A Better Body Image: Dropping the (Mental) Weight

When you stand in the front of the mirror, who do you see?

When we talk weight loss, we tend to focus on the physical: a declining number on the scale, a smaller waist size in the jeans, and all sorts of concrete, measurable stats. We rely on these numbers to monitor our progress, to keep us going through plateaus, and to have visible proof of our success.

But what about the person inside the body? What about our perception of ourselves — of our physical form — when we’re standing in front of the mirror wearing nothing but a smile?

The body image, I’ve discovered, is harder to change than the body itself.

That’s a sad truth, and it’s something I bet I’m not alone in having struggled with for years.

I’m an easy-going guy, for the most part, and not normally the type to carry the kind of secret, aching problems you read about in romance novels. So when a friend (jokingly!) accused me of hiding some deep emotional scars inside my heart, I had to stop a moment and see if I could even find anything.

Well. I did.

I’ve lost weight. I know that, and I’ve heard enough kind words from friends and readers to realize that I’m in dramatically better shape than ever before. I love that. My transformation is an accomplishment that I take a lot of pride in, and it’s a driving force in both my blogging here and my quest to challenge conventional wisdom regarding health and nutrition.

Sometimes, though, I still feel fat. Sometimes, though, I have to remind myself that I’m not the chubby one anymore.

Let me the be the first to admit, then, that my body image isn’t the absolute best it can — it should — be.

I still cringe when I see my reflection in a window. I still sigh and avert my eyes whenever I get a full glimpse of myself in photos. Not always, sure, and maybe not even that often, but I still have a tendency to beat myself up over how big I look. It’s a weird thought, and one I can usually ignore, but it still feeds into the bigger issues of body image I’ve been dealing with ever since I was a (overweight, glasses-sporting) kid.

But what about you?

Have you ever stood in front of the mirror and sighed, unhappy with your body even when every sign suggests you’re in the best shape of your life? Have you ever been reluctant to take your shirt off at the beach even when you know you’re in better form than the average guy or girl strolling along the sand? Have you ever had to take a moment to remind yourself that you look different now, and that you look and feel so much better than ever before?

I have. And while I’m (openly!) more vain than the average person, I doubt I’m alone in saying this.

So what can we do? When the body is lean, strong and fit, how can we fix the body image that comes with it? How, when the signs are all around us, can we overcome our body image issues and really, truly recognize how far we’ve come?

I have a few ideas. I use them myself on a regular basis, and while I still doubt myself on occasion, they’ve done a lot to gently change my perception of a subject very near and dear to my heart: me.

1. Break the scale!

I don’t know how much I weigh.

That’s a weird thing to realize. Sure, I have a general idea of where I’m at, but I’ve made a conscious effort to not know anything more. I don’t have a bathroom scale, I don’t try to find one in the rare moment I step into a gym, and I’ve been known to plug my ears and say “la, la, la” whenever the doctor tries to weigh me (that one might not be true).

Why do all this?

Weight is a useless number. And — this sounds dramatic, but bear with me — I think it’s one of the most damaging stats you can try and keep track of during your journey to better health.

Here’s the thing: weight fluctuates. Water retention can bump that number up and down on a daily basis, so it’s not unusual to find yourself — especially if you adopt a Paleo style of eating — five pounds lighter seemingly overnight. If you remember that fact, and realize too that the number on the scale has really no bearing whatsoever on how you look and feel, then I’d say go for it — hop on and hop off freely!

Most people can’t make that claim, however. Most people step on in the morning, see a number that’s higher than they like, and watch the rest of their day — let alone how they perceive themselves in the mirror — rapidly take a turn for the worse.

Drop the scale. Donate it, sell it, do whatever you need to do — just get rid of the stupid thing and make a vow to remove the number obsession as much as possible from your daily routine. And when you do? You might be surprised, I think, at what you’re left with: a body image determined solely by what you see staring back in the mirror. Even that isn’t a perfect system, I’ll admit, but it’s a huge step forward from letting some arbitrary number get inside your head.

2. Find your jeans!

There’s an old pair of jeans that I never really wear anymore.

That might offend your minimalist sensibilities, but there’s a pretty good reason to keep it around: comparison. Even before I gained all the weight, this pair of jeans fit just a little too snugly. It goes without saying that I had to retire them to my closet during my final year of college. A few weeks back, however, I dug them out of the closet and decided to try them on.

They were loose. I can’t even describe the shock I felt when they slid on easier than they had even when I’d first purchased them years ago. This ratty pair of jeans, in a strange way, might have had the largest impact on how I perceive myself.

I look in the mirror, sure, and see improvement. I can always take a glance at my before and after photos, too, to get a great sense of how much has changed. Even those two methods, however, can get bogged down with doubt, and here again the jeans come in handy: I can’t deny them.

My mind literally cannot complain about how well these old jeans fit me now. Sliding them on leaves no doubt whatsoever that I’ve dramatically changed my body, and seeing how they look in the mirror has left a huge mark on how I perceive my body ever since.

