They say comparison is the thief of joy. I say “they” because when I originally googled who actually said that phrase first, it was attributed to “Theodore Roosevelt and others” (direct quote from a site I found on Google). So apparently who really knows where it came from? Regardless, I find the fact that there is a dispute as to the origin of the quote quite indicative of how universal this idea of comparing oneself to others is, and how universally detrimental the process is.
In my healing and weight-gain journey, I have found myself comparing my own body and own meals to those around me or those I see on social media. At the beach I will find myself hyper-focused on other women’s abdominal area, comparing mine to theirs. At dinner, I will pace myself with the slowest eater, and often loathe to put more on my plate than those around me regardless of my actual hunger.
I have been like this my entire life, and not only regarding food and body shape/size. Throughout my academic career, I constantly compared myself to others, striving to be at the top or close to the top and feeling like a massive failure when I did not deliver. In class, I often feel worthless when classmates have such incredible insights and I draw a blank. At the gym or at an exercise class, I have always picked the fittest person there and made it a game to try to be better, faster, stronger than they are. I always want to be better than the person next to me and failing to get more reps or a higher grade than them leads to mental distress and self-deprecation. I’m not good enough.
“Just don’t be around so many people, Kristy. Problem solved,” you say. But you know what sucks? Even when no one is around I will play this game. When there is no one else to compare myself to, I will compare my current self to my past self. I’ll see photos of myself from high school (high school, y’all) and compare the shape of my body to that literal teenager that I used to be. I bemoan a loss of ab definition or perfect skin. I berate myself for not being able to do as many burpees as I did when I was 20. And it’s a spiral, because once I start, I can’t stop, and I continue to kick myself even when I’m down and out for the count.
I would never treat someone else like this. So why do I do it to myself?
The other day I texted a friend who mentioned she was suffering from body image issues. I understood but told her that I envied her abs (yes, this is a trend and a fixation area for me, I’m aware). She turned around and told me that she felt the same way about my legs, and it hit me that while I had been so hyper-focused on the perceived problem areas, I had taken up the brain space and time I could have dedicated to actually loving parts of my body, and the parts of myself, that deserved respect and time and love. Do I always have the best insights in class? No, but the ones I do have are pretty good when they arise. Can I lift more or run faster than that other guy at the gym? Maybe, but regardless I’m working hard, and I managed to lift more today than yesterday (or I didn’t, and that’s fine too). And is my body more toned than that woman on the beach? Probably not, but it carries me from place to place and it’s in a healing journey that needs to be honored. And it’s freaking strong for pushing through.
Comparing myself to others and my past self does not serve me. It only makes me miserable. And, as I discovered in my previously mentioned conversation with a friend, we all do it. Nothing is good enough, the grass is always greener on the other side, and we all strive for perfection that simply doesn’t exist. And what do we get for this mental strife? Nothing but frustration, sadness, and self-loathing. We tie our self-worth to something unattainable, and when we inevitably don’t reach it, we deem ourselves worthless. Awful. Insignificant.
Comparison may be the thief of joy, but I’m planning on stealing that joy right back. I can’t stop myself from comparing—that shit is automatic at this point, and to try to quit cold turkey is unrealistic and will only lead to more negative feelings toward myself and my abilities—but I can try to correct. To notice when I’m doing it and pivot my thought processes. Because that joy is mine, and I have no intention of letting anyone steal it back. I’ve worked too hard for it.
Kristy Cloetingh is a Philadelphia native who is currently trying to figure out her place in the world. Her passions include reading, singing, dancing, nature, yoga, chicken fingers, and puppies. An anorexia survivor and mental health warrior, Kristy has made it her life’s mission to remind every single person that their bodies and minds are worthy of unconditional love and respect, regardless of size, shape, or whatever “normal” is.