The first time I got fat, I was 26. As often happens, it started with a girl, or, to be more accurate, it started with a girl who went away. I stopped sleeping. When I paid attention to people other than myself, which was almost never, I noticed that my friends were finding me hard to take. Only one thing in the world could temporarily drain the swamp of my self-pity: Cinnabon rolls. A franchise had opened near my office, and each morning I swung by for my fix of Indonesian cinnamon, margarine, sweet dough, and cream-cheese frosting. All my life I'd been able to eat whatever I wanted without showing it, but under a relentless assault of 730 calories and 24 grams of fat each day before I'd even had lunch, my metabolism buckled. Soon I was fastening my belt in a new hole. And then my trousers wouldn't button. None of these flashing lights penetrated the thick fog of my misery until the day I looked into a full-length mirror and saw John Goodman's ass.
At this point, if you're a guy who's been skinny since he started chewing animal crackers, you get scared. And I did. I decided on a program of reform that involved returning to the gym, steaming broccoli and fish, and canceling my standing appointment with the cinnamon-scented cannonball. And then I thought: Fuck it.
Moping around with a broken heart is a teenager's game. After a while, without noticing when the change began, I wasn't lovesick anymore. I was simply engaged in something that, if you do it correctly, can be an adult rite of passage. I was letting myself go. The phrase makes you think of a gut cantilevered out over the pelvis like an impending avalanche, of chins arrayed in receding waves of flesh, of overworked shirt buttons that cry out in pain until one day they whiz off into the ozone. But slipping into the fat suit is just the most obvious component of a bigger project. When a man decides to let himself go, you see five o'clock shadow that was formed at five o'clock the previous Thursday. You see hair that curls down the nape of the neck like the tendrils of a spider plant. You see yellowed T-shirts, sweatpants as street wear, and shoes that would horrify a German tourist. You see Elvis at Graceland, Jim Morrison in Paris, Hemingway in the Keys.
Or, these days, you see Jack Nicholson eating a giant sub and smoking a cigarette on the deck of a yacht, saggy pooch-tits and voluminous gut festooned with wispy gray clouds of hair. Or Luke Wilson on the beach, his belly hanging shamelessly over his board shorts. The tabloids offer up these photos for public mockery, but I have the opposite reaction: I say, Right on.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger began letting his chiseled body go to pot a couple of years ago, the media poked fun at him, too. The man spent the first two thirds of his life tending his figure as obsessively as any Park Avenue trophy wife does. Don't you think he ever woke up and said, "Let Van Damme torture himself with the free weightsI want an extra helping of strudel"?