, posture, and mannerisms. You can’t tell everything about me, but you have a lot to go on. Maybe you don’t have enough information to figure out biographical details like whether I have kids or what kind of car I drive. You do know a few things, though, about my values and my behavior.
I was blind to all of this as a young person. When I look back, I can’t help but wonder how different my career path might have been if I’d understood at twenty what is now so obvious at forty-plus.
At that age, I would have been seriously offended by the implication that I had low standards.
As the Future Version of that callow youth, I can only laugh. Young Me DID have lower standards in all sorts of ways. Young Me was a terrible cook, for instance. Young Me accepted dead-end, low-paying jobs when she could have gone for more. Young Me neglected to advocate for herself in obvious situations when she could easily have negotiated better. Young Me tolerated shabby treatment from friends, coworkers, bosses, and boyfriends. Young Me wound up taking jobs, renting rooms, giving door keys to roommates, signing contracts, and doing favors for friends in situations that Today Me would never consider for five minutes.
Not only did Young Me have no clue how to negotiate, Young Me also had no idea how she constantly demonstrated that she was not a “first in line” first-choice kind of person.
Waiting by the phone for calls from a selfish, inconsiderate young man when we both should have known better.
Accepting the first offer from the first employer who called, with the first wage they suggested.
Being there, over and over, for friends who vanished rather than reciprocate.
Tolerating bad behavior, like stealing my laundry quarters or bouncing rent checks, not knowing what to do other than feel hurt.
Young Me saw a lot of specific incidents as misfortunes, rather than as indicators of an untrustworthy person or red flags for obvious behavior patterns. It took a lot of disappointment and a few very nasty surprises to start developing some street smarts and setting better boundaries. Today Me knows to ask more questions in the first five minutes.
Today Me still does favors for people, although usually they are different kinds of favors. Today Me gets asked to be a reference or review resumes for job-hunting friends. Today Me evaluates a lot of speeches and holds a lot of volunteer offices and staff positions. Today Me will still visit people in the hospital, help people move, pet-sit, or occasionally slip someone a secret envelope if they’re having cash problems. Having higher standards and better boundaries does not mean being more selfish, cold, or unkind. It means being more discriminating, offering help where it can make a real difference. Feeling taken advantage of can only happen if you have certain expectations or if you come from a position of scarcity. Offering a gift of time, energy, or resources comes from a place of love, and that means no strings.
There are, of course, many other areas where Today Me has higher standards. Young Me was a walking disaster in some ways, chronically disorganized, constantly late everywhere, and helplessly lost in the professional wardrobe category. These are not moral issues and they are not character issues. It still feels unfair sometimes to be judged by what are really superficial traits. They are, though, extremely potent signals that show whether someone is operating in the same system or not. I always believed myself to have a strong work ethic, to be committed and dedicated, bright and sincere. In some ways, it’s convenient to have ways to demonstrate that visually, just by walking in the door at 7 AM on a Saturday and making a single comment.
If you lower your standards, then your standards are lower, whether that’s your standard for how you behave, how you speak, what you believe is an acceptable work product, how you treat others or how you allow them to treat you. It’s also true that if you raise your standards, then your standards are higher. This is how you can personally contribute to a better world. If you raise your standards, you can improve your own behavior, speak kindly, influence and inspire others, create amazing, beautiful, and useful things, set the tone at an event, and ultimately contribute to the culture of a community or organization, however small. How you do one thing may actually be how you do everything. It’s an interesting project to see how raising your standards in even one area may affect everything else in your life.
On social media, a lot of people spend a lot of time saying a lot of things that make them indistinguishable from bots. There could be entire predictive text buttons with these bumper-sticker sentiments. You could even write a script that posted them for you while you went off to make a sandwich. Of all these repetitive, commonplace reactions, Quit Posting Your Workouts is one of the most common. After consideration, I tend to agree. I used to post my workouts to Facebook, and I quit... Facebook. If you’ve been frustrated by this particular issue, pro or con, maybe my outlook will be interesting.
Here’s the thing. Everyone does something that is interesting to some friends, irrelevant to others, and annoying to yet others. If we remove all of these topics, what could there possibly be left to talk about?
My workout is a significant chunk of my day and my life. It’s an enormous part of who I am. It’s how I beat illness, it’s a constant research topic, it’s an area where I explore and learn new things, it’s where I see and hear much of what I find interesting. It’s also where I now make most of my friends. Asking me never to share about this part of my life is precisely like asking someone else never to talk about their kids, their job, their home remodel, or any of their hobbies. Wouldn’t it be nicer to just unfollow, scroll past, or otherwise ignore posts that don’t interest you?
