Just get used to it, already!
April 13, 2012 1:44 PM   Subscribe

Why am I struggling to feel comfortable in my body, which has changed quite a bit over recent years? It's like my brain is stuck in "thin" mode but my body is constantly announcing that there have been new changes, like little alarms all day long-- even though the weight gain happened over the course of a few years. I don't even really mind the way my body looks, but I can't seem to get used to the physical feeling of being in it.

I'll preface this by saying that I'm healthy and otherwise quite happy. The problem is that I've gained some weight-- and it's weight that I'm finally okay with-- but it isn't going to be going away, and I wonder if it's possible to mentally find a way to feel more comfortable physically. I'm sure I can't be alone in this. I've looked through other questions about body image and weight gain on AskMe and many of them are related to post-pregnancy body changes, to which the answer is often "But you made a whole other person! Go easy on yourself!" But that's not what happened for me.

I was always very thin but had strong dysmorphia; I was bulimic/anorexic in high school and the first part of university. That would have gone on longer except that I had an onset of rather severe bipolar disorder at age 18 and very quickly discovered that I could self-medicate with speed, cocaine, and pills. I spent the following decade+ with a crippling drug addiction, but I was thin and for a four-year stretch when I worked as a stripper, very fit too. I was a mental and emotional wreck, and much of the little self-confidence I had was related to my physical appearance. The best way I can put it is that when a Victoria's Secret commercial came on, or I saw a cover of Maxim, I was never uncomfortable because I saw more similarities than differences. There was nothing healthy about why my body looked the way it did-- I was very, very sick for a long time-- but it was my "normal" for most of my adult life.

I've now been clean and sober for almost five years. I've been meds-compliant for my bipolar disorder for the same period. Life is pretty good, very low-drama and quiet living and working hard. And I've also gained what for me feels like quite a bit of weight-- instead of being 104-114 muscular pounds on a 5'5" frame, I'm about 128-130 and considerably less muscular. I'm occasionally self-conscious but I've basically come to terms with wearing larger sizes than before. The way I've decided to look at it I've still got an hourglass figure, only now with more curves. I'm my husband's ideal body type! I'm healthy and probably look better! What do I have to complain about?

The problem for me is that to my body, this feels like an enormous difference and I'm physically uncomfortable. I wear clothes that fit my new shape, I just am so aware of my various body parts that it's constantly on my mind, and I'd like to spend a lot less time thinking about it and more time just living. It's like my brain still thinks I'm super-small and my body keeps sending signals that I'm suddenly less small (even though it's been years), and the two have this constant argument where I always lose. And then I have to tell my brain things that I spent a long time learning (much of it on AskMe), like that it's okay that my thighs touch, it's normal and doesn't make me a bad person so could you please tell my body to STOP POINTING IT OUT ALL DAY LONG.

Losing any of this weight (not that it's even necessary) just isn't going to happen-- a lot of it is directly caused by the psychiatric medications and changing them is off the table-- after years of streamlining I'm down to 19 pills each night and I'm not inclined to upset the balance that's been struck (the permanent damage to my metabolism may already be done, anyways). And it's taken me the last two years or so to figure out how to be okay with the fact that it's never going to go back to the way it was. Take my personal story out and you've also got the aging part that happens to everyone-- bodies never stay the same, and this is the way mine is now. I've done fairly well considering my personal lifelong warped body image (and most everyone has their own version, I know). I can work on toning but that can only help with the physical feeling part so much-- what I need is a brain re-wiring, where I physically adjust to this new normal and my brain stops announcing it like it's news. Is this even possible? Why hasn't it happened on its own yet? It's not like this all came about overnight.

The final difficulty is that therapy is not an option unless you can recommend one who deals with patients by videochat. The nearest therapist is a half-day's drive from where I live. I am originally a city girl myself and if someone had told me before I moved here that they lived this far away from anything I wouldn't have believed them, but it turns out that it is possible and you will just have to believe me. If anyone would still like to suggest a visit to the therapist then I can only conclude that you will not only accompany me on the weekly 10-hour round trip, but that you will also help pay for gas.

So.. anecdotes? Book or article recommendations? What can I do to make my brain and my body agree that everything is okay, nothing's wrong, things are actually arguably better, and make them be quiet?
posted by mireille to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I feel 100% better about my body when I am active. This was true at 120 and at 160. At my heaviest, after the birth of my son, I knew my body was different, but it didn't bother me as long as I did yoga or jogged, or did some other type of work out.

When I am not working out, I feel lazy and depressed about my body. I fixate on size and bulges and other stuff. When I am working out, all that stuff goes away, and I just feel "fine."

