I always thought I was a fat kid.
I wasn’t. At all.
I had a bit of a stocky build. My torso was abnormally long, my face was a little “chubby” especially when I smiled, which was often. My mom had to seek out the “husky” jeans in the boys section at Sears. But I wasn’t fat. Being told for years by my brothers and my schoolmates conspired with my inferior performance in sports (compared to my brothers, who are both phenomenal athletes) ingrained it in my brain. One of my grandfathers loved to say about me, “Danny never met a meal he didn’t like.”
Fast forward to high school and I was a little overweight. My senior year, I took a “body development” class where we would lift weights and run three miles. By the end of my senior year, combining that workout with epic, 50-60 mile mountain bike rides every weekend with my step-brother Ken, I was in the best shape of my life. I didn’t know it, nor acknowledge it at the time. I still saw “fat kid” in the mirror. When I got to college, the perfect storm of dorm food, beer consumption, and aversion to exercise coalesced into real, actual weight gain. The “freshman fifteen” turned into thirty, and just kept going. I didn’t really notice. The fact that I had to keep buying new clothes did not set off any alarm bells. I had been growing my whole life, and I had always been fat (in my mind), so…what was the issue? My body, in a weird, ironically twisted way began to match my self image. I had friends who would put on a few pounds and then suddenly change behavior, working out, eating less, saying “man, I hate the way I look, I need to shed some weight.” I didn’t have that going on. I still have no idea why.
Much later, after I was married and living a life in the 325-poundish range, I had a huge wake up call in the form of an old VHS tape. My grandparents, Bonnie and Ted, were the first people I knew who purchased a video camera. This was back in 1983 or so…years before most people bought little handheld ones, and decades before everyone had cameras in their pockets. Back then, the video camera was this huge, shoulder-mounted camera with a giant cord that led down to a suitcase-sized VHS machine. It was ridiculous even then, but they had one to record my brothers and I in a number of activities. Bonnie found some old tapes and had them converted from Betamax (!!!) to DVD, and showed us all at Easter brunch some time in the late 90’s. We laughed and pointed as my brothers and I, by then all married men, monkeyed around our old living room, struggled to play a simple guitar tune together when we were all taking lessons, and hung out at the Little League field. That’s when it hit me. I watched an “interview” Bonnie did with me, while we were not-really-watching one of my brothers play a game. Everyone was chuckling at my hammy, jokey 9-year-old self (fact: I have always been hilarious) but I could not stop staring at myself. It blew my mind to see me as I was, and I was NOT fat. Not even close.
A better person may have had the same experience and realizing how far they had fallen into obesity, how perniciously his or her own mind had tricked themselves, resolved to get in shape, stop eating horrible foods in unimaginable quantities, and dedicate his or her life to never falling prey to that mental lie that is body image. I responded to this by getting fatter. I careened into a depressed rage, feeling cheated and betrayed, by my own mind. I was furious with myself, and invented even more insidious ways to beat myself up. I lamented the missed opportunities I thought I had in college, were I slim and more attractive and had better self-esteem. Looking for solace in my rage and self-loathing, I turned to my ol’ buddy food for comfort, which only made things worse.
I long ago got over that rage. Years later, I changed my lifestyle, and at 250 pounds, and rapidly continuing a body transformation that has nothing to do with rage, self-loathing, and frustration.
Along this journey, now almost four years in the making, I have had to contend with the realization that my body image, and my actual physical form, may always be at odds. I no longer see myself as a fat kid, or a fat guy, or a fat anything (even though I am still overweight). When I look in the mirror, I see more fat than I want, and a body shape that doesn’t fit my new image. But that image is still a fiction. It is, at best, a courtroom sketch of what I think I should look like. It’s concept art for the 3D model that I want one day to become.
I haven’t got a clue what I will look like when I’m “done” losing weight. I have a number – 15% body fat – that I am shooting for, but even then, I have no idea what that will look like. I can guess a bit, and as I start to see muscle definition, as I start to see areas historically puffed out by adipose tissue suddenly tighter, more defined, as I see lines of muscle (my dear girlfriend enthusiastically points them out to me as often as she can) defining my legs, my arms, even my shoulders (turns out I have a collar bone…who knew!?) I can see that guy, that man, that ME emerge. But I still don’t know if the fat around my belly will ever fully disappear. I’ve seen pictures of men who lost 150+ pounds and they had folds of excess skin removed through surgery. I may need to do that, or may need to just live with the fact that parts of me may look like a Shar-Pei. I’m almost 40. There is a point at which the body does not bounce back, and this image I have in my head may never emerge intact.
