Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Bodies vs. bodies

Last night in water aerobics class, I realized something: I do not have an accurate concept of my own body size. And, as a result, I do constant comparisons with other women.

This realization came about when I looked at this one woman in the class who is really very large, and then I thought to myself, Really, she's not much bigger than me. And then I wondered if that was true. She was in a bathing suit, so it was fairly easy to compare. So I looked at her for a little while and assessed that in fact, yes, she is a fair amount larger than me. Every body part of her is bigger than the same body part on me. And yet, when I looked at her I assumed that we were the same size. That's a problem.

But more importantly, why am I even comparing? Why am I examining this woman intently to decide who is larger? Why do I need to know? Why does it matter? Why do I feel better if I ultimately determine that I am not the larger person?

I didn't have weight-loss surgery so that I could be thinner in comparison to other people. Sure, I look forward to fitting easily into all seats, no matter how narrow. And being able to wear clothes that aren't available in plus sizes. And a million other things that come along with being thin, or at least not fat, and yet aren't related to health.

But the main reason I had this surgery was for my health, and for my own sanity. So that I wouldn't spend the rest of my life constantly obsessing over my weight and doing unhealthy things to my body because of it. So that I wouldn't have to worry about diabetes, and high cholesterol, and high-risk pregnancy. I did it for me.

So why am I looking at other women, trying to decide who's fatter? Why do I have this constant need to compare?

I think part of it is that we have this societal set-up that there is a correct weight, a good weight range, and anyone whose weight falls outside of that range, and specifically ABOVE that weight range, is not good. We make being thin the holy grail, the thing everyone aspires to, and we set it up as this virtue. If you're thin, it's because you DESERVE to be thin. Being thin means that you are strong, and beautiful, and that you have self-control.

And in order to believe all these good things about being thin, we have to set up its opposite as not good. Which means that Fat is Bad. Therefore, overweight people? They must have emotional or psychological problems that cause them to overeat. They must have no willpower whatsoever. They must be weak and lazy and greedy. Because if being thin implies that you are NOT those things, then necessarily, being fat implies that you are.

Which, first of all, not all fat people are fat because they have no self-control and overeat compulsively. And some compulsive overeaters are at a perfectly healthy weight.

But here's my question. Say I were a compulsive overeater with no self-control, and I had surgery to correct that. What would be WRONG with that? Nothing at all, right? Nobody makes perfect choices and everyone has flaws, some of which are dangerous. Even if I were a compulsive overeater, I shouldn't feel GUILTY about liking to eat. I should recognize that it would be causing me health problems, and that perhaps there were some underlying emotional issues that I needed to deal with, and I should work to fix those things. But eating too much doesn't make you a bad person.

And yet, we as a society act as though it does. We set up these categories and we beat ourselves up if we don't fall into the premium category, the creme de la creme, the thin category. We apply these negative feelings about our own body size to every other area of our life. And we use such negative words to talk about our food and exercise choices: I was bad. I was lazy. I was unmotivated. I was wrong. I was a sloth. I am a whale.

And then, how do we make ourselves feel better after we've told ourselves all these horrible things? Well, there might be thinner people, and by virtue of being thinner they are clearly also stronger, better, and more deserving... but there are also fatter people. And that means that those people are weaker, worse, and less deserving.

Even if you don't articulate it like that. Even if you are horrified at the very thought of ever looking at someone fatter than you and thinking bad things about them because of their size. Subtly, subconsciously, those thoughts are there. You compare, and if you come out smaller, you win some kind of unacknowledged battle.

But as long as we keep comparing ourselves to each other, we'll never win the war.


  1. Is the war even winnable with our society as it is? I'm not sure.

  2. You always write such thought-provoking entries!

  3. I think I'd add that if we keep comparing ourselves to photoshopped models who are no longer themselves, we'll never win the war. It's definitely a societal thing that must be addressed.

  4. Love this! Love it.

    It's hard not to compare on ALL levels as a woman. Body, career, family, whatever.

    But if there's ONE recipe for a miserable life, it's comparison. No doubt.

  5. Thought provoking, indeed!

    I do the comparison thing, too, and I feel weird about it because like you said, am I winning some little victory if I decide I'm smaller than someone else? I don't know why I do this. I feel like I'm always looking at other women to figure out what I look like. I can't tell by looking in the mirror or checking the size of my jeans. I examine pictures of myself so closely that other people probably think I'm incredibly vain or in love with what I see, but the reality is that I'm asking myself if I look fat or thin. Many people would consider my weight to be healthy, but I feel like until I'm able to tell myself that I look like the skinny women I compare myself to, I'm just not going to believe it. I guess I'm just fighting myself.

  6. I try not to do it, but I feel myself compare myself to other females. Are we the same size? Who has a better butt? Who has the better chest? Who is prettier?

    I know there is no point to it, but sometimes I can't help it. I think deep down a lot of females feel this competitive urge to be better than other females. Everywhere you look there are always perfect looking females around, and we feel like we need to live up to some unrealistic expectation of beauty.

    It's really not fair because I don't feel like guys compare themselves to other guys as often as females do.

  7. This was actually kind of that new show drop dead diva, in one episode she remarked about the other girl giving her a body check.

