I remember the last time I wore a sleeveless shirt. It was 1993 sometime during the summer before I entered seventh grade when I wore a Michael Jordan jersey nearly everyday. This was shortly after the Bulls’ first three-peat, and despite the fact that I was a size XXL before my teen years, I was convinced that someday I, too, would dunk, that I would “Be Like Mike.”
On the court, I had a series of shake moves, modeled after Jordan, that looked more like doing the Truffle Shuffle while dribbling a basketball than any move MJ used on ‘Nique, Dumars or John Starks. I couldn’t dunk–still can’t–but for hours, I’d jump from beneath the hoop, sometimes while running, sometimes flat-footed, at the park or in my grandmother’s backyard, trying my hardest just to clap the backboard while laying it in, tongue wagging like you-know-who. My mother never told me I wouldn’t make the NBA. She only asked if I did my homework first before I left the house to play hoops on the weekends, creating a fall back plan for me before I even knew what one was.
It was a good thing she did because one day during that summer I heard the familiar jingle of the Mr. Softee truck, always around 4:30 on our block, and I ran downstairs and out the door for my favorite, the Tu-Tone cone, a double-headed, half-vanilla and half-chocolate ice cream cone, whose deliciousness can be seen here, only mine came with rainbow sprinkles. After getting my order, the ice cream man pointed at the stretchmarks on my shoulders and asked if they were cat scratches. I told him they weren’t, and he began laughing. “Stretchmarks? You’re a fat one,” he said while handing me my change. The next day, I wore my Jordan jersey, but with a t-shirt underneath so no one would see my shoulders. I began playing hoops less often that summer and then quit playing league basketball altogether.
I haven’t worn a sleeveless shirt since, until about a month ago when, after an especially good run, I tried on a XL t-shirt and it miraculously fit. I decided to immediately retire all of my XXLs to work-out and yard-work use only and went on a shopping spree for t-shirts that didn’t look like dresses on me.
While shopping, I saw a package of “sleeveless undershirts,” known by some people, who may or may not be named Brian (with an I, naturally), as the un-PC term “wifebeaters” (The Internet has scolded me for not being politically correct, so…). I instantly thought about the cat scratches, which now just look like scars, war wounds from my lifetime battle with fatness, and that Jordan jersey, the last time my shoulders had a prolonged interaction with the general public. Holding the package of sleeveless undershirts, that childhood feeling of insecurity washed over me like an opened fire hydrant. I felt ashamed for my weight, for having been such a fat kid, for having gained back half of the 140 lbs. I lost, for still having about 20 lbs. to go.
And then I said to myself, “Fuck you, Mr. Softee.”
I grabbed the largest size they had, a XL, paid and left.
A month later, I’ve been wearing “sleeveless undershirts” everyday under my shirts and just lounging around the house, allowing my shoulders and upper arms to get comfortable with the world beyond brief appearances in the gym locker room and the shower. All that visible skin has shown me just how muscular I’ve become since I began lifting regularly nine months ago. I like to flex for Jaime and thank her for her recent online order of tickets to the First Annual Brian McGuigan Gun Show. (I’m not quite packing serious heat, but these guns could cause a flesh wound.)
Then, last week, I made a decision after consultation with my awful farmer’s tan. (Internet, is this a politically incorrect term that offends farmers? Please let me know.) If I’m going to run 4-5 days a week in the bright August sun, I need to expose the part of my arm that’s so white you might be blinded if the sun hit the skin right, if only to avoid looking like I’d be better off on a tractor. So I bought a sleeveless running shirt–Under Armor, again (I’ll be a spokesman!)–and have been running in it for the last week. Yes, like, in public. Never have I–or my armpit hair–felt freer.
Shame is a common feeling for the fat. People gawk at us, poking at our girth and pointing out our heft, as if we don’t look in the mirror and see what they see, yet worse, because these are our bodies after all.
We aren’t always comfortable with our bodies, and sometimes we wish we were other people. Some of us lose weight, by eating better, exercising or having surgery, and others don’t, but all of us look in the mirror and see a fat person, the person we are, were or hope to never become again.
Only now when I look I won’t see one with a farmer’s tan.