This is intended to be the first part of a series of posts discussing weight loss, body image and both the healthy and unhealthy mental and physical effects of going from being very obese to being ‘normal’. It is the first time I have truly taken the time to assess this in depth. Please accept my apologies in advance for the narcissism contained herein.
As of writing this, my last known weight was 10st 1.8lb.
That measurement was taken over a week ago. This hiatus in self-evaluation is something of a rarity for me. Living in London last year, I weighed myself twice every day as a minimum, typically more. It would only be twice if I was out of my flat for the whole day; I would weigh myself after first getting up – having been to the toilet first, of course, in order to enhance the illusory sense of achievement that comes with having as low a number as possible on that tiny digital display – and then once before bed. If I came home from university during the day then quite often I would weigh myself then as well. If I went for a run or for a game of squash, I tended to check my weight both beforehand and afterwards. I grew fascinated and frustrated by the hourly fluctuations, which did not always seem to match my expectations. Sometimes, after eating and drinking virtually nothing, I found myself infuriated by the stagnation or even increase in my alleged mass between the beginning and the end of the day; at other times I would step onto the scales with trepidation only to find it had significantly dropped.
However, since moving to Spain in August I have not had constant access to a set of scales. My measurements come from the set in the changing room at my local gym. I still take my weight almost daily – at the very least, I tend to go for a swim during siesta time – and still I give into the temptation to weigh myself before and after swimming, observing the minuscule difference that occurs from half an hour of going back and forth in the pool. I have refrained from buying my own scales, partly because I have not had much in the way of funds to cover unnecessary purchases, but moreover because right now I am prevented from stripping off and dashing to the scales to arbitrarily mark my current circumstances whenever I feel a little flabby, as I used to. My obsession is thereby kept in check.
And it certainly is an obsession. In the week that has passed since my last check – a friend visiting from England over the weekend and a few busy days at work have been the culprits for my absence from the pool – I have kept a semi-conscious tally of what may contribute to a gain or loss the next time I set foot on that dreaded and loved apparatus: during my friend’s visit we ate plenty, but we balanced meals out in the evening with light soup or carrots and hummus at lunchtime; until this morning I hadn’t been for a run, a swim or a gym session at all, but we walked around a lot and this morning’s run was a satisfying 8km; as a teacher, my job involves being on my feet for several hours a day and, especially in the classes with younger children, injecting quite a lot of energy into my movements, which is sure to burn some calories; the after-work beers, though not quite pints in Spain, carry me in the opposite direction, and my unfortunate weakness for gummy sweets has been indulged multiple times in recent days; I have nevertheless purchased a significant bulk of vegetables, which will be transformed into soups and similar dishes for my next few meals. Where do I stand?
Even though I can’t possibly guess what my weight will be whenever I next take it, I still think about little else. I find myself in absent-minded moments with my hand on my stomach, judging the extent to which I can feel my abdominal muscles through the layer of fat that clings awkwardly to my middle. Every time I’m alone in a bathroom with a mirror, I take off my top and turn sideways, trying perhaps to establish whether the increased girth I perceive is new fat, bloating from a large meal or maybe an invention of a dysmorphic mind.
Ambition and obsession
The reason for this is simple: I was previously very fat. This part is definitely not a figment of my imagination or a loose expression. My BMI in the spring of 2010 was within the range that doctors have chosen to term ‘very obese’; while I’m fully aware that the BMI system has its flaws, I think it’s hard to get away from that designation. The summer of that year was one of introspection and realisation for me, the reasons for which I will cover more fully at a later time. Suffice to say that my mindset changed: apathy regarding my diet and fitness became awareness, and it was out of this that my obsession was born.
