Thursday, March 26, 2009

Body Image & Dysmorphia

I've been thinking about body image these days, specifically body image dysmorphia, or Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Have you heard about this? Here are a few links that contain information about it: (this one is in L.A., where I am guessing BDD is rampant, thanks to Hollywood!) (this one focuses on the problem as it pertains to children/teens)

To be perfectly honest, it's been on my mind because I have noticed that my jeans are getting tighter. This is an issue for me for several reasons, the primary one being comfort. The secondary reason is vanity, or the desire to look my best. I thought that it wasn't necessary to air this here on the blog, but then I had a massage, and discussed it with my wonderful massage therapist. Since her area of expertise is bodywork, I told her my thoughts, and guess what? It's universal, in her experience. Male and female, fit and unfit people all struggle with their body image. She thinks it's a cultural phenomenon in this country, and from what she told me, most Americans suffer from it in some way.

Are you paying attention? SUFFER from it, as in, whether we are fat or thin, we are still engaged in some aspect of working towards a perceived image that we desire, or feeling bad about the present state of, not satisfied with, our bodies. Our own, precious, life-infused body. That seems like a form of slavery, to me, and I am talking about myself here, every bit as much as I am talking about anyone else.

It's hard for me to write about this, because I am 5'1" tall and wear a very small size in clothing. If I share my concerns about my body image, people will often dismiss my feelings, or try to argue with me about them. It makes it difficult to discuss this candidly.

I grew up with some conflicting messages. In Christian Science, the body and all things material are viewed as giving unreliable information. As the daughter of a very athletic father and an anti-athletic mother, I received mixed input about what was important. There were issues with "fat" in our home. As an artist and as a woman, I know what I like to look at. I like muscles, the kind you would see in classical sculpture and paintings (note the examples here); I also like feminine softness, and strength. I like freedom of movement and flexibility in my own form.

After I had my children, getting back into shape took a lot of work. When you are 5'1" tall, the baby has nowhere to rest except right out in front of you, which results in a lot of stretching, and consequently, a lot of extra skin after the baby is finished being your passenger. Let me tell you, tall people, it was WORK to get that pulled back in, and it takes work to keep it in. And I have a deep desire to be pleasant to look at. You can call it vanity, or you can say "she has high standards." I don't care. It's my form and it's the only one I'm going to get.

Before Katie became ill, I had been working out with Pilates for over 4 years. I loved that workout. It has stretching, toning and strengthening aspects to it, and I had never felt so strong and collected from the center. I had energy, I had physical centeredness, and I felt good in my body. Once Katie was admitted to the hospital, I couldn't eat. COULDN'T EAT, for about 2 weeks (other than crackers and tea). Once my body had settled down from the shock, I had to eat carefully, because I couldn't work out. I was able to walk nearly every day for about half an hour, and that had to be it. I didn't want to outgrow my clothes and have to deal with that issue, on top of everything else. I settled into a routine, and it worked.

When we were able to move back home with Katie, I tried to do Pilates, but I couldn't do it consistently. I walked and ran, instead. Stayed the same size, so everything was fine as far as that went; the only problem was that people kept telling me that I was too thin. I didn't feel too thin; I felt as if I had reached my "fighting weight," and I was totally at ease in that form. But the comments gave me a sense of dysmorphia.

I still wear the same jeans that I wore when people told me I was too thin, but I have put on some inches. I don't like it, because it feels as if I have grown extra extremities, like fins or something. I don't like carrying the excess; it makes me feel uncollected, as if I'm subject to some odd centrifugal force that is pulling me away from my center.

