The Grumpy Ghey: Too Much Salmon?

by / Jan. 20, 2016 3am EST

I remember the first time someone made the suggestion. 

“You could definitely stand to lose a few pounds,” Dr. Newman said in his usual cards-on-the-table tone. 

It wouldn’t have mattered if he’d put on the kid gloves. Panic set in. My fears were now medically validated. I’d ballooned. What was once an innocent after-school ritual of Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies and cans of Sunkist had become something that compelled commentary from my pediatrician. I was crestfallen. 

My folks had recently sent me off to a private school, and I was hating it. I wanted to like it, I really did. But, having left my hometown peers after fifth grade, all I felt was odd. Suddenly I was a student at an upscale institution halfway across the county, and the formality of my new daily routine made me feel like I was perpetually in trouble… more singled out than ever before. Sequestered. 

And of all the possible unfortunate developments, I now literally rode a short bus to school. That it took an hour to get us there was just salt in an already grisly wound.

“Maybe you’ll find other kids that like Kurt Vonnegut,” my mom had said, earnestly trying to sell the idea and creating a false illusion of choice. Sometime after documents were signed and checks were written, a summer reading list arrived in the mail. I thought the world had ended. Reading for enjoyment? Sure. Reading things my parents thought were too racy for a kid? Definitely. Reading Willa Cather’s My Antonia for a sixth-grade English class that didn’t start for a few months? Fuck off.

I was up earlier in the morning for that goddamned short bus than for anything else before or since. And it didn’t bring me home until almost 5pm, nearly 12 hours later, after a lengthy afternoon study hall, which pretty much ensured I’d pass out on the ride home. I distinctly remember thinking, “I’m just not wired for this shit.” 

So what did I do? Well, I ended up pulling a prank the following year that resulted in my being asked to leave. Problem solved (sort of). 

But before that happened, I started eating. A lot. Food evolved into a soothing comfort that eclipsed everything else. And wouldn’t you know it, the fancy new school had a snack bar, complete with fresh donuts delivered daily. That, and Nestle Crunch had a contest going that involved spelling out their brand name with letters hidden on the inside of the candy bar wrappers. I’d eat several every day.

At home, my dad and I ate copious amount of ice cream, pound cakes, cookies, and Danish rings. I had croissants for breakfast with fresh pats of butter on each bite. My mom, meanwhile, left us to our nasty habits and began a serious exercise regimen that she maintains to this day. But I slowly morphed into a sluggish, bloated version of my former self, just in time to turn 13.

So began my ongoing battle with weight and body dysmorphia. I won’t bore you with too many additional details, but suffice to say: When things got tough for the Little Grump, the Little Grump stuffed his face. Later, he got drunk. And when there was no more drinking to be done, he went out to lunch. And stopped for dessert. And then ordered a pizza. And microwave-softened the vat of pumpkin pie ice cream so the graham crackers he’d be using to scoop it out of the carton wouldn’t break in half. 

My weight has fluctuated dramatically as an adult, from an emaciated, drug-addicted 125 pounds to a feed-bag-strapping, buffet-vacuuming, “don’t mind if I do” 240-and-change. At 5’ 11”, I was never meant to hit either of those extremes. Bottom line? Fitness has come and gone at fleeting intervals, but chunky has remained my prevailing physical paradigm.

Imagine my shock when I began encountering gay men who were striving for bigness—gay men who wanted to be fatter or daydreamed about fatter boyfriends. Someone I dated in Boston confessed to fantasizing about fattening me up. I responded by eating pancakes. Both a guy I dated in Texas and another who seemed interested in me treated their respective bodies as works in progress, building rapid mass, and I’m not talking about muscle. These dudes were eating to spread out like Paula Deen at a picnic table.

While these men ate cans of Kraft Easy Cheese, generously squirted on Chicken in a Biscuit crackers, I got diagnosed with high blood pressure and was warned of pre-diabetic trending in my blood work. It didn’t seem fair. My associates wouldn’t be happy until they tipped the scales past the 300 mark, and I was going to stroke out below 250. I couldn’t help but wonder, as my Lisinopril-cough became a nightly hassle: Was this a mind-frame issue? If I embraced my heaviness more graciously, would my blood work miraculously improve?

