Just over a decade ago, I started ‘working out’ for the first time. In the early days, I didn’t really know what I was doing. The gym was an intimidating place to say the least. I was convinced that every other guy there was huge. There was me, this small, skinny brown guy attempting to build muscle.
An uncle of mine, who was into his weightlifting, used to drag me along and show me the ropes. At first, I didn’t particularly like it – especially when it came to ‘back day’ or ‘leg day’; I actually ended up throwing-up mid-session after a leg session with my uncle, who trains particularly hard – to this day, I still get nausea if I train too intensely for too prolonged a period, and especially if legs are in some way involved.
Training for the first time, and using muscles I’d not used before, it wasn’t too long before I start to notice both strength and body improvement.
As I mentioned, I was a small and skinny kid. I was one of the shortest in my year group (140 people) until I was 17. I’ve lost count of the number of times relatives told me I ‘was too skinny’ or ‘don’t eat enough’ or some other weight-based comment. Little did I know it at the time, but really this was a form of body-shaming. In India culture, unless you’re particularly rotund and chunky, you’re under-weight. Seriously. I don’t know where it stems from. Perhaps, back in the day in India, a fuller figure was a sign of affluence. Who knows, just a theory.
As a sensitive child, I was self-critical enough as it was without these unhelpful comments. I remember going on holiday to Hawaii, when I was around 17. As often happened on holiday, I’d meet other teens and tentatively hang out. This obnoxious America kid looked at my body and said to me, in front of a couple of girls by the pool, something along the lines of “Have you never thought about going to the gym?” I blushed and felt really awkward, as well as demeaned and pretty angry at this d*ck of a guy. Of course, sensitive little me just about managed to say something or other, God knows what. One of the girls there expressed shock, gasping and saying his name as if to say “Oh my God, you’re so out of order”.
Moments like that stick with you. In my late teens and into my early 20s, I stuffed my face. I’m a slow eater, and I was eating regularly, so it sometimes felt that I was eating *all the time*. Lots of eggs and chicken. Lots of bread, rice and full-fat milk. I gained muscle, and fat, and got bigger and bigger.
I felt better for being bigger, I thought, and others started to notice, too. “Woah, have you been training?”, and “Sh*t man, you got big” and “You look like a boxer man” were some of the comments I received. Ego-boosters, for sure.
However, it was a pretty shallow confidence that I gained. Really, I was still incredibly insecure. I was the same sensitive, insecure kid. Just with a bigger shell now.
My body issues aren’t quite as drastic now, I don’t think, though I do find myself comparing myself to others. Whether it’s in the gym, on the street, or with others I know. I catch myself doing it sometimes. Instagram would have really f*cked me up if it had been a thing when I was at school and university.
My younger brother, who’s got a slightly bigger build than me, whenever I make comments about his being bigger than I am, has said that I need my eyes tested, or that I might be slightly body-dysmorphic. I don’t want to minimise genuine, fully-blown body dysmorphia for anyone that has it, but I’ve had some low-level extent of the symptoms – from what I’ve read online.
Today, I still go to the gym but my workouts have changed. So has the reason I go. I exercise for how it makes me feel, and lean into that, rather than concentrate on the body benefits. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel better for looking better. I still workout and notice the “pump” that comes with recently-worked muscles, and I’m still aware of how trim/flat my stomach is. But the thing is, I don’t obsessively look at my body in the mirror like I used to, or randomly take my top off in the house and look at myself. Exercise feels really good for my mind as much as my body, and that is what I focus on. Today, I am more my natural size. I guess if I were filling out a dating profile (I’m going speed-dating next week!), I’d describe my body shape as somewhere between slim and athletic.
After a long and slow Monday, worrying about finding the right job, whether I’ll ever be happy with my ‘work’, etcetera, my gym session in the evening was my saviour.
I do a mixture of cardio and weights (going more for reps rather than really heavy weight), and also do some stretching and yoga – which also help my mind and body in a different, meditative way.
I won’t lie, I feel better about how I look when I’m going to the gym – and I still catch myself checking my body out. However, I try not to obsess so much with how I look, and I’m more desensitised to other guys’ bodies. I’m not naturally the biggest guy, and a lot of it is down to genetics and our natural physiques.
For me, the key is to focus on the post-workout feels. That’s the way to go.
✏ Written: Monday, 26th February 2018 @ 9.17pm
What about you?
What’s your relationship like with your body? Do you go to the gym, or do a sport / other exercise? And, if you’re an Instagram-er, how do you stay sane with all those #bodygoals pics?! I’d love to hear from you on all this 💙