“The Good, The Bad & The Ugly”
I’ve had an unhealthy relationship with my body.
As I write this, I am already censoring the thoughts that seek to shed light on the nature of my relationship with my body. However, instead, I am going to, dare greatly, and commit to, silencing the part of me that feels shame. The part that grasps external validation, and approval, and feels terrified.
I have struggled with the way my body looks.
I worry about my waistline.
I worry about how big or how not big my arms are.
How undefined my muscles become over the Christmas period and how after months of antibiotics they’re still not as defined as they once used to be.
There have been times when I try and look away from my reflection, unhappy with the way my skin hangs over my skeleton.
I have, over many winters, referred to myself as more cuddly to normalise it, but behind that thin veil of humour is deep insecurity and unhappiness that is born out of my own sense of not being good enough.
At the time of writing this I have just set a personal best for running a Kilometre and can run farther than I have since the start of the pandemic, And yet, despite the health of my heart and the spring in my step, I still pick and obsess over my imperfections.
Why is that?
Why is it that although on most days I can absolutely obliterate a 5K, I still find myself ashamed of the way I look?
What is it about the man in the mirror that has me so disappointed?
This experience isn’t new.
I grew up a scrawny kid. Puberty was an odd time on many fronts. There was the spurt of hair all over, the discovery of self-pleasure, and a voice that transformed from musical to what can only be described as a shattered trumpet. It was around this time, during this period of discovery and growth, that the first seeds of my struggle were sown. Everywhere I looked, from Hrithik Roshan to Tom Cruise, from the Peter Parkers to the Boys in Blue, I saw chiselled men, with popping veins, and women lining up behind them. I don’t think I had ever been oblivious to any of this, but puberty allowed me the opportunity to see a path for myself that led to what I would hope could be my own realisation of manhood. However, twelve, or even thirteen was too young, and even hormonal me could accept that the time for women and six-pack abs would have to come in its own time. However, the masculine ideal had been set. Before I had any conception of the kind of man I would want to be, I had already decided on the kind of man I wanted to look like.
Fatefully and partly through my own devices, I found myself in a hypermasculine environment throughout my adolescence. For all the good that Scindia would do, I found myself tussling, competing, dominating and being dominated by other boys. If there was ever a perfect set of circumstances to test out Darwinian concepts, this place was it. I’ve talked about this in a previous essay and it is the central focus of my podcast recording with Ronit Borpujari, so I won’t repeat the same old, but your athleticism and capacity to face the hazing went a long way on the fort. This model is present and replicates itself across the social groups for young men, but in a place like Scindia, the dial was cranked to full.
I was tall, taller than most of my peers, so I wasn’t at the short end (pun intended), but my narrow shoulders, my lanky limbs, and my minimal musculature put me at a disadvantage.
I wasn’t the first to get bullied; that honour was reserved for overweight kids or those with more feminine features. I wasn’t celebrated either; that status was reserved for the athletic, trophy-winning jocks. I was somewhere in the middle. Not warranting abuse but also unworthy of respect. I coasted through my years on the laurels of my mind, my capacity to be an absolute intellectual twat and win debate after debate, and in doing so makeup in intellect what I could not demonstrate in form. It brought me the recognition I longed for. For the people on the fort, I was the tool they could count on for any and all things public speaking and therefore I served a purpose. Beyond the walls of the fort, it made me popular with the ladies, which granted me social currency amongst the boys. Every trophy won, every woman scorned and every opponent that I decimated across the podium raised my social capital.
But there was something missing.
I wasn’t big enough.
I didn’t have abs.
My arms were the same width as my forearms.
My legs were long and lanky.
I didn’t look like the lads on the soccer team.
I didn’t come close to the weightlifters.
I didn’t do sports.
The rules were clear.
The fates foretold it all.
I could be the sharpest tongue but it mattered for nought, for the might of the bench press ruled the land.
I hated my body in school and yet I had no clue where to start.
I did try going to the gym a few times with my friend Jatin, but I felt so deeply uncomfortable with the way I looked in contrast to the other lads around me that I decided never to go back to the gym again. I do not know how well-versed you are in the cultural practices of young men, but staying in your lane is heavily enforced. If you try breaking your shell, if you push past your designated spot on the social tapestry, you are ridiculed and picked apart. It’s a rather primitive process, a test and a torment in equal measure. If you fail, it all but reinforces why you should have stayed in your lane, but if you pass you’ve earned the right to join the high table.
The high table in this case, the physical elites; I dare and hate the word but perhaps it’s the one that captures the rotten idea perfectly… The Alpha.
Singed by the glances and the repetition of, “Stay in your lane” I started working out in the study room where no one could see me. A few pushups, maybe three pullups, crunches and squats for as much as I could and that would be it. Two of my mates caught me working out once and gave me shit for it. That didn’t matter. There was a void that needed filling and building muscles was the only way to do it.
I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t leave boarding school looking like Captain America. Far from it! But by the time I left, I had some muscle, I could move tables, and fit into my clothes a bit fuller. My shoulders were wider, my chest more pronounced and I looked more athletic than I had ever been in my life. However, I felt regret. For not starting sooner. For not working out harder. On the day I left the fort, driving away in my dad’s car, I realised I had missed my chance to achieve the crown, but I wouldn’t let that happen again. Not when college was concerned.
