The Weight of My Past
It never occurred to me when I was younger that I would still feel the weight of my thirteen-year-old self. Although evidence suggests that I’m all grown up, my brain sometimes thinks I’m still the picked-on pudgy teenager I so desperately wanted to leave behind. I know that I am not alone, that many of us who were teased for whatever way we or our bodies were different are still haunted by our younger, insecure selves.
It all began with my cheeks. In third grade, Heather Weiss dubbed me “chubby cheeks,” lazily opting for the most obvious of nicknames. At the time, I had cast her in a play I was multi-hyphenating. Having gone one “chubby cheek” too far, I replaced her with another up-and-coming nine-year-old starlet who wisely chose to ignore my face.
As I entered adolescence, my addiction to fried chicken and bologna helped my belly to overcome my cheeks. In case I couldn’t tell, my doctor wrote “overweight” on my chart and encircled the word with great vigor, several times.
If it had only been my doctor who pointed out my weight problem perhaps I would’ve grown up unscathed. But no, I was in junior high at the time. I was bestowed with two nicknames as if one was not sufficiently damaging: Pillsbury Doughboy (Pills, for short) and Stay Puft, the famed marshmallow man from Ghostbusters. People would either try to poke my belly with their finger or they would ask me for marshmallows. I didn’t even like marshmallows.
Sticks and stones would have been preferable at the time. Physical scars, I’ve since learned, are easier to get over than emotional ones. I would have liked to ignore the teasing but I was a teenager. An onslaught of very special episodes of (insert name of ’80s sitcom here) told me not to care what other people thought but that was easier said than done. Duh. I wish I could boast about the zingy comebacks I came up with making fun of their unibrows or oversized zits but I didn’t want to be mean.
I was never OK with being fat and did whatever I could do keep my chubbiness under the radar. But wearing baggy clothes only made it worse. Wearing a T-shirt while swimming only made it worse. You can’t hide being fat; you can only suck in your stomach, and only for so long.
My diet merely consisted of switching to Diet Coke. I was an impossibly picky eater; I refused most of what my mother cooked for the rest of the family, so I had microwavable fried chicken wings and chocolate milk for dinner at least three nights a week. Clearly being called names didn’t motivate me enough to improve my eating habits.
As a late teen, the fat went away naturally. Even with my reputation as a staunch fried enthusiast intact, my high school and college years were considerably less scarring.
And then I moved to New York City.
My first night there, my friend Michelle and I went to a restaurant in Chelsea where all the customers were muscular gay men wearing tight T-shirts that apparently only came in black or white. Michelle was the odd one out for being the only woman. I was the odd one out for being the only man without a six-pack.
I could not know it that night, but this set the stage for my next several years in New York City and then Los Angeles. Of course, I chose the two most ego crushing cities for any insecure gay man. I inevitably felt like the odd one out because everywhere I turned were very handsome faces often attached to very good bodies. The teenage-teasing I was faced with is the leading cause of the chronic discomfort I had and continue to have with my body. Ever since then, no matter what shape my body has taken, I have always felt a little fat. If someone had a choice between me or the worked-out dude to my left, I could not compete.
While at a West Hollywood bar one night, I overheard:
Question: “Is he good looking?”
Answer: “He doesn’t have a good body.”
Not the question. While this conversation was not about me, it easily could have been. People like that can make the insecurely out of shape feel oh so small. When I went out, I just wanted to drink and flirt, I did not want to feel like I was back in 1987. This person was not trying to be mean, he was simply foolish for thinking that only people with good bodies can be attractive. I knew there were others just like him.
I started to become hyper-aware of how men were portrayed so perfectly fit on the cover of magazines, in advertisements, and on screens both big and small—something I hadn’t noticed growing up. Matinée idols Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were often the sexiest men alive according to well-documented scientific research and, well, I sure didn’t look like them. I wondered if I was suddenly feeling how decades of women must’ve felt when constantly faced with cover girls or how they felt when models all of a sudden became super. My insecurity became magnified. I suspected that I would never look as good as Marky Mark did in a pair of tighty whities. Sigh.
