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He looks so thin,” my sister said to my mother the other day. “He’s not eating.”
My mother, who lives in Jerusalem, is visiting for the summer, and we were sitting around in my sister’s apartment in Brooklyn.
My mother looked up from her phone, gave me an appraising glance. “He looks good,” she said.
“No, too thin,” my sister said. “He’s not eating. Are you eating? Can I pack something for you to take?”
My sister knows I’m eating, because that’s all I do when I visit her, which has lately been frequent. It’s a ready place for a home-cooked meal and I am not shy to take advantage.
But I know what has her concerned. I’ve recently lost about 50 pounds from my peak weight two years ago, and for people who’ve known me, it’s hard not to notice. In our family, weight and food issues bring up complicated feelings. We have been unlucky in the genetic lottery. With the exception of my father, who died years ago and was exceptionally thin, someone in our family has always been dieting — sometimes all five of us at once. Desperately, hungrily, seeking thinness. Avoiding food. Weighing and measuring. Trying one program after another.
I had been thin as a child and even more so as an adolescent. I attended Hasidic yeshivas, where, notoriously, meals rank somewhere between airline food and that of a maximum security prison. It’s hard to overeat when all you get is a paste of cooked rice and boiled chicken, the same each night.
As an adult, things changed, though. Home-cooked meals, along with sedentary occupations made me expand. I was a student, a teacher, a computer programmer, a writer — I had little incentive to get out of my chair.
My weight gain was steady and swift, and within the span of just a few years, I came to despise my physical self. I couldn’t fit into my clothes. I hated what I saw in photos. The rolling mounds of flesh made me alternate between wanting to simply stop eating completely and then stuffing myself with junk food, because this wasn’t ever going to change, so what the heck. Then, in the bathroom, I’d put a leg up on the side of the tub, and watch with disgust as the underside of my thigh jiggled, like it was its own thing, alive. I could not stand to look at myself in the mirror, fearful for what I’d see, and couldn’t stand not to, because I desperately wanted to fix my body, and I had to look to see how to fix it. Also, there was always the hope that my body had recomposed itself when I wasn’t looking.
How fat was I?
By many people’s standards, not all that fat. I’m five-foot-nine-ish, and my peak weight was 225. For most of the past two decades, I swung between 190 and 215. At the lower end, I am what the medical establishment considers overweight. At the upper, obese. Even at my highest, though, my doctors never seemed alarmed. “You’re big-boned,” they’d say, and give a little shrug. “Maybe try to lose a little.”
Even so, I couldn’t let go of my harshest judgment of myself.
I am reminded of a story I heard as a child, told of President Abraham Lincoln. He was “two-faced,” someone said to him. To which Lincoln retorted: “If I had another face, you think I’d use this one?”
I didn’t know much about Abraham Lincoln, and wasn’t sure what the story was to mean.
“You don’t get it?” the person telling the story said. “Lincoln had an ugly face.”
Now I understood the story, but I didn’t understand Lincoln. The knowledge of his “ugly face,” could not have been anything but devastating, and I couldn’t imagine such a self-effacing, cool-headed retort. How could anyone make light of their most deeply personal imperfections?
I was raised with the notion that to speak frankly of the body is unseemly. It makes us feel squeamish. The shame of our imperfect corporeality demands that we also hide the fact that we are troubled by it. We are shamed for our fatness, and shamed further for feeling the shame. When we speak of it, someone will inevitably object. Our society worships “confidence” — not healthy self-acceptance that comes from the hard work of looking inward, but the facade of controlled self-regard, for which we dare not face our own shame for fear that anyone might notice.
In therapy, a couple years ago, I wanted desperately to speak of my feelings about my weight, but what stopped me was simply this: if I speak of it, my therapist will notice how fat I am. Anxiety about fatness is not like neuroses, which remain hidden in their essence. Fatness is observable, empirical reality. It is literally measurable. No need even for scale and tape measure; the naked eye sees it just fine.
