Do you long for a “simpler time” when you had a better, fitter body that was under your control? Do you keep an image of this body in your head, using it as an ideal against which to measure the present? If so, like many other people (especially women), you are engaging in body nostalgia.
Nostalgia is based on a sense of loss and a longing to return to the past, when things were supposedly happier and more straightforward. I say supposedly because nostalgic thinking is a form of fantasy consisting of hazy memories that conveniently downplay negative aspects while enhancing the positives. Nostalgia is regularly located in childhood experiences, when emotions were pure and relationships uncomplicated. Ha. Fitness competitors tend, however, to be nostalgic about their staged bodies, remembering full and defined shoulders or rock-hard quad sweeps rather than months of exhaustion, feelings of weakness, and a consistent sense of disappointment with their appearance. They yearn for a body that never existed.
You don’t have to be a former fitness competitor to relate to this kind of nostalgia. Most people look back fondly, imagining a body they never had, or at least never knew they had. They feel a sense of loss and failure when considering the lithe, thinner bodies they inhabited in high school, while on the university swim team or what have you. Yet they probably did not enjoy or appreciate their bodies at the time. Those bodies might have been linked with shame and failure in the past as well as the present. Such people were no happier with their “better” bodies than they are with their current ones. Figure girls, for instance, might look wistfully at the tiny bejeweled velvet bikinis in their dresser drawers, wondering if they will ever fit into those suits again; they forget all about the tanning dye mess, bikini bite stickiness, and permanent wedgies associated with such outfits.
I understand this kind of thinking because I have been indulging in body nostalgia myself for quite some time now. I do not desire to recapture my long lost “stage ready” body. Instead, I wish to return to my post-competition 135 pound, visibly muscular body—the one I had about 1-2 months after my competition. In fact, I recall in a delusional manner the body I had for the two years following that show because then I was lifting heavy, feeling good, working out hard, and generally eating well, albeit not with any kind of “dieting down” moderation. This body provides motivation for me now, but it is also a point of contrast to my current post-baby ageing body, which has aches and pains, and lifts weights that are much lighter only 4-5 times per week.
I went to the doctor yesterday for my annual physical after realizing that I had not seen her for three years. I dreaded stepping on her scale before stripping down to put my feet in the stirrups. I had not weighed myself for a year or more. The number that appeared was somewhat surprising: 144 pounds. Well, said my sprightly senior doctor, you weighed 151 three years ago, so things are holding steady. What? I had actually lost weight? How could that be, for I was definitely fatter, my lady paunch slowly but surely rising like a cake baking in the oven. Then it hit me: I had lost muscle, maybe even ten pounds of muscle. Would I ever get it back? Probably not.
Body nostalgia is banal, really, for nostalgia is everywhere these days. It informs the heritage museums that celebrate the “good old days,” which I visit as part of my research. It is omnipresent in political discourse, which features a lost golden age to which we must return, especially in Canada with the second Prime Minister Trudeau. Nostalgia is most pressing for the United States, a country clearly in a period of long, slow decline. Anxiety about a lost past that might never be reclaimed is also central to popular culture narratives, including The Walking Dead. This show can be analyzed and interpreted in any number of ways—according to issues of race, gender, citizenship, ethics, consumer culture, environmental disaster etc—but it is driven by our fragile present, which in the show is a lost past that cannot be reconstituted. Another television series solidly based on nostalgia is Downton Abbey. I love this series in part because I grew up watching the BBC. British rather than American media arguably had a greater impact on my upbringing. I read a recent article in which the viewers of Downton Abbey were criticized for believing that Edwardian England was somehow a jolly good time of gender and class equality, or at least the struggle towards it. I think that critique misses the mark. No one thinks that Downton Abbey is historically accurate. Instead, the series is enthralling because it centres around the development of strong female characters who are complicated and not always likable. Women viewers like me are desperate for that kind of material, even as we remember eating banana muffins while watching Upstairs/Downstairs in our pajamas.
A lot more can be said about nostalgia, especially body nostalgia which can be motivating along the lines of “I used to be great and can be again.” It is also confining, if we fail to appreciate the present and live the bodies that we have now. But enough of that. I must stop writing and watch another episode of The Hour.