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Thursday, 23 June 2022

A Body Like Mine

I was always a thin and awkward child, and not very strong. It might have been genetic, but I also put it down to having had whooping cough at six months, a serious illness at that age. Whichever, it left what would now be called self-esteem and body-image issues, although, of course, such things did not exist in those days.

You could count each rib individually, and my sternum ended in what looked like a hole in the centre of my chest. My collar bones were lumpy protrusions jutting from the tops of my shoulders like razor shells, as if I’d been pegged out on washing line. School swimming lessons, scrutinised by the masses of girls watching from the balcony each week (how did so many manage to get out of it?), were humiliating. I grew to 6 feet (183cm) tall but weighed only nine and a half stones (60.3kg or 133 pounds), a body mass index (BMI) of 17.5, very much underweight in other words.

Who would want a body like mine? Not me. I wore jumpers all year round, kept my jacket on, and avoided beaches and swimming pools. I couldn’t gain weight whatever I ate. That might sound enviable, but not when you’re too thin.

I revived the sadistic games teacher’s gym exercises, puffing and panting through press-ups, sit-ups, heel-lifts and squat-jumps. Press-ups were particularly difficult, but starting with just one or two several times a day in secret, I gradually built up to five, then ten, then more. But I looked just as thin.  

I sought salvation in the small ads discreetly scattered throughout the press, and sent off for details of the Charles Atlas body building course. The ads omitted to mention the price, which was £8, too much, even after starting work. They sent reminders, and after a while reduced the price to £6. They sent more reminders and the price fell to £4, so I went for it. Someone told me if I’d waited longer it would have dropped to £2.


Charles Atlas, Angelo Siciliano (1893-1972), claimed to have transformed himself from a scrawny, seven-stone weakling into ‘The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man’ after having sand kicked in his face by a bully. Thus began one of the longest and most memorable advertising campaigns of all time.

In one unforgettable ad, a frail young man is taunted in front of his girl friend with “Hey, Skinny! Yer ribs are showing!”. When he protests he is pushed in the face and told “Shut up you bag of bones!” It could have been me, except that I didn’t even have a girl friend.

The course consisted of exercises to help gain strength by setting muscles in opposition against each other, trademarked the ‘Dynamic Tension’ method. One exercise was to form a fist with one hand, and press downward against the other hand in front of you for several seconds. This was then repeated with the other hand on top. Another exercise involved pulling hooked hands against each other.

It is not difficult to see how regular repetition might build muscle. However, to gain weight the course included diet sheets touting overpriced food supplements. It was also padded out with tips on jujitsu, wrestling, boxing and feats of strength to amaze your friends, such as tearing a telephone directory in half and lifting a pony into the air. A triumph of advertising over substance. Perhaps I did gain a bit of muscle, but nothing like Charles Atlas.
I wouldn’t have wanted to be like him anyway. I decided against a trip to the beach to check whether my physique was now more of an attraction than a curiosity.

In the end, I just got used to it. My BMI gradually crept up to the lower end of normal and more or less stayed there. I still do a few exercises each morning, not Atlas ones but bending and stretching, and lifting a pair of 2 x 5 Kg dumb bells, not to get fitter or stronger, but not to get worse. They nearly killed me carrying them from Argos.

Take note of Gillian Lynne, the ballerina, who was still carrying out a daily exercise routine (more demanding than mine) and teaching and demonstrating dance moves at 90. She said that just one day off because you feel a bit tired is one step down the slippery slope to oblivion.

42 comments:

  1. Weakling was the key word that troubled me. I was a skinny kid. 180cm tall, 58kg weight, 26 inch waist. Yes, mixing measurements.

    I never bought the skinny kid solutions from magazines in spite of scrutinising them carefully.

    Your post is about the early days of the internet, but before there was the internet. We were conned back then as we are now.

    Then as a skinny young man hung like a drover's dog, my smooth body became very desirable to men. What a time I had.

    Now at 82 kg with a 36 inch waist, it is all just a distant memory.

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    1. That we can own up to this now shows reconciliation. The small ads really were interesting, especially in American magazines. Fortunately, I never experienced the attentions of men, which, not being gay, would have been unwanted and disturbing.

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  2. Body shaming is abusive whether it happens to men or women.

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    1. It happened all the time until at least the end of the eighties It seemed acceptable to mock anyone who was different in any way.

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    2. I can assure you that it happens to this very day. Imagine an overweight child being mocked at lunch by kids throwing food at her and oinking at her. It wasn't my kid, but it pissed me off bad enough to march into the principal's office. His response? "You don't know this girl. If she's being mocked, she's probably done something to deserve it." My point: "You've offended me something awful. You're also pretty overweight. So the next time that I see you and your wife at a restaurant, does that give me the right to throw food at you and oink?" PS: The green circles in the armpits of his shirt were stomach turning.

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    3. Unbelievable! The Principal sounds unfit for the job.

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  3. Charles Atlas wore a nice pair of leopard print trunks. Did you have the same yourself? I guess that I was blessed in my boyhood because I never had any self-esteem issues with regard to my body. It was just a vehicle made of flesh and bone and muscle that carried me around and obeyed my commands.

