As I write this, the tape has my midsection measuring out at an eye-popping 43 inches. I wear size 38 pants (itself embarrassing), which means a full five of those inches run unrestrained and wild over the lip of Belt Loop Dam until arrested mid-free-fall by the seemingly arbitrary fact that they belong to the rest of my body. But those inches do belong: they’re part of my husbandness and fatherhood; part of my love for baseball, psychoanalysis, and Russian literature; part of my facility with numbers and my unfortunate habit of joking about matters too serious to joke about; part of the fact that I’m a left-leaning professor. When I teach a class, attend a meeting, spend time with my wife, play with my daughter, or hang out with my friends, my belly wants in on the action. Or rather, it’s just there, getting in the way of the action; it has its own version of hanging out.
Luckily or unluckily, I’m no stranger to hating the body my genetics have saddled me with. In grade school, an all-out-of-proportion backside earned me the nickname Raindrop; I tried my best always to face forward. In junior high, the fine, dark fuzz that prematurely appeared on my upper lip seemed to scream, “Pubic hair down below!” I thought my preadolescent moustache was an advertisement that I’d discovered masturbation. Once I was old enough to shave, this problem was erased with such ease and finality that I was surprised 20 years later on the psychoanalytic couch when moments of irrational shame traced themselves back to this time.
If only I could have shaved off that portion of my body where the gluteus was at its maximus just as easily! As a teenager who wanted a girlfriend before knowing what to do with one, I’d buckle a belt around my derriere, pull my pants over it, and study myself from every angle in a large mirror. If the one-inch swath of indentation weren’t so obvious, I’d have gone to school dances that way.
Instead, I crash-dieted and played basketball until sweat ran in rivers down my back. All my weigh-ins during that time were superstitious events: I’d weigh myself only after showering and drying myself thoroughly and before drinking any water, trying to give myself the best possible chance on the scale. But it worked. I have a picture of myself at 15, scowling on the beach during a family vacation on the Jersey shore. Besides nearly being able to carry off the look of an inner-city tough, I actually had abs—abs so sharply delineated you could count them. The only remaining evidence of those admirable abs are in that photograph, which my daughter refuses to believe is really a picture of a once-skinny me.
I should mention that I’m short—5’4” short. This was bad enough in grade school, when I was the third-shortest kid in my class. But then I became aware that I wanted girls to like me, and that girls dug tall guys. I stretched myself on a pull-up bar over my bedroom door religiously over a period of months, but there was no changing height. For a long time, I cursed the fact that I didn’t have the confidence all tall men possess as a birthright. More recently, I’ve come to think that perhaps it’s a good thing I’m short: if God had made me tall enough to be dangerous in basketball, I’d have been insufferably arrogant.
Somewhere in there, before the crash diet and not long after I started shaving, I began to develop a layer of chest fat that too closely resembled a girl’s breasts for my comfort. Underneath my nipples were little hard nodes I’d never noticed before. And wasn’t it always clear that I’d inherited my mother’s (round and hippy) rather than my father’s (lean, almost frail) body type? We were learning about hormones in health class, and I started to worry that there was something going on hormonally that would end with me being the bearded lady in a circus somewhere. It’s one of the few times I can remember having a heart-to-heart with my father. We were spending a week in Wildwood, New Jersey, and while the rest of the family was in the kitchen, I pulled my father outside to examine me. With my hand, I placed his forefinger on my right nipple and pushed down.
“Nothing to worry about,” he said with an air of manly expertise. “Everyone has those.”
My father’s words were enough then to quell fears of impending gender bending. But no one could’ve convinced me that a short, hippy teenager with man-boobs had any chance to score a girlfriend. Still, after body- and gender-image difficulties that might today be diagnosable, I emerged from high school genuinely skinny, and a new start in college had me transforming from Raindrop Girl to Regular Guy. After college, I worked out religiously, ran four New York City marathons, and was as fit as anyone I knew. The fellow marathoner I was seeing once confessed she felt “intimidated” by the shape I was in. If she could see me now, she might instead be intimidated by the formidable prospect of trying to put her arms all the way around me. What happened?
My waistline’s saga began with the pregnancy of my wife, Wendy, eight-plus years ago. I claimed sympathetic pregnancy at the time, but do sympathetic pregnancies last eight-plus years? When Wendy was in her ninth month, we had a belly-measuring contest. We were standing in the kitchen, awaiting a pizza delivery, and I was both boasting and fearing I was almost as big as she was. She didn’t think so, and waddled off to retrieve a tape measure from her sewing kit.
When she got back to the kitchen, she warned me, “Don’t push out your stomach, and don’t try to hold it in, either. Just let it sit there naturally.”
