Three years ago, I was fat the way you imagine fat to be: bulging belly, ill-fitting clothes, and shortness of breath when I ran more than twenty metres. Now I’m not fat, at least not in the way you imagine fat to be.
I inhabit this limbo: not taking up too much space, but occupying it nevertheless; not lumbering through, but stumbling occasionally; not sticking out like a sore, swollen thumb, but sometimes ungainly and visible. I’m no longer fat, but I’m not exactly fit, either. I am the undecided vowel between the two extremities, opposite conditions that lead to opposite existences.
And in many ways, this life is stranger than my fat one.
My body is endomorphic, characterised by wider waists, large bone structures and a predisposition to storing fat instead of building muscle. I ‘tend towards roundness’. This means that even when I lose a significant amount of weight, there are deposits of fat that are much harder to burn through, usually deposited in the places you don’t want them – the stomach, chest and thighs.
Long story short, it is incredibly hard for me to achieve the ‘ideal’ body, with its sculpted abs, bulging arms, rock-hard pecs and broad shoulders. But when I set out on my weight loss journey years ago, that was the image of myself I was looking to cultivate. Eurocentric standards of attractiveness had dug their roots into my mind, deeper with every media image of the Channing Tatums and Chris Hemsworths of the world. Just look at the Google search results for ‘attractive male body.’
It all started well enough. I cut carbs and fattening foods and I worked out every day. As I shed the final months of my teenage years, for the first time in my life I was shedding the glutinous waste that had clung to my frame for as long as I could remember. My clothes were getting looser, and I got new ones that didn’t come from the high ends of the plus-sized section. Friends expressed their admiration. Women who never took notice before complimented my valiant efforts. It was a heady mix of emotion. I could – and did – cry tears of joy, and I chased the validation to the point of unhealthy obsession. I was finally becoming the body – and hence the person – I’d wanted to be throughout my adolescent years.
It wasn’t long before my searing triumph of weight loss ground to a near halt. My body had reached a point where I had more or less lost my deposits of subcutaneous fat, which lives just under the skin and can be burnt through fairly easily. But the visceral fat which stayed glued-on in the deeper recesses of my body was, and is, stubborn. It took far longer, and far more effort, to cut far less fat than I was used to losing in prior months. I still had more flab than muscle. After a long period of feeling better about my appearance, I felt like I was once more staring down the dark mental pits I thought I’d clawed my way out of.
This liminal space between ‘fat’ and ‘thin’ was confusing. Conversations changed shape. While I still received affirmation for the fat I had lost, suggestions as to how I could lose the fat I had left became more pointed. The political correctness which previously tempered such (mostly unsolicited) advice or observations seemed to have thinned out with me.
“You’ve put on some weight around your belly. Been eating again?”
“You couldn’t possibly have expected her to go out with you. It’s okay to tell you that now, no?”
When I played around with my clothing, a luxury I never had before, I was subject to a critical gaze that bordered on condescending. “Really? You’re wearing that?” My body seemed stranded in a place that defied easy categorisation, its shapelessness apparently making anyone who saw it uncomfortable. Questions of why I couldn’t, after all, lose the fat that remained on my body began creeping into my mind. Was I just lazy? Could I actually not discipline my diet the way I needed to? Was I destined for this limbo?
The thing about traditional masculinity is that so much of it is tied to the physical. Harry Brod points out physical strength as the obvious overarching feature, and other mainstream ideas of what makes one a ‘real man’ derive from this monolithic foundation. Aggression, dominance and muscle power form the cornerstones of this idea of masculinity. Studies largely show that ‘masculine’ facial features are considered indicative of physical strength, and are also more attractive to straight women. In Advertising and the Construction of Violent White Masculinity, Jackson Katz explains how advertising plays a major role in depicting the ‘male icon’ as someone who can use their body and physical characteristics to succeed, be it at work, in society or in their attractiveness to women.
