I was in middle school the first time someone made fun of me for my weight. I went to a small, private school and the high schoolers and middle schoolers at lunch together. One of the sophomore high school boys was playing some made-up game with his friends. They started by calling themselves fat, pointing and laughing at their flat, muscular stomachs. Their game evolved into going around the table and labeling the other boys as fat or skinny.
One-by-one they went around the table pointing to their friends and labeling them as fat, meaning that they were actually quite thin.
Then they got to me.
The most popular of the group looked at me and hesitated for a moment. Then, with a chuckle he pointed, labeled me as skinny, and moved on.
To them, it was a silly game. I doubt any of them even remember that particular incident now. But for me, it was the first time I compared my changing body to those of the boys around me. I became hyper-conscientious about my hairless torso, my lack of muscles, and the weight that I had put on.
At home, my mother could see me scrambling to exercise and cut calories with the fervor of a child. She assured me that there was nothing wrong with my body—I was a child on the verge of becoming a man and my body was getting prepared for the change. As is often the case, unfortunately, my mother’s guidance meant nothing to me compared to the jokes of my peers.
Because of my billowing insecurity about my weight, I went to drastic measures. I’d try to wait as long as possible to eat at home. When my parents weren’t looking, I’d sneak laxatives out of their medicine cabinet toat little I ate. Nobody caught me doing this and I didn’t have the insight to know that there’s a term for that behavior: bulimia.
In spite of my insecurities and the undiagnosed eating disorder, my mother’s advice proved to be true. I rocketed from being the short, stubby kid in my class to one of the tallest and thinnest.
But my insecurity about my body didn’t end there.
The Facade of Masculinity
In the five years between middle school and when I started at college, I only gained a few pounds. My height, however, increased a full eleven inches. Tall and gaunt, I had a new defense mechanism. Rather than healing from the pain that caused me so much stress as a teenager, I decided to make jokes about myself still being fat.
It felt more appropriate to laugh than to cry. I’ve never been a particularly macho man, and I condemned toxic masculinity, but I made jokes rather than deal with painful emotions.
This is all too common with men. Young and old alike, we teach men to see painful emotions as a weakness and a source of shame. For so many men, it’s easier to be completely stoic, lash out in anger, or crack a joke than to admit that they are hurting. The byproduct of this is that men bury their pain so deep within them that they preserve it rather than heal it.
Emotional wounds like that are more like cancer than a cut. They don’t heal on their own with time; they get stronger and more deadly.
By my sophomore year of undergrad, I weighed about 165 pounds. Pretending to be training for my first 5k, I ran three miles each day. Plus, I restricted my food intake so that I only consumed about 1,200 to 1,400 calories per day.
I was underweight for my height and doing everything that I could to get even thinner. All the while I pretended to exercise and eat “well” for my health. I was as hungry for acceptance as I was for food and thought that being even thinner would make me more likable. This hunger ate away at me. It drove me to give away my body in sexual situations that I wasn’t comfortable with. I’d spend time with people whose company I didn’t enjoy. I acted loud and goofy when I yearned to be quiet and listen. By not being able to accept my body, I was willing to abuse it in any way that I thought would earn others’ acceptance.
I hid behind the facade of masculinity, finding it easier to hurt in silence than admit that I needed help. All the while, I gave more and more of myself away, growing more melancholy each time I did.
Why I’m Able to Write this Today
One beautiful Friday morning, my body image issues and a decade of untreated depression came to a crescendo. I lived in Los Angeles and was walking back to work after lunch, so anxious I felt sick. Tired of living like that, I stared at the busy highway and realized that all I had to do was take one step off the sidewalk. All the stress and insecurities could go away in an instant.
Realizing that I was having suicidal thoughts and that I was in the early stages of forming a plan was a wake-up call. The next few weeks of my life deserve their own article, so I’ll jump to what came next. I packed everything I could fit into my sedan, broke up with my boyfriend, drove 3,000 miles to Kentucky, and made an appointment with my childhood doctor to finally talk to someone about my mental health.
As my antidepressants took the edge off of my anxiety and helped me feel more grounded, I found the motivation to start going to the gym. At first, I’d compare myself to the other gymgoers and feel like the chubby kid at the lunchroom table all over again. I’d push myself past my limits, risking injury to try and make quick enough progress to hide from the discomfort.
Thankfully, my mentality about exercise changed over time. The more I exercised, the more I celebrated my progress and the less I compared myself to others. I started to challenge myself each week to lift a little more or sustain better form than I had the week before. I found joy in seeing the new things my body could do.
My body became something wonderful and fascinating. I still have a little extra belly fat and my muscles are not modelesque, but I can confess that I love my body. The gym is a highlight of my day now, especially if work is slow.
Even today, I glimpse into the mirror and feel like that kid at the lunch table who’s the butt of the popular kids’ jokes. The difference now is that I no longer hide from that feeling. Armed with knowledge about body dysmorphia and coping strategies, I face it head-on. Through exercise and medication, I’ve grown physically and mentally healthier. My self-image has grown more than any of my muscles, and I can love my stomach and love handles now… no matter what the kids at the lunch table may say.
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