Maybe, like me, you’ve posted about workouts in the hopes of connecting with your other friends who also work out. Maybe, like me, some of your friends cross-train, and thus can’t capture everything we’re doing through an app like RunKeeper. Maybe, like me, you have a years-long running conversation with a small group of friends who are constantly exploring different types of workout. Maybe those conversations are one of your main reasons for ever logging on to social media at all. If there’s ever a more suitable social media platform for us, one without all the non-workout BS, we’ll all stampede toward it and never look back.
Or maybe you’re one of the forty percent of Americans who never do any kind of exercise whatsoever, not even walking for fifteen minutes. Maybe all this talk just irritates you to no end. I dunno.
What I found was that sharing my workouts tended to generate friction for a variety of reasons. It brought up disagreements and mean comments from people who I had previously liked, people I considered my actual friends before social media came along and ruined it. I exercise because when I don’t, I suffer physically, and I don’t really feel like I have an option. For whatever reason, other people interpret this as body shaming, as buying into the beauty myth, as some kind of psychological problem, as proselytizing, or as just being a terminal bore. I started to realize that it really wasn’t worth my time to engage in discussions where words were put in my mouth. Why go there if my character was going to be brought into question or my motives were misinterpreted?
This is part of the picture when people say that when your energy changes, your friends change. It’s not always that you become some sort of social climber and abandon your previous loyalties. It’s more that your new thoughts, behaviors, and conversation topics annoy your old friends, who can no longer stand you and don’t want to socialize with you unless you go back to your old ways.
If you want to know, my weekday workout typically looks like this: Ride bike along the beach to martial arts gym while listening to an audio book. See my friends. Crush it for an hour, learning new things, surprising myself with what my body can do that it couldn’t do a month ago, bonding with people from all walks of life. Gossip in the changing room. Ride home along the beach again. Walk the dog. Do an hour on the elliptical, reading articles about space, biomimicry, and robotics for my tech newsletter. Stretch for half an hour. Shower. Sometimes this all starts in the morning, sometimes in the evening.
Some days I work out for nearly three hours. That might sound extreme, but I do longer workouts a few times a year. Distance days for marathon training were two to three hours once a week. Martial arts belt promotions go for four hours. I’ve gone on four-hour bike rides many times. When I go backpacking, we typically hike for six hours or more. On vacation I walk eight to ten miles a day, basically from morning til night except for meal breaks. For someone who enjoys endurance sports, “time on feet” is a valuable training metric. I’ve had several jobs where I stood for forty hours a week. I think back to our pioneer ancestors, who walked thirty miles a day on the Oregon Trail, and I seriously question a modern society that thinks sitting or lying down for 20-22 hours a day is somehow normal. The more I find that I can do routinely, the more I wonder how much is out there for me.
In my life, what I do for exercise is equivalent to what I do for reading. I see both as exploration and adventure, as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. Both are endlessly fascinating and irresistibly attractive to me. The alternative to both I see as “sitting in front of a television for five hours a day,” which is something I did throughout childhood and now find impossibly boring.
I took everyone’s advice and quit posting my workouts. I write about them, sure, and if someone wants to touch base with me and find out what I’m doing these days, Wednesdays are the day for that. Otherwise, some of my most interesting conversations are happening in person, live, in my gym. For those of you who are likewise confounded by constant social pushback, don’t let it get to you. Just move the conversation to a place where it’s appreciated and leave everyone else to go about their business.
I was on the Future Phone just now, talking to Future Me. We want to get some clarity on how we should be allocating our time. Future Self informs me that it’s solid common sense to assume we’re going to live a long life, and plan accordingly.
Let’s spend a minute going over the gamble here. Where are the risks? Future Self’s Wager is like Pascal’s Wager, except not religious. There are two bets.
One, you assume you’ll die at X age and you actually die sooner. Two, you assume you’ll die at X age and you live longer.
If you die sooner than you expected, you potentially miss out on opportunities and leave things unsaid.
If you live longer than you expected, on the other hand, things get complicated. You run out of money. You don’t carry the appropriate long-term disability insurance or long-term care insurance. Your house, appliances, and vehicle start to depreciate, and you can’t afford to repair or replace them. Inflation comes for your assets. The last sixty years of your exercise and nutrition habits catch up with you. You live out the effects of all your strained and broken relationships. You feel the pangs of regret for all the opportunities you never pursued, all the things you never learned, all the places you never went, all the apologies you never made, and the legacy you never created. You realize that you always had plenty of time for everything you ever wanted to do, yet you squandered it.
