Looking the Right Way: A Conversation

Most of us care so much about looking "good" or having the "right" body shape because at heart we all way to be loved.
05/19/2016 12:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Recently I had coffee and a bite with Annie Mahon, author of Things I Did When I Was Hangry. Her book deals with weight and food consumption from a mindfulness perspective. I read it before meeting with her, and I was struck by Annie's accounting of her very real and transparent struggles with food.

The meeting came at an interesting time as I have gained some weight over the past few years due to injuries. Given my middle-age I am concerned, not just from a health standpoint, but also from a spiritual wellness point of view. I don't feel right anymore. Weight issues have always been an up and down concern, but now as I suffer physically from injury there is a new sense of hopelessness. Running it off probably won't happen.

Further as the father of a five year old girl, I am very conscious of not imparting judgement based on being heavy or light, fit or round. Yet, I sit in judgement of myself. It's hard to pass something on -- an attitude or belief -- when you cannot apply it in your own life.

The conversation was enlightening, and I felt compelled enough to interview Annie for this blog. So without any further ado, here is our post coffee conversation.

GL: Why do we care so much about looking the "right way?"

AM: Most of us care so much about looking "good" or having the "right" body shape because at heart we all way to be loved. Our society has sent us the message, again and again, that we have to look a certain way in order to get that love. Over time we have internalized those messages, so we waste our valuable time ruminating over whether we look good enough or thin enough. Or else we just accept that we don't look good enough and then ruminate about how bad we are.

GL: So much of your book is about personal physical and spiritual image acceptance, accepting who we are, where we are. This is in direct contrast with many of the messages we get from our social networks and media. How does one realize that maybe they need to re-evaluate what's "right?"

AM: The idea that there is some "right" way to look, think or act at all times is at the heart of what causes us to suffer. We have a mistaken idea that other people have found the secret to looking and being right, especially in the era of facebook and instagram because we only see the happy, easy moments of other people and we experience the hard and easy moments in our own lives.

So we think, what's wrong with me that I have the bumpy road and everyone else has the smooth, easy road. But the truth is we all are riding the bumpy road, but we are ashamed to admit it to each other. We all have our moments of feeling on top of the world, and moments of feeling like we just don't belong anywhere.

It's like the classic example of thinking that if I lose weight, I'll be so happy. I did this to the extreme when I was younger, and each time I lost weight I was shocked to find out that I had all the same negative thoughts and feelings that I had when I was heavier.

That doesn't mean we should turn away from good health or taking care of ourselves. But worrying about whether we are good enough or thin enough actually doesn't help us get healthier, it just wastes our brain power and keeps us stuck. If we accept where we are right now as good enough, then our mind is free to make wise choices in every moment. And those wise choices are likely to include eating in healthy way.

GL: I know as a man, that physical image -- weight gain and loss -- has plagued me as a nagging voice in my conscious. For example, over the last three years I suffered a blown out knee that required surgery, severe plantar fasciitis, and two herniated discs in my neck. Consequently, my exercise routines have lessened, and I have gained a lot of weight. Now at 44 (on June 1), I am not so happy with my waist line and physique. Yet, I wouldn't admit this to most.

Why do men bury this?

AM: It's funny because my weight issues came mostly from my Dad and not my Mom. My Dad was obsessed with his weight and shape, but rather than speak about it himself, he projected it onto judging others, like his kids.

I think men are socialized to judge and compete outwardly and women are socialized to judge themselves more harshly. And, of course, men and women have both and so men judge themselves covertly and women judge other people covertly. But it's happening to all of us. And it's such a sad waste of mental space and joy that get sucked down into the spiral of self-hate.

GL: Along those lines, many people associate weight issues with women. What role do men have in enforcing or propagating women's physical issues?

AM: As I mentioned, men are socialized not to admit their own weaknesses, but to project them outwardly onto others. So my Dad would comment on my weight all the time rather than admitting that he was worried about his own appearance.

And I've had boyfriends, luckily not my husband, who would comment on my body shape on a regular basis. "Your butt is getting a little fat, isn't it?" That's just on an individual level.

Given that so many men are working in advertising, women's bodies are constantly on display for men to judge openly and women to judge covertly and to compare against their own body. I remember my Mom doing a study on women in advertising for her Master's thesis in the 1970s and what I've noticed is that rather than women getting less pressure in the media to conform to a body shape, it has simply expanded to include men, so now men feel a lot of the same pressure that women have been feeling for decades to look like models and actors.

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GL: How does mindfulness and zen play a role in overcoming these issues with food and image?

AM: For me, mindfulness is the idea that we can be with how things really are - we don't have to make up a story or try to create some other perfect world. Striving for some kind of perfection, some place where we don't have flaws or difficulties, is what makes us miserable.

Someone recently wrote a review of my book on Goodreads that said I was a "hot mess" and I celebrated that because I think the sooner we accept that we are all going up and down on the see-saw of life, the sooner we can relax and enjoy our lives. When we are trying to smooth everything out and look like we have it all together, we spend all our energy at that game and there's no energy left over to laugh and play or be present with our loved ones.

Mindfulness helps us see when we are getting caught and pulled away by thoughts leading us down a path of unhappiness. And mindfulness gives us the tools to take care of those parts of us that are wounded and therefore habitually going down those unhappy paths.

Without the practice of mindfulness, we will continue to be carried away by our own habits and the social conditioning that we have internalized. We will buy this whole big story about having to be "good" or "better" or "better looking" that just isn't true.

GL: What other quick tips would you suggest?

AM: Practicing mindfulness isn't complicated. You can start right now by just coming back to your breathing, even while you are sitting at your computer or looking at your phone. Notice what it feels like to live in the body you are in. What hurts? What feels ok? When your mind gets caught by a thought, notice it. Where is that thought taking you? Is that a place you want to go?