Could someone have told me I’d gained weight? Should they have?
The other night, my father drove an hour-and-half to come to our house and babysit for Teddy, my eight-year-old son. Teddy had a blast with his “Giggy,” I was able to put in a full day at work and pick up my daughter at swim practice, and my wife was free to stay late in her fifth-grade classroom for several rounds of parent-teacher conferences. So when I got home and relieved my dad of his child-care duties, I gave him a grateful hug before he left.
“You’re so skinny, boy… I’m so glad. It made me sad when you had put on weight for those years.”
Ah yes, “those years” he’s referring to were my mid 20s-through-mid 30s. After a childhood where I was the shortest and thinnest boy in every class I was ever in, I got to college as a 5’9” freshman tipping the scales at 143 pounds. Society sends young people lots of messages about body image, most of which boil down to “skinnier is better,” but for teenage males, that’s not the case. For this group, skinny equals scrawny, and scrawny equals weak.
So imagine how blessed the 18-year-old me felt when I discovered the holy triumvirate of lifting weights, drinking beer and eating Chinese food at 2:30 AM. I gained ten pounds per year each year in college, most of it muscle, and loved every ounce of the new me.
Of course, after college, I started working full time and working out less. Then I got married, and then became a dad, and kept on eating like I was that college freshman whose ribs were more pronounced than his pecs… or his gut. Like so many issues with body image and weight, once you start moving in the direction you always wanted to attain, there’s no mechanism for telling yourself when to stop. Getting bigger was better to my mind.
By the time I was 28, I was 200 pounds. When I weighed in at age 35 for a weight-loss competition at work, I was up to 214. Oh, and I’d grown one whole inch taller in those 17 years since freshman year. One solid inch up… several not-so-firm inches out.
Here’s the thing. At no point in that decade-long transformation did anyone ever say, “Damn Shawn… you’re getting fat.”
I remember my friend Zack in Los Angeles telling me during a beach football game that he wanted me to cover a pretty wide guy on the other team because I was the only guy he thought could bring him down… but I took it as a compliment.
I remember my wife’s late grandmother learning I weighed 200 pounds and her exclaiming, “But Shawn… you’re not fat.”
I remember telling my doctor I was gaining maybe a pound or two a year and him replying, “Think about how heavy you’ll be in 20 years if you keep doing that.”
But no one ever used the “f” word. Not my wife. Not my parents. Not my friends. And I’ll be damned if the guy in the mirror was saying it. After all, when you see that reflection every day, it takes something like a body-piercing or an industrial accident for you to notice you’re changing.
I now know I was overweight, not because anyone told me, but because I’ve lost a fair amount of that weight. From age 35 until age 40, a chipped away back into the 190s, and in the past year, I’ve become a runner and iPhone-aided calorie counter. Today, I find myself back at my junior year weight of 170 pounds. And now, everyone wants to talk about my weight.
“You look great!” “You’ve lost a lot of weight, haven’t you?” “You’re getting too skinny.” “Oh my gosh, where’s the rest of you?”
In general, it feels good. I mean, who doesn’t like a compliment or two? But I can’t help wondering how many times these same people must have thought, “Yikes, Shawn is getting fat. Say something nice about his clothes.”
I’ve asked my wife about it and while she steadfastly refuses to admit she thought I was ever “fat,” she can’t deny that there were times, whether we were hugging or engaged in more intimate embraces, when she’d notice that it was harder to get her limbs around me.
I appreciate her reluctance, and I also understand it. Because there have been times that I’ve had the same thoughts about her… and kept them to myself. That’s why she’s still my “wife,” and not my “ex-wife.” After all, there’s no way to really tell someone that you’ve noticed they’ve gained weight without it feeling like criticism rather than concern.
No matter how sensitive you try to be, and how clear you are that you’re not telling them to make them feel bad, it’s going to come out as, “You’re fat!” Even if want to tell them out of legitimate concern for them, or because it’s affecting something like their abilities as a parent or a lover, it still isn’t something you can say unsolicited. (and when is it ever solicited?)
Samuel Gentoku McCree wrote a really affirming piece about accepting ourselves despite the way the media portrays a binary view of health and fitness and while I agree that there aren’t just “fit” and “fat” people in this world, I wonder if there isn’t a blurry line, at least for some people, between self-acceptance and self-delusion.
We buy the size 34 jeans and stretch them daily for two years until they feature a 36-inch waist. We decide the shirts we used to tuck in now just look better untucked because that’s the style. We hit the gym for three months, lose five pounds, and then gain them back, plus two more, in a matter of four weeks. We say “we” when we mean “I.” I did all of those things, yet never felt overweight.
During that process, could there have been a caring, yet credible way for a spouse/friend/partner/parent/child to say they’d noticed a weight gain? A way without “fat shaming” or sounding superior? And if it had it been possible… would it have been wise? After all, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being overweight. It doesn’t change who you are, what you believe and why you believe it. And what even counts as “fat?” If someone is clinically obese, they are likely already aware they have a weight issue. If someone who has always been in shape puts on ten pounds, should that set off an alarm for loved ones? Are there different rules for a husband than for a wife? A parent and a child? When, if ever, is it okay to “fat check” a friend or co-worker?
I don’t really have an answer, except this; if you don’t know the person well enough to feel confident in how they’ll respond, you definitely don’t know them well enough to say, “You’ve gained a bit of weight.”
I am not calling for a social revolution where it’s okay to call out each other’s shortcomings whenever you notice them. If the idea of telling someone they’re fat sounds pleasant to you, you’ve got more issues than the person with the pounds. But it’s worth acknowledging that it’s complicated, especially for men who simply don’t talk about their body image, and there’s really no established etiquette here. As for me… I wish someone had come out and said it. “You’ve put on some weight, and I just want to make sure you’re okay and there’s nothing else going on.” It would’ve hurt, but not as much as it hurts now, knowing how many years I frittered away not knowing it.