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Personal Essays

President Obama's Hands. Photograph by James Ball

Ballad of a Thin Man

In a country so proud of its apple pie, there is an element of distrust for thin men.

When we were teenagers, my male friends and I understood that we were inferior to girls in most areas (academics, social activity, even sports). Perhaps our only advantage was our ability to lift more weight than they could. Luckily for us, bodies were of paramount importance in high school. Being “ripped,” for instance, could compensate for being immature or inarticulate. Therefore we went to the weight room every day after school to get ripped. And since most of us were frighteningly thin, we took volatile weightlifting supplements like Glutamine, Creatine Monohydrate, Yohimbe Bark Extract, and Ultimate Orange to help us get ripped.

Of these supplements, Ultimate Orange was probably the most exciting. Banking perhaps on a resonance with Agent Orange, the infamous Vietnam-era crop defoliant, Ultimate Orange’s ad slogan was: “Mix. Drink. Explode!” The product design showed a giant radiating orange falling from the sky like an inflamed meteor. Every serving-sized scoop of pale orange powder contained 300 mg of caffeine, nearly four times the amount in a can of Red Bull.

I used to drink a tall glass of Ultimate Orange half an hour before entering the gym. Once inside, hands shaking, I slipped Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled album into my Walkman and timed my routine so that “Killing in the Name” reached its incendiary climax (“Fuck you, I won’t do what ya tell me!”) as I maxed out on the bench press, red-faced and concentrating every last particle of teenage angst, skinny bitterness, and caffeine into my pectoral fibers. Afterwards I sometimes threw up or passed out.

In the fall of my junior year, a lean young weightlifter from a neighboring town had a heart attack and died on his gym’s rubberized floor as a result of “stacking,” or combining, large doses of Ultimate Orange with Ripped Fuel, a fat burner with as much caffeine as Ultimate Orange. I was surprised he hadn’t spontaneously combusted! I would never have stacked those two supplements. Even so, his death made me reconsider my Ultimate Orange intake. I didn’t want to die, let alone in the gym. And so I stopped using Ultimate Orange and related substances for good. Soon after, the FDA banned the product because of its reliance on the stimulant ephedra, also known as ma huang—a Chinese herb once used to treat asthma, and known to induce irregular heartbeat, stroke, and sudden death. Ultimate Orange was re-released in 2006 under the headline: “New legal formula!”

Baggy jeans were stylish in the ‘90s, and useful because 1) when the wind wasn’t blowing, they hid the skinniness of your legs, and 2) they allowed you to wear sweatpants underneath.Having resigned myself to Creatine and harmless protein powders, I found it impossible to gain more than seven or eight pounds—when my goal had once been to put on 40, or 50, or 100 pounds. (Schwarzenegger, I knew, competed at 250 pounds.) Half of these precious seven or eight were concentrated in my stomach, accentuating my skinniness in the manner of a malnourished child. My lifting friends termed this condition “skinny fat,” where the muscles remain small, while the belly distends.

Then, devastatingly, in the spring of junior year I became—out of the blue—lactose intolerant. This prevented me from eating milk shakes, ice cream, and pizza, all essential sources of fat. Since age 10, I’d drunk at least five glasses of whole milk a day, and I thought I might have blown out my lactase enzyme as a result. I tried chewing Lactase pills, but to no avail. It suddenly seemed possible that I might lose weight, which would have been an unparalleled disaster.

I had, you could say, a weight complex. Few people knew of this weight complex, though, because to admit you had a weight complex as a teenage boy would have been—in the parlance of mid-’90s Massachusetts youth—“gay.” Not gay in the homosexual sense, exactly. More like “unfortunate” or “lame.” To make matters worse, I was unusually preoccupied with my appearance in reflective surfaces. This was “totally gay,” since it implied that I was vain, self-satisfied, in love with my own reflection, etc. In truth, I feared and despised mirrors for what they revealed about my physique. But I needed them to make sure what I had on didn’t make me look too skinny.

As I waited to fill out naturally, which my mom promised would happen, I hid my skinniness with extra layers of clothing. Physical disguise became an obsession of its own. Baggy jeans were stylish in the ‘90s, and useful because 1) when the wind wasn’t blowing, they hid the skinniness of your legs, and 2) they allowed you to wear sweatpants underneath, creating the appearance of bulky thighs and calves. Of course this produced a stark contrast with the skinniness of your upper body if you weren’t also layering with long-sleeve T-shirts and V-neck sweaters. It made the spring and summer months hell. And occasionally, someone would catch a glimpse of sweatpants above the waistline of your jeans and begin to treat you with suspicion.

Things changed when high school ended. I went to college in Maine, a chilly state that allows insecure skinny people to wear concealing fleece and down attire nine months of the year. It also discourages events like skinny-dipping and naked parties. Thus began my era of “sartorial nihilism,” during which clothes, as opposed to existence, lost all meaning. I stopped lifting weights entirely and began cultivating my brain. This was an attempt, I think, to get over my body, the way jilted lovers hurl themselves into new and all-consuming pursuits.

Coming upon a gaunt young Egon Schiele type, legs crossed at the knee, warming his brittle hands around a cup of coffee, I’d think, “Jesus man, eat something!”After leaving Maine, groggy and with hair askew, I drove straight to Brooklyn. Here, to my disbelief, skinny guys were…cool! Fashionable! Respected! Not to mention everywhere. It was like discovering a planet of skinny people. Pencil-necks abounded, evidently unashamed, even proud! The emphasis in New York, it seemed, was on what you did. And, yes, what you wore. But what you wore was often an expression of what you did, and the less care you gave to what you wore, the more it was implied that you did something cool, rendering clothing—and the bodies beneath it—almost irrelevant.