  8. did you know it takes your mind 12 months to catch up with your new body? Like, you could lose 70 pounds and look totally different, and for 12 months you will think you look the same as you did before you lost that 70 pounds.

  9. I love this post. You are such a great writer and I can relate to so many of your thoughts on this issue. I'm always comparing myself to other people (women) and I hate it. I'm working to become more comfortable in my own skin and stop this constant battle.

  10. I too, look at other women and assess whether they are bigger or smaller than me. However I dont want to find anyone bigger or smaller, I'm trying to find someone who looks the same as me shape wise but as yet I havent. Having looked and commented with my husband around, it is clear that my self image of myself is BAD because my husband is always shocked as all heck at the women I say are closest in size to me.

  11. I'm really glad you posted this.

    There is definitely a conditioning in society that allows these comparison behaviors to continue. I think it has to start internally. We have to say NO THANKS to that kind of crap. Because no one wins. NO ONE!

  12. isn't that all part of body dismorphia or so...when I had anorexia and went from 180 pounds to, uhm, 87 or so, I still would compare wasn't that I was looking at others thinking they were fat at all....I was just looking at myself judging was a scary time. Never goes away.

  13. When I do this, and think about WHY I'm doing this, it's not just a "who's fatter" thing but kind of a reality check thing. As in, what does my body REALLY look like? Does it look like her? Or more like her? Or like my fat, chin-less Aunt who I'd never thought to ever compare myself with, ever ever ever?

    It's weird to concentrate so much on improving my own appearance when actually I don't see myself all that often. In fact I always forget to look in public restroom mirrors for stray hairs or sweaty foreheads and things, so sometimes I'll go prettymuch all day without seeing myself. And then I'll sort of forget what I look like, and then the whole comparisons start. I don't imagine this is why other people compare themselves, but this is why I think I do it myself, at least, sometimes.

  14. i've always had this theory that if you walked into a bar or somewhere and saw yourself sitting there (an exact, perfect replica), it would take you a second to realize who it is. as in, i think we all have a different self perception of our actual, physical looks (not necessarily good or bad, just different). and i would go on to conjecture that those with a positive self perception might be surprised to see themselves (like, negatively surprised), and vice versa for those with a negative self image.

  15. This is really thought provoking. I personally don't check my body against other women's, but I do check my face. I'm always worried about someone having better skin, being prettier, looking younger, etc... I know that it's pointless to compare and I often get irratated at comments directed at my face (even positive ones) since it's something I can't change. I do think that society has something to do with it. I probably spent too many years looking at airbrushed faces and wondering why I had pores. I'm working on it and it sounds like you are too. That's the best anyone can do.

  16. This is one of the best blog entries that I have read in a while.

    Comparison is often a natural human instinct, particularly when it comes to physical appearance. Combating that, at least for me, has been a lifelong struggle.

  17. I know what you mean, girls here compare all the time. But more on "Who's thinner? I wanna be like her! How does she do that? etc" It's infuriating!

  18. I agree with everything except for the comment that why don't men compare. Men compare different things. Cars, maybe paychecks, maybe even their wives, size of their pool, etc. Different things but there is comparison there too. Not saying it's right.

    I found myself walking behind somebody the other day wishing I had her body. I mentally slapped myself imemdiately. I ame xactly where I'd said I would be happy at. I am a size 10 (pants)/8 (dresses), down from 24 3 years ago. And, I can't be happy with it. I even pid a doctor to remove 5lbs of skin from my stomach because it was causing me ental anguish everytime I dressed. And I am still not happy. My hips are still too wide. My thighs are still jello-ish. My upper arms could smother a baby to death.

    In the end, it's a constant reminder of where I was and where I am. I have to remind myself to compare myself to myself, not anybody else.

  19. it's interesting - i've found myself obsessively comparing DIFFERENT PARTS of my body to women at different times of my life, and it's always directly tied to whatever part of my body i'm (currently) most insecure about.

    when i was so skinny growing up, i obviously had no boobs at all, and i OBSESSED about the chest size of my friends, my classmates, of anyone at all around me, and then noted whether or not they got attention from me, and tried to convince myself that even the wee-chested girls still had boys like them.... but OMG i was still pretty sure my boobs were EVEN SMALLER so it was HOPELESS that a guy would EVER LIKE ME *dissolve into teen angst*

    then when i lived in france and accidentally packed on 30 lbs in like 2 months, i was obsessed with every other girl's stomach, and whether it was bigger than mine, and if boys still liked them even if i thought we had similar-sized stomachs.

    and currently, i have average sized boobs and belly, so i don't find myself comparing them to other women nearly as much.

    partly, i think it's because i'm less insecure overall (which i'm positive has to do with getting older/wiser and all that jazz). (although my current compare/obsess would be skin. teh hate for my acne. TEH HATE.)

  20. What an interesting way to put it. I imagine we all compare ourselves to others on some level. If it's not weight than it's writing skills (Guilty! Only because I mostly suck at it), or homes or the size of the diamond or whatever. It's hard to not compare. At the end of the day, though, I'm pretty happy with what I've got.

  21. I totally agree. And it makes me feel like barfing because I see zero hope of this changing.