My body image is making me withdraw from the world
July 26, 2007 3:34 PM   Subscribe

My body-image issues are getting in the way of my ability to go out and have fun. I don't know where to go next.

I've been struggling with body-image issues since I was little. For a long time I was convinced I was so ugly I should be lucky people talked to me without wearing a bag over my head. I had an eating disorder in a little under a decade ago and though it did not last long I still struggle with food issues. I now feel a lot better about my appearance, but it's recently become clear I still have major issues.

Basically, I have extreme reluctance to go out/get dressed up/visit friends I haven't seen in a while because I'm self-conscious about my weight. I need to lose about 10-20lbs to get to a healthy body-fat percentage/body weight. I've been trying off and on for years, and each failure adds additional stress and self-hatred. Which makes things worse, because I often start gaining the weight back when I hit a period of stress and don't have time for the gym but do have time to run around the corner and stuff myself with crap food.

I feel fat even though objectively I've been told I carry the weight well and most people estimate me to be 30 or 40lbs less than I actually am. I still feel ugly and gross. Whenever I try to dress up for bars or clubs the combination of my lack of fashion sense and ill-fitting clothes makes me hate myself and the way I look. I plan trips to visit far-away friends but cancel them because I feel like I've gained weight and I want them to see a thinner, better-looking, "re-made" me; I can't stand to face them the way I look now.

A lot of this could be fixed by buying better-fitting clothes since many of mine were bought at a smaller weight. I know they do a lot. But I don't want to buy better fitting clothes for that time when I hope I'll actually lose the weight--I don't have money to spend on clothes I might not fit into in six months. I've tried going to thrift stores but I get so anxious about trying things on I freak out and buy nothing. When I bring someone along (when they'll come--most of my friends hate shopping at thrift stores), all that happens is they get to witness the meltdown.

It is ridiculous how closely my confidence is tied to my body image. As I said, I don't even believe I have an unhealthy view of a ideal body weight. If anything, it's heavier than the cultural ideal. If I just lost the pounds I know the confidence would go up because it has in the past.

I don't know what to do. I blame myself for not having the willpower to take the weight off and keep it off. I can't ditch keep ditching my friends, but seeing them and going out makes me miserable. I can't buy new clothes because if I do take the weight off it will be a waste of money. I feel lost and confused.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
But I don't want to buy better fitting clothes for that time when I hope I'll actually lose the weight--I don't have money to spend on clothes I might not fit into in six months.

Don't agonize about the clothes. Buy some new stuff that fits well, that you look and feel good in. When you're short on scratch six months from now and 20 lbs lighter, you'll be thrilled to have such problems; and if you're where you are right now weight-wise, you'll be wearing good-fitting clothes and the money issue will be moot.

Body image issues suck, but perpetuating your misery out of a conditional short term money-savings is not a great way to improve your outlook. Feel good right now; losing and keeping off the weight is going to take time and discipline, and there's no reason to punish yourself on top of that.
posted by cortex at 4:00 PM on July 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

You need to post this to a place like ask.metafilter so that people like me can say that 10-20lbs is nothing and not worth tying yourself up in knots over. Your problem with your weight lies elsewhere, as exhibited by your refusal to even buy clothes that fit you.

Shit or get off the pot: lose weight so you don't have to buy more clothes, or buy more clothes so you look better at the size you currently are. Quit blaming and start doing.
posted by rhizome at 4:01 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

First, this was hard for me to accept myself, but ignore anything you hear/read about "ideal body weight" or Body Mass Indexes or anything like that. While I'm overweight, and also over-conscious of my body, according to health magazines I need to lose 45 pounds to be my "ideal weight." If I lost 45 pounds I'd look emaciated.

Second, if you need new clothes, buy new clothes. And don't EVER do the "buy it a size too small to ENCOURAGE you" thing. It only makes you depressed to see it on the hanger. Don't look at your clothes being too big if you lose weight as a waste of money. By refusing to buy a wardrobe relative to your current frame, whatever it is, you're subconsciously "punishing" yourself for being overweight. That's not the mentality you want to have.

That said, my initial response to this was going to be to say you might want to find a support group. But while this might be superficial, I actually think what would be much more helpful to you is a personal trainer. From what I am reading, and obviously I'm not a psychiatrist, you're not in denial about a body image issue, and assuming you actually are what is physically described as overweight (in other words, you're not suffering from anorexia, bulemia, etc.) then you are openly accepting you need to get in shape, but lack the resolve to do so. This is exactly what personal trainers and life coaches at larger gyms/spas are for.

Almost any major chain will offer a free session. It was very scary for me first when I went to one, but they really did offer advice I am still using to this day- even proper explanations of how to use equipment made it easier for me to work out, and therefore make it easier for me to get to the gym three times a week. They will also have nutritionist experience, which is vital for someone like you who admittedly has dealt with eating disorder problems.

