Go, You Chicken Fat, Go!

I was getting ready to leave my parent’s house on Thanksgiving a few nights ago when I saw a group of people gathered around the Tupperware drawer to collect the left overs. My step-mother invited me to take any container and fill it up with anything I like. I said that I probably wasn’t going to take anything. She asked if I was sure and I said I was. The next day when I showed up at work my office-mates asked me what left overs I had brought for lunch. When I told them I didn’t take any leftovers home they looked at me like I was a Martian wearing a unicorn onesie. Why hadn’t I taken anything home? Everything was quite good and there was no shortage of extra food. But I really didn’t have to ask, I damn well knew why I hadn’t brought food home. All I had to do was look in a mirror and find the answer staring right back at me. There’s only so many times you can tell yourself that the lousy laundry is shrinking your pants before you accept the truth that you are gaining weight. The past twelve months has seen my weight cycle up and down, leading to the present day reality that I am thirty pounds heavier than I was at this time last year. This is old hat by now though, something I’ve been dealing with for most of my life.

If I were to tell you that I never really looked in a mirror for the first twelve years of my life, you might say I was exaggerating and you wouldn’t be entirely off base. I can sincerely tell you though that I had no real conception of body image until the 8th grade. I’d also never given girls a second thought before that time, and haven’t been able to stop thinking about them ever since…dammit. Ah it was that magical time in a young person’s life when they begin measuring themselves against their peers and judging themselves accordingly. I became very much aware of what I looked like, from the red bumps that began populating my face in force to that bulging melee bag that had apparently attached itself to my stomach. I’d had inklings before that I was a bit rounder than my friends but this was the first time I saw myself as fat.

Things began to make more sense, like my childhood nickname pudgie. For years I had associated that name with the fact that I played catcher in baseball like the great Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez. That’s what the kids I went to school with told me anyway so I thought nothing more of it. Now I was beginning to have second thoughts though, maybe that name had more to do with my weight than anything else. I had what you might call a moment of truth before a baseball game in 2001. I was talking with a few of my teammates when the manager, who was also my dad, overheard somebody call me pudgie. He came right over and said they shouldn’t call me that. Here was the decision before me: I could either jump on board with the admonishment, insisting that everybody stop referring to me as pudgie or I could brush it off and tell my dad not to worry about it. I choose the latter, even citing the Pudge Rodríguez analogy as if it was definitive proof that nobody was making fun of me.

The way I saw it, I would’ve felt inauthentic to suddenly rebuke people for a nickname I’d never taken issue with before. I even made my old IM screenname Pudgiesop so who was I to cry foul now? Moreover, I have never been one to rock the boat or draw any deal of attention to myself if I could help it. I wasn’t really being bullied much so I calculated that it was easier to just go along with things than to make a big stink and potentially make myself a target as a result. Everything I’d seen and heard up to that time was guys weren’t supposed to be self-conscious about their weight, you made a joke about it or claimed you were bulking up for a sport. As I progressed into high school and my weight went up I began to give my waistline more thought. I had always assumed that there would be a growth spurt coming and the chicken fat would naturally resolve itself. After all I was by no means a sedentary boy, I spent most every day playing pick-up football, street hockey or wiffleball. I was also the official try hard, gym class hero of my grade. I loved playing sports and had no problem running around for hours at a time. I figured as I got older I would magically come to resemble my older brother more. My logic proved to be quite flawed of course.

It took me much longer than I care to admit to decipher that one needed to diet and exercise in order to lose weight. I was a finicky eater when I was young, with a particular abhorrence for fruits and vegetables. I might eat a salad, but only if that salad was slathered in caesar or ranch dressing and there were no rogue tomatoes or cucumbers scattered within. The bases of my food pyramid were French fries, chicken fingers, cheese and soda. Before going any further I feel it incumbent upon me to mention that both my parents were good cooks who served a wide variety of meals in our house, many of which had tangible nutritional value. I place no blame on them whatsoever. The issue wasn’t that I ate nothing but junk food, the issue was that I ate too much, too fast regardless of what I was consuming. I also didn’t exercise solely for the sake of exercising, if I was active it was because I was playing something. I remember dreading the 300 yard dash we had to do every year for the physical fitness test because I would be so out of breath by the end I felt like I needed to throw up, pass out or both. I wouldn’t see the inside of a gym or take up jogging until my twenties.

