Since I was fat for most of my life it seems as though a lot of issues that appear discrete from the outside actually converge in a lot of ways. Few more so than identity issues… who and what am I, exactly?
There’s a very clear memory of mine from when I was in grade school… one of those memories that sticks with you because of keenly it alerts you that something is amiss. Something in life isn’t what it seems. I remember I was flipping through a magazine that had an article about Dolly Parton. At that age the only thing I knew about Dolly Parton was that her boobs were enormous… and that’s basically what I got from the article too. She said, “I do have big tits. Always had ’em – pushed ’em up, whacked ’em around. Why not make fun of ’em? I’ve made a fortune with ’em.” That’s literally the only thing I remember from the article, but this was almost twenty years ago and it’s pretty clear in my mind. But that isn’t actually the memory that’s important here… What I remember more was the advertisement on the opposing page. It was an ad for Jockey athletic wear with two buff, athletic guys fighting over a volleyball. I remember seeing it and thinking, “Oh… that’s what a guy is supposed to look like?” Neither of them looked anything like me. How did they get that way? Why didn’t I look that way? Would it just happen when I grew up? And why are they so much more interesting than Dolly Parton’s chest?
That last part didn’t really occur to me explicitly until later – a huge swath of my life, thankfully, had nothing to do with whether or not I was gay or straight – but looking back it’s still interesting to see the connection: a single point where I notice that both my outside and my inside aren’t what they’re expected to be.
If that image is the beginning, I know I’ve always been drawn toward bigger guys (not exactly sexually, though that came later, but just drawn in that direction). I wanted to be like that: big, strong, impressive. My favorite cartoons as a kid all featured these super-heroic types. Thundercats, GI-Joe, X-Men, Conan… giants who were so unlike me. I imagined what I’d do if I could change and be like them. I wanted to be powerful like those heroes. I wanted to change and I thought that if I could change, why not change into something magnificent?
And it wasn’t just cartoons: my friends now tend to be big guys too. My closest friend here is my lifting partner Scott, and most of my acquaintances are bodybuilders at Quads. Before I moved to Chicago, I was living with my best friend Greg and three other guys who worked at Gold’s Gym. We got along really well, never had real fights, and it was inspiring to be around him because he could push me to be better. Strength, power, dedication, discipline: these all attract me, and so it makes sense to me that I’m drawn to someone who obviously physically manifests those traits. They’re things I want, and things I pursue in myself. Plus I just generally get along with these guys: we have a lot of the same interests, a lot of the same habits, a lot of the same personality traits. I remember watching TV with Greg and Army Will (that’s what we called him since I knew 3 different guys named Will at the time) and Greg’s girlfriend started asking me about Sex and the City before Army Will cuts her off and says, “Ashley! He’s not that kind of gay guy. He’s just a bro who likes bros.”
It’s been really helpful that my frat-bro and meathead friends didn’t especially care that I was gay. Greg and I met through a guy I was dating at the time so he knew the whole time. The other trainers in the house were my buddies and we never had that awkward “So… are you attracted to me?” conversation, thank God. My love life almost never came up – we talked about the gym, or hunting, or dogs, or food, video games, or cars, or motorcycles. My fraternity brothers don’t seem to have cared either and treat me being gay as much less strange than me posting nerdy things on facebook. The only person who seemed especially interested and/or worried about me being gay was Greg’s girlfriend, who I don’t think was ever reassured that I was 0% attracted to Greg that way. Sure, he was tall and buff and cool and my best friend… but, sorry buddy, there’s no way that was going to happen.
I have, however, always tended to date a bigger guy too. Seems natural: I’m attracted to that in other ways, why not be attracted to it romantically? My only for real boyfriend was 220 lbs, and after that any guy I dated seriously tended to be over 200. And just like with friends and heroes, I’m drawn to the strength, dedication, power, and discipline.
All of that is a preamble to something I was thinking about recently regarding change: what things we can change and what things we can’t. When I first saw that advertisement twenty years back – when I noticed that the outside and the inside weren’t what they were expected to be – I’d never have guessed that it was the outside that would turn out so easy to change. Well, relatively easy… 20 years later and I’m just now happy with it! But still, I look vaguely like Colossus now at 250 lbs of muscle.
The inside was trickier. Over the course of my life I’ve desperately wanted to change both, but felt doomed to be able to change neither. I’d be overweight and I’d be gay, but luckily the inside was easier to hide. I could date girls and go through the motions and be fine. In that small way I could change the inside inasmuch as I’d wish it away and pretend it was otherwise. I still liked what I liked, of course. I still wanted to be like and be with a powerful figure.
Losing all that weight and changing my body threw into stark relief the things I could change and the things I couldn’t. The body I could change. The attitude I could change. I naturally did a LOT of restructuring of my thought processes over the years, because fitness isn’t a thing you do, is a way you are. But what I was on the inside wasn’t going to change no matter how much I wanted it to for a long time, or how much work I did to make it different.
My little brother asked me one time, “Why don’t you just date a guy who doesn’t go to the gym?” I balked at him. “Because that’s not what I’m attracted to…” He seemed to think I was being unrealistic and having lofty standards (this despite the fact he won’t ever date a girl heavier than Heidi Klum). I told him, “Dude, if I could change what I liked and be happy with that, I’d be married to one of those girls from high school.” Because at this point, it isn’t just about physical attractiveness (though I won’t insult anyone’s intelligence by insisting that isn’t in there somewhere): it’s about a lifestyle and personality and goals. I make friends with big guys because the core of our lives are the same: we get each other. I dated buff guys because our lives intersected so well. Fitness is, necessarily, at the center of my life – personally and professionally – so it seems reasonable to be attracted to someone with the same life. I’ve always been attracted to that… And changing my lifestyle has been a process of becoming the best version of myself in order to get that.
Like I tell any guy asking how he can snag a bodybuilder boyfriend: “Become the guy you’d want to date, yourself.” And that goes beyond just the body. If you want a nice guy, be a nice guy. If you want a fit guy, be a fit guy. If you want an honest man, be honest. If you want integrity, have integrity. If you want someone loyal, be loyal. Be the things you admire in the other person. Some things you can’t change – I don’t think sexuality or even largely romantic taste is something we have much control over – but there is a lot you can.
So in twenty years I’ve done a lot of changing… I’ve largely become the image I was drawn to. Not quite a superhero, but I’m almost there! I guess now the question is will I fulfill what I thought were my dreams when I said to myself, “If I could change…”?