I’m also determined. I’ve got a grass skirt, a speedo, and a pen and it will happen.
I’m about to step into a room full of friends and coworkers, putting my virtually naked body on display and allowing a room full of people to use me as a canvas. And it’s freezing cold out.
My flip-flops slap against snow as I approach. I can’t tell if my shivering is the cold or the fear. My bare legs are covered in gooseflesh. My armpits are moist and threatening to start dripping at any second in the warmth of my coat. As I push open the doors and see the general public in the main room, another wave of uncomfortable fear hits me. Our private party is a little less private than I thought.
As I slip my jacket off, setting my bag down, I get my first comment.
“Wow, you look great,” she says. “I hardly recognized you!”
The small check in table is manned by one of the rookies who volunteered for a shift. There’s a box of leis, some raffle tickets for sale to try to make up the last of the money poured into our annual party. And there’s a list of instructors so proper payment can be collected as necessary.
“Thanks,” I reply, signing in and opening my wallet to buy another batch of raffle tickets.
“I love the costume,” the hostess tells me.
“Oh, just wait,” I say. I hope the smile I force across my face is more sly than nervous. I step to the side, letting my ride, my initial tattoo artist, and my coworker sign in as I slip my jacket off and reveal the mounds of flesh. “Would you like to add a tattoo?” I ask, pulling my shirt back and baring my upper body, the dark outline of the “Ink Me” tattoo chill on my right shoulder-blade.
“Oh my god,” she says laughing. “I, uh, will need to think of something good. Maybe later.”
“Ok,” I say, mildly disappointed. I feel a need to get it over with, a need to start the process.
I head straight for the bar, figuring a drink might calm my nerves. The brewery isn’t as packed as I had expected. Everyone seems absorbed in their beers and their business. I try to stay focused, but I can’t help wondering if people are staring after I go by. I feel uncomfortable, naked, fearful.
My friend German Two leans up against the bar. I order a beer and turn to him.
“What the fuck, Ben,” his girlfriend says, an amused smile crossing her face.
“Would you like to tattoo me?”
“No,” she replies, eyebrows raising as my shirt dips once more. “Just no.”
“How about you, German Two?” He looks at me, his eyes at once surprised and mischievous.
“Sure,” he says. “Can I draw anything I want?”
“Absolutely,” I tell him as I hand him the tattoo pen. “The only rules are nothing below the elbows and nothing above the shoulders.”
“Ok,” he says, mulling it for a moment. “I’m going to draw a smiley face.”
“Have at it,” I say, turning around.
The tip of the pen feels damp like a dog’s nose against my back. Already, I’m feeling mild regret. German Two is using too much of the canvas, his smiley face an unexpected opus. When the snickers start, I know what he’s really drawing.
“That’s not a smiley face, is it,” I say more than ask.
“Sure it is! Hold on. I’ll make it extra smiley.”
“You drew a cock and balls, didn’t you,” I ask with mild exasperation.
“No, it’s a smiley face! Isn’t that a smiley face?” he asks the bartender. The laughter confirms what I already knew.
“Thanks, German Two,” I say, capping the pen.
I knew it would happen at some point. I just didn’t expect it first thing. It’s all part of the process, all part of the challenge to myself.
I used to weigh nearly 300 pounds. I had big flabby man tits, a gut, cottage cheese arms and thighs, and rolls of fat. I was always a big guy, so I just assumed this was the body I was meant to have.
In elementary school, I was tall and athletic. By fifth grade, I was 5’8”. In middle school, I stopped growing up and started growing out, my gut going from one I could push out and emphasize to one that was ever-present. I was dumpy and over 200 pounds before high school, 225 my freshman year.
The summer before my junior year of high school, I had jaw surgery. I couldn’t eat solid food for a month. Even soup needed to be run through a blender. My weight dropped to a paltry 185. I felt weak and ill and barely able to do anything. I was back up to around 200 quickly after my diet opened up again. That winter, I wrestled at the 191 weight class. I would have to starve for two days to get to my needed weight, and every time I just barely got under. The next year, I didn’t wrestle, my 200 plus pounds firmly keeping me in the heavyweight weight class dominated by kids in the mid to upper 200s.
My friends, teammates, and bandmates treated my size and my personality as indicative that I was a big guy. The lacrosse team gave me nicknames, the most brutal of which was the RPG. It stood for “Roly Poly Goalie.” I didn’t want to be excluded, so I wore it as a badge of honor. I began to think of myself as the fat guy, the fat friend. My dating life was nonexistent, the opposite sex seemingly not interested in me. And I, being the fat guy, couldn’t admit or recognize when girls actually were.
My freshman year of college, I ran with a friend every morning. It wasn’t far, and eventually school made it taper off, but it felt good. I played pickup basketball and lacrosse with regularity. I skipped meals left and right due to the college meal plan. I attacked the salad bar when I did eat. I sat at a healthy, pudgy 210 and felt better than I ever had before. I felt like 220 was my ideal weight. At 220, I’d be big, strong, and still athletic. At 220, I was the fat man everyone expected me to be, yet I was still the athlete I wanted to be.
The funny thing about being fat is that it’s an identity that isn’t chosen. People would look at me and label me instantaneously. They would treat me fat. They would call me fat in the nicest ways they knew. And I would pretend like it was no big deal, like I knew it and embraced it. What else is there to do? If I fought it, people would act indignant and angry. If I embraced it, it became easy to find my place in any crowd.
