“Why am I soft in the middle now, why am I soft in the middle When the rest of my life is so hard?” – Paul Simon
We who are middling men — that is to say men who are in the middle of parenting kids, creating a career, paying off a mortgage and living out a full life — resonate with this song. But I did not let my own exasperating body-life disconnect render me powerless.
My daily dance is about family, work, and what my fantasy football league allows me to do. Whether it’s schlepping children, mowing the damn lawn, or the “Groundhog Day” do-loop of the daily commute, most of the minutes of my day, every day, are spent fulfilling other people’s expectations or “doing the right thing”. Hardwired to engage in a “fight or flight” assault on life, I put up a pretty good fight on most things. When it came to my own body, however, I took a powder for about 25 years. But there came a moment when I decided it was time I exerted my will on a body that had gained about 50% of its 1981 mass since that year.
What I ended up doing was not about “going on a diet”, it was a fat 51-year-old deciding that enough was enough. I had all the accoutrements and personal relationships of a happy life, but my body was out of control – I was approaching NFL lineman bulk, but with cornerback stature.
Eventually I went down through the phylum of football physiognomy – lineman to inside linebacker to outside linebacker to fullback to free safety and ultimately settling in at tailback — actually small tailback. Essentially, Tiki Barber and I are more or less the same height and weight, the only difference being that while Tiki’s percentage of body fat is directly proportional to the alcohol level found in near beer, even at my now radically reduced mass, my body fat percentage approaches that of Party-Time Vodka. When my nine-month odyssey to reclaim my body was done, I had removed a foot off my waist – a provocative combination of body parts.
Before I lost mass, I was a typical fat guy, the jolly fat man, “big guy”, or any other patronizing de facto insult, and as a result I came to see how all the other positive aspects of my life had an asterisk next to them – just like Barry Bonds’ homerun totals. For most people I might be a great Dad, a wonderful husband, a funny guy, a successful architect or a mensch, but I was, finally, just fat.
Unlike younger men and nearly all women, most 30-60 year old standard issue males seldom define ourselves by the way we look. As a group, we have pretty much derived our sense of worth from the “doing”. The unending list of things we need to accomplish typically overwhelms any other sense of perspective, especially what we look like.
Most of us middling men eat because we don’t feel like talking and want something to do with our mouths. Eating is the new smoking. The truth is that the eating was far less enjoyable than its semi-sedating effects I felt after stuffing myself and falling into a stupor in front of some televised athletic event. I ate too much because there was really nothing better to do.
So when we become fat, it is often, bizarrely enough, a surprise. This massing up often comes in quantities that anyone else would immediately find astonishing, even terrifying. So when I came to the realization that I was, in fact, just too disgusting not to change, dramatic change was inevitable. That shift needs only one trigger – the attitude of the shifter. To paraphrase a recent President, I was the shifter, and I shifted.
As I undertook my own gut rehab, I was inspired by no role model, read no book, saw no infomercial, employed no media-hyped “program”. However, this aggressive mass reduction caused a bunch of people (male and female) to conclude that if I could do it, they could try. This leads me to believe that others who are astonished by their mid-life bloat might enjoy a peek into my pathetic little purgatory, and my way out of it.
Mirroring my own expansion over these last 25 years, the size of the American home has grown by almost 50%, despite the average family size losing one human and the dirt patches these homes are built upon being 40% smaller.
Bigger seems to be better in all things American. Hondas, Saturns, and Volkswagens used to be tight little vehicles – but they’ve all constantly expanded over the last decade or two despite the cost of gas. My wife says today’s size 8 was a size 10 when she was young. All these evolutions tip-toe around one very large and growing mammal in the room – us. We are indeed getting bigger, and how much it’s the cause or the effect, our “normal” food distribution metrics are changing as well.
“Hungry’ Man” meals are simply the original TV Dinners with double the entrées. There is a hamburger called “The Baconator”. Soups have a “Fully Loaded” version with “MORE MEAT!”. McDonalds has gone from a 3 oz. burger to the Quarter Pounder to the 1/3 Pound Burger. “Find Your Hunger” is a real advertising campaign. Yet even through our lard-colored glasses we sense something’s awry. “Supersize” is now a negative term, and “McMansion” combines the simultaneous house and caloric bloat that mark our era.
