“I look like I work out, don’t I?” I ask Elizabeth.
“Sure, when you have clothes on,” my wife answers with more honesty than my ego was expecting.
A self-absorbed frown looks back at me from the large bathroom mirror. I pinch at my middle, flex my biceps, and wonder if my head would shrink were I to lose weight.
A recent video-gone-viral demonstrated just how much makeup and photoshopping go into many of the images that make it into ads and puff-piece articles on women. They re-colored skin, stretched legs, widened eyes, cleared away natural blemishes, and augmented curves. The end result was astonishing; the model looked unnatural, and the thought that she looked like one of the Thundercats occurred to me. I expected her to purr and lick the back of her hand before dragging it over her face.
The unfortunate title of the video was “Body Evolution.”
After viewing “Body Evolution,” I suggested to my wife that women should no longer be falling into the trap of unrealistic expectations, because they should know by now that nothing in print on screen is always as it appears to be. A razor thin line pressed into the soles of my feet as I assured her that her natural beauty and softness was just what my matured sense of desire and good taste needed.
I can’t recall the details of her response, because I wasn’t really listening; I’d heard it all before. “Women and girls have unrealistic expectations of beauty and fitness forced upon them at every turn, blah, blah, blah…”
Insert that self-absorbed frown here…
In addition to already having heard the blah, blah, blah, my mind was too busy traveling back in time to pay her any attention.
Stripped to my underwear, I sat atop my doctor’s vinyl torture table with my legs dangling over the side, like a toddler on a park bench. My hands were tucked awkwardly beneath my knees, and I stared down at my socks, wondering if I should have removed them. The door swung open without a warning knock, and I startled in surprise. I barely had time to sit up straight, suck in my gut, and puff up my chest to flatten out my budding moobs before the doctor crowded into the tiny room. He swung the door shut without a hello and reached for the clipboard that held what I imagined to be his male-nearing-forty checklist. He stood and read in absolute silence for several moments before acknowledging my presence with a look over his glasses.
“Ah yes, I see. You are a mesomorph,” he noted, and then dropped onto a wheeled stool and rolled up to invade the personal space between my bare knees.
“A what?” I asked with innocent ignorance.
“A mesomorph,” he replied, his tone supporting the ignorance in my voice, but not the innocence.
“Which means you could be either fat or thin,” he bothered to answer as he began to poke at my flesh and tick boxes on his checklist.
The thought occurred to me that the paper liner to which the moist backs of my knees were stuck cared more for my well-being than he did. As a form of protest I remained silent for the remainder of the examination, except to answer his terse questions with terse answers.
Hey Doc, does my mesomorphic ass make these 34-inch waist jeans look big?
Not long after that visit, I committed to completing a round of P90x, an intense workout and eating regimen that I am convinced was required training for Spartans. For the first week I could not touch my own face because the muscles in my arms would not allow it, and over the course of those 90 days I was at times reduced to tears by wishes for the hollow carbs of a piece of white and wonderful bread, and to mindless sobbing at the sensual fantasy of devouring a candy bar. The brutal workouts, sleepless muscle-pain nights, and absence of sugars were sure to pay off however, and by day 90 I would shake the earth as I walked, making it impossible for people to notice my physique.
A couple of months into the program, someone did at last notice.
“Um, Matt, are you okay? I just thought I’d ask, because you have been looking gaunt lately. You aren’t, you know, sick, are you?” a client asked, his hand on my arm and his voice hissing the question into a whisper, the way people do when talking about cancer.
I assured him that I was fine, thanked him for noticing my weight loss, and informed him that I was working out every day and eating right for the first time in my life. I left his office divided in my thoughts; while I was delighted to know that the changes were visible, I was less than thrilled to discover that I appeared to others as though I were descending into death. The pounds I had shed were barely into the double-digits, and people were starting whisper, but not in the way I had hoped they would.
The 90 day regimen ended and I looked down at my abs in search of the promised six pack. My stomach was flatter, my body leaner, and my budding moobs had returned to being little more than nipples, but I felt like I had the first time I unwrapped a McDonald’s cheeseburger; my body didn’t look like those in the commercial. I had spent 90 days living at the very edge of my breaking point, purging my body of the everyday toxins of a wasteful life, asking the unimaginable of muscles that I wasn’t previously aware I had, and consuming an ark-floating amount of water. Committed to sacrifice and hard labor in exchange for results, I had pushed through the most difficult physical challenge that I had ever faced (excepting my vasectomy, of course). My body had shed more weight (18 pounds) in that short period of time than it had picked up in the ten years leading up to it.
I was as ripped as I had ever been, but without the movie star six pack I still felt a little bit like a failure.
Just last week, almost five years after my failure to achieve six pack status, I ate an orange. Peeling it was an exercise in patience and good faith. The thick rind resisted my efforts to separate it from the (hopefully) juicy bits (they weren’t). The orange is to me a dichotomy, and eating one makes me feel ridiculous and wasteful, because the rind is the most nutritious part, and yet we cast it aside.
