Me, You, and Everyone We Know
Several months ago, I started running again.
But wait, I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
Several years ago, the entire planet was plunged into a global health pandemic. You might have heard of it.
As all that unfolded, I went through various degrees of resilience when it came to how well I was coping with the changes. At times I was ultra-positive, taking robust advantage of the situation. Other times, well, not so much. I think this picture really captures the essence of the bad times. But often, it was a lot more like this.
My experience wasn’t unique. Most friends and family reported a similar oscillation between periods of excitement and fear, certainty and confusion, happiness and depression.
Everyone’s situation was of course different in hundreds of nuanced ways, but something I found to be fairly common was a fluctuation between being physically fit and letting go of yourself.
Just about everyone I’ve spoken to, at one point or another, focused on their health during these couple of years. Hatched a plan. Set a schedule. Ate well. Got fit. Lost weight. Felt good. Yoga. Pool. Gym. Whatever.
But most people — the same people — also went the other way. Day drinking. Netflix marathons. Afternoon drinking. Home delivery. Oh yes.
Did we really gain weight during the pandemic? The answer is yes.
Sitting alongside holiday weight and the ‘Freshman-15’, weight gain associated with the pandemic was dubbed — unimaginatively — the ‘COVID-15’ by the media, for example here in Forbes Magazine.
(Though the situation is begging for a double-entendre, saying “you’ve put on the COVID-19” could be confusing. So I get it. But still. Missed opportunity.)
I went through the cycle of gaining and losing weight multiple times in the last 28 months. The most recent gain — October to December of last year — brought me (almost) to the heaviest number I’d ever seen standing on a scale. It’s not a great feeling. I’m sure many can relate. I knew I’d put on a few (in a manner best described as fast and furiously) since my clothes — even my sweatpants! — had been giving me warnings all along. But seeing the consequences of my sloth laid out like that on the scale, with science, it was the final straw.
Which brings us to a few months ago, when I started running again.
Running wasn’t new to me. There’d been several periods in my life when I’d done it regularly, but this time I resolved to take it more seriously than ever.
There’s much more I can say about running, but this isn’t the time for any of that. We need to power through.
Long story short, with all the exercise — in combination with some fasting and drastic reduction of alcohol consumption — I was able to lose the weight I’d gained.
All of it. And then some.
Look, I know I’ve lost weight. I know because the scale says so, my clothes are now loose-fitting, everyone around has been telling me, and I actually do feel lighter.
But here’s the thing: I can’t really see it. I mean I can, with my eyes. But I also can’t, with my mind’s eye. Not really. Does that make sense?
Here’s an example (and the reason I decided to write this essay):
I recently did my longest ever run: 21.11km in 2:07:37 — a half marathon distance! (Achievement Unlocked) Afterward, I saw that I’d lost another pound since I last weighed-in about ten days prior. Way to go me.
But giddy as I was about the ROI in my physique and fitness, a glimpse of myself in the mirror just shattered, or better yet — shat all over that.
I still looked the same as I always had. Even with the objectively undeniable weight loss, I couldn’t see any of the progress. Instead, I saw the same figure I’d seen in the mirror for years. Plump and portly.
Fat in all the wrong places.
Does anyone know what I’m talking about here?
An illusion. A mirage.
Think about seeing a mirage on the highway or in a desert. You know that there isn’t any water there — you know that; some can even explain precisely why — but there it is, in front of you anyway.
You’re still seeing water.
So I did a little research (on the body-mirage, not the mirage-mirage) and there’s quite a bit of information, though it mostly lies in domains not so easy to navigate or discuss: psychology and mental health.
One thing I came across is body dysmorphic disorder, described as a preoccupation with perceived flaws in physical appearance not observable to others.
BDD is not to be confused with — but not mutually exclusive from — anorexia nervosa, which is an eating disorder.
It also bears noting the difference between body dysmorphia and gender dysphoria.
You see what I’m talking about? It’s all very tangled.
But before I say more, I should probably issue a caveat:
I am not implying that I suffer from, nor have I ever suffered from, any of the aforementioned disorders.
Perhaps it’s more appropriate to call my experience a wonted case of body image distortion — a fairly common occurrence, particularly for those who’ve had weight issues as teens, and especially in the Internet Age.
But in the same way that people don’t need to be arachnophobic to be afraid of spiders, I’m pretty sure some can exhibit signs of body dysmorphia without meeting the clinical criteria for diagnoses.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine:
Nobody knows the [exact] cause of BDD. It usually begins in your adolescence or teenage years. Body dysmorphic disorder is thought to be a combination of environmental, psychological, and biological factors. Bullying or teasing may create or foster feelings of inadequacy, shame, and fear of ridicule.
I guess we can’t be surprised.
Those adjectives seem to be excellent descriptors for a large part of social media today. Especially when there are articles like this to further fuel the anger.
INSTAGRAM: Fostering feelings of inadequacy since 2010
I suspect I don’t need to clamour very hard to convince you that our collective succumbing to the digital world is resulting in an expanding buffet of mental and dissociative disorders, the consequences of which are guaranteed to be varied and unpredictable — and almost certainly devastating.
But there’s something else.
Something even the sociologists and psychologists aren’t talking about.
What if I said — what if I hypothesized — that we all experience a sort of perceptual-discrepancy when it comes to our own bodies.
That is to say: the physical attributes of the person that you see in the mirror are not the same attributes that other people see.
This is true for all of us.
Me, you, and everyone we know.
Some will experience this as body-dysmorphia, specifically because of the aforementioned factors of childhood bullying and outlandish standards of beauty perpetually reinforced by the media.
Those fortunate to have escaped any impactful bullying and/or aren’t as entangled with what’s trending online (formerly known as word on the street) are not likely to perceive the discrepancies as defects or flaws, thus oblivious to the fact that they exist at all.
There is a book out there, a book you probably haven’t heard of.
It’s by Italian Nobel Prize winner Luigi Pirandello. That’s him there with Albert Einstein.
Pirandello was more of a playwright — that’s what he was awarded the NP for — but he also wrote several novels, including his final (and most chaotic) one:
One, none, and one hundred thousand — Uno, nessuno e centomila
He began writing the novel in 1909, but the madness of the story prevented him from continuing. Eventually he abandoned the story and wrote three other novels before returning to it and publishing it 17 years later.
It’s a doozy, and a bit of a tough read, but the particles of insight scattered all over the book make the journey worth it. If you are feeling adventurous, you can read the English translation, in its entirety, for free, here.
No need to thank me, thank Project Gutenberg.
The novel’s protagonist (and presumably — to some degree —Pirandello himself) goes through a philosophical exploration of truth, perception, and identity spawned from these two questions:
Do other people see me as I see myself?
That’s an easy one. The answer is a no.
But wait, it gets worse.
Can I see myself as other people see me?
Also no. Their version of ‘you’ is theirs, not yours. It is one of a kind, and it belongs to them.
From there, he devolves into madness as he realizes that how he sees himself (both physically and in terms of personality) is not the same as how everyone else does. And those hundred thousand versions of him floating around in people’s heads are ones he will never get to know, for he only has access to one version, himself.
Who is more real?
One, none, or one hundred thousand?
We never question our own identities.
To some, even that question might not make much sense.
Why is that? I’m really asking.
Maybe because it’s the one thing we can really control? Or maybe the construct of our identities are so woven into the fabric of our reality that we feel the unfurling of one will result in the breakdown of the other? Are we really just alone, playing out the drama in our mind? Is there anyone out there who will ever know who I am?
There is a quote by Aldous Huxley, from The Doors of Perception, that might be the only thing left to say on this subject for now:
We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies — all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.