I’m fine with that. I truly could not care less. Because I know that it is a lie. It’s all a lie. It’s a vision that will never happen exactly as I picture it. But it inspires me and keeps me going. Watching part of that image manifest in the physical world is enormously gratifying. Knowing that it won’t be 100% is, admittedly, annoying sometimes, but I can handle it.
I’ll spend the rest of my life manifesting…something. I plan to bulk up and slim down. To what extent I’m not sure. The plan is still in flux. I plan for a living. I am a producer. I make things real (or as real as they can be on the tiny supercomputer you call your phone). But anyone who plans things and then executes them knows that the end product resembles, but never fully matches, the original idea.
I take an image – a concept – whether it’s mine or someone else’s – and I make it real. I get paid to do that, and it’s a tremendous privilege. I do the same with food…the recipe never really looks exactly like the picture in the magazine, but it doesn’t matter, as long as it tastes good and the texture is correct.
In the same manner, I’m taking a concept called “Dan in peak physical fitness” and bringing it into reality. I have a plan, of course, that I stick to until it stops working. Then I make a new plan.
In game development, in cooking, in making anything, those who experience the end result will criticize the work. They will let you know what that experience is like.
“This game is too hard, and too confusing, but this part is too easy…it’s just not very fun, I don’t really know why…except for that part which I HATE, and why does the cat do that little dance? That dance is stupid, he should do another dance, and maybe he should have a giant laser gun and he should be five hundred feet tall and wouldn’t this be better if it was multiplayer? And, uh, SOCIAL! You could add micro-transactions and an energy system, and oh, I see a whole monetizat-“
Sorry, that was the image of me choking that person to death. Not in reality! No no! No, the manifestation of me listens and nods patiently. Heh heh…heh…uhh…anyway.
“Oh my god, this is AMAZING. This is the BEST. RISOTTO. I. HAVE. EVER…is it supposed to be gritty? No, not the sauce, the little…risotto…things. Err, rice thingies. They’re just…hmm. And you said this has cheese in it? What kind? I don’t know what that is…that’s a cheese? It sounds like the name of a cleaning product. Anyway…don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing..I was just expecting…I dunno. This wine is really…jammy? I think? I don’t know what that means, I just heard it on the Food Network.”
And, of course, with our bodies, although no one except reality TV stars says these kinds of things out loud…
“Whoa, look at him. Could someone get him some more hair for his head? He seems to be running out. And that shirt is NOT doing him any favors. Horizontal stripes? Someone has to tell him he looks like the Hamburglar. Except…rounder. But not as round as his shoulders.”
You get the idea. These words are not often spoken aloud by other people, but many of us speak these things in our heads about ourselves. But, when the world adds its own scornful voice to echo the constant critic in our own heads, it can be devastating. Unless you realize that it, too, is a lie.
Back to the fat kid thing…I was made fun of quite a bit growing up. I was called fat, even though I wasn’t. Later in life, when adults, in general, learned to be less publicly cruel, such things happened less often. I had only my own self-inflicted cruelty to contend with most of the time. But a comment here or there did pop up.
I remember walking on Venice Beach in college, past a bar where many of the patrons looked out onto the boardwalk. The guys would make comments about anyone who caught their eye. Mostly catcalls and whistles at skinny girls, jeers for the overweight girls. I felt sorry for the women who had to pass by that little zone of judgment, and never imagined they would single me out. I was a guy. They commented only on passing girls. But of course they noticed me, all of them saying, in a weird, slow chant, “Budddddddddha……..”
Who knows? Maybe they were just really into…Buddhism? Maybe?
But it bugged me.
A few years later, I was standing on a street corner and I heard someone say from a passing car, “hey, when’s your baby due?”
Throughout my life, people called me “big guy”. “Hey, big guy.” It has always bothered me, even though I know it was probably not malicious. For me, it was a way of saying “I acknowledge your physical size, and I can’t get past it.”
