You’ve been working hard, I’ve been thinking about my thighs
I sit and work on a long desk right next to my boyfriend Andy. Most days we sit alongside each other for hours. Some days we go to cafés and work there…alongside each other for hours. Andy, like a lot of men I know, is great at focusing on his work. I’ve marvelled at how he can get up, shower, sit down and go right into work without a second’s thought. Sometimes when we get home from a walk or buying groceries, he’ll drop his stuff, walk into the living room, throw himself into his chair and be deep into his work before I have even finished contemplating whether to make tea.
Even when he doesn’t instantly begin his work and instead reads about politics, watches Youtube videos about astronomy or strolls through Twitter it seems like he’s doing it with focus. Some of this may be due to our different perceptions of ourselves- he is more confident than me, I doubt myself every moment- some of it may be due to our different types of work- I do a lot of writing and he works coding websites, his work is often sequential and logical whereas mine is sprawling and often emotion dependent.
There is more to it than this though. Andy has focus and I don’t. I can focus, but it takes very specific circumstances and it’s usually only for short bursts. Now, last spring I fell on some rocks and broke a couple of ribs, I came very close to smacking my head and neck, I came very close to injuring myself very badly or worse. Then a month or so ago, I dragged Andy to hospital fearing that I had a blood clot. Both of these small physical scares mean that I have never been more aware of time flying by and now I really want to focus.
When I was in my twenties I would have said that I couldn’t focus because that’s not how my brain is wired and maybe I should pick a different activity, one that fits better with my ‘natural’ tendencies to wander from interest to interest. Now I know think differently. If I want to achieve something that requires focus, I need to learn how to focus, otherwise I won’t get it done. I want to write a book and that requires focus. Nora Ephron always said ‘Ass in chair’, Anne Lamott says ‘Sit your butt down’ and they are essential places to start but, beyond that, I also need ‘Brain on task’.
Ass in chair.
There is more to my lack of focus than a lack of habit or a lack of confidence. While Andy sits and concentrates on his work every day, I sit and think about my thighs. I currently lack focus for my work because so much of my mind is focused on hating my body. Andy has no idea, I’m sure, that I am sat there wondering if my thighs are spreading further across my chair today, will I need to buy an extra wide chair soon and how long before he notices and wretches at my very presence. He doesn’t realise that I am deeply absorbed in an analysis of what I’ve eaten the last few days, how much exercise I’ve done, what I could and should do differently, arguing with myself that it doesn’t matter, that if I could just forget about my body… I would find meaning in other thoughts and finally act.
This is not a new phenomenon, I haven’t suddenly developed a thigh obsession from watching too many Jane Fonda aerobics videos post Christmas. I’ve had problems with eating disorders and body dysmorphia my whole life. This lack of focus is one of the unexpected consequences of wanting to be thin to be loved- you ruin your work by relentlessly thinking about the fat on your outer hips. Many men suffer from eating disorders as well and probably have the same problem getting over themselves or out of themselves. From my experience though, this focus avoidance is more common in women because even the most well-adjusted woman worries about her weight in a way that most men, despite shifts in social pressures, still don’t.
Andy and I have both learnt to focus on a problem, only my problem is absurd. (Beckett had a singular understanding for the thinking that accompanies eating disorders.) My problem is not absurd because my body doesn’t matter– my body is very important, it helps me to have a busy, fulfilling life- my problem is absurd because it can’t be resolved and it doesn’t bring me or anyone else anything positive, it only brings suffering. When I am very thin, I worry about staying very thin and holding onto the love that I have in my life; when I am larger, I worry about being repulsive, getting thin again and holding onto the love in my life.
Writer Mark Manson wrote recently about our need to ‘grow up’ and start living for ethical and moral reasons rather than transactional ways. He argues that most of us still view our lives like adolescents, we see everything as a transaction- if I give this, I get that and to get this, I must give that. Instead, Manson wants us to decide on our values and our principles and live according to those- you work because you believe it is valuable and beneficial to your life and that of others, not to get anything in exchange. He says, ‘The most precious and important things in life cannot be bargained with. To try to do so destroys them.’
Does my heart move because I love someone who is an absolute singularity, or because I love the way that someone is? (…) That is to say, the history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and the what.
In a lot of ways Manson’s right that we need to stop waiting to be made better and happier, we need to actively work on being better and we need to live by higher standards than simple pleasure or pain, comfort or discomfort. However, I don’t believe we can fully remove transactions from our way of living and I don’t think it’s at all easy to think beyond pain and discomfort, nor that either of those makes us less adult necessarily. The idea of trying to separate out our transactional behaviour and our moral behaviour might be helpful, it can guide us to think about why we act a certain way and lead us to focus on what we really value.
As for my thighs, I agree that they don’t lead me anywhere useful. I’ve created a transactional brain rut, first begun when I was a teenager and worked into a deep furrow ever since. From my teenage fears of being unattractive I’ve planted the seeds of my self-doubt, fear of commitment, anger and, at times, depression.
Put all of Manson’s ideas into practice though and I couldn’t tell you if trying to shrink my thighs by staring at them for hours is a way to bargain for Andy’s love or a distorted way of showing that I value him and want him to enjoy the way I look. It’s much harder than you think to distinguish between a bargain and love? Maybe it’s wrong to try to separate them because the transactional is also the action of love, the ‘proofs of love’ that French poet Pierre Reverdy writes about. Derrida says, ‘Does my heart move because I love someone who is an absolute singularity, or because I love the way that someone is? (…) That is to say, the history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and the what.’ I would give my love to Andy without expecting anything in return but I can’t deny that I hope for something in return, I hope for his love.
I definitely feel that division daily, between the ‘who’ of my mind and my values, and the ‘what’ of my thighs. The great irony being that in wanting to make Andy happy (with my healthy attractive perfect thighs) because I love and care about him, exactly as he is, with no expectation of anything in return, both the who and the what, I make crazy rules (that he mostly doesn’t even know about) and that get in the way of me enjoying my life with him.
We are more alike, my friends, that we are unlike.
How do I break the link I’ve formed between feeling worthy, loved, and capable and my thighs? Can I thwart it with good habits? If I sit and work every day at the same time will I override the loud bellow of my flab? Or can I, as fans of meditation suggest, observe my thoughts and then let them move on by? I like that these ideas are practical, and I’m going to adopt both and try them out, but I don’t know if they sufficiently address the foundational path of thought- that I can only be good and do good if my thighs and the rest of my body is small and thin. How do I change that story?
I don’t think Andy will be surprised to read this, but I do think he will be mystified. It has probably never occurred to him to think about his thighs or stomach or arm flab for more than a passing minute. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t also have brain ruts… I wonder what his are? I’ve never asked him, probably because I’m scared he’ll pause, look pensive and then declare that he doesn’t think he has any. For me, trying to understand someone who doesn’t have brain-ruts like this, that tie you up in knots seemingly against your will, is like trying to understand someone who believes in God when you are an atheist or vice-versa. It seems like a whole other world of thinking. Still, as Maya Angelou said, I believe that ‘we are more alike, my friends, that we are unlike.’
Part of the issue may be that I am trying to undo my ways of thinking, I’m working against them, trying to work backwards to make myself ‘like everyone else’. There’s no going back. I have eating disorders and they are linked with deep complicated thoughts about being inadequate and unloveable. My eating disorders and their underlying causes have led me to make bad decisions, strange decisions, and brave decisions. All of these ideas about myself, stories about my life and habits of thinking are now pretty engrained in me. I need to work with them and use them to focus. After all, my focus on my thighs and their jean straining dimensions is exemplary, if Beckettian in nature.