Editor’s Note: After three years in the game, this is my 100th blog post! To honor the occasion, I’m stepping outside my comfort zone of humor and posting a thoughtful essay on body image. I’m also doing this because I skipped the gym twice this week and I’m pissed at myself for being pissed at myself about it, which sounds redundant because it is.
A few years ago I had a boyfriend – let’s call him Lionel – who accused me of being unfaithful. I wasn’t, but our relationship was in the process of unraveling and I had more or less withdrawn from him at that point, so I can’t say I was surprised by his bout of paranoia.
One day it led him to Facebook-message my ex-boyfriend.
“When you and Nic were together,” Lionel asked, “did you ever suspect he was cheating on you?”
My ex replied, “Nic? LOL.”
I’m able to quote directly because I uncovered the message history on Lionel’s computer one weekend while he was away for his army reserve duties and I was staying at his apartment. By then Lionel had already caved into his guilt and told me about the exchange himself, so these initial findings were more or less expected.
But then there was something else.
“By the way,” Lionel wrote right before signing off. “Nic is in really great shape these days.
“He’s super toned.
I felt like he was insecure for me.
Throughout the course of our relationship, Lionel had always answered my habitual laments of, “Ugh, I feel really fat,” with military-inspired suggestions as to how to get in better shape. “So you agree?” I’d usually snap back, channeling my inner Regina George. “You think I’m really fat?”
I was 6’3” and weighed 170 pounds – thin – but that didn’t change the fact that I had some flab on me where there could have been muscle.
“Shut up,” he’d laugh. “You know I love your body the way it is. I’m just saying that if you want to tone up, I can help you.”
I eventually accepted the offer.
I love your body the way it is. I had always believed Lionel when he said this, but his comment to my ex-boyfriend that day suggested that perhaps he loved it more after I adopted his pushup routine. I mean, the proof was in the transcript. “Ha! You had soft-bodied Nic,” he might as well have declared. “But my Nic is better. My Nic is the one worth having.”
Of course. The One Worth Having: In really great shape these days.
I’d always known men could be shallow.
When I was eight and nine years old, a few members of my dad’s old-school Italian family violently chucked fat slurs at my mom like jagged rocks at an innocent duck after she filed for divorce from him. “That fat bitch,” I heard them say to each other. “You fat bitch,” I heard them say to her face. “You’re divorcing him?”
Sometimes I wondered how much more diplomatic their divorce could have been if she had just dropped twenty pounds before filing.
It wouldn’t be too long before my friends expressed similar attitudes, openly discussing how they could never even think about being attracted to “fat chicks.” This sentiment pervaded my small hometown. I remember being at a friend’s house one day after school and getting caught up in a conversation about baseball cards or some shit when we accidentally left the television on whatever station aired the Rosie O’Donnell Show. His dad got home from work a few minutes later and asked, “What are you guys watching this cow for?”
I was a significantly overweight kid myself while all of this was going down, so I took everything a little more personally than I probably should have.
But! I’d tell myself. This is a female problem. Sure, some kids teased me for my weight, but the teasing never suggested that my fatness made me unlovable. When it came to love, it was always the men who didn’t want their women to be fat. Overweight guys got beautiful girls to marry them all the time; they just had to endure being jocularly called a fatass by their friends sometimes.
I’m ashamed to say that this fucked up, misogynistic double standard actually gave me comfort for a few years of my adolescence.
That is, until I’d remember that I was gay. Until I’d remember that I, too, would eventually have to possess a body worthy of male desire.
“I’m finally starting to realize that a good ninety percent of my insecurities stem back to my being a fat kid,” I lamented to my mom over the phone earlier this week. “And I’m so sick. I’m so sick of reflexively sucking my stomach in when I look in the mirror. And I’m so sick of hating myself on the days when I skip the gym. I’m so fucking sick of having to give a shit about any of this.”
“Believe me, Nic,” she said. “I get it.”
The craziest thing? I’m in really great shape these days. Super toned. Hot. People tell me all the time. Co-workers tell me after I casually turn down the birthday cake. Friends tell me after I yell, “If I have a double chin, we’re deleting this!” when we pose for group pics. My mom tells me when I call her on the phone having typical emotional upsets like the one referenced above.
People tell me I’m too skinny. In text messages and voicemails and Instagram comments.
Eat carbs while you’re out. Statements like these shouldn’t feel like compliments, except they do. The validation swoops me up and flies me around for maybe a good three seconds, but then it lets go just as quickly, flinging me down into a pit where the words GET YOUR ASS BACK TO THE GYM are etched into the surrounding dirt.
If the validation is coming from a man with whom I’m sleeping, maybe the high lasts closer to six seconds. But, oh. Since Lionel and I broke up, I can’t even tell you the number of dudes I’ve gone home with only to soberly decide in the eleventh hour that we can’t go through with hooking up because I don’t feel comfortable getting undressed with someone new and contorting into sexual positions that I know would make my stomach look – oh, my God – not flat.
When I do allow myself to go there with guys, I avoid bringing up the subject of fatness altogether out of fear that if they knew how much I really cared – how anxious and conscious and aware I can sometimes be of my body – they’d scrutinize it that much more.
Plus these aren’t just any men I’m dealing with – these are men like me.
Insecurities make no sense, and yet they do. Depending on your mood and vantage point they can either be silly little clowns or great, intimidating monsters. Sometimes both.
Most days I’m able to just point and laugh at how utterly absurd and hilarious my fat issues are, acknowledging all the bullshit that called them into existence in the first place and saying to myself, Wow. I’m so glad none of this shit actually matters in the end.
But then catch me on a shitty day and I’m capable of breaking down under the weight of it all – sometimes even to the point of calling my mom in tears and/or writing self-pitying personal essays about the Struggle for Body Confidence.
Of course I’ve perused enough self-help to know that everything is just a choice. At any moment we can choose to stop caring about other peoples’ perceptions and start loving our bodies as they are. Right. Fucking. Now. We can claim our power. We can strip ourselves of our clothes – whatever their sizes – and stand proudly, flipping off anyone who’s ever made us feel like the shapes of our stomachs have anything at all to do with the worthiness of our spirits. We can stop letting wounds get in the way.
On my best days, I’m actually capable of this.
Because deep down I know I’m worthy and important and loved. Because I know I’m talented and empathetic and smart. Because I know just how much more than a body I am.
But also — and it fucking kills me to say this — because I’m in really great shape these days.