By Joe Mahon
Nobody stays 147 pounds for 20 years by accident; it’s by design.
I don’t remember ever looking in the mirror and thinking I was fat. I just remember how people began reacting to my body differently than I’d been accustomed to.
As a kid, I was always skinny, underweight. When I was 12, I was at the pool for swim practice and one of my friends commented that I had a “six pack” when he saw me with my shirt off. Later that year, during an ill-fated attempt at wrestling, one of my teammates asked how much I weighed and when I responded “95 pounds,” he looked at me incredulously and said “That’s it?!” A year later, I was in children’s theatre production of “Peter Pan,” and when one of my castmates saw me shirtless in the dressing room, he said “Dude, are you anorexic?” I took my body type for granted.
Then the eighth grade happened. At the beginning of the school year, one of my classmates commented to one of our mutual friends, “Ain’t JoeJoe’s face gettin’ fat?” By the spring semester, I remember being struck by the realization that it was now taking me over 9 minutes to run a mile in P.E., whereas before it never took more than 8 minutes.
By ninth grade, I was clearly overweight. It was obvious to everyone. Me and my brother used to watch re-runs of MIAMI VICE together, and one day he told me “Hey Joe, you know which character you remind me of? Not Crockett, but TUBBS!” as he stuck his finger into my stomach, like I was the Pillsbury DoughBoy. Over the summer between 8th and 9th grade, I was in a community theatre production of “Annie Get Your Gun,” and when one of my castmates saw me with my shirt off in the dressing room, he commented “Hey buddy, why have a six pack when you can have the whole keg?” Gone were the days when someone would look at my stomach and ask me if I was anorexic. The following month, my high school went on a weeklong camping trip, and the first time my bunkmate saw me changing shirts, he raised an eyebrow and said “Dude, do you work out?” It was obvious to him that I had not seen the inside of a gym in awhile.
I knew I needed to change. Fortunately, my history teacher was a gym rat and offered a condensed, 2 week weight training course at the Berkeley YMCA, for which I could receive P.E. credit. And this was where the tides began to turn for my portly, 15 year old self. He gave us an overview of equipment, proper form and technique, the best exercises for specific muscle groups and I learned foreign terminology like “lat pulldown,” “trapezius,” “deltoid” and “max out.” I was committed to getting in shape like I’d never been committed to anything in my life. For the next 6 months, I cut all the junk out of my diet—no cookies, no chips, no candy, cake, etc. Even a bagel with peanut butter was frowned upon. I ate bran flakes for breakfast like they were going out of existence tomorrow. Every weekend, I’d run over a mile to the gym, do a full body workout and then run home. On weekdays, when I couldn’t get to the gym because of school, I would compensate with my own in-home workout – pushups, crunches, lifting my brother’s dumbbells and running through the neighborhood. There was an incline on our local canal trail that was known as “killer hill” (which I can best describe as one-third the length of Barham Blvd., at a 45 degree angle) that my high school’s cross country team used to train on, which became a regular part of my workout regimen. Rocky Balboa had the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I had killer hill.
At the end of freshman year, after many months of sweat and sacrifice, I was now “back to normal.” I lost somewhere between 20-25 pounds by the time the school year was over. Now that my body was back to the way that it used to be, I became fairly complacent and lost the drive to work out as rigorously as I had before. I would still make a weekly trip to the local gym and I watched what I ate. In fact, I even enrolled in a 4 day a week weight training course during spring semester of sophomore year, to fulfill my P.E. requirement and keep the momentum going. But I didn’t have the same all-or-nothing commitment that I had during freshman year, when I was furiously trying to shed 20+ pounds of fat. I was thin again and didn’t need to kill myself in order to maintain my physique. As long as I didn’t fall back into my former (bad) eating habits, I could coast on my high metabolism.
But even though I was back in shape, and by all accounts thin, a funny thing happened – I never lost the fear of gaining weight. I became obsessed with people’s stomachs, with their arms. I would look at my own stomach in the mirror every morning to make sure the fat wasn’t coming back. It snuck up on me once before…and it could happen again. Years later, as I got more serious about acting, and I would occasionally be asked “What lengths would you never go to for a role?” the answer was always the same, without hesitation: “I would never gain weight.” There’s not enough money in the world to pay me to do what De Niro did to himself for the end of RAGING BULL. If I found myself in a work environment and someone offered me a donut, or some other dessert, I would politely decline and then quip “I’m on a diet,” or “I’m trying to lose weight,” despite the fact that I was clearly in good physical shape. But underneath the joke was truth. I was afraid of getting fat again, and losing the body that I’d worked so hard to regain. So for the most part, I eliminated anything from my diet that would cause me to run the risk of packing the pounds back on. Some people salivate over cookies, donuts, cake, etc. All I see is shit. Little obstacles that stand between me and having the body that I need. Not want. Need.
A colleague of mine warned me that your metabolism changes in your 30s. Sure enough, just after I turned 34, I could see the difference. I’d made no changes to my eating habits, but my stomach didn’t look as good as it used to. In my then-current form, I would not want to be seen shirtless. So I began an in-home ab workout routine with leg weights, which I hadn’t practiced in years. And it made no difference. Uh-oh. My body was now conspiring against me and I could no longer skate by on my metabolism. If I didn’t start working out again—as rigorously and regularly as I had when I was 15—I would spiral back out of shape and find myself right back where I was in 1997…pudgy, fat-shamed and embarrassed by my body.
