At two different parties my freshmen year of college I was pulled aside by new friends to be told that I was almost dateable.
They said things like: You’re so cute, and really funny. If you lost 20 pounds, I would definitely date you.
The first time it happened, I tried not to let it hurt me. After all, I’d been living in my body for 19 years at that point. I was familiar with the source material.
The second time, it stung a bit more. While standing in a circle of new gay friends at a house party, I became acutely aware that I was the fattest person in the room. I was well-versed in how to navigate this particular situation. I simply had to become the funniest person in the room. After nearly a decade of perfecting this skill, it was practically second nature. However, midway through a hilariously self-deprecating soliloquy about my time as a high school mascot, I was cut off by someone who said: “Thank God you’re ‘Garrett-sized,’ otherwise you’d be so busy dating you’d never have time to perfect these stories.”
In my friend group I was the plus-size Kathryn Hahn in any movie starring Jennifer Aniston or Kate Hudson. Not the leading lady, but always good for a laugh.
By age 20, I’d resigned myself to the supporting-character role in my love life. Assuming that no one was interested in me gave me the freedom to pursue other interests: Weight Watchers; the Zone diet; the HCG diet (in which you take “natural” hormones typically produced during pregnancy to suppress your appetite and consume a sparse 500 calories a day); and, of course, perfecting my party routines. I graduated college having been on homecoming court at a university of 40,000 students: chubby, a virgin and single.
Perhaps it was a result of moving to the middle-of-nowhere Connecticut or being in grad school. But in the two years after undergrad, I found the time and the motivation to lose more than 60 pounds. Surprisingly, eating well and exercising actually works! They weren’t the lightning-quick results I’d grown accustomed to as a millennial, but I was satisfied nonetheless. What did seem lightning-quick, however, was the way I was approached in public. For starters, I was being approached. Never before in my life had I been hit on at a bar. And here I was, in rural Connecticut, going on dates with boys.
When I moved to Washington, D.C., two years later, I entered the Hunger Games of gay dating. Suddenly, my 40- to 34-inch waist transformation felt shockingly inadequate. I knew I wasn’t “fat” anymore, but I felt insurmountably average. And as a gay man, how do you work an average body?
Sitting on the couch with a boy I’d been on a few dates with, the subject of exes came up. Dangerous territory for anyone, but especially so this evening.
“I don’t know, I mean I was with my last boyfriend for a couple years.” he said. “And then he started putting on weight and I just lost interest, so I broke up with him.”
Given that this was our fourth or fifth date, I’d already done what any other 25-year-old would have done — ahem, thoroughly analyzed his social media accounts — I knew exactly what his ex-boyfriend looked like. He was certainly no bigger than I was. If anything, he was more fit. In that moment, the former fat kid who still lives inside me decided that I could never take my shirt off in front of him again. I left feeling the kind of shame about my body that I hadn’t felt since being bulimic in high school.
I’m far enough removed from my eating disorder to now make jokes about it. But for plenty of gay kids, they’re still in the darkest parts of that struggle. Every time I gain or lose weight, I am made exceedingly aware of the power a thin waist and broad shoulders holds in my community. And while I’m thinner now than I once was, I’m still acutely aware of when I’m the only person in the room without a flat stomach. And I’m aware of how differently I’m treated when I’m out with fitter friends in public. I may have taken more of a leading role in my love life, but I’ve still got to win suitors over with funny first.
At age 25, I live in a wonderful city, I have a job that love and the best friends I could ask for. However, I’m still programmed to believe that I will have true happiness only when you can see my abs through my shirt. Women have been facing body-image issues forever. Straight men with average bodies have had their renaissance with the dad-bod movement. When will gay men have theirs?