Modeling the body

Many errands to run on this busy Friday.  "Inge" the Solara needs an oil change, and "Timmy" the Trek needs to go climb some hills in some unusually humid weather, so I will have to accommodate both of them.

And this afternoon, I’ve still got some paperwork to finish up with the Matilde Mission: Pet Homes for Ranch Chinchillas.  Who knew that becoming incorporated as a 501(c)3 was so much work?

And yesterday afternoon, I treated myself to an hour of guided Pilates instruction with a trainer.   Um, let’s just say that my inner thighs are sore this morning.  There are some muscles biking and running don’t reach, and bless her drill instructor heart, the trainer found them. 

I’ve been candid –perhaps too candid — on this blog about my passion for exercise.  This summer, I’ve kicked it up a notch; I’m back to doing some form of training every day of the week.  I’m fully aware that for someone with my personality, the line between healthy recreation/good stewardship of one’s body on one hand and narcissistic self-absorption/addiction on the other is a thin one indeed.  I’ve written before about crossing that line into exercise anorexia; it wasn’t a pretty sight.

Several things are driving me to get back in shape this summer.  One was my poor result at last month’s San Diego Rock n’ Roll Marathon.  I ran a very slow time, and could feel my extra weight hampering me.  After the race, I looked at the pictures that were taken of me during the event, and I winced.  My fiancee had to talk me out of posting one particularly unflattering one on my refrigerator as inspiration!  (I still sneak peeks at it, I confess).  The discrepancy between how I "used to look" and how I looked in San Diego was a painful catalyst for an increase in exercise and a radical reshaping of my diet.

Since early June, I’ve dropped about eight or nine pounds and some excess body fat.  Some of that has been a result of a real change in the diet.  Dessert is now a once-a-week event, and even then in small portions.  White sugar is almost gone; most enriched flour is gone as well.  Lots of veggies, lots of legumes, lots of organic, unsalted nuts (for protein).  Lots of water, too.  No more carbonated drinks, except for a rare regular Coke (all artificial sweeteners, gone too.)  I still have my morning mug of coffee — I’m not yet ready to surrender caffeine, but I’ve dropped my intake by 75% since the beginning of the year.

I’m hoping to get my running mileage up to 60-70 miles a week by late August, along with regular Pilates classes and time on the bike.  This requires a more judicious use of my time; scheduling workouts around other more important responsibilities will be tricky.  Fortunately, my fiancee is also athletically inclined.  If one of us didn’t work out, it would surely put a huge stress on our relationship.  After all, it’s hard to find someone who understands why you need to go to bed early every Friday night to be up before dawn every Saturday!  (Of course, we are both well-aware of how radically a child will, Lord willing, impact our athletic lives!  I’ve seen what fatherhood does to the fitness level of most of my friends!)

If you’re still reading through this narrative of self-absorption, let me get to the point.  When I "came home to Christ" seven years ago, I turned my will and my life over to Him.  I was an extraordinarily irresponsible and reckless individual who needed to learn important lessons about living sacrificially for others.  By God’s grace, the love of friends and family, and hard work, my life changed. I don’t walk down the streets I once walked down; I don’t do the things I once did.  I’ve still got a lot of growing up to do, but Lord knows, my heart and my life and my behavior have been transformed.   I truly believe that I’m a safe, gentle, loving man today, and that’s a miracle.  That my church  community trusts me to help raise their kids is a tremendous blessing; that despite all that I have been, a remarkable woman is willing to marry me, trusting that the past does not predict the future — that is a gift greater than I deserve.    And above all, the near-constant sense of God’s presence in my life is the island on which I stand in an often-overwhelming sea.

But though God has changed many things in my life, I still have what some would call a massive superficial streak!  This desire for the best possible body, the best possible time in a race — that desire hasn’t been taken from me.  I still devote far too much time and attention to my own perceived  physical shortcomings.  This sometimes makes it hard for me to be as effective a teacher and youth leader as I might be.  You see, when my kids are struggling with issues about sexuality, or drugs and alcohol, or self-injurious behavior, or depression, I feel as if I have something to offer them.   I struggled with all those things, but by God’s grace struggle no longer.  In those areas of my life, there has been great healing and recovery.  I can empathize with their pain, but can also point them towards help, and offer them — through my own experience — the promise that things can change. 

When a kid says, "I’m depressed all the time" or "I’m afraid I might have a problem with drinking", I can remember when those were my problems — years ago.   I have, I believe, something to offer them, both in terms of empathy and (ultimately) a solution.  But when a kid says "I hate my body" or "I feel fat" (even when she or he is perfectly "normal"), then they are describing not just  how Hugo used to feel, but how he often still feels.   When we have cookies at youth group, and I refuse to eat any of them, saying "I’m on a diet", what am I role-modeling for my kids?   What signal am I sending them when I, well over twice their age,  make clear that I’m still anxious about my physique, perhaps just as anxious as they are?   

