The Psychological Game of Self Image
There seems to be something that goes a little deeper than mere self esteem or self image. When someone develops an issue at this lower level, they can be diagnosed with something like body dysmorphia, a general feeling that there’s a mismatch between the way your body feels physically (how it moves, the way clothes drape, the spaces it fits into, etc), which in turn informs the mind’s eye view of yourself, and the way you actually are. Some extreme cases of this range from secondary illnesses like bulimia or anorexia, or even being absolutely convinced that your left leg should not be there and needs to be removed. Seriously.
To put it another way, you can feel fat. You don’t have to look in a mirror to know it. It’s the way things jiggle when you walk, the way that shirt hugs the belly a bit too closely, having to size up the width of a path a bit more critically to make sure you can fit into it. These are little bits of information the body sends the brain that reminds it that the body is obese and they constantly inform a conscious mind’s eye view of yourself. You don’t necessarily feel ugly or self-conscious at this point. It’s more like the mind doing the basic math and mechanics of how to deal with sensations and bodily orientation in a room. But then the sensations become incessant reminders of “they can see the belly because the shirt is tight” or “I don’t think I’ll be able to fit in that restaurant booth” or “I need to wear multiple shirt layers to mask the jiggling.” At this point it does start affecting your self esteem and giving fuel to anxieties.
But let’s go back one layer — the layer where it’s just the body providing basic facts: “this shirt feels right” “you can’t fit there” “your belly has received 0.3Gs of jounce on that last step”. This is what may be referred to the homunculus; the image the mind creates of ourselves at a lower level which it then uses to help navigate around in real life. The image that usually pops up when you google homunculus is of a humanoid with exaggerated mouth, eyes, hands, feet, etc — basically the sensory organs. They’re exaggerated because they take up a larger part of how we perceive ourselves than, say, the small of your back or your heel. Certainly you’re consciously and subconsciously aware of those minor areas, but they take up much less headspace in comparison.
Where am I going with this anyway? Well, even if after you’ve lost all that weight and built up a good base of self esteem, that homunculus is MUCH more slow to change or reset. To this day, I can feel it. It still guides decisions I make before I can consciously and critically make them myself. When I feel that shirt be a bit tight, it’s because I’m fat. When I sit down and I feel that stomach bulge (just as everyone else’s does!) I’m subconsciously aware I’m RIGHT BACK TO BEING FAT AGAIN. The homunculus informs my self image erroneously and now I feel crappy again.
But then I stand up and turn around to see the shadow the sun casts on the ground. I walk by a storefront window and see the ghostly reflection of myself. I handily fit in the once impossibly small space of a coach class airline seat. And my mental image gets jolted into reality. I feel a palpable sense of relief! “I didn’t suddenly undo all my progress in 24 hours!” Whew! Peeking at myself might seem like a bad case of narcissism, but for sure it helps pull my brain back from the old image of myself.
That helps for a bit, but then that polo is just a bit close…