King of the Fat Guys
Gordon Laws lost 65kg – that’s one half of Bakkies Botha. But it hasn’t all been all sex, pies and rock ‘n roll. Turns out, life in a new body can hurt – physically, mentally and emotionally
There’s a certain familiarity with your own appearance that you take entirely for granted.
Yes, the asymmetrical slant of your nose (or the slow, steady migration of hair away from your head and onto your chest) may bother you, but the person you see in the mirror every day is… you. For better or for worse, it’s reassuring to be reminded that you take up a space in the physical world that, more or less, matches the one you take up in your own mind.
Except, I still don’t recognise myself a lot of the time and I’ve looked pretty much the same way for about two and a half years. I suppose, in the scheme of a thirty-year life, it’s not all that long. But the process of losing 65kg (that’s more than the average runway model), and keeping it off still feels very new to me. Today I live in the body I used to dream about in the far-away, foolishly optimistic corners of my imagination. But living in my dream body has brought challenges and changes that the 150kg-plus me couldn’t have possibly foreseen.
I’m not about to ask you to feel sorry for me, nor whine about how shedding the equivalent of eight cases of beer ruined my life. Quite the contrary. I can’t imagine anything worse than going back to the way I was before.
It’s my greatest fear. Most formerly obese people feel the same way. A study by Dr Nancy Wellman and Barbara Friedberg found that 100% of formerly severely obese patients would rather be deaf, dyslexic, diabetic, have heart disease or bad acne than be obese again. Even scarier, 92% preferred leg amputation, and 89.4% chose blindness. All preferred to be a normal-weight person than a severely obese multi-millionaire.
The fear of involuntarily regressing terrifies me every moment. I still wake up afraid, trembling, in tears, after dreaming I’m back in my old body, and the previous three years have all been an illusion. My life is better now. In ways I couldn’t have imagined. Everyday things – running up stairs for example – fill me with a joy and an appreciation that I can’t put into words. Which is frustrating, for a writer. As the cliché goes, “every day is a gift.” But skinny-happiness comes at a price beyond low-kilojoule meals and a dedication to 6:30am gym sessions.
We Are What People Think We Are
I was a walking heart-attack. By day, I worked hard at a job young men my age would kill for; compiling content at a men’s magazine. By night, I put on a superhero outfit, and travelled both the country and the world as their brand-ambassador-slash-mascot, Captain Beer. Perhaps you remember him? Back at my largest, weighing 172kg in 2005 when I went to the Oktoberfest in Munich, I was a weekend warrior. I was (and still am) handy with a pint. I can party, and armed with external funding and unlimited access, there were many good times.
But it wasn’t beer that made me obese. I’m fussy about that distinction. I’ve never been into drinking on week nights. I’ve always been a weekend warrior – I take work too seriously and the hangovers kill me.
No, I was (and, on some level, will always be) fat because I eat. Plain and simple. I was fat because I ate too much. The binging was brought on by certain triggers. Off the top of my head, these included boredom, stress, happiness, anger, depression, excitement, loneliness, confusion and, occassionally, even hunger. On some level, I am always thinking about food. Always.
According to a study by Elfhag and Rössner, binge- eating is being recognised more and more as a prevailing “cause” of obesity. It’s been a “normal” part of my life for most of my life. The prevailing definition of binge eating, (although still not a formal medical diagnosis) is more or less defined as “the consumption of large quantities of food, the inability to control this behaviour, and the feelings of distress about the act of binging.” Sounds spot-on to me.
Hiding In Plain Sight
Obesity is a lonely affliction. Ricky Gervais makes endless fun of fat people, saying that obesity isn’t a disease if the food’s not holding you down and forcing itself down your podgy throat. All I know is that I’m not like other people. There is something very wrong with me. I don’t have the “off” switch. I never want to stop eating. It’s there every moment of every day. Whether I weigh 150kg-plus, or walk around at a well-muscled 90kg, comfortably sporting size-34 pants. I always have the urge to eat.
It’s a lonely disorder because you are hiding in plain sight. Grossly overweight people aren’t unaware of how they look. They see themselves in the mirror in the morning. And it’s not just what they see, you feel it with your other senses, too. You’re hot. You’re exhausted. You chafe. You have pimples in ungodly places and a constant, relentless, never-ending river of warm, sticky sweat. Oh, we know, thank you very much. We just can’t bear the thought of another person feeling obliged to “help” by pointing it out, forcing an awkward conversation where you pretend to be happy just the way you are. They know you mean well. But unless you’re a member of our family or a close friend, leave us alone. It’s none of your business.
Fat people are discriminated against in society. They’re seen as lazy and gluttonous (which may not necessarily always be the case, but the description fitted me). Wellman and Friedberg also found that they face discrimination in the workplace, at schools and socially. I don’t know what’s sadder; the fact that they probably feel that they deserve no better, or that it’s impossible to escape the agonising awareness of it all. Even in the dark, when I close my eyes, I can still feel the fat around my neck; my thighs fighting one another for room. The feeling still lingers, even after the weight has been lost.
