“You know you look skinny, right?” The words felt like a too-tight hug that was starting to hurt.
At the time, I was in the middle of a weight-loss journey, having lost about 40 pounds from my adult high of 250 or so. (The “or so” is because I had no idea. I’d stopped weighing myself and stupidly refused to go to the doctor until I lost weight.) I’d gone from XXXL shirts and a 38-inch waist to larges and a 34-inch waist. But I was complaining about still feeling fat. That’s when my friend used the word “skinny” — something I’d never allowed myself to feel or understand no matter how I looked.
When I was 14 years old and 260 pounds, I looked in the mirror and saw raw, rubbed-together thighs, bright red stretch marks all over, and a stomach that succumbed to Earth’s gravitational pull. When I was 18 and 160 pounds, I saw those same stretch marks, dulled from years of settling in. Instead of focusing on my bony, broad shoulders, defined cheekbones, and the subtle outline of my ribs, I instead saw patches of leftover fat and hanging flesh. When I was 30 and back to 250 pounds, I saw failure. A teenage body coming back from the dead.
Then I started intermittent fasting, working out, and begrudgingly cutting back on cinnamon rolls. The pounds fell off. But by then, I’d learned something, first when I was in college and then again as a twentysomething after getting really sick following travel abroad: Getting in shape will never make me as happy as I think it will. Because no matter how I look or have looked in my life, I’ve never seen anything but a 14-year-old fat kid. Ever.
Even when my brain — and my friends — tried to tell me I was skinny, I couldn’t accept it. I started wondering if there was something deeper going on than simply body image issues, if I had something more serious going on, but had no idea who to talk to about it.
As it turns out, I wasn’t alone in that. “Sadly, body image issues are so underdiagnosed in men, but it turns out men deal with this all the time,” says Dr. Dana Harron, a clinical psychologist and author of Loving Someone With an Eating Disorder. “All of this stuff, from body image to dysmorphia, is a spectrum. We see so many six-packs in [media] but rarely address how men deal with these images.”
The good thing was that I no longer looked in the mirror and saw a fat kid. The bad news was that I looked in the mirror and saw a mystery.
I began 2020 a couple of years into a new body that had more muscle than at any point in my life and in the smallest clothes I’d worn since college. (I mean, everyone was wearing XL and size 38 in 2004, but you get the point.) My body was changing, and I tried to embrace it, doing cosmetic things I’d put off like tattoos and Lasik. The good thing was that I no longer looked in the mirror and saw a fat kid. The bad news is that I looked in the mirror and saw a mystery.
I simply had no conception of what my body looked like. I couldn’t tell if I was skinny or medium or dad-bod or still fat. I dreamed up gauges to use, like how clothes fit or how I thought other people who may have a similar body type might look or what people around me said. Predictably, that got me nowhere.
In hopes of at least understanding my body, I met a nutritionist to get some accurate metrics. We measured my metabolism and got a real body fat reading. We came up with a plan for me to measure and maintain my progress — to convince my brain to see a reality that had long been blocked off. I had a workout schedule. I knew exactly how to attack the gym. I was ready.
That was in March 2020. Then the pandemic came.
The past 10 months have been hell for me and my body. I didn’t get Covid-19, but Covid took its toll regardless.
I’ve gained somewhere between five and eight pounds — mostly, I assume, because my daily activity has decreased so much. Between virtual teaching, writing, and helping my son with distance learning, I sit. And sit. And sit. I feel it, too. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars trying to replace the endorphin rush, perversely enjoyable soreness, and feeling of accomplishment that going to the gym every day gave me. It’s not a drastic amount of weight, but the knowledge that it’s getting harder to lose it has given me immeasurable anxiety. My home feels like a dungeon of doubt; I’m even more unclear about how I look than when the year started. I don’t have many people who see me on a daily basis. I can’t trust the mirror. I’m rarely even wearing real clothes to know how they fit. Part of me is scared to try them on again.
I’m sure that people close to me are going to read this and send comforting words about how I look the same or they can’t tell any difference in my appearance based on Instagram pics or neck-up Zoom conversations I’ve done. But it won’t matter. This isn’t an issue with logic. It’s an issue with something else — something I can’t work through with common sense or even my own eyes. It’s just a thing I live with, and it’s become even more difficult to work through in the age of Covid.
“With Covid, your life has changed no matter where you are in life,” says Rebecca Solodovnik, a counselor in New York City. As she puts it, the uncertainty “[taps] into your worst-case scenarios: ‘Am I alone? Why am I alone? Will I be alone forever?’ And that can be tied into your body and how you look. If someone puts on a couple of pounds, they may suddenly look in the mirror and see someone totally different from reality.”
So why am I telling you all of this? Partially because I can’t help but feel for so many people with body image issues that are far more severe and debilitating than my own. To live with an eating disorder or body dysmorphia or any mental health issue is hard enough; to be doing it in this moment, with limited access to therapeutic and self-care apparatuses, is to feel alone.
The other reason I’m telling you this is because 90% of men have body image issues, and yet we don’t really talk about it. We don’t allow ourselves the honesty and vulnerability to discuss our insecurities. And it’s when we’re most unsure of ourselves, most emotionally taxed, that we have to be able to seek the help we need.
For me, I’m talking through these things in therapy. But there are other ways to face these anxieties head-on. “Challenge those thoughts that tell you people don’t love you,” suggests Solodovnik. “Try calming techniques and mindful breathing. You can go put something on that used to fit and realize it still fits. During quarantine, you can get on a Zoom call and have your friends remind you how great you look.”
However, our socially distanced reality has also brought new triggers. “I’ve seen that some people who didn’t have dysmorphia have it now,” Solodnovik says, “because of how often we’re looking at ourselves on Zoom calls. We’re obsessing. If you have to, change the settings so you don’t see yourself or put a sticky note over the box with your face.”
While social media can feel like a lifeline, it’s also a weight for our psyches. An Instagram parade of perfect bodies, angles, and filters can make us feel worse about ourselves — so both Solodnovik and Harron advocate putting the phone down and focusing on ourselves.
“Paradoxically, the best thing you can do is let go of what your body looks like,” Harron says. “Accept that Covid has put you in a space where you’re not totally able to determine how you look. Focus on how you feel. Spend time thinking about what your body can do. Think about what you can do that’s best for your insides and how you’re feeling.”
“So what does this mean for me?” I ask her.
“Well, you actually sound pretty healthy.”
“If you’re looking in the mirror and you say to want to look a bit different or if you want to feel a bit better or feel good, that sounds pretty okay,” she explains. “When you’re obsessing over an actor you want to look like or attaching your self-worth to how you want to look or can’t look in the mirror, that’s when you want to consider some interventions.”
It’s a comforting conversation, one that allows me a respite from my own doubts and questions. A reminder to focus on what’s most important during this time of uncertainty and constant questions. And a promise to myself that through it all, I can always look in the mirror and find a smile.