Finally, and this was one of the best bits of advice a trainer gave me, you will have access to group classes. For both the exercise and human contact reasons this is incredibly beneficial.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 4:01 PM on July 26, 2007

Just watch one of those shows like "What Not to Wear" and watch how instantly happier the people get when they dump their 5 year old shirts and get something new. People get stuck in the past and need a little nudge sometimes to get back on track.

It sounds like you're trying to punish yourself into losing weight by not getting yourself new clothes. It's not working. Why not try something new - buy yourself clothes for right now. Live for right now.
posted by lubujackson at 4:10 PM on July 26, 2007

Most ready-to-wear clothing is out of style in six months anyhow: buy what fits you now.

Also check into getting a haircut: based on what you've said about not wanting to go out, not wanting to spend money, etc., I'll bet it's been a while since you've had your hair styled. A nicely shaped head of hair goes a long way from drawing focus away from your body.
posted by jamaro at 4:20 PM on July 26, 2007

Oh dear.

No amount of weight you lose is going to make you feel better. It just isn't. Your root problem isn't to do with fat cells or body mass index or food at ALL. It's in your attitude toward yourself. And though I hate to be one of those "omg therapy therapy" people, omg therapy therapy. CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) re-trains you to think your way back out of the pits you talk yourself into. And I could not recommend CBT more for the pain you're feeling. I promise you it would work. Please consider it.
posted by loiseau at 4:20 PM on July 26, 2007

As I said, I don't even believe I have an unhealthy view of a ideal body weight.

You are interested in norms, as the above sentence demonstrates. To calibrate your idea of what is normal, perhaps it would interest you to learn that I spend maybe 10 minutes a week seriously thinking about things like this. It doesn't affect my life at all. I happen to be about 20-30 lbs overweight, but it doesn't affect my ability to relate to others or feel comfortable in company.

There's something unhealthy in the way you're perceiving things. It may not be that you've picked an unhealthy weight in pounds as 'ideal'. But it's not healthy to have this kind of self-esteem issue from any physical problem. You could probably benefit from some psychotherapy to address this.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:39 PM on July 26, 2007

Anonymous, I have no experience dealing with an eating disorder myself, but I can say that as a slightly overweight gay man (basically about the same as you say you are, about 15 pounds over what I want), the pressure to fit an Abercrombie-catalog platonic ideal is so heated here in southern California that I've opted out of the whole thing by tuning out of mass culture: that's the level of commitment it has taken to allow my slightly-pudgy self get on with life.

It's actually rather drastic, but has been somewhat purifying and very fulfilling. Essentially, I stopped watching TV, I don't buy magazines, and I shop at stores that don't have seven-foot-tall topless guys plastered onto the walls. I switched my shopping to Trader Joe's from the supermarket, (where it was all too easy to just buy totally crap food) so now when I shop, the staff is small enough to have a whole conversation with me about what wine pairs well with what cheese, making the whole thing actually an enjoyable quest for tasty, healthy food rather than a chore. I even moved abroad for a year, and am doing so again at the end of the summer, partly because work is there (I'm an English teacher) and partly because it means a healthier work-life balance: I pay less for rent and health care and transport than I would at home, and I know I'll be walking and biking a lot more than I do here in suburban LA, leading to better health in the long run, regardless of my weight today or next month or next year.

And by making these choices - some might work for you, some might not - I've been able to see my health as something beyond my weight; I'm less stressed because I have way more time: I started blogging a few weeks ago and I'm cooking at home more (which means I'm eating better). I've found I'm the one calling people to see who can go out tonight instead of being the one to say that I can't go out because I've got to do X (and then guiltily not even doing X because I'm too tired or stressed!), because I had time to do X yesterday.

So my advice, then, is to look at your life and evaluate how you can make it healthier outside of your weight. Could you change your diet or your commute to be healthier? Could you sign up for something in the evenings that you look forward to, like a lecture series or a class? You mention stress and a lack of confidence: what can you do to alleviate those things that doesn't involve weight loss?

Good luck, and don't be afraid to change things you think are just givens - your job, where you live, who you're with - if it means better health and more confidence. And don't be afraid to consult a psychologist or a counselor about this either!

Finally, here's another gay guy's question about a tangentially similar issue.
posted by mdonley at 4:55 PM on July 26, 2007 [4 favorites]

I'm about 20lb overweight at present. I am rather unhappy about this, to the point where I'll have 'fat and ugly' days once in a while, where I'll just look at myself and feel depressed as hell.

What has helped is two things: one, buying a couple of cheap, cute tops that fit, so I at least look good for the weight I am; two, actually taking action by joining a gym and working out on a regular basis. I too did not want to replace my entire wardrobe, since it isn't going to fit about 6 months from now. I've spent only a little bit of money on new clothes, but I feel loads better that I have a couple of items that I *know* I look good in. I feel good after every workout, because I know I'm getting closer to my goal, too, and that really helps.

