“I am in shape. Round is a shape.” – Anonymous
Across America, January has become 31 days dedicated to self-improvement. More money is spent on memberships and advertising for gyms, weight loss programs, and physical fitness equipment such as abdominizers and glute masters than any other time of year. Personal trainers are once again in high demand as disgusted, over indulged adults have moments of clarity with buttons popping, pants ripping, beds breaking, partners criticizing and television validating that something literally must change. Time is running out as the arc of a cold winter sun climbs in the southern sky and with each degree comes the certainty that soon one must don a bathing suit or remove their shirt in public.
Perhaps more than any other program in popular culture, The Biggest Loser television show typifies the state of America parading a two ton assembly line of grossly overweight Yanks through fitness regimens directed by trainers Alison Sweeney, Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels. With her super-hero abs, bleached teeth and prison guard chin, Ms. Michaels encourages, cajoles and berates her Team Red contestants through a physical and emotional wilderness as they seek to heal their lives and find that “inner thinner” person that is struggling to be free. In some cases, contestants may find that they have several people living inside of them. Depending on your perspective, the Biggest Loser is a moving spectacle of human determination or a frightening flashback to the time you and your children were almost stampeded at a Cinnabon counter at Disney’s Epcot Center
This holiday season was a rough one for this old calorie counter. I am not sure exactly what triggered my sudden lack of self-control – teenagers, Mary W’s famous lemon bundt cake, health reform, The Giants collapse or a pending knee operation. I approached each dinner party and cookie tray as if I were a Hemmingway protagonist living moment to moment during the Spanish Civil war. “Ask not for whom the dinner bell tolls, it tolls for me.” “Eat up my friend, for tomorrow, we all die – or at least have to put out the trash.”
By January 2nd, I felt like a walking “Yo Mama” joke. “He’s so fat, when he turns around, his friends throw him a welcome back party.” “ He’s so big, he could be married to three women and they would never meet.” “ He’s so large, his cereal bowl comes with a life guard.”. In the past, my Christmas binge would lead to weeks of self loathing and inaction. Then something would usually happen in late January or early February. Perhaps, it was the realization of an upcoming trip to a warm climate or the development of New Year’s photos where I could swear that I had a small moon orbiting around me.
Fortunately, over the years I learned that overindulgence could be domesticated simply by getting back on the horse – or in this case, the elliptical machine. After years of running and scoffing at people who chose treadmills and machines over asphalt and open road running, I have become a gym rat. Every January, I now watch as new inmates, pregnant with remorse and resolve wander into the gym to tackle treadmills, activate latent muscle groups and begin a path toward self-improvement. For some, it is court ordered – – a spouse or physician has laid down the law that the consequences of an indolent and carbohydrate filled life has accelerated their advance toward chronic or catastrophic illness. For others, it is a closet epiphany as they discover that some malicious necromancer has shrunken their entire wardrobe.
I cannot help empathize with these ardent amateurs as they attempt a bicep curl, a bench press of 135lbs, a pull-up or pull-down. I watch in amusement as they awkwardly approach the aquamarine squishy ball with its five odd utters poking out as if to say, “ here I am fatty. Care to do a few crunches?” Men and women approach it differently. Women join classes and seek the companionship of others. They want encouragement and community. Men are in denial. Most waltz into the gym and pick up where they left off in college – trying to bench 225lbs – and promptly injure themselves. Others cautiously lurk in the shadows waiting until odd hours to avoid the jury of their better-conditioned peers who seem to be silently watching in distain. Within weeks, most are tragically gone – too discouraged, too sore or too apathetic to sustain the routine necessary to restore their bodies.
Some turn to professionals for help combining a professional trainer with portion control masters Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers. A few nostalgic coeds revert back to college days and begin starving themselves – – drinking Tab cola, eating lettuce leaves and then secretly binging on M&Ms when everyone goes to bed. The most well adjusted among us dismiss all of the superficial pressures imposed by our “makeover” society and declare themselves “zaftig” and proud of it. These well proportioned kings and queens of cushion reason that they are wonderful monuments to the golden age of Peter Paul Rubens. In that gilded time of art and consumption, abs meant absence of prosperity. Thin was not in.
We can now point to Queen Latifah, the late Barry White or Kirstie Alley as successful full figured celebrities who achieved utter acceptance from a highly self conscious society. I am actually relieved to see that our societal stigma with weight is waning and that we actually have created a new class of celebrity – the Big Handsome Man ( BHM ). According to Wikipedia, “Big Handsome Man or sometimes Big Beautiful Man (BBM), refers to a physically or sexually attractive fat man. These men are large to extremely large. There are many subcategories of BHMs. Some are men who just happen to be large, while others attempt to become fatter. Some of these men are insecure about their size, while others embrace their larger bodies and feel confident. Women who are attracted to BHMs are called Female Fat Admirers (FFA). In the gay community, BHMs are called chubs, and men who are attracted to BHMs are known as chubby chasers.” Damn, and all these years I have been passing on those Krispy Kremes.
