“Letting oneself go”: A sustained period of inattention to the upkeep of one’s appearance; a disregard for maintaining a should-be-maintainable level of attractiveness; a negligence toward managing the look of one’s body, common in the passing from young to old and/or fit to unfit.
“I used to be so fit and put-together, but ever since I became a mom, I really let myself go.”
“He has really let himself go since I last saw him.”
–a recent CrossFit convert to his friend as they nibble on celery and people-watch at their 20th high school reunion
There is a kind of laziness and oblivion implied in this phrase.
“Letting oneself go” is not exactly the inability to upkeep one’s appearance. It more connotes that a person is able to pay attention to physical appearance but chooses not to. I could, with a little self-discipline, keep my body trim, but I don’t.
I was first forced to confront this language when I was in therapy for anorexia years ago. It had been my “homework” to gain weight, a goal that was only possible after lots of counseling and what I like to call “reverse discipline”— the discipline of being undisciplined. This meant that I had to abstain from all exercise and eat large sugary blueberry muffins from the campus coffee shop whenever I could between classes (not the healthiest way to gain weight, but “bad foods” wasn’t allowed in my vocabulary then).
The idea of “reverse discipline” may sound silly, but for someone with a chronic fear of weight gain— or, as many struggling with anorexia have been described, someone so fearful of gaining weight that he or she would rather die— “letting oneself go” is a painful discipline.
But many, of course, don’t relate to the phrase in this way; we don’t usually try to let ourselves go. For some women, an incoming tubal ligation reversal procedure prompts them to leave an unhealthy lifestyle and get started on good eating. You can’t try to get pregnant again if you’ve “let yourself go.” Whatever life circumstance spurs the phrase, it usually comes along with shame.
And because of this, it is a phrase worth interrogating. It’s a phrase worth interrogating because language is powerful. Language can shape the realities in which we live. And language—whether we’re conscious of it or not— influences how we view people. Especially ourselves.
Language also creates those problematic binaries: Right, wrong. Good, bad. Pretty, ugly. Fit, fat.
These binaries make me think of the Transformation Tuesday pictures sprouting up all over social media. Some of them I have found to be quite striking. Not striking because the transformations were particularly radical or awe-inducing. Striking in a way that made me sad. Striking in a way that made one wonder why the “before”s were in need of “transformation” in the first place.
Certainly not all “before and after” pictures are like this. Usually they are intended to simply invite others to celebrate what may have been a long and hard-earned journey toward wellness. But it is worth noting that the language often surrounding such dichotomized representations of the self lends itself to the “letting oneself go” mentality, especially with such a focus on appearance. And, as one might expect, the language is usually pretty negative for one of the two representations: Gross. Wrong. Ugly. Fat.
It is such reductive language. But pictures can tempt us to speak like that.
The body, though, is not static like a picture. The body is not a sculpture. The body is not meant to stay the same or be obsessively maintained to stay the same so that it is not, in some seasons, “let go.” The body is alive and pulsating, fluid and adaptable; the body is wildly beautiful; the body is a mystery, something others before us have literally worshiped; the body is self-healing, growing, constantly changing. The body is glorious, and the body is stubborn; the body does not easily yield itself to demands of the self, and yet, the body is like the self; perhaps, we can say, the body is the self (if you’re into un-dualizing that mind-body stuff :)).
The fact that the body is so ever-changing and changeable is a sign that we are alive.
And what a gift, too, to be able to change the body— to, dare I say, manipulate it, which is essentially what we do when we diet or exercise, so that it can be stronger, healthier, functional. But the moment we become slaves to controlling the body—so much so that any deviation from our ideal is considered “letting ourselves go”— is the moment we undermine the very feature that characterizes life itself: our ever-changeable, for better or worse, bodies.
But what about those of us who do struggle with a legitimately concerning weight? What if I’m someone who has “let myself go” to such an extent that doctors are telling me I need to lose weight if I don’t want to be at risk for, say, diabetes or heart disease?
The need to take care of our physical well-being is a very real and important need, and it’s undeniable that weight can be an indicator of where one’s health stands. But it can be difficult for someone journeying toward wellness to disentangle the goal of holistic health from the very real and misguided pressures to maintain an attractive and thin body. It’s okay and fun and normal for us to care about attractiveness and to want to look our best. But we can get into dangerous territory if we don’t sift through the loud and often shame-inducing discourse surrounding fitness and health, especially for those who need to take the goal of weight loss seriously.
I said earlier that, for anyone who has been in therapy for anorexia, turning this phrase on its head is an important step in the journey toward true wellness and breaking free from the bondage of needing to control one’s body. But challenging this phrase—and experiencing freedom from the shame in it— should not just be reserved for those who are dangerously underweight.
“Letting oneself go” may connote apathy, but the reasons that many “succumb” to not keeping their bodies trim and tidy fly in the face of laziness: the huge sacrifice of becoming a mom for the first time, or second time, or third time; the time-consuming job that puts food on the table; working on a PhD; starting up a business; taking care of a sick parent. All of these priorities that might cause people to deviate from a lower weight they used to have don’t seem to me to be lack of discipline. These activities, the stuff of life, are discipline, and they deserve to be recognized, applauded and admired as much as the before and after pictures that flood social media.
Even if the reasons for “letting oneself go” are not so celebratory— depression, loss of a loved one, financial straits, an emotional slump— there needs to be room for grace toward ourselves and toward others when such personal circumstances prevent body upkeep from being the first thing on one’s mind. Maybe that grace is the very thing that would move one toward a healthier, rather than shame-driven, engagement with something like exercise (which is, of course, a helpful antidote to emotional slumps).
So maybe you’re in that season of life where you’ve had to loosen your belt a notch or had to buy a larger size of pants. Maybe you are feeling especially older this year and have lost some hair or even grown some hair (in unwanted places). Maybe you have gotten more pronounced wrinkles around the eyes or have noticed your face is more filled out in this picture than in that picture. I want to challenge you to not automatically look at that as “bad.” Wanting to change and motivate oneself to change is good. But something as simple as a little phrase can be destructive if not tempered by a healthy understanding of what it means to take care of our bodies, feel good about how we look, and accept—even embrace—the natural rhythms and changes of the body.