Does the way we see ourselves impact our physical well-being?
The “Looking Glass Self”

“I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am,” wrote Charles Cooley, a prominent American sociologist and the author of “Human Nature and the Social Order,” in 1902. Cooley coined the term “Looking Glass Self.” And his hypothesis – that we see ourselves through others’ eyes – has increasingly serious ramifications for the way we think about our identity, our self-worth, and even our health.

When my daughter travelled to Egypt a couple of years ago, she noticed that the women there were shapely and womanly. My daughter is of slender build, and seeing these well-built curvaceous women made her feel uncomfortably skinny. However, when she returned home and glimpsed North American magazines with their over-thin women, she was shocked to realize how easily she saw herself as overweight when looking in the mirror. Yet, her weight had not changed. This experience taught her there is a mental component to what we observe in the mirror, and it can be easily influenced according to the environment and the cultural norms that surround us.

To complicate the problem of how we see ourselves, the American Medical Association has now declared that excess weight, based on a person’s BMI (body mass index), is a disease. Although the Canadian Medical Association has not yet recognized obesity in this way, there is much discussion about it. A debate and motion about it is expected in its August 2013 assembly.

While the motive might be well intentioned – i.e., to make it possible for overweight patients to draw on public funds for treatment – there will certainly be unintended consequences…

Nutritionists tell us that our weight is to a large extent influenced by what and how much we eat. Physical trainers tell us that it is determined by exercise. And many physicians cite all three factors. People who have tried endless diets and exercise regimes end up frustrated and angry with themselves over what they see as their inability to conquer the monster inside. But some are pointing to a different approach; they suggest that the core of the problem is how a person view’s himself or herself.

Ragan Chastain, a ballroom dancer and motivational speaker from Los Angeles who describes herself as a fat person, questioned the decision of the AMA in a recent phone conversation. She recounted how recently someone had accosted her in the street, informing her that she could get diabetes because of her size. She said this is not an unusual occurrence for people who are fat.

Chastain went on to say, “First, the idea that we should shame and ridicule fat people ‘for their own good’ absolutely ignores the fact that mental health is just as important as physical health. People don’t take care of things that they hate, and that includes their bodies. The AMA’s decision to label every fat body as diseased not only ignores evidence – there are healthy and unhealthy people of every size – but also encourages fat people to hate their bodies. And people who hate their bodies do not take good care of them. It also does a disservice to thin people who are given the message that they are healthy because of their weight and regardless of their habits.” Watching a video of Ragan dancing, left me inspired with her confidence, grace and energy.

Does the way we see ourselves impact out physical wellbeing? Is the body just a physical entity to be treated, independently of our thoughts? These questions were answered for me some years ago. After confiding to a friend about my struggles with weight, she responded, “The body does not do well under a regime of tyranny. So stop the self criticism.” This was a revelation to me because I was not really aware of the self-criticism – I just hated the way I looked. And it was not just my weight I criticized, but my hair, my nose and many other parts.

I was familiar with a generally accepted part of the diet culture that said, “accept yourself and be free.” “Love yourself into thinness,” I heard them all say – but to no effect. These slogans did not resonate with me, but the idea that I could stop the tyranny of criticism going on in my own head was powerful. This required a stronger, more spiritual line of reasoning and enquiry than mere “positive thinking.” After all, I would not let a bully live in my house – why then should I let it live in my consciousness? This idea of watching my thinking began to take form more intentionally, in small, everyday ways. A contemplative practice of prayer was helpful because it gave me time to recognize those moments of self-reproach and their destructive results. Rather than sticking with a diet and watching what I ate, I stuck with this idea of protecting my thinking from self-criticism, or disparagement of others. This became more interesting and important than calorie counting.

There are many factors we need to consider regarding weight and its relation to health, and they involve more than a measuring tape and scales. To medicalize this problem means we may miss the opportunity to learn more about the external images and influences we entertain that are actually physically harmful. Understanding these factors could have a great impact on aspects of our health that go beyond just our weight.

This article was published in the Community blog section of the Vancouver Sun on July 24 2013.