The Sweet Struggle
From the sports ground of the university, a footbridge and gentle slope led to Sham Castle. So called because it was just that: a folly, built so that an aristocrat had something pleasing to look at from the window of his parlor on the other side of the town. Sham Castle stood on a hill at the entrance to a golf course. It was only a few feet thick – a wall more than a castle – and given its surroundings looked like a prop on a medieval film.
This was my destination, every day, just before work at the Italian restaurant that fed me pasta at midnight after my shift. I was eighteen. I ran to Sham Castle, up and down hills, because I hated what my body had become; and penne al ragu certainly wasn’t helping.
So how did it come to this? My childhood was active, and I grew up eating healthy. My brother was into sports, while I had found an affinity with gymnastics and other things my girlfriends were into, like ice skating and dancing. Being able to flip and tumble and make your body do amazing things like the splits in mid-air were cooler than being able to hit a sphere with a stick.
With all this energy being burned, I was a regular little kid: not fat, not skinny, big head and big cheeks, unconditionally loved, and no responsibilities to tend to. But for some reason unknown to me, I was already self-conscious of my body. In my first year of school, aged five, the school administered a not-too-invasive medical checkup of all students: eye and hearing tests, stethoscopes, say ahh, breathe deep, that sort of thing. The boys were all asked to take off their shirts, but I kicked up such a fuss that I was allowed to sit, bug-eyed and suspicious, with my t-shirt on.
In my fourth year, I started dance classes, but just as I started to find my groove, my parents opened a sweet shop. Any desire to exert myself physically was slowly being replaced with a sedentary lifestyle, running around all day turned into the occasional jetée. I was still able to do the splits and soft shoe shuffle, but my thighs rubbed together and I started growing man boobs and a frowning potato sack of a belly.
Years later, when my voice dropped, I grew taller, and the fat redistributed itself – I finally starting looking like a young man. But the freedom to buy fries after school filled the depression of being socially out-of-it and the intense realization that I was gay, and in denial about it. This new-found sexuality and the exploration of it made me even more self-conscious. I remember forcing myself out of bed one night when I was sixteen and doing sit ups because I feared I ‘d never have sex. Even still, I never got my heart rate up enough – I kept it comfortable – and a whole pizza to myself was still a walk in the park, or a stroll through cheese town.
I finally came out when I was eighteen, and started running to Sham Castle. My fear of never having sex was conquered, but my relationship with my body was still complex. I blamed it for keeping the “right” people away, that when people found me attractive, I thought it was always despite my body. I didn’t just hate myself; I hated other men, too. I disliked my belly, but I loathed that guy’s receding hairline, or was disgusted by that man’s flat bottom. My disappointment in appearance translated into critiques of everyone around me. I retreated into the pantry to distract myself – I ate until I was numb.
The comfort zone of overeating meant that exercise remained the enemy. At eighteen, my peers still enjoyed the luxury of high metabolisms.