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Mirror Mirror on the Wall

This week I noticed something about myself. I received in the post a collection of photographs a friend had found as she was packing up her house, preparing to move into her forever home. The photographs were about 13 years old or so and obviously taken at one of my Boxing Day gatherings. What caught my eye was how skinny I was in those photos. I sat and remembered that time, and the one overwhelming memory wasn’t the name of the baby in my arms – I had to think about that – but was how I remembered being obese.

It got me thinking about body image. In particular my own body image and how obviously distorted it was and remains to this day. I’ve written off a lot of my life on this diet or that one. Striving to attain a body viewed by others as perfection. I realised when I was looking at those old photos just how much of my self abuse has been aimed at my body and it’s stubborn refusal to be perfect.

When I first came out I was at my highest weight. I remember the nerves as I stood downstairs at the Masonic Club in Gosford. A late night, silent street. A 24 year old, freshly out gay guy taking a deep breath before he walked the two flights of stairs to what he hoped would be the beginning of something new.

I remember the sense of fear as I paid my $8 entry fee to the guy at the door, and stepped through those swinging glass doors into a dimly lit room. A sea of empty tables, an old bar and the décor of the 1970’s displayed for the world to see. I hurried to the bar, bought a scotch and hid in the back corner.

I sat there pretty much all night. The only people who spoke to me were a pair of lesbians who noticed me on my own and invited me over to join them.

I remember sitting there and watching this beautiful butterfly dancing across the stage and holding court at the front table. I remember being surprised he wore make up and a see-through sequined shirt. I’d never seen anything like that in Gosford before, but I’d also never been anywhere to see something like that before.

I remember the sense of failure as I left the club, the mental assertion that one day I’d be part of the front table. I remember getting home and having a shower, and seeing my gut and my body hair and thinking “tonight was your fault. Next time I walk in there I will be beautiful.”

The following month was spent living on water, apples, meat and exercising on my exercise bike an hour and a half every night. I’d watch my sitcoms and peddle away like a lunatic. I dropped weight. Fast.

The next time I walked into that bar, I ran into the pair of lesbians who had befriended me the first night. One of them asked me if I was sick. I said no. They expressed concern at the speed with which my weight had come off. I ignored them. Too me, I was still a mountainous womble of a man.

That night, I ended up meeting the butterfly man from the week before. We ended up becoming friends for a while. Through him I met other people at the club, and through them I became a permanent fixture on the Central Coast gay scene for several years. My weight fluctuated, up and a down. The minute it started to climb it was back to apples and water and extra cycling on the stationary bike. I remember the punishment I put my body through if God-forbid I ate a chocolate bar. That alone was an extra hour of cycling all the tune of my inner voice berating me for being so stupid.

My body image wasn’t distorted in the gay world though. The gay scene is an easy target for blame for a lot of things,  but my body image issues were something I brought with me to the “scene”. My weight, and how I appeared has always been a thorn in my side. At school it was one of many targets the bullies found. My nickname at one point – and it wasn’t a nickname at all, but that’s how it was justified to the teachers who smirked at the fat gay kid drowning in an all male catholic school – was Beast. The Beast.

“Watch out the beast is coming, hurry up and eat your lunch or the beast will take it, don’t leave any crumbs on your face or the beast will eat your face to get to them.”

I didn’t have the courage – or control over myself – to diet when I was at school. Whenever I suggested it to my parents I was always met with “we eat a healthy diet, if you want to lose weight, you need to start exercising more.” They were always supportive. If I had wanted to join a sports team they’d have taken me. But honestly, all I could think about was the mountains of fat trying to run or something and the laughter and pointing of the voices in my head.

Coming Out was the beginning of attempting to take control of myself. But it wasn’t healthy. The taking control bit. The coming out bit was probably the healthiest and smartest things I’ve ever done.

About 4 months after I walked into that club for the first time on that wet winter night, I was standing in the hall at home. I was dressed in my standard uniform. XXXL sweatshirt and track pants tied tightly around my waist. I was brushing my hair.

