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Chronicles of a Skinny Fat Guy
who's trying his best to become a slender toned guy
At Foster, the writing collective I work at, we’ve been exploring what we call Frequently Unanswerable Questions, or FUQs (pronounced fux, of course). The idea is that instead of trying to figure out the answers to life’s meaningful questions, through our writing we can live within the questions themselves and explore where they take us.
My teammatechallenged me to write my own FUQ essay.
This is that essay.
I have one of those widgets on my iPhone that randomly shows photos from my camera roll. The other day, I saw a picture pop up of me and my wife from seven years ago. I wasn’t struck with nostalgia or surprised by how young we looked. No. Instead, I immediately noticed how round my face was.
Since I was in my late twenties, I’ve often joked that I’m a skinny fat guy. Throughout most of my life, I’ve been able to eat just about whatever I want without gaining a ton of weight. Lucky me, I know. The fact that I don’t appear overweight by most outward measures makes me somewhat reticent to even write about my relationship to my body. But it’s something many of us struggle with, regardless of how we look to others, so here goes nothing.
Thinking back to when that pic was taken, I knew that I wasn’t in the best shape I’ve ever been in. Seeing the photo made me recognize that I was worse off than I realized at the time.
Over the past year or so, I’ve lost about twenty pounds, mostly from eating more intentionally—being more mindful of what foods I’m eating, how much I’m putting into my body each day, and when I’m doing so. I noticed my weight going down on the scale, while being sure to not check it too often or become obsessed with the number, but I somehow missed all my progress along the way. I had plenty of time to pat myself on the back. Yet I didn’t. I just kept plodding along.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve tried to shed some pounds. But it’s the first time I’ve done so in a consistent, attainable, and sustainable way. I’ve effectively become a person who—generally—makes better choices around food. As a small example, I used to eat chips and guacamole and/or salsa way too often, but right now we have tortilla chips languishing in our pantry that are almost certainly stale by now.
Sure, living with my wife Allison who’s a dietitian helps. She loves to cook for our family and I’ll eat basically whatever she makes, which means my food decision-making is outsourced to her for a lot of meals. But we had been together nearly a decade before I truly started making better food choices on my own too.
So what changed? Why did these changes stick this time versus my other attempts in the past?
I don’t know if there’s a simple answer. It feels like a complex math equation (eww, I know) with a bunch of variables, both known and unknown to me.
Maybe the equation looks something like this:
Lyle’s lifestyle change = ((existential crisis about my age) + (wanting to be around to see my stepdaughter and daughter grow older))3 + (being fed up with feeling like crap about my body every day)2 + (wanting to wear that one t-shirt I bought a couple of years ago that’s a large but somehow doesn’t fit) - (my tendency to not fully commit to new habits beyond a few weeks) + (x). Where x represents some other unknown variables I’m not totally aware of consciously.
Whatever it was, it worked. I’m more mindful, and way more invested, in what I eat each day. I mean, I’m even reading the freakin’ labels now, looking at the protein and added sugar levels—something I never did in the past.
And yet, despite losing a decent amount of weight and keeping it off steadily, I still didn’t feel all that great.
It’s not uncommon for people to become addicted to golf. The game can be frustrating and make you question why you ever spent a dime on it. But it can also be beautiful and make you feel like you’ve briefly touched perfection.
After my daughter was born in June 2018, I didn’t play much golf for the next four and a half years. It just wasn’t practical—or fair—to leave Allison alone with a baby, and later a toddler, who has a disability, all so I could chase a white ball around a well-manicured field for four or five hours. I did go on an epic golf trip to Bandon, Oregon in April 2021, but I had barely touched my clubs in over a year beforehand and only practiced once a couple of days before I drove there.
In January of this year, I reconnected with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while and got together for a round. I completely misread my weather app, thinking it was going to be a mild, slightly overcast day. But, of course, it was raining when we arrived. We nearly called it off, but decided to brave it and see if it would let up. Well, it didn’t let up. At a certain point, it was laughable. We were so wet that it didn’t matter anymore. And despite being cold and sometimes not really feeling the club in my hands, I hit some pretty darn good shots here and there throughout the day. On the very last hole, I hit my approach shot to about a foot away from the hole and made my lone birdie of the day.
That made it official. I caught the golf bug again that day.
Even when I haven’t played in a while, I’m a better-than-average player. I’ve always wanted to push myself to get really good. Yet it always felt like I never had the time that’s required to do so. Since my daughter Em is much more steady these days, with a relatively predictable school schedule and daily routine, I felt like I could dedicate more time to improving my game. Plus, I thought it would be a fun way to get more exercise, something I was sorely lacking in my life.
If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while, you might remember I wrote a post just over two years ago about my relationship to exercise. The gist is that I had built up exercise into this impossible goal to achieve amongst all the other things going on in my life but I had found a way to incorporate it in a small way each day.