The serial killer in “The Silence of the Lambs” knows what I am talking about; I bet he carefully peeled his oranges and threw away the inside, knowing the greater value of the skin.
After flossing the sinews of that dry and bitter orange out of my teeth, I ate a candy bar. The wrapper peeled away with no effort at all, and I beheld the beautiful chocolate temptress in all of her naked glory resting in the palm of my hand. No need for photoshopping here. After a brief and sensual look, she melted in my mouth, leaving my emotions at odds; I was satisfied, yet still wanted more.
That night my children laughed and Elizabeth shook her head as I stood in our kitchen and ranted about the ease with which I could devour anything that was sure to eventually kill me, and my frustration at the work involved when it comes to consuming food that was sure to prolong my time on Earth.
I pointed at our new (and expensive) juicer. “Sure, it only takes two minutes to make juice, but you spend the rest of the day cleaning the damn thing,” I whined.
It didn’t help that I had read an online article written by an “expert” that vilified just about anything I am inclined to put in my mouth, and even went so far as to include some things that I’m not, namely salad, yogurt, and granola. Why are we as a race so obsessed with proving ourselves wrong in everything we do? From food consumption to carbon footprints to belief systems, we revel in discovering our own futility.
I will most likely die from a heart attack induced by the labor-intensive peeling of a piece of fruit.
Ryan Gosling plays the lead in one of my favorite movies. His character lives a simple life guided by a strict set of rules that not only protect him, but also preserve him. He says very little throughout the film, but his silence carries the weight of a tragic back-story that we aren’t ever told but think we have pieced together, and because of that we can forgive, envy, and eventually join in his detachment. He exudes cool with every movement, from the simple act of hoisting of a bag filled with groceries to that of donning his white satin jacket complete with golden scorpion embroidered on the back. His character is something I want to be but never will, and so after watching him drive away into the night, I turn off the television and return to my normal, average, wonder-what-the-next-day-holds (besides cleaning out the damn juicer) life.
In a high definition world where Ryan Gosling’s marble-cut chest exudes passion, Bradley Cooper’s piercing blue eyes beckon, and Brad Pitt’s king-of-the-jungle hair whispers invitations to fantasy on the wind, why do we assume that only women and girls suffer from body image issues?
In another life I should have been a comedian, but not because I believe myself to be a funny man, capable of standing in front of large crowds that are going to be angry if I don’t make them laugh. Comedians are rarely the epitome of perfect fitness and clear complexion, blessed with brooding eyes and keen fashion sense. Most comedians are ugly, pasty-skinned, balding introverts that take self-loathing and bad habits to Olympic levels. They incorporate their flaws, fat, and general apathy about being average into a running monologue that sparks both laughter and an internal stocktaking of life in their audience. They allow us a safe place to laugh at ourselves while nodding our heads in understanding agreement. I should have been a comedian because their self-abusing narcissistic existence is a goal within my reach. In fact, (like most of us) I am already there.
43-year-old white male standing at 6 feet and weighing 195 pounds (after a shower to wash away excess dirt, dead skin cells, and too much hair gel) seeks affirmation as an attractive member of the human race.
I can’t even grow a real beard, but I like my balls cancer-free, and so for No-Shave November I went without a haircut. This has not been easy for me, because I like to keep my thick and unruly hair high and tight. Haircuts have been like cheap therapy after a childhood of at-home haircuts from my father that often left me looking like the fifth Beatle (the bowl-style mop-top Beatles). I hated those haircuts, and it took leaving the country to live in a third-world corner of the world at the age of nineteen to get my hair cut professionally for the first time.
I have tried to grow my hair long before, but my patience wears thin as it starts to tickle my ears and cause the back of my neck to itch. In addition to the discomfort, when left to its own devices without gel, it looks like a wig made from roadkill. It is a true blessing, I know, the fact that I have retained so much hair when so many men my age are balding, but what good is an overabundance of hair when it won’t flutter in the wind and make women shiver as it sweeps across my soulful eyes?
The other night Elizabeth and I saw a movie that ended with an advice-dispensing voice over from the main character. He admonished us to live every day as if we had made the choice to live it a second time in order to enjoy the little things, people, and moments that made it unique, happy, and special. His advice was accompanied by a familiar song about being the luckiest, and a montage of blissful family moments.
As I listened to this man and watched his happy moments fade to black on the big screen, I began to believe that it was possible; I could live every day with my eyes open to the things that made it worth living again. My relationship with my kids could be a never ending exchange of thoughts, advice, experience, and love, and my time with Elizabeth could forever be fresh and new, with spontaneous outbursts of laughter, dancing, passion, and joy.
The following night I climbed out of bed at 11:30 in order to go and retrieve our daughter from another one of her many social activities. Elizabeth looked across the room at me as I donned my jeans.
“Kid, get a haircut; it doesn’t look cool,” she said to me in her direct but loving way.
“This from a woman whose bed head makes her look like the love child of Gene Wilder and Phyllis Diller,” should have been my witty comeback, but I was too busy nursing my bruised ego.
Oh well, tomorrow’s the same day.