Find your pair of jeans. Find a piece of clothing that you remember being able to wear before you put on weight, and use that as a means of comparison as you progress with your weight loss. It’s easy to doubt how far you’ve come, but the way that clothing fits on your body doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation — and certainly no room for that nagging little voice to pop up and start downplaying how much your body has changed for the better.

3. Share a picture (or two)!

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting everyone throw pictures of themselves (in various stages of undress) online. I’m still a little embarrassed that I did it, but enough time has passed where I can say that I’m glad I did it, too.

But maybe I was lucky. The Internet giveth and taketh away, and I’d hate to encourage someone to do the before and after photo shoot and invite any kind of troll into the comment section of their post. That said, I think it’s a worthwhile step to take if you can find the right community to work with — and, if you’re into the Primal/Paleo thing as much as I am, I can already name one group of people worth checking out.

The Success Stories forum (or, more specifically, the “Before and after pics” thread) over at Mark’s Daily Apple is one such place. It’s an inspiring thread to read, of course, but the real value is in the community — the hundreds of people who frequent that forum and genuinely work to encourage each other as they all progress towards better health.

If you’re willing to try it, putting up before and after photos in that thread might be one of the best things you can do. You’ll get honest feedback from people who understand better than most how difficult it can be to lose weight, and you’ll also get a second set of eyes on something the first set tends to criticize more often than it should.

4. Be kind to yourself!

One more time: be kind. Be nice to yourself each time you look in the mirror, and strive to remember, each time, that good health isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity — it’s a life-long pursuit. You need to remember, accordingly, to observe how you look (and how much you’ve progressed) over time, not just on a daily basis.

Remember: weight fluctuates. Especially now that I’m inching closer to a six-pack (the Ab Quest is going strong!), I find myself far more sensitive to any slight variations in how I look — to the point where I can find myself feeling down for not being at the level of leanness I want. This, I suspect, is not healthy behavior.

When this happens, though, I do one thing: stop. I take a step back from the mirror, unfocus my eyes a little bit, and try to see the bigger picture — the slimmer, leaner person in front of me, the guy who is in the best shape of his life. Sure, I’m not exactly where I want to be yet, but that’s no reason to forget just how far I’ve come.

Don’t forget that. Be kind to yourself whenever those body image issues rear their ugly head, and make every effort to remember the changes you’ve already made in your life. Doing this has helped tremendously in the slow process of coming to accept my body for what it is — a huge improvement in every possible way, and one that I should always be proud of.

Wrapping It Up

It’s a long process.

Again: changing the body image is harder than changing the body itself. I don’t know when, yet, but I sincerely believe there will be a time when I’m fully comfortable with my body — or at least comfortable enough to not hesitate for a second before running half-naked around the beach. That’s the sad product of many years as the “fat kid,” I guess, but there’s a silver lining, too: it’s a goal to work toward.

And not just for me, either. You want to be healthy. You want to be lean. But you want to recognize that you are those things whenever you look in the mirror, too, and you know that’ll happen eventually. You just need to give it time. Time, patience, and plenty of understanding, all three of which are incredibly important as you steadily approach strong, vibrant health.

Thanks so much for reading!

If you like what’s going on around here, then why not have free updates sent directly to your inbox or to your RSS reader?

And hey! I’m running a contest right now to give away a free copy of The Primal Blueprint and The Primal Blueprint Cookbook. There’s still a week left to enter — all you have to do is leave a comment on this post!

If you want to spread the good word about this post, however, please consider one of the following:

  • Click the retweet or stumble button down below!
  • Like this post on Facebook and share it with your friends!

It all helps, in any case, to share these ideas. I really appreciate it! And you can follow me on Twitter, too. That always makes me smile. :)

17 Comments

  1. You are so right… the mental body image is sometimes quite irrational!

    I had a normal weight most of my life until I had kids, and then back problems. I became really sedentary and gained a lot of weight. I knew I had a few extra pounds, but did not see much of a diffirence…

    Somehow, I had the same problem you just described but in the other direction!! Mentally, I was still a normal size! Until I recently saw myself in a full lenght photo – really saw myself for the first time in probably 10 years!! I was quite fat. I could not believe it really was me.

    My MD confirmed it. I was in the “obese” BMI category! How/when did that happen? I guess that photo was my fat equivalent to your “skinny jeans” ;o)

    After reading your blog, I’ve adopted a moderate version of the Primal Blue Print just a couple weeks before the Holidays and started on a slowly and effortlessly weight loss. Even during the holidays, my weight stayed stable! I’ve discovered tons of energy and never felt better.

    Thanks Matt!!

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Y’know, I know the feeling you describe. Remember that weight I put on during college? It crept up on me in the exact same way. I literally had no idea that I’d put on so much weight until I saw photos of myself, and those photos alone were the catalyst that started me on my weight loss journey.

      Strange, isn’t it, how the weight can sneak up?

