Complicated Feelings: Bodies and Guilt

Complicated feelings: bodies and guiltSome time ago I wrote here about weightlifting helping alleviate my focus on the scale and size. Welp. I feel like I have to be honest with you: I don’t always feel that way. Lately I have felt like a tangle of emotions regarding weight, size and the gym. Guilt becomes my overriding feeling. And that is the worst.

Six or so weeks ago I decided I wanted to see my muscles more. I wanted to stop buying pants every six months, too, so I figured stabilizing my size by shedding some body fat is the way to go. I would LOVE to see my muscles more. It’s not that I feel like I should take up less space (usually) or that I’m not entitled to just be me (ok, sometimes that is an issue. We’ll get there). But I work so hard on these muscles I would very much like them to pop a bit more.

Since it’s summer and I’m not on contract I have more gym time. I’m a regular gym goer–I try to lift three days and do some conditioning like the rowing machine 2-3 other days. I love the gym once I’m there, but getting there isn’t always easy. And 5-6 days is serious.

I’m also not rushing so much and thus–theoretically–have good control over what I’m eating. And eating is the issue. At my request, my trainer gave me a calorie and macro target. And, consequent to my tenacious behavior in all things (not always a positive), I’m a religious food tracker. I’m generally on target, tho not always.

Complicated feelings: bodies and guilt
hello, beery, my old friend

He also told me to cut out sunny summer cocktails, cold beers, and the like. I confess, that kind of instruction is hard for me to swallow (ha). I don’t like being told what to do, and I don’t like feeling like I’m setting myself up to fail (cough). And so, we get to guilt.

Did I not make it to the gym? Guilt.

Did I eat more than I should have? Far too many carbs? Guilt.

Did I have a margarita? Guilt.

These feelings alternate with “I’m an adult human. If I want a Saturday margarita, I’m having one” feelings. The “I am not here to deprive myself” feelings. I don’t know about you, but this whole situation becomes for me a vicious circle. And I start having bad feelings about my body, it’s various squishes. I forget about my strength. Then–ready?–I FEEL GUILTY ABOUT FEELING GUILTY BECAUSE I’M A MODERN FEMINIST, DAMMIT, AND KNOW THESE FEELINGS ARE BULLSHIT.

My head spins. Rationally, I know all of this is not worth the emotion they cost, but I’m not great at not-feeling what I’m feeling. Right now, writing at a friend’s house, having completed one project’s page proofs and now drafting this, I’m feeling like a lunch with beer sounds awesome. But later–having missed my Monday lift and had god knows what–I’ll feel less awesome about it.

And I know that this feeling cycle is likely rooted in self-perceptions that I’m not worth flexibility and treats, that I fear not being in control, that I’m somehow letting myself down by not sticking to the program. I tend to set up rigid parameters (“ok, one little splurge a week!”) that set me up for frustration because I’m not about to turn down the occasional request from a friend to go out.

The solution isn’t “well, get a salad for lunch!,” I’d argue, because it’s not getting at the underlying issues which I guess are that I have complex feelings about my worthiness, that when I’m not adhering to my regiment (whatever it is) I feel like a failure. And I know that these feelings aren’t true–I know I am awesome, at least in my head, but my head and my gut don’t always align.

Do you have complex body feelings? How do you (or have you) deal(t) with them?


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11 thoughts on “Complicated Feelings: Bodies and Guilt

  1. Yep, I feel this. I was always a chubby but athletic/strong kid. But ever since age 5 I got the message from my parents and my doctors that I was too big and needed to diet. My doctor went as far as showing me a growth chart with “the normal kids” vs. me, and the me line was soaring up off the top of the page. I don’t even think I was 10 years old. By the time I got halfway through college, exercise was a punishment for “letting” my body be too heavy. I quit my sport, which I loved, for a number of reasons, but one of which was because I wanted to quit weight lifting (and eating, tbh). No surprise I have a diagnosis of ED NOS in my medical records history.

    It’s been 10 years since then and I steadily packed on the pounds even though I was doing tons of cardio. I didn’t even realize how heavy I got because I hadn’t looked at the scale in 7 years. I had come to terms with the fact that I’d always be heavy because I’m naturally very muscular, and the scale wasn’t a representation of my health. Which is a great attitude (that took tons of therapy to develop… TONS). But I finally got up the courage to look at the scale at a recent doctor’s appointment (I recently turned 30 and decided that it is to be a decade of facing anxieties rather than turning away), and was surprised to see that I was 40 lbs heavier than I thought! I knew that my weight had fluctuated over the years based on the fit of my clothing, but I had never had to change sizes.

    Despite all the therapy and positivity and mantras, I freaked the hell out. I took that day off from the gym so I didn’t hurt myself by going too hard (been there, done that, months of physical therapy), and laid out a plan to lose weight. And after this long reply, this is where the complicated feelings step in. Part of me feels like I’m betraying the years of therapy by going back to meticulously tracking calories and macros and minutes spent in the gym. But on the other hand, I feel like I have a better attitude about it this time around (and I’ve let my doctor know what I’m doing in the event that I feel another therapy consult is needed in case I obsess). I’m doing it for myself, not to look a certain way or please my parents or doctors. If I never dip below 200 lbs again, that’s fine by me. I was in the best shape of my life at 185 anyway. (and don’t even get me started on BMI) And I’m lifting again because it’s what I like to do, and I finally educated myself on the benefits of lifting and HIIT. But again, it’s because it’s what I like to do.

    Whew! Thanks for pointing me towards this article.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Meg. And your last paragraph sounds so much like me. I know exactly how you feel. And even going it for me, I beat myself up. I hate it. I feel like I”m betraying all I worked for mentally, and then around and around I go.