Teenagers are long past the stage where they see adults as perfect.  It would be absurd to require that our teachers and youth workers have no "issues" or "hang-ups" in order to work with adolescents. Our anxieties and our frailties humanize us; they make us accessible to those for whom we are committed to care.  But at the same time, it’s nice to be able to reassure those who are struggling with body dysmorphia and poor self-image that things do get better! And while I no longer weigh 145 pounds, at 38 I’m still working out 2-3 hours a day and counting every calorie.  And while I don’t often talk to my kids about my exercise regimen, it’s fairly hard to keep teenagers from discovering what really matters to the adults in their lives.

Much to think about.  And I’ll think about it as Timmy Trek and  I climb up and down Chevy Chase and Figueroa Boulevards in the Verdugos this afternoon in 90 degree heat.

0 thoughts on “Modeling the body

  1. I don’t know Hugo, it sounds me like you worry too much about your body image. I think it’s good that you try to stay in shape, etc., but at some point it becomes self-defeating. IMO it would be hard to, one the one hand, try to counsel girls/women to not worry about cultural stereotypes vis-a-vis beauty, etc., and at the same time appear to obssess over such things yourself.

    Part of me agrees that setting a good example might include striving to be as physically fit as possible – even if it means courting heat exhaustion – while another part of me feels that maybe a good example would be to show others that accepting your body “as-is” is just fine. I suppose that it comes down to where one draws the line.

    Besides, remember what happened to that famous runner (Jim Fix?) who died in the prime of life during a run on the beach? He was certainly physically fit. Perhaps too much so?

    Food for thought.

  2. Jim Fixx died of a pre-existing heart condition that aerobic fitness could not cure.. but the misperceptions of his death really damaged running for a brief time.

  3. I heard this interesting quote once from a personal trainer who had worked both in the Bay Area and the LA area (I have also lived in both). This person claimed that while women in LA worked out to stay thin, women in the Bay Area worked out to shave a few minutes off their triathlon time. While this is a massive generalization, there’s a grain of truth there about the cultures of No and So Cal as I have experienced them.

    I guess the question then is… why do you put your body through all this? I’ve never particularly wanted to lose weight, but I have done some exercise and training in order to feel a sense of accomplishment, in order to feel good in my body, um… in order to improve my appetite. I’m not saying I’m never vain, just that vanity was never an exercise or diet motivator for me. It sounds like you have some of both going on. Have you thought of ways to get yourself to pay attention to some excercise motivators more than others? Is the calorie counting so necessary to maintaining a healthy diet and body? Is it stressing you out? Do you enjoy the food you’re eating?

    I don’t think your own body-image issues disqualify you from helping others with theirs. You’re aware and reflective about it, which is good… be open about that. When one is running, it helps to have a partner who is about the same level of fitness. When one is struggling with alcoholism, it helps to have solidarity with others who are struggling. I think what counts is that you are trying to come to terms with your body.

    Anyway. I wish you the best of luck in finding a balance that you are satisfied with. ^_^

  4. Hugo wrote: “Jim Fixx died of a pre-existing heart condition that aerobic fitness could not cure.. but the misperceptions of his death really damaged running for a brief time.”

    Sure, but lots of people live long and fulfilling lives with pre-existing heart conditions. The question becomes why was Jim Fixx continuing to participate in an activity that he most likely knew put him at risk for morbidity or mortality? In other words, what motivated him to risk death engaging in a voluntary activity that he knew might kill him?

    Could the motivations have been similar to some women who are consumed with body image, e.g., Karen Carpenter? And Hugo, might there be a bit of Karen or Jim in you?

  5. “When I “came home to Christ” seven years ago, I turned my will and my life over to Him. I was an extraordinarily irresponsible and reckless individual who needed to learn important lessons about living sacrificially for others. By God’s grace, the love of friends and family, and hard work, my life changed. I don’t walk down the streets I once walked down; I don’t do the things I once did. I’ve still got a lot of growing up to do, but Lord knows, my heart and my life and my behavior have been transformed. I truly believe that I’m a safe, gentle, loving man today, and that’s a miracle. That my church community trusts me to help raise their kids is a tremendous blessing; that despite all that I have been, a remarkable woman is willing to marry me, trusting that the past does not predict the future — that is a gift greater than I deserve. And above all, the near-constant sense of God’s presence in my life is the island on which I stand in an often-overwhelming sea.”