      Glad to hear about your holiday success! That’s fantastic that you didn’t gain any weight, and it’s great too that you’re losing weight the way you should: slowly and effortlessly. Keep it up! :)

  2. I’ve been thin and I’ve been fat, and I’ve settled for something in middle, but I’ve always felt fat. A negative body image, however, can cause weight gain because you think you’re fat anyway, so you eat.

    I don’t use scales anymore, and I drink more water and slow down on eating when I’m feeling fatter than usual and it all seems to work out.

    I wonder if anyone looks in the mirror and sees who they actually are?

    Gip

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Maybe this is pessimistic, but I doubt anyone in America does, at least. :)

      I know the feeling you describe, in any case, and I think your approach is the right one: drop the scale, eat slower, and let it all work itself out.

  3. Edgar says:

    Yes, “be kind to yourself”… you got that right Matt.

    We are sometimes (or most of the time) our worst critic. We only see what’s on the mirror. But we don’t see the little changes – however small – that we have accomplished.

    I’m also guilty of this. But I try to do as you, to step back and “try to see the bigger picture” — of how far I have come to this point in my life. I may not be in the best shape, but little by little I know I’ll get there…

  4. Jeanie says:

    :) This post is great timing!

    One thing I’ve noticed in me & others…when we focus on a leisurely journey…we very quickly get Addicted to results. More, more! Our brains are wired for seeking pleasure. And results (particularly in accomplishment driven America)
    are very seductive indeed.

    Perfection is the enemy of simply being.

    Congratulations, my friend. Do you have a stopping point clearly defined also?

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Thank you, Jeanie. :)

      I’m not sure I do. I’m on my Ab Quest, of course, so achieving the six-pack is a pretty clearly-defined stopping point, but I wonder if my inherent perfectionism will rear up again and push me on to other goals whenever I do.

      The difference, though, is that I’m not obsessing. I know that my goals take time, and I’m enjoying the ride until I achieve them, so I’m not too worried about perfectionism preventing me from enjoying each moment as it comes.

      So it’s an uncertain future, I guess, but one I feel pretty happy — pretty comfortable — to approach.

  5. Nina Yau says:

    When I stand in front of the mirror, I see a flawed and fragile yet extremely steadfast and strong woman who wants more to life as she knows it right now. I also see eyes that flicker with passion and intensity that oftentimes intimidates others unaccustomed to fiery audacity.

    What do you see?

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      I see me.

      But not who I am now, I think — the me from about nine months back. I’m seeing the chubby and uncertain kid who graduated, even when I know that the person I am now is different — stronger, more confident — in every possible way. It’ll take time, I think, to reconcile these ‘two Matts,’ but I guess I’m okay with that. I’ve changed so much in such a short amount of time that I think I just need to catch up — to take a step back for awhile, think about who I’ve become, and start seeing all the positive in this new person.

  6. Mia says:

    Interesting article Matt – and ballsy! I think most people think this but we aren’t good at admitting it.

    I used to work in a gym. In my particular gym there were a HEAP of members competing for various fitness titles which were on at the same time. Sports model, bodybuilder, etc. So I would get to know when a competition was coming up, make sure there were a lot more sugarfree energy drinks in the fridge, and watch with interest.

    One thing I know for absolute certain – each and every one of these competitors, while being the most gorgeous people I have ever seen (a lot of them worked in modeling, acting or television as well) were THE MOST insecure about their bodies out of anybody in the world. Probably because that’s what they focused on at every meal, every workout, every day. If it can happen to them… well… that’s all the proof I need to not pay too much attention to it!

    I learned everything I needed to know about body image the day a girl cried – yes, literally sobbed – on my shoulder because she was fat… her idea of fat was 11% body fat.

  7. Simple Zen says:

    Hi. Slimming without scales is like driving without a speedometer. I monitor my weight daily. If it goes up I eat less that day (or fast). If it goes down too quickly over a short period I eat more because I’m losing it too fast and I know it will go back on again. I aim to lose only one or two pounds per week average until I reach my target in mid May.

    I know what you mean about body image but since adopting Paleo/Primal I physically feel better. I’m not taking my shirt off, I’m fifty nine, five foot six and built like Danny DiVito :-)

    Steve

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Hey Steve!

      The DiVito reference made me grin. :D

      I’m still torn on the scale issue. On one hand, it’s nice to have that concrete number you can use to see how your weight loss progresses. On the other hand, I’m still a big fan of the simplicity that comes with ignoring the number entirely and focusing on how you feel and fit into your clothing. It doesn’t help that water weight can fluctuate wildly on a daily basis, but I understand, too, that some people prefer to just have a number to work with.

      My concern, then, is how they treat that number. You sound like you have a health approach in trying to lose just a pound or two per week, but I can only imagine how many people might see themselves gain a few pounds of water weight and then do something reckless trying to take them back off.

      Guess it’s a personal thing, in the end. Whatever works for you! :

  8. Pingback: this fat lady ain’t singing! « forehead, desk … repeat?

  9. Pingback: How to Diet Properly | Three New Leaves

  10. Pingback: The Best of 2011 – Part Two « the living space

  11. Pingback: The Secret Benefit of Healthy Eating | Three New Leaves