The Breeds of Shame

Shut up, I AM standing.
(Image by Peter Pryharski, via Unsplash)

This weekend in the New York Times Magazine, staff writer Sam Anderson wrote what I hope will become a foundational article in our understanding of men and their bodies. If you can’t get to it because it’s behind a paywall, I’ll pirate a PDF copy to you if you ask; it’s that important.

No matter what my body happens to look like at any particular moment, Fat Sam lives inside me. I recognize now, in fact, that Fat Sam represents some of my best qualities: curiosity, cheerful appetite, a hunger for life, satisfaction in the moment. Fat Sam’s mission is to consume the world in giant gulps of joy. It doesn’t even have to be food: It can be naps, or video games, or telling jokes at a party, or walking, or shooting free throws, or reading, or petting a dog. Whatever satisfies a need, whatever I am starving for. And in that transfer, in that passage from outside to inside, in that radical taking in, there is a validation of existence, a proof of being, that I refuse to reject. Fat Sam, in many ways, is precious and good. He is a funnel into which the universe pours, the pinch in the hourglass. He reminds me that all of life is, in a sense, appetite. Even restriction satisfies a hunger — the hunger to restrict. When I chose to deny myself something, it is Fat Sam who is feeding, greedily, on that denial.

A radical taking in. That is the nature of an ethnographer, of a writer, of a servant attentive to the needs of those around. That is the nature of a fat kid.

When I was in my late 20s and early 30s, I temporarily left that fat kid behind. I regularly weighed between 130 and 135 pounds, as low as 127 after a two-week bike trip through the mountains of Northern California. I ran a 5K or a 10K or a half-marathon more or less every month, two full marathons about five years apart. I can still recite you personal bests—18:51 5K, 39:25 10K, 1:37:15 half marathon—with religious fervor. I wasn’t an elite athlete, far from it, but I was solid and fit and steady.

What I wasn’t, not ever even once, was slim.

At just under 5’5″, I’m at about the fifth percentile of height for adult American men. About at the median for a 14-year-old boy. My dad was 5’11” and lean, my mom 4’11” and round. My three brothers are all 5’11 and 6’0″, but when I came along fourteen years later, there was no genetic material left in the bank.

Along with that general lack of height, though, I have a relatively long torso, and particularly short legs. Especially from the knees down; my tibia and fibula are especially short. When I sit in most chairs, I fit perfectly from backrest to end of seat, but my feet often don’t reach the floor. Even at my very most athletic, I have never once in my life had visible Achilles’ tendons. My calves are and have always been cylindrical, right down to the collars of my shoes.

And when I would get promotional photos back from races, races in which I’d again gone faster than I’d been previously able, running for miles and miles at 6:20 per mile pace, those photos would come in and just spoil all the pleasure I’d taken from that day. I didn’t recognize myself. I’d felt like a racehorse, but looked in the pictures like a Clydesdale.

The array of animal metaphors was kind of normal, in fact.

  • My ex-wife, with great affection (I think), once told me that my totem animal was the corgi. “Look at those short little legs go!” she said once, as I finished a race.
  • I was sitting with a group of student colleagues as we powered through a summer college design competition, spending hours a day together for three months. We were taking a dinner break, and discussing the ways in which people do and don’t look like their dogs. When it came my time to speak, it took five minutes for the group to recover its composure from the revelation that I’d grown up with daschunds.
  • A few years later, when I played racquetball three times a week with one of my grad school friends, I never lost a single best-of-three games set for three years. I just understood trajectory, could see where the ball was going. And once, when he’d pinned me with what he thought was an unreturnable shot that I again hit a winner from, he said in exasperation, “I can’t believe you can get to those balls, with those stubby little rhinoceros legs!”

Corgi people and daschund people and rhinoceros people don’t get a lot of praise for breed conformation. We’re just the second-rate entrants in the general show, up against the greyhounds and Australian shepherds that have a chance at the ribbons. The leopards, sleek and sudden, watch us rhinos from the trees as we plod across the savannah in search of a watering hole.

We are individuals, with individual intellect. We can come to rational understandings of ourselves and others. And yet, we are also members of a culture, which has its own stories, louder and more pervasive than the ones we can write for ourselves. I have lost decades of chances to make myself a better corgi because I could only see myself as an insufficient border collie. No amount of time in the gym or accumulated miles on the road could change my breed, or the varying rewards provided at the show.

I’m trying, now, belatedly, to be the best corgi that I can. But there are days when I can only look across at the Dalmatians and wish it were otherwise.

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