Big Boys


One late November morning, I woke up already envisioning myself in a specific outfit. I pictured how each item of clothing would fit perfectly atop my frame, and I had no reason to believe that they would make me look unappealing. So, I tried them on, and my outfit looked nothing like I wanted it to. I didn’t plan on fighting with the mirror, but each time I put on something new, my eyes gravitated down to the same place: my belly.

Growing up as a theatre student, I remembered the ever-so-awkward “mirror” exercise. Two people would stand before each other, with one person leading. The second person’s job was to follow whatever the leader did with their body, essentially “mirroring” them. Following was the easy part because no one was focusing on my body. I didn’t have the typical “leading man” figure that gets praised in theatre. As long as I didn’t put myself out there to lead, my body was safe from being picked apart.

As a homosexual man, theatre was a rite of passage. There was something so enticing that drew us all to the stage. Perhaps it was playing dress up and pretending to be someone, anyone else. Over the years, I would quickly learn that being both gay and an actor would be one of the worst things for my body image.

Staring into my slightly dirty over-the-door mirror, I tried sucking in my stomach, hoping to find some satisfaction from the results. Once that turned out to be a bust, I sought to find my trusty hoodie—the one thing that unequivocally made me look the least big and hid everything I thought I needed to hide from the world.

My belly by no means was tiny, but it wasn’t exactly massive either. It was just a little more than I’d hoped, and sometimes it felt distracting. Catching glances in the reflection of glass windows would cause me to wonder if others saw what I did—a huge, unattractive monster. If I could, I’d fumble through all my drawers to find a pair of scissors, hoping it’d help me trim off all the excess. Maybe then I’d feel more presentable in public.

As I wandered into the outside world, I walked past several men of different shapes and sizes. Seeing each of them, I wondered if I was the only one starting their morning this way. I’m sure we all wished we could grab anything from our closet and put it on without a second thought, but it is never that easy. Body dysmorphia is more common in young men than people like to admit, and the internal struggles men face when it comes to accepting their bodies are not talked about enough.

Through an open curtain, someone’s living room displayed another one of those boring superhero movies—was it Thor? Aquaman? The difference wasn’t clear since they were all the same, right down to having an exaggeratedly muscled hero. In the next house over, some trashy Riverdale-esque teenage drama showcased the skinny but fit protagonist who was trying to solve a murder mystery. I was confused as to why this was the body type the main characters needed, but it went hand in hand with how the world perceives bodies like mine.

On a nearby newsstand, I received my yearly reminder that my looks were inadequate. People Magazine picked their “Sexiest Man Alive,” and to no one’s surprise, it was a white guy with a chiseled jaw and a smaller frame than me. Just a year prior, Chris Evans received the honor—you know, “Captain America,” the man designed to be the physical American standard. This character was created in 1940 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby to have this unbelievably unattainable physique, which only influenced male body standards when the MCU came along decades later.

To have this headline all over the news can really fuck with someone’s head, especially someone with body issues. For the general public to see this, believe it, and keep buying it, thereby confirming it to be true, has had lasting side effects on men who don’t subscribe to this supposed “norm.”

Thinking back to my adolescence, I don’t believe I was ever super stick thin. Sure, I was probably closer to skinny than fat, but I still felt like I needed to get in shape. Some blame could be put on my interest in theater. My dream in high school was to become an actor, and the examples of the most successful actors were usually fit or overly ripped men.

Bigger guys are usually cast as the sidekick to the protagonist or comic relief. It was as if the only thing we could offer was our humor. If we weren’t making jokes, then we became the butt of them. Would anyone honestly believe that someone who looked like me could be the sexy leading man? Did all they see was just a big punchline?

These outdated archetypes were personas I eventually adopted near the end of college. Back then, I would do almost anything to be seen. So, knowing my place as the “fat friend,” I also had to be “the funny one.” Otherwise, I was not noticed nor worth mentioning.

From generation to generation, we pass down how to hate ourselves and others.

