There’s the dime-sized scar from the chicken pox that I scratched at until it bled, the thickets of hair that shot out of my skin when I was ten, stretch marks raking down at the sides from cutting, bulking, cutting and bulking. I am always aware of the way this finger-deep layer of fat and water hinges under my sternum, hangs off my ribs, creeps down to rest on my hips. I poke and pull rubbery hunks of it when I am nervous on the subway en route to an interview, when I scrutinize myself in the mirror after a shower. I have never seen the body obscured in its depths.
My classmate Taylor Egolf may have been the first person to define my paunch for me, in the fourth grade during lunch. She pointed at my friend Jilan, his lithe, athletic figure, and decided he was the “Ethan Craft” of our group, referring to Lizzy McGuire’s hot crush, before turning to me and simply saying, “Gordo.” Gordo was McGuire’s awkward friend, and in my mother tongue of Spanish, it meant fat.
Did I spend that night scrutinizing my belly in the bathroom, or clutching my one large roll with both hands as I lay in bed? I don’t remember. Just like I don’t remember associating any shame with the four-hamburger dinners, the pollo a la brasa, causa, yucca frita, and lasagna feasts that I relished to the point of orgasm when I was a child. What I do remember, vaguely, is that at some point, my belly stopped feeling like the happy place where delicious home-cooking came to rest after a birthday party, a Christmas dinner, any lazy Saturday spent baking chicharrones with my dad. At some point my guata morphed into a doughy parasite, an unwanted, alien growth shifting here and there against my shirt, disgusting Taylor Egolf and, eventually, me.
When I was 14, my family went to visit my uncle in Colombia, and with a razor and a tube of shaving cream, I meticulously shaved every single centimeter of hair off of my stomach. The exposed fat still looked like a large doughnut, no better shorn than hairy and no leaner a year later in the wrap-around mirrors at the 24-Hour Fitness I begged to be enrolled in. I had lifted up my shirt in the weight room to measure my stomach obsessively after each set of squats, bench presses, and crunches, angrily jamming fingers into its malleable, sweaty creases.
This is while I was eating no more than 1,200 calories daily and training for a half marathon, doing a bodybuilding routine, and following the workouts on CrossFit.com. My obsession with my gut restricted my eating even further when I switched from an Atkins diet of two slices of ham microwaved with cheese to the Zone and Paleo diets that limited my sustenance to six grapes with two pieces of celery and half a bag of beef jerky. This was all before my 17th birthday. I no longer ate what my parents cooked, opting instead to make myself calorie-perfect, high-protein meals. Pictures of me from back then prove that my paunch was the smallest it has ever been. All I recall from living in that body is feeling hungry, and thumbing my paunch through my gown at high school graduation.
Blind to the thought that boys like myself might transition out of low self-esteem when they reach adulthood, I carried my obsession with body image right into my late teens without a hiccup. When I arrived at UCLA for my freshman year of college, scrawny despite not having missed a workout day in three years, I decided that it was the time to put on so much muscle that the “stubborn fat” that covered my ideal body of a six-pack and “sex lines” would evaporate. Armed with an unlimited dining hall pass and round-the-clock access to the school’s gym, I began to eat a tray of bacon, two omelettes, and two peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches at breakfast, four sandwiches for lunch, and something from every dining hall station at dinner, all while chugging a gallon of whole milk throughout the day.
I looked like a hedgehog, I felt like I was always a burp away from vomiting, and I spent all my free time either eating or lifting weights. It went on as a cycle, and I knowingly trapped myself in a world that revolved around body image. Three months of gorging myself until I couldn’t stand to look at my saggy balloon belly, followed by three months of starving myself into chicken arms and a plastic-grocery-bag belly.
My parents asked if I was anorexic. My girlfriend told me that it seemed like I didn’t put half as much effort into our relationship as I did into planning my next workout or meal.
I felt like a hard man buried in a “bitch” softness that I didn’t deserve. But if I ate exactly 24 grams of carbohydrates on a rest day and squatted twice my body weight, I could liberate the symmetrical obliques that I did not inherit genetically or define as a high school or collegiate athlete. And if I did not reach that cut, hard form—my ideal body—then I was a failure, because I could feel my abs right fucking there under all that skin, waiting for me to siege them out.
A siege usually result in one of two outcomes: Either the enemy comes out of their castle or the offensive front gives up. At college graduation, after seven years of chasing a six-pack, I had a separated shoulder, elbow tendonitis, an ex-girlfriend, and that eternal fatty kangaroo pouch to show for it.
So I laid down my arms, and surrendered to my paunch.
It was a gradual, reluctant ceasefire. Maybe I skipped a day at the gym to fit in Skype dates with friends and family. Or a meet-cute suggested a dinner date, and I forced myself to eat a full, calorically unpredictable meal to have a long conversation with her. Living with my sister got me eating Dominican food every Saturday. Paying rent meant I couldn’t afford piles of chicken breast, so I started eating vegetarian at home and stopped counting the grams of protein in my meals. Eventually dating a Peruvian woman and eating with her family every week had me eating the childhood delicacies, seco de cordero and panettone, I had been avoiding for almost a decade.
These are the things that I would not have made time for when I was chasing 8-percent body fat. There would be no shared pork shoulder brunches and long hours with loved ones. Freedom from whipping out a TI-85 to eat and sinking 10 hours a week into training has finally allowed me to balance my priorities, and still save some time to work on my physical health. I haven’t had a gym membership in a year, but still work out at my local park a few times a week. I do try to eat vegetables at every meal, because they are like NBA trade exceptions—no matter how many I eat, they don’t count against the cap. Those protein cookies they sell at GNC are a feel-good high I just cannot kick. No matter how relaxed I get, I suspect that I may always have this fear that everything that I eat, every workout day I skip, will become another ripple on my belly.
My paunch is a part of my ideal body, because I can count on it to keep me healthy, and be someone that other people can count on. This is the hairy, cushiony body that survives commuting in the bike lane during rush hour. This is the squishy, limber body that my girlfriend can cling to and wrestle playfully when she wants to show me affection. This is the alert, empathetic body that is present in the room when family members need to cry, when good friends disclose events both joyous and traumatic, when coworkers need a helping hand in and outside of the office. No, my body is not the chiseled-from-marble aesthetic I still pine for sometimes, but why does that matter if my body acts like a body should, ideally?
Sebastián Milla Goñi is an editor at Sexed Magazine, where you can find him owning up to and calling out more bad behavior in his weekly column, “Fuckboy Rehab”.
Art by Sam Woolley.