Why this was the best summer of my life and what real body positivity means to me
This summer is absolutely the best summer of my life for one very simple but very upsetting reason: it’s the first time I have ever not been embarrassed to forgo sleeves or take my shirt off. Since March of 2018, I’ve put on 20 pounds and couldn’t be happier about it. I’m still skinny, I still get teased for being “small,” and I still am not where I want to be. But, goddamn, I’ve come farther than I ever thought I would. I’m also still hurt from the years of ruthless bullying, I still harbor resentment about those experiences, and I still am not sure what being fully healed will be, but I’ve come farther than I ever thought I would.
Before I even get started, let’s be very clear: this is not a “Woe is me” moment for me to whine and complain. Nor, for that matter, is it a moment to discredit the powerful & damaging fat shaming that is still overwhelmingly normal in our society. No. Instead, this is a moment to be honest about the humiliation so many people experience related to their bodies and how it’s not okay. It matters to validate for ourselves and those around us that those experiences and feelings are real. Given how our society so narrowly defines physical beauty, how anyone could painlessly navigate their self-image is beyond me.
Growing up, I’m not sure I can recall a time when I wasn’t aware that I was too skinny. For as long as I have been aware of my body in any conscious way, I have been taught and reminded that I am somehow not manly enough. It runs in the family. People have always said how much I look like my Dad, and he’s too skinny, too. I remember him telling me stories about his issues with body image and how he was bullied. I remember him reminding me every chance he could that I am indeed enough and that for whatever it was worth, I’ve been bigger at every point in my life than he has at the same point in his life.
Just so we can all be on the same page, let’s talk some numbers. My Dad is 6’2” and is around 155 pounds. He’s put on a bit of healthy, old man weight recently, but for most of my childhood, he was 145. He didn’t break 120 pounds until college. As for me, I’m 5’10” and 150 pounds. From 2015-2018, I was around 130. Prior to that, I really tried not to think about the actual number because what did it really matter? All I needed to know and all I was told was that the number was too low, that I was too small, and that it made me less of a man, which meant that there is no substitute for weight. There was no amount of popularity or athleticism or sexual prowess I could have that would change the fact that I was too damn skinny to be a real man.
I remember a Sunday afternoon when I was young (maybe 7 or 8) where I went through my dresser and put on a bunch of shirts. Like a lot. Like 10. And I did so with glee. I put on all these short sleeve shirts, and I went downstairs to show off and walk around like the big tough guy I wanted to be. My parents thought it was funny and cute, but it was also gross. I remember needing help getting the shirts off. I remember how extra small my forearms looked in contrast with the bulked up torso I had created for myself. I remember going back to feeling inadequate as soon as the shirts came off.
One Hanukkah when I was maybe 12, my uncle gave me a skintight Under Armour shirt. I was beside myself I was so excited. I remember when he left and we walked him to his car, I had the shirt on and was bouncing around like a damn puppy. Then I wore that shirt playing football with my friends. They laughed. I never wore it without a shirt over it ever again.
In high school, I took AP World History, and there was a brief section on the humanitarian crisis in the Sudan. That was when my classmates started calling me Darfur because I looked like the malnourished children in the textbook. That name stuck, as did the laughs that followed its use without fail. Now seems like the time to say that no, I was not malnourished. I was not unhealthy. As a matter of fact, I was in great shape. I started studying Taekwondo at 6 years old and by the time my friends were calling me Darfur, I was an accomplished fighter and a genuine athlete.
But that didn’t matter at all. What mattered was that my body was faulty in the eyes of everyone except my immediate family. Even folks who were trying to be complimentary dug in their own knives however unintentional it may have been. “Wow, you’re kinda tough for a skinny kid,” they would say after I won match after match or broke more boards in one strike than anyone else in my division. Weirdly enough, I loved those compliments at the time. I clung to them, actually. It wasn’t until later I began to reckon with just how hurtful those were, perhaps even more so than those from bullies whose opinions I could make a better attempt at compartmentalizing and summarily dismissing.
Even friends — really dear friends who are going to read this and feel called out — contributed to the constant, long term, painful trauma of looking at myself in the mirror. A roommate in college (whom I love to death and consider my blood brother) would say to me, “Put a shirt on, you look rapey.” It is difficult for me to explain how deflating and utterly heart wrenching it was to hear that once, let alone all the time. Here was someone who I had been in the trenches with in a variety of ways, who knows me so well, who does really truly love me and even they are telling me to my face as casually as they would tell me the weather that my body is repulsive to them.
Like everyone does with the ugly shit in their life, I compartmentalized it. If for no other reason than the practical survival needs of getting through the days, I compartmentalized the things in my life that I didn’t like. From a very young age, I learned to deal with it. Or at least I tried to deal with it. We’ve all got our issues, and I’ve certainly got plenty more than just body image problems — that’s life.
One of the things that was the most frustrating about all of this nonsense was that everyone (and I mean everyone) was absolutely convinced that they had the answers. If I had a dollar for every time someone gave me unsolicited advice about how to fix my body, I’d be retired by now. Unsurprisingly, none of the advice was all that helpful — it felt less like help and more like an accusation of not trying hard enough, and their good intentions were irrelevant to me given how it made me feel. I wasn’t lazy or unathletic. I wasn’t not trying. I wasn’t ignorant either — I did extensive research to study my physiology trying to break the code and figure out what I had to do to get bigger. I had a heart condition that prohibited certain weight lifting, but I worked out all the time. I had a voracious appetite. I tried everything.
