the body suite

I

When I was in Berkeley, I took a break from one of the information sessions for admitted students and went downstairs to the bookstore. I had realized that I hadn’t purchased any paraphernalia from any of the schools to which I had been admitted and I had always liked the Berkeley clothes that I’d seen at other students at Swarthmore. It was a typical shopping experience for me; I looked around, sort of scoffing at the expensiveness of most of the things I actually liked, before settling on the generic Berkeley sweatshirt that most people at Swat are prone to seeing me in, now. (I’m actually wearing it now.) Yet, I couldn’t find my size – M. There was either S, the size I eventually bought, and XL. As I looked at the XLs. I found this annoying, and asked the cashier if they had any Mediums in the back. She responded with a stern “No.” I then told her that it’s always so hard to find my size, although they had tons of XLs, a size I used to be able to fit long ago. And it was at that moment that I suppose she really looked at me, instead of giving a sort of rote response. And then she said “Wow, I could never imagine you in an XL.”

Many people at Swarthmore would not recognize the 11th grade Xavier if we were to randomly appear on campus one day, take a stroll across McGill, or sit in the BCC and wait to be seen. They would probably think he was one of my mythical siblings (everyone always assumes I’m an only child, and I’m not; I have three siblings.) I was far larger and far more aware of my body back then, and the pseudoconfidence I may exude now in this trimmer, slimmer form may fool you into believing that all aspects of that person, who existed for so much longer than the one who exists now, are gone or have been permanently changed. But that isn’t even remotely the case.

My freshman year of college, I randomly, and remarkably, lost a ton of weight. I wasn’t sure why, but I remember coming home during fall break and my mother seeing me for the first time and saying “Oh my god! What happened to you?” I had lost 15 pounds at that point, and while I was aware of it, the gravity of the situation didn’t sink in until Thanksgiving, when I was at that point so thin that I needed new clothes. People from high school – acquaintances with whom I had only a narrow, superficial relation – had a hard time recognizing me, which was fine, because I would often use my inability to be recognized as a way of avoiding awkward or unwanted situations. Yet, I found that when people focused their eyes on my face and not my body, I couldn’t escape recognition.

It weighs on my own self-perception to have such a past, and while some would like to think that “you finally got what you wanted,” I’ve found, like all things that are wished for and suddenly granted, that the ramifications of change are far less dramatic than change itself. I still find that I see the world through the eyes of someone who has a tremendous burden of self-consciousnss, despite having, at this point, it seems, nothing to be self-conscious about. I have an average body (it’s not remarkable in any way), with a decent but not alarming amount of body fat, and a manageable amount of muscle. Most people would say that I am thin, and some people, like my family, who were so used to the larger person at the dinner table, argue that I am too thin, but in my head, I still am not thin enough.

I have wondered for several years if I suffer from a disorder called dysmorphia. It seemed to me that the person I saw in the mirror (and for so many years I was afraid to look in the mirror, would walk hurriedly past my reflection in storefronts because I was afraid of what I’d see, to realize that the person, the body I feared was real…) was not the person others saw, and I spent a lot of time trying to make those two images fit one another. My body is illusory and it remembers; I have ruts in my skin which tell the story of a different time, which trick my eyes into thinking that I am fatter or larger than I am. I do not have excess tissue, but I have scars from where excess tissue once was.

I have a hard time, now that I have miraculously thinned out, rationalizing my desire to be even thinner now. I find that, while others see a thin person, I still see a person who could lose a bit more. It is no longer an issue of health, but a simple desire to look better and to feel better about myself. I am a S/M now, but I would like to just be a small. I wear size 32 pants, but I would like to fit a 29. I try to balance these feelings in a place of self-betterment, but I am not sure if that is the truth. My mind has played tricks on me before. Maybe this is just another iteration of some politic of body hatred.

II

 

The first woman I ever loved with turned me down because of my body.

Or at least, that’s what I believed at first. That’s what I told myself when I went to camp the next day, devastated, evading the questions of my friends. It was ninth grade. I was unhappy with my body, would do essentially anything to distract people from it. I had a phase of pulling my shirt down with my fist in order to flatten out my chest, a habit my sister pointed out rather rudely: “Why don’t you just lose weight instead of doing that?”

For all of high school, I was in a process of “losing weight.” I would try to do anything I could to lose 5 or 10 lbs, and I succeeded my junior year, at dropping the 10 lbs my doctor recommended by cutting out orange juice and soda from my diet and walking home instead of taking the bus. I was somewhat happy with the weight loss, not because it allowed me to better interact with my body – it didn’t, it probably made things worse – but because it meant that maybe I could get someone to like me.

