Five years ago I went through a period of massive weight loss for a whole bunch of apparent reasons, the main one being heartbreak, followed, I now see, by a lack of self-knowledge.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the epidemic of loneliness amongst gay men; and my own experience of it has to do with the unhealthy prominence of fit bodies, the pathologising of fat and softness, by some extension femininity, womanliness. It’s all true, I think, that at some point many of us go through what might be described as a dysmorphic mismatch between one’s “unworked” body and a “gay” body– a sexual, virile, desirably hardened, masculine body. There is a terrible loneliness in that gap, and with it a longing to force the fissure together with machines and training, to one day ease into other men’s desires as into a long-deserved warm bath.
For me, five years ago, it was a sort of masochistic self-abnegation. Even as I wrote and published for all to see an angry, lamenting essay about the “tyranny” of the gym fit body, I was embarking, in the margins, on a maniacal new body project.
In all my life I don’t think I’d ever, and have ever since, pursued anything with such clarity of purpose and obsessive violence. I counted calories, I cut out carbs, I skipped meals, I dropped 20 kilograms over what must have been six months or less. I didn’t know where it was headed, I just knew I had to drop weight, methodically, meal by meal, less and less until results came pouring in.
People first noticed the sudden slenderness of my wrists, then the shape of a jaw bone, cheek bones, clavicles. I had my head so thoroughly buried in monastic self-discipline that I didn’t even realise anything had changed until my clothes started sagging off my body. Thereafter came a wave of sudden preening vanity. Tighter clothes, a delirious fantasy of menswear in sizes like M and S, a new silhouette, the possibility of a sense of style.
The weight loss came at a point in my early 20s when I desperately needed to cultivate sexual confidence in all its forms. This was after years of hunching over to hide a paunch, of watching from the margins as the other boys in JC ripped into their sexuality, of laughing at myself with other fat kids, lovable but ultimately asexual creatures of mirth, benevolence, and self-deprecation.
So essentially my weight loss ushered me into adulthood. I developed with it confidence, virility. It was miraculous. It hit many people like a shockwave when we’d meet in bars and clubs. My friends would happily point it out to those who didn’t know better. Here was the emergence of a sexual body from that unsexy ball of bitterness they’d previously known. An older gay friend, giving me an approving once over, described it in divine terms: a”re-virgining”. Because for many people, myself included, becoming thin meant finally qualifying for sex.
Of the many pleasures of weight loss, narcissism was first and foremost. For all the reasons I gave myself for dropping the weight, the only one that still rings true today is that I just wanted to finally be able to tolerate, maybe even love, the body I saw in the mirror. Because there is a sense, implicit in the way we think and talk about fitness and weight, that your “true self” is always other to the unworked body: hiding under layers of fat, or hanging abstractly in the air around skinny limbs. It’s hard to control, it’s such a powerful story, it makes so much sense, it can make you so happy.
I wasn’t very happy, though, because I didn’t realise then that what I was negotiating wasn’t happiness, but sexual gratification; romantic and shy, with a fear of physical intimacy that never left with the fat, I didn’t know how to get what I wanted. I didn’t get more tail than before because I had no idea how to get it. On some level, loneliness can be a mismatch of expectations. Which maybe explains why so many gay men are so crushingly lonely.
Eventually I put all the weight back again, with some interest, because it became very hard to maintain, especially after I met Bobo, which was a miraculous event in itself. Ours was a relationship that revolved around eating.
Weight grows back as quietly as it goes away. A familiar tugging, a creeping softness, then a pile of skinny clothes in the wardrobe you try on every few months as a form of punishment.
Over the years since, I’ve noticed that the confidence, the narcissistic self-regard, I think for the best, remained. My guess is that it doesn’t go away if what you found from the weight loss is some degree of self-reckoning, or self-love. And also if you grow up a little.
Such that even as the fat sits heavy on you once again, and you have to shift gears into “fat person” mode, once again, relearn the defence mechanisms, the tired old tropes, the pickiness of men, their frequent cruelty, you know this time that you aren’t completely alienated from yourself, that there’s a chance you can speak more honestly to and about yourself, that whatever it is you loved about yourself didn’t go away when the fat came back. And I think, most importantly, to love your bulk and the bulk of others.
Weight loss sticks: I will always have been skinny once. It haunts me in pictures like this one that pop up on social media unexpectedly. It’ll always nag at me when I think I’m finally comfortable with my fatness, it will always have the lure of dramatic change, it will always tempt me to think that locked under all my fat is something more beautiful, more desirable; it will always threaten to throw me off, make me process my self-worth in terms of years spent, years wasted.
It’s harder to think of the true self’s body in more unstable terms, as a fictive composite of parental whispers, childhood teasing, a culture that reads secret meanings into leanness, tightness; of furtive pleasure and loneliness under the sheets, dreaming, one orgasm at a time, of no longer being the object of constant, de-sexualising ridicule.
It’s harder to think in more meditative, focused terms: that there’s only now, and the truest version of myself is in this moment, the sum of choices made; present happiness, present sadness; in these capsules of self-awareness we mete out the heaviness of tomorrow’s baggage.
That said, I noticed something good today. Busying around town running errands, in clothes that hung loosely off my body– that in fact I’d made myself to hang that way– I realised, stopping, sweating, at a traffic light, that in my 30th year, I have finally started to walk without a slouch.