“I’m happy with the way I look”
“I don’t want to change my physique. I just want to get fitter”
These are quotes I hear on a regular basis. Both of them interest me somewhat.
Take me, for example. I’m certainly not overweight. Most people would consider me to be in fairly good shape. Some people have told me there’s nothing wrong with my physique, some told me I’ve got the perfect physique, some more critical people might say that I look pretty good but can improve in certain areas, and they’re right.
What do I think? Of course I can improve. I’m never happy with my body. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I’m unhappy. I think I look pretty damn good but I’m constantly trying to change or improve my physique. Sometimes I’m trying to get more muscular, leaner, smaller or lighter and faster. It all depends on my goals at the time and they often vary, but I’ve never gotten to a point where I feel I’ve reached perfection. I question anyone who has.
I often wonder if those people who make out that they are happy with their body are actually being honest with themselves. If they are truly happy, then are they either happy to settle or not particularly driven or concerned with self improvement? But does that mean they’re happy? Or just showing a lack of concern with their physical self? Maybe they would argue that it’s because they’re not vain.
Maybe they genuinely are happy with their bodies, or maybe it’s a self-preservation method and they don’t want to admit to themselves or their peers that their not totally happy with the way they are because this might be showing weakness. Perhaps it’s different from person to person.
Perhaps it all comes down to vanity. How vain are you? I don’t mean arrogant, egotistical or self centred. That’s a common misconception and not what vain means. Like the song "You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you." Not vanity. Vanity is “an excessive concern with one’s appearance” where the word “excessive” implies that it’s too much or a negative thing. You can think that you’re an absolute legend and that you look amazing without ever making any effort. That’s not vain, that’s just arrogant, maybe even deluded.
The way I look at it, vanity exists when one’s consideration of their appearance causes problems. Does it mean they won’t answer the front door without makeup on? Does it mean they would rather miss the start of a movie in order to get their hair perfect? Or maybe they won’t wear a pair of headphones at a silent disco because they don’t want to mess up their hair. True story: my old flatmate refused to wear headphones at a silent disco birthday party for that very reason so he just spent the entire night with one speaker held up to his ear. That’s vain if you ask me. Incidentally he’s the same guy who was left sitting in shock at the dinner table on a date after the girl exclaimed “look, I can’t go out with you if you can’t even bear to eat a f***ing chip in case you get fat”. He had an incredible physique btw.
So it seems logical that the more concerned you are about your body, the more likely you are to focus on it. In the same way that the more you’re concerned about your health, the more likely you are to carry out exercise or eat a healthy diet. Remember that vanity means “excessive” consideration about your appearance, not simply any consideration at all. We all need to consider how we look and how our body functions. That itself doesn’t make us vain.
How do we actually see ourselves? Do we see what others see? Do we see better or worse? Many people experience something termed “body dysmorphia” where they have an unrealistic perception of their body. It’s not simply that they’re unhappy with their body. It’s that they see something different to what other people see, or what is really there.
It can work both ways. I have worked with extremely overweight people who believe themselves to be too thin or smaller than their friends, but I can guarantee you that they are not. I’ve worked with people who see themselves as fatter than their friends when really, they’re not.
I’m often mentioning how impressed I am with other people’s physiques or attributes to be told “You’re better than that” or “more muscular” etc. This is great to hear but is it true? I don’t know. The other day I saw a guy with particularly impressive calves and I mentioned them to my wife. She told me mine were bigger, which was both surprising and pleasing (or a lie to make me feel better).
What I do know is that much of this is psychological. I almost always see myself as more muscular after my first workout back in the gym after a break. Can one session really make that much difference? It’s unlikely.
In my experience, there seems to be some correlation between security levels and body shape. By this I mean that often people who spend a lot of time maintaining their body, are actually spending a lot of time worrying about the way they look. I see this in myself and it's a big driver. Whereas people with physiques which are “not conventionally desirable” seem to have an element of disregard for their physique and are happy to flaunt it. (I use the quote marks because all bodies are desirable to some people, but by "conventional" I'm referring to the standards that society have set for us via the media). So maybe that’s it. Maybe those with deep down insecurities are the ones who feel they need to maintain their physiques. Maybe that’s me. Maybe you’ve experienced it. Maybe someone you know who has an incredible physique but constantly moans about how fat they are and how they’re not happy with the way they look.
Maybe it’s not a question of vanity and more a question of priorities. Perhaps those who claim to be happy with their physique simply have other things which concern them more. It’s fairly common for people to gain weight once they become a parent (not me...I'm shredded as ever). It’s certainly nothing to do with the physical factors associated with age because age doesn’t make you gain weight. It’s more likely to be that they care more about earning money to ensure that their family has a comfortable life so they work longer hours. Perhaps it’s because they prioritise spending time with their family over going to the gym or they think going out for an enjoyable meal is more important than going to the gym and watching their waistline.
Personally, I try to do enough to stay in fairly good shape and reasonably good health, but I don’t let it take over my life. From time to time when I feel that I’ve over-indulged too much and that I’m moving too far into the realms of bad health, I make a focused effort on health, fitness and appearance. Equally, when I feel the need to focus on work or family I let my training slip because it’s not my only priority, it’s just part of the fabric which makes me who I am.
I certainly don’t know all of the answers, so any comments or opinions are welcome. But what I do know is that I've gotten older my focus on the way I look has become less of a priority and my focus on health and physical function has increased. Fortunately for me, if we focus on health the appearance tends to take care of itself. Win - Win!
But I'm happy as long as I'm trying to improve or work towards a goal. So I guess you could say I'm happy when I'm unhappy?
What does that even mean?