Note: Attached is a picture of me overweight(not even at my heaviest), ultra-skinny and a recent photo of me. I included two of me chubby because I love the pic with me wearing headphones in front of a horse. Recently, I began a new job at a great gym called Bodyology in New Haven, CT. I was cleaning up after work one night with one of the owners, Christa. We were discussing helping people overcome distorted body images and self-esteem issues stemming from obsession over eating and exercising. Both of us have histories with poor self image, self-esteem and negative emotional connections to food.
While I can't speak for Christa, I wanted to cover some of my struggles and the long-term effects they have had on me, both negative and positive. All of these facets pertain to both men and women but I feel that most men either won't admit or don't think that poor body image is a “male” issue. Plus, we all know plenty of guys who have such innate confidence that despite how much they let themselves go, they expect all the women they date to be perfect 10s. It's definitely a guy thing. For these guys, I am half jealous, half embarrassed by them. Sure, it's funny to see one of your male friends hit on a woman who would never give him the time of day, but it would also be pretty fun to be so confident in yourself that you never feel self-conscious.
The Weight Gain
To give a little background, I grew up a relatively small and skinny kid. As I aged through grade school, I grew enough to be considered slightly tall. Nothing huge, just taller than average. Then, during late grade school and into middle school, I put on a considerable amount of weight.....and most of it bodyfat. To be honest, looking back I can't even say why I started eating more. My grandmother always pushed food ( as all grandma's do) and my parents allowed us snacks like chips, cookies, ice cream and whatever else kids eat. Call it emotional eating if you want but I can't say I was coping with anything in particular. Don't get me wrong, there is certainly a reason I started but I can't pinpoint it like “I over-ate because by parents divorced and I was stressed”.
Regardless, I was shoving down Little Debbie snack packs, Flinstones push-up pops and cereal like a boss. It would almost be funny if it didn't send me into such a downward spiral. Over the 4 to 5 years where I steadily gained weight, I had more and more self loathing and hated the way I looked. I mean hated. As in I-will-die-before-I-take-my-shirt-off-at-the-beach hated. I remember my heaviest weight, as it is burned into my memory because it was the catalyst for my impending weight loss. At 5'9” or so, I remember hitting 223 on the scale. And I did not hold it well. Man boobs? Check. Love handles? Check. Gut? Check. I even hated the way the fat on my forearms looked when I rested them on a table. So I never rested my forearms on tables or desks.
So.....what did all this excess weight leave me with?
-Fear of exercising
-Fear of social interaction
-A general dislike of everything about myself
-Always wearing multiple t-shirts, never shorts
-A fear of the opposite sex.
Wow, what a great deal! I consciously over-ate and it left me with a ton of fear and physical issues. Now, just to give you some insight into how uncomfortable I was with myself, I would always turn down girls who asked me out. This when I was in grade school, middle school and high school. Not to toot my own horn, but even as a fat kid, I was asked out and I always said no because I just couldn't let anyone get close. So even when other people liked me, I didn't like me.
The Weight Loss
Man, if I EVER went wrong with my diet, it was as much in my weight loss as in my weight gain. I looked down at the 223 staring at me from the scale, my pudgy body in the mirror and just decided right then that I didn't deserve to eat. So, in 9th grade, for a number of weeks I ate nothing every day but a banana for breakfast, a chocolate Nesquik for lunch (why I chose this for lunch I'll never know) and a very small portion of whatever my mom made for dinner. So.....maybe the total amount of calories that I eat in one meal now?
And oh yeah, I lost weight. Not to mention I timed this not-so-perfectly with my growth spurt where I went from sub 6 feet to 6'4” in about six months. I can't say I was ever a super-strong kid but I was always stronger than all my friends growing up. But shooting up 6 inches while consecutively starving myself down to 180 pounds or so left me weak. Really weak. Moving into 11th grade, I started to lift weights after school with a friend. Sometimes I would not eat all day, hit the gym and not eat again for hours later. Maybe I just sub-consciously invented intermittent fasting?
