Monday, 29 February 2016

Body Image In Middle Age

Not what I See in the mirror
Forty or so years back I was a skinny teenager. I then spent several decades gaining roughly a pound and a half a year - barely worth mentioning, yes? - and still felt like a skinny ... non-teenager.

Body image unreality is most commonly associated with teenage girls, but a quick bit of mental arithmetic will demonstrate that I really wasn't skinny at age 54. At 13st 2lb my BMI was a little under 28: a good halfway up the overweight part of the scale. I wrote back then about the mismatch and my decision that I needed to do something about it.

I probably finally reached my '6 month target' (a stone lost ... three years behind schedule) late last year, but not for long enough to be convincing and I've bounced back a bit since. The trouble is that a year back I had a scan, for another reason, which found fatty changes to my liver, and the follow-up reckoned my cholesterol was borderline. Cue another push to get those final few pounds off to stabilise at or just under 12 stone.

It turns out that the strategies which lost the first half stone - basically a bit less food and a bit more exercise - don't work so well with the next half. Not that surprising really. It also turns out that feeling a bit hungry most days - but never a lot hungry, which just leads to trouble - is important to carrying on with weight loss once the early gains have consolidated. Which is a pity as I had started ramping up the 'have a good breakfast' route.

In terms of realigning my body image with reality, one helpful comment from the practice nurse described the pad of fat on my belly as a separate organ. At the proper size it performs a useful job, but as it expands it puts the body out of balance and gives grief to the liver, in particular. I'm finding I can see what my waistline is doing more realistically now, and there is a clear relationship between what I can see my belly doing and what the scales say.

Which is probably totally obvious to many of you, of course abdomen fat deposits and weight are related! But that's the thing about wonky body image: what you see in the mirror doesn't truly reflect what is actually going on.

So, what am I trying to say? I've not put 'rambling' in the title, so I should be trying to go somewhere.

What I'm not saying is that viewing the stomach as a separate organ would help anybody else but me - that could go horribly pear-shaped. You still have to get the balance bit right: it's a useful organ, in moderation.

I think part of what I'm trying to say is something obvious along the lines that teenage girls and middle-aged men are not two different creatures, totally alien to one another. To paraphrase Paul, writing to churchgoers in Galatia:
There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female, there is no longer teenager and middle-aged; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus.
It's not that the experience of a bulemic teenager is really anything like that of a man with middle-aged spread, it clearly isn't. But we are all human beings with all the beauty and brokenness which goes with that; we all have minds which can trick or inspire us and, most of all, we are all loved by God for who we are, not for how we look.

But there's another Galatians quote which I think is relevant:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.
We are free to look at ourselves however we like: if in five years time I've lost five stone and still feel like that belly fat organ is too big it won't stop God loving me. Nevertheless it won't be the truth and it won't help me live how I want to live. I kind of reckon that matters.

We have been set free, so how do we stay free? If someone offers me crack cocaine I am free to accept or decline. Once I've accepted a few times, I have lost my freedom. My own free choices can either enhance my freedom or restrict it. Using freedom to enhance freedom is surely better.

If you have an eating disorder, whatever your age, please don't depend on the health advice of some random blogger from the Internet (like me). Get proper professional help and support.

If you can, and I know not all families are the same, try to have a good series of conversations with family and friends to get their support.

Oddly enough, a lot of church communities are actually quite good at helping people with real problems like this (although some, sadly, are not). So consider getting involved.

The NHS has a decent page on anorexia here, and the Beat page is here.

Grace, peace and truth for your week ahead, and enjoy God's love in Lent.

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