I have struggled with negative self-chatter that says I am being lazy, undisciplined, and weak to not get back to my Pilates routine. In my mind, I would argue that I've been hurt, and am not ready to do what I used to do before my world fell apart; and then, I would try again, because I AM NOT LAZY! But every time I tried to get back into it at the level where I left off two and a half years ago, I couldn't focus, and if you do Pilates without paying attention, you can get hurt (I know about this, because I had to have an abdominal hernia repaired several years ago). So I would give up, and just keep walking 3-6 miles a day; all the while, the negative body-talk kept nagging at me. It was as if I was trying to punish myself for getting out of shape; I would try the intermediate Pilates workout, fail, quit, and then the whole hamster-wheel internal-conversation would start up again. That sounds like exercise, but it's's just futility.

Last week, I had an inspiration to go back to the work out with the beginner's Pilates DVD that I used when I first learned how to do the exercises. I gave myself permission to be a beginner again, though I had been beyond that level for years, before Katie got sick. Since it has been over 2 years since I had a regular Pilates practice, it stands to reason that I might need to start over, but that hadn't occurred to the mean critic within; she was simply telling me nasty things about my character and my shape.

I had a little "AHA! moment" when I remembered that we really don't learn well through shame and criticism; we learn best through love. So I decided to be kind to myself, and start re-learning, as a beginner. No shame in that; I have to start somewhere, and the most important thing is to START. As I got going, I was blessed by that wonderful stretching of the muscles, and strengthening of the core, or "powerhouse" of the body. I love the gentleness and meditative quality of the slower, beginner routine, and I can already feel my body getting stronger and more collected at the center. It's awesome what even one week of this can do for mind and body.

So I hope that, if you also suffer from some form of body-image dysmorphia, you don't listen to shame and criticism, from within or from without. I hope that you will be gentle and kind to yourself, and not be afraid to go back to the beginning. It's really safe & fun & okay at the beginner's level. I'm there, too, and an added benefit is that I'm now paying attention. It feels good to be kind to my body, and treat it with love & care. It's the only body I have, and I'm thankful for it!


Elizabeth said...

This is exactly what I needed to read today. I have been struggling with my weight for about fifteen years -- prior to that I was effortlessly thin (and hence had no exercise/eating sense) -- I definitely have dysmorphia. I do believe that chronic stress has changed my metabolism and there's some deep dark thing going on with my body image, but I hate it and hate hating it, as well. I like the idea of going back to the beginning, though, and will try it. Thank you so much for such a thoughtful post and good luck to you as you slowly regain your inner sense and strength. Blessings to you AND your body.

Busy Bee Suz said...

Oh my are speaking to ME!!!
I have such a poor self image of myself because I don't look like I used to. Which is crazy because when I looked really good, I did not think so then either.

I try so hard to push those voices back, to smother them. I am happy to hear I am not alone on this...also being 5'1 1/2, it is hard..the weight has NO where to go....
I also this last week started just doing baby steps daily and it seems to be doing some good. NOT physically, but mentally I feel a bit better.
Thanks for sharing...oh, I have never tried pilates...something I should look into perhaps.

Mary said...

I needed to read this today! I've been beating myself up about not getting into an exercise routine again and pants not fitting, and all caught up in the "i used to be able to.." etc. I'm so discouraged! I need to start at the beginning, obviously, and with compassion and patience. thanks for this post!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Karen! I guess I need to blow the dust off of my Jillian DVD I've been meaning to try...

I have noticed this year that the common theme is "I put myself back on the list" (Oprah, Wynona, etc.) and I kept thinking, "what list?" But, I realized that as moms and wives we really do put others first (as it should be) but then forget about ourselves...we do need to put ourselves back on The List - work out, eat right, etc. for ourselves, so we can continue to be the people we want to be...

Thanks for the inspiration!

L in Alaska

Kay said...

I am right there with you! I am 5 ft 2 and every single pound looks like ten because it doesn't have anywhere to go! And life has added the pounds of late. Ugh. I want to be content and yet I don't want to keep going like this either. There is a happy medium though! : )

endswith8741 said...

Thanks for writing this Karen! I know I am the worst critic of my body. Start from love. Why is that sometimes just the hardest thing to do?!