There is also a gendered aspect to all this. While women suffer from impossible and sometimes dangerous beauty standards, we are also conditioned to see weight anxieties as only a women’s issue. To go by the literature on fitness, the question for men is only how much they can lift.
Once, on a date with an otherwise delightful person at an Italian restaurant, my date scanned the menu and said she was thinking of pizza. “Will you share it with me?” she asked.
I was in a keto phase then — this was long before its present popularity — and I was looking at the meat and seafood section. “I’m trying to stay away from bread,” I said.
“Oh my God,” she literally gasped. “You can’t be serious.”
I told her I was. I was trying to lose weight.
“Oh, come on!” she said. “You’re a dude!”
I was struck by the implied connection between pizza and dudeliness. What I heard in her words was that weight concern for a man was a failure of masculinity. A man doesn’t avoid pizza. A man goes to the gym and lifts. Then maybe runs a triathlon.
If this particular woman didn’t mind my girth, I knew very well that others did.
The first person I dated after my marriage ended, nearly a decade ago, told me that I wasn’t her “usual type.” I was too afraid to ask what she meant, for fear she’d say out loud what I assumed: that my body was wrong.
Another woman I dated for a short while told me that she could appreciate my mind, but my body could never make her desire me. She said it with a pained look, in the midst of a difficult conversation. It was a moment of frankness that was otherwise rare. She was simply telling me what she could.
The summer before last, I was seriously dating a woman — call her Naomi — who had told me, believably, that she loved me. When I once asked her for fashion tips on some casual summer shirts, she looked around at people passing on the street.
“I like what that guy’s wearing,” she said, and pointed to a slim man in a salmon polo shirt and khakis.
“That’s a little too suburban dad-ish,” I said.
“Maybe,” Naomi said, “but it looks nice.”
My real objection was something else entirely. He was wearing the kind of soft light polo shirt that clings to your body and shows the contours of every hidden lump. I was embarrassed to say it, but forced the words out anyway. “That shirt won’t look good on me. I don’t have the right body for it.”
“Well,” Naomi paused, and the word hung mid-air, until she said finally, “You can have a body like that.”.
The words stung. What I heard was that I needed to find a more suitable body rather than a more suitable shirt. What I heard was that my body needed to be fixed, that I could fix it if only I had the willpower, and until I did so, I was a lumpy mess and unattractive and unlovable and always will be.
I walked around for several hours that day feeling wounded. Naomi, insisting her remark was well-intentioned, was baffled by my sudden taciturn mood. But I couldn’t shake it.
Naomi and I broke up half a year later for unrelated reasons, and my weight shot up even further. I felt anxious every morning just trying to find a shirt that fit.
My body, oh, how I loathed it.
The determination came slowly, a breeze out of the fog of pathetic self-contempt, which soon turned into wind gales that pounded my body and shook it and shook it and shook it, until pounds of flesh washed away like seaside villages gone bare in a tsunami. Here now, seemingly unmovable, and gone in a flash, with the unbelievable force that nature exerts only under the rarest conditions.
From October through December of last fall, I lost 30 pounds — I went from 200 to 170 in twelve weeks, losing an average of two and a half pounds per week. I’ve since lost another five pounds or so, which is where I’ve held steady through the tumultuous end of yet another doomed relationship and the six months since.
“You look different,” friends said when the first pounds came off. “What’s different about you?”
I’d shrug, grudgingly admit that maybe I lost some weight.
“Cool. You on some kind of diet?”
“Nah, I’m not a dieter,” I’d say. “Just, you know, eating healthy, regular exercise, that sort of thing.”
Still ashamed. Still unwilling to confess that my fatness had made me miserable, and that I was actively seeking to beat my physical self into something that didn’t disgust me. Disguising it as a health issue, because who can object to the desire to be healthy?
“How’d you do it?” others asked, those who had been forever seeking their own miracle.
