Only certain people understand the utter embarrassment associated with having to shop for grammar school clothes in the Men’s Big and Tall section at Bradlee’s. And let’s be honest, I wasn’t the tall half of the equation. I was BIG.
Looking back, I can’t believe at the age of 12, my mother felt it important to provide the fashion advice that horizontal stripes will just make me look wider. Yet, somehow, a combination of forest green, maroon, and white vertical stripes would look good, boost my self confidence, AND impress my crush, even though it’s still a size XL?
If you’re a fellow Big and Tall shop survivor, you know that it was like shopping for airy, roomy, peasant blouses for men. It was a fool’s errand. An attempt for parents around the world to admit that you were obese, but still trying to convince you you could have a normal childhood, because LOOK, THEY MAKE CLOTHES FOR YOU TOO!
Why didn’t we have a coming to Jesus moment in the middle of the store and admit what was actually going on?
I should’ve just thrown my hands up in total exasperation (dropping the clothes on the floor in a dramatic flair to which my mother was accustomed), made a scene and insisted we go to Baskin-Robbins instead because I was HUNGRY and clearly I didn’t have to worry about the calories because I could always come to this store and procure a sensible, fashion-forward man muumuu for my best friend’s roller rink party next weekend.
Like leaving an article about the cabbage soup diet on my pillow one evening. And that’s great and all, but how was my mother—who was working two jobs to keep a roof over our heads—going to find the time to make me all that cabbage soup? Or encouraging me to keep a food journal after reading an article about it in the Sunday paper. Kids my age had journals to write about their feelings. I had one to write that I ate pizza rolls instead of lettuce.
And sometimes, those of a different generation were even more direct. Like the constant reminders from my grandmother that if I kept eating the way I was I would be as big as a house one day. Or the time I wore a tank top to hang out with my friends (all of my other clothes were in the laundry, apparently), and when I came home, she admonished me to never wear that shirt again. I assumed she was worried how I looked in it, but perhaps she was also worried it was just a little… too gay?
Even while on the baseball diamond, soccer field, or on the basketball court, it was assumed that I was just less willing to be there because I didn’t look like the other kids on my team. Sure, I probably spent less time outdoors than they did—I was too busy dancing in my living room to Mickey Mouse Club and Kids, Incorporated. But, deep down, I did want to score a goal or make a basket (but I didn’t want to hit a ball, fuck baseball), but there wasn’t a youth coach who had the emotional intelligence to really take the time to help me understand what my body could do and to develop confidence in its ability, even if I was rounder than my peers.
You don’t have confidence, so the people around you don’t have confidence in you. It’s the vicious cycle of an overweight child in a society that doesn’t know how to deal with a little body fat on its members who want to engage.
And because the universe has an immense sense of humor, my two childhood best friends were a tall, lanky Italian kid and the town’s local soccer star.
I was the Vern. I could only hope I would grow up to be as sexy as an adult Jerry O’Connell.
So, what does a boy do when he realizes he has an unhealthy relationship with his body and food, and also hates how he looks in pictures? And he would maybe like to meet someone in college, go on a few dates, maybe make some poor sexual decisions (but not like, herpes-causing). Especially as the wonders of AOL chatrooms allow him to explore his sexuality but guys are insistent on seeing pictures of you with three very strict rules – “No FATS! No FEMMES! No ASIANS!”
Welp. One out of three. But also, fuck those racist assholes.
Well, as a man raised by women, let me tell you what he does. He joins Weight Watchers. Naturally.
I’ll always remember my SECOND Weight Watchers meeting. The first one is the moment you step on the scale, and a pleasant middle-aged woman named Joyce beams from ear to ear and tells you how fat you actually are. When you weigh yourself at home, there’s a myriad of reasons as to why it is wrong. And clearly, that home scale is only correct in the morning, after you’ve used the bathroom. Any increase throughout the day is clearly just from drinking water and all the broccoli (read – sugary cereal, French fries, and ice cream) you’ve eaten. Look, I’m healthy! I weigh one pound less today than I did yesterday.
And holy shit, is that a 2?!?!?!?
But week 2 is where it’s at. You feel motivated to make a change because you have faced the harsh truth of the scale, and you know the first step is actually going to a meeting – so you leave committed to the idea it’s going to work, as long as you work at it.