That was a joke.
To give a marker of how weak and unathletic this left me, at 17 when all other boys are in their physical prime, I couldn't do a single chin-up, could barely bench the bar and had zero stamina. I remember getting absolutely stapled under 75lbs on the bench even after months of lifting.
Fast forward, I stayed super skinny all through the rest of high school, through culinary school and hit my lowest weight when I was a cook on nantucket. I was 6'4” or 6'5” and a whopping 165lbs. STILL, when I looked in the mirror all I saw was fat. Now, that sounds impossible because I can tell you right now that I was a twig. I knew I was a twig, people told me I was a twig, but when I looked at myself I still saw that fat kid. In retrospect, when I was really overweight, no one ever told me I was heavy. None of my friends, family, no one. They should have, but I know it's a tough issue to broach and my mom especially didn't want to make me feel bad about myself. But I didn't see FAT until I was already really heavy and I didn't see SKINNY until years after being really thin.
After culinary school, I started lifting weights more regularly, but I never got strong. I stayed under 200lbs up until a few years ago. I just had such an innate fear of “scale weight” that even if it was muscle I only thought of “weight”.. So stupid, I know. But I must say this.....
“To those of you trainers, lifting partners, coaches and all others who know a now-skinny, but formerly-fat man or woman, please don't tell them they just need to eat more. Everyone and I mean everyone told me that when I was really skinny, but the psychological hold that eating more has on someone like me keeps us from ever gaining muscular weight, even when we really need it.”
Of course, I have gained weight and now I am right around 220. But only until recently have I been able to eat more without the guilt. I can now eat more because I want to be stronger. Being stronger requires hard training and increased recovery. And that requires food. It is my only means to an end, there is no other way. And when I eat more and get stronger it further buries the old part of me that is scared of eating.
But I have floundered, tried every diet, feared fat, feared carbs. I actually ate so low-fat at one point that I developed psoriasis because my skin, hair and nails dried out so much. And you can't just tell a person like this that what they are doing is bad for them. These people, like myself, need to set a goal. One goal that all their effort can be put into. This goal will almost inevitable require better quality food, and shockingly MORE calories. At this point my weight stays put anywhere from 3,000 to 3.500 calories a day, roughly. I would have never imagined that to be a possibility when I was super skinny or overweight. But changing habits, one at a time, while working towards a singular goal has allowed me to overcome all these obstacles.
I am still a work in progress, most definitely. My final thought is that if this is you, you NEED to put yourself in situations where you are uncomfortable. When I was at UCONN I would purposefully make sure I needed to change shirts in the locker room just to overcome my fear of my body in public (I know that sound slightly creepy but I promise you it isn't!). And this past winter when I interned at Cressey Performance, my first week there, Eric needed to shoot a video with me shirtless for a number of minutes. I admit I got nervous, but I just said “sure” and did it and the world didn't end. No one made fun of me. I felt good. Looking at the video I know I look fine. That old part of me wanted to come up but I just trampled it back down.
Get out of your comfort zone. Pick a goal. Admit that your goal will require doing things differently. Know that you can become the person you want to be. It will take time and it will take work and that is the reason it is worth doing.
I love when I run into people I haven't seen in a few years and they almost don't recognize me. Not because it boosts my ego but because I know change, despite being difficult, is possible and necessary. My next goal is to get up to 230lbs. This will take even more change, hard work and consistent effort as well as more food. And here's my real perspective: I don't want to be 70 years old and regretting that I never got as strong or as athletic as I could have been because I stayed the same weight always fearing gaining a little bodyfat. Either way I'm going to hit that age, as will you; make the changes now that you can look back on and be proud of. No one is ever going to say, “ Yeah I remember Luke, he was the guy with 9% bodyfat”. Nope. I'd rather be a little less lean now and achieve my goals than let fear hold me back. I'd rather be remembered for never giving up.
Please do the same.