So my advice to you is start walking, jogging, yoga, exercise DVDs, Zumba, anything that keeps you active! It's good for the body and even better for the mind.
posted by katypickle at 1:52 PM on April 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Hopefully folks will come in with good book recommendations, but I wanted to say that you're very much not alone. I've lost weight since my 20's and still don't recognize myself in a mirror, and frequently struggle with a feeling that something is wrong because I don't feel like "myself". In a sillier example, I also have short hair now, and more than ten years later I still don't feel like I look like "myself". It's like I imprinted on my 20-something self, even though she didn't have things Nearly together.

One small change I've tried to implement is mentally greeting myself positively when I look in a mirror. "Hi pretty" is the usual, even (especially) when I feel anything but. The greeting is familiar when I don't look familiar, and helps sooth the little feeling of panic when I don't look the way I expect. Maybe you could try greeting the thoughts about the differences similarly?
posted by ldthomps at 2:04 PM on April 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yoga helps tremendously with this.
posted by jgirl at 2:09 PM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was going to suggest exercise too. I am your height but ten pounds heavier, and the mental difference between how I physically feel when I'm regularly exercising and when I am not is absolutely enormous, even though I don't think there is actually much change in my body itself.
posted by something something at 2:17 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Exercise can help with this because it improves your sense of proprioception -- i.e. the sense of where your body is in space. This is a big part of what it feels like to be you, and it's possible to improve it through exercises like yoga, squats, and balance board or exercise ball work. Sports help, too... games like handball or racquetball or even badminton are good choices. The more you move, the faster your brain will get used to the "new" you.
posted by vorfeed at 3:05 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think particularly activities which focus on balance or knowing where your body is would be useful-- I came in to suggest rock climbing and dance.

Helps with proprioception, and also helps with being impressed with your body- it's easier to be amazed (in a positive way) at a body when it learns to do something new and nifty!
posted by nat at 3:09 PM on April 13, 2012

Response by poster: I see where everyone's coming from with exercise, and when I think about the times when I've been more active, it's true, I think about it less.

I wish there were yoga or other classes available where I am, but there aren't. There are only two small gyms in town with limited equipment and no organized classes. What I do have available is a full weightlifting setup in my house. I had been using it to get some more upper-body strength but then had an (unrelated) injury and it kind of fell away, but I will start that up again. I can do lower-body, too, I just need to get my husband to show me which exercises to do and how to set up the weights. It's a free-weight system that I'm not really used to, but it requires a lot more balance and uses all of your muscles for stabilizing-- do you think that will help? If so I'll get on that again. The one thing I noticed when I was doing the upper-body stuff was how strong my muscle-memory was and how quickly I saw results. I think you might all be onto something here.

I like ldthomps' advice about greeting the thoughts too. I've already been doing that for years with impulses to get loaded ("oh, hey, my brain's lying to me again-- how typical!") and so I've been trained to let thoughts just pass over with mild observation instead of letting them consume me, but it never occurred to me that it could work with this too.
posted by mireille at 3:22 PM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am recovering from an eating disorder and in therapy, and according to all the various therapists I have talked to, body image is one of the last things to go. It just takes time to accept body changes. I've gained weight too, and I intellectually know that I'm at a healthy weight, but there are days that I am just uncomfortable in my own skin. It helps me to know that it's normal for me to feel this way, and that with the passage of time, this discomfort will fade. And it has faded some, and it continues to fade, and I expect that it will fade in the future.

On preview, yes - I think weights are awesome. I love lifting, it's one of my favorite forms of exercise. Being strong is AWESOME, and it's sort of the opposite of being weak and small in an anorexic way. I would definitely encourage you to do that!

(But, with exercise, be careful if you have a tendency to get obsessive - I know I do, and I have to watch myself; obsessive exercise was a big part of my eating disorder. It might not be for you; just something to keep in mind.)
posted by insectosaurus at 3:27 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Doing something with your body can be as simple as walking the dog. It doesn't have to be a class or involve machinery.
posted by crankylex at 3:34 PM on April 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure you can mentally just get over a physical feeling that fast. I think it might be a question of time. You were very thin for most of your life, and regardless of your mental health at any given point, that feeling is something you got used to over decades. You might just have to give it more time to get used to your new shape too - not decades, but still feeling weird after 5 years doesn't seem too long at all. I agree with everyone that exercise is always good, of course, for many reasons. But I know the feeling of discomfort you describe. Not being able to sit the same way, to hold your body the same way, it really does feel very different. And for me, at least, while I definitely feel better and healthier the more active I am, it doesn't change that feeling of having extra stuff where it doesn't belong. (I should say in my case it's not a good weight gain and it really doesn't belong, but I think the sensation might be similar.)