YMMV, etc.
posted by ysabet at 4:56 PM on July 26, 2007

The best diet in the word is incredibly, incredibly simple: happiness.

If you are happy, active in the world, excited about hobbies, involved with other people, and fulfilled with the rest of life, it is so much easier to forget about both food and any extra pounds you have. For many people, an unhealthy weight is indicative of a deeper, more meaningful unhealthiness. Obsessing about weight rarely does anything when your abusive relationship with food is due to an unresolved problem. But, if you can get a hang on that deeper problem and, say, resolve it, then weight ceases to be a problem.

The hard part, of course, is figuring out how to be happy. For you, it seems a lot of that will be coming to understand what it is that makes you valuable to yourself and others--what it is that makes you good. That will very likely involve therapy and continuing that long hard journey into self-acceptance. But it will work. It will help you. Try to think of the task in front of you as entirely mental--you are thinking in a bad way and need to learn how to think in a good way. Do not think of this in terms of your body, in terms of getting your body to fit your standard or your clothing. That is, by far, the less important aspect of this situation. Get yourself to understand that your happiness does not depend on your weight, and then learn how to become happy. It is at that point that your weight will be far easier to manage.

It's so easy to spell out, but so hard to actually do, I know. But you can. It will take effort, and it will probably take far more effort than simply continuing to try to diet. But it will be worth it. You can do it, and you deserve to do it.
posted by Ms. Saint at 4:59 PM on July 26, 2007

I've been there too - those few extra pounds can make you feel like such a loser.

It's really hard to get the ball rolling with weight loss, but once you are going you feel good about yourself and that keeps you motivated. Start slow but definitely start.

You could try eating as much as you want but all fruits and veggies for a few days. That's simple, makes you feel good fast and you won't be hungry. A good way to kick off a diet. Try apples, pears, corn, peppers, carrots and cucumbers. After you feel more in control you'll be able to come up with a longer term diet.
posted by MiffyCLB at 5:01 PM on July 26, 2007

I have been where you are, I really empathize with your experience. My body image is much better now than it used to be. I can look at myself naked in the mirror and not cringe at all. I can dance and move and not worry about my "fat rolls" or my jiggling skin. Or the fact that I'm so short. But it's not willpower that changed things, nor any notions of "get over it".

As long as you hate your body as it is right now, you won't be able to properly care for it. It's much more important that you love your body than that you lose even one more pound. Not only will you be physically healthier once you stop dieting (losing and regaining is much worse than staying as you are), you'll also be emotionally healthier.

Every woman knows that when you wear a flattering, hot feel better. I didn't used to know that, since I've been fat all my life and always hated shopping. But I started buying hot clothes....and it wasn't long before I felt much better about myself, without having lost a pound. Right now you're treating your body as if it something you have to fight rather than embrace. But if it's a war between you and your body, then there's no way you could ever win.

It won't be a waste of money if, for just one night, you can go out and feel like a princess. I've been losing weight slowly but steadily, and it's because I'm not fighting so hard anymore, and not needing to eat to make myself feel better. I can make myself feel good by dressing up, and going out....and what do you know, that means I'm also more active and end up eating better since food is no longer my focus. I've dropped two sizes, but I look at my old, fashionable clothes with fondness. Even though they're too big now, boy did they make me feel good and appreciate my assets. Boy weren't they part of some fun and interesting times. And I can feel even better when I donate them.

Perhaps start with shoes. Once you have nice shoes (maybe a hip pair of sneaks), you'll soon find you need to buy clothes to go with them. And one day, accessories even (took me two years to think about accessories).

Look in the mirror at your naked body, and find one thing, anything, you can genuinely compliment yourself on. If you can't do that yet, just try looking in the mirror. Then one day look and smile at yourself. Force it if you must, and you may end up crying. That's okay. Replace your daily appointment with the scale with an appointment with the mirror. If critical thoughts come to mind (they probably will), don't give voice to them. Say out loud only something positive, even if it's just one thing.
posted by Danila at 5:03 PM on July 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

I blame myself for not having the willpower to take the weight off and keep it off.

