Monday, January 30, 2012

Body Image: Where does it come from?

I think a lot about body image. Partly because I work out a lot and am a trainer at a Crossfit gym, and because of that I often watch other people work out a lot. Also, recently, I started a Yoga Teacher Training class, and we sometimes talk about why people do or teach yoga, and body image/how we look comes up fairly frequently.
Body image is a weird topic, especially as it relates to both Crossfit and Yoga, but for different reasons, though some of the reasons are the same.
What they have in common is that people who do a lot of any one sport, people who go in for the cult-like aspects of a fitness program tend to like to workout for sanity. And they care about how they look. Sure, in yoga it's not cool to talk about how you look because Yoga is supposed to be internal, about how you feel and who you are. But it's 2012, and any fitness program is going to involve feeling good about how you look.
Crossfit is somewhat the same, in that it's supposed to be about how you feel and, more often, how much you can lift or how many reps you can do. But that translates into "my abs are totally ripped" and "my ass looks hot!" So I would say Crossfitters are a little more up front about wanting to look good.
But in both cases, Yoga and Crossfit, the industry, that is, the promotional machine that tries to sell you bras and short shorts and shoes does so by promoting a super tiny and flexible (Yoga) or super strong and hot (Crossfit) aesthetic.
I have been doing yoga for a long time (10+ years) and Crossfit for a shorter time (almost 3 years), and I don't think my body image reflects the reality of my body.
I think body image, for many women, especially women my age, is a photograph of yourself (a false photograph, one built entirely of memory) at a time where what you cared about most was what people who didn't know you (read: other junior high girls) said about you. Or, for me, what the dominant aesthetic was where you grew up. For me, it was skinny blonde girls with boobs and nice legs who smiled a lot and had good teeth. It was not girls like me who had brown hair, no boobs, big quads, and a gap between her front teeth.
So that's who I am, still, physically, in my mind. Which is why it's always so jarring when I see myself in the mirror. My response is always, "that's me?"
One of the reasons I like Crossfit and Yoga is that there are no mirrors. This helps the practitioner, I think, to focus on the inner experience, what the workout feels like, rather than what it looks like.
But it also leads to, perhaps, an inaccurate body image.
This weekend I worked out with a friend at a county facility. The weight room was lined on one side by mirrors. I saw myself, for the first time in years, doing a push press.
"What," I gasped, "are these freaky muscles?"
It was a little on the body builder side for my tastes. I tried to figure out how, exactly, my body had come to look this way. And it made me realize that the picture we carry in our minds bears no relation to the way the body is, actually, in the world.
For me, this is good news. I know I'm stronger than I've ever been, I know I can get stronger, and be more flexible, more balanced.
But it's good to remind ourselves to open our eyes once in awhile and actually look at ourselves and to try to see what's there, apart from our outdated mental images.


Nik said...

This is awesome. You should send it to Self magazine. I think you're totally right that we have no idea what we really look like. I remember that scene in Clueless where Alicia Silverstone takes Polaroids because you can't trust mirrors. But truly, you can't trust eyes. That picture I carry around of myself changes depending on what I ate that day, if I worked out that day, if I got good news, if it's before or after my period, and what I'm wearing.
You do have muscles lady. It makes me laugh very hard that you didn't really notice.

Stephanie said...

Definitely send this in to Self magazine!

What I'd really like to know is how you managed to get into my brain and see what I've been thinking about lately, Lynn! Wow!

As part of my 2012 fitness plan, I am trying not to get so caught up in the "numbers game" (scales be damned!). For some reason, though, once I hit the big 4-0 this became increasingly difficult. Grrrrr!

Thanks for the reminder that I can "photo shop" that mental picture I'm carrying around into something realistic and healthy!

Condiment said...

Great article!

Lisa B. said...

As I get older I have more and more thoughts/feelings, mixed and otherwise, about body image. I loved feeling strong and fit when I was, but the focus I felt on that--as good as it felt--certainly took up space in my life. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. But I am at a point where I am asking myself, what else do I want? I've never been an athlete, so I don't have that to look back on, to compare myself with.

I feel something like what Nik said--body image reflects so many other things, emotional things, and is also the constant echo chamber of judgements we make on ourselves.

I want to be healthier. I want to be more active. I want to enjoy my life. I would like to leave behind the "what do I look like?" questions--those, for me, are so much a part of that echo chamber. At my youngest and fittest, I was never able to keep the idea that I looked good in my head for more than a couple of hours at a time. Boo to that.

ntbw said...

What a fascinating post! I started learning ballet as an adult, and for years the studios in which I danced had, as most do, a wall of mirrors. At one point, the studio where my teacher rented space for our adult class was sold, and she had to find new space. The new space she found had had the mirrors all removed, and she didn't replace them right away. Without the mirrors, almost instantly, I became a MUCH better dancer. I became able to concentrate on how the combinations felt when executed properly without worrying about how I looked doing them. It was an amazing experience, and it taught me a great deal about how distracting body image, and concerns about it, really are in all aspects of my life.

Interestingly, I have subsequently learned that in some Russian classical ballet schools, the mirrors were regularly all covered with sheets so the dancers could not see themselves.