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Through the Looking Glass

Part 7. Through the Looking Glass

This is one of a series of posts about my health/fitness journey. The first one is here.

It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these, so here’s a quick update. It’s late February, 2017. I’ve been hovering around 180 pounds (plus or minus 3 pounds) since early November, last year. This is a good thing in that I’ve been able to maintain a healthy weight for several months, and I’m not experiencing diet fatigue (a big problem for me the last time I made it down this far). I’d like to be a few pounds lighter, but I’m very happy with the weight I’m at, especially considering I was at 245 a year ago.

I’m the most fit I’ve been in, well, ever. Certainly since I was in my early 20s, and even then I never exercised. Now I’m going to the gym 4-6 days a week, and I can see the effects in the mirror.

Alice through the looking glassWhen I was a kid, I was fascinated with mirrors. We had a big floor-to-ceiling mirror in our living room, when I was growing up, and I liked to play with it. Early on I discovered the trick of making spiders or crabs, by sticking my hand out on the edge of the mirror, and exploiting the symmetry. A friend and I would stand on opposite ends of the mirrors in department stores, bisecting our bodies as evenly as possible to make it look like we had three legs, or were floating in the air.

And very early on, I discovered some of the laws of mirrors. For example, I noticed that if you looked at someone’s reflection in the eyes, then they would see that your reflection was making eye-contact with them. And the corollary of that: if you can see someone’s eyes in a mirror, then they can see you.

I remember looking in the mirror at the age of six or seven, and imagining what my future adult self would look like. I imagined an older single man, with the same bowl haircut and bangs, his house filled with boxes of the froot loops my mom wouldn’t buy (too much sugar!). As I grew into my adolescence, and got more into music, I would look in the mirror and imagine my future album covers, posing as a serious brooding rock star.

I found mirrors more troublesome in my twenties. I remember a Mexican restaurant near my work that had a wall of mirrors. I found that if I sat facing the mirrors, it was difficult for me to concentrate on what my colleagues were saying, because I would be distracted by my reflection. I learned to sit with my back to the mirror.

And as I continued to age, that distraction became more unpleasant. I stopped wearing bangs pretty quick, and pretty soon, by my early 30s, I lost a lot of my hair. My dreams of being a cereal-eating guy with bangs were dashed! The slight double-chin I had developed in my late teens became more and more pronounced, and I grew a beard to cover it. As I grew into my thirties, forties and fifties, the act of looking at myself for long periods in the mirror became a distant memory. The occasional Hitchcockian glimpses of the mirror became almost frightening – reminders that I wasn’t the abstract cereal-eating child in my head, but a physical creature, mortal, fat and frail.

It had been so long since I was at a healthy weight that I thought I had created a permanent condition. The fat on my belly had become a big hard slab. The idea of reversing or easing my condition seemed like an insurmountable wall. At 53, I thought I had probably abused my body so much, that I was basically done; just watching the clock until the end. Of course, I didn’t allow myself to think about this very much; I spent most of my time (as I still do) “in my head”. But, I was far more distressed than I allowed myself to realize.

And of course, there was that whole “endomorph” thing. Based on my conversations with others, and my reading, I had classified myself as an “endomorph”. It was the equivalent of Cartman on South Park insisting he is “big boned”. I was endomorphic, that’s the body type I had, and there was no changing it. I wished I was an ectomorph, but you get the genes you’re dealt, or so I thought.

So now, I can say, with the benefit of hindsight, that the whole endomorph/ectomorph thing is pure and utter bullshit. When I first met a nutritionist I was working with, last year, she told me confidently I was an endomorph. A few months and about 30 pounds later, I asked her, “if I came in for the first time today, what would you classify me as?” “A mesomorph” she said.

So was I fat mesomorph? Am I now a skinny endomorph? No. I reject the whole notion. To paraphrase Popeye, I yam what I yam (which is mostly yams, if it’s Thanksgiving).

If you have only a passing familiarity with the terms ectomorph, endomorph, and mesomorph. I suggest you read the wikipedia article about William Herbert Sheldon, the doctor who invented “somatotypology” back in the 1940s. He published volumes of nude photographs of young men and women, with very precise descriptions of their body types, and it is very clear, from reading his actual work (I bought his 1954 book “The Atlas of Men” on EBay) that the guy was an utter quack. It is also quite possible, by the way, that nude photos of Bill and Hillary Clinton are included in his photos of Yale students which are sealed at the Smithsonian!.

While it might be useful to use somatotypological language to discuss the state that a body happens to be in at the moment these terms should definitely not be used to describe a permanent state-of-being from you which cannot recover. Any health professional who casually uses those terms to describe you is participating in a form of pseudo-science, not much different than astrology or phrenology.

So at the moment, I look at the mirror again, after all these years, without fear or disgust. I can see that I am not an endomorph, ectomorph or mesomorph. I am me. It is certainly clear that I have some issues which are different than you, different than some of my skinny friends who seem to be able to consume vast quantities of beer and fried foods. My issues aren’t really with my body type. They are with my relationship with food. I know that if there is a plate of cookies in the house, I am going to be thinking about that plate of cookies, nearly continuously until the plate of cookies is gone. I know that if I have a plate of food in front of me, I’m going to finish it. Those issues are pretty much the same as they were a year ago. What is different is how actively I am working to prevent those issues from running me into the ground.

My frequent visits to the gym are a huge part of this. Let’s be clear: the exercise is not having much of an effect on my weight loss. I cannot lose weight simply by exercising more. But it has a massive effect on my energy levels, my positive outlook, and my muscle tone. I have regained some of the narcissism of my youth, actually enjoying periodically gazing at my biceps in the mirror, trying on clothes, looking at them — something I thought I would never do.

And I’ll allow myself a little narcissism at this point. I’ve been on the other side of the mirror.

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