The History of a Body
I expect this one to live in screencapped mocking Twitter glory forever
I posted several programming notes and similar at the top of this past Saturday’s digest post, so check please those out.
I have always had a conflicted relationship with my own body. I am physically healthy (but struggle with a serious mental illness), tall (but would like to be a little taller) and have spent most of my adult life in pretty good shape (but have always wanted to be a little bigger). I have endured injury after injury in my effort to get in better shape, and have had sworn off the weight room only to jump back in more times than I can count. Both my mental illness and my meds have deeply influenced how my body has developed over time, as well. I struggle to know what realistic goals look like and then I struggle to meet the ones I do define. But then, it ain’t easy for anybody, is it?
Bodies are visceral and mysterious things, and I find the discourse we have about them deeply unsatisfying. On the one hand, we have a strange kind of workout religiosity, a Manichean vision of the self that sees exercising to the point of pain as noble rather than merely necessary and associates fitness with dignity. On the other, we have our therapeutic culture, pretending that our weight has no impact on our overall level of health, treating all exterior judgments of bodies as unjust and our own internal desire to look better as disordered. I know I’m too hard on myself, but I also believe my desire to be thinner and look better are healthy impulses when that desire is moderate and realistic. So here’s a little history of my journey, for anyone interested, just a way for me to think through these feelings from a place of honesty. Forgive me for/you’re welcome for the beefcake photos.
Let me start by saying: I’ll be talking about my weight and figure here, at times harshly, so I want it to be clear that I’m speaking only about myself. Please don’t impute my self-critique onto anyone else, or think that my feelings about my weight imply an attitude towards other people and other bodies. I can write this way about my body because my body is my business. Other people’s bodies are not.
You’re going to have to tolerate some truly terrible quality images, including some that I scraped from a blockbuster film my friend Justin and I made over the course of several summers. (While we were supposed to be making sure children didn’t drown.) My young adulthood was pre-smartphone so I don’t have any sext-style shirtless pics from then to share. (Thank god. It must be so hard to be an adolescent in the permanent-digital-record era.) Let me also mention that I have never been on gear. I’m not judgy about those who are but playing amateur endocrinologist with my own body always seemed like a bad idea, even when I wasn’t on meds. And I’d be terrified of losing my hair.
Speaking of hair, this is 18 years old:
I was actually rather chubby by 8th grade or so; that's who's up in the top image there, middle school, for contexts. That was the first period where I really experienced what is now called body dysmorphia, so it’s hard to say how bad it was, really. I definitely had little moobs though. Luckily for me, I started playing and enjoying high school sports eventually, starting with crew team, which was actually a really inviting and fun sport for a guy who was outgoing about everything but athletics. Probably more importantly for my shape and body image, from around New Years of my junior year to June of my senior year I grew 7 inches. The result is what you see in this image here, a skinny dude whose posture genuinely was as weird as it seems in this photo. Being too skinny is a hard problem to sympathize with for anyone older than 25, but it’s also a classic dilemma for guys of that age. I was gangly and clumsy and felt uncomfortable in my body. My high school friend Tyco would always say I had a bird chest. I didn’t love it! And so I started lifting.
My friend Adam was a personal trainer at the Y where we both worked, and he was a patient teacher. This was pre-YouTube, so having the right guide was essential. I just did (and largely continue to do) meat-and-potatoes lifts, benching and squatting and preacher curls and nosebreakers etc. etc., and lots and lots of ab exercises. (Crunches to sit-ups to planks, in keeping with trends.) There were some things I wish I had known for injury prevention, like pulling my shoulder blades back to bench, but like I said whatever you knew then you either learned from that Arnold Schwarzenegger book or some old guy told it to you at the gym. It took a lot of time to put any noticeable size on, but I had the advantage of a frame that hangs the muscle together well enough, which is underdiscussed; some guys are extremely hard workers, are objectively strong and have individual muscles that are big, but whose frames just aren’t built to highlight those muscles in the most flattering light. A year into lifting I was still a very skinny guy, but by the two year mark I was big enough that you might call me well-muscled. It was my late teens and early twenties, and like so many other things at that age it all seemed easy to me, so long as I did the work.