Nothing changed the simple truth: this was my body and that was that.
So I gave up. I resigned myself to just trying to shrug off the comments and my insecurities as manageably as possible because that was all there was to do. It was like that for years. Then, when I turned 25, my doctor provided an update, “You’re done growing, your heart is ok, you can lift weights. Don’t go be a powerlifter, but you can more or less do what you want.”
On one hand, I was thrilled. On the other hand, I was petrified. I know nothing about real weight lifting because I’ve only done bodyweight exercises my entire life. The idea of walking into a traditional gym still brought with it deep insecurities and a sense of worthlessness, but I swallowed that as best I could and gave it a shot regardless of how ugly it all felt.
Two people changed my life on this front: Marc (who was living in Philly) and my roommate, CJ, in Harlem. Marc was a gym rat and was incredibly kind and thoughtful with his advice and encouragement. He gave me workouts to do, spent hours on the phone with me answering questions, and telling me that I was doing well. He never ever did anything less than encourage me to keep at it slow and steady. Marc also respected my Taekwondo experience and didn’t belittle it. He recognized that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to training regimens and my own body’s peculiarities. I am forever grateful to him for that. Granted, my parents said the same thing, but I needed to hear it from someone else. Marc did that for me.
And CJ dragged my ass to the gym. CJ is ripped, by the way, so I was not really looking forward to working out with someone who so clearly put me to shame. Plus, CJ and I were just starting to become genuinely close, and he didn’t exactly strike me as a guy particularly in touch with his sensitive side. And yet, to my delightful surprise, CJ was the best workout partner I could’ve asked for — he absolutely pressured me into trying harder and pushing my limits, but he also told me over and over and over again that there is no shame to be had. “I got you” and “You got this” were his refrains, and they became mine, too. CJ got me through the super awkward stage of feeling like not knowing up from down when it came to weights. It wasn’t enough to know what I was doing because that was never really the issue. I needed to feel it. Marc and CJ helped me feel it.
Well, I put on 10 pounds by June. I put on another 5 over the summer. Then, I fell off in the fall with life and work, and I was terrified that I would lose it all just like I had always lost any progress. But I had worked out smartly. The weight stayed. I only lost 5 pounds. I kicked back up at the top of 2019 and got them back plus 5 more. 150. One hundred and fifty pounds. In real life. Wow. It was a little embarrassing how excited I was, actually. Yet another odd layer of weirdness. But, for the first time, I felt, at a bare minimum, decent.
So here I am wrapping up the first summer of my life where I actually felt good in my own body. I looked forward to going to the gym in a way that reminded me of the joys of Taekwondo, I dared to wear short(er) shorts from Jordan to the Dominican Republic to day parties in the Lower East Side. I got 2 tattoos on my not so frail looking anymore arms. And I absolutely decided to forgo sleeves at every available opportunity. Every time I cut off the sleeves to another one of my tees, it was as if I was more at home in my own skin than before. I felt good from head to toe. Friends and folks on social media have told me that I look bigger, more confident, and more comfortable. They tell me they can see the effort I’ve been putting in even though I didn’t post about it, and I don’t really talk about it. That feels so good. So, so good. And I appreciate the support more than anyone knows.
Still, I’ve frankly got a chip on my shoulder because these feelings and issues don’t just evaporate after a great summer. I must continue to work to undo years of formative experiences that instilled in me a sense of not being enough of a man. It takes sustained effort and revisiting that trauma to arrive at a place where rather than feeling less ugly, I feel really good.
I wrote about this because any effort to let others know that they can, should, and have every reason to love themselves is a worthwhile one. I’m not suggesting that my story on this front is particularly special. In fact, I think it’s more common than many of us would like to admit. I think we raise children to compare themselves to an impossible ideal, and I think it’s been this way forever. Social media might exacerbate the issue, but the issue was always there.
I think often about how narrow the spectrum of acceptable physical traits is. I think about how it differs based on gender and race and nationality. It is impossible to work on issues of body image without talking about sexuality and gender and race and all the identities that help craft and shape who we are. I think about how my experiences do not take away from the horror of fat-shaming — in fact, I believe that recognition of both types of experiences is critical to understanding either of them. I think also about how it can be true that I am profoundly loved and supported, yet I’ve also felt very alone in this pain both previously and sometimes even today.
What remains difficult for me in this issue and for us all in this work is reckoning with the competing impulses we have. It’s difficult to manage a nexus of seemingly contradictory ideas. We should be comfortable in our own skin and at peace with the features our DNA has handed to us, and it’s also okay to make efforts to modify in healthy ways how we look and feel. It’s both/and not either/or.
I’m allowed to say that I love my body and I want to improve it in one way or another. Wanting to feel good about the way you look is important. If that means changing your hair or your wardrobe or your body, then go right ahead; it is not a bad thing. The difficulty lies in deciphering what drives the desire for the changes you want. No one should feel obligated by a culture that tells them they are not enough to change who they are or how they look.
Rather than exclusively asserting what is wrong with the current framework, we should build a framework entirely from the ground up, designed with an imagination that learned biases try to strip away from us as we get older. As always, I work towards a culture defined by us all affirming our truths not by what they are not but by what they are.
As always, be you be great.
Here are some photos from over the years.