I embraced the heroin chic look by default. And yet, seeing my physique replicated endlessly around town, I treated it with a sort of detached contempt. Coming upon a gaunt young Egon Schiele type, legs crossed at the knee, warming his brittle hands around a cup of coffee, I’d think, “Jesus man, eat something!” Judging from my own experience, this fellow probably ate as much as anyone. Still, I felt an instinctive desire to help him, the way you warn a pedestrian to duck as a snowball whizzes toward his head.

One afternoon, while wandering the aisles of a Target, I caught sight of a truly gangly specimen—long black hair curtaining his sunken cheeks, coat-hanger shoulders, skinny legs in skinny jeans—and launched an unusually fierce attack on his lack of health and hygiene. It took a half-second to realize it was me, reflected in one of the store’s mirrored pillars. It was a priceless opportunity: seeing yourself as someone else might, then instantly stepping inside yourself and listening to the barrage of excuses for your appearance. If life were an experimental novel, such an episode might be described as a “seamless if disorienting shift from third to first person.” In my own defense, while still lingering in third person, I thought: “He spent his adolescence trying to gain weight, but it didn’t work. He doesn’t want to look like that!”

These memories came back to me as I read about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s critique of Obama’s body at a rally in Ohio just days before the election. “He needs to do something about those skinny legs!” Arnold brayed before a crowd of 10,000. “We’re going to make him do some squats. And then we’re going to give him some biceps to beef up those scrawny arms!”

I have read that, in the wake of Obama’s election, young black men noticed an increase in flirtatious looks from their white female counterparts. At least in my experience, young skinny men did not receive the same attention.As a boy I thought it possible that, with enough training and discipline, I’d look like Schwarzenegger. Instead, I look like Obama (proportionately at least). So when Arnold belittled Barack’s physique—“girlie man” clearly on the tip of his tongue—it was as if he were belittling my own. Furthermore, half of Obama’s electoral competition was an athletic female often likened to vicious dogs and fish. Was he insinuating that Sarah Palin could take down Obama—and guys like him?

I spent the weeks after the election silently justifying my low body weight to the governor of California and, by extension, to the opposite sex in general, which has tended to hold my skinniness against me.

Girls used to think I was responsible for being thin. “Jesus, don’t you eat?” a female friend wondered, half-seriously, our sophomore year of high school. “You look like a famine victim.” I did indeed look like a famine victim, but against my will. At the time I was furiously struggling to correct my skinniness through a vigorous weight-lifting regimen and a daily intake of more than 9,000 calories. To be exact, this included four meat-and-dairy heavy meals per day (until the lactose intolerance kicked in, at least), plus two MET-Rx Meal Replacement shakes and five grams of Creatine, an amino acid derivative, dissolved into a non-citrus drink.

Nevertheless girls persistently compared my physique to their pinky fingers. I understood of course that in the world of females skinniness is a culturally desirable trait, not an emasculating genetic defect. And so I pardoned their harsh skinny comments, and empathized with those who suffered from anorexia and bulimia. I also felt vaguely guilty, since these girls were starving and purging themselves to look, in a sense, like me. My slender frame represented a kind of feminine ideal, and my inability to put on weight despite consuming grotesque amounts of calories each day drove them wild with envy.

Still, I felt wronged, since to my mind, “You look like a famine victim” was the equivalent of saying to a girl, “You look like a whale.” And obviously one could not say this to a girl. One strived at all costs not to mention a girl’s weight, so as not to give her a weight complex or increase her existing weight complex to a self-destructive or pathological degree. I had my own pathological weight complex, after all. I knew what they were like.

As I have grown, though, some consolation has come from being tall. When you’re six-foot-two, girls often ask you to reach things they can’t. This is always a joy. “You’re nice and tall,” they say upon finding you in the supermarket, exasperated, as if they’ve been trying for five minutes to climb the shelves. “Can you reach those Triscuits for me?” The knowledge that you haven’t earned your height so much as been born with it is overshadowed by the sheer glory of reaching something for a girl.

Yet you rarely, if ever, hear the words “nice and skinny” applied to a male. The implication, I have often thought, is that being a skinny guy is not so nice.

Back in August 2008, the Wall Street Journal ran an article titled “Too Fit to Be President?” that outlined the potential drawbacks of Obama’s low body fat percentage. The fear was that Americans might not trust a guy who is skinnier than they are. His election three months later proved otherwise. Today, Americans are confident that rangy Obama can turn the entire economy around.

I have read that, in the wake of Obama’s election, young black men noticed an increase in flirtatious looks from their white female counterparts. At least in my experience, young skinny men did not receive the same attention. Perhaps because Lincoln broke the skinny barrier back in 1860. Or because male skinniness has become fashionable since the ‘90s, thanks to brothers-in-ectomorphy like Ashton Kutcher, Adrian Brody, and The Strokes. What I did notice after the election was an increase in self-respect. Seeing photographs of Obama with his shirtsleeves rolled up, confidently revealing his bony, braceleted wrists as he tries to solve the financial crisis, gives me hope—as much for myself as for the country.