This is taking the image quality problem to quite an extreme, but this literal thumbnail is the only shirtless photo I have from that period, a trip to Barbados with my college-era girlfriend. 21 or 22 years old, I think. I know it’s silly to post it but that was taken at maybe peak shape for my entire life, after years of lifting but before my metabolism slowed down. Would be a shame not to represent it at all. In any event, I had the testosterone levels and metabolism of a guy that age, and it felt like I could just keep getting bigger forever, even though the amount of weight I was lifting was never particularly impressive for my size.
I looked good. But sooner or later fat comes for us all. Like a lot of people in their early 20s I had no particular understanding of my metabolism; as far as I was concerned as long as I lifted weights I could eat whatever I wanted and keep my physique. (I was literally eating McDonald’s 4-6 meals a week.) And then my senior year of college or so my metabolism slowed way down, and though I was setting PRs in the weight room I suddenly had a belly I didn’t know what to do with. It took me years and years to really understand what I had to do to stay thin, and it’s always been hard, especially when I’m medicated, which I’ll get to. Then I hurt my shoulder and my neck and I fell out of regularly lifting. I ended up looking pretty soft; if I remember correctly this image less than two years after the previous one, age 23 years old or so.
I didn’t look terrible, but I also didn’t look like a guy who had been spending years going to the gym six days a week for an hour and a half each time. My muscles were mostly covered with a layer of fat. I was ignorant, and a little stubborn, about my diet. I spent the next decade or so looking something like this, my weight yo-yoing but typically within a 20ish pound range. 200 was a good rule of thumb for what I felt was an OK weight at that time. I was always in the same cycle: I would lift, I would look a little better, I would get hurt, I would get frustrated and stop lifting, I would slim down with my diet, I would gradually gain the weight back, I would feel unsatisfied and well enough to lift again, and on it went.
Sooner or later, if you do something the dumb way, you might eventually discover a smarter way. In grad school I got serious about diet to a degree that I simply hadn’t before. I was in my early 30s at that point and it was clear that not giving a shit about my diet was not a long-term strategy. I was also lifting much more intelligently and efficiently, adopting some modern strategies and quantifying everything to a degree I had never bothered with in the past. The results were encouraging. This is age 34, and while perhaps not peak shape relative to when I was in my early 20s in terms of both muscle mass and being cut this was a good period.
I looked pretty good. But it’s never enough, for any of us. I had (have) a negative fixation on my shoulders. I have torn the labrum and the rotator cuff in my right shoulder and have torn my rotator cuff and have tendinosis in my left shoulder, all from lifting. It’s left me permanently spooked in the gym about my shoulders and how I work them; I involuntarily hold back. Consequently, I’ve never felt that they’re big enough, particularly my side delts. You see how I’m artificially holding my arm up there? That was a (probably useless) attempt to make my shoulder look bigger. My shoulders were never “capped,” to use the intensely annoying bodybuilding term, and as always I was relentlessly focused on what I didn’t like about my body to the exclusion of the few things I ever did like.
Here’s where we have to introduce a major element of all of this, which is my bipolar disorder and the meds I take to combat it. Lithium makes you fat, some antidepressants make you fat, and antipsychotics make you really fat, and I’m on all of those. In contrast, mania kills my appetite and makes me absolutely razor focused on certain goals, goals like working out. I shared this picture previously when discussing my disorder, as it’s a good visual for what manic life is like for me - and why it can seem like a good thing, like progress, at first. Why it’s seductive.