To me, it’s quite obvious that assuming you’ll die sooner is a much worse gamble than assuming you’ll live longer. If you’re wrong and you DO live much longer, you won’t have the relationships, the mindset, the physical stamina, the skills, or the material assets that you’ll need.
Also, we might be talking a very, very long amount of time. Say you assume you’re going to be gone by, um, sixty-seven? But you actually live to be eighty-six. That’s NINETEEN YEARS of “Oops, I never thought this would happen.” What if you then live even longer than that? What if you live past the point when YOUR KIDS are eighty-six?
Most people will instinctively reject this idea. Seriously, though! The average lifespan has roughly DOUBLED in the last century. Advances in sanitation, epidemiology, nutrition, surgery, pharmaceuticals, gerontology, and just general medical knowledge are going to continue to accelerate. Financial planners are telling people to plan to live to be ninety-six right now, just to be on the safe side.
Again, the risk of planning to be ninety-six and then dying sooner is that you have enough resources, and you wind up not needing them after all. You can then leave it all to your kids, your mate, your capybara, and/or your favorite charity.
You think it’s pessimistic to assume you’ll die young. Think again. It’s much more pessimistic to assume you’ll outlive your money, your health, and your relationships by thirty years or more.
It’s basically fortune cookie wisdom to ask, “What would you do if you found out you’d die tomorrow?” Or six months from now, or a year from now? I’ve found it much more interesting to ask, “What would you do if you knew you’d live past one hundred?”
The other day, I was taking a class in situational combatives, part of my martial arts training. It occurred to me that if fortune favors me, I could train hard for another twenty-five years. That would put me at age sixty-eight. My partner in that class happened to be seventy-eight and he’s still going strong, so it’s not an unreasonable gamble. What could I do in twenty-five years? I could be a sixth-degree black belt, that’s what!
That gave me pause. I could probably attain a black belt in a shorter span than that, maybe even less than half that time. Wait. Waiiiit a minute. What ELSE could I do in twenty-five active years besides getting a black belt in a martial art?
Get several black belts?
Suddenly it felt as though I had such a long time to fill, so many long decades that could instead be filled with boredom and dissatisfaction. I’d look back on my young, dumb forty-three-year-old self and wonder why I hadn’t made better use of my time.
Past Me! Why u so lazy??
Not only physical pursuits, but other kinds of disciplines caught my attention. What could I study in twenty-five years? Music? Painting? Small engine repair? Esperanto?
One of the benefits of middle age is that you start to understand how to shape longer-term goals and projects. Another is that you have the time and resources to pursue them. Among the best is that you have the patience and self-discipline you never could find as a teenager or young adult. You have to start to wonder how much your focus and dedication could improve, given decades of additional practice.
Already I’ve done something. I’ve put this thought out there in the world. What if we have more time than we think? Much, much more time? What scale of project would you consider if you knew you had thirty years to work on it? Now, if I’ve gambled poorly and I’m wrong about Future Self’s wager, I’ll still have done something worthwhile. If I’ve gambled well, only time will tell what sort of amazing things I might still have in me.
I’m going to write about body weight, because this year it’s relevant to my interests. If this is triggering for you, I apologize, and hopefully you already know to protect yourself by closing tabs and stopping yourself from reading further, because this isn’t directed at you. I’m writing about my body, which belongs to me, and my body image, which is A+ and also belongs to me. I can’t write about other people, their bodies, or their body image because those are all outside of my expertise. Probably what I write will not reflect the experience of most people who ever lived. I say that because I rarely read anything written by other people about their bodies that fits my feelings or my life. If you’re still reading, then maybe you’re curious what it would feel like to be someone else?
Someone who likes being a person in a body? Someone who experiences this thing called “my body” as cooperative, convenient, and useful?
Okay, so the main way I relate to having a body is that it is the vehicle I use to carry my consciousness from place to place. Another way I use my body is as a test lab for the performing of interesting experiments. There is a huge amount of divergent “health” “information” out there. The way I make sense out of it is by trying it out on myself and seeing how it goes.
The first thing I discovered is that sleep is my main health priority, without which nothing in my life works. Being sleep-deprived makes me moody, lowers my energy, and apparently interferes with my immune system. I sleep as much as I can and I feel totally entitled to it.
The second thing I discovered is that my own personal body weight is strongly correlated with what used to seem like random, unconnected issues. The heavier I am, the more migraines I get. The heavier I am, the more often I get colds and flu, and the longer it takes to recover. There is a certain specific body weight, above which I get headaches and night terrors, and below which I do not. Above that weight, I’m prone to dizzy spells, and below that weight, I’m not. I have lurking suspicions that all of these things are somehow connected to thyroid function, to the endocrine system, or to hormones in general.
