Body Image & Identity
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I was running up one of my favorite mountains in the rain. I love running in the rain, especially here in Southern California where the rain is rare. The world turns shiny and green and everyone slows down, as if we've all agreed to take a beat to breathe and come clean. I hadn't run up this particular mountain in almost 10 months and I smiled as I glided up the winding switchbacks. I felt strong and completely in control of my body. What a wonderful feeling.
Feeling strong in my body led me to think about how complex our body images are: how so many factors can influence how we see ourselves. How tired we are, if we feel strong, if we feel sluggish, if our body shape has changed, if our clothes fit us well, if we've eaten too much or not enough, if someone says words that trigger us.
I found this chart a while back that does an pretty good job of visualizing identity.
Our identities are complex, and our bodies are inherently tied to them. Most of the factors in the chart above are tied to our bodies either directly or indirectly, so it makes sense that our bodies and body image influences our identity to some degree, too. But the thing about our bodies, our body image, and our identities is that they are all fluid and constantly changing. Tying our identity too closely to any one thing will almost always result in unhappiness. I think a lot of us have experienced this to some degree: losing ourselves in a relationship, tying our worth and our identity too closely to a job or a sport or grades or likeability.
I think a lot of us feel uncomfortable with the idea that our identities can and should change; that parts of ourselves that were once true can no longer exist, or that things that were once important can cease to be so. I also think that a lot of us don't know how to identify ourselves in a way that feels good or fulfilling so we point to obvious things: I'm a daughter, a sister, a sales professional, a runner, a writer. It feels easier than digging a layer deeper, than realizing I am all of these things and more, a human with consciousness, a human prone to romanticism, a human who likes challenging things, a human fraught with perfectionism, a human who dreams to escape not only the redundancy of life but the impending end we all seem to be distracting ourselves from.
I recently learned that crows may join humans and some primates as one of the few animals capable of having subjective experiences. Crows are aware of their own sensory perceptions and have cognitive functions similar to great apes, which means that crows are really fucking smart. The fact that a crow might know that it's a crow is cool but also a bit eerie. I wonder if crows have crises of identity or if they're okay with just being crows. I haven't met many humans who are satisfied with life simply because they are human. The fact that we search for meaning is what sets us apart. The most beautifully tragic reality is that we either have no meaning at all, or we construct it, often many times over the course of our lives. Who you are is halfway imprinted at birth and the rest you get to create.
The reasons it felt so good to feel strong in my body are many, but the most profound of which might be that this strength will not last forever. My body will age, and this strength will slowly fade. I feel compelled to take advantage of this body and this strength while I have it. Nothing is guaranteed, after all, and nothing is permanent. It also feels good to be strong because I know what it feels like to be weak, and I know that centering my body image and identity on a cornerstone of strength is the most empowering and powerful act of self-care I've ever engaged in.
My point in writing about rainy mountains and identities and crows is that the stronger I felt in my body and the more I felt connected to my body, the better sense I had of my identity, which isn't to say that my identity is tied to my physical capabilities but rather that the stronger I become physically, the more attuned I become mentally. That's a powerful connection that's worth noticing. I don't work hard to strengthen my body for the sake of optics; I work hard to strengthen my body because I know that it's far easier to feel lost when my body and mind are weak.