I won the contest by an inch. Wendy started laughing and then apologized, but I found her laughter consoling. Even as a fat guy, it seemed, I was loved. Or at least entertaining.
My belly and I haven’t looked back since. Over the past eight years, accidentally catching a passing glimpse of myself in mirrors I try studiously to avoid, or struggling with a pair of pants that have suddenly decided not to fit, I periodically awaken—as if for the first time—to an awareness of a gut that has gotten way out of hand. I’ve made several semisuccessful runs at reducing, only to bounce back each time bigger than ever. I can’t see if my shoes are untied without bending over, and I can’t sit comfortably in the desks my students slide into easily. Still, I refuse to see myself as being fated to have a big gut forever. I hark back to the diet I put myself on when I was 15 (only 26 years ago!) and tell myself I can lose this weight when I finally put my mind to it. I just need someone to take over my responsibilities and pay me a living wage to hit the gym every morning and evening.
One of the weirder things about getting increasingly wider is that the sense I have of my body’s location in space hasn’t yet caught up with its actual location. Too frequently, plenty of room doesn’t end up being plenty of room. I’ll be negotiating a path to the kitchen counter and be astounded at how many people, places, and things I bump into. I’ll knock stuff over that’s seemingly well beyond my reach. Church pews and movie theater seats have become opportunities for significant collateral damage. It never seems remotely possible that I take up the space I do, tactile evidence notwithstanding.
And I have to wrestle with my sense of self in other ways, too. I’ve developed asthma along with my weight gain, and I can’t blame students who see me as the sweating, wheezing, fat guy trying to climb the stairs as they breeze past. When my daughter Emily was a preschooler, more than one of her friends made no bones about telling her that her father had “a big tummy.” Emily, bless her heart, says, “I like your belly, Dad. I can do backflips off it.” And it’s true.
My wife, though, is less enthusiastic about the new possibilities of playing around. Wendy is nearly as slim as the day I met her in college, and she’s a good-enough sport to remain mum about the fact that I’m not. But her eyes get big whenever she encounters me in a state of partial undress.
“I love you,” she says, accompanying her words with a ritual rubbing of her resident Buddha’s belly, “but I’m worried about your health. We’d like you to stay around a few more years.”
I’d like to feel that my sex appeal hasn’t deserted me forever. I’m fully aware that for a married man, other women are off limits. And I know in my heart I’d never be unfaithful; that’s not how I roll. Instead, in my fantasies, I’m turning down propositions. And perhaps that’s a part of the unconscious motivation to stay this big. Maybe a wish never to be tempted finds a simple resolution in my expanding waistline, which not only makes it physically tougher to “get close,” but also advertises the lifetime of middle-aged boredom I offer to all comers. Along those lines, I’ve twice had to face ex-girlfriends of mine at conferences I’ve attended, and they’ve been miserable occasions. Somehow, just as Wendy has, they’ve managed to stay slim. Both times I knew ahead of time I’d be running into them, and I dieted and exercised madly for a few days beforehand, as though years of manufactured fat would obligingly go into hiding while we reminisced.
Vanity aside, though, I know I’m endangering my health. There’s much current research to suggest that apple-shaped men—those who tend to accumulate waistline fat—are at a far greater risk for heart disease than pear-shaped men, who accumulate weight below the belt. This is nothing to treat lightly. If I want to be around to see my grandchildren, I’ll have to become shaped less like an apple, and more like a carrot. Part of the problem, though, is that health information makes me hungry. I read apple or pear, and I think food. When I knew I was about to embark on this piece of writing, I told several friends I was going to take readers along with me as I lost inches. Instead, my journal entries read:
- Fried fish, french fries with Daniel
- Emily to McDonald’s before school
- Took Wendy to try the best pizza in DC
- Discovered the perfect pretzel
In more than two months of measuring, I’ve managed to lose only half an inch, and I’ve given up journaling entirely.
My excuse? I have so much on my daily plate as a father, husband, and member of the workforce that worrying about how my body looks just doesn’t make it to the front burner anymore. Maybe, at 41, I should be allowed to relax a little, allowed to let my horizons expand. But even as I give myself these outs, I’m aware of the fact that my 20th reunion is a mere six months away. The thought comes automatically: certain people will be there. Certain women who, even when I was young and lean, weren’t interested enough in my promise. Certain aging-well and still-fit men will be there, too. In such arenas, doesn’t one’s worth have an inverse relation to one’s girth? Or, possibly, I’ll stand proudly under the reunion tent with Wendy and Emily at my side, allowing my globe of a middle to signify the world of connectedness I now inhabit.
Illustration © Adam Niklewicz
Matthew Petti, PsyD, holds an MFA in creative writing from American University. He’s currently an assistant professor of English at the University of the District of Columbia.