Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Questioning my body image

This is the second post in a series where I'm sharing my ongoing lessons about body-image and body-acceptance. Part one set the scene.

The immediate need that took me to seeing a psychologist was that by late 2015 my eating had become very disordered. For a large part of the year I was living on only a few hundred calories per day. I was frightened of food and frightened of regaining the weight I had lost up to that point.

Articles like Gina Kolata's "After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight" in the New York Times are not reassuring: six years after their participation on the show, thirteen out of fourteen contestants regained weight, and four were now heavier than before the competition. Kolata presents some of the research describing the metabolic changes that drive that outcome, which makes it sound even more inevitable.

Regaining significant weight is still something that worries me to some degree today, but in late 2015 and early 2016, it was seriously interfering with my eating.

And, as I shared last time, I still wasn't happy with my body anyway. I wanted to be still thinner.

My psychologist took a functional approach to this concern, asking me what I would be able to do if I were thinner that I couldn't or wouldn't do at my current body shape. I talked about the situations I described in my previous post: about my terror of being teased or ridiculed about my body if anybody could see or feel it.

This led to a very interesting exercise, where she presented me with a series of silhouettes and asked me to identify my body shape among them. (The "BMI-based Silhouette Matching Test (BMI-SMT)" is a similar instrument to the one my psychologist used, if you want to investigate further.)

Recognising distortions of perception: in myself...

This isn't exactly the test my psychologist used,
but it's similar. Figure from Abbas et al (2010)
"Pictogram use was validated for estimating
individual’s body mass index
", Journal of
Clinical Epidemiology 63
: 655–59
I selected the silhouette that I thought was my body shape, and was very surprised when the psychologist revealed the proportions that corresponded to it. The silhouette was of a far squatter body shape than I knew mine to be by the numbers.

This made sense to me because of another phenomenon I was experiencing at the time: my body fitting through spaces that I didn't think it could. For example, when I couldn't open a car door fully because of other cars parked close by, I would be expecting a difficult squeeze to get through the partial opening but instead would step through easily. Or I would often pause at a doorway to let someone else step through it from the other direction because I "knew" we wouldn't both fit through at the same time — I got a few puzzled looks from that at work! It took maybe 18 months for this effect to subside: for my brain to re-align to how much space I was actually taking up in the world. (And even today, it still very occasionally crops up!)

Reality is on the left. I
sometimes see what's on the
Finally, my logical brain accepts that the huge variation in how I react to my body in photos and mirrors means that my perceptions are suspect. If I perceive exactly the same body as upsettingly, distressingly "too fat" in some photos and reflections, but not in others, then my perception has to be unreliable.

...and in others

Another thing that has helped me realise the unreality of my perceptions of my body has been the sad experience of listening to and reading other people's negative assessment of their bodies.

Taryn Brumfitt's amazing documentary Embrace (Watch it if you haven't seen it — I promise it's worth it. Here's the trailer) at one point presents people describing their normal, healthy-looking bodies as "disgusting"; it's a shocking and very sad juxtaposition.

Since becoming involved in fitness, I've had the unfortunate opportunity to hear similar things first-hand myself. Two such conversations have stuck with me because of the physiques of the people who held these opinions were physiques that I think most other people (including me) would be envious of: one like a fashion model and one like a lean endurance athlete.

I find it easy to recognise these distortions in other people's assessments of their bodies, which helps me remember that my image of my own is suspect.

What I do now

Reflexive, negative assessments of my own body still sometimes catch me by surprise. When they do, I consciously remind myself of the things I've shared in this article: remembering photos in which I don't think I look fat, or mentally replaying conversations that reveal others' distorted body images.

This doesn't always work for me, and certainly not immediately, but as one layer of defence, it helps.

If you're unhappy with your body shape, I suggest questioning your own assessment: how realistic is the image in your head?

Next post: Letting my defences down

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