Body image is a tricky thing and we all understand that the true beauty of an individual is reflected most in their actions. Yet, we all crave love and attention. When we falter, we overreact and declare martial law on our lives through diet and excessive remedies. As I have gotten older and wiser, I have come to learn the pitfalls of pendulum swings and fads. Perhaps my favorite story concerns my very close friend, Robert whose 24 hour fit of self improvement left an indelible mark on his family, his pocketbook and his living room carpet.
It was a New Year and Bob was surrounded with the usual thousand good intentions that fell silently around his head like ticker tape confetti. Yet, his main emotion this January 1 was utter disgust as he considered his physical condition. Long nights and weekends spent as an analyst at a New York investment bank had rendered him pale, overweight and unable to even climb the stairs at Grand Central without heaving like a climber on his final approach up K2. The lithe college athlete and gym rat who had spent countless hours playing pick up basketball was now an indentured, gold collared pig.
On this particular January morning, Bob was coming off a weekend spent with friends watching football – eating pizza, chicken wings, chips and sodas. He avoided the mirror as he slipped into the shower – careful not to wake his wife, Ann, who would sleep in an additional two hours and then head to yoga class. In a troubling turn of events, Ann had recently stopped reassuring him when he would rhetorically ask her if he was getting fat.
Bob quickly dressed and slipped into suit pants that had been gratefully adjusted to 39” in the last month. The baggy pant legs and spacious shirt made him feel like a rap performer in a woolen, pinstriped costume. His normal commute would take him downtown where he would exit, cross to local food emporium for a breakfast burrito and a four-shot vanilla latte. Today, everything would change. Today he was going on a diet.
At the food emporium, he nervously passed the scones, donuts and empty carbohydrates and ventured into a new neighborhood of colorful health foods. Directly ahead of him stood a cornucopia of fruit – bananas, sliced kiwi, Red Delicious apples and plump tangerines. He grabbed two apples the size of soft balls and poured himself a 20 ounce black cup of coffee. By 8:20 AM, banker Bob was at his desk – having consumed his high fiber breakfast and 20 ounces of muddy Green Mountain French Roast. He was energized. He was prepping for a huge meeting with a corporate client who was looking to refinance almost $2B in debt. He was getting a chance to lead the presentation. Perhaps, his new diet and exercise regimen would give him the extra confidence he needed to finally get promoted to the capital markets team.
At 10 AM, the first intestinal rumblings began. He shifted uncomfortably in is chair but was on the phone and unable to get up to use the restroom. Sensing that he may be suffering from trapped gas, Robert moved again hoping that no one would notice if he engaged in a sudden but silent release of methane gas. As the pressure was building, he could stand it no longer and eased to his left. To his horror, a floodgate opened resulting in a very embarrassing accident. This was not a small accident but a very substantial one that would be impossible to disguise.
His suit pants, were already bleeding dark in the seat and he was forced to shuffle to the restroom. Once inside the lavatory, he realized his situation was dire, very dire. So dire in fact, that he must escape the office, take a cab uptown to his co-op, and race to the office before the client arrived at 11:30AM.
Arriving at his matchbook apartment, he leapt from his clothes, showered, changed and sprinted back to complete his presentation. He arrived on the same elevator as his client and miraculously was able to complete his presentation. He labored until 11PM that evening following up on a variety of projects that had been subordinated for this one opportunity. He had visited the restroom seven times that day and now wondered if perhaps, he had a mild form of flu from eating unclean fruit.
At noon that same day, a leotard-clad Ann entered the co-op returning to shower so she could meet a friend for a late lunch. Rob was working late and she was looking forward to her day in Soho. As she walked in the smell hit her – – that same aroma that grasped and assaulted her as she backpacked across Southeast Asia in the early 1990s. One problem – this was her America and her living room. She turned and saw the pants and the first days result of her young husband’s self -improvement plan. She gagged and retreated from the apartment. Love may be blind but it could still inhale. He is now forever known as “Regular Robert”.
Like Robert, my experience with self-improvement has hardly been a study in moderation. However, I do keep coming back to the gym – even when every ounce of my being wants to sit in my leather chair, eat cookies and watch Cops. It’s never too late to start. We fight a losing battle every day with time and nature but there is no reason why we cannot maintain a high quality of life well into our later years. My advice is find a trainer, get into a routine and count your calories. Whatever you do – don’t do it too quickly. Be patient. And remember, an apple a day, keeps the doctor away. Two apples? You’re on your own….