I learned I was fat when I was 5. I was at my best friend’s house, and his mom pointed to my stomach and told me not to worry. “You’ll grow out of this baby fat someday,” she said. “Before long,” she continued, “you’ll start to look more like the other boys.”
When I was 12, we had to run a timed mile for the presidential fitness challenge. It was wintertime, so we ran the mile in laps inside the school gym. Once the other kids from my 6th grade P.E. class had finished their mile, they were instructed to sit cross-legged around the perimeter of the basketball court and cheer the rest of us on.
At the 15-minute mark, there were two of us left. I tried my best to catch up to the other boy, but he finished a full two laps before I did. On my last lap, my classmates started to slap their hands against the echoing wooden floor of the gym in unison, chanting “Road-run-ner! Road-run-ner!” I wanted to walk out those gymnasium doors and never look back, but I kept running. Tears mixed with the sweat pouring down my bright red cheeks, but I kept running.
The summer after I turned 13, I went swimming with some of the boys in my neighborhood. They conferenced together in a whispered huddle at the edge of the pool before making their way back to the spot where I’d been left alone, treading water. They pointed out a group of girls they were hoping to meet at the opposite end of the pool. After an uncomfortable silence, one of them nudged the boy they’d elected to be their spokesperson. He told me I needed to stay here on this end so I wouldn’t get in the way or ruin their chances with those girls.
“You understand,” he said, “Right?”
I didn’t know what to say. I dove under the water and held my breath for as long as I could. When I surfaced, they were gone. I followed his instructions. I floated on my back in the shallow end for over an hour, staring up at the towering, mildew-streaked ceiling ― wondering if I would someday find friends who wouldn’t be ashamed to be seen with me.
This year, at age 39, I reached my heaviest weight: 312 pounds. I’m 5 foot 9.
Something even more surprising happened this year: I feel the happiest I’ve ever felt. I’m not happy because of (or in spite of) my weight. I’m happy because I’ve found people who accept me as I am. As I’ve started to let that in, to take them at their word, I’m learning how to accept myself too.
Don’t get me wrong; there are, of course, a host of downsides to being morbidly obese ― many of them health-related. I am pre-diabetic. I have sleep apnea, hypertension, acid reflux, major back and knee problems and several other issues that could be mitigated or resolved through weight loss, which is why I am going to be having bariatric surgery in three days.
But I wanted to write this now, before that physical transformation begins, as a reminder to myself. I’ve lost a significant amount of weight before. I’ve had a healthy BMI as an adult. It’s not an imagined hypothetical that people respond differently to me when I am thin.
I used to carry around a frayed-edge photo in my wallet from the last time I was at my heaviest. I would pull it out to show people when they commented on my dramatic weight loss. We would look together at the larger version of me I held in my hand and commiserate about how sad I must have felt then, and how elated I must be now.
It’s true there was a relief and a freedom I experienced in a lighter body. But getting more attention from people was a mixed bag. Did they love the fat version of me less? Did they suddenly find the thin version of me more worthy of their time and affection? Because I didn’t feel any different. My body was different, to be sure, but nothing about the contents of my mind or desires of my heart had changed.
Every time I pulled out that photo from my wallet it felt like a betrayal to who I’d been. I would agree with the shocked person I was showing the photo to about the profound difference they could see between this fat person in the photo and the guy standing beside them, but that never felt true. When I saw those brown eyes smiling back at me from within a decidedly rounder face, all I could see was me. And all I could think is how I’d now become like those kids slapping the gym floor chanting “Road-run-ner!” and the neighborhood boys telling me to remain at the other end of the pool so my fatness wouldn’t embarrass them.
A few weeks ago, a group of my closest friends hosted a “last supper” for me. They wanted to make some of my favorite foods before I began my pre-op diet in preparation for my upcoming bariatric surgery. You can see all of us gathered at that dinner in the photo above.
I weigh over 300 pounds in that photo. But when I look at that photo, what first comes to mind is not my weight. I see someone who has found his place in the world. I see someone who is surrounded by people he adores. I see someone who writes, sings, dances, tells inappropriate jokes, and swears like a sailor. I don’t see a before picture. I see someone I’m proud of, someone I love.
I won’t be carrying this photo around in my wallet, I can promise you that. But if someone comes across this photo after my body has changed, I hope they will say, “You looked so happy!” And I hope I will remember that I found the friends I wished for while floating on my back looking up at the mildewed ceiling ― alone at the opposite end of the pool ― and reply, “Yes, I was. It was one of the best nights of my life.”