      And yeah, BMI is garbage. GAAARBAGGGGE.

      1. Oh, and Meg–I also can echo your childhood experiences, without the athleticism–I remembering overhearing my grandfather once say to my mom that I was overweight (I was 11). And doctors, all the doctors. I haven’t made my annual appointment yet because I know I’ll hear about putting the weight back on since last year (it’s mostly muscle! I swear!)

        1. I avoided the doctors for a very long time. My PCP is actually mindful of my history with eating and over exercising. When she told me “The weight loss conversation is never one I’ll force on you, we’ll only talk about it if you bring it up,” I burst into tears.

          My BMI was at one point was in the “candidate for WLS” range. I’m so surprised no medical professional ever approached me about it. Probably because I have a lot of muscle and don’t LOOK like a candidate for WLS.

          1. My MD seems fine when I say “I exercise 4-6 days/week and I lift 200 lbs off the floor.” The year before that, she gave me a stern look because my BMI was high. Eyeroll.

            A real highlight, tho: last week, when I popped into the urgent care center (where my PCP is) for an infected finger, they of course weighed me. When the nurse entered it into their system she got a popup box that said “this is more than 10% higher than last visit.” it was all red, like I”d done something horrific and it needed attention. I hadn’t been there in god knows how long, and I leaned over and said, “sure, that’s probably right”–I had probably dropped to 130 or so pounds last I was there and was 157 or whatever this time.

  2. I’m aware that body image is a more pervasive issue for women, so let me share my experience with mental health and exercise, which is somewhat similar to what you’re describing but maybe more generalized.

    One of my motivations for exercising is to turn off my brain, to get into a state of “flow.” Swimming is best because I have to think so much about my stroke, but biking and running work too. A related benefit is that the endorphins help alleviate depression. But I sometimes have a problem that’s analogous to what you describe: my brain tells me that going for a run will make me feel better, but my body tells me that lying in bed in the fetal position is what’s best at the moment. And that leads me to blame myself rather than my brain chemicals. Being depressed is so fucking depressing. (I don’t want to make it sound worse than it is. This only happens a couple times a year, and I never have problems getting out of bed).

    So the upshot is that exercise is a totally healthy response to low self-esteem or depression (good for the body AND the mind), but it can still be a way to avoid meeting the problem head on. Experiencing a “flow” state under controlled circumstances is great, but not really a substitute for everyday mental health. What I’m doing recently for self-esteem is a kind of amateur cognitive behavioral therapy (amateur meaning I got it from a self-help book and not a professional). In a nutshell: learn to identify negative thoughts, quickly defuse them by reminding yourself that they aren’t true, and then let them go. It’s still an ongoing effort. CBT is one of the more evidence-supported therapeutic approaches; look into it if you’re inclined.

    1. Oh, I’ve been through CBT on other stuff–I know the drill. And believe me, I try. I can cognitively say “this thought is bullshit” over and over but it doesn’t *feel* that way. It doesn’t deep-down register. For a lot of women this is an ongoing cycle, for decades, built in part by socialization and expectations and in part by our own mental health issues.

      I’m sorry to hear about your depression–it is indeed the worst, especially *those* days. Good luck.

  3. As you may have noticed from my photos on FB my body changes comp, and shape, and size with great regularity. AND yes I am food obsessed. AND I was raised to believe that if you do not present as slim and well groomed you are not lovable. AND I spend my time surrounded by freak athlete 20 somethings with tight bodies and strict macros, so I get all of this. And I am a noisy feminist. The only thing that I have found that has worked has two prongs:

    The first you hear a lot. I make peace with my body as it is in any given moment – to find what I love and to think about caring for it so it performs better. Caring for it involves all things self-care: sleep, diet, meditation, dealing with anxiety.

    The second is to prioritize ALL of my goals and allow that to shift as goals are met and seasons change. Going into my last meet my goal was to get my totals up. As much as I liked the idea of getting my totals up, losing fat, getting my career off the ground, being the best mom in the world and winning all the things, I finally accepted that I cannot do all the things at 100% at once. I realized that my priorities were family, big lifts, career. I ate what I wanted, lifted big, got stronger (and fatter,) and got my career off the ground. Coming off my meet, having reached these goals, I adjusted my priorities to family, career, improve body comp a bit. And I did this. I dropped two inches in the waist and one inch in the arm and got a job in my new field. NOW it is summer, a season where I tend to gain weight because ICE CREAM AND MARGARITAS!!! So my current priorities are family, career, bigger lifts, maintain body comp. I will stay with this until my next meet in October. And then I will cut again. Or not, if my priorities shift unexpectedly.

    I am speaking to compassion. It really behooves us to be compassionate with ourselves and recognize that we are human. We have limitations (practical and emotional) and we cannot do everything all the time at 100%. And I am speaking to the fact that things are ever in flux so we must be too – with our priorities.

    I know this struggle. It is real. All I can say is be tenaciously gentle with yourself.

    1. You’re so cute, tenaciously gentle. And you’re right–I tell students to be compassionate with themselves all the time, partly because I know it’s hard and so reiterating it can’t hurt.

      You’re super amazing, Laura! And I’m with you on the margaritas 🙂

      1. Thank you. Like the rest of us, I am a work in progress. I have just spent a lot of time working on this in particular :D. Also I have worked on perfecting my margarita recipe.

        1. Mine’s pretty straightforward–1.5oz tequila, .75oz lime juice, and triple sec–depending on mood, between .5 and 1 oz 🙂 Ice, stir, drink (no shaker here).

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