It is the day before my twenty-second birthday. I am standing in the changing rooms of a high-end department store. I pull a pair of soft cotton denims up to my waist, and then I smile to myself emphatically. Eighteen months ago, I would not have dreamt of walking into this place. Instead, I used to rush past it nervously, worried that the sales assistants inside would laugh at my size. Today was different. Not only did I buy my first pair of flattering jeans, I also complemented them with a whole new wardrobe.
I certainly could have invested in a trendy outfit sooner. In an increasingly competitive market, retailers have been conforming to all the shapes and sizes of the spectrum. But, like anyone struggling with his or her weight, I suffered from a serious image problem. I did not feel worthy of looking my best. What chance did I have competing with everyone else? I had been overweight since the age of four and I was stuck in what felt like an eternal rut.
To make matters worse, I woke up one morning to find that exercise had become the norm. Six-packs and beach bodies were now attainable goals for my close friends and family members. In time, even male anorexia started to become seemingly popular. All of the major retailers from Levi to the GAP started selling garments that tailored to men with skinny frames. Suddenly, there were only two types of male, the Vin Diesels of the world and the gaunt Russell Brands. Even the innocent High School Musical franchise was going with the new trend, seeing it’s young star, Zac Efron, bulk up to conform to the beefy masculine ideal.
I did not become aware of these things until I hit puberty. Before then, the most exciting thing that I could remember, was staying up late to watch TV with a bag of potato chips or the times when my father would take me to the Ponderosa steak house. But when I hit thirteen, my weight came in at just under two hundred pounds. I became exceedingly conscious of everyone around me. During P.E. class, I would sit and wait until the last person had left for the gym, before I could change. After a year of high school, I asked my mother if I could be home schooled and she agreed. It would be easier this way. Never having to confront what I looked like to others.
Unfortunately, this did not improve my well-being. Every moment awake, was spent hankering for food. In time, I stopped looking at myself in the mirror and I wore the same clothes nearly every day of the week. Undeniably, my eating disorder was rooted in sadness. The separation of my parents, the painful relationship with my younger siblings who bullied me, and the way that strangers glared at me, all fueled it.
One day, my father (a surgeon) jokingly warned that I would eventually succumb to gastric band surgery, should I continue the way I was. His comment acted as the final blow to my confidence. After this, I began to carry people’s perceptions of me like an additional weight. Most days when I was gasping for air, I would wonder whether it was my size that was disrupting my breathing, or the panic that even my family had become ashamed of me.
When I was sixteen, I moved in with my father and returned to a genuine academic institution. Here, I forged friendships with a couple of wayward teenagers who introduced me to alternative music and encouraged me to take up smoking. My newfound habit curbed my binge eating and induced visible weight loss.
Still, I never recovered from feeling like the ‘other.’ I finished high school with middling grades, which surprisingly helped me secure a place at quite a respectable institution in Britain. Like all freshman, I was encouraged to use the discounted sports facilities and to occupy myself with the varied athletics. I passed on the offers; my high school experiences would last me a lifetime, I thought.
It wasn’t until my junior year in college that anything changed. On the eve of my birthday, a group of people organized a surprise celebration. I looked around at all of the smiling faces and realized that I could finally stop hating myself. Yes, I was a man with a serious image problem and now I was going to be able to deal with it.
Over the next twelve months, I began a new regiment, one that saw me introduce fruit and vegetables to my diet and has involved exercising four days a week. I made new friends; I graduated in the top five percent of my year and most importantly to me, I shed thirty pounds. Now, I stand here in front of the mirror, tugging at my skin, wondering where all the weight has gone. I can breath easily now. There is no heaviness, just a sense of freedom. I don’t know why I deserve this happiness now, but I am glad that I was able to find it sooner, rather than later.
I suppose that the biggest lesson that I learned from this experience is that seeking validation from others should always be a secondary act. First and foremost, confidence should be drawn from within. Certainly, some folk will tell you otherwise. Some will argue that they draw their strength from their friends, their family and/or significant other. But the problem here is that one develops a dependent urge to please the people around them, before pleasing one’s self. One needs look no further than the world of celebrity tabloid culture, to understand how dangerous it can be living under this kind of microscope (no matter how small or self-inflicted it may be).
Undoubtedly, the men who lead the most fulfilling lives are the ones who exist on the fringes of public perception. No question, it wasn’t until I was able to let go of this societal pressure that I felt capable of following through with my weight loss journey and was indeed able to come to terms with my own body image. Once this pressure was off, I was able to give myself a real shot at getting healthier. This was because I knew that there would be no else who would judge me if I failed.
This isn’t to say that I don’t struggle still. For many men, tension surrounding body image is a daily issue. For me, I know that it is a dangerous place to be as it can be extremely isolating at times. Personally, the only way for me to escape it is to ignore the spreads that flout the ‘Adonis’ figure, and instead I have learned to appreciate my body’s own unique, masculine shape. It’s surprising what a little re-evaluation can do.
For example, in the past, I used to fret about anyone seeing what I believed to be my oversized calf muscles, but little did I know that such an asset was the envy of many men, who spent hours trying to bulk up on those very muscles.
The last thing I want to do here is preach. Nor do I want to place blame on mass popular culture or anything of the sort. Rather, my goal is to remind readers that first and foremost, we are individuals, realizing this is the first step towards constructively dealing with your image problem.