I know that I wasn’t really fat but I had gained enough weight to feel like the Pills I used to be. I still had horrible eating habits and no strength to change them, nor the know-how. I never learned how to cook besides boiling noodles, making PB&J sandwiches, and operating a microwave oven. I also preferred spending the little money I earned on apple martinis rather than actual apples. If only I could have lost weight as effortlessly as I lost my hair.
I joined a gym but that ended up being a preventative measure from gaining even more weight rather than actually losing any. I didn’t know what I was doing and couldn’t afford a personal trainer. I would run on the treadmill or ride the stationary bike, and then take out KFC or Taco Bell on the way home.
The amount of weight I actually gained in my twenties didn’t become evident until I moved to Paris and surprisingly lost twenty pounds without dieting or exercise. As out of shape as I always felt, I seriously didn’t know I had twenty pounds to lose. Smaller portion sizes played a big role, as did living with my polar opposite, a vegetarian. Before I met Luc, vegetables were just one part of an entire food group I ignored altogether.
While I have never been on an official diet here, my eating habits have drastically evolved for the better. Luc makes sure that I eat healthy foods, not just those that are fried and greasy. Au revoir four piece combo chicken meal with fries and a biscuit. Also, I have always eaten whatever is on my plate. In the U.S., where portion sizes are ridiculously Thanksgiving-sized no matter what day of the year, it is easy to finish a meal feeling bloated. In France, I can clean my entire plate and be comfortably satisfied. My “diet” is more of a natural one rather than a strict, regimented one. And my mother would be amazed at what I happily eat now.
Nevertheless, proud to be twenty pounds lighter, I still felt my gut, love handles, and inner-Pills holding on for dear life. This was confirmed by one of Luc’s friends who told him in confidence (oops) that I was a “faux-maigre;” I was merely pretending to be skinny. I hate to be faux-anything so I joined one of the few gyms here too and declared 2008 to be the “Year of the Abs.” Not so much.
After years of more biking in place, my faux-gut continued to prove quite stubborn. I finally invested in a personal trainer to help silence the taunts from my past once and for all. Thanks to his guidance, I am now almost close to calling myself thin though I would never dare write that out loud.
Mine, however, is not the happy ending of an Afterschool Special. I did not learn that valuable lesson, the one about not caring what other people think about me. I did not accept my out-of-shape body and hold my head high. No, I am constantly obsessed about losing weight. This has embarrassed me for years, knowing that I should accept my body for what it is. But then I was reminded everywhere and every day that I can’t possibly be alone.
Empires have been built feeding on people’s insecurities. Otherwise, going to a meeting to be “weighed in” would never happen, carbs would be eaten unabashedly, nobody would give a merde why French women don’t get fat and there would be a lot of out-of-work personal trainers, nutritionists, fro yo servers, and liposuction technicians. I am not weak; I am human.
In “researching” this essay, I have been reassured by other adults who were once picked on overweight teens that they too still feel fat. I have also been told by other friends who were picked on for other reasons, some for being too skinny (what the what?), that they haven’t been able to completely get over the name-calling they were subjected to either. While it is comforting to know that I am not alone, it amazes me that we are still influenced by that teasing and in my case, nearly thirty years later. How could the damage done back then be so irreparable?
These days, I get off on telling people about my earlier nicknames because they can’t seem to imagine that I was ever overweight. Whenever someone expresses disbelief about my earlier chubbiness, a little part of the Pills in me dies. I take great satisfaction in that. And then I consider treating myself to something supersized at McDonald’s.
Gregory Messina graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 1996. He first worked at a New York-based literary agency where he sold the film rights for the agency’s children’s and YA books. After spending five years in Los Angeles where he worked in film and TV, Gregory moved to Paris in 2004 where he still resides. He worked for French publishing companies for nearly ten years before opening his own literary agency in March 2015.