Reflections of Change:Learning Not to Be Critical of Yourself

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I hate mirrors.  I’ve never been really fond of them (too many ghost stories involving mirrors when I was a kid) and as I got more and more obese, there was never any pleasure at looking at my reflection.  Occasionally, I would look at my face and think my eyes were kind of nice or my hair wasn’t bad, but that’s about as good as it got.  As for the rest of me, full body mirrors did not exist!

Even now when I look in the mirror every morning, I manage not to see the rest of me and focus only on the matter at hand, i.e. teeth, hair, makeup.  When I do look at the reflection, it’s usually a little critical: my chin is getting saggier; I’m getting wrinkles by my nose and mouth; my grey hair is more noticeable; etc.  It’s an objective observation as much as it can be; I’m not happy about the situation, but at the same time, I realize my options are fairly limited to remedy the situation.  I can probably get some kind of expensive plastic surgery to fix the chin, and maybe some collagen for the wrinkles, and the hair stylist can easily handle the grey.  But beyond maybe getting my hair colored, I’m really not interested in doing anything else.  My vanity is fairly limited by my impatience.  I don’t want to spend my time trying to look younger or thinner or ‘less wrinkled.’  It’s not a priority for me.  My boss from hell was horribly vain and I spent a great deal of my day making her ‘beauty appointments’ for waxing, botox, hair stylist, nails, etc.  I don’t have much interest in going down that road.

But at the same time, the changes that come with losing weight are beginning to register more and more.  Recently at the gym,  after changing into my swim suit, I passed by the full length mirror in the locker room.  It’s a tri-fold mirror, so you can see ALL of you.  Normally there’s some young little thing in front making sure her workout clothes aren’t rumpled and her hair/ makeup look good, but this time, there was no one, so I paused… and I looked.

Honestly…. I’m pretty wrinkly.  It looks like I’m wearing an outfit that is too big for me, because really, that’s what’s happening: I am shrinking inside my skin.  I knew it was coming.  You can’t weigh as much as I did and expect no consequences when you lose weight.  In fact, I used that as an excuse for a long time: “I don’t want loose skin and I don’t want surgery, so I’m not losing weight.”  After losing 170 lbs (the equivalent of an adult male), I’ve pretty much got loose skin everywhere.  My legs, belly and butt look the worst: droopier and wrinkly, with ‘pouches’ of wrinkled loose skin in some places.  My breasts have also gotten droopier as well as my arms and my chin. My bones are becoming more prominent: you can see my collarbone now; my hips, knees and elbows are bonier; even my head and feet have gotten smaller as my shoes and my hats seem bigger. (You know you’re fat when your head shrinks!)

Since this isn’t something I normally do, I took the time to look at my legs and my butt.  Yep, even more wrinkly and a lot droopier than before.  What’s the quip?: “that is not a good look for you!” That’s the truth! Like I said, I never thought of myself as being vain or overly concerned with my appearance (I had a guy tell me once that I didn’t know how to be a “girl” because I didn’t flirt or primp or whatever he thought “girls” are supposed to do! and yes, he was a first class jerk!) So, I spent a couple of minutes getting a good look at the state of my ongoing wrinkliness and made a mental note: yep, not a good look I’ve got going on here, and then went out to the pool.

On the one hand, it’s a little concerning because I’ve started dating again and I really don’t want to look unattractive, but I’m fairly realistic.  This is what I look like and any guy who is going to be more interested in what I look like than who I am isn’t a guy I am going to be dating very long, much like the first class jerk above.  The truth is I think the older I get, the b*tchier I get (I’m becoming Maxine from the Hallmark cards & calendars, complete with the little dog who knows better!) I no longer fuss over if I’m pretty enough or demure enough or “what happens if I never meet a guy?” but I also realize that I am in the minority when it comes to body image. It’s not because I’m super confident and secure in my appearance: it’s that I’ve already spent a big part of my life worrying about what others think of my appearance and it hasn’t gotten me very much except a lot of tears and sleepless nights (ergo I’ve turned into Maxine: get in my face and I’ll get right back in yours!) I remember being in grade school listening to a couple of boys sitting ahead of me discussing the good and not-so-good parts of my body. In fact, I remember most of my classmates throughout grade school telling me on many occasions what was wrong with my body and asking me (repeatedly) why I was so fat.  I also remember all the heartbreak that comes with the guy I like dating someone else because I’m just not attractive enough.  Then there’s the whole too-fat-for-sports issues and there’s always the family feedback.  They all meant well and were trying to help, but really, it just came across as “what’s wrong with you and why are you such a disappointment & embarrassment?”  That’s not what they said of course; they offered all kinds of ‘helpful advice’ to try and lose weight and be more active.  My all-time favorite is my mom chanting “chew! chew! chew!” at restaurants whenever I took a bite so I wouldn’t ‘bolt my food.’  Let me tell you, if there were EVER an incentive to bolt your food, THAT would be it! Is it any wonder that I’ve turned into a crabby old(ish) woman?