Obsession is an ugly word, but it is both an angel and a demon. Before seeking to change my body, I had never been so driven to any goal. I did not know it was possible to be so driven. I hope it will not come across as egotistical to say that I had always made my way through school getting top marks on the strength of my intelligence, not any kind of sustained effort. My secondary school, a low-achieving comprehensive in small-town Cambridgeshire, was hardly used to stretching students in this position, and so I found a comfortable rut doing just what was required to get As on my various papers while eating enough and doing so little exercise as to get myself into the state I would later feel the need to reverse. To have spent the last three years, then, undertaking what I have to say is the hardest task of my life with such single-minded focus is something that is reassuring to know I have in me. Over the subsequent three years I have lost over a third of my total body mass. It’s amazing to me to even try and comprehend that. My own personal feelings as well as the reactions of those who have known me since before I lost a pound give me a sense of satisfaction previously unfathomable to me.
Along with the elation that comes with successful weight loss, though, comes a whole raft of negative feeling. The comments from friends and family regarding how much weight I’ve lost serve a paradoxical function, both sustaining me and never being good enough – if I agree that I have lost weight, then I am perpetually fearful of becoming complacent and tend to thank the well-meaning other without taking it too much on board; if I know in myself that I have put on a little, or stayed roughly the same weight since I last saw my interlocutor, then I begin to doubt the sincerity of every assertion of my enhanced aesthetic. What is more, food – which should be an enjoyable experience – becomes hell. I became entirely obsessed with the number of calories I was taking in, reducing my intake at times to dangerously low levels that would come to have effects on my physiology but being racked with guilt whenever the odd snack or big meal found its way down my oesophagus that I would punish myself, either through exercise, binge eating or depressive introspection. This obsession extends to my body image too: despite one key aim being to feel comfortable taking my shirt off around others or wearing tighter clothes, I continued feel incredibly self-conscious about the idea of doing either – my body had been private ever since before puberty, and so to expose it in any context seemed somehow obscene.
Why talk about this now?
Much of this post has been in past tense, and it’s true that my attitude – especially throughout 2013 – has changed significantly; however, the way I started the piece shows that these demons are still with me. Part of my purpose with writing these posts is to bring these demons into the light. I would love to say that my body doesn’t matter and that I was just as happy when I was obese as I am now, but it would be a simple lie; the old chestnut of ‘be happy with how you are’ is almost self-consciously idealistic and I know full well that as a fat man I would not feel the way I now do about life. Nevertheless, nothing in this world is exclusively good or exclusively bad, and I feel like this purging of my feelings about the process I’ve undergone is necessary for me to truly understand how I feel about this skin bag of bones and organs and fat that somehow got attached to wherever my consciousness is housed. I get the sense that nobody I speak to in real life about this issue wants to hear about the conflict within me, and I can see why and I play up to it – I like to be the success story, and people like to hear success stories. I don’t want to be the guy who starved himself thin, or passed out multiple times when his calorie count was too low, or exercised through injury and illness when he should have been resting because he had semi-skimmed milk in his tea rather than skimmed, and I don’t think other people want to talk to that guy either. This keyboard, however, doesn’t get the choice.
Looking outside of myself, I also think it’s important in general for people and, specifically, men to feel comfortable talking about this kind of thing. The truth is that when we think of eating disorders and dieting, we still think about it as a women’s issue. When we talk about body image in terms of men, our minds immediately turn to the sculpted abs on the front of Men’s Fitness and to what extent we do or don’t resemble that masterpiece of digital manipulation. I would never dream of saying that the body image issues faced by men outstrip those faced by women, and I certainly think that women seem at least to be under more societal pressure to conform to a certain model of how their bodies should look. Having said that, I also think it’s important that we treat this as a human problem rather than just a gendered one. But maybe that’s just the short, fat kid in me talking.
Overall, despite my pretences to a greater good, these posts will be by necessity narcissistic, not least because I think the readership of this blog is at present roughly identical to its writership. Even so, the introspection that will flow through this keyboard over the coming posts is a necessary process for me; if it reaches someone else out there too, then all the better.
Let the purge commence.