It’s January and once again I begin thinking about losing weight. I keep track of my weight—and keep losing and gaining the same 20 pounds. I eat pretty well, but I eat too much. Like most people, there are a million reasons why I weigh more than I want to weigh. I’ve always been a little “chunky,” but as I’ve gotten older and my metabolism is slowing down, chunky feels more like fat.
But it’s a new year and maybe this is my time. I was taken aback when my wife asked me this question: “Have you ever thought you might be afraid of losing weight?” At first, I dismissed the question out of hand. How could I possibly be afraid of losing weight?
I thought of a woman friend I know who has had difficulty losing weight. On reflection, she said she had always associated losing weight with a person suffering from cancer. She realized that one of the fears she had, irrational though it seemed, was If I lose weight, it will mean I’ll be sick.
Just mulling over the question, some early memories popped into my mind. I pictured myself as an energetic five-year-old. I was short and slightly built like my father. I never thought of myself as short or small. I was just me. But our lives were turned upside down when my father became increasingly depressed because he couldn’t make a living to support me and my mom. He had a breakdown and was hospitalized at Camarillo State Mental Hospital.
Over the next few years, my mother decided that without a father in the home, I was going to need some help. One of her solutions, a practice common in the 1950s was to buy a side of beef. A whole freezer of steaks, chops, burgers, etc. were delivered regularly. She was convinced that meat would make me more manly. I began eating meat three times a day.
I was still short, but I began to fill out. I wasn’t the skinny kid I had been. I remembered seeing the ads by Charles Atlas telling me I didn’t want to be a 97-pound weakling, that boys would pick on and girls would ignore. My mother also seemed to like “big men.” After my father was hospitalized, she got involved with a 6’2’’ welder and carpenter. It became clear to me that bigger was better.
I worried that I was too short, but my mother reassured me that I’d grow. “Your uncles are all tall,” she told me, even though both she and my father were short.
The final image that added to the experience I’ve had of “being afraid to lose weight,” was one with my ex-wife. She had wanted to go on a diet and wanted me to help her by going on it with her. It was a diet where you ate grapefruit and orange juice for breakfast and lunch, then a regular dinner. We both lost weight and I really felt good. I was down to 135 pounds—about what I weighed in junior high school—and I felt great. My body was lean and muscled and I felt like a light-weight boxer.
I was unprepared for my wife’s reaction. “You’re so small,” she told me. “You’re more like a little boy than a man.” That was all I needed to hear. I went back to putting on weight.
The lowest I ever got as an adult was when I went to Weight Watchers and got down to 140 pounds. When I said I thought I might try for 135, they discouraged me. “You don’t want to lose too much weight.”
Now I’ve begun to wonder, what body size is right for me? It’s interesting to examine some of the messages I’ve gotten through the years about men and masculinity:
Real men eat meat.
Being big means being manly.
Short men aren’t masculine.
“Lightweight” is a term no man wants to be.
Women don’t like small men.
Small = being a boy. Big = being a man.
I asked Carlin, my wife of 38 years, whether she’d still love me if I lost weight. She assured me that she would.
I’m looking forward to 2018 being the year I find my lost body, the one I loved as a slightly-built, short, energetic, and loving five-year-old. The one I lost over the years. Thomas Wolfe wrote in his famous novel “You Can’t Go Home Again”:
“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood…back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame…back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
I know I can’t go home to the 5-year-old boy I once was or to that care-free, playful, strong body I remember. But maybe I can find the authentic body that this 75-year-old man is supposed to have—not the one the masculine myths tell me I should have.
There is a lot of wisdom about losing weight and keeping a healthy diet. Eating more fruit, which I so enjoyed before my ex-wife said I looked too small, is still good advice. But few programs address the fears so many men have that if we lose weight we won’t be considered manly enough.
This is going to be an exciting adventure. I’m looking forward to pursuing it and seeing what I learn. I’ll keep you posted on my progress. I look forward to any comments you’d like to make. Come visit me at www.MenAlive.com.
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