I see a lot of people on MFP and other sites who are very concerned about their body image.  They worry about how they look and whether their thighs are too thick or their upper arms are too flabby.  A lot of patients on My 600 lb Life and Skin Tight (TLC programs) are obsessed with ‘getting skin surgery’ so they can ‘look normal.’  I recall one woman practically in tears over the loose flabby skin because she desperately wanted to be beautiful.  One thing I’ve learned is that beauty comes from inside.  I know it’s a cliché, but that doesn’t meant it’s not true.  Everyone has a different idea of what is beautiful or handsome and even when scientists try to quantify what people are attracted to through biology, there are still exceptions: people who are considered beautiful/ handsome even though they don’t meet the ‘biological’ standards.  It comes down to confidence and personality: people who are attractive despite their physical appearance.

I realize that it’s not just a matter of vanity when it comes to your appearance; it’s a matter of self-esteem and self-care.  You want to reflect how you feel about yourself: this is me and I’m proud of me! I believe that’s a healthy self-image.  The problems come when we are not concerned with our self-care (i.e. we don’t take care of ourselves); when we are overly concerned about what others think of us; and when we are overly critical of ourselves.  None of those are healthy situations.  In the first case, not taking care of yourself is often an indication of depression/ altered mental status or sometimes an organic physical abnormality (like a brain tumor or chemical imbalance).  In the second case, being too concerned with other people’s opinions of you and your appearance is generally thought to be low self-esteem, but it can also be related to the third case, which is now usually diagnosed as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).  This is a disorder in which the patient obsesses over a perceived flaw in their body/ appearance.  This is an mental disorder that requires medical treatment.  It’s not thinking “I have ugly hair” or “my ears are too big.”  It is literally obsessing over it and having these negative persistent thoughts destroy your quality of life.

Most of us who have a weight problem or a loose skin problem fall somewhere in the middle of these: we are trying to take care of ourselves (losing weight/ getting healthier) but it gets very discouraging when no matter what we do, we cannot hide or minimize our size, our loose skin or some other aspect of our bodies that we are unhappy with.  Sometimes, we give up on trying to look our best.  Every comment on our appearance can become a perceived slight or criticism of us and we focus on our flaws.  We are always trying to live up to someone else’s standards.  It’s a very demoralizing, humiliating and unpleasant place to be.  It’s like trying to run in quicksand, because we feel like we never make any progress and keep sinking.  It’s because we are basing our self-worth on a temporary situation (our physical appearance) and we are depending on others for validation of that self-worth.  Let’s be honest: our looks are temporary.  One of my favorite lines from Shakespeare’s sonnets speaks to that: “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks/ Within his bending sickle’s compass come” (Sonnet 116). While you may not get ugly as you grow older, your appearance will change. That’s why it’s important to love and respect yourself and surround yourself with people who love and respect who you are, not what you look like. This is what most people have trouble with: loving and respecting themselves. It’s one of those cheesy clichéd platitudes that we hear over and over again, usually in a sappy ‘chick flick.’

As much as I hate to say it, it’s true: if you don’t love and respect yourself enough to stand up for yourself and/ or what you believe in, how can you expect anyone else to value you and your beliefs? It starts with you.  You are more than your appearance and more than your weight.  Those are temporary conditions that will change over time, whether you or anyone else likes it or not.  Until you look in the mirror and see yourself for the person you are inside and value that person, you will always find flaws in yourself.  What you look like is of minor importance. What you weigh matters only as far as your health. The true value is the whole person inside.  It’s okay to look at yourself and be a little critical, as in ‘I really need to get a hair cut’ or ‘I really need to cut back on the sweet desserts!’ But to look at yourself and see yourself as ‘ugly’ or ‘deformed’ is to demean and belittle your true value.  When I paused at the gym mirror and got a good look at myself, yeah, I was not happy with the saggy wrinkly skin.  I’ve always wished that I had delicate ankles and wrists, and I’d like to have nice legs too, but then I’ve always wanted blue eyes too!  Now that I can get contacts to color my eyes blue, did I go get them? Nope! They aren’t worth my effort, and everyone who knows me knows my eyes are brown.  So, I made note that I am definitely getting droopier everywhere I don’t want to be droopy, and then I went on my way.  It’s not a big deal to me, because I know what I look like isn’t who I am.  It’s taken me a long time to get here and I realize that I am lucky: not everyone reaches this place in life and  I hope you are here with me.

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