[1114 words: reading time ~5 minutes]
[Contains discussion of eating disorders.]
I hate running. It’s painful. It’s boring. It leaves me too much time inside my own mind.
I have vivid memories of running a half marathon around Cambridge in a pink rowing one-piece, wearing trainers with no grip that dumped me onto the muddy floor at least once, in the rain, with no training, after a week of physically and emotionally exhausting rowing races. It was hubris. When I finished, I could genuinely – for the only time in my life – no longer walk properly. I had pushed myself as hard as I could go. I had given everything. For the next three days, I walked with a limp. The only things that had kept me going were a meticulously selected set of running songs (angry teenage white boy music gives you wings), the promise of an extra fifty pounds of sponsorship if I made it in under two hours, and the knowledge that if I didn’t make it I would resent myself forever.
I hate running, but I love exercise. I realised after a year of rowing that the grinding monotony of endurance sports wasn’t for me, but I’ve been hitting balls against walls since I was eleven, and for the last few years I’ve periodically lifted things up and put them down again several times a week.
A lot of people say that exercise is good for you. It’s good for your body, it’s good for your mind, it’s good for the lacuna where your soul probably used to be before it was cored out by neoliberal capitalism. I think it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Having spoken to a fair few people about it, I wanted to put down in pixels some of my experiences of exercise, particularly (but not exclusively) its relationship with my body image.
I’ve always hated my body. When I was 11 some awful little gobshite at school made fun of me for my overly large nipples (I think he ended up in prison actually – to be fair to him though, they are pretty large) and I’m still conscious of them today (though I haven’t – thank god – taken the radical action of shaving all the hair off of them since I was 18). I was convinced I had fat thighs. I thought I had a double chin (I may well have done, though I can’t find visual evidence). As I grew (and grew and grew, reaching my current ridiculous height of 6’4″ by the time I was 15 or so), my attitude towards my body became ever more critical. I weighed about 85kg. I wanted to look like the skinny emo/metal guys I saw in music videos. That, I thought, was what girls liked. They didn’t like chubby boys like me. So I stopped eating as much. I lost weight. A few times, I considered sticking my fingers down my throat after I’d eaten, but I never did. That was a step too far; a direct action like that would mean I had A Problem. As long as your self-flagellation is invisible, it doesn’t count. I aimed to have a BMI of 18.5. Underweight was my goal weight.
At my thinnest, I was 70kg. I don’t know exactly when it was, but I looked something like this. You could see my ribs. I still felt fat.
When I discovered weightlifting, I saw the new aesthetic I wanted. I wanted to be stacked. Muscular. Beautiful. I thought if I could just lift enough heavy things, I would be satisfied with my body. Today I woke up, got out of bed, and went to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror. “Fat,” I thought. I weigh just under 90kg. I’m 192cm tall. I can pick up 240kg from the ground to my hips. I can squat 160kg. I can bench over 100. You can see my abs. People call me skinny. I look like this.
But I’m fat. And I’m also skinny. I’ll never not be both of those things. I’m simultaneously too big and too small. I compare myself now to the photos of me when I was 17, 18, 20, and I know that my biceps are bigger, my shoulders broader, my legs larger. I know that, by the standards of a society which fetishises men who are muscular and lean, I’m not doing too badly. But I simultaneously know that I’m both skinny and fat and too small and disproportioned and soft and my nipples are too big and my calves are too skinny and my hips don’t do that thing that they do on all the fit guys. I’m told that humans try to avoid cognitive dissonance – holding two contradictory ideas in our heads at the same time – but I can’t help but feel that this is just that.
I’m both proud of the body that I’ve built and disgusted by myself. Moreover, I’m now constantly noticing other men’s bodies. People always talk about (straight/bi) men staring at women, objectifying them. I don’t think I do that. In fact, I go out of my way to avoid it because I don’t want to make people uncomfortable. But I find myself involuntarily staring at men, comparing myself to them, wondering what their routine is, wondering how hard they had to work to get to where they are, wishing I had that arm definition or those trapezius muscles.
It’s impossible to go back. Once you’ve carved those paths into your brain – the paths that make you constantly examine your body for every imperfection, the ones that force your eyes to hover over every man you encounter – you can’t fill them in with neural cement. Even when I fall out of the habit of going to the gym, whether it’s because I’m travelling or stressed or feel like I’ve got too much work on to possibly take an hour out of the day to take care of my body, I still find myself dogged by these thoughts. The problem is, then they have foundation. I really am getting weaker. I am getting fatter. I am losing muscle and gaining fat and getting more unattractive by the day.
Even if I could go back, though, I’m not sure I would. I don’t know if I would trade this hyper-consciousness of bodies for the blissful self-loathing of my teenage years. I can’t even be certain that that is the trade-off: who knows how I would think today if I’d never started spending time shifting large amounts of iron? Maybe I would be perfectly content. Maybe I would still weigh 70kg and resemble a rake. We can’t know. This is all there is. I think I’ll take it.
I hate my body. But I could hate it more. You can always hate yourself more.