These are the reasons why I monitor my body weight. Apparently other people do it because they care what other people think of their appearance? Or they tie it to some kind of performance metric so that they have a stronger sense of autonomy and control? Perfectionism? Self-loathing? I dunno. I don’t even clean my house for those reasons, although I do run a tight ship. I pay attention to how much I weigh because when I don’t, my life sucks and I feel like crud all the time. When I do, it’s straightforward and fades into the background. It’s just the simplest way I’ve found to keep tabs on the most obvious, easily tracked trend line on my physical dashboard.
(I can step on the scale every morning, and I don’t have to use a measuring tape on various parts of my body, draw my own blood, or take other kinds of samples which I lack the laboratory equipment or knowledge to analyze).
I like numbers. They feel like a neutral feature of the world, like... sand. Or pebbles. They’re just there and they only have the meaning that we ascribe to them.
All right, so here’s what happened. I’ve been training hard at martial arts all year, and along the way, I gained a bunch of weight really quickly. Some of it was muscle, and most of it was adipose tissue, also known as excess body fat.
This became a problem because, for the first time in 3-4 years, I started having headaches and scary sleep episodes again. I kept thinking, Oh, that’s just a fluke, until one morning when my husband remembered me doing stuff in my sleep and I did not remember. I HATE THAT. There’s basically nothing more humiliating and dreadful to me than when I... sleepwalk, flail and hit my husband, scream, have conversations... DO THINGS in my sleep and my conscious mind has exited the building. I’d genuinely rather have incontinence than this. It makes me feel like I’m developing dementia. That was the trigger. I absolutely cannot allow myself to continue up that road. My sleep gets shattered, and when that happens I can’t focus during the day, it destroys my productivity, I feel weepy all the time, and I just start getting sick a lot. None of these things are what a fork is for.
Time to slow my roll.
I knew exactly how I’d gained the weight, because I’ve done it so many times and also because it was somewhat intentional. I had this idea that if I added more muscle, everything would be fine. Apparently not. I think what goes on in my body is that whatever blood sugar conversion process is happening when I up my calorie intake and add body weight, whatever it’s composed of, that’s the thing that triggers all my other health issues. I was doing it too quickly.
My goal was to gain 15 pounds of muscle in a year. I put on 4 pounds the first month, maintained for three months, and then put on an additional 5 pounds the fourth month. May 1 I weighed ten pounds more than I did on January 1. By my birthday I’d gained a full-on fifteen pounds. Okay, that would be AMAZING if it all came from muscle! Muscle on a female frame of my size happens at a rate of about a quarter-pound per week. Let’s say I had 8 pounds of muscle which I dearly loved, and 7 pounds of (additional) extra body fat which I did not want or need.
What to do?
Handle it in a competent, businesslike manner, the same way I would pay off a debt or clean out a closet, of course. The same way I tackle most problems.
It was surprisingly simple, again because I know what I’m doing. I had gained the extra weight by adding about a thousand calories a day to my diet, often in the form of French fries and cake. This was on the advice of my husband, who noticed how exhausted I was when I would come home from class, and suggested that I eat more. Once I built my endurance, stamina, and strength from training hard for 8 months, I was ready to switch gears.
This is what I did. I set a deadline: my wedding anniversary trip. I set a goal: two pounds per week. I made guidelines, which I followed: keep a food log every day; avoid desserts, fries, appetizers, and sweet drinks for the duration; add cardio. I was very, very pleased to find that I could handle an hour-long martial arts class and an hour on the elliptical on the same day!
My arms and legs have been getting really strong, and I’ve been seeing muscle definition I never had in my life before. I also had this tubby belly. As far as I can tell, almost all of the 8 pounds I lost over four weeks was sitting right there, right in the stroke-risk, heart-disease sector of my midriff.
During the process of cutting weight, I felt more energetic. I’d really missed my cardio workouts, and it seems like it has helped my overall mood and energy level. I also use that time to read the news and catch up on my email, which is helping me to feel more organized and productive. The result was that not only did I make my goal, I came out on the other side feeling like I had my life more together.
My hubby bought me a new bikini for our anniversary, which, let’s just say they come in every size for a reason. If you want to wear one, wear one. For us, it symbolizes a commitment to spend more time relaxing in the hot tub.
For my next trick, I’m going to work on learning more core exercises. This is the one obvious area of my body where extra muscle and attention would be interesting and useful. I’ve never known what it was like to have a strong core, and I’m determined to find out.