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    1. You were one of those big rugby-playing chaps who wouldn't have understood this, and perhaps be amused by the mockery and possibly even join in. No doubt you became more sensitive with age. I was fortunate in that I could usually find something amusing to say in counter-attack, but there were other awkward lads in our year who didn't seem able to do that, and must have felt very isolated.

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    2. No. I was never amused. I often stood up for the victims of bullies and I am pleased to note that my grown up children have inherited a similar outlook. I guess my mother and father influenced me in this regard. It's called civility.

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    3. Then I apologize. I tended to see the rugby lot as being into sexist rugby songs and the like, but I imagine that a headmaster father would have been a strong influence.
      My verbal defences got me thumped in the stomach a couple of times by those who couldn't take it.

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  4. I hope that you are fitter and stronger now Tasker?
    My other half has always been as thin as a rake - he still only weighs 8 st 7lbs now - but he is quite fit. I suppose all that running helps.

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    1. Mountain walking helped a lot. The more I hear about P the more I like him.

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  5. Did you have any friends in school? I think those who had no friends would relate to this post.

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    1. A perceptive question that made me think. I suppose at times the honest answer is no, other than those I walked to and from school with. Things came together after I went abroad on the language exchange trips and I fell in with groups of others who also went. But I've always been self-contained and some would suggest I don't really have friends even now.

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  6. This is really sad.
    I suspect you ought to have letters either before or after your name.
    At seventeen I was ten and a bit stone and six foot four inches. Never found it a problem. Apart from the bit that it took me until eighteen to score and she was far from my first choice. I had been trying for a couple of years, two years that seemed like a decade at the time.
    Today is what it is as it was then. Then I played rugby and did cross country runs in the winter and raced motorbikes in the summer. Never gave my image a thought. Today I am happy to walk two or three miles and have a roll-up without coughing my lung up.

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    1. Not too sad because I was by no means at the bottom of the pecking order, and as replied to Rachel things started to come together around 15 or 16 and then later living in shared houses. It seemed to me that those who played rugby always found it easy to fit in, but I hated the game and still do. I think my saving grace was a sense of humour which could be quite cutting if necessary.

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    2. Which shows that I was there among the ranks of the insensitive too, because I didn't give a thought to those who were worse off than me.

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    3. I learnt to kick and catch so played full back. I was spared the horrors of the pack. Nothing like the sight of a herd of overweight morons charging at one to concentrate the mind. I played at amateur level until I was thirty two. I enjoyed it more having left school where the games masters tended to bully the weaker pupils. Odd it was that they didn't play with folk their own age.
      I still get the piss taken as does everyone I work with, it's just good fun. I was mowing the verges at the stables the other day, the mower is like a big mobility scooter with a mower deck on. The young lass who delivers straw said I looked like a pig on a skate board. A horrible thing to say to an old man. I drove past the the conservatory and seeing my reflection had to agree, privately, that it was an accurate observation.

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  7. An uncle of mine was of similar build. As a young child in the 1940s he had to endure being sent to camp for 'underweight' children where, I would imagine, he was fed various foods meant to help him put a little meat on his bones. His memories of that time spent away from home were none too pleasant.

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    1. I could imagine having to endure the same indignities had we had such camps here. I do remember being taken to the doctors and given a big bottle of cod liver oil and malt to consume, but it was so disgusting I refused it after the first taste. I'm one of the few who actually likes cod liver oil, and malt extract isn't too bad, but together, yuk!

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    2. I still take a cod liver oil capsule daily and put a teaspoonful of malt extract on my morning porridge. As children we were lined up nightly for our spoonful of milk of magnesia (cod liver oil in something resembling milk) and a spoonful of malt extract.

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    3. I actually like the taste of cod liver oil. My dad used to have a bottle of Seven Seas (made nearby in Hull) and had a spoonful twice a week in winter as he spent quite a lot of time outdoors, and I used to have a spoonful too. He used to say that if you had too much it made your shirt collars look greasy.

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    4. I like the taste of cod liver oil as well. We were given a spoonful each morning when I was a child in the 70s.

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    5. Every morning! That is greasy skin territory!

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  8. Your physique pretty much matched my father's, except his was the result of being an underfed orphan (more gruel for Oliver Twist). A stint in the army only made him a six foot six skinny guy. His friends were his cousins. But this was all back at the turn of the pervious century, and I don't remember him remarking how anything but hunger was a setback. And, he never said much, anyway.

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    1. I guess there was a lot of undernourishment around when he was growing up, but conscription would rectify the effects of that for many. People didn't talk or even know about things like 'self-esteem' and I can only write such a confessional post now because of the snowflake times we live in.

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  9. Given that you couldn't gain weight or mass your whole life, I'd say it was genetic and the whooping cough had nothing to do with it. I was thin as a child too, but not skin and bone and while not being weight-lifter strong, my health and immunity was strong and still is. A gene I passed on to my children and grandchildren. I remember an English boy who came to our high school in year eight, the same age as the Aussie boys but half the size and so white. They teased him unmercifully, but he took it and gave a bit back and they all ended up great friends before the term was finished. Perhaps the skinny is an English thing? I see movies with very skinny kids and they are usually English, from the poor areas.

