Traveling with Body Image Issues
I can still remember the first time somebody commented on my weight.
It was a sixth grade end of year pool party in Mudgee, and a group of guys had gathered around the snack table to feast on fairy bread and lollies between bouts in the pool.
“Hey Chris,” Josh Stewart said cheerfully, “You’re fat!”
He said it with genuine surprise. Having never seen me with my shirt off, he’d had no idea I had a bit of a belly developing. At this stage, it wasn’t much more than a bump, but it was a jarring thing to hear all the same.
As a kid, I’d been nicknamed ‘the scrawn’ due to my scrawny physique. I’d been a middle distance (800-1500m) runner who could circle his waist with his hands and touch fingers at the back.
At the time I found it funny.
“Skinny Chris!” they’d say when my shirt was down.
“Fat Chris!” they’d laugh when I lifted my shirt to flash my belly again.
“Skinny Chris! Fat Chris!”
It was all very innocuous, and I can’t say it had a huge impact on me beyond the fact I remember it.
It was my last night in Mudgee before moving north to chilly Ben Lomond, and the night is just as memorable for me because at one point during the night I got dunked by Nell Walters and, as if baptised, I emerged and realised I had a huge crush on her.
The next day, I’d move north and never see any of them again. Such is life.
I can’t recall when I started to think of myself as fat. There’s no specific memory that leaps out at me.
All I know is that at some point I began to be described as such, and that basically came to define me.
I was a confident, outspoken kid when I started year seven. I’d come from a school for gifted children where I’d been surrounded by like-minded friends, and the adjustment to a rural high school was a tough one for me.
I can’t place the blame squarely on all those who bullied me. For every ignorant yokel who took offense at my eccentricities, there was one who was justifiably upset by my condescending tone.
Regardless of the cause, the bullying would drag on for four years. Despite a solid core of geeky friends and a supportive family, I slowly started to believe the things being said about me.
I was a loser. I was weird.
I was fat and ugly.
I went from being the kid in year seven who wore outrageous outfits to get attention to one who spent most of his lunchtimes in the library or in a classroom a teacher said we could play D&D in.
I started to be that kid who wore a shirt when he went swimming. I was horribly self-conscious about how much I’d sweat during PE classes or the way I wasn’t skinny and handsome like the popular kids.
It all seems like a juvenile thing to have worried about in hindsight. The world is never quite as shallow as it is in high school, but I didn’t know any better.
I didn’t date in high school. The sole girl I kissed was playing Truth or Dare in a drama class.
Barbs hurled to hurt don’t need to be cast from a stance of honesty. Even when weekends of soccer and lunch times of rugby league meant I’d lost weight, those with ill-intent knew the way to hurt my feelings.
They couldn’t make me doubt my intelligence or my creativity, but they sure as hell could make me doubt my physical appearance and worthiness for love.
Over the course of a few years, I wholly adopted the role I’d been cast in.
I accepted that I was ugly and fat and revolting.
Being the Fat Boy
I’d like to say that university in some way transformed me.
Despite Year 11 & 12 being infinitely better years for me, and in spite of the fact I’d lost a bunch of weight, I still wore that mantle of ‘fat boy’.
Even if people were no longer saying it, I still believed it.
I didn’t ask girls out even if I was assured of their interest by mutual friends. Surely they were mistaken. It was probably a prank.
I hated how I looked and felt on the dancefloor at the ‘Stro or the Newie.
And in a case of supreme hypocrisy, I hated the way bigger girls would ask me out. In fits of childish offense, I’d rail against the unfairness of it all.
“They think I’m in their league?” I’d complain to my friends, “Am I that ugly?”
In the futile selfishness of my tiny teenage mind, I didn’t comprehend that I was doing to these girls the same thing people had done to me.
And here’s where the damage done becomes twofold. I not only hated myself and how I looked, but I let that turn into self-pity and misanthropy. At the same time as I told myself how unworthy of love or happiness I was, I looked down upon the world that dare reject me.
Funny that I was outraged at them for not seeing my value when I saw so little of it myself.
This became self-fulfilling prophecy. Nobody finds self-pity or bitterness attractive, and so I remained alone.
The longer I was alone, the more I hated myself and the world. And so I became a snake eating its own tail.
I guess this is where I should tell an inspiring story about how I overcame this and learned to love myself for who I am.
Truth is, my issues persist to this day.