I'll add that for me the difference between physically comfortable and not is fairly abrupt, like I can feel the change distinctly with a gain/loss of ~5 lbs. So it's possible that, even though you don't want/need to lose weight, you could get that same small but noticeable change by, say, limiting foods that bloat you, or toning certain muscles.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:52 PM on April 13, 2012

Random thoughts:

1. Time will help

2. Do you spend naked time in front of a mirror? Hey, there are my shoulders, that's my tummy, wow, check out my ass! Or whatever feels positive and "real" to you. You could even try photographing or painting yourself - *if* you're comfortable with that and it seems like fun.

3. Maybe just practicing acceptance - not just of your body but of your brain's temporary disconnect with your body. "Whup, there I go again, forgetting my body's changed. That's ok, I'll get used to it eventually."

You've really come through a lot. Congratulations on taking care of yourself and getting healthy!
posted by bunderful at 4:06 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I came in with a long, over-wordy sentence because I did not (till now) know the word proprioception. I agree with vorfeed on this, and since you've updated that you've got access to some weights I would suggest strength training and getting a yoga dvd (or online subscription to a service? I'm afraid I don't have a recommendation).

Yoga is great for forging that connection between your brain and your body, and it's part of why I took it up.
posted by pymsical at 4:07 PM on April 13, 2012

It's a free-weight system that I'm not really used to, but it requires a lot more balance and uses all of your muscles for stabilizing-- do you think that will help?

A lot of people feel that this is actually one of the primary benefits of free weights, that it gives you a 'realistic/natural' whole body workout without requiring a lot of mental effort. One of the most popular programs/resources for beginning free weight training is Starting Strength, a very basic and clearly outlined program that assumes nothing to start with. If you search it on metafilter it has come up a lot. However if your husband knows how to lift weights then definitely get him to show you, that beats learning out of a book easily.
posted by jacalata at 4:31 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know, but I suspect the woman who draws I DO NOT HAVE AN EATING DISORDER (a comic about her recovery) could be quite helpful. She responds to reader questions quite regularly.
posted by heatherann at 4:37 PM on April 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Are there any movement classes where you live? Not just Yoga, but any kind of dance or martial art would help too. Especially if it's something you've never done before.

As you learn the new movements you'll become more familiar with your own body.

If you can't find a class then there are about a million DVDs you can try. Just pick something new and go for it.
posted by TooFewShoes at 5:22 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sort of similar to the mirror idea - you could try having a lot of pictures of yourself at your current weight around, doing cool things and looking happy. might not help you with the physical discomfort, but maybe will bring your unconscious brain around by seeing those positive images of your current body.

Additionally, my therapist (who is great) does sessions via video chat / Skype. You can look him up at aquietroom dot com. I am not sure how he is with body image issues, but perhaps worth a shot.
posted by ReBoMa at 6:33 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are also many yoga podcasts, DVDs, and books you could try.

QFT. In 1984 I used a book to learn. I also have a deck of laminated cards, which is nice since you don't have to turn pages or hold a book open. But there are spiral bound books, and, yes, DVDs.
posted by jgirl at 7:01 PM on April 13, 2012

I read a study (sorry I can't find it) but basically it pointed out that women with eating disorders have similar brain activity compared with those people who feel like their limbs are foreign and want them amputated because they don't feel right.
posted by misspony at 2:32 AM on April 14, 2012

I have had similar issues and also am in recovery from an eating disorder. One thing that helps is finding clothes that fit awesomely and make me feel attractive as I am now. When I first gained the weight back I dressed really schlubby because I wanted to hide. But I think that just made me feel worse every time I looked in the mirror. So now I shop carefully to find clothes that will play up my figure (notice I did not say hide my flaws) and make me feel confident.

I suggest watching episodes of What Not to Wear for inspiration. One thing that's great about the show is that they (Stacy and Clinton - the American version) never tell someone they have to lose weight to look good.
posted by imalaowai at 11:17 AM on April 14, 2012

It is hard to accept a body that's changing with age. Especially when one's struggled with eating disorders. Been there, done that, and currently trying not to get bent out of shape emotionally because the numbers on the scale are not what I'd like them to be.

Good luck, and know you're not alone.
posted by Val_E_Yum at 12:19 PM on April 14, 2012

Yoga is something that can be done through the internet (look up videos), so you don't have to drive 5 hrs to a yoga studio! And jogging is something you can do without going to the crappy local gym in town.

And as others said, hang out naked for a few minutes each day! Look at your body naked every day when you're changing! It's a great way to visually and mentally get used to your body so you're comfortable with it.
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 10:52 PM on April 14, 2012

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