That first week, I weighed, measured and tracked EVERYTHING I ate. Instead of slathering half a jar of mayo on my turkey sandwich, I conscientiously applied 1 Tablespoon of mayo into a whole wheat pita pocket. I even made my own soup—no cabbage (take that, Mom!)—but with enough vegetables to feed an entire stable of horses. And they had those delicious Weight Watchers frozen treats, and they were only, like, 4 points (which meant if I ate both in the package, it was only 8 points!) And since I was a big boy, I had a crap ton of points. This may actually work!
I had lost 5 pounds. Joyce (or another generic old lady name) had congratulated me on such an accomplishment, updated my weight record, and had even given me a gold star sticker to celebrate my first weight loss milestone.
I wasn’t sure if this was the beginning of this “weight loss journey” the leader kept referencing, but it was the first time I had made a choice to do something about the years of insecurity, self doubt, jeering and crying in the mirror because my belly fell over the waistband of my boxers.
Common to most attempts at self-improvement, losing weight wasn’t linear. Trying to eat well while living on a college campus with a KFC in the dining hall and an RA staff insistent on ordering Domino’s at least once a week wasn’t conducive to keeping it off. But, soon after graduating and recommitting to Weight Watchers for the umpteenth time, I hit the holy grail of weight loss.
My weight began with a 1. And I had managed to lose a significant amount of weight, and keep it off over the span of 6 weeks. You would think there would be fanfare for such a momentous occasion. There wasn’t. I had rolled up to a random WW center in a strip mall to weigh in, and I celebrated my achievement with some light applause from a small cohort of ladies who clearly were my grandmother’s age and retired, because why else would they be at a Weight Watchers meeting in the middle of a random Tuesday? They were probably all named Joyce.
What no one tells you about significant weight loss is that it takes a long time for your mind to catch up with the rest of your body. I had a small paper book that told me I was “skinny,” but I still saw the old me in the mirror and was convinced no one else saw the change. Even with the encouragement of people reminding me, “You look great!” and the shocked, “Oh my God, how much weight did you lose?!” when someone saw me for the first time in months, I still felt like the loner, outsider fat kid.
And the road to self-acceptance and maintaining weight loss is paved with good intentions by the people around you. But they sure as shit don’t know how to keep their mouths shut. The amount of times people close to me would ask “Are you gonna eat that?” with a sneer…
More often than not, I wanted to respond with “No, Karen, you’re right. I shouldn’t eat ice cream ever again. You know what, I’m just going to ask the friendly teen at the Baskin-Robbins here to serve me some coffee grinds and a few ice cubes instead of kid’s size coffee scoop with hot fudge, because my fuck my life, right?”
All of a sudden, people who wanted to see you succeed at something now force themselves into that success, trying to keep you “on track,” even when you didn’t ask for their opinion.
The “perhaps you should eat a salad” friends are now the “ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO ORDER CHEESE AND FULL FAT DRESSING ON YOUR SALAD?” friends. They cheer you on until it becomes uncomfortable for them. The amount of times I’d bring a healthier version of a food to a gathering and have to explain what was in it to friends, because they were distrustful of a Weight Watchers recipe.
It was if they believed that eating something that helped me eat healthier would be deadly to them. Or that because I was making a healthier choice here and there, I would try to force this lifestyle one them or they couldn’t enjoy whatever food they wanted.
You’re right. I’m lying. It’s not ground chicken in these tacos. It’s tofu. The cheese is vegan. In fact, I soaked the lettuce and tomatoes in laxatives first for an extra kick. And if you dare attempt to eat any of this in an actual hard taco shell, I am going to punch you in the nuts and cause a scene because you’re enjoying some carbohydrates with dinner. And please, don’t dare tempt me by bringing out some cake. I’ll just sit here and cry into my honeydew melon while you enjoy all the world has to offer!
Like my grandmother, who no longer fretted about me expanding to the size of a split-level but instead shifted her criticism to the less fat-shamey, “Your arms look like broomsticks.” A win, I guess?
