On Being Smaller

Colin Gillis in Avidly:

SmallThe other day, as I was returning empty trash cans from the curb in front of our apartment building, the older man who owns the home across the street from my apartment waved to me. “Hi! I don’t think we’ve met.” In fact, we had met, over five years before, when my wife and I first moved in to our apartment, and we had regularly greeted each other since then, or, at least, we had until recently. In the past six months, my appearance has changed dramatically. I lost a lot of weight, almost 100 pounds. After I explained what had happened to my neighbor, he shouted, “Holy shit!” several times in a row. In a way, my neighbor’s introduction was appropriate. This radical change in appearance has made me feel like a new person. My new body can do many things that the old one couldn’t, and my awareness of its expanded capacities imbues the future with possibility. I want to run a marathon, climb mountains, learn to dance—and, for the first time, my body is not an impediment to doing so. But the change isn’t just physical. Losing so much weight means that the world treats me differently in fundamental ways. In addition to physical mass, I am also unburdened from the psychological weight of stigma. As my body changed, its meaning changed with it—for other people and for me.

The world wants my happiness about this transformation to be pure. People who comment on my new appearance tend to describe it with metaphors of evolution or conversion, endowing the adipose tissue I used to carry on my body with moral as well as physiological significance. It seems that my weight was, for many, the physical symptom of a lack of virtue as well as a clear and present danger to my health. This was something that I always knew on an abstract level. Nobody ever accused me of a lack of virtue, the sense of failure, to my face. Now that I’m relatively thin, that’s changed. At my last annual physical, my doctor said, as he was examining my almost naked body, “Your wife must love the new you!” This was not the first time I had considered what effect, if any, the physical transformations wrought by weight loss and vigorous exercise had on my life partner’s perception of me, but it was certainly the first time someone else had baldly stated that she probably found me more attractive now. “She tells me she likes the new me, but she also insists that she liked the old me, too,” I replied, honestly. And added, also honestly, “Of course, one wonders.”

…But there was also something attractive and deeply pleasurable about being—and living—large, about cultivating huge appetites and satisfying them with abandon. Eating piles of calorie rich food and guzzling it down with wine is tremendously fun, and I look back on occasions when I did that with fondness, a hint of jealousy, and with only the slightest regret. And my large body was so powerful! I trained until I could deadlift 420 pounds. The rush of excitement doing this gave me, the sense of accomplishment, the physical pleasure of muscles flush with blood, was a palpable sense of strength that I carried with me, in body and in mind. Removing over thirty percent of my total body mass has entailed losses of pleasures that I once associated with being huge and that remain important for me. These are more than just the pleasures of regular excess in food and drink. I am physically smaller now and less strong than I once was. I may never gain back all of my old strength.