    The above was a beautiful statement…

    Never listen to detractors…you sound like a good person…that’s all I have to say…

  6. Let me be clear, folks — if I were given the choice of Brad Pitt’s body or running a sub 3-hour marathon, I’d pick the latter. Performance matters more to me than appearance, but frankly, I want to run fast AND look good. Another one of my both/ands.

    NYMOM, thanks. And DJW, for whom should I eat the cookie?

  7. NYMOM said: “Never listen to detractors…you sound like a good person…that’s all I have to say…”

    Even if those “detractors” have advice that might save your life? Would you say the same if those “detractors” were counseling someone to kick a herion addiction, even if the junkie was a “good person?”

    At some point the issue of excessive attention to body image becomes more than an issue of who is a “good person” in the eyes of any given individual. I’m sure Karen Carpenter was a “good person” in the eyes of a lot of people. Perhaps if one or two of her close friends had the courage to sit her down and have a serious discussion about her obssession with her body image she might be alive today.

  8. Teenagers are perverse creatures–you know this. ;)

    I look up to my mother; I think she’s cool. But when she started on the skim milk and nonfat ice cream broccoli soup, and complaining about her weight, I was exasperated, and annoyed, and convinced that it’s really lame to obsess over your weight. Perhaps things would have been different if I’d already had a big self-image problem; in general my reaction was, “That’s lame. Oh no, am I that lame? I have to stop.”

    (I certainly don’t think your lame, though, even if I do have more sense than to ride hills in this heat).

  9. “At some point the issue of excessive attention to body image becomes more than an issue of who is a “good person” in the eyes of any given individual.”

    Not in this country…it translates into good health…less time and money spent on health care for illness that COULD have been avoided by eating properly and exercising.

    One could almost say it’s a sin to NOT take care of your body as you impose the burden of high health care costs on your community which were easily preventable by following Hugo’s regime of focus on proper eating, bike riding and/or jogging…

    More people should be like him, not fewer…

  10. NYMOM wrote: “One could almost say it’s a sin to NOT take care of your body as you impose the burden of high health care costs on your community which were easily preventable by following Hugo’s regime of focus on proper eating, bike riding and/or jogging…”

    The L.A. basin has some of the worst air pollution in the U.S., which is exacerbated by the kind of heat that the region’s been experiencing lately. Smog, ground level ozone, particles, and other air pollutants are significant risks for asthma, emphysema, lung cancer, etc. In fact, breathing this kind of polluted air in many ways is similar to smoking cigarettes, so there is a significant public health interest in discouraging unnecessary exposure to such risks. Not to mention skin cancer risks from exposure to UV radiation from sunshine.

    It seems to me that during periods of high temperatures and sunshine (both of which promote formation of smog, ground level ozone and particles) the wise thing to do is to refrain from risky behavior such as vigorous exercise outdoors.

    One can always come up with justifications for risky behavior, but responsible people avoid it. I’m not saying Hugo’s irresponsible, but his obssession with his body image just might be causing him to engage in some unhealthy behaviors.

  11. Hugo, I think you’re a good guy, but I honestly think that you’re overdoing it. I have a friend who runs marathons too (she usually runs the San Diego marathon actually) and she doesn’t train anything like 2-3 hours a day. Honestly, 2-3 hours a day is “normal” only for professional athletes, ie. people who get paid for their athletic ability and have to stay in perfect shape to keep their jobs. For someone in your situation it just doesn’t seem healthy. And I’m willing to bet that if you have any anorexic kids in your group that they’re probably looking at you refusing the cookie and telling themselves that their behavior is OK because an adult they trust and respect is acting the same way. I’m not trying to pick at you, but I do think that the level of obsessiveness you’re displaying isn’t normal, and that you might want to talk to a therapist about it. If you were enjoying all of this I might react differently, but your motivation seems to be fear rather than joy, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

  12. And to clarify – what really got me worried was the part where you were cringing and upset at a photo of yourself. I remember studying the behavior of anorexics in college, and when you talk about your feelings about your body you sound very much like they do. That makes me worried for you.

  13. And I’m willing to bet that if you have any anorexic kids in your group that they’re probably looking at you refusing the cookie and telling themselves that their behavior is OK because an adult they trust and respect is acting the same way.

    It’s not just that anorexic kids are going to tell themselves that it’s ok. It’s that non-anorexic, but mildly self-loathing, kids are going to feel like their cookie-eating behavior is not ok. After all, by any objective measure, you probably have a better body than 90% of the kids in the youth group. If you have issues with your near-perfect body, how should they feel about theirs?

