I was always skinny in high school. Tall and gangly. It meant that I had a gaunt face and would have made a terrific Doctor Who or Sherlock Holmes. It also meant that I had to play a female part in a few school plays because I was at an all-boys school and was the only one skinny enough to wear a dress with a waist. And I looked hot!
Being thin gives you high cheekbones, as you will note in this shot of me in the eighties. It doesn't make your hair go curly and orange. You need chemicals for that, and no sense of shame.
When I went to the Victorian College of Arts (now part of Melbourne University) to study script writing I had to do something called The Alexander Technique, which is a way of sitting that is supposed to give you balance and poise. Our Alexander Technique teacher, Graeme Pearl, took pictures of us wearing nothing but our underpants. They were full-length mug shots. We had to stand alongside a measure and stare down the camera. I remember that Mr Pearl was a little startled when he saw how skinny I was. It was quite easy to count my ribs, if you had nothing better to do with your time. It was quite a long journey to get to college, so I used to have a rushed breakfast in the canteen. They didn’t serve muesli. I remember that two chocolate-covered liquorice twists was my usual choice. I didn’t go to a gym, though I did ‘action’ classes with the drama students, even though I was in the writing stream. In the first year, all writers had to do the acting classes. This was to give us an idea of how it felt to be a puppet for someone else’s words or ideas. I looked skinny and extremely gangly in tights and a tank top, but that’s what we all had to wear. My leanness was readily apparent, and no one could work out why I stayed this shape, as I had chips for lunch on most days and never did anything as strenuous as a sit-up.
Herewith some proof that I used to be thin. That's me in the background with Andrew Knight in Barcelona. No doubt we are composing an hilarious sketch for the TV show Fast Forward, on which we both worked, and the picture was taken for tax reasons.
If anything, I lost weight during my time at college. In the second year, Graeme Pearl took more photos of us, to see how we had progressed. He didn’t look terribly pleased with my starvation victim’s build and asked if I’d been doing the Alexander technique properly. I told him I had been sitting up and down in the traditional Alexander manner. I didn’t add that most of the time I was sitting down, I was eating food from the canteen bain marie. It really didn’t occur to me that my thinness might have been an impairment until we students went on a tour of the Latrobe Valley, to gather research for a show that we would perform in schools, if they were prepared to have us. On one of the many free days I joined six other students for a dip in the Hazelwood pondage. This artificial lake was created to cool the turbines of the huge Hazelwood power plant that rested on its rim. The lake wasn’t huge, you could easily see from one side to the other. It was warm from the turbines. In winter it provided a horror movie style effect. A shroud of water vapour rose from the lake There was a yachtclub there. They proudly referred to their pursuit as ‘sauna sailing’. I had been a member of the club as a kid when I lived in Traralgon, about 10km from Hazelwood. (I didn’t live there long. Dad got work in Melbourne., so we moved to the city, which was a relief for me. The air was cleaner.)
Back to the pondage, six of us inm our underpants went bobbing and wallowing in the muddy warm water. Stephen Scully, who went on to become a cabaret star with a group called Tick Where Applicable regarded me with mild distaste when I hoisted myseld out of the pond and onto the muddy bank. He made the usual comment about how skinny I was. Though this surprised me, because Stephen himself was long and lean, but apparently my ghastly thinness eclipsed even his. I shrugged off Stephen’s remark but he told me I really had to get bigger or I would never get a girlfriend. Stephen might have been onto something. He’s had plenty of girlfriends. But I certainly hadn’t found a girlfriend at college, where the female students outnumbered the male students three to one. For the first time, my thinness had been pointed out as a severe handicap. And so, I made a point of joining a gym and trying to gain weight. It didn’t work. I did weight-lifting and ate calorific food but remained at about 60kg (which is impossibly light for someone as tall as I am). I began to accept that I was destined to be a skinny – and perhaps lonely – old man.
Then I had the stroke, a few years back. I was on all sorts of medication and lived for a few weeks on a diet of hospital food. I was discharged when I was well enough to walk without falling over. I still take the medication I was on at the hospital. I exercise regularly, thought not with weights. Aerobic stuff is more important for full stroke recovery.
I didn’t have any work on, because most authors make their own work and deadlines, unless they are really fortunate enough to sell well and have a publisher prepared to offer ludicrous incentives to meet deadlines they have set. I’m not in that category. So, ‘returning to work’ simply meant returning to my computer and making up stuff.
I don’t think I’ve written anything really good since the stroke. Even blogging was hard. I got out in public quite a bit, because that was also an important part of stroke recovery; finding my way around public areas, and communicating, presumably on a meaningful level, with my fellow humans Most friends commented on how well I looked. I think I disappointed some people who wanted to see a more stroke-ridden me. But my mouth didn’t droop and dribble. My voice was nasal because my upper palate had fallen, but people could still understand what I was saying and I don’t think I said anything I would live to regret. And people continued to tell me how well I was looking. I looked in the bathroom mirror and couldn’t see any difference in my face. Maybe a few less lines? Ah well, I has been staying out of the sun, so maybe that was keeping the wrinkles at bay.