Umm, yeeeaaaah, so that didn’t last.
Reading my words back now, it’s obvious to me that I wasn’t fully committed to it yet:
I need to keep stacking healthy habits. I need to keep pushing myself to exercise. I need to fight through the soreness and the urge to eat a midnight snack (like right now as I’m typing these words).
The phrase “I need to” doesn’t sound very definitive and confident.
But perhaps this time would be different because my obsession with getting better at golf could act as a motivator to get me off my butt and move my body.
And so I hit the driving range more often and tried to play a round on most weekends. I reestablished my official handicap—I started as a 6.1 and I’m now down to a 3.7. My goal is to get down to scratch, meaning 0.0, or better.
One thing I love about the sport is how it forces me to be mindful. In order to hit a good shot, I have to block out everything else going on in my head and hyperfocus on my target and the movement of my body. It’s like I’m doing mini meditations each time I hit the ball.
But while my game was improving, and I was appreciating that I could spend so much time on the course, I wasn’t noticing much improvement in my fitness—even though I usually walk the course and carry my golf bag on my back.
In August, I was playing a round of golf with my new friend and he was routinely crushing the ball past me. And I hit the ball longer than most players. Now, keep in mind that he’s like a decade younger than me, and he’s maybe a tad taller than me and clearly in great physical shape. But I feel like I’m still young enough to keep up with the young guys. I asked him if there’s anything in particular he does to hit it so far. I was expecting him to mention some swing mechanic thing. But instead, he said he works out six days a week at a place called F45. He asked me if I ever work out and I felt my face go flush as I embarrassingly said, “No, I never really work out.”
At this point, Allison had already been going to a personal trainer for a while and we had talked about me going to the same guy too. I knew exercise, and resistance training, in particular, were important. But I didn’t truly feel the urgency to commit to it until I heard that comment from my friend.
I always used to joke that I didn’t lift weights because “they’re fucking heavy.” It was a joke borne out of insecurity, of course. I’ve never felt strong in my life. I mean, I’ve felt stronger than some people, like when my stepdaughter asks me to open a jar or whatever.
That reminds me of a bit from comedian Nick Swardson about how he loves hanging out with his grandma:
“Nicolas,” she says in a frail tone, “can you pick up that gallon of milk for me?”
“You mean this gallon of milk?” he asks triumphantly as he lifts it up above his head.
“Oh, Nicolas,” she gasps, “You’re so strong! You should fight crime.”
So I signed up for a trial week at F45. And it kicked my ass. Like, it literally felt like someone had kicked me in the ass. But it felt good to be sore. It felt good that I was doing something healthy for my body. And It felt like something shifted in me. So I paid for a membership and have been going two or three times per week ever since.
Earlier this month, Allison and I drove down to San Francisco on a Saturday with Em in tow. We each did a DEXA body scan at a place called BodySpec. We took turns laying underneath a machine that slowly scanned us from head to toe. On the way back home, we stopped at a popular lunch spot in Sausalito, nearby where I used to work pre-pandemic.
My results came through my email as we were eating. They confirmed that I am, in fact, a skinny fat guy. My visceral fat levels were above normal. This is the especially dangerous fat that surrounds your internal organs. I looked down at the fish and chips I had ordered and immediately regretted treating myself to something less healthy. Although I did finish my lunch. And I had a pastry at brunch the next morning. But that’s neither here nor there.
Seeing the scan results gave me a giant dose of reality. It confirmed that eating more healthily and working out regularly is something I have to do to increase my odds of sticking around as long as I can.
I recognize that there’s still plenty of time for me to fall off the exercise wagon like I did two years ago.
The unanswered question I’ve been asking myself recently is this: How do I make lifestyle changes that nourish my body and soul instead of hurt them?
I want this change to stick. I want to feel stronger. Not, like, bodybuilder strong. But stronger. I want it to feel similar to the diet thing where it’s not punctuated by some a-ha moment where everything comes to a head and I have to make a drastic change. It’s just a thing I do on a regular basis without making a big deal out of it. Yet I’ll be able to look back on it years later with a sense of pride, as I’m tearing a phonebook in half, just for the hell of it.
I’m only at the start of this new path, but I already feel the momentum keeping me on it. And it feels really good.
Getting more sleep.
On October 16th, Foster is kicking off Season 4: A More Beautiful Question. “Seasons” are month-long initiations into the magic of writing and storytelling. Together, we’ll approach our writing not as a means of providing Answers, but as a way of inhabiting the Questions that matter to us, as I hope I exhibited in this essay. We’ll seek to dance with uncertainty instead of treating it as a problem to be solved. We’ll explore, play, and be in conversation with something larger than ourselves. And when it’s all said and done, we’ll each hit publish on a piece of writing that’s crackling with our energy and humanity. Care to join us?
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