Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | March 4, 2010

FATTENING UP FOR WINTER

This fall, much to my surprise, I was seized with the sudden urge to get fat. For most of my adult life my lanky 6″1′ frame has weighed in at a scant 135lbs, prompting cries of distress from aunts who wanted to fatten me up, and giggles from girlfriends the first time they saw me in shorts. I was well proportioned until I hit puberty, after which my weight remained constant while my height towered skyward, stretching my body thin like a taunt elastic. This despite eating enough on a regular basis to feed a village – a classic case of high metabolism. (Or so the “experts” would claim; I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that all those extra calories were needed to feed a brain of exceptional qualities. Either that or a tapeworm was sharing my meals.) Despite my scrawny appearance, I was the envy of many because I could indulge in every food fantasy without paying a price in pounds. It was not until my early thirties that my weight started to creep leisurely upward; by the time I turned 34 this past year, I weighed about 144lbs.
¬† The reasons for my sudden revolt against the lank are probably more complex than I can fathom. A significant direct catalyst was spending six weeks as an intern where my room and board were provided. While the board was very healthy, it lacked sufficient carbs to feed my insatiable metabolism and I returned home with my normally gaunt figure looking even more emaciated than usual. It was a visceral (quite literally) lesson in the close relationship between the words “internship” and “internment”. I hadn’t felt so skinny since the time I ran off with a girl to Mexico with only $500 in my pocket, split up with said girl once down there, and lived off a poverty diet of tortillas and beans for two months until I could scrape together enough English teaching money to buy a bus ticket home.
¬†Understanding the more indirect causes of my revolt require the context of my peculiar character: I have always been a contrarian, delighting in confounding other’s attempts to pin my personality down, yet at the same time taking a sincere interest in self-renewal, reinvention, and growth, and this fall my need for renewal was peaking (yes, the end of yet another relationship was involved). I had also convinced myself, not unreasonably, that the direction of weight gain was, for me, the way to greater health. Some website told me that the “healthy” weight range for someone of my height began at 150lbs, and I reasoned that six extra pounds would provide a bit of a buffer should I again fall into love or internment. Finally, winter was approaching, so a little fattening up seemed in order. Knowing my motivations to be less than fully sound, however, I entered into the endeavour in the spirit of idle curiosity and experimentation rather than dire commitment.
A distinctive feature of my weight gain program was that I cared little whether the extra pounds came from fat or muscle – I would gladly welcome them in whatever form they chose to come. Of course, certain forms were more happily obtained than others. Dessert every night seemed a more pleasurable course than a set of pushups. Yet, given the immensity of the challenge I had set myself, it knew it would be unwise to ignore any tactic. After more internet consultation of inconsistent merit, I settled on an overall plan of three snacks a day (one mid-morning, one mid-afternoon, and one just before bed), dessert every night, as much lazing about as practicable, and daily pushups. The basic idea was to increase caloric intake (from fat especially), decrease activities that burn a lot of calories (like exercise), and give a nod to resistance training. I’ll be the first to admit that perhaps it was not a regime designed for maximum health. But I did believe it would be the fastest way to pack on the pounds, which was my only goal, after all. (Interestingly, the modifier “healthy” was usually inserted before “weight gain” in the online advice, but rarely preceded “weight loss”, implying that all weight loss is by definition healthy while only some forms of weight gain are – a tellingly suspect assumption.)
I stuck to my program about as faithfully as your average dieter probably sticks to theirs; I skipped a lot of snacking, was remiss in dessert on a number of occasions, and was unfaithful to my pushup routine to the point of dereliction. Although I did my best to avoid any activities that got my heart rate up, thus wastefully burning precious calories, I was occasionally peer pressured into walks, sometimes even uphill. Nevertheless, after about a month of the new regime I had gained two pounds! I danced for joy (although not too aerobically), and started eating with a renewed fervour. Bring on the triple cream brie!
I only bothered counting my calories one day (in the belief that since I was simply trying to eat as many calories as I could there was little point in counting them) but that day coincided with one of my best performances to date: a sprawling, greasy breakfast of eggs Benedict and fried potatoes, a large bag of Doritos in the mid-afternoon (which, to my delight as I read the nutritional information on the back of the bag, accounted for nearly 1000 calories alone), a couple of beers, and not one, but two dinners. All told it added up to almost 4000 calories – enough to feed two of me!
But this heroic day also alerted me to my limits, for I didn’t feel entirely well after that gorging – had I been in ancient Rome I may have paid a visit to the vomitorium (although apparently it is a misconception that the Romans had such rooms). I needed to pace myself better if I was going to maintain my appetite. Christmas – the Olympics of Eating – was only weeks away, and my stomach needed to be in top digesting form if I was to reap the incredible weight gain potential that awaited me in the holiday season.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, a few women friends started voicing concerns for my health, foreseeing diabetes and other grim misfortunes if I kept eating like I had been. While I appreciated their concern for my well-being, I brushed it aside (friends always resist change!), instead pulling up my shirt and asking them to poke my new layer of fat. I was pretty sure it was there – a thin stratum of chub just under my skin – and was eager to have it validated.
Finally the long feast of the Christmas season was upon me, kicked off with a traditional turkey dinner at my father’s, followed by a vegetarian smorgasbord with my mother. The leftovers from both repasts fell to myself – my fridge packed to the brink in solidarity with my stomach. Next a seemingly endless parade of friends’ dinners, potlucks, and parties followed. I stumbled from one buffet table heaped with rich delights to the next, groaning from the ceaseless barrage of delicacies, my digestive tract reeling, unable to deal with one assault before being hit by a fresh volley. At what I considered must be the peak of my gluttony, I crawled upstairs to weigh myself once more on the bathroom scale – and tipped it at just barely 150lbs. Yes! At last, I was healthy!
My concerned friends were relieved to hear me declare an end to my weight gain program. Mission accomplished. But like that other mission once declared accomplished, it’s the peace which follows victory that’s much harder to win. The gridlock in my intestines was backed up for miles. I yearned to feel that long lost feeling again – hunger – and for the elevated taste of food that comes with it. I craved emptiness. I had hit a wall; I could eat like a pig no more. My flirtation with 150lbs was fleeting, and unsustainable. By the end of the holidays I was back down to 145lbs.
Yet I’m glad I took this roller coaster ride; I am proud to have joined that society of great athletes who have pushed their bodies to their very limits. But one cannot live always in the airy heights; one must, most of the time, accept oneself, and be happy with who one is.

Copyright Sean Butler 2009

Published in The Ottawa Citizen, March 28, 2009, as “Pass the Poutine (sigh)”

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