Sunday, January 10, 2010

Body Image

As a preface, I want to say this entry is perhaps one of the most difficult entries I will ever write. I am a very open person, in general. I usually find myself holding back on what I feel comfortable talking. This, however, is a topic I feel much shame about, and it is because of that shame I feel I need to start addressing it more directly.

I've never been a skinny person; I've always been at least "chunky." Even in my teenage years, when I slimmed up a bit due to growth spurts and the exercise I got in marching band, I was overweight. I still remember being measured for my colorguard costume at the beginning of my senior year and my waist being thirty-nine inches. I still consider the photograph of me in my costume to be the best picture ever taken of me. When I performed my senior-year Winterguard solo for a school assembly a friend told me how someone next to him said, "He's the fat, gay guy." In elementary school kids called me "sumo" on the playground. (Although, breaking with the stereotype, I actually enjoyed dodge ball and did fairly well at it.) I also felt very self-conscious around my step-mother, who was always trying to lose those ten or twenty pounds most middle-age women have.

It is my birth mother I keep coming back to as the root of the damage that has been reinforced through almost every stage of my life. I remember her being very blunt about my weight and size. One incident that sticks out very clearly in my mind is when I was about six or seven, after my parents' divorce and she was allowed visitation under the supervision of a social worker. I don't remember exactly what my mother said. I know it was something about my size, or how I needed to lose weight. I was so upset with her I got out of my chair and kicked her in the shin. Looking back, I think this was a major incident in the social worker telling the courts it wasn't healthy for us children to be visiting our mother. Even after I was no longer keeping direct contact with her she would send me herbal diet supplements--usually nasty, bitter herbal teas.

As I've discussed this history with therapists, it seems there is no wonder why I have such a deeply shamed-in negative body image. It haunts me where ever I go, coloring almost everything I do. I almost always seem to have the thought in the back of my mind wondering how many people are looking at me in judgement and/or disgust because of my weight. Intellectually, I can reason that the number is probably not that high, but emotionally it is difficult to feel people don't look at me the same way I look at myself. Our general culture is bad enough with how it enforces unrealistic body images. Just the other day I was with a friend at the grocery store and we stopped at the magazine rack. We took a moment and really looked at some of the covers and how unrealistic the models looked with all the air brushing and Photoshop work. I particularly took notice of the cover of the latest Men's Health Magazine. I was horrified at the level of computer work they did on the photo. I wonder if they even bothered with a model, or if they just generated the whole thing electronically.

It's even worse as a gay man. The culture is deeply youth obsessed and steeped in body worship. Porn stars are held up as idols and the yard stick by which to be judged. I know this is an over generalization, but it is difficult to see past it when the entrance to the dating scene is covered by signs saying "NO Fatties!"--and other qualifiers I will leave out to keep this blog reasonably family friendly. Perhaps the most shaming thing about all of this is the hypocrisy I feel with myself. While I so deeply resent being treated the way I am because of my weight, I realize my judgements and desires are much the same. I may not be at the level of some--refusing to even consider someone with a waist size of 30 or more, or requiring a large genitals to body fat ratio--but I still find myself looking at the magazine covers and not wanting to settle for less (or more, as the case may be).

I've tried to go on diets, only to be so crazed with cravings I felt like I was going through the DT's. I had times when I wished so desperately to lose weight by any means I wished I could bring myself to be bulimic. (Part of me feels weak and even more shameful for not being able to even do that.) Exercise is difficult as I really don't enjoy it for the most part. The exercise classes I have taken I usually find to be run at an energy level I just simply can't maintain.

I did find something of a release from all this shame for a time. In the fall of 2004, I read Coming Out: An Act of Love by Rob Eichberg, Ph.D. In the second chapter, Dr. Eichberg has a questionnaire asking the reader to respond to questions about how they feel about such things as being worthwhile, lovable, telling the truth, etc. Each question is to be considered in the context of the reader's childhood, adolescence, and present feelings. I took the time and care to actually sit down and write out my responses. I did it without editing what came out. In some cases I didn't realize what I wrote until after it was on the page. One response came out in a very shocking way, and I have felt so much shame for even thinking this that I have never shared it before with anyone outside of therapy.

Q: How do you feel about being lovable? Do you feel that there is anything you have to do, be, or say in order to be worthy of love?

A: I keep seeing in my mind that if I had a better body things would be different. If I wasn't so fat, if I was more muscular, if my penis was larger things would be better. Basically if I was porn star worthy my life would be good. I'd be able to find a boyfriend who really loved me. I would have a far better social life. I wouldn't be so depressed, alone, and hating myself every time I see or feel the huge stores of fat on my body. I would be able to like myself.

I remember how surprised I was at my response. I physically felt a jolt of electricity pass through my brain as I finally pulled all these issues to the surface of my consciousness. After this things began to change. It wasn't all at once. Over the next year I let go of the sense of being judged by others and much of the shame I held for myself. I stopped worrying so much about what I ate and realized I started eating better. I got into an exercise routine that worked well for me and I was able to reasonably enjoy. I even pulled together the confidence to start asking guys out on dates. By the end of 2005 I had lost forty pounds, going from 280 to 240 pounds, and went down to a size 40 waist from 48.

But it didn't last. Over the past few years I've gained the weight back and now weigh around 290 pounds and my waist size is back to 48. I get basically no exercise these days, and I can easily say I am in the worst shape of my life. Just walking a few blocks can leave me with aching legs and short of breath. I keep wondering what happened to stop and reverse the progress I made. Maybe I can blame my depression, hypothyroid, or some other things. Mostly, however, I think it was the changes in environment as I moved from place to place. When I had my epiphany and made good changes I was in places where I had the space and convenience to choose what I was going to do and how I would do it. I was also surrounded, mainly, by people I didn't feel any negative judgement from. Things began to change when I moved to a place where I felt the judgement and didn't have the space and convenience to do quite as I chose. Perhaps this is why the issue has become something that demands to be faced now. Over the past few months, and especially the past couple weeks, my situation has changed to be an environment where I feel even more restricted and judged.


  1. You must not be in the same circles of the gay community that I'm in, because although there are a few people that try to live up to that "porn star image", very few of them do so. And the gay community is more accepting than any other that I've been in.

  2. I probably am not in the same circles. I also am willing to admit that much of what I feel about the gay community may be a projection of my own insecurities and personal shame. And perhaps what I see is the select few who reinforce these insecurities and shame. I would like to find a gay social network I can feel comfortable in. I have somewhat in the past, but they all naturally fell apart and disbanded.

  3. WOW! What a brave and enlightening blog entry! I say love yourself the way you are!