My point is I didn’t even understand the transformation my body had gone through. It wasn’t until my illustrious career in retail that someone pointed out to me how much I had physically changed and how much I didn’t even realize it. I pretty much wore the same two pairs of jeans to work every day, and finally, one day, Carolina decided to give me some professional, constructive feedback.
“Eric, you have serious sag ass.”
“I’m sorry, what does that even mean?”
“You keep pulling up your pants. And even when you do…your jeans are sagging. You have serious sag ass. You need to get jeans that fit you.”
Flashbacks to trying on clothes in Sears, Macy’s, and all the other department stores, shamefacedly explaining to my Mom through the dressing room door that I needed a size bigger.
But, I found myself in an American Eagle dressing room asking for a size smaller than my 38 waist jeans. And to top it all off, I went shopping in Hollister afterwards and could actually fit into one of their shirts and not feel like a bulbous potato.
And depending on when you knew me, you could obviously see it… or maybe you were confused. My commitment to weight loss and fitting into a size medium shirt varied by the month, the year, or my friend circle. It’s hard to overcome your friends’ propensity for enjoying all night happy hour every Monday, midnight Chinese food orders, and nightly stops at 7-11 for pints of Ben and Jerry’s.
There had been a period of six months where I ate Quizno’s every night for dinner with ate a pint of “Marsha, Marsha, Marshmallow” as a chaser. When I made my fateful return to a Weight Watchers center, I was surprised to learn I would have to pay the leader because I was over my goal weight. We literally got into a fight, because I insisted my scale at home (which I had moved a number of times to get the number just right) was correct and hers was set up just to make money for the corporate overlords.
I had convinced myself of the delusion so much that I actually didn’t even bring cash with me because I was sure I wouldn’t be charged.
I hesitated to take my shirt off in front of others. Guys would insist they found me sexy, and I would turn into a demure maiden, trying to withhold my virtue for the right moment, mainly because I still didn’t believe I was attractive and desirable. Or, they were subject to a monologue about my weight loss, and how I didn’t have abs, and how I hadn’t really been focusing on my eating the past week, so I would look better in a week when I started tracking my food again, and holy shit, I was insufferable.
Now, I reflect on those pictures from that time, when I was legitimately skinny—running races every weekend, starring in Cooking Channel commercials about losing weight—and I get so angry I didn’t ever just stop myself, reflect on what I accomplished, and actually tell myself I was happy and content with where, and who, I was. I wish I had just enjoyed running my first marathon—taking pictures with Wreck-It-Ralph, Jiminy Cricket, and Daisy Duck—and not worrying about how I would look in the pictures afterwards.
It would’ve made my life so much easier.
So, rather than constantly striving to lose more weight , why couldn’t I speak to myself in the kind words that all the people in my circle reserved for me? Why didn’t I focus on what my body could do, not on how it looked?
As a child, the people who cared about me always avoided discussing my size, while also making it blaringly obvious they were ignoring the elephant in the room. So, I had always connected my value to how much space I took up, and I still believed I took up a space that made people uncomfortable.
It’s interesting. When I’m having reflective moments, I realize how much I wanted to lose weight to fit into a society (and gay culture) that put such a premium on looking a certain way. But even when I got there, it was still a lonely place, because there was so much packed into how I got there.
All the opportunities I swore I would take when I was thinner were still fraught, and I often resisted, because I was still the same person, just in a different skin – but with all the complexities, insecurities, and fears that existed in the kid who was almost paralyzed at the idea of having to change in the locker room after high school gym class.
Throughout the years, I would float in and out of Weight Watchers meetings, even as my routine changed. I moved away from running and became a Crossfitter. No one ever tells you how those types of workouts change the structure of your body, and even if you gain weight, it doesn’t mean your barrelling back towards Big and Tall territory. Everyone focuses on lack of fatness, but not how the body changes as you gain fitness.
I spent hours prepping healthy meals, tried new recipes, started drinking protein shakes, and at the end of the first week, I had gained MORE weight and an inch around my waist. And it became apparent the individual responsible for managing the challenge wasn’t adequately equipped to understand the emotional toll the last few attempts at losing weight were taking on me.
At 36, it hit me. For half of my life, I had been tracking everything I ate. I was always trying to lose weight. I had poured hours and hours of effort (and emotions) into trying to look and be different. It was so damn exhausting.
