On Artificial Scarcity
I don’t know why I started working out at 11 years old. Maybe it was because Tarzan and Hercules were on repeat in our household. Maybe it was because I always loved sports but sucked at them, and thought that some pushups could turn this uncoordinated, asthmatic kid into an athlete. Maybe it was because my dad was working two jobs, and joining him for workouts was a way to spend time with him. Whatever the reason, I did it damn near every day. Schoolyard fights started to go my way more often than not.
By the time I switched schools in 7th grade, I looked markedly different from the other kids. That winter, after trying out for 4 other teams — turns out losing weight doesn’t make you any more coordinated — I joined the only team without cuts: track and field. I wasn’t much of a sprinter, but had high pain tolerance, and so despite my asthma I specialized in middle distance — 800m and 1500m. I did ok my first season, ran every morning the following summer, did better in cross country the following fall, and kept training after the season ended.
By January of 8th grade, I was about as lean as someone could be — but when I looked in the mirror, I wasn’t happy. I made it to city finals next track season, and felt good about it — but wondered if there was more I could be doing, whether I could be faster, whether I could be better, if I shed some pounds.
My mom mentioned that she could hear me doing situps at night, and that maybe I should get some rest. I didn’t respond, thinking that she isn’t an athlete, that she couldn’t understand.
That summer I ran 500 kilometers, and worked out every day. In August I went to the doctor for a checkup, and my mom mentioned that I thought I was fat. The doctor looked at me like I had 3 eyes, and told me point blank that I had very little fat to lose. I stayed quiet, thinking that she isn’t an athlete, that she couldn’t understand.
In grade 9, I joined the wrestling team. Wrestling was the first sport I ever felt at all talented at, and I absolutely loved it. Because wrestling has weight classes — so that you compete against people roughly your size — there is a big incentive to be lean. I started working out twice a day, on top of my wrestling practices.
My grandma asked if I was eating enough when we Skyped in December. I said yes and changed the subject, thinking that she isn’t an athlete, that she couldn’t understand.
I started tying everything to my wrestling performance, and my wrestling performance to my body fat percentage. Stumbled during a presentation at school? Be leaner, wrestle better. Getting into arguments with my family? Be leaner, wrestle better. Scared to ask a girl out? Be leaner, wrestle better. Then came the weight cut.
Before big tournaments/playoffs, wrestlers engage in a (stupid, and occasionally dangerous) practice called a weight cut. It basically means temporarily lowering your weight to unsustainably low levels through fat and water loss, timing the bottom of your cut to “weigh in” at a lower weight class, then recovering between your weigh-in and the competition the next morning.
I saw my first weight cut as an opportunity to be in the best shape of my life — to finally be happy with my body. I cut my calories, and trained harder than I ever had before. The morning before the weigh-in, I looked at myself in the changeroom mirror. My skin looked paper-thin, and I could see individual muscle fibers shift as I moved my body. Even I could not convince myself that I still had any fat to lose, and yet I still was not happy.
As directionless despair welled up in my throat, a new voice rose to meet it in my head, and gently suggested that perhaps it wasn’t my body fat that was keeping me from being happy with myself. I exhaled.
It took a few more years to fully transform my relationship with my body, to love it for what it could do, to not associate it with every facet of my life, but it all started with that rock-bottom moment. I had to get the thing I thought would make me happy, and still be miserable, to realize that I could be happy without it.
Weight loss is difficult both physically and mentally, especially as an adult, and many of us struggle to get into the shape we want to be in. Point blank, very few people will get in the kind of shape I was in in high school, though that is the level of fitness that is being promoted as ideal — that’s not the sad part. The sad part is that, through little fault of their own, so many will spend their whole lives believing that their body fat percentage is to blame for their unhappiness.
And yet once you believe something will make you happy, it’s difficult to be convinced otherwise. I was lucky enough to be obsessed with something that had a bottom — I could not have lost more fat. So many of our obsessions — money, grades, popularity, prestige — don’t have a natural stopping point. You can always convince yourself that you’re unhappy because you just don’t have enough.
I wish people could rent the success they envision, just to try it out and see that it’s not the answer, because seeing others have what we want and still be miserable doesn’t seem to do the trick. No matter how many rich people tell us money is not the answer, or how many people with prestigious jobs seem no happier for it, we think that it’d be different for us. No, we must get what we want to even have a shot at recognizing its false promise.
We would never give this advice to our friends. You would never dream of telling your friend that losing weight or getting a fancy car would make them happier, or more worthy in your eyes. If they truly lack money, or if losing weight is something they want to do to improve their health, you would support them — but they are inherently enough. To see yourself that way is a journey that has nothing to do with external success.
Regardless of the particularities of your fixation, you and I are the same. I was as obsessed with fitness as one could be with anything, but just like everyone else on the hamster wheel of artificial scarcity, I thought I was unique, that unlike everyone else my thing would make me happy. I was wrong. So if you think you’re different from the sad and successful, from all those who got what they thought they wanted and remained miserable — why?