Finally the penny dropped. A doctor colleague told me I had put on weight. (Seriously I was so clueless I hadn’t noticed. It was also a condition to which I was unaccustomed.) Getting around in tracksuit pants and not caring so much about what I ate, had taken its toll. The real shock came when I tried to buy proper pants and found out that I had ballooned from a 28 to a 40. Perhaps unwisely, I went to a DFO outlet to buy proper trousers, not just ones with elasticised waists. There were sales in all the clothing stores. But I couldn’t find ‘normal’ pants anywhere. The current trend is still for skinny-leg jeans, and most people can’t – or shouldn’t – wear them.
And here I am today. How did this happen?
I ended up in Rivers, which I always thought was a middle class bogan shop, a step or two above Target. But I fitted right in! Here at last were proper pants that I could wear, provided they were XXL. The jeans that fit me were called Big Fit. Sadly, the font they used on the label make the’F’ in ‘Fit’ look remarkably like a T. So, momentarily amused by the notion of buying ‘Big Tit’ pants, I headed for the dressing rooms. And everything I wanted to try on, fitted me! I had a waistline that looked like a beer belly, despite all the work on the gym cross-trainer that I’d been doing every day. And when I go to the gym I make a point of doing 300 sit-ups – one set to the left and one to the right. No change.
The gain in weight began to depress me when I realised that it wasn’t just my face that betrayed it. I couldn’t wear anything in my pre-stroke wardrobe. Gradually I became more aware of obesity ‘miracle cures’ that were always being offered on the web. The world was obsessed with weight-loss. The media seemed intent on presenting an ideal body type that was nothing like my own. But then, I’m nearly 55. It’s just that I’m used to being skinny.
A colleague called Rita, who is a lovely person, hadn’t seen me in years but commented that I had gained weight. She must have recognised my downcast expression and she immediately tried to cheer me up by telling me that she too had gained weight. Worse still, her uterus had fallen out, she announced, in a desperate attempt to prove that, compared with her, I had a good lot in life. In trying to make me feel better about my corpulence, she had probably gone a step too far. But I could no longer pretend I still had my pre-stroke body.
I spent hours in the Rivers changing rooms. Amazingly, in a shop that seemed to cater for the older generation, there were no chairs, and pulling on new trousers became like a labour of Hercules. Despite this, I realised that I liked Rivers. I had become a Rivers convert. It was such a sensible shop, with clothes that offered genuine comfort and warmth. I vowed that I would always buy my clothes here. The days of Armani and Boss were long gone. Everything about Rivers made sense. Their Big Tit (sorry) range was just what I needed. (Urgent update: Rivers now have chairs in their changing rooms. You see how sensible these retailers are?)
My gorgeous OT at Caulfield Rehab says it doesn’t matter how you look in public – after all, I’m not seeking a new partner. Quite true, but I would prefer to be able to wear proper trousers when I venture into town. I’m also a closet fattist. I didn’t realise, but all my life I had been prejudiced against overweight people. (That’s pretty weird, given that my Dad is pretty much obese, and I love him.) I became so self-conscious about my increase in weight, that I even tried one of those crackpot ‘cures’, simply because Dr Oz, the famous American TV doctor, had guaranteed they would work. I bought a bottle of tablets called green coffee bean extract, that apparently turned your body into a ‘fat burner’, and you didn’t have to change your diet. They didn’t work, of course. Neither do any of the other tablets, except maybe the ones that give you a tape worm, though I believe these are no longer available and might in fact be an urban myth. It’s really a matter of diet change and exercise. And I’ll still keep exercising in the hope that I might one day cease to be a type 40. I realise now that Doctor Who’s Tardis is known as a ‘Type 40’, clearly outmoded and regarded with contempt by most Time Lords. Maybe the author who dreamt up that model of Tardis had the same identity crisis as I. I do not wish to be outmoded and regarded with contempt.
An old type 40. Tardis, I feel your pain.
I vainly hoped that the change in body shape had happened because of all the medication I had been taking, to slow my blood down and keep my brain working. My doctor said quite plainly that, no, the medication doesn’t cause weight increase. The simple truth was, I had allowed myself to be fat. I had started eating more starchy foods, sugars, etc. I have become that person towards whom I used to be so dismissive. I’m reading Lionel Shriver’s book, Big Brother, which deals with the sort of change I’m going through. I realise that Lionel Shriver also wrote We Need to Talk about Kevin, which was a nightmare story. Big Brother isn’t quite nightmare, but it veers close.