Considering Comparison and Body Image

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All right, folks, it’s final exam time, which means that I’m spending tons of time hunkered down in the library dressed like I just rolled out of bed, drinking far too many cups of coffee and eating most of my feelings. Which, you know, is the absolute best way to study.

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Beyond pouring through notes on the Great Vowel Shift in Early Modern English linguistics and trying to remember the difference between Antonio, Alonso, Angelo, and Atolycus (stop, Shakespeare, stop), I’ve been doing a bit of thinking on body comparison. I know, I know, this won’t help me on my blue book exam in four days’ time, but a person’s gotta stall somehow, right?

The question that set this off for me was the typical one you get whenever you start thinking about body image in any therapeutic/psychological/professional setting. In case you haven’t gotten it yet, it’s a good one to think about:

  • Think of the people you most admire in the world.
  • What do you admire most about them?
  • Do you admire these people for their physical attributes?
  • Do you think the people that admire you are talking about your body?

Which is a great set-up, really. I had no problem coming up with a list of the women I most admire in the world. I have a list ready-made in my head, actually, and you can find many of them in my handy-dandy blogroll over there to the right. The person who asked me this question yesterday was probably a little taken aback that in addition to my sister, my roommate, and my best friend, I popped Melissa Fabello, Margaret Cho, and Arielle Lee Bair on that list. But hey, girl’s gonna admire who she’s gonna admire.

Of course, I do not admire these women because of how their body looks. I admire them because of their determination, their work ethic, their dedication to social justice, their ability to communicate well and make me laugh, all of those things that make a person who they are.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t notice their bodies.

There’s an awful game of comparison going on here that I’m still trying to get out of. I look at these people who are doing exactly what I want to do in the world, and when I consider how much they inspire me and how much I want to do what they’re doing, sometimes I still fall into the trap of looking at their bodies, then back at mine, then back at theirs. It’s not judgmental, it’s not negative, I wouldn’t call it cruel. I just do the tennis-court back-and-forth with my neck and go “hmmmmm…”

comparison-is-the-thief-of-joyI want to stop doing this. I don’t want to compare my weight or my body type to friends, family, co-workers, or people I’ve never met. I catch myself when I’m doing it, and I try to snap myself out of it. But the sad and true fact is, it happens.

And for the last part of the question set, I took the questioner aback when I said “yes.”

I absolutely do believe that people I am friends with are talking about my body.

Not necessarily in a bad way, either, and it’s entirely my own fault that they’re doing it, but there’s probably a discussion going on there. I have gained a large amount of weight back from the depths of my eating disorder, and it’s happened in a very short amount of time. I’ve had people tell me that I look much better now, that I look healthy, that (my favorite comment) I “could totally kick somebody’s ass if you wanted to.”

And while my rational brain tells me that this is good, that people don’t look at me with shifty eyes and wonder what’s going on anymore, this also tells me that they are looking and talking about my body amongst themselves.

Rationally, I’d rather have them have this kind of conversation than the other kind. But ideally, I’d like my body to be my own business. I don’t want to be a conversation point because my pants size has changed several times in the past month. In an ideal world, I’d like people to look at me and, instead of wondering what size the “English Major Problems” tee-shirt is that I’m wearing, engage me in a rousing conversation about the use of time in The Winter’s Tale. (Interested in this? Message me.)

Of course, this isn’t an ideal world. I know that comparison, whether between other people and myself or between the way I used to look and the way I do now, is a fact of life. I just don’t want to turn into a before-and-after picture, and I don’t want to reduce the women I admire into “In Thirty Days You Can Look Like This!” magazine cover advertisements. We are so much more than that.

So the next time you find yourself comparing the way you look to the way you used to, or the way someone sitting next to you does, try to snap yourself out of it. Don’t compliment friends and family on their weight loss, or weight gain for that matter. Talk to them about what they’re doing, what they’re thinking about, what they like, what excites them. Because I don’t think anyone is really excited on a deep emotional level about their daily carbohydrate intake.

I’ll keep working on ending this comparison game, even if for now the only solution that I’ve come up with is mental blinders. But hopefully if I train myself to see the world differently, soon it will become second nature.

In other news, there is a character named Antonio in Much Ado about Nothing, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Merchant of Venice. Why? Because Shakespeare hates me, apparently.

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7 comments

  1. I just stumbled across this post because of it linking to me. I am honored to be on your “list” and I thank you so much for the well-written post and kind words. 🙂

    1. I’m so happy you found it! I really do admire your work an incredible amount: whenever I find myself in need of motivation, your videos and pep talks are one of the first things I turn to. It means a lot to think that you’re reading what I’m writing! ^_^

  2. Totally honest and I loved it, thank you. As much as I advocate for positive body image and placing little worth on what you look like, I still find myself comparing myself to others…leftovers from my eating disorder. Thanks again!

  3. Here’s some advice for surviving exams from a Veteran ( who has survived Medicine and Surgery exams). Sounds boring but here goes: get some exercise every day. Ideally outside.( But limit to to an hour session including getting changed…you do have to study!) eat really healthy food. Salads, vegetables. If you need a carb boost eat a fruit. You will feel so much better. Processed junk is bad for your brain and will make you feel awful afterwards. No matter what shape your body is, it’s still a Temple. Health is more important than absolute size.

    1. I appreciate the advice and the helpful place this is coming from, but I just wanted to make sure I said that in the place that I am right now (and in the place that many of my readers are as well), shifting my focus from studying to eating exclusively healthy food and exercising every day might not be exactly the best way to de-stress. What I’m hoping to do with this blog is to encourage others to understand that if they do decide to eat that “processed junk,” that’s okay. One of my favorite quotes right now is “My body is a temple, and sometimes that temple wants cheesecake.” There are definitely benefits to eating exclusively natural, but doing it to excess is no better than not doing it at all. Health is more important than absolute size, absolutely, but there’s also something to be said for not cutting out all carbs (I love carbs. I would eat exclusively carbs, sugar, and Diet Coke if I could. Not that would.) because that’s the typically “healthy” thing to do. Sometimes you have to look at the big picture and realize that a few days of not exercising and drinking more coffee than usual isn’t going to hurt you in the long run!

  4. Once again, brilliantly written, and I couldn’t relate more to the comparison game you’re talking about. It’s totally exhausting and totally not worth the energy… Thank you for the enlightenment.

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