Haven’t heard that moniker in a while. But even if I do, it won’t bug me now. I even named myself “Big Daddy” as my playa name, and although many thought it was because I was so large, it was never a reference to my physical size so much as my overwhelming tendency to taking care of my friends and loved ones. That will not change with my waistline.
Even though I’ve lost more than a hundred pounds, I’m still overweight. I still have a ways to go. And, as such, occasionally I get comments here and there. They’re rare, of course. But they do happen. And because I don’t know how and when I’ll be “done”, where my body will land at whatever definition of “optimum” I choose, I may always get them.
But now instead of derailing me or feeding into my self-loathing, they amuse me. They roll off of me. Because my self-loathing is managed now. Sure, it’s still there, it pops up from time to time…I’m still a human being. But it is so locked down at this point, its mewling voice so drowned out by the stentorian Alleluia chorus that fills my head most of the time, that when a voice from the world tries to join it, it just strikes me as funny.
Two years ago, I was flying high after having lost about 50 pounds, I bought myself some new clothes, since everything was resembling a circus tent on me. I parked my car and was walking up to a store, feeling good. I’m not exactly sure, but I think Katrina & The Waves’ “Walking On Sunshine” was playing in the background (what…you don’t have musical montages in YOUR life? Pshh. You better handle THAT.). Anyway…two guys emerged from a store through one of the two doors. One of them quickly opened the second door and said, “Whoa, better open BOTH of these doors for THIS guy!” And they laughed. That comment would have devastated me in the past. This time, it didn’t. I just shook my head as I walked through, thinking of nothing witty to return with. But I did notice that the comment didn’t bother me.
Something similar happened about six months ago. Again, no reaction. No “Bitter? Party of one? Your table is ready” for me. Just amusement. I thought, “they have no idea what I’ve been through.” And then I started to realize something.
A few days ago, I was on a cheat celebration day. Grabbing breakfast in the cafeteria at work. I was in a hurry, so I grabbed a burrito and, what the hell, a muffin. A giant blueberry muffin with big sugar crystals on top. It looked delicious. And it was a celebration day, so hell YES I was getting that. Across from me is some guy, getting oatmeal and one of those stupid “green machine” smoothies. He looks at me, looks at my intended meal, and says, “Sure that’s such a good idea?”
I just smiled and said, “No, it’s a GREAT idea!”
Peoples’ experience of us is a moment in time. They don’t have the benefit of knowing our journey, knowing what we have accomplished, knowing where we are headed. They may see us on step 100,000 of a million-step journey. But they don’t realize it, and their judgment-oriented mind draws conclusions about us. Their snap judgment is nothing more than a pebble on the road, but if it triggers our own judgment, that pebble can become a mountain, making the trek all the more arduous and time-consuming. It can even become a wall, stopping us in our tracks. Knowing the hard lessons and difficult choices we had to endure along the road, and choosing to keep moving in the same direction allows us to keep that pebble in its place. We can step over it as we move forward.
I thought of saying something to Smoothie McJudgypants, but as I walked away, chuckling to myself as I settle into my desk, I realized how pointless it would have been. It would have taken a long time to explain to him why his momentary experience had no meaning in any context. He saw a fat guy ordering a ridiculous breakfast. He didn’t know it was my cheat day, didn’t know I had lost so much weight, didn’t know that it was perfectly allowed, even encouraged, on my current plan, to eat like that. He didn’t know me at all, but chose to make a comment. He probably thought he was doing me a favor. He probably tweeted about it.
I occupy a finite physical space in this world. It is ever-changing. Comparing it to any other physical thing is folly. I won’t ever look like anyone else but me, and the journey here is to figure out the optimal version of me that supports what I want to do in my life. Like salsa dancing or hiking or playing beach volleyball or being on my feet in the kitchen for fourteen hours or even sitting in a chair for ten hours a day typing on a computer. Just like I produce fun games, or produce delicious food, I am producing my body. It will never match anyone else’s. It may never match the vision I have, but I have no attachment to the accuracy of that vision. I will pursue it, and along the way, some magic will happen. I may not know what the final version looks like right now, but I’ll know it when I see it.
The pebbles on the road don’t care much why I am on the road, and stopping to explain to them my past, my motives, and my goals makes the journey that much longer. I don’t need the pebbles to understand and appreciate me. I just need to keep walking.
The journey is for me, not for them. While I transform, they remain.