Two nights ago I was doing my hamster-wheel loop around the riverside park by my house. It’s summer in Taipei now, which means highs of over 35 degrees and burning sun, leaving the park barren all day, and exploding with life at night. I passed the entrance to the park, starting my second lap, and weaved around an eclectic menagerie of runners, giving thumbs-up to anyone willing to make eye contact.
That’s when I saw a husky kid in his late teens. He had an oversized black t-shirt on, and running looked to be about the most painful experience in his life. I watched as he slunk down to a walk, flipping his phone up and checking Strava. His face twisted in unhappiness with whatever his phone was telling him. I darted around the side of this sudden obstacle, holding out my thumb and wishing him a “jiao-yo,” but as he looked at me, I realized I recognized him.
At the beginning of high school, my life was pretty messed up. Maybe as a result, so was my diet and my understanding of what exercise means. I watched a lot of T.V., played video games, ate whatever I felt might taste good.
Let’s just say I was large. My friends called me ‘Tito’ because I looked like the fat Hawaiian guy from Rocketpower. I was called “fluffy” or “tubby” in a way that my classmates tried to make sound endearing, but I felt was a jab. People made comments about my bludging round chubby cheeks.
In 2004, it was the summer before my sophomore year. I was transferring back to my high school after a stint away. A year ago, I had been told I would not be allowed into high school. I told you, my life was pretty messed up. After a year away, I proved I wasn’t actually a threat to the people around me, and I was granted access back to my original school district. I passed around the good news, and I met up with some of my old friends whom I hadn’t seen in a while.
One thing became obvious: while I was gone, puberty was a lot nicer to them than it was to me.
They were taller now, but they were also lean, strong and fast. They played ultimate frisbee twice per week just for fun. They went swimming when the weather was warm, and headed into the indoor tennis facilities when the snow fell. They talked about their coaches of their respective sports teams and the amount of time they spend in the weight room, and I looked down at my oversized black t-shirt and realized the joke of me not being able to keep up with them wasn’t cute anymore.
That summer, I started getting on my brother’s bike and pedaling as far as I could, drinking lots of water, and coming home after sunset drenched in sweat, feeling wonderful. Each afternoon, I alternated between biking and a lung-searing 1-mile jog down the road and back. I made a rule to sweat every day. I ate what I thought healthy people eat.
And to my amazement… nothing really happened. I was still fat.
Summer passed, and the upstate NY winter came again. My fat bulge lingered. Me and my friend Steve, whom I met while at my other school and was somehow larger than me, decided to give “going to the gym” a try at our local YMCA.
It was like going to the zoo.
Bodybuilders yelling as they threw weights up into the air for no apparent reason.
Blond stick-figures pounding their legs into the treadmill while gaping open-mouthed at the TV ahead of them.
The battle for an elliptical so wild that David Attenborough could have narrated it.
And on all of these stations, Steve and I felt the piercing eyes of all of those around us. Fatty and his fatter fat friend battling to see who could create the biggest puddle of sweat under their respective machines. We wandered to the free weights area and the gaze followed, mocking us while we flung the teeniest barbells into the air like interpretive dancers. A glance, and second glance from the woman on the treadmill to my side. And then, once I surrendered, I’d turn to see everyone behind me looking right at me.
One of the most common things I see on running messaging boards are concerns from new runners on how to handle the stares at the gym. People claim to be watched and judged. I certainly felt that way, and I wish I knew it now, but the unequivocal response is this:
Sure, if you are feverishly flipping your gaze from person to person, some people might look back at you. You might make eye contact with the guy next to you. And later that night, when you go on reddit and ask why that guy was looking at you, the guy responding to you in agreement is probably the guy who you were looking at.
Nobody gives a shit.
Dance like nobody’s watching because we all spend so much time in our own heads judging ourselves, we don’t have any time to judge those around us. Plus, inside those four walls, there’s not much else you can look at but the bodies around you. It might feel like you’re being sized up, but if you could jump into their mind at that moment during that fraction of a second that anyone glances at you, you’d see the inner demons that they’re dealing with, the memories they’re recalling, and the plans their making for later today. Not an iota of thought would be dedicated to judging the fatty on the treadmill.
And that’s when I remembered where I’ve seen that guy before. He was me at the YMCA, or doing my one-mile jog down the road, fighting in vain to get my waistline to get the pudge to burn off just the tiniest bit.
So I’m just writing to tell you, fluffy, fatty, Tito, or any of the other disgusting pet names your friends call you.
Yeah, I’m watching you.
And I’m cheering you on.