I recently started a part-time job at the front desk of a local, small-town gym. Although the pay isn’t great, I liked the idea of being able to walk to work and scoring a free membership – a couple of different ways to get myself motivated. But in the past three weeks, something strange has happened. Instead of feeling better about myself, I actually feel worse. I went from a completely sedentary lifestyle of writing and editing on my MacBook all day, to dusting off my Nikes and getting back into fitness. So, what’s the problem?
Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer for this. Not just because it’s uncomfortable for me to talk about, but also because there are many levels of psychological, physiological and plain old circumstantial forces at play here.
As a gurl of 27, I had honestly believed my days of beating myself up over what I perceived to be the fat, unattractive image of myself reflected in the mirror were finally over. I thought I had accepted that as a curvy, 5’3 woman, I was okay with myself. As a teen and young 20-something, I did have my issues with my body. A healthcare professional would label me as having body dysmorphic disorder – a condition in which the reality of our bodies does not even come close to matching our perception of them. I was diagnosed as bulimic (which I learned is not just binging and purging, but also over-exercising) at age 19 and with anorexia (restricted caloric intake) in my early twenties. These addictions, as I do believe they are, do not differ from any other. The potential for relapse is a constant reality that can either help or hinder your recovery. And like any recovering addict learns, the capacity for addiction is not actually within the activity or the substance, but within us – a scary thought.
Working the busy morning shift at the gym offers the opportunity for some great people watching. They don’t seem to notice me as I’m noticing them – obsessively looking at themselves in the mirror, pinching their waistlines and weighing themselves. Fitness is inseparable from health and good health is priceless. I do also love to see people who don’t over-indulge. It is inspiring to witness people improve their health and feel better about themselves. I appreciate the gym even more when I see families working out together or the woman who is about to turn 60 and get off her blood pressure medicine for the first time in decades.
But personally, I’ve been struggling and there are myriad reasons why. I just moved in with my boyfriend last month. He happens to have the metabolism of a hummingbird and I gain weight just by looking at food. We are trying to catch up on all the expenses of moving and so often cheap food equals fast food. We’re also really busy. Since I’m working 2 jobs and attending graduate school, I haven’t been in the sun much and my ideal image of a tanned and toned body is not what I see in the florescent light reflection of the mirrors at the gym. These same mirrors show me images of fit people working out and losing weight and I don’t look like them. The scale confirms my suspicion. I’ve gained weight.
The emotional bomb went off yesterday at the motor vehicle registry when I had to take a new photo for my ID. It was my day off from the gym but apparently the psychological conditioning lasted way longer than the physical conditioning after I put down the free weights. The round-face image printed on my driver’s license sent me over the edge of the slippery slope that is body image. I found myself sobbing in the passenger’s seat of my boyfriend’s car, unable to explain to him why I was so upset. Gurl problems, I told him.
How did I let this happen again? I thought I was a confidant woman! I realize now, I just needed to take another look in the mirror.
You might be expecting something revelatory now, some moment of epiphany or words of wisdom. I have nothing to tell that we haven’t all heard before; all we can do is to try to remind each other of the slippery slope of the treadmill and those mirrored walls. We also need to accept the other side of the coin when we look at the face of exercise: diet. Just like there is no quick fix to our damaged images of ourselves, there is no quick fix to weight loss if you want to actually be healthy. The key, as always, is moderation and the wisdom to know that when it comes to our bodies, they know best. What we think looks good doesn’t always feel good and that’s a reflection that needs to match up too. Another double-sided coin is our physical and mental (emotional) health. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time to waste hating what I see in the mirror. I want to get back to believing my boyfriend when he tells me I’m sexy because, deep down, I know he’s right, dammit.
And so, I end this tale with simply this advice: When it comes to body image, we all need to tread carefully, both on the treadmill and off.