It wasn’t like I woke up one morning, started singing a happy song, birds flew through the window and landed on my shoulder, and other woodland creatures joined us in our celebration. I had to have difficult conversations with myself.
I had to get rid of clothes that I would never fit into again. I had to accept that “non-scale” victories were clearly just a different way for the world (and diet culture) to have you reduce the size you are taking up in the world. Or make you feel guilt for enjoying food. Yes, a handful of frozen cotton candy grapes is delicious, but have you ever smashed an entire bag of Extra Toasty Cheez-Its after a stressful day at work?
I had to deal with people, without much of a filter, loudly exclaiming that I had gained weight. I accepted that the one way I coped through a worldwide pandemic was through comfort food and comfort wine. I had to be direct with my doctor and tell him that I don’t want him to lecture me on my weight unless he sees it as a contributing factor to any other health condition he discovers.
I am tired of the stigma around someone’s size and physical appearance. If someone doesn’t meet the certain ideal of beauty and health we’ve been conditioned to expect, they must spend their days sitting on a couch, in their own filth, shoveling take out and fast food down their gullets. Ever read the comments on someone’s body positivity post? All of a sudden, the trolls of society are ready to dispense their medical advice and heartfelt concern about that person’s overall health. Those same people are happy to buy diet tea from a skinny Instagram star whose diet consists of cigarettes and vodka, but there is nary a discussion about their heart health, cholesterol, and ability to live a long, full life.
This is just who I am now. And it’s not that I’m lazy. I still workout at my Crossfit gym. I do a Peloton workout daily. But, at the risk of sounding cliché, I am more than a number on my scale, and at this point, it’s a number I refuse to put any stock in—because life is just too damn short.
Free to eat what I want. Own the space I inhabit. Wear clothes that are way too big just because they are comfortable, not because I care about looking a certain way when I go out. And let’s be honest, I’ve been working from home for two years now, who needs hard pants and button downs anyway? (It’s interesting… had you told me during one of shame-filled shopping trips with my Mom years ago that when I neared 40, I’d actually choose to wear a way-too-big tie-dye sweatshirt, I would’ve laughed in your face.)
And I don’t have any ill will towards companies that support people who desire to lose weight. I will forever be indebted to Weight Watchers, and some of the amazing leaders and members I now call friends, for helping me realize that I could take care of myself and become more comfortable in my body. I had a story, and they let me tell it, and for the three years I maintained my goal weight, I was happy, I accomplished things I never thought I would, and I had the confidence to shoot my shot (and make out) with some stone cold hotties.
And it wasn’t in a weekly meeting celebrating five pound milestones. My time could be spent trying new foods and enjoying them, rather than spending time measuring out a teaspoon of low-fat maple syrup to enjoy “pancakes” that tasted and looked like cardboard. When my friends invite me to a bar, I don’t worry about drinking shitty light beer. I enjoy the good stuff, and don’t fret about drunkenly enjoying some McDonald’s after.
When I spend time with friends, and friends of friends, at Asbury Park beach, I disrobe down to my Speedo with much less worry or concern than I did years ago. It is true, every body is a swimsuit body – you take your body, and you wear a swimsuit. Voila! And with the amount of wishful thinking retail therapy I did during the pandemic on the 2(x)ist website, you bet I’m going to wear the damn things every chance I get. Shit, I may even do a costume change three times a day just to make sure every swim trunk I bought over the past two years gets to see the sun, and I get to show off this ass.
I still feel I’m fighting against unrealistic beauty and body expectations, but I also acknowledge that I’m almost 40. If you wanted me to look like a 25-year-old twink, that ship sailed a long time ago. But, could I maybe transform my body again? Then I think of the dinners of bland chicken, brown rice, and NO BOOZE and loudly exclaim to an empty apartment, “Nah, I’m good!” as I throw a literal hunk of grillin’ cheese on the skillet.
At the end of day, I’ve lived a life with highs and lows, just like my Weight Watchers weight record. It all comes with valuable lessons that I can share for anyone who feels this unending push-and-pull.
So, when someone asks “You gonna eat that?”
Most likely, my response will be “Fuck yes.” Unless it’s olives. Fuck olives.