One way to define the word ‘organize’ is in the radical, political sense. It can help to keep this in mind while contemplating Getting Organized in the women’s magazine, top-down, social trend manner. The point of Getting Organized is to focus your energy, clear your mind, and introduce enough structure in your life that you actually do everything you intend to do. Harnessing your rebellious streak is one way to take ownership of this process. Remind yourself that power is not given, it’s taken. Agency and initiative are yours to command, but nobody is going to hand them to you.
Here are some orders against which you can rebel.
GO TO BED EARLIER. If you’re tired and burned out, if you never feel like you have anything other than low energy, then getting better quality sleep is mandatory. However! Sleep procrastinators are staying up late to try to gain more personal time and assert some autonomy. If you do insist on staying up late, why not use that time toward Getting Organized? Late at night, you can still make a strategic plan, write a comprehensive to-do list, clear your inbox, shut off notifications, hunt for a better job, update your resume, study for an advanced degree, write a book, delete and cull and sort and file. You can even aggressively clean your house if you have some resentments and anger to direct at your partner, housemates, kids, or neighbors.
GET RID OF STUFF. It probably would make your life easier to edit your possessions. A lot of people, though, are using their piles of stuff to set physical boundaries when they aren’t sure how to negotiate emotional or social boundaries. Taking up space in a psychological sense, in a way that makes a huge and measurable impact on the world, would probably take more ACTION and less stuff-stroking. Until that point, why not hang on to the objects that you own and instead journal, meditate, or do some deep inner work on your emotional reality?
EXERCISE. I always associated society’s demands that I sit still, keep my frilly clothing immaculately clean, and passively maintain a sweat-free ladylike demeanor as Victorian social control. Girls of my generation were barred from participating in sports and strongly discouraged from being physically active or getting dirty. As an adult, I choose to do mud runs and obstacle courses, put on boxing gloves, and train in martial arts because **** YOU I DO WHAT I WANT. Sitting, though, is a time-honored tradition of political resistance and civil disobedience. Maybe the time I spend kicking and punching things, you instead spend mobilizing a campaign. *shrug* Working out can be a great way to release stress and tension, but maybe you need to retain that tension to fuel your cause?
SAVE MONEY. There are only a couple of things more empowering than financial independence, and knowing where your money is going can be a great source of clarity and resolve. This can be approached in other, bolder ways. It’s a common entrepreneurial strategy to “burn your ships” and know that you will have to push yourself hard to earn enough to reach your stretch goal in a short time period. I talked to a client after we spent three weeks sorting through piles of unpaid bills, collections notices, speeding tickets, overdue rent, and back taxes. She asked how much she owed, and I didn’t want to tell her, but I did, because knowledge is power and the truth will set you free. “Ten thousand dollars, is that all?” She basically marched out and landed a better job, feeling that it was easier and less stressful to “just earn ten thousand dollars” than to painstakingly negotiate repayment plans or follow a meticulous budget. Go big and go home.
EAT BETTER. Most people seem to experience keeping a food log or watching what they eat in any way as a soul-destroying prison. I found it fascinating and terrifically empowering, as I was finally able to assess the root cause of my migraines and night terrors. I weigh in every day because I’m working to put on fifteen pounds of muscle in a year, and how else will I know if I’m gaining enough? As a backpacker, marathon runner, boxer, and all-around endurance athlete, if I don’t make sure I get enough calories and micronutrients, I’m going to bonk. Ingredients lists, nutritional information, food logs, scales, measuring tape, and body fat monitors are tools for massive strength, power, and a BACK OFF, BUDDY attitude from the eighteenth dimension. If you want them to be, they are.
LIVE YOUR BEST LIFE. Honestly, if you’re an observer of pop culture, you’ll see that living your worst life and being your worst self is likely a quicker path to fame. It’s an undeniable way to differentiate your brand. Who wants the pressure of living your best life? Sounds like a lot of work. I think it might be more interesting and productive to define your most mediocre life and try to nail that first.
Ultimately, if you’re not the boss of you, then nobody is, and that’s something unique and particular in its own way. Wild tangle of brambles, you do you. Rebellion can be intriguing, it can set your world on edge like nothing else, and is it burning your flame in the most gorgeous way possible? A flame with a constraint can send a rocket into space. Where is your rebellion taking you?
“There are plenty of good things to look forward to as you grow older. So accept the aging process, and don’t waste years in the gym.” - Barbara Ehrenreich
“Who says going to the gym is a waste?” - Me
Buckle up, because I’ve got a rant coming out of me and it’s going to move pretty fast.