We live in an increasingly bitched-up culture where shaming calls the shots. We’ve gotten very busy making one another feel horrible about every choice, every statement, every pleasure. When I hit 200 pounds in my mid-20s, my boyfriend commented that I’d begun waddling. I can recall meeting my parents for lunch at a Connecticut deli after I quit drinking, only to have my mom comment on the amount of mayonnaise I was spreading on my sandwich. 

When I lost the weight I put on from all the mayo in early sobriety, middle-aged women I knew started calling me a “skinny bitch.” Shortly thereafter, several people took me aside and warned me they thought I’d gotten too fit, too lean, and needed to “look at the nutrition.” 

In retrospect, the nutrition was just fine, thank you. Maybe they needed to “look at the jealousy.”

Now, a decade since my fitness plateau, I’ve had to work really hard to get my diet under control. I’d fallen prey to metabolic syndrome, which can be tricky to steer away from once the pattern is established. To correct for all the bad eating I’ve done, I’ve had to remove processed sugar from my diet and put a tight cap on carbs. Sometimes I get to the supermarket and am at a loss for what’s okay to eat. 

Slowly the weight has begun coming off. But even if I were to become a so-called “skinny bitch” again (not likely), I would still choose to hang with the bears. To me, gay bear culture has never really been about weight. Being a bear is a frame of mind. It’s a rejection of the mainstream gay physical ideal, yes, but it’s also just a less fussy stance across the board. Bears are neither metro-sexual nor lumber-sexual. They are themselves. They tend not to shave body hair or fuss with fashion, but they’re not devoid of style. Instead, they revel in a natural, jeans-and-tee aesthetic that breeds a greater degree of comfort in one’s own skin. In their less adulterated, less manicured maleness, they come across as a fair bit sexier and less hung-up than the perpetually primping, tightly coiffed-and-groomed crew.

What to make, then, of the growing propensity among bears toward becoming and/or staying obese? Given the fallout from all our finger-pointing and shaming, it’s no longer simple to say when something is a healthy choice that represents a comfortable confidence and when it’s self-destructive. We are no longer allowed such judgments. But there’s a large subculture of bears known as chubs—it’s no small faction—that is sexualizing obesity. And they’ve got plenty of admirers. All of which is awesome, if it weren’t for one thing: Isn’t anyone worried about the health risks?

Am I engaged in fat shaming just by raising these questions? Given my own struggle with weight, I should hope not. But I’m not sure I can separate being heavy from its negative physical implications.

A headline caught my eye this past week that speaks to this issue, at least on some level. It had to do with a discussion at University of California, Santa Barbara, hosted by the school’s Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. It will feature Dr. Jason Whitesel, whose book Fat, Gay Men: Mirth, Girth, and the Politics of Stigma explores the impact of fat-shaming on the gay community. The event made headlines because a conservative group of UCSB students got all twirled up, yammering on about the use of precious taxpayer and tuition dollars to foster a discussion about “How to Sodomize Overweight Men.” 

The campus’s resource center clarified that the money came from what’s known as student lock-in fees, which get voted on periodically. So the conservatives had it wrong.

The ridiculous drama at UCSB aside, Whitesel’s book attempts to help us look at gay obesity in a new light and answer some of the questions raised above. I’ll delve into the book in much greater detail for the next edition of the Grumpy Ghey, but I would raise the following question in the meanwhile: Is stuffing yourself to achieve an unnaturally fat body any different than becoming obsessed with sculpting a radically thin one? It seems to me there’s a danger lurking, in which the subculture I describe encourages people to stay big, even when doing so may have dire consequences. To me, that’s got little to do with being comfortable in one’s own skin and even less to do with the embodiment of being a bear. Maybe Whitesel can offer some valuable insight.