The irony is that I’ve spent my professional life designing homes that fit their occupants snugly. This passion extended to publishing two books advocating homes that are smaller than our cultural norms. Beyond aesthetics, the better a home fits its occupants, the truly “greener” it will be – not only using less energy in construction, but in all the various costs of maintaining it.
Even with this career focus, I obviously spaced on my own need to have my most personal “house” – my body – “fit” who I really was. I lived this delusion as I ate Supersized portions, grew Supersized, and allowed ever Supersizing clothes to dull the truth of my expansion. I had effectively built a bodily McMansion around my cottage innards, and that layering up came to be as silly and offensive to me as any of the thoughtless architectural bloatburgers covering America’s suburban landscape.
It’s not that there has been zero cultural response to our fat fest. Mocking the fat is the last culturally acceptable refuge for people who are otherwise thoughtful and open-minded. And we are ripe for teasing. In reality TV shows, when the disgustingly fat are herded into a boot-campy weight-loss psychodrama, most of us do not celebrate their achievements as much as we are encouraged to revel in their grotesquery, to the point where weigh-ins involve unclothed bellies in full distention.
Clearly, if Larry the Cable Guy is doing ads declaring he’s lost 50 lbs. on Slim Fast, many of my fellow fat boys are worth shilling to. However, if the force of advertising is any indicator of our bodily needs, then erectile dysfunction is a far greater health threat than obesity. The overwhelming predominance of E.D. remedy ads over pitches for male weight loss programs may just reflect the potential consequences of each “cure”. Somehow, “an erection lasting longer than four hours” does not sound as bad to me as not eating bread.
Whether it’s the flabby guy in the sitcom implausibly married to the incredibly hot spouse, or our schadenfreude over ballooning former TV hotties (Kirstie Alley, Sally Struthers, Delta Burke, either Cagney or Lacey) or the string of now-dead fat comedians (Belushi, Candy, Farley, et al) who mocked their own outsized status, as a culture we think fatties being fat is a fate they deserve, and they are often the focus of a merciless spotlight.
Even when bombarded by this gleeful gloating by the unfat, it’s difficult for the typical ”big fella” to actually get out of the Barca-Lounger and do something for himself. For me, narcissistic self-improvement ran against my grain as much as getting an annual check-up from a doctor, or buying new shoes before my old ones had turned into sandals.
Despite all the media mockery, or perhaps because of it, many of us lose a sense of our bodies. Unlike women, who seem to have a binary sense of self based on two co-equal branches of their psyche – how they look and the state of their relationships – as noted men have really only one pre-eminent reality, performance. Rather than reflect on any subtle or evolving aspect of our lives (mind, body or heart) we are pretty much blind to everything beyond what we’ve done, what we’re doing, and what we want to do. Given the competing interests during the prime childrearing part of our lives, the short straw inevitably goes to our bodies.
So it was not surprising that I had largely ignored or rationalized my own corporeal presence. The mental image I carried of my body had nothing to do with the reality of what it had become. When that disconnect was occasionally revealed (a full-length mirror usually did the trick) its deeply embarrassing reality was shrugged off as being out of my control.
Typically, males prefer to let any snoring dog enjoy his REM sleep before we test its bark-to-bite ratio. Whether it’s that pile of “stuff” in the garage, the unsourced smell in the basement, or your mother-in-law’s love life, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is our universal M.O.
Each of us has our individual reasons for bulking up, and mine aren’t anyone else’s, but a lot of standard issue men get fat over a decade or three for one essential reason – our lives are so distracted or overwhelmed by circumstance that we backburner things that don’t need immediate attention – such as dealing with the crap in the attic, and, oh yeah, our bodies.
Ignoring our fattening via denial and distraction is true for many different reasons. It might be that our career is so exhilarating (or depressing) that it supercedes everything else. Similarly, marriage and/or our love lives can be extremely distracting (either positively or negatively). Maxxed out by the day-to-day calls upon our hours, minds, and hearts, it’s hard to judge ourselves beyond next week’s schedule. At some point these demands have to be dialed back so we can assault the very thing that enables us to fully participate in the world around us – our often distorted bodies.