There’s this sick myth out there that the only reason a woman goes to the gym is vanity, that she cares about her external physical appearance, and that this is wrong and should be stopped. Personally, I think that if vain people want to make changes to their appearance, that’s their right, but it’s a moot point! We don’t begrudge people wearing the clothes they prefer, teetering in impractical shoes, dyeing their hair literally every color of the rainbow, getting professional mani/pedis, bleaching their teeth, spending thousands on orthodontia, removing moles, having full-body tattoos or piercings or henna treatments. Why, then, would bodybuilding be excluded from this catalog of personal expression?
Back to what I said about it being a moot point.
I don’t know anyone who works out for appearance reasons, and that includes men. Which, are we judging men and women by the same standards here? Because we should be, or at least we should if we believe that all humans have full bodily autonomy.
Why do people work out?
I work out because I want to avoid or delay getting Alzheimer’s disease, and also because a cancer scare and a fibromyalgia diagnosis at age 23 were, shall we say, inspirational. I work out because I’m physically frail and I see it as my only option to stay mobile. If that isn’t true for you, I’m so, so happy for you, but do not DARE to come at me for prioritizing my health and independence.
Why do other people besides me work out?
My friend is training to be an FBI special agent fighting human trafficking. She wants to pass the physical.
My friend is training to get into the Air Force because she wants to become a pilot.
My friend is training to get into the Navy, like the previous four generations of her family.
My friend is training because he’s 78 and he wants to keep active. He can still get on the floor and do pushups.
My friend is training because he was choked against a wall and he wants to be able to defend himself.
My friend is training to set an example for her little daughter. So is her best friend, who has a daughter about the same age.
My friends are training because they’re married and it’s something they enjoy doing as a couple.
My friend is training because she’s been fascinated with martial arts all her life, and she eventually wants to master every form.
My friend is training because she was a college athlete, and she craved something else when she could no longer play soccer.
My friend is training because she and her sister run marathons together.
My friend is training because he wants to apply to the police academy.
My friend is training because it helps manage her depression.
My friend is training because she lost 100 pounds, and now she can.
My friend is training because she does roller derby with her daughter.
My brother is training because he fractured his spine in three places in a construction accident, and being able to run is a celebration of life.
Can someone explain to me why “accepting the aging process” somehow implies being completely sedentary? Why sitting elegantly in a chair is somehow proof of deep wisdom, and anyone who has the temerity to join a gym is foolish?
I have a gym membership BECAUSE I accept the aging process. I believe I am very likely to live to be ninety, and I have a significant chance of living past one hundred, because I stay current in gerontology and because my relatives tend to be very long-lived. This is not an optimistic viewpoint. On the contrary! Outliving my meager savings by decades is scary, deeply scary. I’ve watched several of the women in my extended family retire into poverty, frailty, and economic catastrophe. Being forced to quit working due to health issues and then running out of money well before I die is a near certainty, unless I plan carefully to avoid it. Being poor, ill, and dependent on others is pretty much the opposite of aging gracefully. Agreed?
I wasn’t able to have children. There won’t be anyone who is somehow obligated to care for me. That means financially and also physically. What will happen if I let my health decline to the point that I can’t get out of a chair on my own? Who will come over if I fall or if I’m bedridden, too weak to phone for help? I’m forty-three and it’s by no means too early to make contingency plans. High on that list is the physical training to fall properly.
I love working out with my senior friend, and I hope I’ll celebrate his eightieth birthday with him at our gym. He’s a lovely person, and he’s also an excellent reminder of what I want for myself, just thirty-five years into my own future. We do “sprawls” (falling forward) and “breakfalls” (falling backward) several times per class, and each and every time, I think, “I’m doing this for Future Me.” Today is my last opportunity to build muscle and bone density for Old Me, and I’ll tell myself the same thing tomorrow morning.
Yes, aging is a natural process of accruing wisdom, valuing friends and family, and celebrating one’s legacy. All of that is ever so much easier to do with vitality, high energy, and physical stamina. I didn’t have those assets in my teens or twenties, but I do now, and that’s because I’ve “wasted” so many years in the gym. Not only do I intend to waste many more, but I also plan to open my own gym when I’m sixty. I’d like to set the example for younger people that it’s never too late, and also demonstrate that there are forms of wisdom that can only be accessed through action and physicality.
“My body” is not one single unchanging entity. If it were, the day I was born would have been a lot tougher for my mom, considering I’m taller than she is. It continually astonishes me how deeply rooted our beliefs about the body can be. Our bodies change every day, every minute! All our cells are continually in a process of renewal, down to and including our bone tissue and our brain cells. This is why I’ve been thinking lately of this thing I call “body polymorphia,” or the perception that the body has the potential to shift between many possible forms.