If you’re going to be fat and in the public eye, you have to embrace it. And I made it my full-time thing. I built a temple out of my shame and built my identity around my size. I’m outgoing. I like an audience. I’m an entertainer, musician, writer, speaker and rock show announcer. I made “not caring” an art form. I did a job that I loved and my attitude towards personal decay helped me do it outstandingly. I even got laid from time to time. Not as often as I’d have liked, but I managed it. I was charming. Which is crucial if you’re gonna get away with needing custom-size undies through varsity and well into your mid-20s. I was the fat guy, I was Captain Beer and I was the best at it.
Then, suddently, I wasn’t anymore.
Three years ago, I might have walked up to your busy table on a Friday night, confidently smiled at one of the women present, and said something like, “It’s your lucky night, love! Your place or mine?” There would have been roars of laughter, handshakes and I’d have made some new friends. Highly unlikely that I’d have gotten any nookie for my troubles, but even less likely that I’d have had my nose broken either. Fat people are hysterical when they are confident and loud. You can make jokes at your own expense and entertain everyone. You are the plus-sized guy, the joker, the funny one.
I have now learnt that the same approach will likely see the lady in question slap me, if the guys at the table don’t take it upon themselves first. I had a lot of these new lessons to learn, most of which teenage boys figure out in their early teens. Another realisation: women are often far keener on “no-strings” action than you might think.
Were it not for the associated physical health risks, I’d recommend that every man spend at least three years of their young adult life seriously overweight. It teaches you manners, tenacity, strategy, patience and, critically, to deal with rejection; something fat dudes need to get used to. You develop charisma. Because you’re never going to walk into a club, scan the surroundings, and notice three ladies noticing you. Not for good reasons, anyway.
It’s hard getting laid when you’re the level of fat where small children are either fascinated by you, terrified, or both. The kind of overweight where everyone wonders how a woman has ended up beside you. I am grateful to every woman who ever dated me back then. All of them are still my friends. And all of them know they can count on me if they need to.
Drowning In a Sea Of Plenty
Women have to see past the horror of your exterior, all the way through to who you are underneath. Then, they have to deem you worth it. It’s deeply traumatic, getting your kit off – especially for the first time – when you’re that big. You’re acutely aware of how wobbly, unnatural and huge everything is. And, on that note, how not huge other things look by comparison.
But as the weight came off, the women came on. I suppose there’s no nicer way to say it: I became a man-whore. And I enjoyed a lot of it. As I started to lose the weight it coincided with a level of female attention I was not prepared for. I was just being friendly, honest and flattered.
At first, it was scary. I was – and on many levels still am – a swarming hive of insecurities. But it’s an indescribable rush when you’re not used to it: opening a conversation with a woman you don’t know, and before you know it, she’s made it clear she wants to go home with you. Going from getting very little sex to getting quite a lot comes with complications. You learn a few valuable (and hard) truths that most guys figure out during their carefree varsity days. For example, it didn’t occur to me that when you tell a girl that it’s all just in good fun, she might be agreeing in the false hope that you come around eventually. Also, it doesn’t take long to get a reputation as a dude that gets around. And lastly, casual sex generally isn’t very good. Sure, occasionally it’s like something out of a porno, but for the most part it’s awkward, especially if it invovles breakfast. Plus, it’s dangerous. Going for an HIV test after a few less-than-safe encounters is genuinely chilling.
Hiding In Plain Sight. Again.
It’s not just the attention you get from women that changes when you’re in peak condition, striding around at 10% body fat. For the first time, you can wear whatever you want. The first time I shopped in a regular clothing store and could choose whatever I liked was a very emotional day. I wasted a lot of money. I didn’t just buy a new wardrobe, I went through three. From size 56 to 48, and 38 before settling at a size 34.
To keep my new shape, I still train twice a day, Monday to Friday. My weight is permanently on my mind. But I try to make a difference. I have my website, I do interviews on radio and TV where I’m straightforward about my journey. I give motivational talks and work closely with other people battling with obesity whenever I can. My skin hangs loose and wrinkly around my belly and buttocks as a reminder of how much it used to hold, and I still occasionally try to greet my reflection before I realise it’s actually me.
My lower-back and right leg constantly hurt due to sciatica, as a result of having a slanted back like a pregnant woman’s for more than 10 years. I feel immense guilt after every weekend that involves beer and fatty food. I’m obsessive about training. And, being a person with a rather barbed sense of humour I often unintentionaly offend people where, a few years ago, it would have been really funny. I’ve embarrassed myself and others more times than I care to remember. And I’m still struggling to adapt to something I always longed for: being ordinary.
But I’m also constantly aware of the second chance I’ve been given, and the duty I have to explain to others like me that there is always hope. As long as you’re alive, you can do this, if you truly want to. It’s a decision. And if I can do it, with all of my complications and excessive behaviour, anyone can. Because I was the poster boy: the King of the Fat Guys. And, while I may not wear it on the outside anymore, my extreme fatness still defines me. I will always be a food addict. And I find that talking about it, while difficult, is truly helpful.
Last updated: Thu, 2012-11-08 10:56