"Ryan! The rhino! Fat as a rhino!"
That's what a classmate I barely knew yelled up to me in middle school in his best sing-song voice. He and some other kids were playing underneath the bleachers where I sat watching a high school basketball game. I looked down at them, blinking back tears and thankful that our respective views were partially obscured by metal scaffolding. I stared for a minute, trying to decide how to respond.
With all of the strength I could muster, I coughed up my very best loogey and spit it at them.
I could've responded better, in hindsight.
Unbeknownst to me, there was an increasingly critical conversation emerging among my boyhood milieu regarding body consciousness. While I was still playing with action figures and trying to be good at kickball, others were learning how unseemly our little bodies were.
The truth is, I was a chubby little kid.
Not morbidly obese, just chubby.
I wasn't taunted continuously about it. I wasn't bullied at every turn. In fact, I was reasonably popular among my peer group. Chubby, but gregarious and outgoing, you might say. More or less well-liked.
But my cheeks were rosey, my belly and chest taut and round. I didn't know this wasn't acceptable until my peers began pointing it out.
After all, it's not as though I had any control over my physical stature. In fact, when I was at my roundest, I was actually in very good physical health. I ate well and exercise was woven into the fabric of my daily life. Gym class, bike riding, hill climbing -- that sort of thing. I played basketball and baseball in and out of season. I was always on the move.
But I was still a chubby little kid.
A few years after the rhino/loogey incident, I was moving ever closer to puberty, and the "husky" jeans I wore no longer quite fit properly. I found myself in the relatively constant habit of pulling them up at the waist or adjusting at the crotch.
My fifth grade teacher often mimicked my pants-adjusting in front of the entire class, making fun of me for sport. In hindsight, I don't think he liked me very much. It was tragic. I liked him.
It seems I was a quite sensitive boy. Being made fun of because of my body at such a young age was something I very much internalized. After a while, I didn't need to be made fun of by others. I'd developed enough negative body image to do a fine job of it on my own.
But I knew intuitively that my sensitive and self-loathing disposition was not going to pay off, so I developed an alter ego more in line with what I believed was expected of me. I learned to use curse words, made fun of the less-popular types, and tried to project an air of confidence and bravado.
For the most part, it was a sham. But I kept up with it for, oh, most of the rest of my life.
I don't remember hearing any messages that ran counter to this in church or other important places. Formal athletics seemed to reinforce the notion that I was to be bodily and emotionally impervious.
Because my body was clearly so unacceptable, so clearly sending messages that didn't fit the tasks at hand, I stopped paying much attention to it at all. I learned to divorce my understanding of my intellectual, emotional, and spiritual selves from that of my physical self.
This came to a head about five years ago, when I reached new heights of responsibility and obligation. I got married, became a father, and began working as many as 70 hours a week.
As I became increasingly ineffective at managing stress levels, it was suggested to me to begin practicing yoga. The very first time I got into child pose during a yoga class at the local YMCA, I started crying. The kind of tears you have when you bump into a dear, old friend that you haven't spoken to in years, that make you realize how much you've missed each other and express joy and sorrow all at the same time.
Having practiced Bikram Yoga for the past several years now, I often joke that about halfway through class, "I remember that I have a body again."
When I spend an hour and a half deliberately looking at my shirtless body bending this way and that, listening to what it tells me is okay and not okay, it dawns on me afresh how much my mental, emotional, and spiritual states are related to the way I feel physically.
This is not rocket science, but it is news to me.
When I'm doing particularly poorly at managing stress, I have noticed how critical I am of my body during yoga practice -- disgusted by it, even.
"Ryan! The rhino! Fat as a rhino!"
I am pleased to say that part of the reason it now seems so vitally important for me to talk about all of this, embarrassing though it may be, is that I have had some affirming body experiences as an adult that stand in sharp contrast to my internal messages.
A few years ago one of my wife's friends saw me approaching from afar. I waved to her, and when I finally got within 10 feet or so, she said, "Oh! I didn't recognize you from a distance! I thought, 'Who is this well-built man walking up to me?!'"
My wife seems genuinely attracted to me as well -- body and all. In a way that only she can, she has confessed to me that she finds my body expressly "manly -- you know, like Jim Belushi."
Because of my awareness, my yoga practice, and my growing ability to receive body-affirming messages from others, I am healing. That sing-song voice is not as powerful as it once was. But I am on the front end of all this, and I have a long way to go. I am trying to be patient with myself.
Most of the time, against my will, to my embarrassment, I still think from the mind of a chubby kid.