A lot of us who grew up fat or were fat for a long time but overcame that have what I call “Ugly Duckling” syndrome. I’ve mentioned it before obliquely, but it’s basically what you’d expect: we went from fat to fit but still carry the fat kid with us in a few ways. It actually reminds me of something my brother said – though it’s a pretty common aphorism I think – when talking about chasing women. He said that you don’t want the girl who has always been hot, because she knows she’s hot and expects more. You want the girl who used to be a fat dork because she doesn’t know she’s hot yet and you have a much better shot! A lot of us are like that. No matter what we look like on the other side of our journey through fitness, we will still be, to a lesser or greater degree, dysmorphic. What we see doesn’t really line up with reality entirely.
I want to expand on both my “fatties don’t get phone calls” post and something I alluded to recently in this post about masculinity and self image. This won’t necessarily apply to all my readers, or maybe even most of you, but it’s part of what shaped my experience growing up with obesity and what I know shaped the experiences of several other former fat boys I’m acquainted with. Most of the experiences of being fat and young can be pretty generalized – a lot of what I’ve written so far speaks to a lot of people who used to be fat or are still struggling with their weight – but there are things that not everyone struggled with. But maybe as I write this, the broader application to everyone will emerge on its own.
Fatties don’t get phone calls. My episode with Starla reinforced that fear for me. What’s funny is that on the one hand, yes, I felt rejected because of my weight and that hurt. But it didn’t hurt like it might because I was only partially invested in trying to date her, or even to date my ex girlfriends in high school. The main way that my weight impacted my love life was that it basically kept me in the closet until I was about 24.
Was just asked this. I got asked it last night too while I was out and about. And really, I get asked it some some frequency now that I think about it. There’s something about my personality when people see me in person that seems incongruous I think. From a distance, I look like a jerk and a douche and a stereotype. I look like I’ll be conceited and superior and condescending and abrasive. I look like I’ll be Big Guy at the beach kicking sand in the nerd’s face. But when someone speaks to me, I’m not that way at all. The departure from the stereotype is jarring for some people. I’m apparently sweet and funny and playful and kind and magnanimous… and it contrasts with how I look. So people ask me, “You know you’re beautiful… right?”
Here’s the thing: knowing and feeling aren’t the same thing. I see my flaws magnified 1000x because they’re mine. For a long time after I lost all the weight and got big and strong, compliments made me squirm. I didn’t like the scrutiny because I didn’t really understand it (and because I’d been used to feeling scrutinized in a negative way). It’s hard for me to take a compliment… and if I get asked something like the above, I don’t know how to respond! I know I should feel one way and respond with something gracious. But I usually end up saying something clumsy that reveals that, no, in fact, I don’t really realize what I look like. And I’m embarrassed to be reminded that what I see in myself is still in contrast to what everyone else sees.
Embarrassed, but also in some way encouraged. Encouraged to know that I am doing well and that what I feel is just a feeling and not reality. It’s hard to change that feeling though. Because whatever we look like now, to one degree or another guys like me will be haunted by our inner fat kid.
Funny story about me.
I’ve been swimming exactly twice in the last ten years. Once was yesterday and I had a great time. The other time was two years ago when an ex and I went to the pool and I had an awful time. I did NOT want to be there and I did NOT want to be swimming, but God knows I did my best to look like I was having a blast. My instinct is to hate the water and hate the pool and hate the beach. Because swimming involves me being in a swimsuit… which involves me being shirtless… which is a terrible fear of mine that even now, with vein-crossed biceps and developing abs, I have to grit my teeth about. For the last ten years, with one exception, no one who I wasn’t dating had seen me shirtless. But I went around shirtless at a party last year, and only under duress as it was, again, a situation where I was gritting my teeth and pretending to be ok with it. Because I dread it. Or I have dreaded it for a long time… it’s not as strong as it once was.
Being shirtless was terrifying to me because there was nothing in the world I wanted more than to just be invisible.
I sometimes wonder about the focus of fitness magazines as I’m walking through the store and see them on the rack. I’ve mentioned before that I think the industry misses the mark a lot of the time with regards to overweight people, and the lines of fitness magazines on the rack at the grocery store are a good example of just how. A lot of the articles you’ll see are about that last 10 or 15 pounds, or how to “finally” shed that belly fat… But what about the guy who is just getting started? It seems to me as if fitness magazines will be one of the first resources that a fat guy picks up when he wants to lose weight – it was the first thing I picked up, after all. They’re visible, they’re accessible, and they’re relatively low-investment… but they also tend to focus on guys near the top of their game. Which is fine, in some ways: that’s part of the mission of Men’s Health and their declared readership. But I think fitness magazines – men’s magazines in particular, since I think women’s mags do a slightly better job of this – would be well served to push the border a little and try to rope in the casual or even beginning health nut. What if someone is just “interested” but not a committed follower?
In a world obsessed with losing that last 10 pounds to finally see that washboard stomach for beach season, what’s a guy to do if his problem is tackling that first ten pounds?
Let’s talk a minute about what I was doing during college. I may have mentioned before that in high school I made some decent progress in weight loss through one method or another. I dropped perhaps 70 pounds during my sophomore and senior years of high school. Pretty impressive, right? Well for various reasons that discipline collapsed the moment I started college… my attitude changed somewhere in there, and naturally my results changed. But it wasn’t just my attitude about pursuing fitness that changed, it was my attitude about myself entirely. I saw myself completely differently… and that seeing myself differently let me really balloon up to epic proportions.
For the last few weeks I’ve obviously been doing my bodybuilder challenge. Part of the challenge is to get my bodyfat percentage to an athletic level and that struggle isn’t just a physical one for me. It’s largely a psychological one that requires me to really change the way I looked at weight for most of my life.