I mentioned before that I wasn’t really bullied in high school, but there was one particular incident from sophomore year that I remember very well. I had just gotten my lunch, which consisted of chicken fingers and cheese fries (not uncommon for me sadly). I sat down at a table with what I suppose could be referred as the jocks of my class. I ended up sitting across from a guy I never got a long with and, when he saw what I was eating he said, “Jesus Christ Pudgie, you’re going to drop dead of a heart attack before you’re twenty one.” When he said that all of the guys at the table turned and stared at me. I did my best to dismiss the comment but I absolutely wanted to crawl in a hole and die. I don’t begrudge the man for saying what he did, we were both just teenagers and you could fill a library with all the stupid things I said when I was younger. But it hurt, it hurt a lot more than I let on and I never felt comfortable enough to talk to anybody about it. There were other things that would happen, like the time I burst the seam in my khakis in the middle of first period science class and had to quietly slink away to the bathroom and change into my gym sweat pants for the rest of the day. Or there would be occasions when I would here remarks like “You’ve got more rolls than a bakery,” when I took my shirt off or “look at those man-boobs go,” when I would run around.

I never told anybody about the slacks, I quietly place them in the bottom of the trashcan that night and bought a new pair myself that weekend. As for the comments I received, I buried them down deep and kept smiling because getting all upset never seemed to solve anything. That’s what I did with a lot of my feelings, I kept them to myself because I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. Instead I ate, and a poisonous cycle it was. I ate because I was unhappy but I was unhappy because I ate. I think the worst part of all was that I didn’t feel like I had anybody to talk to about this. I loved my friends but they weren’t the sort you discussed body image with. Besides they were all skinny so what the hell did they know about what I was going through? My brother was away in Iraq for most of this time and we didn’t yet have the close relationship we would enjoy later in life. As for my parents, my step-mother was relatively new to my life at that time and as for my dad, I was too ashamed to discuss this with him. My dad has always willing to talk to me about anything and has done so without judging me, but at the time I somehow convinced myself that if I couldn’t figure this out myself I was a failure and by extension, I was failing him, and I would sooner lay down in traffic than fail my father.

So when it came time for my sophomore year in college, and I was still essentially the same husky kid I had always been, I made myself a vow. I was going to shed this weight no matter what consequence, no matter how much it hurt. Now I was still years away from being able to use jogging as an effective weight control tool so I did the only thing I seemed to have any control over, I systematically starved myself. It started out innocently, smaller dinner portions and cutting out dessert but soon amplified to the point that it wasn’t unusual for me to consume under 600 calories in an entire day. After classes let out I would also force myself to walk up and down the hill section of Burlington until my feet wouldn’t allow anymore. I got used to going to bed hungry, and anytime I felt my resolve weakening I would lock myself in the only privet bathroom on the dorm floor and scream at myself in the mirror. I lost more than 50 pounds in four months. By the time February of 2007 rolled around I was 130 pounds and looking so gaunt that when my parents saw me they were horrified. They thought I was just going overboard on the diet and exercise. What they didn’t understand was that I was hated myself, I hated myself so intensely that I subjected myself to torture because I felt like I deserved it for having been so fat for so long. It’s a wonder I didn’t do any damage to my body through all of this, that I came out the other side because thousands of others haven’t been so lucky.

I wanted to share this not because I’m some sweeping success story who has everything figured out but because I’m exactly the opposite. I want people who are reading this and may be struggling with their own body image to know that I’m down in the tranches with you, that I can both relate to the pride of your successes and the pain of your failures. My weight has ebbed and flowed since that dramatic weight loss in college. In my early twenties I would discover two powerful forces in my life, the satisfaction of jogging and the joys of alcohol. I go through periods when I run frequently, four to five miles a day and cut back on the drinking. My waist subsequently shrinks for a time leading to more self-esteem. Then something always seems to happen, whether it be an injury, illness or life event that knocks me off my routine and, almost inevitably drives me to the bottle. Poor diet choices follow and you can figure out the rest from there. I seem to be a man of extremes, either I commit myself entirely and am willing to sacrifice just about anything to achieve my objective or am so thoroughly unmotivated that I could not give less of a damn. I wish I could just be steady, stay the course and maintain a healthy balance but that doesn’t seem to be my lot. That may well be a personal failing but at this point in my life, even being able to admit that is progress.