I walk into the pool area at the Y and suss out the various lanes. They’re marked “slow,” “moderate,” “fast,” and “speed.” The first thing I look for is occupancy. Other things being equal, I default to the lane with the fewest number of people in it. But it also matters how fast or slow they are swimming. And there are no absolute standards for this. I like “fast” the best, but some days I’m at home in the speed lane. Other days, I’m make out better in the moderate lane. It depends how I compare to the other swimmers who happen to be there at the time.
This kind of comparing is practical. But there is another, more insidious and pernicious form of comparison.
Still at the pool. Hey, she’s super fast. And look, she’s got amazing flip turns. And wait! She’s got a float thing between her legs, so she’s not even kicking at full steam. I thought I was a pretty good swimmer. Guess I’m not as good as I thought.
Or maybe this. That guy’s a lot slower than I thought. Why did he rush off the wall so quickly at that end instead of letting me pass him? Now I have to slow down and zip by at the other end. Look at me, I’m so fast!
I’m going out on a limb here by sharing these thoughts in the hopes that I’m not the only one who compares in this way. By “this way,” I mean the way that makes me come out either better or worse than, superior or inferior but rarely equal to, other people.
I’ve blogged before about why “fitspo” doesn’t inspire me in the way it’s apparently meant to. I was browsing a blog this morning that I found on a list of recommended fitness blogs. It turned out to be a fitspo tumblr that combined inspirational quotes with pictures of unbelievably fit-looking young (always young! sigh!) women, many in dance or yoga poses that I honestly wouldn’t be able to get myself into no matter what body I had.
It took me about two minutes on this site before I started to hear a voice in my head telling me I’m never going to look like that (true) and that there’s something lamentable about that fact (false). And it’s not just lamentable. It quickly leads to the feeling that I’m not quite up to standard.
I’m fairly reflective about these things and even explicitly, loudly, and frequently reject the idea that a particular body aesthetic is a marker of someone’s worth. But when I start to compare, it can bring me down fast.
And comparing isn’t just harmful when I come out feeling worse about myself. I don’t the best source of a sense of self-worth is through thinking myself better than other people either. As a feminist committed to equality and to solidarity with other women, I can do better than that.
Comparing myself to other women also leads fairly quickly to the need to compete with them. I’ve blogged about the competitive feminist already. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with competition, particularly in the realm of sport, competing and needing to win in order to feel good about oneself strikes me as a pretty weak foundation on which to build a sense of self-worth.
Sam has suggested that she feels most fiercely competitive not with others but with different past selves. In setting her fittest-by-fifty goals, she would like to outperform two of her previous personal bests. Sam is really good at separating self-worth from her athletic performance. She’s a huge role model for me because she pursues physical activity and improved performance because she loves a good challenge, not because she thinks it will make her in some sense superior (either to others or even to who she is today).
She’s good proof that you can want to out-do former selves without using past performance as a stick with which to beat yourself when you fall short of it. That’s probably why tracking is such a good thing for her — she’s so neutral about it.
On the weekend I saw the film Quartet, in which Maggie Smith plays an aging former opera star who moves into a retirement home for musicians. At the beginning of the film, she lives in the past and refuses to sing any longer because her voice is no longer what it once was. Of course, a major plot mover in the film is the question of whether she will sing again in the upcoming gala. Her constant comparison with herself at her prime keeps her from simply enjoying what she can do now.
I’ve been tracking my running lately, and it’s kind of demoralizing because my pace is getting slower and slower. But the fact of the matter is that this is what I should expect given that I’ve fallen out of a regular running routine. When I compare my old run pace to my recent run pace, I am comparing apples to oranges, much like Maggie Smith’s character in Quartet, who compares herself at her prime to herself just shy of eighty. A couple of months ago, I ran three days a week and saw consistent progress both in distance and in speed. But when I let winter interrupt my running program, of course it’s going to look different when I go out for a run now. I’m just getting back into it.
What’s the upshot of this reflection on comparing? First, we can use comparing in a negative way, to make ourselves feel inferior or superior to other people. Neither is particularly helpful and both stand as perilous foundations for a sense of self-worth.
Second, there are neutral ways to use comparison, especially comparison with our past performance, as a means of gathering information. Some of us are better at this neutrality than others. Here’s where you need to know yourself. Personally, I need to be cautious.
I prefer to find different ways of relating to other athletes who engage in similar activities than by comparing my performance with theirs. I am much happier to be in a supportive community where we can each encourage one another and cheer one another on.
In this respect, comparing can have the same upside and downside as competing. Chris Evert said that a good competitor reacts the same whether she wins or loses. Similarly with comparing. If I can look at other women, or at myself at different times of my life, and not feel superior, inferior, envious etc., then I’ve got a solid sense of who I am and what I’m about. If, however, looking at other women gives rise to uncomfortable feelings or in some way gets used as my source of validation (or lack of it), then it may not be a healthy practice for me to engage in.