I woke up this morning, struggled to a knee – hoisting myself out of my pile of blankets on the floor (I don’t have a bed yet after the move to Austin), and dragged myself toward the bathroom.
Snapping the lights on, I looked at my reflection in the mirror.
“Bleh, you look puffy,” my internal critic whispered. “Average dudes who never workout look better than you.”
“Everyone at the Austin’s Fittest Man competition is going to be ripped and you’re gonna be that guy – the fat ass who shows up and is too timid to take his shirt off.”
“Yeah well, I’m just having an off day,” my rational mind retorted. “We went out for beers and Mexican food last night. I’m not surprised that I may look a little puffy this morning. Nbd.”
“No. You’re an imposter. You somehow just made it by as a model, tricking everyone into thinking you were in good shape when you were in fact just using water-shedding tricks. If you would’ve stayed in NYC any longer they would’ve found you out…”
“And you are going to get crushed in this Austin’s Fittest competition. You may be able to win several of the events, and compete in the others, but you don’t look the part – you puffy bastard. They’ll never respect a guy who doesn’t have 6% body fat on competition day.”
I need a coffee.
So after changing my clothes three times in front of the mirror, I hopped in the car and drove to the coffee shop, my hangover sunglasses covering my face – unshaven, teeth unbrushed, and cell phone on 10% battery.
One of those mornings already.
At my favorite coffee shop I file into the back of the long line. Standing. Waiting. Shuffling my weight from one foot to another.
The barista is cute. Really cute. Beautiful eyes.
Ehh, but I’m feeling so gross this morning. She looks up and smiles at me, her eyes shining.
I smile back – it takes a considerable effort.
Fake it Chris, fake it.
As the family in front of me orders everything on the menu, I look around the cafe. Another cute girl in a striped sundress brushes my arm as she walks by, our eyes catch for a second.
“Small coffee, please.”
The barista smiles. I sign the receipt.
I get my coffee and sit down at the back of the cafe. I want to say hi to the girl in the sundress. But I don’t.
My mind wanders. Would I be feeling any different if I hadn’t looked in the mirror this morning?
We Are Our Own Worst Enemy
I need to constantly remind myself that, for whatever reason, other people like the way I look.
Yet, when I look in the mirror, 75% of the time I am a huge dick to myself. I am that casting director telling myself how fat I am. I am those those judgmental stares from the French designer. I am that awkward moment when you take your shirt off in front of a room full of people after eating a big meal.
I constantly remind myself of the fact that I weighed 20 lbs more than every other male model in New York.
And I’m not even sure if that’s true. But that’s what I tell myself.
Somehow I still got jobs.
And somehow I have 80 Tinder matches within 1 week of moving to Austin.
Why Are We So Hard On Ourselves?
So what’s the point in me disclosing all of this internal dialogue?
Well, I want to make it clear that you’re not alone in the battle against yourself.
We are ALL hard on ourselves.
Even those of us who some people may consider to be completely happy and 100% confident.
But here’s something else: I have a healthy relationship with myself.
Because I talk back to that voice.
It’s the voice of social anxiety. The voice of those lingering insecurities. Of fallen confidence.
And I recognize this.
Progress and success come when you talk back. When your rational dialogue is louder than that idiot little nag inside your head. That hypercritical mirror agent.
Over the past few years I’ve learned quite a bit about life, love, happiness, and health.
BY FAR the most important takeaway from my adventures in body and mind has been this: NONE OF US ARE SIGNIFICANTLY HAPPIER THAN ANYONE ELSE.
On the surface it always seems like more money, a ripped body, a better face, more skills, or more social clout will make our lives better. Make us happier.
I know people who maintain 4-6% body fat, people with net worths in the hundreds of million$, people who have hugely popular social platforms and power, people who travel obsessively, people who are prodigal talents. And they all want more. They all have that internal dialogue that they could look better, make more money, or have more power.
Most of us are equally happy or unhappy. Which means money, looks, and clout don’t actually matter that much. What matters is what you do with what you have. And how you appreciate what you have.
In a word: gratitude.
So let’s bring this back to body dysmorphia…
The Master-Slave Dialogue
Recently a friend shared a link to the blog The Beheld on Facebook – specifically a post entitled “Month Without Mirrors.”
