When I was about 22 years old, I weighed about 350 pounds. Then one day, I decided to shed about 170 pounds — I didn’t have a good reason, I just wanted to see if I could. Turns out that I could. It took about a year, and you know what? I’m actually happier now that I’m about 300 pounds again.
When I said I didn’t have a good reason, I’m not being facetious. Being a big ol’ music nerd, I read an interview with the psychedelic blues singer Captain Beefheart where he decided to gain a bunch of weight to see what it was like to be a fat person. Since I was already a fat person, I decided to try the opposite. Honestly, I had no better reason than that.
Yeah, childhood bullies had attacked me for different reasons — I was slow, had a few minor but noticeable medical problems, a quiet, nerdish demeanor — but the bullies generally left the fat thing alone, and I never wanted to look like the hard, lumpy, ripped dude on TV, so I never grew self-conscious about being fat.
So I lost the weight; I cut my meals in about half — instead of two Whoppers and a large fries, I cut down to one Whopper and no fries — and I rode on an exercise bike for a half-hour while watching Futurama on DVD to keep my mind off the fact that exercising sucks.
But after losing weight, I discovered another reason to hate those weight loss banner ads — and not just because many of them obnoxious, traffic in fat shaming and sell products that don’t work for exorbitant fees. No, I hate them because they’re lying.
Those before and after ads with the big, schlubby “before” guy in his dingy underwear and the same “after” guy all ripped and wearing lycra bike shorts are flat out wrong. Those ads usually picture naturally fit people who gained weight due to being unable to exercise — once they get back on the normal routine, the weight falls back off. And, of course, the “after” photo is always better lit, maybe with some styling done to the person’s hair.
That’s not surprising; it’s advertising. But if you look at these ads, you’ll notice something else:
None of these people ever have loose skin. See, when you lose a little weight, your skin will slowly retract. It might not be as tight as it once was — just ask a woman who’s given birth — but it’s pretty close. But when you’ve lost a lot of weight — like, oh, say, 170 pounds — your skin doesn’t retract as quickly, and you’re left looking quite literally deflated.
I’d always carried most of my fat in my belly. But after losing the weight, if I had a shirt on, it still looked like I still had a pot belly — it was maddening. If I took my shirt off, it was even worse. Right in the middle of my chest was a mass of empty, loose skin. If you touched it, it’d slide around. It was soft, but not substantial like a real belly. It squished out like a half-filled bean-bag chair — gooey and oddly shaped, neither enticing nor comfortable.
It looked a million times worse when I’d get on my hands and knees; my skin would drape around me like I was wearing a four-sizes-too-big leotard: curtained folds of skin and bunches of loose fabric hanging around my belly. Then there were the wings of loose skin under my armpits; when I look my shirt off and raised my arm, you could see the muscles and bones of my actual arm and torso under a huge web of empty skin connecting the two, like a shaved, non-adorable flying squirrel.
Unfortunately, there’s no solution for shedding that amount of loose skin other than surgery. And, as a general life-rule, it’s a good idea to have someone cut into your body as few times as possible. It didn’t help matters that while researching the surgery, I stumbled across a disturbing image of a man lying unconscious on a surgery table with a huge pile of detached skin next to him. I don’t know if it was real or fake or a horror movie still or what, but it was so upsetting it burned itself into my brain and completely turned me off the idea.
If I’d known that loose, empty skin was a thing, I probably wouldn’t have been so disturbed by it. Instead, I’d think at those before-and-after weight loss pictures and wonder if there was something wrong with me. Why wasn’t my skin retracting? Why didn’t I fit in my own body? I felt like one of Ed Gein‘s badly tailored skin-suits.
Another weight loss lie you’re always told is that your stomach “shrinks” and you feel full with less food, but that never happened to me. When I was thin, I never felt full, just less hungry. I felt fulfilled otherwise: I was in a good relationship, had gotten a promotion at work. I was doing alright, but I felt perpetually hungry, I just wanted to feel full after eating.
So occasionally, I’d indulge and eat as much as I wanted. Every month or so, I’d go ahead and get that second Whopper and fries. And it felt so good that after a while, I’d allow myself extra helpings once every two weeks. I’d have the large plate of BBQ ribs and an extra side of hushpuppies in addition to the mac-n-cheese and coleslaw — it felt so good.
And all that extra skin made it hard to visually tell when I was gaining or losing weight. I’d hidden my scale to keep the analytical side of my brain from getting way too hung up on numbers — after all, I wanted to experience thinness, not develop an eating disorder — so I could only tell if I was eating too much after I’d already gained a bunch of weight.
Other things also put me back on the path to physical fatness. Exercising was the first thing to go. It never became fun or even not sucky. Instead of watching an episode of Futurama while I using my stationary bike, I started just watching Futurama sans-bike. I hated exercising so much that I dropped it as soon as I hit my goal weight. Who needs all that sweating?
You don’t need to be a psychic to predict that I gained all my weight back. But that’s okay — I was good with gaining it back. Whenever I’d see myself in the mirror, I never felt quite like me, I felt like a fat guy. That’s my identity.
I’d been a fat guy for the first 22 years of my life, it was how I was used to seeing myself. Seeing my thin self in the mirror always felt sort of wrong. While I still felt like me, I felt like an alternate version; the album mix of the hit single. It’s a really strange feeling looking in the mirror and not seeing yourself.
With the lack of loose skin, I actually felt far more comfortable with my body; I was fat, but at least I didn’t look deflated anymore. Once my body realigned with my self-image, I felt more comfortable. Sure, I had to go back to getting my pants out of plus-size catalogs, and my doctor regularly said that I needed to lose weight, but I haven’t really gotten shit from anyone else about it. Besides, if I did, I’d be secure enough with not to give a good goddamn.
I like who I am. And I didn’t need to be thin to like me.
(Featured image via Emilo Labrador/Flickr)