Divers. Gymnasts. Swimmers. Many of us have to wear a bib when watching the Summer Olympics. These athletes are drool-worthy. I know I am not alone. I see the tweets. Entertainment Weekly’s coverage includes a Stud of the Day. These men are Greek gods.
And, yes, there is a sharp contrast between those deserving of a place on Mount Olympus and the rest of us. This is a good time for a reality check. Doing ten cannonballs in the local pool isn’t going to make you look like Matthew Mitcham. Five minutes—heck, five hours—on the monkey bars at a school playground won’t get you the biceps of Arthur Zanetti. And signing up for Aquafit classes at the Y won’t lead to folks mistaking you for Nathan Adrian. Harsh as it may seem, we are mere mortals with bodies that can only reach modest gains (or losses) on account of food and exercise regimens.
It’s a reality I wish I grasped when I was a twelve-year-old. Or twenty-two. Or thirty-two. But even in non-Olympic years, there was always something in the media to tell us we can look better. Oh, how I wished one of the gimmicks would do the trick! Doing the ab crunch exercises in a men’s magazine might get me the physique of the male model demonstrating the routine. If I bought a Boflex machine, I’d have one of those bodies in the infomercial.
The trigger that I recall for becoming overly body conscious was back-to-school shopping when I was ten or eleven. My mother and the saleslady decided I needed Lee “husky” jeans, instead of the regular fit. Husky. The dictionary definition includes the phrase “big and strong”, but also “burly”. Yep, I needed fat jeans. My mother mentioned this episode while my grandmother or a neighbor who visited later that day. That part is foggy. What I do recall is being mortified. It was as though someone had grabbed a megaphone and toured North America, telling everyone I was a fatty, fatty, two by four.
I don’t think I had ever thought about my body before that day. I had other concerns—worst player on the team (any team), strong suspicions that I had to be an adopted child, an Eeyore complex (magnified by the fact that my mother nicknamed me after the mopey A.A. Milne character). I don’t know why but all my angst channeled into my body image.
I only had one pair of husky jeans. Sometime over the next year, I had a growth sport and that jelly belly went away. But I always saw it. I’ve seen it every day of my life since then.
The majority of people, especially guys, will be able to shrug off a fat reference. They can ogle the Olympic gods, chug a beer and chow down on a bag of Cheetos at the same time. In a sense, I envy them more than the jocks with the buff bods. What is it like to eat guilt-free? How does a guy grocery shop without looking at the fat content for every item?
I think about fat and calories before, during and after every meal, every snack. Essentially, I have been watching my weight for thirty-five years. Not some high profile diet like The Atkins or The Grapefruit or The South Beach or Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig. That gives the control to someone else. I monitor my intake and, whenever I feel I’ve committed an eating infraction, I pay for it. More exercise, no cheese, whatever it takes.
Since I have an aversion to seeing doctors, the closest anyone ever came to a diagnosis was “borderline anorexic.” But that was after I’d put back on twenty pounds of the fifty I’d shed during my most critical point in university.
My obsession with body weight evolved when I came out of the closet after graduating from university. Being fat wasn’t the only thing to avoid. Being thin wasn’t acceptable either. Muscles mattered. I continued to monitor my food while getting fanatical about exercise, but my body would not cooperate. In the mirror, I always saw those little love handles, chicken legs, dainty wrists and arms devoid of definition.
I do not take my shirt off in the locker room at the gym. I always change at home. I am an avid swimmer so that means I do have to expose some skin. I even wear a Speedo. But I only swim when I feel my fittest. When winter comes and I gain five pounds, laps would be the easiest way to battle the bulge, but I cannot be seen in the swimsuit. Even when I decide I can go to a pool, I select a more distant venue where I will not run into anyone I know.
I only go to the doctor when I feel I am trim enough. Otherwise, there is too much shame—I haven’t taken care of myself. I like to buy baggy clothes, but then I feel the baggy parts look like fat, too. Boyfriends have encouraged me to purchase form fitting clothing but I feel my fleshy parts are bubbling over.
In darker times, I have limited my eating to once a day, I have fought off hunger by going to bed ridiculously early—before the pangs surface. Other times, sleep has been difficult. I prefer sleeping on my stomach, but that has been uncomfortable when my ribs have been too exposed. Just as others eat through stress, I tend to starve myself when I feel the rest of life is out of whack. My body is the one thing I can control.
I can logically explain the bodies of Ryan Lochte, Usain Bolt and Ashton Eaton. They train for eight hours a day and have a team of advisors to monitor body fat and prescribe meals. It’s an extreme life. But I also see the guys with better bodies in the local gym and the guys who never make an appearance but walk through town on hot summer days, shirts off, abs defined, perfect torso “V”. I see the Twitter avatars of guys with ripped bods. Even if the pics aren’t of them, they are of someone. Somebody has that body. Genetics, I remind myself. But logic doesn’t last.
Believe it or not, I am better than I have ever been, but I have never broken free from my eating disorder. I simply cope. I never step on a set of scales. I work out intensely when I can—that is, when my day isn’t eaten up by work and my commute. Currently, I am exercising six days a week (2 ½ hour gym routines, 15 km jogs, 25-45 km bike rides). It is a tough battle. My tummy still jiggles. The middle-aged gut is not responding to what has worked in past summers. I have also found the point where I ease up on the weight loss. It’s pretty much the ribs-keeping-me-from-sleeping test. (Don’t think I can achieve that point again.) I could go on and on about all the ways my body image rules my life.
Almost every article I’ve read or feature I’ve seen on TV about eating disorders has focused on females. I know, however, I cannot be the only one and I worry about an unexpected legacy from the Olympics. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, one million males have an eating disorder. My gut reaction: so I am not the only freak.
Just as it has always felt affirming when a celebrity or political figure acknowledges he is gay, I would love for men to publicly state that they struggle or have struggled with an eating disorder. In the past thirty-five years, I have only met one other guy who talked of an eating disorder. He had gone through bulimia, something that I could never do. Too squeamish. We went on a couple of dates, but it is probably a good thing we didn’t connect. Who knows what we would have learned from each other!
If you are able to eat a slice of cheesecake, a muffin or half a bag of regular (not baked) chips, celebrate this simple pleasure. If you can get out of the gym in less than an hour, hurrah! You may not have the body of Bolt, but when will you need to run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds anyway? You are indeed a lucky one.