Every morning, I spend a good few minutes (assuming I am not called into a conference call to discuss what people really want to read about today’s entertainment choices at your local video store and/or how to save, save, save by transferring your credit balances from one card to another) going through my couple dozen ‘daily’ bookmarks. These are, by and large, the web sites of friends and acquaintances, as well as the Usual Suspects who have a lot more free time than I have, hard as that is for me to believe, and spend it combing the vast and unwieldy Internet for the latest memes, gaffs, scientific wonders, remarkable images or pop culture nightmares.
This morning, stopping by DOGPOET, he linked to Bob Mould, who talked about his own battle of the bulge and it reminded me that, although I’ve been here before, maybe you don’t know that I am not the man I used to be. And, reading through Mr. Mould’s exhortation to, and I’m paraphrasing, “get your ass into the gym and get yourself some professional help,” I wanted to add my two cents as someone who didn’t think it could be done, and somehow managed to do it.
Flashback: Summer, 2000. I have moved from Boston to San Francisco and begun freelancing in the fast-moving, sexy and breathing-its-last world of Web Design. My lifestyle, therefore, consists of me staying up all night coding and designing, eating at around 9 or 10PM, sleeping until noon or thereafter, watching TV, going to lunch with friends, starting work again around 6 and so forth.
At the beginning of the year I weigh 240lbs and wear 38-waist pants. By the summer, I weigh 265lbs. and wear 40-waist pants. Although I have been “heavy” or “husky” or “pleasantly plump” my entire life, I have one of those sudden realizations: In December of 2001, I will turn 40 years old. I now have a 40-inch waist. If the trend continues, I will be buried in a piano case and lifted into my grave with a crane.
The second thing that occurs to me, having moved to San Francisco, is that every other gay man I see on the streets is beautiful. Slim, athletic, toned, perfected. They smile and greet each other with kisses and ass-slaps. They wander shirtless along the avenues like demigods, aware of their physical attraction and flaunting every last minute of gym time that has honed these sculpted models of masculine beauty.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was none of these things. I was lazy and filled with self-loathing and determined that my life, such as it was, was already set. I am the fat guy in the room. I am the funny guy who is fat and uses humor to mask my depression and feelings of worthlessness. I help everyone else feel good about themselves. That is my role.
But one day, I am in A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books on Van Ness, browsing the photography section. I hunker down to look at a rather large tome with a colorful spine lodged on the bottom shelf. I pull it out, interesting, colorful, might be fun to look through for inspiration occasionally, and decide to buy it. When I attempt to rise again to my full height, I fail utterly.
I cannot even lift my own bulk from a kneeling position unaided. I cannot, in fact, manage my own weight.
I am thoroughly depressed, and make myself a promise. “By the time I turn 40,” I think to myself, “I will weigh less than 200 lbs., I will not be this man that I think I am. I am not going to go on any fad diets, or work out like an insane person, or drop the weight so quickly that my hair falls out like Richard Simmons. I will do research on the Web about the best ways to lose weight and I will change my life.”
What I found out was, quite simply, to lose weight you need to watch what, how much, and when you eat, and exercise every day. Duh.
It sounds easy, doesn’t it? “Watch what you eat” means “everything in moderation, there’s no ‘bad’ food, really, except anything fried like chicken and potato chips and anything high-fat like ice cream and sour cream and the word ‘cream.'” “Watch how much you eat” means “smaller portions of everything, eat only until you’re no longer hungry rather than when the plate is clean and eat more often to avoid feeling hungry.” And “watch when you eat” means “do not eat after 8pm because then you sleep on a full stomach and you’re teaching your body ‘hey, I’m going to fill up on fuel late so feel free to store it in the handy form of fat all over the place.”
“Exercise every day” means “exercise every day.” There is no getting around that. It’s just part of the formula. Food is fuel for your body to keep going. To keep thinking and moving and reacting and sleeping and standing and doing everything you demand of it. Food is also pleasure, it tastes good and feels good in your belly and looks nice on the plate and smells delicious and all that. But if you’re in weight-loss mode, you have to separate those two facts, and concentrate on the former. Food is fuel. Always remember that.
So I immediately cut down on the amount of fuel I was taking in overall since I had stored up a lot of it already. It was everywhere, but particularly in my ass and around my midsection. (I learned subsequently that a lot of the fat in my ass was really muscle, because my legs had to build up some way of supporting all the weight of my torso as I hauled it around with me. And also that men tend to store fat around the belly and women store it in the butt and chest.) And I started walking everywhere. Then I started jogging.
I hate jogging a lot. It’s something I have to force myself to do. I have friends who love it and miss it when they aren’t taking a run. Me, I become a sweat-drenched, heart-bursting, lung-burning, red-faced freak. I feel like my body hates me, but usually by the end of a run, I feel exhilarated and alive and energized. It’s just the 30 minutes between those two states that’s the tricky part.
