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Guys Have Body Issues, Too
Yousef El Emary
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I was in gym class in 6th grade when the gym teacher told us to do pushups. I was about 25 pounds overweight and I couldn’t even do one. “Since you can’t do a pushup, do them on your knees in the corner.” I was embarrassed for being isolated and singled out. As I walked to the corner of the gym, I overheard someone call out, “Fat-ass!”

“You have to do girl pushups,” another kid snickered. The teacher just stood there passively as the class of about 60 kids pointed, laughed, and fired a barrage of hurtful comments: “Weakling!” “Tubby!”

I got on my knees and did the modified pushup. There was a burning sensation not only in my knees but also in my heart. Sweat dripped down my face; this was not from the exercise, but from the anxiety that I felt as the students scrutinized my every move, looking for another opportunity to make fun of me.

Gym was my least favorite class, and the locker room was a place of extreme anxiety for me. I hated exposing my sweaty, pudgy body to a group of slimmer students who made fun of me every chance they got.

When the teacher’s whistle blew, meaning that we must all scurry into the locker room to change, I dragged my feet across the gymnasium floor.

I faced my locker with my back to everyone so they couldn’t see my voluminous stomach. I changed as fast as I could so no one could see how disgusting I looked.

“Hey bro, why do you have man titties?”

I put my shirt on fast. A couple of guys around me snickered. I whispered, “It’s baby fat.” However, deep down inside, I felt that was a sheepish excuse for the body that I hated.

Weight Gain Culprit

As a kid, I had always eaten whatever I wanted, like chips and ice cream almost every day. But I never had any problems with my weight. Then, after 5th grade, I put on 25 pounds. I became embarrassed about my body.

And it wasn’t just during gym and in the locker room, although it also bothered me that kids would pick me last to be on their team because I didn’t look fit. I didn’t like going to the beach or pools. I hated taking off my shirt in front of strangers. I felt that whenever I was shirtless, people looked at me with disgust.

I also hated when people took pictures of me. I tried to convince the person taking the photo to take it from the shoulders up to avoid my stomach.

I played a lot of basketball and was good at it. Because I was tall and big, I was good on defense. But I didn’t have good stamina and got subbed out a lot.

I was active so I couldn’t figure out why I’d gained all that weight. A few weeks after the pushup embarrassment, my mother took me to the doctor because I had a stomach virus.

“But there is another problem,” my mother said. I sat up on the examination table and I looked at her, puzzled. I hadn’t talked to her about being self-conscious about my weight.

“Yousef has been gaining weight rapidly, but he is not eating that much.”

My doctor referred me to a specialist and I was diagnosed with prediabetes, a condition that means your body can’t process sugar very well, and can make it easier for you to gain weight. If you don’t do something about it, you can develop Type 2 diabetes, which is a serious disease. The doctor told me that lowering my sugar intake and increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables I ate would treat the condition and I’d lose weight.

No More Soda

I wasn’t worried about getting diabetes, but I was eager to make changes if it meant I’d lose weight. I cut out sweetened drinks like iced tea and soda and drank lots of water, adding lemon for flavor. I cut out processed foods like “health” bars that have lots of sugar.

My mom switched up white rice with brown rice and steamed vegetables rather than cooking them in oil. Instead of ice cream for dessert, I ate low-fat Greek yogurt or a bowl of fruit. I used to snack a lot between meals and I cut that out. I didn’t want anything as much as I wanted to lose weight.

I didn’t realize how much sugar was in a lot of the foods I was eating. For example, the American Heart Association says kids under 18 should limit their intake of added sugars to 25 grams a day or less. But I was getting that much from just one serving of Frosted Flakes, my favorite cereal.

Besides scrutinizing nutrition facts, I began to exercise more vigorously. My dad got me a gym membership and I went three times a week. I knew combining cardio and strength training was the best way to burn fat and speed up my metabolism so I used the rowing machine, ran about two miles, kick-boxed, and lifted weights—all in one day. To undo my shame from gym class, I even progressed to being able to do 40 pushups!

I gradually started to shed pounds.

Done Being the ‘Fat Kid’

When I started going to the gym, I worked out so hard I felt on the verge of fainting a number of times, but I wasn’t discouraged. I would rather pass out than face another day being the “fat kid” in school. Every drop of sweat, every mile I ran, every set of crunches—all led me closer and closer to a healthier weight. In my mind, this was war. On one side was achieving peace between my mind and body, on the other was succumbing to my angry, self-deprecating thoughts.

image by YC-Art Dept

I rerouted my anger at myself into a fueling passion that allowed me to push myself. I’d think to myself: “Stop being sorry for yourself. It’s now or never. You want to change? Then change. No one is going to do it for you.”

Every time I thought of that, I would push even faster on the treadmill, lift more weights, or hit the punching bag even harder than before.

I began dropping pants sizes at a fast rate. I went from a size 36 to a 32 in several months. It also helped that I grew 11 inches in one year. The combination of my low-sugar diet and workout regimen made me feel more in control of my body. Every time I entered the gym, my presence there made me feel more confident. I started high school feeling much better about myself.

About six months after the push-up incident a gym teacher in my high school complemented me as I walked by.

“Hey Yousef! Looking good buddy!”

I just smiled, but I felt like crying for joy. To hear someone in great shape take note of my physical progress was a huge victory.

“Thanks!”

“What have you been doing? Working out?”

“Yeah of course. I have been eating pretty clean too.”

“Keep up the good work, Yousef!”

I grinned all the way to class.

An ‘Anybody’ Issue

But even though I grew taller and thinner, I still felt heavy. And even though I’ve been slim and tall for three years now, I still see the old me sometimes when I look in the mirror.

My poor self-image is engraved in my mind like a scar from a deep cut. Although I sometimes feel confident enough to wear tight clothing, other days I wear baggy clothing for I envision myself in my old body.

I don’t understand why I sometimes still see the overweight me, the fat kid who couldn’t do one pushup. I know it’s irrational. Now when I panic because I think I’m gaining weight, I stop and remind myself that I have changed my lifestyle and eating habits. My fat days are in the past.

The media’s focus on self-esteem issues has to do mostly with women. I feel like no one realizes that men can feel the same way. Until recently, I felt like I was the only guy with these self-critical thoughts.

I was surprised when in the middle of doing a set of planks with my friend, he said, “I feel like I’ve been gaining lots of weight. I don’t feel good about myself.” He stood up and turned to the mirror to lift up his shirt, only to reveal a toned stomach.

My jaw dropped because he felt the same insecurity as I did. His distorted image of himself made me realize that I could talk to him about how I felt.

“Hey, can we talk a second?” I said. “I have been feeling the same way. Every single time I look in the mirror it’s like a lottery. I do not know if I will feel proud or disgusted of my body. It all depends on how I feel at that specific moment. You know?”

His eyes glanced down. “I really do understand.”

It was then that I no longer felt alone. I felt validated. Self-esteem can be an “anybody” issue. Now when I feel like the 12-year-old Yousef, I talk to my friend.

“Do you think I’m gaining weight?”

“No, not at all!” he’ll say.

“Are you sure?” I say this while pinching fat on my waist.

“Yes, I’m sure, but do an extra minute of plank if that will make you feel better.”

I say I will. His reassurance—combined with a little bit of fitness advice—helps a lot.

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(NYC-2017-03-14)

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