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Slimming Down and Manning Up
Good health started with learning self-respect
Luis Hernandez
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It was like someone holding me, never letting go, and no matter how hard I tried to escape, they just kept squeezing tighter and tighter. That’s how I felt in my skin: trapped. At 5’11” and 300 lbs., I hated every single chunk of myself.

Dad walked out on my mother, my younger brother, and me when I was around 5 years old, saying he had to work on himself. After that, my mother spoiled my brother and me with food. I was always a chubby kid, but after my dad left, my eating habits became horrible.

With a cook like my mother, no one was complaining. The smells that came from the kitchen were criminal; they baited you into eating yummy foods like arroz con pollo, flan, beef stew, and my favorite, hamburgers with fries and ketchup. The food made me forget about my dad being gone and about being overweight. Food was a friend I could come to whether I felt good or bad about myself.

I remember all my mother’s friends pinching my cheeks and saying to me, “Ay, que bonito es el chiquito gordito!” (“How cute is the chubby little boy!”). I loved this attention at first because her friends would always give me candy bars, but high school was a completely different story. In high school, the attention I wanted was not from old ladies, but from beautiful teen girls. Girls do not go for the chubby, nice kid; they go for guys with nicknames like “Sexy Tim” or “Buff Bradley.” My nickname was “Large Luis.”

Being the chubby nice guy made me feel unmanly. I thought a “real man” was supposed to be strong, ruthless, and above all, able to attract the opposite sex. I felt like a puppy instead of a man, and it seemed I could not escape that identity.

Three Plates of Pernil

By freshman year of high school I completely disliked everything about myself. I used to watch TV in envy of the buff guys who always got the sexy girl. I felt like a freak, a weirdo, the loser who’d rather eat on a Friday night than go on a date. I would look at the mirror in my house for hours and pull at my skin because I thought that if I paid enough attention to it, I would somehow wish all the fat away and get a six-pack. Of course, this did not happen, because I never made a concrete exercise and healthy eating regimen to combat my weight. Without action, wishful thinking means nothing.

Many times I got mad at my mother for making such delicious food that I could not resist. Once I went out and bought some of those gross, frozen weight-loss meals that you microwave to eat. As I was “trying to diet,” my mother decided to make a staple of Puerto Rican cooking, pernil. Pernil simply described is juicy, fall-off-the-bone, savory pork shoulder that takes your palate on a wonderful and flavorful adventure. It’s heaven (and a heart attack) for the Puerto Ricans that eat it. The smell of my mother’s pernil perfumed the house in all its juicy, tender deliciousness.

My mother set the table and served my brother and herself some pernil. (My brother was chubby too, but he was four years younger and to my family he only had baby weight; he was spoiled rotten.) Then she put my Chum Bucket microwave dinner on the table. I tried eating it, but looking at the food my mother made, I gave up. I threw that disgusting dinner in the trash and ate three whole plates of pernil.

Food as Love

Afterward, I felt horrible and was very mad at my mom because I felt that she had made the food on purpose to get me to eat. “Mom, why would you make pernil when I am trying to diet? It’s like you’re trying to make me fat!” I said angrily.

My mother replied matter-of-factly, “What are you talking about? You’re not fat, you are healthy. And hey, I did not force you to eat the food.”

I realized that she was right: No one was to blame for my weight problem but myself, because I made the decision to eat excessively.

image by YC-Art Dept

On the other hand, though, I was up against bigger forces than just my own habits. My mother could have made it easier for me to lose weight by not making the food I was desperately trying to avoid. But when she fed me, it was her way of showing me love. That was the way my grandmother showed love for my mother, and so on. I was the product of a cycle where comfort food embodied love, and to take that away was like taking away everything that our family was about.

Shadow of Myself

I knew all this was true, but recognizing a family dynamic is a lot easier than changing it. I felt stuck, and this made me discouraged. I thought I was cursed because there were people in the world who could eat a lot and be skinny as a stick, yet it seemed that whatever I ate, I gained a million pounds. Of course, I did sometimes binge on food. But part of this was a cycle, too: because I gained weight easily, it made me give up and eat even more because I felt I could never be skinny like those other, lucky people.

Feeling down on myself made me afraid to look people in the eye, because I always thought that someone was judging me. It got so I didn’t want anyone to see me, so I stayed at home most of the time, safe from people’s eyes. I also pushed my friends away—not because I did not like them but because I felt unworthy to be with them. I was too fat to be anyone’s friend. When they wanted to hang out with me, I’d fib and tell them I was grounded, sick, or not in the mood.

Eventually, they gave up on trying to hang out with me because they thought I didn’t want to be with them. I spent so many lunchtimes alone, trying to avoid them because I was afraid of them judging me or making fun of me for what I ate. In fact, they had never made fun of me, and they probably ate worse than I did. But I was bullying myself with the fear that they would. I was becoming a shadow of myself.

‘Fat Loser’?