After college, I went through a worrying long stage where I’d binge eat to cheer myself up, and then immediately force myself to throw up all of the food I’d just eaten.
I won’t go so far as to say I was bulimic, as I don’t think it happened often enough or over a long enough period of time for it to count.
Other times, I’d punish myself with exercise. I’d binge eat and then force myself to ride until I could barely stand.
My weight or, more accurately, my perception of my weight has been with me for a long time now. Every time I think I’ve overcome my demons by exercising and losing weight or by teaching myself not to care about such things, something small will come up to bring me back down.
A student in China will say that I must “really like food to be so fat” or a Korean man would squeeze my man-boob as we posed together on the beach.
“You will be a very good boyfriend,” said my female students last year, “Because you’re fat, you will not cheat”.
I understood that in some cultures it was not considered rude to comment on a person’s weight, but when your self-respect was built upon such fragile foundations – it would take me right back to square one.
I’d be lying if I said it was as bad today as it once was. I couldn’t say whether it’s been achieving success in other areas, having supportive partners, or the shallow validation of one night stands with pretty girls – but the occasional comments on my weight generally bother me less.
Running has helped. My ex-girlfriend introduced me to it and coached me from somebody who got winded after 30 seconds to somebody who would have completed a half-marathon were it not for shin splints ruling him out for 6-8 weeks.
That being said, I’m still guilty of weekly bouts of self-loathing.
Of catching sight of myself in the mirror and deciding maybe I don’t need to go out to class today.
Of trying on a dozen shirts and tossing them on the floor like a frustrated child because all of them make me feel fat.
Of not asking somebody out because I’ve got an in-built system that tells me whether somebody is in my league, out of my league, or outside my interest.
The most telling ‘symptom’ of all this ties back in with my battle with the black dog: I drink a lot.
I don’t drink alone, but when I drink – I drink to get drunk. I drink because drunk Chris isn’t quite as worried about his weight or the way people look at him. Drunk Chris makes people laugh. Drunk Chris is the life of the party.
Drunk Chris has the confidence to hit on girls where sober Chris would shyly sit in the corner and wait for them to notice him.
Truthfully, people don’t believe me when I tell them I’m shy. I’ve become so good at getting drunk enough to hide it that people honestly believe me to be a confident and outgoing person.
They don’t see the way I analyse every social interaction for an insult or a mistake on my part.
They don’t feel the pangs of shame I get when I see a photo of myself where I’ve failed to suck my gut in or I’ve got pit stains.
They sure as hell don’t witness the 30-60 minutes of pre-outting stress and the battle that I have to have with myself every time I’m invited out. Do I go through the emotional and mental strain of being in public? Or do I lie, say I’m busy, and stay in?
I choose the latter far more often than I’d like.
Alcohol, of course, has a two-fold fallout that does me no favours:
- I get a mad case of ‘the guilts’ every time I drink, and spend the next day basically out of commission as an anxious wreck;
- It’s a whole lot of calories that I inevitably fail to burn off.
It’s no surprise that the booziest years of my life (2012-2014) also saw me go to a lifetime high of 112kg.
(Inexplicably, those two years were also my most romantically successful, so clearly my body image issues are just that – my body image issues).
I spent the first six months after getting home running and dieting myself back to where I started when I left for China.
This all brings me to today. Or, more precisely, a few weeks ago.
My best friend’s brother, Pete got in touch with me about a potential partnership that we’d both benefit from. He’s otherwise known as Peter Brown – transformation specialist with Fisique looking to get his name out there, and I’m a guy whose fitness and weight aren’t where he’d like them to be.
It didn’t take long for us to work out a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Over the next four weeks he’s going to be working with me on a four week ‘pre travel regimen’ to get me fitter and leaner before China and Africa. He’s also going to be sharing a few guest posts here on both pre-travel fitness and staying fit while you’re on the road.
Me? I’ll be exercising, eating healthier, and keeping you appraised of my progress as I try to get myself into a place where I’m happier about the way I look and my general fitness.
I don’t think I’ll ever be completely happy with how I look. That’s the nature of the beast, right?
I’ve come a long way from the self-loathing teen who didn’t think he had anything to offer the world, but there’s still room for improvement both physically and emotionally.
I’ve got Pete to help me with the former, and the latter is something I work on improving each and every day.
Wish me luck!
How has your appearance or your own perception of your appearance affected you in your travels?