Eventually, I would describe it. It was not a fad diet. It wasn’t keto. It wasn’t Atkins. It wasn’t Weight Watchers. It was simply the most common-sensical weight loss program I’d never thought to try: a 500 calorie deficit per day, or 3500 per week, until I reached my goal weight. Then I simply discontinued the deficit.
Overall, though, the simplicity of it stunned me. It wasn’t necessarily easy, but my mindset was that of a military recruit in basic training. It’s brutal but finite.
I never gave up the foods I liked — at least not entirely. I allowed myself the occasional craving for a pizza slice or a scoop of pistachio ice cream or a bag of doritos with little hesitation, as long as I reduced my caloric intake at the next meal. When eating out, I gave myself permission to relax, and since it was never a daily thing, its impact was minor.
I didn’t just get thinner. An even greater transformation came after adding exercise — not for weight loss but for what I wanted after: strength and muscle definition. Most of all, to look fit.
I devised a program of strength training through basic bodyweight exercises. My core grew stronger with every plank. My pushups proceeded with steady progressions, from the basic to the diamond, and then, proudest of all, to staggered pushups — which involves alternately shifting the bulk of your weight from one arm to another. With each set, I felt closer to my goal: the one-arm pushup, the apex of bodyweight exercises.
I began regular sets of pull-ups and chin-ups on a bar installed over my bedroom door. There was a time when I couldn’t do a single one — let alone maintain good form — and couldn’t understand how anyone ever could. Now I routinely did three sets of six.
For the first time in two decades, my chest measures wider than my stomach by a good few inches.
Am I happier? Without question.
But I have also witnessed something I hadn’t expected: while I changed, the world around me hadn’t — and perhaps this was a good thing.
Friends who liked me before kept liking me just the same, and those who didn’t weren’t coming around now either. My dating life is still a swinging pendulum, from starbursts of joy to stretches of arid lonesomeness. By and large, other people do not like me more or less because I am thinner.
Some, in fact, have grown concerned.
When my sister first saw me after those first three months, she went pale. “You look so skinny. Too skinny.”
She saw only the kind of drastic change seen in patients with severe illness. But I wasn’t ill, nor was I so thin to legitimately cause alarm. I scraped the line just barely for my ideal BMI. I still carry my love handles and plenty of fat elsewhere.
I understand my sister’s alarm, though, and this is also what contributes to the shame: the fear that people will see illness when all you want is a measure of control. I want to be seen as thin, not sick.
Deep down, I know that I am not defined by my appearance. I also know that fitness matters in how I am perceived, but so do many other things: my ability to listen, my capacity for empathy, my sense of humor, my writing skills. The fallacy is this: I think others bear the same measure of contempt towards me as I do myself. This, I am very aware, is a direct result of my own harsh judgment of others. This I am still working on.
My body, too, reminded me that control is an illusion. A pinched nerve in my middle spine — perhaps from poor form during some of my exercises — has forced me to rest for a month, setting my exercise routine off balance. My traps have begun to burn badly when I run, which I have discovered is likely due to a slightly winged scapula. A bum knee that’s been bothering me for years, has shown signs of worsening.
I have come up against my body’s limitations once again, reminded that I am not and never will be its master. Worst of all is my dread of regaining the weight, which means my mind, too, has yet to catch up and do the hard work of self-acceptance.
You’re too thin. My sister is technically wrong on this particular verdict, but wise in its broader suggestion. Thinness may be desirable for multiple reasons, but for me, the real work is in relaxing my judgments of both myself and others. No amount of diet or exercise will strengthen my fragile ego at its core. Fat or thin, someone somewhere will think I’m too much of one thing or another.
In this, Abraham Lincoln was quite right, I think. One face is all we’ll ever have, and this shouldn’t be so hard to accept. His secret he doesn’t tell, but I can speculate: by seeing others’ imperfections less harshly I might be more inclined to make light of my own.