I had the worse self-esteem of anyone I knew in high school. Part of this was because of my weight, and being “the big kid.” Part of it, however, was feeling absolutely undesirable. There were so many points in high school – when I began to realize I had some sort of anxiety issue, really – when I was honestly scared of my future. I naturally gravitated to my closest friends, and began to like them in ways I didn’t truly grasp until college, and this sudden romantic desire was never requited. Not knowing why I wasn’t wanted, I naturally mapped my rejection onto my biggest insecurity; my weight.

I began to see my weight as an inhibition to my happiness in 9th grade. I was, or at least I believed it at the time, in love with a close friend of mine, and we were so close that I swore that she reciprocated my feelings. And when I finally mustered the strength to tell her, I was horrified to see that my intuitions were wrong, and that she didn’t see me that way, and never had. I was devastated for several weeks, and our relationship was strained. It would take three years, until my senior year, for me to get over being rejected by her and liking her, and to this day, I still have some feeling, some spark for her, even though I can’t stand the fact that I do.

Another friend – they’re all friends, both with me, and with each other – rejected me the next year, and this made things worse. Another friend, my junior year, followed suit, and I began to give up. I started writing bitter poetry and bitterer prose to express a bile I had accumulated over years of rejection. And I don’t want to diatribe about my unrequited love, although I should add an addendum here to state that I often fall for women who are close to me, who share enough of their emotions and show enough interest in mine that I can build an emotional bridge. I don’t enter relationships with anyone with a purely romantic tenor and all of my relationships and pseudorelationships which started from a mutual physical attraction never panned out because of this. I don’t, for one, think that my friends owed me something because of my listenership, and I didn’t befriend them with the end-goal of dating them. I found that my feelings sort of just switched on, and when it happened, I saw my friends differently, almost as if I saw them truly for the first time. I don’t know if I’m vindicating myself of all the “friendzone douchebag” stuff, or digging a deeper hole, but I have never identified with that rhetoric or male trope. If I am, in fact, that person, I’ll accept it and learn from it.

One of my closest friends – Adaeze – was the first close friend I never fell for. I told myself in the beginning “Xavier, you cannot start liking her. You cannot,” half-expecting it to not work. But Adaeze is also the type of person to let you know from the beginning that something between you and her is “never going to happen” and so I didn’t even entertain the idea. Doing this once taught me I could do it again, and I have significantly improved this hopeless romantic strain in my conscious throughout college, albeit with a few slippages.

Yet, I found internalized rejection to be a product of my physical appearance, and not my personality. Perhaps I just wasn’t the kind of guy they wanted. Maybe I was too brainy, or too condescending – I was a real prick in high school – or too jokey, or made too many pesky remarks. I’ll never know, but I cannot blame it on my body. I can’t allow my body to take the burden for circumstances which are likely the product of my personality and that alone. For one, to blame my body is to also assume my friends are superficial, which isn’t true. At the same time, I wasn’t very good with timing, nor was I very charming, and would sort of unload my feelings on people out of nowhere instead of warming them up to the idea like a normal person.

III

 

If my 11th grade self were to pass my current self en route to the Maplewood Trattoria, would he recognize him? Would I be able to look at someone of a vastly different physique, eerily familiar, and know that I am looking at some time-traveler version of myself, a future memory? Would he be content with what he saw? The frame, the physique, the romantic history? The semi-chiseled jaw, the knots on the ankle, the two rivulets on each arm? Would he walk right by, would he even look up? Would I even recognize my older self from a distance?

IV

 

I used to have this rival in high school. Anyone who knows me well will know who this rival is, and if he’s reading this now, I’d be shocked, for I did some terrible things to him because I envied him so much. While he was charming and smart and was a good writer, my greatest source of envy towards him was his body. He was gorgeous, and everyone knew him, and everyone wanted him, but not because he was gorgeous, but because he embodied beauty in ways which evaded me in all ways. He walked and danced and yelled and fretted with grace and poise. His body was permanently on display everywhere he went and when he walked in a room, it seemed to cry “look at me, look at what you can accomplish if only you try.” I oriented my life around one-upping in him in the only ways I could; I did better than him on tests, could use more five-dollar words than him, could speak Spanish better than him. And I made sure he knew it every step of the way, even when it became apparent that he was no longer looking or comparing. Our lights shined on different frequencies, and therefore they did not interact with one other. I am not even sure if he considered me his rival – I doubt it – and not just some fat kid who went to his church and bullied him for no reason. When I grew up a bit, I apologized to him.

V

 

My sophomore year I went overboard with clothes shopping. I didn’t have anything that fit because I had lost all of this weight, and needed to replenish my wardrobe. So I would go to Goodwill every other week and buy hella shit I didn’t need to both experiment with style and to experiment with new cuts of clothes. I transitioned from relaxed fit and loose fit pants to slim fit and then skinny jeans. I had a body now, I thought, and I ought to show it off. And why not? People suddenly wanted to see it, both aesthetically and sexually, and I felt attractive for the first time in my life. I did not just wear clothes to cover up my body, but to bring attention to it. With time I began to thin my stockpile of ugly sweaters and pants I never wore, but my relationship with clothes will never be the same. My junior year is when I began to style my outfits, to pick and uphold an aesthetic. I’ve cut out most of the colors from my wardrobe now, and don’t spend 20 minutes cycling through outfits in the morning – or thinking of and trying on outfits at night – anymore, thank God.