There are a million reasons not to try to lose weight. Obviously, the potential for embarrassment and self-loathing via failure is a primary buzz kill. But there are pervasive, subtle realities of our daily grind that make the refocusing of our brains beyond the here and now very problematic.
Most of us are either working a job that takes more than 40 hours a week, or have multiple jobs that add up to way more than 40 hours a week. Hopefully we have relationships that absorb much of the rest of our hours (spouses, spawn, friends), and many of us have “hobbies” that approach fetish levels of focus.
As men reach their “peak performance years” (not near death, but having made enough mistakes to know the ropes), we’re asked to “help” any number of “good causes” – further muddying the waters of perspective with yet another time dump. Whether you’re inhaling three donuts at the blood drive, having half a pizza at the Habitat site, or munching a large chunk of Bundt cake at the coffee hour after ushering at church, doing good can be quite fattening.
The ritualistic feeding of family or the shared grub of social gatherings wove eating into all the special activities of my life. Whenever I considered trying to lose bulk, I knew I had to change my eating (duh.) The presumption was that if I changed my eating enough to actually drop weight, the pyramid of commitments, activities and passions I’d built into my fulfilling life would collapse.
Some part of me thought that food and eating were the mortar that held together the structure of everything I did. Rather than reform myself to re-form myself, I nibbled around the edges of my nibbling by creating a menu of conceptual “healthy eating” eschewing the most egregiously disgusting fatty and processed foods. The original sin was twofold, a love of carbs and a casual disregard for the fact that I ate in unlimited quantities whenever I wanted to from a defendably virtuous menu that excluded obviously evil foods.
When you think about it, it was actually easy to pack on that much bulk notwithstanding my nominal gestures towards avoiding fat. If 3500 calories are needed to create a pound of flesh, and I larded up my frame with about 100 extra pounds, this means that over a 25-year period I consumed 350,000 calories beyond what I needed to maintain my correct weight. This comes down to 14,000 extra calories per year, about 269 calories per week, a mere 38 extra calories per day — maybe one Milano cookie over the line.
I was so out-of-it that I thought it was amusing when strangers mistook me for movie director Peter Jackson. Not the current not-fat Peter Jackson, but the previously very fat Peter Jackson. Proving that fat is seen first and foremost, no one now mistakes the thinner me for the thinner him. Speaking of filmmakers, Michael Moore’s ever-expanding countenance is often a subtext of any other perception of his worth. If you think you can permanently dance around the impact of your body denial, just ask Oprah. Would Mike Huckabee have had the media attention he enjoyed in his presidential candidacy had he not (as was repeated in every blessed puff piece) “lost a hundred pounds”? How many people were as thrilled by Al Gore winning a Nobel as they were shocked by his puffing up? It’s not so much you are what you eat; for many people it really is that you are what you have eaten. And eaten. And eaten.
Given my ability to “compartmentalize” the reality of my body any earlier failed attempts to control my mass before my final drive were episodic at best. I’d always gained every ounce back that I’d ever lost, plus a bunch. But as soon as I realized that I could fundamentally change my daily pattern by incorporating an hour of exercise into every day, it dawned on me (after five years; I’m slow) that what goes down my gullet could be changed as well.
By that time I knew that unlike all previous attempts, I could not think of dropping weight as removing a part of my body. It’s easy to think of body fat as potential butcher’s off-cuts ready for trimming – as if my “trimmings” had gotten so out of control that I’d begun to approximate the meat/fat ratio of bacon versus chuck roast. In reality, my condition was more akin to swelling after a sports injury. Given that I wasn’t a triathlete, my fat cells had no choice but to bloat up with all those leftover carbohydrates.
I had to think of losing fat as aggressively lancing the very large boil of my body, icing down a distention that was anything but an integral part of my body. Essentially, my metabolism had an allergic reaction to eating way too many calories. It was time to remove the sources of this allergic response – fats, carbohydrates, and my own denial of the situation.
Events and circumstances forced me to see that controlling my body was not a psychodrama, but simply about getting something done. I realized that I could reduce my mass for the same reason men do most of the things we do– because we can.