On Being Skinny

I’m not sure I would have noticed had not my mom begun mentioning how thin I looked. I just don’t see myself any more. Literally. There are virtually no mirrors larger than my face to be found. Still, from time to time I would see a picture of myself and a disturbing dissonance would arise between what my eyes saw and how I see myself in my head. Subconsciously I would become anxious and skip over the picture, not sharing it online and ignoring the discomfort. I don’t think I wanted to confront the possibility that I was skinny again.

Not since my middle school growth spurt left me feeling skinny and scrawny have I felt this way, and back then it took about seven years of lifting weights and eating as much food as I could to put on enough muscle to change my self-image. I suppose I imagined myself to be skinny longer than I really was because it was so gratifying to refer to myself as such and have friends and family assure me that I wasn’t. I gradually felt really good about my body and identified as having and ‘athletic’ or ‘fit’ body. Even after graduating from college and leaving the all-you-can eat buffets of the dining halls and the regular weight-lifting my body didn’t change much. Don’t get me wrong; these body-image concerns have never haunted or depressed me like they do to so many young people, especially girls, but under my facade of not paying much attention to how my body looked, I really was.

I didn’t really consider the impact that Peace Corps service would have on my body, despite the well-known tendency of male volunteers to lose weight and of female volunteers to gain weight during their 27 months. I was too focused on adapting culturally and linguistically, learning how to be a good teacher, and finding lots of ways to support my community. Reflecting now on the changes that my mom sees I can understand what’s going on. I work a lot, I walk and travel a lot, food is less accessible, I have little time to cook, and eating in restaurants all the time doesn’t seem viable because it’s expensive, there aren’t that many places to eat, and it would set me apart from my community. I still exercise fairly regularly, but I have no access to a gym, so I’m sure I have lost much of the muscle that I had painstakingly built onto my unwilling frame. I phrase it in these terms because what may be happening is that I am returning to my ‘natural’ body type. I know it’s difficult for my mom to accept, being a mom, but what if my lifestyle back in the US was the unsustainable and wasteful one and this is the more efficient use of my energy? I’ve always known that weight lifting was mostly about aesthetics. How often in college was I needing to lift heavy objects? Not so much. That being said, building muscle that I didn’t need in order to feel good about myself is a fairly harmless activity and probably has some real benefits, but my priorities are different here.

Of course, one possibility is that mom is just being a mom and I haven’t changed that much. Maybe now that I’m not working out as much I assume I have less muscle. Maybe I look different in pictures because I’ve aged a year here. After all, my actual weight hasn’t dropped much. I used to weigh 160 or so. Now I’m in the low 150s, but that’s not so much less. Still, I feel skinnier and it’s taking some adjusting to.

As I come to terms with a new body-image I definitely feel less attractive and struggle psychologically when I see myself in pictures or hear that I look different than I used to. I’ve been telling myself that as long as I feel physically fine and have normal levels of energy, that I shouldn’t worry. That’s a nice goal, but the reality is more difficult, as any person who wishes they could change something about their body knows. It’s not easy to shrug off either cultural ideals or a self-image that has been built up over years. My current strategy revolves around finding constructive narratives to combat the psychological dissonance I feel(see preceding two paragraphs for examples), eating more, and finding ways to build a little muscle back, all while balancing the demands of Peace Corps service. It’s a work in progress.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Krista on October 19, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    “what if my lifestyle back in the US was the unsustainable and wasteful one” – i can’t even tell you how many times this thought has crossed my mind these past few months. it’s amazing how much we’ve come to learn being here for a year…about ourselves, our lives at home, the lives we’ve become a part of here. i say don’t even give a second thought to trying to alter your body. trust your instincts that as long as your energy level is good, you’re good! relish in the good that’s coming from your new use of energy here, and realize that that’s way more important than putting on some muscle.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Janet Boddy on October 19, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Leave it to this mom (any mom?) to touch a hidden raw spot on a son’s psyche! Sorry, sweetie. I like Krista’s response: “don’t even give a second thought to trying to alter your body. Trust your instincts that as long as your energy level is good, you’re good!” As Mom, I will always wish for some “reserve source” of health to protect you from whatever life may bring to challenge you and worry if I think your body isn’t carrying any reserve. I wish for protective bubbles over each of my sons, but I don’t really want them to take on my worries (or live in a bubble)! I just try to conjure up the bubbles in my head and send them to each of you via my thoughts of love. It reminds me of when, with you as a new born, I cried over whether to protect you from the heat of summer by uncovering you or protect you from mosquitoes by covering you up! (Crying didn’t help with either and I just looked insane to my friends.) Worry without result or benefit–I do that too well. I love you the way you are at every given moment! And you are BEAUTIFUL. Love, Mom

    Reply

    • Don’t worry mom, you haven’t done any damage. If anything you’ve helped me identify a potential problem and allowed me to work to improve my life balance to make sure my physical health is being taken care of.

      Reply

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