Having been mostly immobile for years, my body suddenly woke up from its stupor, realized, “Oh, wait, I need to start using more fuel if he’s going to be running around like an idiot,” and since I was feeding it less fuel, it had to start burning the stored-up fat. I started losing weight rather quickly and by December of 2001, I had reached my goal. I was under 200 lbs.
The next step took place in January 2002 when I joined a gym. Gyms, for me, were places of fear, embarrassment, trepidation and horror. Everyone who attends a gym, I felt, had no reason to be there. They were already uniformly fit, muscular, young and attractive. So how was I, a middle-aged doofus techie Web Designer, going to fit in?
There are two secrets of the gym: One, no one cares about you. No one looks at you, particularly if you’re not already fit and gorgeous. In that way, it’s a broader reflection of life. Fat people roam among us but we tend to ignore them. I know, I’ve been there, and it was the way I preferred it. Don’t look at me, just go about your business and I’ll get out of your way. Yes, I know I’m in the way, I’m sorry, I’ll do my best to become invisible.
At the gym, magnify this effect. And that’s both good and bad. It’s good because you can go work out and not worry about anyone else “looking at you.” They won’t, they’re all looking at themselves. Gyms are walled with mirrors, and me, the fat guy, I can just look at my feet as I have been all along anyway (that way I avoid eye contact with anyone). They’re all watching themselves bulge and flex. You’re not in the picture, so if that’s what you’re worried about, get over it.
The second secret of the gym is if you ask someone for help, they’ll actually help you! If you’re not sure how a machine works, walk up to someone using it and say “Do you mind if I just watch you? I haven’t used this equipment before and I just want to see how it works.” They won’t think you’re weird or hitting on them, because after all they’re beautiful and you’re not and there are rules about that. And sometimes they’ll even volunteer to watch you and help you, because gym people want other people to realize that going to the gym is fun and cool and you should be in their cult, too.
However, for me, after two months, I stopped going. I could think of reason after reason to sleep a little longer, or not ride the bike all the way over there, or, ouch, my shoulder kind of hurts I should take it easy. I realized that I needed someone else to provide the encouragement, fortitude and incentive to get my ass into the gym, and there’s no better incentive than money.
So I hired a personal trainer. Initially, my sole reason was that I knew that I had to pay the guy whether or not I showed up, and I actually did want to show up, and if I have to pay someone to insure that, I would do it. I started with one of the gym’s trainers but I realized pretty quickly that they’re not generally very helpful. They aren’t paid very much by the gym to help you out, their clientele changes from day to day so they don’t keep track of progress and goals, you could get a different trainer every time you arrive and their training methods could vary from “I will count your reps for you so you don’t get confused,” to “I am going to coddle you so much that you won’t even realize you had a workout,” to “I am going to KICK YOUR ASS and make you feel WORTHLESS you little CREEP!” So, at least for me, that didn’t cut it.
I started interviewing personal trainers and, having had some experience now with different methods and personalities, I knew what questions to ask. Also, I could choose from a variety of body types, figuring that if they managed to build that body for themselves, then they know how to do it for others. So if I was going for slim and fit, or massive and bulky, or healthy and muscular, I had options.
I test drove a couple of guys and I recommend that for anyone. See if you like the person, see if you’ll look forward to working out with them, are they encouraging without being fake, do they seem genuinely interested in your progress and making you happy with the outcome, stuff like that. I found Jeff, who at first glance (a tattoo’d, scruffy, camo-wearing macho dude) would not have been my choice, but his body (well-muscled, cut, clearly fit) was what I wanted myself and he’s funny and charming and flirty and bitchy and I look forward to seeing him at 7AM two times a week.
Flashforward: February, 2004. I weigh 185. I wear 32-waist pants. I have moved down from picking out the XL T-shirts to the M’s. I am actively dating and having, uh, more sex than I was used to (AKA “any”). Occasionally, old friends see me and literally don’t recognize me. I am nearly okay with taking my shirt off in public. I have much less inhibitions about dropping trou and skinny dipping and/or hot tubbing, should the opportunity arise. I have changed my lifestyle so that I still manage to eat everything I like, only less of it. I go to the gym three or four times a week.
I still hate jogging.
Do I still have “body issues?” Oh, hell yes. Did losing the weight and getting more fit change my attitude? In some ways yes, in some ways no… but that’s what therapy’s for. It certainly wasn’t a cure-all for my many and sundry emotional loose ends, but it’s helped me be more confident and I enjoy shopping for clothes, which is a dubious advantage and somewhat costly, but what’s a boy to do?
My advice, for those of you unhappy with your current physical situation and hoping for a miracle cure that’ll make you look like the A&F boys or the Conde Nast girls is stop looking for a miracle cure. It doesn’t exist. Eat better food, eat less of it, and get your ass in motion. Move your body in whatever you enjoy. Jog, bike, lift weights, kung fu, yoga, dance, kickbox, soccer, volleyball, swim, whatever, but go out and do it. Ask for help, encourage encouragement, change your life, be happier.
February 12, 2004