The Woman in the Glass

Posted on May 27, 2011

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Paul talked about the tantalizing nature of perception when he said that “now we see through a glass darkly.” The translation is more accurately rendered “now we see through a bronze mirror.” It refers to the type of looking glass available to people of his time: bronze, not terribly smooth, not rendering a clear image, and in mirror fashion, inverted (and sometimes, as in the image at the left, Medusa mocks from the back). The eye sees with much greater clarity than a bronze mirror can reproduce, and God sees with much greater clarity than we can. We temporally see indistinctly, colors altered, lines blurry, and backward. Still we try to see, just as his fellow citizens relied on the bronze mirrors they had, because it’s better than nothing and it’s what we have.

Today I returned my books to the library and felt to walk in and “find something interesting.” I don’t really have time for “something interesting,” but the inner voice was insistent, so I wandered in. I walked toward the pulp fiction and was repulsed by a red and black jacketed tome. I ducked into the familiar non-fiction section and entered an aisle further back than my favorite business section. I turned and stood facing the shelf. Diet books lunged at me. I was repulsed again, but stood my ground with shaky bravado.

To explain, I am a failure. I keep plugging, but my commitment to “get fit” as I was (commanded is the only word for it) 18 months ago has flagged. I renewed it with gusto at the beginning of the year, running four to five times a week. It went well, then I developed shin splints that lasted weeks and made walking excruciating. Walking was impossible because I developed symptoms of peripheral artery disease, which actually made running easier than walking. I battled exercise-induced asthma and edema which would remain for hours after my runs. Everything I tried made me less healthy, so I stopped, and I felt much better. At least, physically.

Guilt has dogged me, and though I know that I will figure out the type of exercise that works best for me, I have floundered. Recently it occurred to me that I had dived in to the admonition to “get fit” assuming I knew what that meant and how to accomplish it, and that I had been wrong on both counts. So I went back and asked what fitness meant to him, and how I should accomplish it. And there I stood, looking at diet books.

I’m a skeptic. A firm believer in natural eating, I don’t trust all the specialized “plans.” I think food should be eaten as close to the way it was created as possible, and I think everyone is different. I also believe that our body is a walking metaphor for our thoughts and feelings, so those are part of the “treatment” for obesity.

And then I saw it. The Obesity Myth. I was instantly cynical. The anti-diet book, that says the equivalent of “eat, drink and be merry” because there’s not a thing wrong with you. I’m looking down at me. I have to lean past my bust to see my toes. Give me a break. There’s something wrong with me.

“Pick it,” the voice inside said. “Not on your life,” my responsibility-accepting side said. I scanned other books, but the little white book with blue writing, right there at eye level, kept drawing me back. So I pulled it out and turned it over to the reviews, expecting to find justification for my cynicism from the self-excusing fat people on the back. I was surprised to find journalists, nutritionists, institute founders, and feminists. They were erudite and well-reasoned, and then they said the magic word that always gets my attention: poverty.

I opened it and read. There was an excerpt from Kafka’s Hunger Artist, noting how he “longed for others to admire his fasting.” He talked about the Sisyphean struggle to lose that last 10 pounds. He quoted Susan Estrich in her weirdly popular antifeminist diet book Making the Case for Yourself: a Diet Book for Smart Women, that takes feminism back to the dark ages of peddling sex appeal for power. The cognitive dissonance of the materialistic rhetoric so profusely marketed today was laid open. That caught my attention.

Still, it wasn’t about “eat, drink and be merry.” It was about having a healthy attitude about bodies and life. Most importantly, it takes head on our country’s relegation of fat to pariahship and exposes the tyrannical indices that define “health” as not statistically correlated to health issues. Obesity is actually much less likely to cause health problems than is high lean body mass to fat ratio, despite all the hype and rhetoric. If you create a sense of loathing in people for “fat” that is actually within reason and then a fear that they will become what they loathe, you can control them. We know industries exist that play on this fear and loathing, but how widespread this is is a bit shocking.

The final observation, that this judgment is used as a divisor for people, creating a subset of people on whom we can place our fear and distrust to create the illusion of competence and belonging for ourselves, was eye-opening. Poverty is about walls between people much more than it’s about money, and shape really is the new wealth.

I’m still not complacent. I know that my rolls are unnecessary and my body weight gets in the way of things I want to do. I still want most of it off. But I’m thinking now about what it means to be fit, if being skinny isn’t the best indicator of health. I’m looking at my motivations as well, and finding false ideas about power and class mixed in with healthy ideas about activity and good food. And I’m looking at me again and remembering that I am not worried about what other people think, so why am I worried about what I think?

Several friends throughout my life have struggled with eating disorders. Their lives are or have been a complex, stressful mash of perceptions. It has been next to impossible for most of them to find relief, to escape the harping judgment of their own minds. Today I stumbled across this while searching for something completely unrelated. I was moved by the hope displayed. I was reminded that we are a walking metaphor, and I want mine to be love. Love for others, and love for self as a gratitude for the gift to be here. I’ll probably always be a bit on the soft side … because that’s who I am. I think there’s a “soft” version of fit that works for me.

I am confident that I will come to understand what God meant when he said “get fit” and how to do it his way. I think today it means being fit to do what I’m asked to do, whether it means emotional fitness that helps me understand others divinely, spiritual fitness that helps me perceive life more clearly, intellectual fitness that helps me think through problems to good solutions, and physical fitness that helps me “run and not be weary, and walk and not faint.”

Today, I am determined to spring clean this out … right down to the tiniest corners of my view of self and life. When I’m finished, I hope to see a bit better, and maybe lay that bronze mirror down for good (Medusa side down). With my thinking straight, I might just be ready for the track shoes again.

Photo credit: Susan Bonvallet, 2001, bronze mirror with head of Medusa, Italy, ca. 500-480 BCE.

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