Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...Tell Me More
Some weeks ago in a Dear Mark column, the issues of unwanted weight, arm fat and aesthetic frustration were front and center. While people’s central reasons for going Primal vary, I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t enjoy looking slimmer and fitter. While some of us are unapologetically in it for the vanity spoils (not that there’s anything wrong with that), others of us might focus on health but secretly delight at the bonuses we see reflected in the mirror each day. Barring unaddressed hormonal issues and perhaps certain medical conditions, living Primally will help you lose fat, build muscle and look more vibrant. With time (and, for some folks, some tweaking), it will help you feel and look like a thriving version of yourself – your best, most awesome self. (We, of course, can’t help but end every week by showcasing all that awesomeness.) As much as we collectively and theoretically cheer this message, at times some of us might find ourselves privately disappointed that certain traits or patterns didn’t disappear with the added fat. As happy as we are to be lighter and fitter, now there’s no extra weight or low muscle tone to blame for certain features that maybe have made us insecure or just stuck in our craw for years. In all fairness, what do we do with these feelings? How do finally make peace with our inevitable imperfections?
There’s the camp that would automatically claim you’re not at peace with yourself if you have an issue with your healthy body. While I get where they’re coming from and agree that this can be true for some people, I also don’t choose to write off these feelings that easily. In some respect, that perspective could itself be seen as its own form of shaming.
The fact is, I’ve known a lot of people who have been truly solid individuals – amazing men and women, fantastic parents and partners, confident professionals, genuine friends – who confess that certain things about their physique bother them. They don’t obsess over them, but the feelings exist as background static they notice on occasion. Yes, you could say they have it “all,” but there’s still that nagging source of vulnerability.
Vulnerability. I think there’s a essential point here. If we can see these thoughts in that light, we recognize two things. The first is that the problem is really our feelings/self-talk about the imperfections rather than the imperfections themselves. We attach judgments to the features we decide we don’t like (or that others have so generously took it upon themselves to criticize for us in the past), but in all objective reality, these features are generally speaking neutral traits.
Sure, societies appear to come up with their own, widely varying senses of ideal. More than at any other time in history, however, we’re surrounded by that “ideal” to the point that it’s perceived to some degree more as an average. The omnipresence of media displaces comparative real life perception here. Likewise, this “ideal” is further stylized through “developments” like backlighting, airbrushing and plastic surgery, etc., which only further throws off our true sense of average, let alone healthy. (Can you imagine Grok’s response here?) No wonder we feel disoriented about what’s physiologically normal.
Two, we understand with these feelings that we can bring compassion to that aspect of what is essentially part of our basic humanity. While there’s plenty of room to argue that looks or insecurity about them don’t hold as much sway in other contemporary cultures (including traditional societies), the basic fact remains we’re hominids operating emotionally and physically within a given social system. Blame that social system all you want (as I did above), but I’m still going to feel for the individual hominid. Our expectations these days are admittedly skewed and manipulated, but our emotional responses are genuine albeit often unhelpful. Suggestion 1: let yourself off the hook for feeling the way you do. That said, focus on the knowledge that this feeling is totally unproductive and fleeting if we let it be.
The thing is, we can accept our propensity to notice those personally bothersome features without feeding that propensity. Ultimately, we choose how much power we give our “imperfections.” How much of our mental bandwidth will we give away? What opportunities will we forgo? What intimacy will we restrict or not enjoy? How much time will we spend observing our bodies rather than relishing the freedom of being in them. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good, but it’s important at some point to think about what’s emotionally healthy for you as an individual.
I’ve written that one of the benefits of living Primally is looking good naked (LGN). You know, it was a passing comment in a blog post that took on a life of its own. It’s fun and provocative. It’s little wonder it got the attention it did, but let me be clear here. Looking good naked doesn’t read “looking perfect” naked (or clothed). (The statement begs the question, “Whose idea of perfection would we be talking about anyway?”) It doesn’t mean look like someone else other than yourself. How far away from our own physical reality do our expectations and desires keep us?
The shockingly brazen truth is that you get to show up to life exactly as you are. You seriously aren’t required to be anything else. Put yourself in the mindset of hunter-gatherer pragmatism for a minute, and you’ll get what I mean. We get to want what we want for ourselves – health, fitness, longevity and even good looks. That said, if we think our basic value is conditional in any way or if those desires keep us on the emotional sidelines of life in any way, we’re setting ourselves up for a miserable and isolated existence.
A few people I know tell me they didn’t learn real body confidence until they got sick. And by sick, I mean cancer. Gently peeling back bandages to reveal massive bruising and other post-surgery wounds elicited a self-compassion that had been inaccessible – inconceivable even – to them before. One family friend described it as finally understanding what the term “loving” her body meant. When she could take in the visual of what her body had been through – seeing the physical manifestation of the emotional trauma of her illness, she felt an amazing tenderness for her body, she said. While the physical wounds and medical crisis passed, her new perspective on her body did not. She describes it as one of the “gifts” of her experience.
Most of us, fortunately, don’t have to go through medical calamity to gain a healthier outlook on our imperfections. So, what can we do? How about this….
We can accept our vulnerability to judgment and self-judgment and understand that we don’t have to identify with it. Our self-concept is much bigger than a feeling.
We can shift our frames of reference by culling/changing our media intake and focusing our awareness on real-life exposure to genuine human variety. In other words, ignore the airbrushed magazine covers and go people watch at the airport.
We can put ourselves in the center of that frame of reference. Collect some photos of yourself that you genuinely like and keep them somewhere you can see them or look through them frequently. Blame me personally for any embarrassment you might feel or questions you get. Take more photos in your daily life to collect even more of these.
We can learn to better integrate our self-concept. Why would we separate out a flaw to obsess over? Because we want to distance ourselves from it? Because we want to drive ourselves insane mentally extracting parts of ourselves that aren’t up to par? Practice seeing the “imperfect” parts of yourself within the whole. They don’t exist separately from us – and neither should our thinking about them.
We can invest in ourselves – in our health and in our appearance. Enjoy what you have physically (and otherwise). Wear things you like. Learn to play up your assets. Develop your personal style and let yourself enjoy identifying with that means of self-expression/self-bedazzlement in addition to other elements of who you are. (Think it’s superficial? So is identifying yourself with a body flaw.)
We can cultivate self-compassion. Books exist on this, and specific styles of meditation include it. Do you have young kids? Try on their view of you – what they feel and see when they look at you. Tape one of their enormous-head-stick-figure drawings of you on one side of your mirror. Instant perspective.
What puts you in a healthy mindset about your body? Share your thoughts, and thanks for reading, everyone!
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