I’ve always been picked on and teased for being fat.
I wasn’t fat. I was a little bit chubby, but no more so than some of those who bullied me. You know you have it rough when the kid who goes to fat camp every summer is making fun of your size.
In high school, people tried to assure me I wasn’t “fat,” but the damage had been done. I was convinced that I was, in fact, a disgusting pig who shouldn’t take his shirt off in public.
Weight loss didn’t become my chief concern until sophomore year. Since Hyde School, my boarding school, required students to play a sport every season, I was exercising five to six times a week. Then summer hit and I spent my vacation embodying a sloth on my parents’ couch watching TV and working at the local pizza shop. Both activities involved me putting bacon into my face.
I arrived at Hyde about a week early for varsity football pre-season. After unpacking, I was walking across campus when this girl Glenn, also back early for sports, exclaimed, “Yo, Billy! Is that you? Man, you got fat!”
Despite Glenn’s less-than-subtle reminder, I hadn’t realized the extent of the damage until Coach weighed us the next day. The scale read 220 pounds. He made some snide remarks about my weight spike, but it was nothing that “one of the guys” shouldn’t be able to handle. But I realized I had to do something.
I started roaming around the Internet, finding myself in the darker corners of the blogosphere — LiveJournal. There I joined a couple of “pro ana” and “pro mia” communities (that’s short for “pro-anorexia” and “pro-bulimia” for y’all fresh to the scene). These were groups of sick folks who suffered from terrible body images and crippling eating disorders. We would post STGs and LTGs (short-term goals & long-term goals, respectively), BWs and CWs (beginning weights & current weights). I learned from these women how to battle through the hunger pains by remembering my preferred thinspiration quotes. One of my favorites? “You’ve come too far to take orders from a cookie.” I announced my upcoming fasts with pride, excitement and nervousness. Always a supportive community, the gals assured me I’d make it through and to remember how awesome I’d look in that swimsuit next summer. Finally, somewhere I fit in!
Since I just wasn’t “strong enough” to truly deprive myself for days on end until I passed out, I scheduled fasts every week that lasted two to four days. No seriously — they were scheduled. I blocked them out in my daily planner right next to my Spanish test and office hours. I bought myself a Pepsi (plug!) to power myself through the day. Pepsi: “The best way to power through your day while slowly starving yourself.”
It’s confusing to be an overweight male in this country. You want to get in healthy shape, but the regular rubric for male beauty doesn’t necessarily require it. Guys can be “good looking” without being fit, ripped or terribly in-shape. There is no, “You’re a beautiful curvy man and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise” Dove campaign for us. Jezebel isn’t writing about the impossible standard of male cuteness. Children aren’t aware of all that, which is probably one of the reasons why 33 percent of male teenagers use unhealthy eating behaviors to control their weight. There’s always outrage that advertisements don’t depict “real” women. Well, I haven’t seen a Hollister billboard with a guy with my ass and thick thighs either.
Here’s where I might lose some of you: anorexia worked. The weight just shed off! In three months, I dropped about 45 pounds. I snuck into the athletic trainer’s office after every football practice to weigh myself. No one suspected a thing. They just thought Billy was trying to lose some weight. They weren’t wrong. And they weren’t right, either.
No one saw how my behavior was a cry for help. I even told people what I was doing, bragging about my ability to go days without eating any food. I outright told people, “Yeah, I’ve lost a ton of weight. I’ve been periodically depriving myself of nourishment for three days at a time.” No one even batted an eye. They said, “Good for you. Congrats on the weight loss.”
Freshman Mindy almost joined me on my cringe-worthy crusade, thinking we’d lean on each other (if the other wasn’t too weak from not eating to support the other’s weight). Again, no one questioned the stocky boy’s decision to starve himself. “Fasting, that’s what wrestlers do, right? They’re in shape and healthy and not at all mentally scarred by the pressure to make a certain weight class in a week? Right? …Guys?”
This wasn’t my first cry for help to confront my struggle with body image. During my freshman year, I wanted someone to listen and do something about the merciless bullying I faced from guys in my dorm. I had heard that girls who cut themselves get heard, but I was such a wimp when it came to pain. The best I could do was take a sewing needle and “scratch.” I’d scratch “fat” and “fatty” and “worthless” as deeply as I could tolerate into my arms. Men aren’t supposed to feel fat — you just go work out and run and diet properly and fix it. Studies show that most men with anorexia don’t ever seek help because it’s seen as a “women’s disease.” Manorexia: it’s just like normal anorexia, except no one takes you seriously.
One day I was called into Mr. Duethorn’s office, which was odd since he mostly interacted with upperclassmen. Apparently, a Hyde alumnus had stumbled upon my LiveJournal posts and recognized my name. I didn’t need to read the printed pages he handed to me to know I was busted. Sobbing in the office of a man I barely knew, I was embarrassed that I was even sitting there. I was frustrated that I was caught. I was terrified that I would put the weight back on and become the fat guy who attracted scorn and ridicule once again. And I was relieved. I was relieved to have finally been heard.
It wasn’t just about the weight. There was a self-loathing and distorted self-perception that no one could see but me. No one knew that I added 20 pounds in my mind when I looked in the mirror. No one knew because boys don’t do that. We may self-deprecate. We may not like our bodies as is. But we don’t do eating disorders.
That’s how I ended up in a line outside my nurse’s office queued up for Weight Watch. There were a half-dozen 90- to 110-pound teenaged girls and me, a chubby 15-year-old boy with an affinity for Kevin Smith movies. Once again, I had found a place to fit in: this time amongst a group of self-harming chicks on a bench as we waited to have our vitals checked and be blindly weighed every other week.
I didn’t gain nearly all of the weight back, but those first few weeks — letting go of the control and eating full meals — felt like having a bowling ball in my stomach that everyone else saw. I didn’t feel attractive or confident in my body right away. I honestly don’t know how I came to accept my body. I never got those six-pack abs the thinspo girls and I strived for. A couple of years later, I simply had a light bulb moment when I looked in a mirror one morning shirtless and said, “You’re alright.” No, really, I said it out loud to myself. Corny, I know.
I like to think that any negative thought I have about my body today is at least grounded in some kind of reality. I’ve weighed less and had tighter pecs, but I’m nowhere near “fat” or “obese.” What am I? I’m fine.
I ditched my pro ana LiveJournal for a Weight Watchers iPhone app. Instead of scheduling fasts, I schedule my once-a-week guilty pleasure of a little Bushwick fried chicken. I know my body isn’t like Ryan Gosling’s, but I’m confident with what I bring to the table (or bed, if you’re more traditional). I’m even cocky enough to have performed stand-up comedy on The Naked Comedy Show on more than a few occasions. Yes, it is what you think it is. While I stand there with my love handles exposed for an entire audience to see, not one of them would guess that I struggle daily with body image and unhealthy eating habits. Maybe that’s not manly, but it takes a real man to ask for help.