For me, college was the time I began to feel less desirable. Being younger and skinnier throughout my freshman year, I received much more attention and felt like my possibilities were endless. As time went on, college seemed never-ending. I couldn’t figure out what to do with my life, so I became this lost, dejected person who turned to food to ease the ache of not being good enough to do anything.

Before I knew it, I was one of the bigger people in my friend group. That’s when I learned that I had to lean into comedy. If I made them laugh, then they would like me. It was a simple solution to combat the fact that I was never aligned with the pressuring body standards we’ve all decided to be gospel, and I never would be.

This is what we have been exposed to our entire lives. It’s been ingrained in our heads since we were all children. I’m pretty sure—like everyone, I was judgmental regarding weight and what the human body is supposed to look like. Hating our bodies has always been something that we were taught. It sucks to know that body-shaming is a societal tradition. From generation to generation, we pass down how to hate ourselves and others.

That hate also comes from Eurocentrism, and that is an important fact to face. The Western world thrives off of that shit, and that is why it is incredibly vital that we take a step to unpack and decolonize how we think about our bodies and appearance. It would be much easier if we were all just eating fruit in a garden and feeling comfortable in our skin. Instead, our timeline established racism, sexism, homophobia, and, of course, fat-shaming.

To think that, as humans, our first instinct is to spread hate, not love. It took so long for me to love this version of myself. I didn’t choose to look this way. It just happened. But I’ve found it so much easier to accept myself and love my body now that I have gained weight. I find it interesting that I spent my entire childhood being skinny and hating myself, and then once I gave up on trying to be the perfect vision of health or thinness, I saw the real me, and I only have nice things to say about him.

Everybody remembers the funny SNL sketch featuring SZA and Keke Palmer titled “Big Boys” and how it cleverly shed light on all the positive things we contribute during colder seasons. As fun as that sketch was, it was still in the form of a joke. And it only really listed the things we “big boys” could do for others.

In the first verse, host Keke Palmer sings
“I need a big boy w-wit' polar bear arms
Keeps me warm in a winter snowstorm
Wind chill is bitin' but his jacket's unzipped
He bring in my groceries in just one trip.”

For once, it would be nice to receive appreciation for just being me. I want the same for all the “big boys” growing up in a society that tried to tear them down. I was a young man dealing with the effects of a society that places looks above all else, and I would do anything to make sure that the young men of today do not have to feel the same way.

I can recall having a conversation with my mother a few years back, and like most of our talks, it started okay, and then it got loud. At some point, she felt the urge to emphasize something about me that she knew made me insecure—my weight. Her tactic was to start small, with little quips here and there. Then, usually, while we’re out eating, she’d go in for the kill. I’d fight back, but she’s persistent, and then I would crumble to the ground because parents always know the right spots to hit to destroy your sense of self.

Having your parents’ criticisms in your head for your entire childhood can set anyone up for failure. Growing up, I remembered my mother’s obsession with weight loss and constantly asking, “Does this make me look fat?” I don’t believe I cared too much about my appearance until I realized others would.
When I came out as gay, I knew that I would have a new set of challenges. The gay community isn’t necessarily the most welcoming to guys like me. Most gay men don’t give a second thought to men over a certain percentage of body fat, and I am a perfect example of someone they would ignore unless I am “fun to be around” or “hilarious.”

But, when it comes down to it, someone who looks like me will never be taken seriously in a community that has become so exclusionary. Sadly, that’s been the same story for every other aspect of a big boy’s life. We want to be taken seriously. We want to be seen for who we are, and nobody seems to give us the chance. I envision a future where young men with bigger bodies aren’t treated like a disease, and we get to be happy looking the way we look. It seems like so much to ask for, but it isn’t.

Once I returned home at the end of my day of seeing men who had the things I didn’t, I took one last look in the mirror. I examined my body as I changed into my pajamas, and it took a minute, but I smiled. I still had a ways to go to know the full power of loving every curve and inch of my body, but being able to look at myself for longer than usual was a tiny victory for today. And I knew that by choosing to love the body that I was in, I was destined to get farther than the ones who were constantly putting it down.

Enriko Pratt

Enriko Pratt is a fantasy/mystery novelist, performer, and songwriter. You can find him here.