In the year between finishing school and starting university, I spent six months at home on account of a delay in my Canadian Work Permit and the next six working in a Canadian boarding school after having received said Work Permit. I’m mindful that I may be turning towards the familiar comfort of the narrative rather than deep dive into the feelings so here’s a quick montage version of the narrative catchup (because all good athletic shifts in cinema require a montage).
So, queue montage!
For the uninitiated, my mum’s a fitness trainer and so I got a pretty dang but ruthless AF personal trainer to get me started on the track. I worked out, ate healthily and packed on the muscle and got bigger. I got abs! I do not understand why we men attach such great importance to abs, but yes, I got my four packs and that was a highlight! I started wearing tank tops and asking people how many pushups they could do (yes.. I was that person). I knew big terms like callisthenics, suspension training, intermittent fasting, and the likes. I flexed, wore tight t-shirts that would emphasize my form, took a few thirst pics for the gram and arrived in college ready to be the King of this metaphorical hill.
Since then, I’ve tried to keep an active lifestyle for the most part and in an effort to not let go of the gains, gained a whole new sense of anxiety about how my body looks and how long stretches of not-working out make me feel anxious and stressed about the loss of that physique. Now we’re getting into the feelings.
Objectively, if I were to look at myself from the lens of the other, I have a perfectly pleasing and capable body. I can climb multiple flights of stairs or run after a bus and not be short of breath. I can lift things comfortably without injuring myself and, perhaps most importantly, I am healthy and able-bodied to go about my everyday living without feeling pain, discomfort or limitations.
Yet I still remain unhappy with how I look.
As I pen this, I am feeling a bit under the weather. For those concerned, it isn’t covid but the all-too-familiar cold that creeps in with the change of season. I was meant to go out on a 10k run today and I know that I should rest. Allow my body to heal and take a break. But even as I sense the right in that logic, there is a voice on my shoulder telling me how I should get out and run. How I should push myself, even though I feel tired and unwell because if I do not, I am not good enough. I will lose months of progress, and my body will no longer be desirable.
It’s an all too familiar voice.
The same that told me to have strict diets if I wanted to retain my abs. The same that called me out incessantly when I lost them. It’s the same voice that berates me when I look a little cuddly in the mirror. The same that pushed me to severely regulate the amount of food I was consuming in my early twenties. As I’ve gotten older, as I’ve started valuing the function of my body over the form, the voice has been relegated to nothing more than a whisper. But on days like today, when I’m tired, sick and a bit under the weather, the voice speaks instead of whispering. It tells me that I’m no longer desirable if I’m not fit enough. If my arms aren’t defined enough. If I am softer.
It’s a familiar voice, so I tell it to get in line.
The voice of reason rushes in and tells me that I am more than my form, that my value as a person doesn’t come from what I look like. I want to believe it. I think I believe it more now than I have before, and yet it's not enough.
Why do I hate the man that I see? What is it about him that feels so inadequate at this moment?
I notice the imperfections on him, the grey in his hair. I remark on the musculature. I’m leaner than I was, a long way fitter than the Christmas past, and yet there are times when the boy that was once ashamed of how skinny he was, longs for the days of old. It’s ironic because the man in the mirror today will be the one I’d wish to be again a decade from now. I know this because I wish I could look like the younger me, and there is a certain irony to this.
Younger Pranav wished for a face full of hair, some meat on his bones, and some tattoos. I am all those things right now. Judging by where I’m headed, I know if I were to meet an older me, we’d both wish to be the other. So with the irony in front of me, we return to the same question; Why do I feel ashamed of the man in the mirror, when both past and future me would adore to be him?
Perhaps due to years of cultural and social conditioning?
Or because I was raised by a primary caregiver who did not always have a healthy relationship with her own body?
Because I am still trying to make up for the inadequacy that was instilled in me for never being fit enough?
For reasons both known and those that are still buried somewhere within, I am scared of looking in the mirror. There has been some progress over the years. I am kinder on most days of the month and that voice in my head only creeps up on days like today when my body recovers. I am long past the days when I would starve myself or push myself to injury, or shame myself for having a body that was natural. I have, well and truly, shifted the lens of what I want my body to be, a healthier functional vessel rather than one that conforms to the demands of social media.
I am enough, I believe it more than I used to.
I am healthy, that’s important, and I believe that too. But there is a voice in my ear, quiet and small, that once occupied the whole of my being. It’s been a journey to get it there. To quiet it down. The journey ahead will be one of making peace with that voice. I used to think of it as a parasite. Something alien to me. But it isn't either of those things.
It is me.
A hurt, unloved part of me that has spent years in pain, believing it would never be good enough. That I will be defined by my inadequacies and my failure to never overcome them.
It's a multilayered and complex issue, one that I will address head-on in the next chapter, but for now; for the moment the long journey of repairing my relationship with my body starts with looking in the mirror.
So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to shower and slip on some comfy pyjamas to spend this Saturday recovering in. I don’t know how I’ll feel looking in the mirror, but this exercise has been helpful.
Who knows what I will think or how I will feel, but here’s a big leap in and of itself. I am going to look in the mirror.
And for now, that’s a start.