Shortly afterward, I met with a personal trainer who helped me devise a gym routine to work on my target areas. I signed up with LA Fitness, and commenced a (minimum) 4 day a week, 2 hour a day grueling regimen. I was a born again gym rat, just as ferociously committed to the weights as I was during my freshman year of high school. Every workout was followed by a visit to Ralph’s, where I’d buy 4 or 5 protein bars which I’d inhale on the way to Robek’s, where I’d get yet another protein fix with my large Muscle Max or Almond Berry Fuel. Because there wasn’t much fat to burn through this time, I saw results in muscle tone and definition immediately. People around the office who were unaware of my new routine noticed and commented on my physique. In my mid-thirties, I was in the shape of my life and had the body that I only dreamed about having when I was a teenager. And I was not about to lose it.
I liked the way I looked, and was not going to compromise my hard-earned physique, or the benefits gained from my exhausting 5am workouts, for whatever short term satisfaction could be derived from eating anything high in sugar or calories. To say that I have an aversion to junk food is an understatement. I abhor it. I look at that shit and all I see is the extra time I’d need to spend in the gym burning it off. So at work, when I see leftover “goodies” from client meetings (pizza, soda, cake, cupcakes, donuts) lying on the breakroom counter, I walk right past them; whereas before, I might’ve indulged myself once in a while and just considered it a “cheat day.” But now, my mentality is “Put that shit in your mouth, and your 4:30am wakeup call this morning was for nothing, and your 2 hours in the gym were a waste of time and energy.” From that standpoint, I cannot rationalize eating anything unhealthy. And I knew that I turned a dangerous corner in my lifestyle change when, in my weaker moments, I would pick up some sweet or fattening leftover from the breakroom counter, put it in my mouth, swish it around just to taste the flavor, then promptly spit it out into the garbage. And even after doing that,I would take a drink of water, swish that around, and spit to get rid of any leftover sugar. Keeping my body fat as low as possible was a day-in, day-out job.
I became like Carter in FAT PIG. “Don’t look at the package! Look in the fuckin mirror, you cow! Put ‘em down!” I would see people at work or elsewhere shoveling garbage into their bodies and I would get angry. To me, watching someone eating Burger King or a candy bar is like watching them injecting themselves with botulism. I don’t understand how a person can do that to themselves. At the time I started my new gym routine, I had a 400 pound (literally) officemate whose idea of “dinner” rotated between Tommy’s Burgers, Jack in the Box, Del Taco, McDonald’s and Wendy’s. One time he actually made a stop at Krispy Kreme on his way to Wendy’s–he stopped for junk food on his way to get junk food. He would bring his cheeseburgers, fries and milkshakes back to the office and I just wanted to scream “How the hell can you shovel that shit into your face every night, and then turn around and complain to me about being fat and claim that you wanna lose weight!?!?!?!” Once in a department meeting, the boss brought cupcakes for us. When I declined the offer, another one of my overweight co-workers said “You don’t wanna taste the chocolatey deliciousness?” And all I could think was “No, because I don’t wanna wind up having gastric sleeve surgery like you did last October.” But I wasn’t always successful at keeping my disdain for junk food to myself. One of the day shift editors once sent a group text to all of us on the night crew, saying that he was saving some leftover cake for us in his edit bay. To which I replied all with a photo of my shirtless upper torso and a comment reading “Do I look like I eat cake?”
My obsession with remaining thin may have reached an all-time low when on more than one occasion, I rejected acts of generosity from my own mom, when she offered me food. This was one of my greatest regrets when I lost her last year. After helping her and my dad move to Palm Desert a year and a half ago, we had dinner at Sherman’s Deli, which has a very good bakery. When we were waiting to be seated, she smiled at me and said “Want some cookies?” I told her no and tried explaining how I just wouldn’t feel right eating like that, because I’d be cancelling out all of the hard work I was doing in the gym. The next morning she got up before I did and brought me back a blueberry muffin from Starbucks. I gave it to one of the moving men. A few months later, during one of our last conversations, we were making plans for me to visit on my birthday weekend. She asked me what kind of a cake I wanted and I told her I didn’t want cake because I wouldn’t eat it. All she wanted was to do something nice for her son, and I wouldn’t allow her; my own personal quest to obtain the ideal physique had become more important. She sacrificed her body for me for 9 months, and I couldn’t give her the satisfaction of making her son a birthday cake…which would have taken me all of 20 minutes to burn off on the treadmill the next morning.
If this were an ABC afterschool special, or a Hallmark movie of the week, I guess I should have reached some higher plane of understanding by now. “It’s what’s inside that counts.” “Love and accept yourself the way you are.” “You don’t need to change for anybody.” But life seldom wraps itself up in a neat little bow like that. The truth is that I haven’t changed. At this rate, I honestly don’t think I ever will. I have the same mindset as an athletic 37 year old that I had when I was a bloated 15 year old, desperately trying to beat the scale. I’m afraid of waking up fat again. I’m afraid that if I stop challenging myself with my self-imposed diet and workout routine, I’ll be right back where I was in 1997. Ridiculed and ashamed of my body. Fat is an enemy which must be guarded against at all costs, at all times. So the 4:30am wakeup calls and 4x a week workouts will continue. The protein bars for breakfast, Lean Cuisines and Healthy Choice steamers for dinner will continue. I usually don’t eat lunch. Because the truth is that I like being thin more than I like food. I get more gratification out of looking in the mirror and seeing my abs sticking out than I could ever get from the finest cut of steak or the juiciest cheeseburger. The 400 pound officemate once confided in me “I like eating. I like tasting things.” I would not give up my body for the taste of anything on the planet. I would rather be skinny and miserable than fat and happy.