Why don’t we see our bodies the way they actually look?

Estimated read time: 3 minutes

Our own self-image can be so inaccurate it can border on misrepresentation.

Many times we don’t see ourselves the way we actually look. Somebody once told me that this is our brain playing tricks on us. I don’t know why it happens, but I know that it does happen.

Some examples …

Christoph Trappe childhood photosGrowing up
I always thought of myself as chunky – we could even call it fat – when I was growing up. This went back as far as elementary school. I remember being “fat” and was labeled as such – including by myself. That continued through my teenage years. Even when I played football – first in Germany and than in the United States.

Turns out my childhood photos don’t show the fat kid that I thought I was. These are pictures my sister sent to me in 2014. While not necessarily skinny, I can’t say that I looked fat.

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Losing 130 pounds
When I lost 130 pounds in the late 2000s, I knew I was losing weight only because of the number changing on the scale. When I looked in the mirror, I saw no change. “Why am I not seeing the change? Grrr.”

I didn’t see much change in my body until I had lost around 50 pounds. Others who saw me daily also didn’t mention anything until around that 50 pound mark.

We see what we believe we see, and that belief is based on yesterday. Or something like that.

In fact, the first time I really noticed that I had lost a lot of weight was when I was sitting in a changing room while trying on new – better fitting – clothes. This was months into my weight-loss journey.

Gaining 20-some pounds
After losing all that weight, I got a membership to The Midwest Athletic Club and started lifting more. Up to this point, the pounds had melted off mostly through running.

I really enjoy(ed) lifting, but started gaining weight – around 25 pounds. Interestingly, my pants from 25 pounds lighter still fit. Some areas (shoulders, quads, etc.) were tighter but the clothes were wearable.

My first reaction was: Oh no. I gained 25 pounds. I better lose it pronto. And perhaps I can lose some weight. I think much of that 25 pounds was muscle, however.

I lift more weight now than I did when I was an Iowa football player in the late 1990s, proportionally to my body weight then and now. I feel better and fit. Perhaps, it was all muscle. Or at least most of it was muscle.

But I had to put some effort into thinking about the situation to get to this conclusion.

What to do about this…
This delay in recognition can be a problem. So what can we do about it? Some of the tricks that I’ve learned over the years:

Take photos from time to time and compare them to older ones.

Keep an eye on the weight scale. Record your weight in apps like My Fitness Pal so you can go back and see when you weighed a certain weight.

Do your clothes still fit?

Are you eating healthy? Bad eating can kill any workout regime, even if we exercise three hours a day. Be aware of what you are putting in your body.

While our brain can play tricks on our perception of ourselves, there are ways around it and get a true picture of our body in the moment.