90-95% of people who lose weight put it back on. If it's because of a lack of willpower, it's something you share with almost every other human.
posted by callmejay at 5:45 PM on July 26, 2007

Take a deep breath and repeat after me:
My body size and shape are in no way indicative of my value as a human being. I deserve clothes that fit me.
As a portly gent, I am all too familiar with people's attitudes toward me. I can't control their attitudes; I can only control mine. Achieving a healthy weight is important but believing that I'm a valuable person regardless of my size is just as important. Don't focus on your body, focus on you.
posted by SteveTheRed at 5:53 PM on July 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

It would take you 6 to 8 months to lose 20 lbs at a healthy 2-3 lbs per month average loss rate. In 6 months, clothes you purchase at your current weight may well be worn out, or you may no longer like them. You can recover some of your money by selling them, or by donating them, and taking the tax deduction. Those you still like can often be easily altered for your new dimensions (particularly slacks, sweaters, and unconstructed jackets). Other things, like sweaters, would still look good on you, even if you were 20 pounds lighter, by using them as a top layer over shirts, or in outfits where they are worn with belts, or jackets, or intentionally bloused over your belt/waist line & pushed way up your sleeve.

So, despite what you are telling yourself to the contrary, there is really very little economic reason to forgo buying clothes that fit you at your current weight, assuming you don't go wild, and continue to buy sensibly as your life and diet plans play out. Start by giving yourself permission to get one decent outfit for The Real You Now, which probably really deserves it from the sound of your post, and see if that isn't the primer in your pump to Go Do Something.
posted by paulsc at 6:23 PM on July 26, 2007

Great stuff here. Play this song. a lot.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 6:58 PM on July 26, 2007

To hear people address weight-related confidence problems with "value yourself" before "lose weight" is wonderful. They are right--the only way to truly be happy is to fall in love with yourself. Say tomorrow you woke up 40 lbs. thinner. If you didn't love yourself, your concerns would go straight to the next characteristic you consider an imperfection.

Your extreme reluctance to go out is also pretty symptomatic of depression. I, too, am not gung-ho on therapy, but I think that finding a non-judgmental person to help you work through what you write about could be a great first step to feeling better about who you are. I would wager that most people have pangs of what you feel on a daily basis, but the fact that it is taking over your life might do well to be addressed.
posted by sian at 8:00 PM on July 26, 2007

When you're old, saggy, and 50+ lbs overweight, you'll look back at photos of yourself from this period in your life and think, "Jeez, I didn't look bad at all. Why did I stop living life because of my appearance? Now I regret it."

Over half the population is overweight, so don't assume that everyone is watching and judging you.

Finally, when you only have time to run to the nearest McDonalds to buy crap food, buy a chicken salad. Almost every fast food chain has healthy options available. Having no time to eat healthy food is not valid argument anymore.

Finally, read this fun, sweet essay by Anne Lamott. It will make you feel so much better. Embrace your body.
posted by HotPatatta at 9:09 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

When I was anorexic, I used to stay home from parties because I thought I had gained weight and people would notice. I was underweight--but I still limited my activities for the same reasons you do. What I'm trying to say is that it's NOT about how you actually look. It's about depression and self-worth. Those are the things to fix.

I haven't been anorexic for a while. I did suffer a period of compulsive eating during my recovery; and I can tell you that the weight and compulsive eating behaviors did not start to decrease until I bought a new wardrobe. Wearing clothes that fit and looked good meant I did not constantly feel guilty and I did not feel like hiding. As a result, I was more active, busy and satisfied, and the pounds fell off.

But the issues go beyond weight and clothes. Your body image is just a manifestation of how you feel; there are deeper issues of self-worth that you have to get to if you ever want to change. I agree with everyone who says love yourself.
posted by chelseagirl at 7:05 AM on July 27, 2007

Buy clothes that fit the body you have NOW, not the body you WISH you had.

Will make a big difference.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 8:34 AM on July 27, 2007

Go buy some clothes that fit you and make you feel good, then if you can afford it visit your friends. Friends care and love you based on who you are as a person, not what size you are. A good dose of laughter and acceptance will make you feel better in the long run and make attaining your goals much easier. There is no need or benefit to depriving yourself of people who care about you. Good luck
posted by estronaut at 9:00 AM on July 27, 2007

Life is too short to wait until you're the perfect size. I am at least 150 pounds from a healthy weight. When I go out to dinner some place nice, I try on a bunch of outfits, wondering which make me look best. When my friends invite me to the public pool that they belong to, I wonder what people think when they see me in my bathing suit. But I go to dinner, I go to the pool. I am not willing to put my life on hold. I buy clothes that look good on the me that I am now, and I rock the hell out of them.

Please, please, please, if you can't find it in yourself to love the body you're in, get some help. If your friends really are so shallow that they care that much about appearance, make some new friends. Your self-worth is not your size, and it is absolutely okay to love yourself no matter what size you are. Certainly continue to eat healthy and exercise, but do it because it's good for you. If you are healthy (good blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar) don't worry about the 10-20 pounds. If you can afford a little clothes shopping, buy 1 or 2 outfits that look absolutely fabulous on you right now.

But start with loving yourself. It's really okay to do that. You're not a failure.
posted by booksherpa at 9:19 AM on July 27, 2007

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