In the early to mid-2000s, when I was growing up, even the regional media I consumed, specifically Hindi and Tamil movies, frequently invoked these hypermasculine images. Nearly every movie centred on a man who would invoke patriarchal ideas of honour and dominance to beat up a dozen other men at the same time, often to ‘protect’ a woman. Without even delving into the complexities of sexuality, gender identity and expression, it’s evident that the image of a man to which we’re most often encouraged to aspire is one with rippling muscles that he can use to assert his manliness.
Visual representations of unorthodox masculinities, even ones which purported to look at the idea of a man through radical lenses of gender, rarely (if ever) featured someone who looked like me, let alone a fat man. Photographs that ‘explore[d] masculinity’, captured its ‘feminine side’, or went so far as to ‘redefine’ it (NSFW), still featured athletic, lithe male bodies with traditionally masculine shapes and lines. Perhaps the curves, the softness, the appearance of any fat was still not masculine enough – perhaps it was even considered feminine?
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t feel like much of a man. I felt some triumph at having moulded my body through physical activity, but it didn’t feel sufficient. Strangely enough, even when I was quite overweight, I had not tied my sense of manliness to my appearance so much as to a general physical deficiency (or excess, to be more accurate). Whereas before I was broadly ‘fat,’ the sections that especially stood out now had names, names that spelt out my emasculation, names that were taunting, casually lobbed at me.
Love handles, a superficially cutesy term, but one that felt patronizing – someone with love handles couldn’t be anything but ‘cute.’ Moobs, or man boobs, are also considered insulting as they’re an intentional projection of effeminacy, a rejection of masculinity. The one backhanded compliment, the concession I got, was that of the ‘dad bod’ – it was okay to have some fat on you, women even like it! But the caveat is in the name – such a body was only acceptable on a father figure.
So now here I was, defeated by the rolls of flesh that crossed the boundaries of what was acceptable for a man.
So much of masculinity is defined with respect to the outer world, and so little of it to the inner. I wanted to be a man – but only in the sense that people around me would see me as one. I didn’t really interrogate what it meant to be a man, to be masculine, and why so much of it had to do with perception. Since I didn’t see the version of a man that I was in the images of men that dominated my cultural vision, I believed I was a lesser man.
It took me several months of therapy to understand my body image issues before I could even begin to tear them down. I had to unlearn my assumptions about the idealized form of masculinity being the only ‘real’ one. I believed I was taking up too much space. I first had to learn that I wasn’t, and then that the space I did take up was mine, and that was okay. I learnt to acknowledge my accomplishments, the work I had put in to lose the weight I did. I had to learn that whatever shape my masculinity took was valid, even if it wasn’t validated by the media and opinions I consumed.
The reason I still advocate for understanding masculinity in terms of our bodies, however, is that our changing conversations about masculinity haven’t changed enough to include many aspects of physical insecurities and complexities. There is much us men can do to inwardly defy masculine stereotypes, but we should also be pushing against stereotyping from external sources.
The body positivity movement has aided much progress, but I rarely see men in that space, openly talking about navigating the uncertain nature of our bodies. I rarely see acknowledgment of the fact that it’s not just being fat or skinny that requires acceptance, but every interstitial space in the range of unique bodies we inhabit. I’m tired of a narrow version of physical masculinity being championed, largely uncritically, even in progressive spaces, often at the cost of emotion-based masculinity.
In an interview for DAZED, one of my favourite musicians, James Blake, rails against accusations of being a ‘sadboy,’ someone who makes too much music about their feelings, their reality. “I’m just talking about how I feel now, and I will continue to write about how I feel,” says Blake, “without feeling like because I’m a man I shouldn’t do that.” For me, a huge part of my lived reality comes from the unnamed shape of my body, and my feelings attached to it. Talking and writing about this reality lends clarity to how I see myself, and by extension, how I see masculinity. It doesn’t matter if I’m the bulging ‘a’ of fat or the slimmed down ‘i’ of fit or something in between – my body, if I so choose, is a real man’s.