Perception and Self Image in a World of Skinny Jeans

When I showed up for high school I weighed 175 pounds.  I’m 5’2″ on a good day.

I went to Catholic school and had to wear a uniform.  Catholic school uniforms are not known for their great fashion sense.  My particular uniform included a jacket with padded shoulders (it was 1970 and padded shoulders were certainly not the rage), a bulky “gold” (read “sickly tarnished yellow”) sweater, and an “A line” skirt that had could be no more than 2 inches above “mid knee” when mini skirts were the norm.

The combination of my weight and the uniform gave one the impression that I had just suited up to play the defensive line on the football team.

I’d been a fat kid since about the age of 9 or so – not chubby, fat.  The kind of fat that gets you signaled out as “weird” at school and, for the first two years of high school, I continued to play the part.

The summer of my sophomore year I decided I didn’t want to be fat anymore – and I found out how I could make that happen one night watching the Johnny Carson show.  At the time there were popular young celebrity women going on very dangerous “fasts” – one of whom was on the show and looked fantastically skinny to me.

It was my “Eureka” moment and right there I decided I would just not eat.  My menu was to eat an apple or two and a few saltine crackers.  I drank a lot of tea.  I chewed a lot of sugarless gum.  That summer I lost 50 pounds.

And a very strange thing happened when I showed up at my high school to buy my books.

Two of the most popular boys in my class were standing where they could chat up the girls as we waited in line.  As I walked up, one of the boys , to my great amazement, started to do just that.  Now these weren’t just any popular guys – they were boys who had snickered as I walked by.  One of them had made a rank remark when he’d been assigned to my lab table in biology pointing out to his friend who’d been assigned to another table with skinny pretty girls that some guys had all the luck.

I was shocked they were even acknowledging my presence. To my even greater amazement I realized they were inviting me to “hang out later in the cafeteria” with them after I’d bought my books.

It hit me that they had absolutely no idea who I was.  And that’s what I said to them.

“You have no idea who I am do you?”

Of course, they didn’t.  Outside of someone to distance themselves from – I had been completely invisible to them.

I tell this story because one of the greatest challenges we face when we change our bodies is dealing with the change in how others perceive us and how we perceive ourselves.  I wasn’t able to sustain my high school weight loss and, looking back, I can see that a huge piece of the problem was that I had not prepared myself – actually I had no experience with – this person I’d become.

I wasn’t ready for the attention that I got – and I don’t just mean teenage boys wanting to go out with me.  What I really wasn’t ready for was people acting like I was “OK” – that I was “one of them”.  As a matter-of-fact,  I wasn’t sure I WANTED to be “one of them” – because they were the same people who’d ostracized me and made me feel “less than”.

Not a club I wanted to belong to but one I wanted so badly to join.

Talk about being in conflict with yourself.

And then there’s the other half of the coin – people in my life who HAD accepted and valued me when I was obese started to react to me differently.  Like there was something they could longer trust about me.  From some I even felt resentment for my having “changed”.  I remember one girlfriend claiming “I don’t know who you are anymore!”  That really hurt.

High school was a long time ago – but, because I was obese for a period of years and now I’m not, issues around self image as well as how others perceive me did not just “go away”.

For example, there have been a number of times when I’ve been at lunch with female colleagues and the subject turns to weight control and one of the women says something in a derisive tone like, “Of course YOU don’t need to worry about that.”  Sometimes I still look around the table to make sure she’s talking to me.

Those of you who are actively losing weight may face challenges that you did not expect.  You may be surprised to find that even the people who encouraged (or nagged) you to lose weight for years saying things like “Eat something, you shouldn’t starve yourself.”  Or maybe “Come on, every now and then you’ve got to give yourself a treat.”

As you progress and reach a healthy weight you might even have people suggesting that you should be worried that you might be becoming “anorexic”.  You might be accused of becoming “addicted to exercise.”

People you once felt close to may disappear from your life because you no longer fit their image of who you are supposed to be to them – your “changing” is a threat to their own self image.

On the other hand, you may become uncomfortable and not know how to handle people paying attention to you, placing a higher value on you just because you’re now “one of them” so to speak.

You may not recognize yourself in more ways than your physical appearance – and that can be pretty scary.

It is true that these are very real challenges – and that these challenges can represent threats to attaining and sustaining a healthy weight.

But inside every challenge is an opportunity.  Attaining a healthy weight was of course an important part of the process – but sustaining the loss brought with it opportunities for life-long personal growth and self discovery.  The process of sustaining a healthy weight keeps me outside my comfort zone – it stretches my notion of who I am and what I am capable of.  It forces me not only to set goals and objectives – but to set goals and objectives that are meaningful.  It causes me to consistently examine my values and live by my principles.

I didn’t lose weight – I gained a life of meaning and purpose.

There is great joy when we fit into those “skinny jeans” but is how we live in those skinny jeans that brings our lives meaning.

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