We believe this when we contemplate hairstyles or piercings or tattoos, sure. Tanning, yeah, why not. Corrective eye surgery. In fact, I cut my eyeball on a bird-of-paradise plant last year, temporarily damaging my vision, and it healed perfectly. The idea that a cut can heal without leaving a scar is really stunning, yet somehow we’re able to make it through the day without giving it much thought. We believe that broken bones can knit, that people can wake up from comas, that it’s possible to survive a stroke or a heart attack or a broken neck.
In spite of all this, somehow, some of us believe that there’s nothing within our power or control that we can do about body composition.
Why would we cling to the demonstrably false superstition that Nothing Can Be Done about adipose tissue?
It’s a simple fixed-mindset belief. Even though I grew almost visibly from infancy through adolescence, my body stalled out and I became like unto a tree, adding rings around my trunk each year. That’s what happened, right?
They say having kids causes weight gain, but I never had kids, so why did I gain weight?
They say aging causes weight gain, but I weigh less at forty-three than I did at twenty-two, so why was I overweight then but not now?
What we really want is to be let off the hook when we feel judged by external forces. Personally, I feel more judged by gravity! Why would I care what other people think about my physical appearance when they can’t park straight or drive in their own lane? What should be most important is whether we feel like we have enough energy to do everything we want to do.
This is what I’ve taken upon myself.
First, I decided that I wanted to be fitter each year than I was the year before. I want to take good care of Old Me. I want to open my own gym when I’m sixty, and impress younger people with all the stuff that a progressively aging person can do. This is already starting to happen. I enjoy wowing kids in their teens and twenties when I tell them my age.
I thought about it and realized that what I really want to give to Old Me is a set of tangible, physically measurable gifts. She’s getting more muscle, more bone density, healthy blood pressure, and a lower resting heart rate. She’s going to have better posture, more visible muscle definition, greater agility, and better balance.
There are seventeen years between now and my sixtieth birthday. With seventeen years of daily practice, how many yoga poses can I master? Could I work to do the splits, a handstand, a cartwheel, a muscle-up? The only way to find out is to find out.
Right now I’m working on my headstand. It took two weeks of trying every night, and I finally got it the night before my birthday. I couldn’t do it as an eight-year-old or a fifteen-year-old. Why quit, though? Why buy into this madness that the body thickens up, stiffens, solidifies, and quits working quite right? IT IS B.S.! A year ago it hadn’t occurred to me to find out, “Am I too old for this?” Now I ritually stand on my head in front of the bathroom door every night while I get ready for bed. I’m getting faster and I’m able to hold the pose longer.
I can feel it activating my midriff.
This is what I’m feeling these days. I’m feeling that the long, sleek, supple muscles of my torso are desiring to be flexed and stretched. Temporarily I’m also feeling that I have a bit of a muffin top, but hey. Underneath the variable, ever-morphing top coat that is my external layer, there is this sinewy level. I know it’s there because 1. I can feel it and 2. I believe in an empirical reality that can be observed, tested, and verified by SCIENCE. Scientifically I know that I can build muscle tissue, grow thicker, denser bones, change my blood sugar and blood pressure, and even *drumroll* burn off excess reserves of adipose tissue, commonly referred to as body fat.
My body composition has changed over the years, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. My ring size has changed, my bra size has changed, and weirdly, even my shoe size has changed! My feet got a half-size bigger after my marathon, which I thought was permanent, until I went in for a new pair of Birkenstocks after six months of kickboxing. Now my feet are a full European size smaller than they were *before* the marathon. If my feet can change size, what else can? I’ve worn eight different clothing sizes in my adult life. Now I’m calling forth the fascinating, mysterious, even adorable specialty muscles that lay hidden in my arms, shoulders, and back. What are you like, my dears? Where ya been? Do you have friends over there in the abdominal area?
I believe that every part of my body is capable of change and growth. I know it to be true. I believe that I have the power and the emotional strength to learn more, to do more, and to ask myself why I struggle when I struggle. Why shouldn’t I go through each day in a body that can turn cartwheels? The joy in my heart is a transmogrification ray. As I play and experiment, I change my body, this amazingly polymorphic body that I have the pleasure to call my own.
It’s hard to imagine a feeling state that you haven’t ever felt. For instance, I have no idea what it feels like to win a Nobel prize or have chest hair. I can guess at it, I can ask people who have been there, I can decide that I don’t mind not knowing, or I can make changes in my own mindset and behavior to see if I can find out for myself. Some exploration can be interesting. It can also be helpful whenever there’s any kind of conflict or friction around a mysterious feeling state. One of these is the idea of self-acceptance. Where is the line between self-compassion and fatalism?
