I have never before posted a shirtless photo of myself. Not my thing. Wouldn’t even send it privately to a boyfriend. My body and I have a longstanding hate-hate relationship. Still, I included this photo of me from this week because, while I can savagely pick it apart, this is as good as it gets. Maybe if I document it I can stop the madness. Been there, done that, movin’ on. Objectively, I know it’s not bad for forty-nine. I am acutely familiar with the natural belly inflation that occurs at this stage. I’ve fought it off, but it’s nothing to be proud about.
I’ve written about eating disorders before. (If you're so inclined, you might want to read this or this.) I have struggled with food and weight issues for most of my life—at least since I was eleven or twelve. Male or female, there is pressure to look perfect. I knew that in the ‘70s as a kid who sipped Tab while friends guzzled root beer to show off their belching prowess. They had their priorities right.
Women talk about the constant media exaltation of The Body Perfect. While they can’t fully ignore the pressure, they can sit together over skim lattés and talk about it. Men, not so much. Most guys would just laugh it off. What’s your problem, man? Have another beer. This leaves guys who are, for whatever reason, more susceptible to this pressure to internalize their feelings of inadequacy.
I’d be envious of these other guys—if I had any fondness for beer. (I say I don’t like the taste. Subconsciously, I probably formed a strong resistance to the beverage that spawned the term beer belly.) Pizza, ice cream, cheesecake, these would be my indulgences. I talk about them a lot. But it’s rare to catch me ingesting anything beyond nonfat cottage cheese, Melba toast and plain fruits and vegetables. I have maintained a strict diet for decades, typically with the same dull staples.
The only blip was a couple of years when my ex and I were together. I indulged and the relationship went sour. The sex stopped. He became terse, then abusive. Logically, I can say that the ten extra pounds around my waist—and that’s as extreme as it ever got—had nothing to do with the demise of a doomed relationship. But my nagging interior/inferior voice says, “Porking out couldn’t have helped.”
Oh, what a piece of work I am.
Things become most dire when I hit a time in life where things are out of control. I drastically reduce, I deprive and the weight drops. Fortunately, the last severe bout was about twenty years ago when I first moved to Vancouver, was underemployed and questioned whether the spontaneous move had been an act of pure stupidity. Friends intervened and insisted I see a doctor. He turned out to be clueless about eating disorders in men, but somehow my friends shook me up enough to get me to change course. I returned to never-ending dieting and wisely didn’t talk about calories or fat.
Last fall, as feelings of isolation escalated, I became especially critical of my rising gut. Despite the regular workouts and the dieting, the Pillsbury Doughboy always greeted me in the mirror. Next up: Little Buddha. “This is 50,” I told myself. Single, fat, lonely, hopeless.
When my dog Hoover died in April, I went into full deprivation mode. The grief was so intense and the guilt so great that food deprivation constituted both control and punishment. Whenever the grief lapsed, a general apathy stepped in. Why bother? With food or anything.
It took five days before I acknowledge I needed to be admitted to hospital. In the short term, it was the right thing, but I am still dealing with the aftermath. Nobody raves about hospital food. Especially not vegan hospital food. Plain bread, vegetable broth, half a canned pear. It made deprivation even easier. In the psych ward, everything was highly scheduled—all controlled by someone other than myself. Meals at 8, 12 and 5. Snacks at 2 and 8. I’m sure the intent is to help stabilize some people, but for me, it only intensified my desperation to exert control.
My eating does not get too drastic when I can exercise. I am fanatical about it. I over-exercise. I exercise when injured. In the hospital, confined to my ward, there was no jogging, no swimming, no cycling, no weightlifting. There was a Stairmaster that I would ride in my flimsy hospital bottoms and gown, but I worried too much about body odor. We weren’t given soap for the showers; only tiny gel packets that failed to do much of anything.
No one monitored my intake. The food trays went largely untouched. I hoarded soda crackers, instant decaf coffee packets and apples from snack time. When I felt dizzy, I’d slowly chew a Saltine or lie down and try (unsuccessfully) to sleep.
I lost twelve pounds in the first six days. They didn’t bother to weigh me after that. More troubling was where the loss occurred. In the mirror, my body was unrecognizable. After all those years of building muscle mass, all was gone.
Biceps gone. Pecs gone. Quads gone. Welcome to a new kind of hideous.
The transformation only made me care even less about living.
In the three months since being released, I’ve increased the intensity of my workouts. I’ve lost a few more pounds but I’ve regained strength. I don’t have near the bulk from before, especially in the chest. My tight t-shirts are now roomy. Still, my body gets noticed. Gay guys are openly complimentary. It’s foreign territory.
But I am an example of how unrealistic body images are in our society. Yes, I am forty-nine and I appear fit. But my food intake continues to be tightly controlled even more so than before I entered hospital. No more breakfasts. I’ve cut lunches in half, dinners by a third. I look healthy. It’s an utter deception.