This is 36 years old, June of 2017, 172 pounds on a frame just a bit taller than 6’1. I didn’t look bad, but I also don’t think I looked healthy. I mean, it wasn’t healthy. I was obsessively pursuing a more cut body, and while I was working out like a demon I wasn’t gaining mass because I was only eating somewhere around 1,000 calories a day. My body was cannibalizing itself and so couldn't grow, but every instinct was more reps and less food. I was not in a state to understand the benefits of moderation, let alone the science of nutrition and muscle growth.
And then the crash happened, and it was impressed on me that I had to get back on meds, for real and for good, or I would surely ruin what was left of my life and likely eventually kill myself. With the meds came the weight. The day I went to the hospital in August 2017 I weighed in at 177 pounds. By Thanksgiving I was walking around at 230. That’s not uncommon. Check the comments I copy and pasted here from people who use the antipsychotic I take, olanzapine. I stayed around there, 230, for years. Working out was too depressing with so much fat on top of my muscles. Besides, I was a shut-in at that point, barely left my apartment or my office at work. I would go on kicks of trying to eat better but it all seemed useless. I developed pre-diabetes. I don’t have any pictures from those years, and you don’t have to guess why.
Then, last year, I got invited to some sort of ideas festival, where I would get flown to the location for four days, all expenses paid. I felt I couldn't say no. My beloved dog Miles had died, I had lost my job in June, I had applied to dozens and dozens of jobs without success, my book hadn't sold well, Covid had killed whatever opportunities I had for social interaction…. I felt certain that I was going to die in that apartment if I didn't do something, anything, to get out for awhile. So I said yes.
That's me, 39 years old, 245 pounds, onstage at the festival. I stepped out onto the stage and found that there were multiple monitors all around me, showing me from various angles. And I just looked fucking terrible. As you can see in the image above, my suit was bulging at the midsection. My legs were genuinely threatening the stitching of the pants. The event had reduced seating because of Covid, but there were still hundreds of people in there, and I was sweating under hot lights in a suit I had no business wearing, and all I could do was fixate on how terribly fat I looked. I knew I had gotten too big, before that, but this was a wakeup call that really hurt.
It was the closest I’ve come to quitting meds since I finally truly committed to treatment in 2017. The meds carry with them brutal side effects, and like a lot of people with bipolar disorder I sometimes believe that my manic self is my more authentic, truer, more beautiful self. (This is not true, for me or anyone else.) And yet the impulse to quit most often stems from my body, from the way that I punish myself for looking the way that I do and from knowing how easily I could shed weight if I decided to finally pour the pills down the sink. I would like for you to imagine that you desperately want to lose weight, while knowing you have a cheat code that works, every time. You don’t even have to do anything. You just have to not do something, not take the pills, just decline to do so. It’s a difficult, taxing position to be in.
But I did not quit meds. I have caused too much destruction while unmedicated. And around the same time my girlfriend and I got serious and really committed to each other. She made fitness much easier, as she does for everything. She never gets on me about my diet, but she is an excellent cook, and eating at home makes controlling my weight easier. She also comes to the gym with me, and again while she would never get on me if I didn’t go, her presence creates its own accountability. She steadies me and reminds me that I am not worthless. I think many of us benefit from partners who would never ask us for more but for whom we want to do more anyway.
So, here you go. Here’s me a couple weeks or so ago. It’s not easy to share this but it would be quite a copout not to show my current reality, after all this.
I'm back down to 225 pounds, which is still far higher than I would like. But a lot more of that is muscle than before and my belly is noticeably smaller. (My girlfriend is fond of saying that I was round when she met me, but in a sweet way.) I’m in the weight room five or six times a week - we live a block from our gym and I can’t recommend that proximity highly enough, not just for convenience but for consistency and frequency’s sake. I’m thicker up top, and while I’ve always been a hard gainer when it comes to my legs, I’m making progress. I also don’t need to impress anybody but myself, at this stage of my life. So I’ll take it.
