Here’s a sampling of the meager goals I’ve had in my adult life: kiss a girl, write a cover story for Sports Illustrated, and get in shape. That last one was always purposefully nebulous: Would getting fit mean that I could rock my Sawgrass Springs Middle School volleyball t-shirt again? Or would it mean looking like the chubby-turned-impossibly-well-chiseled Rohan from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham?
I was pondering these questions at the beginning of August 2018, while watching Nawazuddin Siddiqui make it rain on the Netflix show Sacred Games (the first time I’d ever seen an Indian man do that on television). I was double-fisting a Domino’s pizza and orange Fanta. I thought to myself, “Maybe tomorrow, I won’t do this.” The next day, I resolved to take the small step of eating healthier meals and getting some exercise.
I didn’t have some massive revelation or life-changing moment. I didn’t feel like I’d hit rock bottom—eating pizza and drinking orange soda is objectively fun as hell. All I knew was that I was surrounded by people who did things like yoga, weight-lifting, and running marathons (barf). I just wanted to see what would happen if I started to live a little bit healthier.
Christmas Day 2018 was the first time I’ve ever felt good about my body. I posted a thirst-adjacent trap on Instagram—a full-body shot on a Brooklyn rooftop, for maximum engagement—and my comments were flooded with positive reviews. Past romantic entanglements were witnessing my glow-up. The stars were aligning. From that day in early August through Christmas I had lost weight rapidly—at one point reaching the 50-pound mark.
But when I stepped on the scale Christmas morning, and the display showed an arbitrary number I’d chosen for myself months ago, I felt as flustered as I felt accomplished: What the hell was I supposed to do now?
So much of what men read and understand about “wellness” is about the process. Here’s the diet of a dude who can drag a plane across a runway using only his chest muscles! Here’s a workout to exercise a muscle you didn’t know existed but which you’ll now forever be self-conscious about! We’re sold this idea that if you do enough bicep curls or turn into Captain America all your other insecurities will fade away. But what happens after you achieve these goals? Losing weight was always this huge mountain for me: I thought once I climbed it, I would be able to conquer anything. It hasn’t been that simple.
I was lucky to have the fake (and flexible) job of being a “writer,” a steady income, and access to resources like groceries and a gym—all things that are easy to take for granted. I can’t write a catch-all “How I Lost Weight” guide, because it’s different for everyone, and for people who aren’t living with a certain amount of privilege, it’s much more difficult. But I can say that I followed a regimen of “eating fewer bad foods, eating more good foods, and actually using the energy stored in my body.” I made healthier choices when I could, and went to the gym/a spin class/for a long walk when I could. The formula was actually pretty simple in that regard: Getting the water over the soda or the salad bowl over the rice adds up over time, and once you start doing that often enough, you start to see results. I didn’t get those impressive, shiny Justin Theroux muscles, but I did start fitting into more clothes made by European fashion designers.
But with the new sweaters came new problems. For the first 25 years and 10 months of my life, I was more or less blissfully unaware of what I put in my body. Ever since that August day I decided to make a lifestyle change, I’ve been hyper aware. After losing all that weight, I had no idea how to have a normal relationship with food. I haven’t eaten an added sugar in weeks: Is it okay for me to eat this brownie? Should I be calculating and tracking how many calories I’m about to consume, or can I scoop these cashews up by the handful since I’m high as hell right now?
"I don’t even know if my body looks better! There is, objectively, less of it. That’s all I can say for sure."
The comments made by people around me also posed new, unique challenges. I’m always down for some positive feedback. A simple “You look great!” goes a long way. Things start to get dicey when people say stuff like, “Your legs have never looked so skinny!” or “What’s the number?” or “Are you trying to lose weight on purpose?” One disconcerting side effect of trying to be healthier is that people feel way more comfortable commenting on your body than they ever did in the past. That can be reassuring at times, but the spotlight can also be a little uncomfortable. You start asking yourself questions you never asked yourself in the past: If I order this pizza, are people going to think I’m bingeing or something? Fluctuations in weight also start to become much more troubling. Any time I’m a few pounds over what I want my baseline to be, I wonder if everyone can notice. And when the person I have a crush on is down to grab dinner, I wonder if they can tell I tried to shed a few pounds since the last hangout.
I think that so many of the anxieties I’m describing are ten times worse for women, for whom the definition of the “ideal body”—as far as I can tell—has historically been much narrower than for men. But I get the sense that on the whole, women are much more conscious of the issues that surround body image. I don’t think men really talk about this stuff. I do, because I have friends who have gone through similar situations (and because I generally force people to be 25 percent more vulnerable than they want to be in any given conversation). But I still wasn’t prepared for the gap between my expectations for weight loss and the reality. Even my friends who have experienced what I did weren’t always comfortable divulging how they handled the aftermath. Men, from what I’ve gathered, mostly keep trudging along toward a certain ideal, without ever really discussing with one another why they are doing it, or if that extra gym set is actually addressing the root of their insecurities.
I’d thought it was as simple as “losing weight = I’m now living all my hopes and dreams.” But losing weight didn’t fix all my problems overnight. I’m not saying that making healthier choices didn’t make me feel better, but it also didn’t magically set my largely dormant Hinge profile on fire. I don’t even know if my body looks better! There is, objectively, less of it. That’s all I can say for sure. I’m still hilariously incapable of doing the things I was previously hilariously incapable of, like lifting my arms above my head (I have a weird shoulder thing I need to get checked out) or stopping myself from telling jokes at wildly inappropriate moments. My confidence has certainly improved, and now I look forward to activities like hikes, but I haven’t turned into James Bond.
So much health, wellness and fitness advice is meant to sell you on why you need to look a certain way and fit inside a very narrow, taut set of beauty standards (Justin Theroux). Very few people tell you what you’re supposed to do once you get there. I chased an ideal like a religious zealot for months, only to find that on the other side, my life was still complicated.
What I wish someone had told me in August 2018 is: Be healthy, but also broaden your definition of what “health” is. Not every decision you make about food or your diet should be made in service of being thin. You should value your comfort and mental well-being just as much. Be physically healthier, for sure, but not at the cost of your sanity. These days, I’m focusing on living a certain way, as opposed to looking a certain way. I’m probably never going to have a six-pack like Hrithik Roshan, but I’m more comfortable with that reality now than I ever have been in the past. I care less about the Instagram comments (though you’re always welcome to tell me I’m handsome) and much more about trying every bubble tea in Southern California. I want to be able to play with my kids one day, or go for a long walk, or not worry about serious medical concerns. Those are great, tangible benefits of making a lifestyle change. What I regret is trying so hard to look a certain way that I never really considered whether I was taking care of myself along the way.
All of my goals have been replaced by one: Living up to my own standards—and no one else’s.
A ridiculously easy recipe from chef Brooks Headley, wrangler of vegetables and filler of paper boats.
Originally Appeared on GQ