I have never been an athlete, but as is customary in helicopter parent world, I have been given many trophies for trying. Everyone got a shiny prize for participating, but for me, the real prize would be the after-game snack.
After morning basketball games, it would always be peanut M&M’s. Every tennis lesson I ever went to was capped off with a chilly, sweetened iced tea from the vending machine. There was nothing like the freezing sugar cooling down my rosy cheeks.
Of course, there were consequences. On the eve of every Rosh Hashanah of my childhood, my mother would take me and my brother to Nordstrom or Macy’s to buy new dress clothes. My mom would push Michael — who was an all-star on every court, field, and putting green he happened to walk upon — and me around the store with purpose. Dressing two growing boys who are three years apart is hard, but especially so when they are two very different sizes. My brother would always end up with a pair of slim black slacks, while I would have to eventually settle for khaki duds.
“Ooh, you have to wear ‘husky,’” my brother teased, referring to that euphemism used by purveyors of plus-size boys fashion, and I’d get upset. My mom was quick to defend me.
“Go pick out a tie,” she’d snap at Michael.
But that ugly word, “husky,” had an undeniable hurt behind it. I was a fat kid — not obese, but definitely fat.
Now I’m somewhere between fat and skinny, we’re both adults, and my brother is way nicer about my ever-fluctuating weight even though he powerlifts for fun. We’re closer than we ever have been before, and he’s trying to help me complete the ultimate cliché New Year’s resolution: to finally get in shape. But fuck Jenny Craig and all that basic nonsense — I have a past I’m running from to get me trim.
When I was 12, body types were sorted into distinct categories. While waiting to go to free swim at summer camp, it was explained to me by my friends that there were only three types of things you can be. There were the skinny kids, the fat kids, and the skinny-fat kids. The skinny-fat kids were on something of a broad spectrum; they were the guys who appeared to be skinny but had a secret gut, or the ones who looked chubby but really just had big shoulders. I sat in the grass with my towel covering up my baby-fat Buddha belly with my towel and realized I was definitely a fat kid, that I would never really be a skinny kid, and I decided to hope and pray I’d become a skinny-fat kid.
After puberty hit, I did lose that baby fat, and a move to Manhattan for college made me lose a couple pounds more. By age 19, was finally firmly in the skinny-fat camp and I was fucking proud of it. I bought new clothes from thrift shops like a dumb freshman should. My new hot-enough body was the last obstacle in accepting who I was before the long wrestling of accepting my sexuality. After struggling with image issues for so long, I was finally able to tackle what was on the inside, and I felt insanely good.
My chunky thighs were now kind of a perk. In bed, guys would describe them as “meaty” and me as “thick” — in the good way! It was weird to be someone’s idea of hot, but I embraced it. In the gay-nickname animal kingdom of bears and cubs, I was placed firmly into the “otter” camp: fairly skinny, maybe even a little cut, but not too muscly, with a hairy face and chest. For the first time in my life I was a certain type, a thing that guys actually looked for.
But last summer, I expanded my nightlife horizons into more shirtless establishments and it left me feeling fatter than ever. As my once twinky friends flocked to the gym and became muscle gods of the dance floor, I stalled and remained in light-bear territory. At 4 a.m. during pride weekend, only hours before standing outside in the blazing sun of the parade, I bumped into an acquaintance from college on the dark dance floor of a mega-club. When we were at NYU, he was positively out of shape and unattractive, and I never heard about him dating anyone, ever. But under the lights I saw his new body and his gorgeous new boyfriend. I mostly danced alone with my shirt half covering me up. That’s when I decided it was time to bulk up.
With the pressures from superficial dating apps and swimming in one of the hardest dating pools in the country, there’s a never-ending climb to look better. On the surface it’s about getting healthier, but there’s a dark part of me that just wants to belong and keep up. It’s essentially a trap — one that I’m aware of, but at the same time it seems silly to stay away from it entirely.
I knew that I could turn to my brother for help, and he designed a nine-week fitness program laid out in an Excel spreadsheet on the last day of November. He titled the document “Weapon X – the Rebirth of Physical Myles Tanzer.” There are detailed instructions for every exercise, along with links to YouTube tutorials. The spreadsheet ends with a picture of the hunky cast of Magic Mike — my motivation. All I had to do was follow the simple instructions and I could be Matthew McConaughey.
I was paralyzed with fear.
My body was part of this new identity that I had worked all of my courage up to accept and eventually love. The fear of changing it was too much for me, and I stopped going to the gym entirely. I carried my gym clothes in my bag every day to work, telling myself that this would be the day I would start, but before I’d leave the office I’d replace my workout plans with dinner reservations. I’d drink with anyone who wanted a beer. Anything seemed more appealing to me than the gym, and I shrugged off my laziness by telling myself that tomorrow would be the day. I gained close to 10 pounds in December and never wanted to walk into the locker room again.
But when I saw my brother over Christmas, he prodded me about the workout routine. Maybe it was the way he sneered at me when I told him I hadn’t started, but it sent a shock up my spine and made me feel like I was a husky little kid again. It was the same look he gave me in that dressing room all those years ago. I’ve come way too far and have had way too much introspection to just pretend a look like that didn’t happen.
That Monday I went to the gym and started the routine. It was hard, and I’m super inexperienced — YouTube tutors be damned — but I did what the plan said. Working on yourself is difficult, but it’s a little bit easier when you have a brother to prove wrong and men to chase. I’m trying, and although I won’t get a trophy this time, I know that’s good enough.