One day, I came home in my usual self-loathing mood. In gym class, someone had made a casual comment like, “Wow, dude, you’re really sweating.” It wasn’t mean-spirited, but because I felt so insecure about myself, I couldn’t take things for what they were; I always felt people were targeting me. My mother noticed I seemed down, and on this day she couldn’t take it anymore. She told me to sit down at the kitchen table. I sat down hesitantly.

“I’ve seen how down you have seemed lately, and that’s not you. What’s wrong?” she asked.

I don’t know why she asked me to talk to her that day, but it was very important because I was at my breaking point. I told her everything: how I felt, how scared and alone I was, how I did not want to go through life hating myself, and most of all, how I wanted the six-pack and the hot girls.

I let out everything and told my mom that I was nothing but a “fat loser.” My mother looked me straight in the eye and told me something that I will never forget. She said, “You can be the most handsome man in the world, but if you do not see the value in yourself then nobody will.”

It took some time to comprehend what my mother had said, but as I thought about it I realized that she was right. How could I expect others to like me when I did not even like myself? I was not going to let my weight dictate what I could or could not do anymore.

I was tired of looking in the mirror and telling myself that I was unworthy or a waste of space. I was not the fat, disgusting monster I called myself. I was more and I deserved more than what I was giving myself.

Hitting the Gym

At around the same time, my dad—who had been part of my life sporadically since earlier in my childhood—reached out to me, hoping to build a better relationship. My mother told him how I’d been feeling, and he signed himself and me up for a gym membership. My dad had once been a bodybuilder, but over the years he’d stopped training and gained weight—so this was something good for both of us that we could do together. It was the first commitment he’d made to me, and it felt encouraging having him there beside me, trying to reach the same goals.

image by YC-Art Dept

The first day I went to the gym was one of the scariest moments of my life. My dad made me wake up at 6 a.m. on a Sunday so that we could be at the gym at 7 a.m.; I was not a happy camper. When we pulled up to the gym my dad told me, “When we go inside I’m not your father; I am your trainer.” I laughed it off, but inside I was yelling, “Holy crap! I’m screwed.”

All around were these guys who had muscle on top of muscle, and there I was, this big chunky speck who was invading their territory. It was a whole new world, with dumbbells, ab machines, and treadmills. To me these were not workout machines but torture devices that I was going to have to endure.

Doing It for Me

At first, exercising was something I did to look good for other people. Every Sunday I woke up at 6 in the morning to work out for a total of four hours—starting off with cardio, then weights, and then to the sauna. I also had to force myself to exercise at home, because one day a week was not going to cut it. This was very difficult because home was where the food was, but I had to have willpower. Every time I did a sit-up it was like allowing a truck to run over my stomach, and every time I did a push-up it was like punishing my arms for every single bit of food they had brought toward my mouth.

As time went on, though, exercise became something I did for me and me only. I realized that other people’s expectations didn’t matter, only the expectations I had for myself. As I got used to exercising I realized how much determination was in me, which made me realize that I had the power to accomplish anything that I set my mind to.

This surprised me, because I’d spent so long putting myself down that it was tough at first to see all the great things I could do. Exercising was the first thing that I ever did for myself and it made me happy, especially as the pounds began to fall off.

Food was another huge part of my weight loss. After our conversation, my mother switched from fried food to healthier foods that tasted just as great as the “bad for you” foods. “I love you and if I gotta cook healthy, so be it,” she said.

To stay motivated, I talked to myself a lot. Instead of those negative words I used to feed myself, I told myself, “You’re awesome” or “Yes, you can.” The more I told myself these good things, the better I felt, which made me like myself a lot more.

With a greater self-appreciation, I became more outgoing and began to hang out with my friends again after keeping to myself for months. They were completely shocked at how much I’d changed, and said I was way more positive to be around and that they were happy for me.

Transformation

In the two years since that talk with my mother, I went from a miserable 300 pounds to a loving myself, 250-pound guy. My lifestyle is a lot different than it was two years ago. I eat healthy and exercise daily. The one thing that keeps me from going back to the way I was before is having a healthy mindset. That means never putting myself down and most of all, never telling myself “I can’t.”

Even more important than my physical transformation is the mental one that came with it. I felt more like a man than I ever had once I started living by no one’s expectations but my own. Instead of worrying what others thought of me, I took control of my own self-image. Manliness is not based on the amount of muscles you have, but on the amount of confidence and love you have for yourself.

There are many teen guys who want to be like male models on magazine covers, with girls wrapped around them. But the truth is, you can be good-looking and fit and have the personality of a rock, which is not very enticing to the opposite sex.

What is enticing is confidence. Life is so much better when you can stand in front of a mirror and instead of bullying yourself with harsh words, say instead, “Who’s that sexy beast?” or “Damn, I look good.” Today, I struggle with many things but I can truly say that I love and appreciate myself and those around me.

My family has changed a lot, too. We all eat healthier and try to be as active as possible. My family has gone from needing food to show love for each other to realizing that we need each other alive and healthy.

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(NYC-2012-05-22)

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