'You were never fat'. Those exact words, or a myriad of similar expressions of exasperation, are always the response to me telling people I was a tubby kid. Whether it's comparing notes on adolescence with strangers that I find myself chatting rubbish to at some overpriced London gastro pub work landed us at, or it's one of those (increasingly rare) meet ups with old school friends, their hazy memories distorted from the passing decades, it's always the same. 'You were never fat. Fuck off were you fat.'
In fact, they are always half right in their assertions. I wasn't. But I was a chubby kid. Puppy fat amongst rake skinny friends; boy-boobs underneath my Oasis-inspired Adidas three stripe, long-sleeve t-shirt. Partly a product of ignorance on nutrition, partly as a result of being a fussy little shit, I felt that physically I was pretty low down the ladder. Summer holidays meant a struggle to keep the t-shirt on, regardless of heat; I never owned a pair of shorts in secondary school. In reality, I was never more than about a 36" waist - maybe 14 stone at most. But, at 12 years old, I recognized I was longer and wider than almost everyone else. A particularly telling weigh-in, during a science lesson led by a particularly old-school, hardline teacher, had me as the heaviest kid in the class. OK, I towered above him, but I even was heavier than the kid everyone called 'fat bastard'. I was the fat kid, without the identity.
I want absolutely zero sympathy for any of this. (Spare it for the guy people called 'fat bastard' to his face.) I want no sympathy because it was not a crippling illness, nor was it my single, overbearing worry. It was a frustration. And I want no sympathy because the whole thing absolutely made me.
Those infernal school scales set me on the way to a serious diet. OK, an ill-advised, nutritionally questionable, 13-year-old-in-1995, pre-internet-guide kind of a diet. But a diet nonetheless. Gone were sweets on the way home. Gone were seeing off a box of Coco Pops in two sittings. Gone were the trips to McDonalds to consume double cheeseburgers and extra large fries.
In...was nothing. No breakfast. No lunch. Maybe a diet fizzy drink. For dinner, the same as I always had. Maybe a pizza. Maybe some other banal, soulless, pre-health-conscious Britain comfort dinner. Nutrionally devoid of anything good, I was exhausted constantly, uninterested in everything, but I was getting thinner. I was out of the trousers that my dad could have fitted into and into slightly more flattering attire.
Of course, I took it too far. At the worst period, I was under 11 stone. Which, when you're 6ft 5, is pretty skinny. I still didn't think I was thin. But I had no concept of nutrition for muscle or tone, nor did I ever properly accept that my height simply stopped me wearing most of the clothes that the Britpop-era we grew up made ubiquitous. The irritating bloke from Menswear, or the singer of Suede, looked effortlessly cool in their leather jackets. When I put a similar one on, it fitted me like a crop top.
I do remember at the time that anorexia and bulimia were well covered, almost clichéd topics in the press. But always, always, the concern was for women. Boys just didn't have these problems. My parents never noticed; they haven't since. I don't expect they ever will. (I'd prefer they didn't. I don't need that conversation.) I am confident that these days there is much more scope now for males with these kind of thoughts to speak out. There are places to speak out and there is the social acceptance to give guys the confidence to do it. And I'm glad there is.
I have learnt from discussions with other tall people since that weight/size worry is a common complaint; call it body dysmorphia if you want, although I never liked the term. For me, it came from constantly being bombarded with images of fashion that are simply off limits if you're too tall to be able to buy clothes to replicate the look. Things are better these days - more diversity in society has led to more diversity in fashion. Clothes companies have actually worked out that a few extra sizes at the top end do help. Society is beginning to accept that men can take pride in themselves for looking the way they want without being labelled as vain, or effeminate, or any other similar insult that really wasn't ever that damning in the first place. As, increasingly, we are actually exposed to beautiful men in the media, not just beautiful women, naturally the spotlight has come too upon the insecurities the pursuit of beauty brings. I'm here to politely remind you they were always there. Just less resolutely understood.
In my adult life, I've come to terms much better with my natural size, with my feelings of inadequacy and with the fact that, actually, it really doesn't matter whether you're having a proper, proper paper bag day. Other factors have come in: a new era of nutrition conscious media has set us straight on how to look and feel better through diet. I exercise rather than sit on my backside playing Mario like I did at 13.
I'm happy enough with myself now too; I spend more time contemplating existentialist dread or the wanton destruction of life than whether my jumper looks a little unflattering. Of course, you never grow out of the worry, the concern. I sometimes have a day of eating nothing but vegetables as penance for a vicious few days of boozing.
It's more that you just come to realise that when it comes to your weight - and the expectation of how you should look - the world cares less about it than you think they do. But the world is starting to examine young men's insecurities a lot more thoroughly. And that is a damn good thing.
HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.
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