Like many, I spent most of the last two weeks keeping up with the Winter Olympics. I am by no means a competitive sports fan; in fact, I didn’t even know what luge or skeleton were until last week. Nevertheless, I feel some sort of camaraderie with the American athletes who competed in PyeongChang. In today’s gun-crazy and unstable national environment, there is nothing like a little figure skating or a few halfpipe flips to bring us back together.
Along with every other millennial homosexual male in the country (and also some white women), I fell under figure skater Adam Rippon’s spell. Perhaps not nearly to the same extent of some of my friends and colleagues who place him on a pedestal (no pun intended), but I appreciate that he uses his newfound popularity to address important issues in the media, both social and political. I was particularly drawn to a Feb. 13 feature published by The New York Times titled “Adam Rippon on Quiet Starvation in Men’s Figure Skating.” Rippon confronted the pressures of achieving the “perfect body” while competing professionally, as well as the not-so-big-secret of eating disorders and body dysmorphia that affect male figure skaters. Though I’m not a professional athlete, I related to much of what Rippon addressed in this article, including his former eating habits and his struggle to maintain a healthy body image. I thought it was a good way for the public to realize that although Olympic athletes are in superior physical shape, they may not always be happy with their bodies.
Three days later, The New York Times published another article on Rippon, this time entitled “The Secret Behind Adam Rippon’s Olympic Abs.”
I gasped. Not in an “oh-my-god-let-me-drool-all-over-my-keyboard” type of way, but out of confusion and even horror. And this was all from the headline. Then I read the feature and almost threw my laptop across the room. The Times interviewed Rippon’s personal trainer Steve Zim, who detailed Rippon’s impractical daily exercise routine and diet. But the icing on this cake was not the fetishization of unrealistic fitness standards, but a quote from Zim saying, “After the workout, I require Adam to eat within 30 minutes … You need your carbs, but nobody needs bread, pasta or rice. He gets his carbs from fruits and vegetables, like yams.” What the actual f-ck.
Look, I’m all for having Olympic abs if that’s what you want. But to write a feature ogling Rippon’s sculpted body merely days after addressing his body dysmorphia is tacky, counterintuitive and harmful to the Feb. 13 feature. But would Rippon even be popular if he wasn’t the archetype of the white gay male’s fantasy, abs and all? Probably not. But there is no use in addressing that. Maybe I’m being presumptuous in assuming everyone who has battled an eating disorder should feel this way. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself.
I grew up an overweight child and teen. By age 18, I was at my heaviest, topping the scale at about 300 pounds. Not only was I obese and unhealthy, but more so, I also felt uncomfortable and insecure with myself. I knew that being overweight as a gay man in Los Angeles would expose me to unnecessary ridicule and could ultimately affect my love life. I felt that no one would love me because of my body. So I decided to get healthy — but for the wrong reasons and in the wrong ways.
When I began losing the weight, I did so in a combination of dieting and exercise. I’d say the first 100 pounds lost were achieved correctly and responsibly. By that point, I was exercising multiple times a week and eating enough clean foods to compensate for how active I was.
But after those 100 pounds, I reached a plateau. I wanted to lose more weight, gain more muscle, have that six-pack body I’d always dreamed of. I began eating less, which was followed by exercising more. The pounds literally fell off, more rapidly than I could ever imagine. I had never felt guilty about my weekly cheat days, but now I felt guilty for eating foods high in fat and carbs. It made me feel strong, and in control of my body.
Then the purging began. I don’t remember the first time I threw up, but I remember feeling powerful. I could literally have my cake and eat it too, then throw it up. I didn’t have a goal weight in mind. Instead I told myself I’d stop once I was happy with my body. But that day never came.
I realized I wasn’t healthy — I was thin. But if thin, the former wouldn’t matter. And that’s the major difference.
With the rapid weight loss came excess skin that masked my abs and muscles in a sea of unwanted flesh. It dawned on me that I’d never have the “ideal” body, one that I’d be comfortable with shirtless. And it wasn’t just in my head. I used to worry that my rotund shape would be the only factor that would affect my romantic experiences, but the surplus of loose skin did a better job of that. Once after bringing a guy home after a date, he told me he no longer found me attractive after seeing my body, and promptly left. It wasn’t one of those moments that left me feeling hopelessly crushed. Maybe in retrospect it did, but I remember thinking that I didn’t blame him. I wouldn’t be attracted to me either. It didn’t matter how thin I was — as long as my skin drooped, I’d be ugly.
It has taken years of therapy to undo the negative thinking regarding my body and its flaws, and I can’t say that it’s completely gone away. I struggle every day to affirm my body with encouraging platitudes. Reading Rippon’s account of his own body issues made me feel less alone and gave me hope of a widespread acknowledgement that eating disorders and body dysmorphia affect men as well — especially gay men. But the follow-up article regarding Rippon’s toned figure dismantled all of that. We cannot sympathize with one’s struggle with body image while simultaneously applauding their physique. That’s exploitation.
Perhaps Rippon and The New York Times don’t see it that way, but as someone who dropped out of undergrad for a semester in order to focus on my mental and physical health, I believe this is a step in the wrong direction.
Arya Roshanian is a graduate student studying library and information science. His column, “From The Top,” runs Tuesdays.