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Photo: Chris Bartlett
She's healthy, a size 8, and involved in a nice relationship. So why does she spend so much time obsessing over her belly? And how much time is she spending? Valerie Frankel clocks her central preoccupation.
Surely you've heard the statistic that men think about sex 200 times a day. (Amazingly, there are no empirical or scientific studies to back up the claim.) Women, I've long believed, spend just as much time contemplating female bodies and what they'd like to do with them. More to the point, an individual woman thinks about her own body and the changes she'd like to make to it. Even the beautiful ones. Just this morning, one of my neighbors, a size 6, long-legged natural blonde, spent our entire ten-minute walk to the grocery store talking about the depth of the pores on her nose and her corrective options.

My particular fixation does not lie in the center of my face. It rests, immovably, around another middle. My belly, my bane. My thoughts-per-day ratio has reached a dangerous new high. I blame this escalation on two factors: a recent weight loss and a new boyfriend.

Two years ago, my midsection was in such a state that thinking about it at all seemed futile. I had a husband who didn't care about the girth. His attraction never waned after the first pregnancy (and its resulting 15-pound gain), nor the second (another ten pounds there). Our seven-year marriage added 30 pounds to my frame. I lost half of it when I lost the husband.

I lost the rest when I gained a boyfriend. He asked me, in a nice way, to diet, although his initial plea raised the eyebrows of all my friends, who said things like "He wants you to diet? How do we feel about that?" "Tell him you'll lose weight if he grows a few inches," and "Like he's perfect? I should say not." A decade ago, I would have bristled, too, along the lines of, "I'm not good enough for you as a size 10?" Maybe love knocked down defensiveness. I took the request to heart, ran longer distances, and stopped eating bread. I've been rewarded with improved health, a slimmer silhouette, and the boyfriend's ever-increasing passion and pride. I've been a size 8 for ten months. Feels great.

But. The abdominal pouch, the hanger-on from my pregnancies, clings stubbornly to my trunk like moss. No question, my belly is flatter than before. Just not flat enough. As with gravity, the closer you get to the earth—or to a goal—the greater the pull. Hence the dangerous new highs in stomach obsession. I scrutinized it, repeatedly, for signs of improvement. I made frequent trips to the mirror, raising my shirt and (I pray other women do this or I'm about to embarrass myself) slapping the bulge to see how much it jiggled. "Still there," I'd say to myself again and again, irrationally disappointed that the flab hadn't vaporized in the 20 minutes since I had last checked.

"Sounds like appearance-checking behavior," says Thomas F. Cash, PhD, author of The Body Image Workbook and a professor of psychology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. "It's a habit people get into—not to be confused with vanity, which is having an inflated view of oneself. What you're describing is the opposite. Your private body talk is negative. You don't look at your legs, which you tell me are in great shape. You stare at what you don't like, ignoring the good parts."

Appearance-checking behavior. Always glad to hang a textbooky term on a problem.

"Here's another one," Cash says. "Appearance-preoccupied behavior is when simple things become overly elaborate and complicated. Women who have to redo their hair ten times to leave their home, or go through their entire wardrobe to get dressed. An even more extreme case: Body dysmorphic disorder, or imagined ugliness, is when a woman becomes fixated on a physical flaw that's grossly exaggerated in her mind. She's convinced it's huge, all people see when they look at her. Usually, the flaw is something on the face, a tiny acne scar or wart, but some women have BDD about their hips or thighs. The obsessive-compulsive part is looking in the mirror 20 times in an hour. The woman believes that if she keeps checking, she can reassure herself that it's okay. But it never is. She feels out of control. The flaw has taken over her life."

