I’ve always struggled with body-image issues and been unhappy with how I looked. It’s only been in the past decade that I’ve had moments, rare but wonderful moments, when I liked what I saw in the mirror or in a photo. Despite quickly approaching 40, those moments are occurring more frequently now.
I’ve worked on this blog post off and on for many months now, unsure of how to approach the topic. It wasn’t until I read my friend Scott McGlothlen’s post Posing Naked: The Good Kind of Awkward (link is safe for work) that I realized what I needed to do was just be honest and vulnerable.
It starts early and follows us forever
Like many of us, my body-image issues started very young. I remember in middle school my dad took my brother and I to an after-school basketball program. I had so much shame taking my shirt off for the “skins” team that I refused to go back after the first night. I’m uncertain my Dad had any idea the real reason why I refused to go back, but to his credit he didn’t force me.
I am very fortunate that I didn’t grow up in a hyper-masculine household. I was never shamed by my family for how I looked, yet shame I had nonetheless.
In college I once went on a bike ride without a shirt and was ridiculed waiting at a stop sign by guys in a pickup truck telling me to stop embarrassing myself and put a shirt on.
In 2012 while I was riding a bus to work someone took a photo of me, posted it on Facebook, and their friends proceeded to comment on how disproportionate I looked.
Neither of those incidents did anything to make me feel better about how I looked.
Physical and mental workouts
Over the years I’ve put a lot of effort into how I look and how I think about myself.
Shortly after I started working for IBM in 2000 I got a gym membership and began working out in the mornings before work. Every workday lifting weights or running. 16 years later and I still go to the gym every weekday morning before work. On the weekends I run with friends and sometimes run half-marathons.
I have undoubtably made progress on how I look physically, progress I am very happy about. I have also made noticeable strides in how I feel about myself and that’s the progress that I’m happiest with. I’ve finally accepted that I will never look like the models we’re marketed with and that’s OK. I don’t always love what I see in the mirror, but I am at least content with the image I see. That’s huge strides from two decades ago.
Take more, not fewer, pictures
Because of my body-image issues, I’ve almost always hated pictures of myself. My mental critiques run something like:
That photo has the profile of the nose that I hate.
I’m smiling like a dork in that one.
Oh god, all you can see is how skinny I am.
Yet in some ways pictures are one of the best things to show us that we change over time. That those hours at the gym are actually doing something, something we don’t see day-to-day in the mirror. That concerted effort of eating better really has shrunk those love-handles. That maybe, just maybe, we’ve grown into that nose that we hate1.
Pictures provide a great opportunity for some mental growth too although posting them on social media is a double-edged sword. It’s hard being vulnerable, and strangers can be real assholes sometimes, but nothing gives you a shot of confidence than having friends like and comment on a picture of you.
If the social-media hive-mind thinks I look good, maybe I do.
Maybe the internal record I play for myself is a broken reflection of the reality, a reality that others see differently.
Recently a friend who dislikes pictures of herself showed me a photo of her taken at a work party that she adored. In the photo she is beaming and beautiful — just as she appears to me every time we’re together. In that photo she was finally able to see what the rest of see daily.
Maybe we need to take more pictures of ourselves to finally capture those moments for us that others see all the time.
For my birthday in 2016 I gave myself a rather interesting birthday present: a photoshoot. Those moments when I liked what I see in the mirror had come more frequently and I wanted to memorialize it, for fear it might never happen again.
I asked my friend and photographer Ryan Pennington if he were willing, and he agreed. I knew Ryan would make me feel at ease and that at the end of the process if I didn’t like any of the photos, he would know it was due to my own issues and not his skills as a photographer.
Sometime during the middle of the shoot Ryan took a picture and showed me the camera. Without really thinking I exclaimed: “Damn, he’s hot. Oh wait that’s me!“. That’s the sign of a good photographer, folks.
The shoot was 7 hours and produced 800 photos. That set got culled to a final set of 70 that I love. Let me say that again a little louder: I have 70 photos of me that I love. I didn’t think I would ever be able to say that.
I shared several of them with friends on Facebook and guess what: they loved them too. My friend Jason Silzer commented on a photo with this pearl of wisdom that I am still trying to integrate into my reality:
Now you see what we all already see.
That’s so incredibly hard to believe, but I keep trying.
All of us struggle
Why am I writing all of this? My hope, my vain hope, is that knowing I have body-image issues helps someone else realize that they are not alone in theirs. That everyone has body-image issues. Old, young, men, women, boys, girls, straight, gay, cis, trans.
That good looking guy walking down the street? He probably has some body-image issues. And that cute girl always posting pictures of herself on Facebook may be dealing with some of the same self-esteem issues you are. We always present our best selves to the world, particularly on social media, but that doesn’t mean we alway believe the image we’re presenting.
It’s incredibly hard, but I encourage you to try and see yourself as others see you. None of us are as ugly as we think.