The Puppiness Project – Image vs. Identity

Gretchen Rubin wrote in The Happiness Project about the year she spent “test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happy.” The Puppiness Project is my attempt to learn the same from Honey, my Golden Retriever.

Dogs don’t have identity crises

Golden Retriever on a sunny day

Floofie tail? Check. Long gold coat? Check. Friendly disposition? Check. Likes to swim? Well....

Unless I’m misinterpreting the whimpers in her sleep, Honey doesn’t worry about her identity.

She doesn’t lie awake at night wondering to herself, “If I’m really a Golden Retriever, why don’t I like to swim?” Or ask herself if she should enjoy fetching more than she does.

Not everything about Honey fits the image people have of a Golden Retriever. But she doesn’t care. Honey is who she is.

Gee, I don’t feel old and fat

I didn’t participate in sports in school. My family wasn’t very outdoorsy. I was no one’s idea of an athlete.

In college, I had to be able to run 1 1/2 miles within a certain time to get an “A.” I hated running so much that my friends took it as their mission to keep me company on a run while I whined the entire time.

Until one day I went running on my own. The sky cracked with thunder and lightning. It was dark. And the rain fell in sheets.

I felt better running that night than I ever did with the company of an encouraging friend. Something about the added difficulty made it especially exhilerating.

Over the years, I tried more athletic and outdoorsy activities. I came to enjoy camping and hiking. We bought kayaks and I paddled mine home from the sale on a lake covered with white caps. I’ve enjoyed bicycling and now that I have no car, it is my primary form of transportation.

I’ve swum more than a mile in open water and have considered entering our local triathlon. I used to run every day of the year, rain or shine.

And this year I learned to sail.

I feel like a fit and healthy person. I never get sick.

But then I look in the mirror or see a picture of myself and I wonder where that young, fit person I identify with is hiding. Because the image I see bears no resemblance to the way I feel.

What’s worse? Judging yourself or being judged?

Sometimes I find it hard to do the things I enjoy because I’m afraid of being judged by other people.

When I ran, I used to do it at 5:00 a.m. when the streets were empty. If I could have gotten up at 4:00 a.m., I would have.

woman riding bike with Christmas tree on cart behind

Fat girl on a bike just getting things done.

I feel bad every time I read another article about how fat people are costing the country millions in lost wages and health care costs. This despite the fact that I never get sick and haven’t spent a penny of health insurance on myself while watching my skinny co-workers get treated for inner ear infections, flu, high blood pressure, and assorted other ailments.

I’m trying to force myself to accept my identity as a fit and healthy person more than the image I see in a picture or mirror. But it’s very, very hard.

Ignoring the image; embracing the identity

I could refuse to ever have my picture taken or remove every mirror from the house. But then I’m just shocked when I sit in a restaurant with mirrored walls or have to use a store dressing room.

So I guess the only answer is to learn to ignore the image I see and embrace the identity I hold in my heart. And keep biking and swimming and kayaking no matter how I look doing it.

Maybe, like Honey, I’m really a Golden Retriever, deep down. Even if I don’t always look like one. Or, as in Honey’s case, don’t always act like one.

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  1. You are perfect just as you are. I avoid mirrors & scales & am shocked when confronted by either. Just when I think I have come to terms with the external me, I will accidently see my reflection with my drugstore magnifying reading glasses and wonder who that old lady is.

  2. It’s like you are living in my head. It’s not a very happy place all the time but you are not alone. Not by a long shot. But I am sure you know that already. I am sure you know that far more women, no matter how healthy or what size is on their jeans, feel like you do than otherwise. But all the logic in the world doesn’t help on days when you just don’t like what you see. It is very, very, very hard.

    I don’t know what the answer is either. There are so many different voices, different people telling us different things. I try to tune out the negative ones and just keep in the good but it’s not that simple. Hopefully if we just keep on doing the things we love, if we just keep being the people we are, despite our fears of judgment, it will all even out. I also try to cut myself some slack. We are hard enough on ourselves. We don’t need to be hard on ourselves for being hard on ourselves, right?

    Even if you don’t think so, everyone who reads this blog knows just how gorgeous you are.

    • Thanks, Kristine.

      If it’s any comfort, I do find it easier to seek out and listen to the positive voices the older I get. If only it didn’t come with grey hair and a spreading rear end. :)

      Last year Anipals had a picture contest for dog and cat “moms.” They had only a handful of submissions. Evidently very few women wanted their picture online. So I know I’m not alone. :(

  3. The constant barrage of unrealistic body images may be contributing to the obesity problem. I can imagine people (men and women) despairing of reaching the ideal and just helping themselves to another Twinkie or two. I think you are right, we just need to do what we love and be who we are. As long as we are healthy, no one has the right to judge us.

    • One of my many entrepreneurial ideas was to provide a supportive website with products for overweight people looking to improve their fitness. Part of it would be doing outreach to athletic products stores to show them how to create a less intimidating atmosphere for newbies.

