This is the latest installment in the Body Issue, our weeklong examination of the male form, where men get real about what they look like, how they feel about it, and everything in between.
My most vivid memory of being heavy was when I was 14 and around 275 pounds. At least that's the number that's lodged in my head, it was likely higher. I was walking home through the London Underground, and two girls walked up behind me and grabbed my ass — two hands on each cheek — before screaming with laughter and running away. It was crushing — one of the few moments in my life I can think of that were just mean, with no context or reasoning beyond, "Let's do this — it'll be funny for us, and horrible for them."
I'd love to say this was when I decided to lose weight, but it wasn't. I was brutally depressed already, and my high school — a teacher-approved bullying boiler room — only served to continually remind me that, yes, I was fat, and as a result, I was both stupid and incapable of going anywhere in my life.
I got to a point where I'd simply not check my weight. It was likely not going down, and it only served to remind me that I was really, really heavy. Plus, whenever it was otherwise brought up, it was followed with a stern warning that I was "over 20 stone, which is unhealthy." The British system — 14 pounds in one stone — served to make every incremental decimal point that much more demeaning. I'd be regularly called out in classes. I'd be shoved. I'd be told I should skip lunch by teachers. The only upside: Finding out I had a learning disability at age 12 wasn't that emotionally painful because I'd already heard how much I was mentally challenged because of my weight.
When I eventually lost weight at 16, it was because of a borderline religious commitment to the Atkins diet. My parents were very supportive, and I was privileged in the sense that I could find healthy ways to do it. I dropped about 50 pounds in one summer, and I walked into my high school and had people I'd known for six years ask me who I was, genuinely not recognizing me, treating me as if I was such a better person because I was thinner. When I dropped another 50, leaving me with only a shred of high school left, I was euphoric.
Even at the time, I knew my strategies weren't healthy — that this wasn't how I should live my life — but I'd stuck a rod in my brain that said, "Thin is good. This is why people are nice to you." Keeping that rod in place, though, took constant vigilance. Anytime I went to the bathroom or anywhere with a mirror or scale, I'd constantly check my weight, and every extra decimal point would drive me insane. I'd restrict. I'd pretend I'd eaten something. I'd lie and say I wasn't hungry, because food and fat were the things between me and happiness, which I defined by girls liking me and people not talking down to me.
If I went above 160 pounds, I'd feel physically sick — that at any moment I'd simply balloon back to 275 pounds. The first time I got into size 28 jeans, I nearly cried from happiness. But a few years later, when I had to step up to size 34 jeans, I actually cried from sadness.
Even now, some days I'll walk into the bathroom and just stare — and I'm in the best shape of my life. I'll grab at my sides or my tummy, and think "Fat, you're getting fat." It's always there, always in my mind. If someone talks about my weight negatively, I feel awful for a week. The number on the scale (202 pounds) is a nightmare mentally, as I'm in the zip code of 275 pounds, despite valuable context saying that getting that large wouldn't be possible with the amount of working out that I'm doing.
Guys don't talk about this because it's a sign of perceived weakness to admit that men, while given an easier ride than women, still feel like shit because they can't fit into a particular pair of pants. Admitting that men obsess over their weight would be to admit that we're breakable. Admitting how much it hurts to be called overweight by a family member — what is it with old ladies and loving to bring this shit up? — is painful.
The assumption is that people who are overweight want to be that way, or at the very least, are "too lazy" to "get out" of being fat. And in some cases, some people are just fine being whatever weight they want. But for those who feel self-conscious and shitty about it, the way out isn't to shame them. It isn't to expose, insult or belittle them. That will only serve to layer on more malaise and torpor that makes it tough to change anything. Losing weight is an obtuse, non-linear and exhausting process, requiring diligence, routine and blind faith. In short, it takes so much time, so much more time than most people realize. (Frankly, the only diet that's ever worked quickly for me was a brutal divorce.)
Fitness only makes this worse — that is, most people don't really know what the fuck they're talking about. As a guy, you're told to run and lift weights, because "cardio burns fat and weightlifting builds muscle." In reality the weight loss/fat/muscle equation is incredibly complex, with each person (much like dieting) being unique in what works for them. Worse still, the amount of calories most people burn during exercise is depressingly small. All this while exposing yourself physically in a place where everyone seems to be stronger and thinner than you. Trainers love to ask if you're interested in setting up some sessions, most of which are an awkward combination of low weightlifting and burst cardio that really just serves to hurt you.
And even if you can get to the gym on your own — with your biggest, baggiest shirt on, actually geared with a workout plan — you'll find other guys are a fucking nightmare. Form while lifting is important in that you don't want to hurt yourself, but even at the lowest weights, even with the perfect form, some other guy will insist on coming over and trying to correct you in the vaguest, most annoying way possible.
In particular, every time I'd go to the gym when I was heavy, no matter what I was doing — running, weightlifting, pathetic pull-ups — I had my form checked. That's because when you're fat, the suggestion is you don't know what you're doing. You're just another weak, stupid, fat asshole, taking up space that someone who can lift weights better than you deserves. People would love to say to me, especially at my heaviest around age 15, that running was the solution, or that the incredibly vague "sports" were my salvation. Nobody, of course, offered structure or a path to actual thinness — just a wishy-washy suggestion that it was my lack of activity that had cursed me to be fat.
Generally speaking, fat guys are seen as a tool for other guys. They're the wingman, the funny guy who is always goofing around, trying to get out of the fat pool they threw themselves into. They're either always checking what they're eating — making sure they're not getting fatter or trying to get less fat — or they're resigned to being the jolly, oafish dipshit who is desperate for attention. For my part, I was the guy who would break up fights by literally falling on guys because that's what I was — heavy. You can punch, you can kick, you can get stronger, but a 300-pound object will hold down your 150-pound frame in most cases. You can call me a fat fuck, you can call me a retard, you can grab at me, but you cannot move me until I decide you can. That's one little moment of industry.
The thing is, you might be treated as a champion when you lose weight, but to those people who knew you before you were thin, you're still always the fat guy — just one who beat the system. At best, you've worked yourself out of some sinner's corner. You're "okay now." I get people who still tell me how I "beat the odds" and "really did well for myself." That "15-year-old me would be jealous."
He probably would, but he's still there. Every day I look in the mirror and I say I'm fat. Every day I check my weight and feel like shit, even if I've lost weight, because I'm not 150 pounds. Every time a piece of clothing doesn't fit, I feel sick. Every time I enjoy food, I feel powerful guilt unless I've spent an hour and a half exhausting my body. Every meal is earned, every positive feeling about my body scraped from the bottom of a barrel.
A guy can lose weight, but he'll always feel heavy.