I remember the first time I became conscious of my weight. It was sometime in the early 1980s. I was at my Grandma Hilda’s house in Southfield, Michigan. I was no more than 7 years old. Stripped to the waist, as I was near all the time—G’ma Hilda’s house included a pool, apple trees, a massive garden, plenty of room to run, and her cairn terrier, Poco. I was sitting just a couple feet away from a 19″ television, eating lunch from the garden and pulling from an ice-cold A&W in a glass bottle.
Then it came on. An advertising line for Special-K that people of a certain age might remember: “Can’t pinch an inch on me!”
I had been a chubby baby, but I was a slender child. I wasn’t particularly fleet of foot, but I rode bikes, played soccer and baseball, and I was an incredibly strong swimmer. I cannot remember ever thinking a critical thought about my own body’s appearance until that moment when I looked down and pincered the flesh covering my obliques, trying to discern if I needed to start eating Special-K.
By junior high, I was a fleshy kid. I tended to eat my emotions, so you do the math. Classmates started to comment about how I needed to go on a diet. There were unkind comments from family members. I became a vegetarian because I associated that with losing weight. But all I ate were carbohydrates. As I grew chubbier, the self-hatred became all-consuming. By the time the Solo-Flex Man came on the scene, I had a full-blown eating disorder and overwhelming body dysmorphia.
I used to stand in front of the mirror, my fleshy middle hot-red from me angrily grabbing the offending fat and pulling, as though through the sheer desire to be thin I could rip it away like cotton candy. But I was hoarhound and all that resulted was a bone-deep hatred of my own body.
I started lifting weights at the age of thirteen; the gym rule was fourteen, but my father, who had absolutely transformed his body inside of a year (acromegaly played some role, but Dad was ripped) said that we were using the ancient Chinese custom of counting age from the time of conception. My exercise anorexia kicked into high gear. I was cycling a good 40 miles a week during the summer, along with hitting the gym four days a week. By the time I was fifteen, I had virtually no body fat but the damage had already been done. All I saw when I looked in the mirror were flaws. Weakness. Failure. In reality, I was buff enough to be cast as Lewis in Pippin. In my head, though, there were inches all over my body that I wanted to violently pinch off.
I used to do 1,000 sit-ups/abdominal exercises a day. People always cast doubt on that number but it is true. Of course, there were days when I did not reach the full 1,000 but there were exactly zero days in which no exercises happened. I would take 10-mile bike rides twice a day on my “off days.” I confessed fully my body image issues to my first serious girlfriend. We bonded over impatience with our bodies.
I just want to pause and say that having someone who understood how I felt was remarkable. This was the early ’90s. Manorexia was not yet a thing, at least in terms of public conversation. She never shamed me, told me to “man up,” or accuse me of just wanting attention; I cannot overemphasize how vital this was for me in terms of not giving over completely to the dysphoria and shame.
Probably the most destructive period of my exercise anorexia was when I had a good job waiting table and bartending, which provided me with lots of cash. I started to powerlift and buy supplements. I was on a steady diet of creatine, protein, and alcohol. I started going to bed at 9 pm (at the age of 22) and getting up at 4 a. I would head to the gym, work out for three hours, go home, eat, go to work, and come home. Lather, rinse, repeat. My body grew as I added more and more weight to my bench press, deadlift, and squat totals. Yet, the bodybuilders in the gym called me fat because according to their standards, I was. I started seriously considering steroids.
Then I threw out my back deadlifting and things changed drastically. I was months away from the gym. I drank too much, ate too much, and I started to look like a high school linebacker gone to seed. I’d get back in the groove for 2-3 months, lose some weight, and then fall back into the same pattern. After two years, I had a body that mortified me. Then my brother died, and my dark night of the soul began.
I threw myself headlong into a bottle of Bushmills for the over a decade, and my weight yo-yoed drastically. Twice I lost over 40 lbs, only to gain it all back. I was in denial about how much I was eating and how often. When I got sober, I definitely turned to food for comfort. Add to that, medications such as Lithium and Paxil and inside of three years, I had gained 50 lbs. During this time, I was constantly running myself down about how fat I was and how awful I looked; I engaged in regular self-deprecation as a defense mechanism because I was sure that everyone was like, “Oh-my-God-have-you-seen-Aaron-he’s-a-fucking-whale?”
Yeah. It sucks.
The last time I stepped on a scale was about four-and-a-half months ago. I weighed 290 lbs. Seeing that number, feeling the copious amounts of flesh touching itself—which caused me to adjust how I moved, sat, slept, negotiated the world—and looking at the other numbers indicating that I was heading for a heart attack by the age of 50, I vowed that I was going to make a change, starting instantly.
I went on the keto diet. This was a BFD because I am a carbaholic. Like, Thanksgiving for me is really just multiple plates of mashed potatoes and dinner rolls stuffed with, well, stuffing and covered in gravy. Everything I had been eating was either carbohydrates or sugar. Often, both. And when I say I went on the keto diet, I mean that since the day of “The Weighing,” I have not eaten more than 25-30 carbs/day. There were tough moments, to be sure, but I have a history of quitting addictions cold turkey. Cigarettes, various and sundry intoxicants, alcohol. All stopped by mentally flipping a switch.
But sweet Jeebus, sometimes the journey to that switch is long and destructive.
Today, I went to the doctor for what has turned out to be a pretty serious case of cellulitis. I’m on antibiotics and if things have not improved significantly within 24 hours, I will be hospitalized.
However, that is not what is dominating my thoughts. I had to step on a scale, which I have assidulously avoided, because the numbers are like scarlet letters upon my skin, like the red welts that would rise from my tortured, past pinches. I promised myself that no matter what, I would feel positive about the undeniable, dramatic changes. You carry a lot of muscle mass, I reminded myself. I had a number in my head, the minimum amount lost that I would accept as a success. I stepped on the scale and then gasped.
I’ve lost 30 lbs. That was not the number I had in my mind. But, still. Pretty good, right?
Nope. All I saw was that I weigh 260 lbs. I said several times to the nurse, whom I had never seen before, I don’t know how I can weigh 260. I swim in most of my clothes. I have a waist. I’ve gone down four sizes. How can I weight 260?!?! She never offered an answer.
No matter what the number is, there will always be something. I remember being in my early 20s taking a bath with my soon-to-be first wife. I apologized for being so fat. She looked at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. “Aaron, you are not fat. At all. In any way.” I grabbed my middle and pulled. “This. Ugh. I hate this,” I said, casting down my eyes. I looked up. “That’s skin, Aaron. Skin. Everyone has it,” she said, pointing to her own slender waist.
No matter how much weight I lose or how I continue to build muscle, I will never see myself as anything but fat. And that, dear friends, is why we need to talk about positive body image with all kids. Because I honestly would prefer to be overweight and comfortable with myself than skinny and locked in a cycle of self-hatred.
Tonight, I am going to eat real pizza and enjoy the experience. Tomorrow, back to keto. Sometimes, we’ve just got to take a load off…