The author did a social experiment and went an entire month without looking in the mirror – and she blogged about the experience. Before the experiment, she wanted to eliminate the bias of her “mirror face” and decided to trace the outline of her head onto the mirror with her lipstick. The result enraged her. She hated what she saw:
I’m now wondering if my rage was actually stemming from what, if I were a 19th-century German philosopher, I might christen the master-mirror dialectic. G.W.F. Hegel cooked up what he calls the master-slave dialectic, which states that we’re incapable of self-consciousness without being conscious of others, and that once we become conscious of others we’re alerted to our lack of control over our lives. “A struggle to the death” ensues, in Hegel’s grandiose words, and we either become master (which later finds us needing the slave’s services, ultimately giving them control) or slave, which eventually gives us some control over the “master.” In the 1950s, grad-school rock-star psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan introduced the idea of the “mirror stage,” positing that we have this master-slave dynamic with ourselves via the mirror. Lacan compares it to being permanently trapped in a stadium of onlookers composed solely of ourselves, captivated by our own image.
After a week without a mirror she came to the following conclusion:
The mirror is a quest for control. Control over the image we present to the world, sure; control over fitting the beauty standard, to a degree. Mostly, though, surveillance is an effort to carefully control our ideas about ourselves. When I pulled the plug from the mirror image, she exacted revenge by radically shifting some of those ideas. For example, about a week into this experiment, I had a nagging sensation that my head had becomevery, very pointy, à la Saturday Night Live’s Coneheads.
The same friend who shared that link told me about her own experiment, spending 3 months in the wilderness without a mirror. When she emerged she had an epiphany:
When I got out and looked in the mirror, I barely recognized myself. What I saw was a girl I thought was fairly attractive, and thought, “Hey! This must be what strangers see when I walk down the street.” It was amazing to look at myself and be appreciative rather than nit picky. This was one of the strongest sticking and most important self-love experiences I have ever had.
You Should Try And Look However YOU Want To Look (But Understand Your Own Biases)
Three super interesting exchanges have happened to me in the last couple days, and they illustrate my next point perfectly.
1. The guy who looks like Christian Bale in the Machinist and thinks he is lean and muscular: In coaching recently, an inquiry came in from a guy who was obsessed with his routine and his own definition of perfection. He knocked me out of my chair when he described himself as the picture on the left:
And self-described as “lean and muscular” and not wanting to lift weights for fear of becoming too bulky (ie picture on the right). Wow. Mind officially phuckkeedd.
Appeal is all relative.
Which leads us to this next example…
2. The international celebrity who thinks he is God’s gift to women: so I recently heard an interview with an international celeb who described how irresistible he was to women. How they couldn’t stop themselves when they saw him because of his incredible body. He was lamenting at how difficult it is to turn so many women down.
Whoa. Threw me for a loop.
I don’t think he’s that good-looking. I’ve seen him in real life. And I personally don’t see the appeal. He’s squat and bulky. Unathletically so, even. Nothing wrong with that though. It’s just not how I would ever want to look.
Despite all the negative self-talk, I really like the way I look.
But so does he.
And I’m sure he has plenty of negative self-talk as well. (Which makes perfect sense as to why he would publicly talk about himself in such a light – insecurities are powerful compensators)
3. The talk with an attractive woman about what men and women look for in each other: At dinner the other night, a couple friends (a guy and a very attractive woman) and I had a revealing conversation.
We were talking about what guys like in a woman (physically). Then she told us what girls generally look for in a guy.
As guys, we agreed that we like curves.
She retorted that she hated her hip curve (not the first time I’ve heard a very attractive woman say this) because she thought it was a love handle.
“Are you kidding?!” we said. Guys love that hip curve.
Yet I’m sure countless women are hypercritical of that aspect of their bodies every day when they look in the mirror. But that’s the body part that causes so many guys to do a full 180 when a woman walks by in the store or on the sidewalk. Girls: love your hips! Guys think they’re sexy.
And so then we asked her what girls generally look for in a guy.
No surprise: it was slightly skewed from our own expectations of ourselves.
She said most girls generally like a guy with some meat over his muscles. She’s generally repulsed by super low body fat. If she can see veins, she considers it to be “too low.” She also told us about her friend who is really attracted to chubby guys. It’s a comfort thing.
Whoa. Yet so many countless dudes are obsessed with getting veiny-ripped.
And some of them argue that it’s “for themselves.” Not sure I buy that though – unless you’re competing in a bodybuilding comp or athletic competition requiring low BF% for performance. I do believe that at the base of most of our vanity issues and insecurities is our preconceived perception of how other people see us, and how we want other people to see us.
So to wrap this up I want to deliver one final serve.
Look however you want to look.
But be cognizant of the difference between looking how you want to look and how you want to look because someone else thinks it’s “perfect.”
We all talk negatively about ourselves internally. You’re not special in that regard. And that’s good.
Understand your biases. Be aware of them when they start chattering in your ear. And talk back rationally. You’ll develop a healthy internal dialogue.
And next time you have a bad mirror morning, instead of sitting in the back of the cafe like me, go over and say hi to that cute girl who brushed your arm in line.