    And something that I realized when I was anorexic is that people assume, no matter how often you tell them it’s not true, that you’re judging them by the same standards that you judge yourself. (I’m not saying that you’re anorexic, but I don’t think it matters. People did this long before anyone had deteremined that my diet was a disease.) They thought “if she’s that skinny and she still thinks she’s fat, she must think I’m a total cow.” Even if you’re totally non-judgemental, people will assign you judgements that you’re not making. And not only will that hurt your kids, it might hurt their relationship with you. It’s hard to trust someone if you think they gag every time they look at you.

    So I’ve got to vote for eating the cookie, or at least for not talking about your diet in the presence of any kids. It’s true that they’ll probably figure out your insecurities anyway, but you should still make an effort.

    Finally, I’m wondering if you want to become a little less body-obsessed before you have kids. There have been some studies that have shown that the daughters of weight-conscious mothers tend to have poor body image, even if the mothers never criticize the daughters’ bodies. I know that you’re going to pass on many of your good qualities on to your kids, but I’d be worried about also passing on some attitudes that might not serve them well in life.

    I hope that didn’t sound too preachy! I have serious zeal-of-the-converted issues with this stuff.

  14. Like well over 30% of the ENTIRE US population is overweight…thus, I seriously doubt if a kid is going to be harmed here by a dad who’s conscious about his body…

    Actually they’ll probably be healthier…

  15. Like well over 30% of the ENTIRE US population is overweight…thus, I seriously doubt if a kid is going to be harmed here by a dad who’s conscious about his body…

    I’m positive that it’s possible to teach one’s children to eat well and be active without teaching them to obsess over their body. I think you’re setting up a false, not to mention dangerous and depressing, choice here.

  16. Ditto everything that Sally said in her comment. Hugo, only you can decide if you’re overdoing it on the exercise, training, and calorie-counting/dieting–maybe you can maintain your strict diet and exercise regimens without getting too obsessive about it, but that’s not for us to say.

    But considering that you do work with teenagers, several of whom (boys and girls) probably have some form of body-image problem (be it an eating disorder, feelings of shame about one’s body, etc.), then it’s probably best to avoid mention of your self-criticism regarding your own body and what you’ve decided is necessary to keep it healthy (i.e., lots of exercise and lots of calorie-counting). If you don’t want to eat the cookie, don’t, but don’t say “I’m on a diet.” Just say “no thanks!” or “I’m not hungry right now.” Believe me, there is a world of difference between hearing a role model say “Sorry, I’m on a diet” and “Not hungry at the moment.” The latter is simply a statement of fact; the former gets into self-inflicted denial of things you might actually be craving or needing. I ate compulsively in high school to avoid dealing with negative emotions, and hearing my peers and teachers ranting about their diets and calories and such always made me feel like 10,000 times more of a pathetic loser: after all, if they thought they were fat or out-of-control, then what was I? I kept engaging in those compulsive, secretive, negative actions and emotions regarding my weight, my body, and my food, and I still struggle today, but at least I’ve finally reached a point where I can confidently say “what others think of their bodies is none of my business, and what they think of my body is certainly none of my business!”

    Anyway, thanks for another honest and soul-searching post–you really know how to make your readers think!

  17. For your kids. I think for someone who (I’m pretty sure you meet both qualifications here) is in very good shape by a normal human’s standards, if not your own, and who (as I believe you’ve mentioned) likes cookies, I think it’s possible that your ‘dieting’ in that way might make other kids, whose weight is normal but still worry about it, the wrong message; that perhaps they should be worried. Just a theory–you know better than I the issue of the kids your dealing with.

    Besides, working out as much as you do, you’re body has to be a calorie burning machine. One cookie? Lighten up.

    (I don’t think 2-3 hours a day on your summer vacation is necessarily excessive for a hobby, as long as you’re careful, and remember it’s just a hobby…maybe a cookie would help with that.)

  18. I don’t know. I don’t think that wanting to look good is such a bad thing, as long as vanity is not carried to excess.

    It sounds to me as though you lead a healthful lifestyle and that you do not value appearances over more important things. You are not starving yourself. You don’t have a plastic surgeon on speed dial. You do not condemn others who are less in shape than you.

    It sounds to me like you are a good role model. You are merely someone with an ambitious athletic regimen and someone who wants to look his best — but not at the expense of more important things.

    Combatting negative body image in teenages is important– but it doesn’t mean you have to become a slug or a slob or that you cannot be ambitious in your fitness goals. Keep up the good work!

  19. Actually NYMOM, According to the medical journals 68% or just over 2/3rds of the US population is considered overweight, and 30% is considered obese. Obviously, we need some work in this area. On the other hand, the media’s definition of the perfect body would generally be considered underweight by the same standards. As a culture, for a variety of reasons (some unknown), we really struggle to find balance with this issue. As individuals, it can be even more difficult.