This post will inevitably be seen as trying to farm sympathy or to get people to tell me I look great. Hell, maybe it is. But I think about my body, a lot, as it relates to aging, and to my mental illness, and to my medications. I’m 40 now. If someone else wrote this piece, I’d say that it was unhelpful, and undignified, to chase the same fitness goals at 40 that one chased at 20. And rightly so. But as with so many other things related to aging, it’s easier to know what to grow up out of and harder to know what to grow up into.
I have not done squats in something like 7 years; twice in the span of a few weeks back then I tweaked my back while squatting, tweaked in a way that felt genuinely scary. I just decided that it wasn’t worth the risk, at that point in my life. I still can’t bench due to my shoulder, but even back three months ago when I could I wasn’t anywhere close to my old PR. I got tantalizingly close to my lifelong goal of 315 when I was 25 or so and living in Chicago, but I doubt I’ll ever get up there again. (Aging sucks.) The only lift I care about doing for weight now is deadlifts, and I do have an outside shot of finally hitting my goal of 405 in the next three months or so. But that’s not even considered intermediate level, not for a guy of my size, and injuries always loom. So I’m going to try and take my own advice and lift to satisfy my self-image rather than to hit a number.
As far as that self-image goes, well… I know it sounds funny, but there’s a sense in which the body dysmorphia is even less comprehensible to me than the mania. It’s true that, when manic, I have delusions, typically the belief that someone I know is going to harm me (stealing from my bank accounts, poisoning or putting broken glass in my food) and a fear of shadowy organizations surveilling me (often the “railroad police,” whatever that is). That’s obviously very strange. But my mind convinces itself that it’s not strange, that all of it is natural, so it doesn’t feel like a contradiction. With my attitude towards my own body, on the other hand, I know that I am unreasonably hard on myself and yet frequently still cannot help but feel that I look awful. I might say, OK, X% of people my age are obese, I’m not obese, my BMI is in this percentile…. And a small army of therapists and psychiatrists have reminded me that body dysmorphia inspires delusional behavior, in my life. But sometimes I simply can’t make myself believe that I look good. What has changed, though, is that I’m far more able to live with that feeling of discontent than I once was. That’s one of the few advantages that 40 has over 20 in general, actually, my ability to forgive myself for being myself.
I still fucking hate my shoulders.
We’re all on this journey in some form or another, and we all have a set of cards that we’re dealt. We can play them as best we can but we can’t pretend they don’t matter. My conscious mind is content with how I look, even if my animal brain refuses to see it at times. I will probably never again be cut, and I have never been particularly strong. These days all I really care about is that, in person, I look like a big dude. And I do.
I have no idea how you had the courage to write this, but it’s fucking amazing.
The three hardest words a person can utter: "I like myself."
It seems that, aside from the few among us - mostly YouTube influences - who clearly think they are hot shit, most of us go through life with an excess of self-loathing. We hate our nose or our pudgy mid-section or wish that our thighs were trimmer, more sculpted. Whatever. Now being a woman of 69 years, I realize how much time I wasted criticizing a body I'd give my eye-teeth to have again.
I recall reading 40 years ago that if you placed a pencil under your breast and it didn't fall to the ground, then your breasts were sagging. Ha! I stopped wearing sleeveless tops at around 40 because I thought "bat wings" were emerging from my upper arms. Oh, to have those upper arms again! Could I reclaim them by lifting weights or something? Probably. But I've decided not to.
You see, I eat and exercise (no workouts ever - just gardening, housework, walking ... normal human activities) pretty much the same as I've done my entire life, but my body doesn't process all that the same way it used to. So, yes, I could be one of those women who hires a personal trainer, gets a facelift or liposuction, buys expensive creams that promise to erase my wrinkles. But, you know what? This is what my face, arms, belly - my body - looks like now. I've finally chosen to live with it. It's taken me this far, and I hope it takes me a bit farther. So, yeah, I can say "I accept myself." Sometimes I even like me ....