      I think it’s a great idea but I just don’t have the courage to do it.

      But I do think judgment and unrealistic bodies are causing people to lose heart. BTW, do you know that even fashion models are being airbrushed in ads to look even thinner?

  4. I feel like you’ve written some words that were in my heart in a way that I needed to come back and read. I’m trying hard right now to get back into a healthier lifestyle, but it’s really hard. Eating right is expensive, but eating wrong is so cheap. This time of year, we have so little time to devote to getting out and doing those active things that we enjoy, too. I’m looking forward to the days after Christmas when we can reclaim our lives; how we eat, where we go when we have time, and what we do every day!

    • You’re right that it’s harder to do good things than to do bad things. I think our entire culture is set up to reward bad decisions.

      It’s one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed being part of the Voluntary Simplicity movement. It feels good to kick back against the culture sometimes.

  5. Re: Honey and swimming – I once took in a wonderful Lab/Chessie mix for an owner who had to give him up (she was hated by her daughter for some time). Victor HATED water and would not fetch; I asked Mom, both his breeds say fetch and swim; she said, I know and he won’t. HA.
    You are beautiful. You are doing right by your body, dog and family. I hear that talk in my head all the time; my face, as a charming 3 y/o once said, “is crooked.” I need to remind myself to not let it nor the stares I get change me. I am the girl to whom my mom gave a small plaque long ago, telling me it reminded her of me: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” Is it easy? Heck, no, but the real you is not in other people; she is you.
    I love your blog, I love your honesty, I’ll bike ride with you anytime (you’ll just have to double back to find me).

  6. The thing is that you are way harder on the person in the mirror, than other people are when they see you….we all amplify our faults way out of proportion to what they are. If you’re getting out and doing stuff that makes you happy, and feeling love and joy in your heart for Honey, then you are the essence of beautiful and healthy!

    Getting around by bike is awesome, isn’t it?

  7. Most of the time when my self confidence is up and I’m feeling good about myself and look in the mirror, it hardly ever matches what I feel about myself on the inside. Other times when I look and I’m not happy with myself then it matches. So which one is true?

    All the dogs have Sibe in them, they are not suppose to like water and yet some of them can’t stay out of it they love it so much. Yes, they have lab too, but even Brut who has no waterdog in him, loves swimming in the lake.

    Who says what we are suppose to be, except for ourselves. You go Girl!!

  8. In the last couple of years, I feel I’ve aged a lot. I’ve always looked a lot younger than my 50+ years so it’s a new experience. After a knee surgery and fixing my hyperthyroidism, my weight ballooned by 10kg in 6 months. Whatever I do (reducing food, eating less passionfruit tarts, keeping up with my capoeira classes), nothing can bring the weight or my belly down. I cover my grey hairs with colouring because it’s not (yet) the snow white head I want. As for my wrinkles, sun and liver spots – well, too late to do anything about those. Like it or not, the way I look now has affected my thinking. Shame on me, but I’m now behaving like an old lady ;p

    Yeah you’re right. We do have a lot to learn from our dogs.

  9. I totally get where you’re coming from – my weight has gone up and down like a roller-coaster over the years, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been really happy with how I look, no matter which end of the scale I happened to be on at the time.

    I do think that the media (particularly magazines with their unattainable photoshopped images) manages to get in our heads and warp our view of what we see. It’s everywhere – for example, how often do you see an article about what a male politician wears or looks like? Compare that to the mentions of the looks/attractiveness of female politicians. I remember taking a women in media class in college and being appalled at some of the things I learned.

    I think the point you make here is great. What’s important is how we feel and who we really are – not necessarily how others perceive us. Having met you, I can confidently state that you’re awesome. :)

  10. What a great post Pamela. Dogs can teach us so much.

    Just a thought (I actually stole it from an episode of What Not to Wear), but is it possible that the reason you don’t see that fit person is because you’re looking at the outside in versus the inside out? I don’t know what fit looks like, but I am guessing that it’s not the same for everyone. Personally, I admire you for being so fit of mind and body. :)

  11. This getting older thing really sneaks up on you, doesn’t it? I remember thinking a couple of weeks ago as I prepared to jump off a rock on a hike “when did I start jumping like I was 90 – minimizing the impact so it wouldn’t hurt so much?” What happenned to the days when I jumped without thinking about the landing? The gray hairs are multiplying and the metabolism is slowing down, but in my head I’m still 24. I’m going to fight it for as long as I can. As of today, yoga is back on the schedule and decisions about what I eat will be influence less by instant gratification and more by my desire to stay active for the next 50 years.

  12. Great article, well written and informative. I wouldn’t know too much of the getting older.. seeing as im still young. however, the issues here are definitely being mandated by the over-bearing images of attractive people being forced on all of us. But life is about whatever you want it to be, and the only way to really be happy is to live for yourself. :) please check out my articles, I’d be very interested to hear what you think of them.