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    1. I still think whooping cough had a lot to do with it. I was later told I almost died. I had some severe coughs and got Vick rubbed on my chest at night. Until around 6 my parents lit the fire in my bedroom when it was freezing in winter, and I was given extra-warm vests (Liberty Bodice) to wear. And my brother was tubby rather than thin.

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  10. That opening was a brutal self-assessment. Your long term health has possibly benefited from it (being on the light side and the self aware humour). Go look on a beach these days and find a single kid..... (or adult)

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    1. It is a kind of confessional, but we can look back much more clearly in later years in trying to make sense of what happened to us and how things changed. I wouldn't have been able to write it if I hadn't moved on.

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  11. Are we allowed to use the word "normal" today? (Some suggest not, as it implies the existence of the "un-normal".) Anyway, I'll use the word in saying that normal, healthy kids are skinny; their bodies put all the energy in gaining height, not width. That comes later with the onset of puberty. But your self-description sounds like you really were seriously underweight, and I am sorry that it was a difficult time for you.
    My sister and I were skinny girls, always running around outside, and we ate when we were hungry - thankfully, there was never lack of food on our table, us being born in 1967 and 1968. We drank sugary soft drinks without wasting a thought about sugar other than that we had to brush our teeth afterwards. Chocolate and highly processed foods were not part of our daily diet; our parents cooked every day, and we did not have enough pocket money to afford more than one or two ice creams a week in the summer.
    The cruel way kids sometimes treat each other did not escape us, though. I was one of the few kids at my school wearing specs, and was often teased about them. I, on the other hand, joined in when we were teasing a large girl who developed breasts long before any of us did. Later, things turned round when I was the flat-chested one in my class, with all the other girls proudly displaying what they had.
    Did it harm me? Maybe for a while. Do I bother now? Certainly not!

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    1. I could eat sweets and chocolate by the bucket load because my grandma had a sweet shop, but it made no difference other than those my dentist can still see. I've no regrets about any of this now, except perhaps that those of us who were teased were all too quick to tease others when the opportunity came. But mostly these things strengthen us in the longer term. Things can be much worse difficult days because of all the celebrity 'perfection' and social media.

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  12. A very skinny friend of mine was walking down a dusty road in Australia when a pick up truck with a couple of rednecks pulled up alongside him. The driver said, "Alright, Rambo?", then drove off.

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  13. The comments are fascinating so I am not going to say anything. Except at five foot plus a quarter inch and skinny to boot I have lived much of my life feeling inadequate. It does get better though doesn't it when you get older!

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    1. So many people do feel inadequate, for so many reasons, and it can take years to come to terms with it. However, I much prefer people who consider it possible they might not be perfect to those with an unshakeable belief in their own infallibility.

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  14. It was fascinating to read your story, Tasker, because I struggled with many of the same issues. Still do. You know, last summer I bought a swimming suit so that I could be in the pool with my granddaughter. However, when I went to their house, a cold was going through, and we never quite got to the pool. This last visit, we DID go to the pool, and I had to (finally) wear that swim suit. I can be quite truthful and say that putting it on made me feel sick inside. Walking out, I was a nervous wreck. But...once in the heat of the sun, playing with William and Iris...that feeling just went away. I've been thinking a lot about that, wondering about all the things in my life that I missed out on because I was self conscious, that in the end turned out to be no big deal.

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    1. Absolutely spot on that self-consciousness and inhibitions make people miss out on things. I started swimming again around the age of 25 and after a couple of times never gave it another thought. I suppose I do tend to crouch in the water at the shallow end, rather than like some guys who up stand displaying their many chests (or flab).

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  15. At my school a lot of young boys looked skinny, Tasker.
    I do understand that it bothered you, with male role models looking like that Mr. Atlas (was that his real name??)
    Nowadays (and in my job as counsellor) I saw that advertisement creates havoc among young men too (later than with the girls): quite a few are anorexic. But that was not your problem, I guess you just had a quick metabolism.
    And now: isn't it a good feeling that you don't have a pot-belly?

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    1. Charles Atlas real name just underneath his picture. When your age begins with a 7 you're not really bothered about any of this any more. I agree that it's even more difficult for young people these days because of celebrities and social media. My daughter says large numbers of her friends and acquaintances have had issues. But there is help now. It was easy then to think you were the only one.

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  16. You looked like Tom Sawyer after he has been tasked by Aunt Polly to whitewash her fence.
    Tom had a girlfriend, Becky Thatcher, didn't he, I always liked the sound of Becky even as an 10-year-old.
    One day you were going to rename yourself Tasker, as good a name as any unless it happens to be Huck Finn.
    Tom didn't need any reward except to do the right thing.
    That sounds like Tasker Dunham, all right.

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    1. The right thing is to follow your own instincts, rather than others'. Some never realise that.

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