But really, that was the only perk.
The flaws, meanwhile, were myriad: lack of love life, general despondency, lack of confidence, body dysmorphia, social ostracization…
After moving out of the dorms, I became more sedentary. I played games, watched movies, stared at screens all night long working on papers or editing. I didn’t have time or energy to exercise or play sports. And Boulder was so obsessed with the same individual sports I wasn’t into that it was difficult to find leagues and teams for the sports I loved. I’d play indoor soccer or ultimate frisbee, but I felt even fatter and more out of place in such a fit city.
And then I got mono. My weight balooned. I ate more to combat the tiredness. I ate more to pull all-nighters. I ate more to fuel myself mentally instead of bodily. And before I knew it, years had gone by, my body ravaged by the weight gain. The size 44 pants that I purchased in high school for that extra baggy look were too tight to fit.
I participated in a study of overweight people and vascular disease. The clinicians told me that if I didn’t lose some weight, I’d be setting myself up for serious health issues. My dad was huge as well, and I could see the health issues for myself. “What about right now?” I asked. They told me I was far healthier than I should be for my size, confirming my belief that they were wrong.
In the next two years, I added another 30 pounds, peaking at 297. I never weighed myself if I could help it. I told myself I was ok. I still biked places and played basketball occasionally. I never shied away from activity when the opportunity was there, but I didn’t seek it out if friends weren’t involved.
During this time, my dad had a pulmonary embolism. Seeing him laid up in the hospital, I knew something needed to change for me. I had to get back down to a healthier weight, aiming for 230. Pictures from family events showed that I had gained the same rotund body type my father, my fat uncles, my entire family boasted. And it did not sit well with me.
I always swore that the difference between fatter me and thinner me wasn’t my diet. I didn’t need to diet. I gained weight as a vegetarian. I gained weight as an omnivore. I gained weight eating no sweets. I gained weight eating no grains. Getting fatter was just what I did. It was nature.
I turned to exercise to make the change. I planned my trip around the world and swore to take advantage of the hiking around Boulder. And my weight began to drop.
I dropped to 270 before leaving on my world tour. Traveling, eating internationally and smaller portions, walking miles a day, and I found myself happily at 235 upon my return. I bought new suits for interviews, raided my father’s closet for old clothes that no longer fit him. I built a new wardrobe.
I moved in with my grandfather, resolved to keep the weight off. I feared losing more. I ran each morning, pounding push ups, sit ups and leg lifts before breakfast. There was a scale in the bathroom I watched hawkishly. And I maintained my weight around 230.
The following summer, I moved back to Boulder. Then I became a ski instructor. I was 220 by the end of the first year and felt as good as I had in college. It was revelatory.
Between my second and third season, I took a job at a summer camp that had me biking 16 miles a day on the commute. At first, I wasn’t sure I could do it. I would bike a ways and pull over before the big hills, tossing my bike on the bus. But eventually the ride became a challenge, a way to blow off steam. When I went to head off for a wedding, I found the suits I had purchased only two years before no longer fit, the shirts baggy and loose, the pants and belt unable to find purchase even on its tightest settings. Hopping on a scale, I found myself under 200 for the first time since I had broken my jaw.
And I was scared.
I remembered how unhealthy I was. I remembered how I only got that low through starvation and surgery. And I feared this was the same. I looked at pictures of myself at the wedding and I felt gaunt, emaciated. My skin shone strangely. My face seemed stretched. I barely recognized myself.
But I felt good.
In the two seasons since, my weight has continued to drop. Currently, I weight 175. I haven’t been this light since middle school. Clothes I wore in high school sits loose on my frame. Yet I’m stronger and faster. And I feel good.
I still don’t really recognize myself when I look in the mirror. I still gravitate toward walls and corners, scared my huge frame might be in the way. I still slouch and huddle into booths, hiding my size. And I still think of myself as a fat man. The image is one thrust upon me, one I embraced out of necessity, and one I can’t seem to shirk.
Which brings us back to tonight, the night I bare it all, the night I test the waters, the night I challenge myself to show the body I have now, still sporting stretch marks and a flabby, fleshy gut left from my fat days, reminders that I reap the consequences of my life so far.
They laugh; they draw; they take pictures. I’m on full display.
I worry about the possibility of an erection, as I have nothing to hide it. I worry that someone will start pointing and laughing, that the fat jokes will start. I worry that I will be judged. No, that’s not quite right; I worry how I will be judged, since that’s a given.
And it never comes.
When the costume contest rolls around, I strut to the front, aligned with the others who came dressed in the island theme. My back is covered in fake ink. People have added swirls to my nipples, designs on my chest and shoulders. I have a “man stamp” and a huge scrawl that say “FUCK SUNKID” across my shoulder-blade. German Two’s initial cock and balls now sports hair. I have tiki heads and anchors, and each and every one was drawn on by someone here. I am a canvas on display.
As each of us is announced in turn, we step forward and turn around. The crowd applauds after each, whistles and catcalls sporadically peppering the noise. When my turn comes, I carefully drop my shirt, displaying everything in its full glory: tattoos, grass skirt, speedo, and all my flesh. The room erupts.
In the moment, I feel vindicated and accepted for the first time in ages. I feel like I’m being appreciated for being me. Even though I only bared my body, in so many ways, I feel as though I’ve bared my soul.
And it feels wonderful.