Body Illusions

I’ve always had a problem, unrelated to my Crohn’s and other health related issues, in that I tend to measure my successes against other people. I suppose we all do this to some degree, but it can really be a problem/bother when working on physical changes. Not so much with weight loss, I don’t really get worried if someone else loses weight faster than I do (even when competing with them a la “Biggest Loser”). But with things less under my control. Like “why don’t my biceps look like that guy’s” or “why can’t I bench as much as him?” and other things like that.

For example: there’s this guy I know who from my earliest memories of meeting him gave me a big case of bicep envy. Of course, over time memory does embellish things, but back in college on the rare occasions I would see him flex I remember being struck by how high and peaked his biceps were – to the point that you could even see the split in the peak. His arms weren’t especially large at the time, about 16 inches or so, but to an even skinnier me they seemed huge. Over the years I worked on my biceps until eventually my arms were just as large as his were back then. But, to my surprise, my arms didn’t look like his at all. I knew that I had muscle as I had gained strength and my arms were hard to the touch, but instead of high “peaks” my biceps retained a flatter “football” shape. Back to the weight room…

Some time later we began to work out together. Doing a heavy bench routine that we both responded well to – though to be fair he responded much better to than I did. By this time however, though I was still envious of his gains (his arms swelled from about 16 inches to well over 18 inches in just a few months – mine from just under 16 to about 17) I was also truly happy for him and his gains (though he never really gave the impression of caring about gains in size the way I did/do). But I noticed something else. Once again, my arms never got the peak I so desired but the peak that he had in his youth was not nearly as evident either. When he flexed I could see that his biceps were still decidedly more peaked than mine, just not as much as before. What happened? Science tells us that you can’t change the shape of the muscle, so why weren’t his now much larger arms (and solid) more dramatic as they were before? That’s when it occurred to me. It’s an illusion.

What caused his arm growth wasn’t this time so much a change in his biceps but instead that his triceps grew to match. As a result, the biceps did not stand out as much because they were balanced by the larger muscle underneath. This is part of my issue as well since my triceps actually to a degree overshadowed my biceps (something my friend had to point out to me).

These body illusions occur in other ways, too. I know another young man who when you meet him you realize that he is fit. You know, wide shoulders and thin waist, the classic “V” shape. But he’s not very large so fully dressed you don’t think of him as being overly muscular. It wasn’t until he posted a “selfie” on Instagram one day (which apparently is a thing you are supposed to do nowadays) that I realized he was very muscular – complete with six pack – and looked huge. I know he’s not “huge” but a lack of body fat actually adds to the illusion of size when there isn’t anything else for a point of reference (like another person).

I once play Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” and if you’ve read the book you know that Lenny was a big hulking brute of a man. I’m not so much of a hulk. I was going to be aided in creating the stage illusion of size by wearing some thick books (I was already the tallest in the cast except for one guy), but I went to a personal trainer friend of mine and asked what do I do to add size quickly? He suggested just focusing on the back and shoulders as those muscles will give the greatest illusion of size.

Where am I going with all this? I’m not sure. The big lesson is don’t compare yourself to others. That way leads to disappointment especially when you don’t understand that some of what you admire or envy in another person is an illusion.  Instead compare yourself with yourself with your training and fitness goals as there are fewer illusions involved (except for the self-deception many of us have when looking in a mirror – but that’s another topic).

Also, I’ve been talking about physical illusions. There are other illusions too. For example: like many Crohn’s sufferers, I try to give the illusion that I’m not in some sort of pain or discomfort every day. I have a feeling that this is true of many other people with other conditions physical and mental. So maybe when approaching someone else we all should keep in mind that the person we see on the outside is just an illusion. We can’t know what’s going on inside – they may be in just as much pain as we are and perhaps should be treated as such.

Onward!

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