By Michael Kimmel | Life Beyond Therapy
My queer clients have it; my straight male clients have it; my older (and you’d hope wiser) clients have it.
Even I have it.
A good friend wants to start yoga, but told me, “I went to the class and everyone was so skinny. I felt enormous [she’s not], like my body was screaming to the world: ‘I eat unhealthy food and don’t work out.’ I can’t go back until I lose some weight.”
Summer body shame: Here we are.
I used to think it was just Pride season that brought this up big time. I’ve long had gay clients who say, “I want to work out this year so I can take my shirt off at Pride and look hot.” And, for months before Pride, they would work out like mad men so they could look “hot” for a few hours on a summer weekend.
It’s tempting to judge, but, let’s not. Instead, let’s ask a question: Is this really how you want to spend your time? If it’s worth it to you to spend all those hours to get the hoped-for admiration of others, go for it. If not, what are the options?
How do we find “the middle path” regarding our appearance when, regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality or economic background, it’s difficult to have a genuine conversation about body shame.
Even after years of self-reflection and my work as a therapist, I’ve achieved only a tentative satisfaction with my own body. Most of the time I’m OK with it, but recently I caught myself at a rather unflattering angle that made my tummy look enormous (at least, to me). Sigh. And shouldn’t I, a 64-year-old gay elder, be “above” this kind of superficial stuff?
Years ago, at a silent meditation retreat, a facilitator was talking about states of existence far beyond the human state, and as he talked about bliss and non-existence and all that highfalutin stuff, he said, “And, no matter how evolved you are, one of the last things to dissolve is your tendency to compare yourself to other people.”
I wanted to laugh, and then, cry. If even heightened states of existence come complete with comparison with others, what hope is there for me, down here on Earth, with this aging body and growing tummy?
And is this insecurity heightened for us as LGBTQers? As queer men and women, we are constantly bombarded with images of young, hot men and women — the Buff Boys and Gorgeous Girls of Summer — and expected to somehow emulate these amazing young people who, genetics aside, are probably spending thousands of dollars on gym memberships, protein powders (or worse) and eating so healthily that their amazing abs (and butts) look Photoshopped.
Most of us don’t want to — and can’t afford — to work that hard for that long to get that kind of body. We don’t have that luxury.
I once had a client who was on the cover of a men’s fitness magazine. He looked — of course — amazing. He confided to me that for three months before the photo shoot, he worked out “hard” for three hours a day and ate an ultra-restricted diet of approximately 21 things in order to look that way. And, yes, they still Photoshopped him: to even out his skin tone and take away his facial wrinkles, he said.
Writer Anne Lamott (one of my favorite authors) once advised her readers to pick the part of their body they were the most unhappy with and spend a week being extra-kind to it. Reverse psychology: Instead of being mad at my expanding tummy, she suggested I be extra nice to it. I tried it, and yes, it helped. It didn’t make my tummy smaller, but it did make my unhappiness with my tummy smaller, and ultimately, that’s what counts.
I encourage you to give Ms. Lamott’s idea a try and see if you don’t feel better about your body. Summer body shame needn’t be a big deal: instead, let it be as small as those bikinis or speedos that you see on those perfect, young gods and goddesses around town at the upcoming Pride pool parties … and that’s awfully small indeed!
—Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.