My belly had not eaten my life. But the path from desk chair to bedroom mirror seemed a bit worn. My checking was too reflexive. And the whole obsession was not serving me well. Besides the time wasted gazing at my roll, I lost minutes daydreaming about a perfect belly. I lost hours during insomniac bouts of regret over missed gym visits or indulgent restaurant meals. I had better ways to spend idle time and thought. Two kids, a novel in progress. Sex. If I were to calculate the cost, in minutes and hours, of pouch fixation, surely the harsh reality would break the habit. "Bad body image goes beyond wasted time," Cash says. "It damages self-esteem, causes social and sexual problems, leads to depression. Every time you look in the mirror, you focus on the negative. Imagine if you took the one aspect of your personality you liked the least and forced yourself to think about it 50 times a day. How would you feel by the end of the week?"

Next: Calculating exactly how much time is wasted on her ab-session
But emotional devastation was hard to measure. I decided instead to calculate how much time, in seconds and minutes, I wasted thinking about my belly. To do so, I bought a stopwatch and started counting.

Turns out my methodology was faulty. When thought becomes conscious, the stream doesn't flow. I was focusing more on having the thought than on the thought itself, interrupting its duration. And which thoughts qualified? Opening the fridge and choosing a snack? Organizing the day so that I could get to the gym? Also, thoughts rarely lasted a full minute. Often I'd have a fat flash (I'd see a woman on the street with an impossibly taut tummy and envy it openly), but it was too fleeting to measure. The hit would end before I could start the stopwatch.

I had to refine my strategy. "Get a baseline," Cash says. "How many times a day do you look in the mirror? How often do you have negative thoughts about your weight? Once you have a baseline, you can mindfully decrease it. Start small. If you check your stomach eight times a day, make it six. It won't be difficult. And in a few weeks, you'll notice an emotional lift."

It was far simpler to count than to measure time. I got a clicker and ticked off each instance of appearance checking. I got five days of raw data. On Monday I looked at myself 166 times. Shocking, isn't it? I mentioned the number to friends, and they gasped. The huge total included home mirror visits and catching my reflection in storefront windows, car windows, any chrome or glass surface. I counted everything, even fleeting glimpses if they were long enough for me to judge. The gym is a riot of mirrors. I logged 20 separate instances in an hour and a half of seeing myself sweat.

As Cash predicted, once I had a baseline, decreasing it would be easy. By Friday I'd strapped on the mental blinders, logging only 30 instances, most of them at home. Since I was looking less frequently, I had the foresight to time the incidents. On average each lasted approximately 20 seconds. Since I'd decreased my checking by more than 100, I was gaining over half an hour a day. I kept it up, waiting for the seismic emotional bounce Cash spoke of. It didn't happen right away. But it did come. I was walking my 4-year-old home from school. We passed a huge storefront window by a pharmacy, a place where I usually stopped to check my profile. I averted my eyes from the windows by turning them downward, to Lucy. She'd been nattering about an art project. When she noticed that I was looking at her, she smiled up at me. Her smile was big, bright, blinding (this is one gorgeous kid). Shame surfaced instantly. I'd been passing up that face to degrade myself mentally on the street? Stupid. Thinking I'm fat is one thing. But I'm loath to think I'm stupid. I would not think so little of myself again. I was inspired, motivated. Lifted.

To amplify my efforts, Cash recommended exercises. No, not crunches. He suggested that:
1. When I do check the mirror, I practice looking at body parts or facial features I like.

2. Or go ahead and look at the belly, but ask myself, What am I doing here? What is the point?

3. A foolproof method is to turn mirrors around or to cover them. That way you have the chance to stop bad behavior and replace it with good. "During the five seconds you would have been checking, do deep diaphragm breathing instead," Cash said.
It's been a month since the experiment began. The temptation to appearance-check has all but lost its luster. I still look a few times a day, but not reflexively. I've been spending a portion of my newly discovered half hour breathing deeply and doing crunches, striving to, as Cash said, "concentrate on accomplishment, master thoughts, and gain perspective." I already know that the happiness of my relationship and family doesn't depend on my having a 26-inch waist. A flat stomach won't make me a better writer. But what of my personal measure of success? Washboard abs are still on the list but dropping, with a bullet. One day soon I'll believe utterly that the size of my belly amounts to nothing more than a hill of beans in the grand scheme of things. A large hill perhaps. But just beans.

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