Has this ever happened to you?
Someone says something like, “I’m too fat to wear khaki pants” or “I can’t let my arms show.” And the someone is significantly smaller than you? And you’re wearing khaki pants and what a few minutes before you thought was a cute little cap-sleeve t-shirt?
If you’re close enough to the person to make yourself vulnerable, you might say something like, “wow, what must you think of me, then?”
And then they backpedal and say, “I didn’t mean you. I was talking about me.”
And they probably think they’re telling the truth. They probably weren’t looking at your ass in non-black pants and then making a backhanded comment about themselves that they hope you’ll take to heart so that they aren’t subjected to the sight again.
But the fact is no man or woman is an island. What you say doesn’t stop at some invisible bubble around yourself. It goes out into the world and affects those that hear you. So if you’re just talking to one or two people, your words affect them even if you don’t mean them to. If you have a wider audience, say if you have a blog that a few dozen or a few hundred people read or more, your words affect your readers. That’s the whole point.
Am I suggesting that every person in the world go out and buy the clothes that make them uncomfortable and force themselves to wear them in some kind of mass behavioral modification project?
That actually would be pretty damned cool.
But it’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that the number one person affected by the things that you say is you, and that affect oozes out to everyone else who hears or reads your words.
Some people want to lose weight, for instance. And so they start a blog to document the effort, or just talk to anyone who will listen about their plan. And they talk about how hideous their bodies are right now and how they are going to fix that by counting calories or fat grams or carbs and by exercising to the point of punishment. And it doesn’t really matter to them that I might weigh 100 or even 150 pounds more than them. In fact, they might even think they’re motivating me because I’m 100 or 150 pounds more unhealthy than they are.
But I’m not the only one listening. If you have a daughter she might be listening. Not only might she be listening, she has your genes. So she might look like you. You might have a son who inherited your calorie-storage efficiency, who hears you and decides that there is something wrong with him–but in his world it’s not even safe for a man to worry outwardly about his weight unless he is very, very fat, and so maybe it becomes internalized and turns into some other form of self-hate.
Maybe my kid is listening to you.
What I want to put out there is that words matter. You can’t mitigate the negative effect of complaining about your huge thighs or making comments about how you’re too fat to wear a sundress by saying, “I was only talking about me.” Words are powerful and we all have to take responsibility for the affects ours have.
And if the only way you can find to relate to your body is negatively, then it might be time to take a good look at where your head is. Because the person most affected by your words is you.
I’m guilty of the very thing I’m talking about. I’ve seen pictures of myself and gasped and made some comment like, “Jesus, look how huge I am.” And I’ve thought it was okay because I’m always the biggest person within my own ear shot when I say it. And I’m realizing, the more I learn about deep, radical self-acceptance, that this is a behavior I have to change.
The thoughts still might be in my head. It’s much harder to control what you think than it is to control what you say or write. And I think there is a difference between writing or talking about a struggle with body image and writing or talking about how disgusting my body is as though it were true. I can’t control my thoughts, but I can examine them and make decisions about how I voice them.
In the spirit of illustrating how the “If you are, what am I?” phenomenon works both ways, I’d like to tell you a story.
Until very recently, I would not have tried to run or even jog on a treadmill at a gym. Or, if I’m being honest, even outdoors. The idea of all the people seeing me jiggle and bounce was too much.
But yesterday I found myself on a treadmill between two young men who were both running. It was my 5K day and I was about 45 minutes in. I wanted to see how far I could go in an hour. The only way to do that was to jog, at least a little bit. So I did. Right there, between these two athletic men, I jogged for two minutes, then walked for three. Twice. Then finished my 5K with one minute of running.
I was sweating and gasping for breath by the end of that minute. And grinning like a fool. And the young men? They just kept running. They didn’t even look at me. You know who did? The woman on the other side of the runner to my left. She was probably at least 100 pounds lighter than me. Her eyebrows went up and she smiled, then pushed her speed up a little. That was almost as awesome as taking two minutes off last week’s 5K time. Maybe even more awesome.