My mother – who for months had had an annoying habit of handing me food every time our paths crossed – walked up behind and put her arms around me.

I didn’t move fast enough. What came next was effectively all hell breaking loose. My mother called my father, my father grabbed the sweat shirt and pulled it over my head. Between the two of them I was forced onto the scales and weighed. I had started 4 months ago at 120 kilos. When I was put on those scales that night I weighed 60.

Ribs and collar bones were poking through skin stretched tight. I’d finally achieved “gap boy” status – where when you stand with your legs together your thighs didn’t touch – and all I could see was how fat I was. The massive gut, the pendulous, tuck em in your socks man boobs.

It was an unpleasant night that resulted in me promising to eat more – pfft – and then I went to the party I had been invited too and drank my wine and talked about other things.

The point to all of this is that no matter what I see in pictures from those days now, I still remember being fat. Being fat has been the excuse for many things over the years. Other things take it’s place from time to time. Too much body hair, not enough body hair, no abs, bald spot, no money to buy decent shape hiding clothes. But being “fat” is always treated as the worst possible sin in my head and the excuse for why I do nothing much.

The funny thing about it is the other day when I went to work I wore a shirt that I felt was too small. It was the only one I had cleaned and pressed and I didn’t have a choice. I hated it. I felt exposed and fat all day. Twice during the day I was asked at work by colleagues how I’d lost weight. I told them I hadn’t. That was the night I came home and found those unexpected photos sitting in an Express Post envelope on my bed.

That day my clothes had come back from the Dry Cleaners, and so the next day I gratefully put on a “proper sized” shirt, black silk over my black work pants and scuffed black shoes. When I arrived at work one of the people who had asked me how I’d lost weight turned and said “Oh I see. You haven’t lost weight. You just wear clothes 2 sizes to big for you, so when you wear something that fits you look skinnier than usual.”

Something that fits. I’ve never worn something that fits. All my life – at least my adult life when I’ve bought the clothes for myself – it’s been something “comfortable”. I realised the other day that “comfortable” stands for something I can hide in.

I came to the decision the other day that I’m foregoing crash diets and fad diets and exercise by the hour. I’m simply going to make healthier food choices, and trust that what others see is not what I see. It’s the same with my writing I guess.

What others see when they read my work is so vastly different from what I see. What I see is a random collection of words, that frankly read as though a monkey has written them. What I’ve been told by others never seems to sink in. Just like my weight. When I was told I was too thin, I dismissed it as people being polite. When I was told I was attractive I dismissed it as people wanting something from me.

I guess the point to this post is that we can only work to change our perceptions of ourselves. It won’t happen overnight, it may never happen. But if we were to spend just 1 month treating ourselves with the love and compassion we freely give to others, then perhaps we would be able to overcome or at least suspend the worst of how we treat ourselves in private.

On a side note, when I was looking for an image to go with this post, I scrolled through page after page of waxed and perfect male bodies, male torso’s. I even tried searching “gay bear” and all I found were muscle bears with perfectly manicured fur. I settled on this image because I liked the text written on the models back.

My name is Mike Cullen, and I too am one of the 25%. I still starve myself when I have a party to go to. I comfort eat when I’m down and then punish myself with curses and negativity after wards. I have never purged, or made myself sick, I have never been hospitalised. I have hidden food. I have thrown away meals and replaced them water and lied about how much I ate at lunch or why I am too full now to eat. In the process of totally buggered my metabolism. My weight is a Yo-Yo but it’s also a monkey I am removing from my back. I am more than the amount of kilos displayed on the scales.

I aim to look at myself and one day see truth. I may never be a model or the media’s definition of attractive or perfection. I may never dance on a podium in a nightclub again – thank God – but I will one day do something I used to love. I will go to the beach and I will swim in the ocean. I used to love that more than anything. I felt free. I felt at peace in the swell of the ocean. I haven’t set toe on a beach in over 20 years. Not because I don’t like it, but because I have been too embarrassed to be seen on a beach.

Whatever I weigh, or whatever age I may be, I will treat myself as I treat others. Body image, self-esteem, writing ability, whatever it may be.

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