Like so many American boys, Alex McElroy grew up thinking that only women worried openly about being thin. And yet, as an overweight kid, he also learned to use his obesity as a comic prop to charm people, control who and why people laughed at him, and he learned to secretly purge his food.

For Tin House, McElroy writes about his experience with dieting, bulimia, gender norms, and fat-shaming as a young man. During his teens, he worked at a Dairy Queen, which exacerbated his struggles but also helped him see them more clearly. Surrounded by sweets in what he called the “Zone of Hazardous Cravings,” his need to control his cravings was endless. Fortunately, he found a kindred spirit in a self-described meathead coworker with whom he could commiserate and compete, and speak candidly about his issues. Still, their candor only went so far.

Boots washed down two pills with a long swallow of Red Bull. “I don’t even need to work out. Just sitting here, Al, I’m burning fat. Take one,” he said. He patted the pooch on my tummy.

Again I declined. I was terrified that the pills would work. Taking one would become taking them regularly, then obsessively, until they snuffed my heart like fingers pinching a flame. But I couldn’t confess this to Boots. Perhaps we weren’t, as I’d liked to believe, enacting some vulnerable version of masculinity but applying its worst expectations—sacrificing our bodies, refusing to care for ourselves—to a traditionally feminine project: becoming thinner. Because as open as we were with each other, we nevertheless refused to acknowledge the damage we caused to ourselves. We couldn’t. We lacked the language to see our sickness as sickness. He could not be “anorexic,” just as I could not be “bulimic.” For men, those words were locked houses.

After taking the pills, Boots loaded a spoon with vanilla, then threw it away. “Stasia doesn’t like me taking them, but I gotta. My girl needs me hot. I don’t have enough to keep her around if I’m fat.” Like me, he defined himself exclusively in terms of his body. He couldn’t fathom his girlfriend liking anything about him but his thinness.

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