What does self-acceptance feel like?
It’s probably different for different aspects of the self. My guess is that most people are not bothered by certain parts of what they see as the “self” while being frustrated by other parts. Physical appearance, character flaws, intelligence, sense of humor, relationships, skills, talents... It’s easy to imagine someone who, say, is proud of being good with animals but feels unattractive. Maybe another person feels clumsy but smart, or friendly but bad at art. Probably most of us feel acceptance when our strengths line up with our values. It’s when we feel judged, shamed, or criticized by others that we tend to beat ourselves up and have trouble with self-esteem.
This makes sense, but it’s also funny. Anyone who has watched the first couple of episodes of a season of American Idol knows that plenty of people have strong self-esteem in areas where it may not be warranted. (I’m a terrible singer with a good ear, so I know better than to inflict my voice on an audience). There’s also no guarantee that we’re really as weak as we think in the areas where we feel more vulnerable or wounded. When it comes to ourselves, we lack perspective.
That’s the point of self-acceptance, of course. Ideally we’re learning to be more compassionate and patient with ourselves. What’s the point of shame, anyway?
The challenge is to learn how to reframe the inner work, so that it isn’t a battle over shame. It’s possible to view these challenges with a growth mindset, seeing areas for improvement without feeling less-than, rejected, or criticized, by self or others.
As an example, when I was in high school I used to spill milk in my lap all the time when I was eating cereal before school. It was really frustrating! The day I realized I could avoid this problem by eating at the table instead of sitting on the couch, it felt triumphant. AHA! I suppose I could have seen myself as clumsy or something. At the time it just felt like I was unlucky, because something was Happening to Me that wasn’t happening to other people. I realized it wasn’t Happening to Me, but rather that I was Doing It to Myself. I had the power to make a very simple change in my behavior and instantly get better results. I wasn’t judging myself or blaming myself, I was recognizing an unhelpful pattern and making my life easier.
This is why I think that self-acceptance can often be defeatist. There are so many common human foibles, things that many or most people do, and there’s no reason to “accept” them and continue to do them. We can change our behavior with an attitude of humor and affection. There I go again, looking for my sunglasses when they’re already on top of my head! Oops, I just came back from the store with everything except the thing I went there to buy. Me and everyone else.
Probably, though, we already know how to laugh off our silly mistakes. It’s the bigger stuff that catches us up.
In my work with hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization, there are a lot of contradictions. My disorganized clients tend to beat themselves up quite a bit, punishing themselves as though being scattered were some kind of moral flaw. They almost always refer to themselves as “hoarders,” even though they have little or no emotional attachment to their stuff. Squalor clients, on the other hand, don’t really believe in germ theory, and they have no hang-ups about truly unsanitary conditions, mold, vermin, insect infestations, or even the occasional dead rodent. My true hoarders tend to feel entitled to hoard, not just their own but others’ possessions, not just their own personal space but that of roommates, relatives, friends, neighbors, and the general public. Hoarded homes tend to look extremely similar, yet they got that way through wildly different emotional and cognitive states. Maybe there’s some irony here. Those whose behaviors are the most frustrating to others around them tend to be the least concerned about it, feeling like “that’s their problem, not mine.” Those who feel the most guilt and shame about chronic disorganization will often adopt a new behavior or structure the moment they learn about it.
The ultimate questions are ethical concerns about how much our behavior impacts others, and straightforward evaluation of our results. Is what we’re doing on a routine basis fair, interesting, efficient? Does it make our lives or others’ lives easier, better, more fun, more meaningful?
In our current cultural moment, when billions of digital images are so instantly accessible at all times, people seem to be struggling more with accepting their physical appearance than anything else. This has always felt very puzzling to me, because why should that matter, of all things? What does how someone looks have to do with their personality, intelligence, character, or contribution in this world? Why on earth should someone’s body or face, both of which change decade by decade, feel like a bigger deal than how they act, what stories they tell, how they treat others, or what they do with their time? What the heck does the physical vessel have to do with the legacy of a lifetime? What will we leave behind after our time on this earth, other than a bunch of photographs?
Maybe that’s the most defeatist idea of all, the premise that appearance is first and foremost, the most important trait and the single quality that defines us. The time we spend on the outer work takes away from the time we could be spending on the inner work. What if we just redirected our focus? What if, whenever we started focusing on our body parts and wishing for external approval of our externally visible traits, we simply paused and decided to go further in?
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.
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