VI

 

Michelle once told me that I was vain. Naturally I was offended, and I believe I rolled over in bed in protest. But as I sat there, thinking over her comment, I realized that my vanity was in response to a need to overcompensate for the unattractiveness I felt in high school. I was growing out my hair, was slim, had nice vintage clothes and was generally in good physical health (although I was starting to have my stomach troubles my sophomore spring…). I thought I was cute, and I suppose this was obvious from the way I’d literally strut across campus, blasting Radiohead. Yet, I knew that I was beginning to become something unattractive; I was getting conceited, and I was beginning to think way too much about my looks. For all of the outfit changes I’d do in the morning, the outfit I’d finally settle on wasn’t necessarily remarkable, nor comfortable; it brought the right amount of attention to me without being too isolating. Yet, as I began to realize that I had too many clothes, and that I didn’t wear half of them, I also realized that dressing up didn’t matter, because I went to Swarthmore, where no one seems to care, and those who do are always competing to look better than the rest. I would get upset that no one would compliment my outfit, and feel self-conscious and ugly, when I really dress for myself, and live for myself, a truism I didn’t yet internalize my sophomore year. Now if I change clothes in the morning, it’s because I’m wearing the wrong underwear with a pair of pants and have a bad wedgie.

VII

 

I’ve had eating disorders in the past. The reason I was obese in high school is actually because of an eating disorder I had when I was a young kid. I got sick at school, and puked all over myself after eating too much frosting from a cake. I was so traumatized by this that I didn’t eat for weeks out of fear that I would vomit again. I still can’t stand the sight or smell or sound of vomit, although it’s slacked a lot after my parents subjected me to multiple road trips with my carsickness-prone nephew. Nevertheless, for several weeks, my parents couldn’t get me to each much at all other than rice and bread. They said “You cannot throw up rice,” which I don’t know is true, and I would eat bowlfuls, broken by the memories of my vomit-stained clothes, of the smell of my stomach’s content clinging to my body. I was skinny then, and I had been a skinny kid prior to this episode, this great pivot in my life.

That summer, I went down South and stayed with my grandmother, who made such good food that I couldn’t not eat. I came back to New Jersey fat, and I’ve been fat ever since.

VIII

I used to play football in middle school. My mother said it was because I needed to do something athletic (she had probably at that point realized how corpulent I was, although I hadn’t, and sought to do something about it, although I never wanted to play football.) and said playing football would allow me “to use my weight.” I played for two years. My sixth grade, I gained a ton of weight and found it difficult to breathe during my games (I was also terrible at football, which should be a surprise to no one). For some reason, though, I lost weight that year (maybe it was walking home every day? Maybe, but I also got pizza literally every day I walked home…) and was, as my coach said, “light as a gazelle” the summer of my seventh grade. I felt better, and could run longer distances, and was actually getting the hang of things. I daresay I was beginning to enjoy football… and then I broke my wrist. And when that happened, I was done with football forever. That year, I got really into online Pokémon communities, and would spend hours online talking with friends. It was in seventh grade, after my body had trimmed down a bit, that I became obese.

IX

I am looking forward to next year because I’ll be living across the street from the gym at Yale. I like to think that that’s incentive to go, but who knows if that’ll work out. I hope to begin working out more frequently and to successfully integrate it into my routine, like I did my freshman summer when the gym was on the way from work to my dorm in Mary Lyons. I am also looking forward to cooking for myself and being in charge of my entire diet, as opposed to surrendering myself to whatever is available and plentiful at the dining-hall. I like to think I’ll be much fitter in grad school, and generally be more at peace with my body. Maybe I’ll finally get that flat stomach I’ve been dreaming off, trim some of the fat off my chest, arms and legs and be okay with my body. I don’t need to be an Adonis, but I want to be content. Contentedness is perhaps the hardest thing to attain, because the bar is constantly pressed back with each advancement. It keeps you motivated, but it also can spiral out of hand. Finding the balance is the eternal challenge.

X

As I was looking for the featured image for this post, I found it remarkable that I can go through pictures of my younger self and say “I actually didn’t look that bad.” Please realize that some of these are pictures I’m seeing for the first time ever because I didn’t look at myself in the mirror, or in photos. I settled on this terrible photo from the summer of my junior year. Everything in this photo is dreadful; my hair, my thin creepy mustache, this hideous shirt….

 

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