Asking a child what frightens them is mystifying. It opens a portal to a ridiculous mindset we’ve long forgotten. To them, the Easter Bunny is less Peeps and Cadbury and more Donnie Darko. A slow shower drain to an adult is from a buildup of gunk. An eight year old would tell you you’ve got one too many sharks down there.
Kids are full of irrational fears never deemed impossible because childhood reasoning doesn’t muddle in silly things like facts or science. Their fears are manifested by the absence of information, and quite frankly, kids are stupid. A perfect example: When we were younger my brother intentionally stepped on a nail believing that if his shoe wouldn’t stop it, surely his sock would. I let this happen because I thought he made a convincing case.
As you get a little older, the absurd fears are replaced with pre-teen apprehension. Your parents remember this as the last couple years before you were a total teenage asshole. This new uncertainty about yourself was almost always the result of children learning to see oddities and differences as segregators. This doesn’t age well. And sadly, it rarely ages out.
I was well acquainted with anxiety at an early age. Neuroticism was a natural feeling for some reason. Things like getting caught singing Meatloaf’s “I would do anything for love” in a private moment or realizing I’m pooping in the girls bathroom terrified me. Which is strange because it’s not like this happened…regularly. These were smaller, insignificant misfortunes I could get over. The underbelly of of my apprehension existed somewhere else, literally.
It was 1994. I was nine years old. We had just moved from the east coast to a suburb of Chicago. What I brought to the mid-west was lovely vocal elegance, otherwise known as a New Jersey accent. And what I found in the mid-west was an insatiable appetite, otherwise known as disgusting. My afternoon snacks went from yogurt to a reheated slab of baby back ribs. Needless to say, my newfound appreciation for excessive eating would quickly mold me into the archetypical fat kid.
Despite the unnecessary eating, I was an active kid. I loved soccer, baseball, golf, and basketball even if I wasn’t terribly good at any of them. For instance, I once air-balled a wide open jump shot by a solid four feet. The ball actually bounced twice before someone “rebounded” it, due to the shock, but that’s another story. Actually, that’s the whole story. With my legend on the hardwood solidified, I went in on one more activity that didn’t compliment my increasing roundness. I joined the neighborhood swim team. When you strip away the shield that is, clothes, being a little portly carries added weight to your self-consciousness too.
Surprisingly, I was a hell of a swimmer. I placed in almost every meet. But my confidence could only be found in the water. Above the surface, swimming showcased two things I was embarrassed about. The first, was that I couldn’t dive. I hit the water, not with grace, but the posture a man takes the moment he knows he’s going to get hit in the nuts. This hurt my time, but it did improve the ease in which adults laugh at a small child.
The second dilemma was having to wear a Speedo. Picture me, a chubby pre-pubescent boy, standing in the snack line eating a Kit-Kat bar, remnants of Fun Dip sugar on my chin, in nothing but a black, turquoise and orange Speedo. You’re probably thinking it’s a funny image. You’re also probably thinking, “You ate chocolate bars and fun dip right before aggressively swimming in competition?” Yes. Yes I did.
Next up was middle school, where girls became intimidating and boys became punks. To a privileged, pudgy, introvert like me, this was the height of fear. I struggled to make friends and continued to find solace in a can of Pringles. As their commercials used to say, once you pop—you’re fat.
Bear in mind this is the late 90’s, when high fructose corn syrup and portion upgrades were seen as achievements. Products even told us they’ll make us fat by putting “BIGGIE” and “Super-Size” right there on the packaging. Gaining weight as you overeat from containers labeled “BIGGIE” is as indicting as being an adult man alone at a playground in a shirt that says “PREDATOR.”
What we know about food now was vastly unclear then. I thought whole wheat was a gardening term. Refined sugars sounded like a cultured pastry. Fat Free in the 90’s was like cocaine in the 70’s. And you could shit kryptonite six times a day, but swear by chips made with Olestra. This ignorance would be a major contributor to our obesity epidemic.
Cultural eating habits aside, I continued to participate in sports and attend camps in the summer. I liked them, but as a fat kid, they featured what haunted me most. Please God, please don’t have them separate the teams by shirts versus skins. These prayers were never answered.
If you flipped a coin for which team would be skins, my team had a 100% chance of being skins. I can recall exactly one time I was on shirts. A kid on the opposing team claimed he had dermatitis, so Coach swiftly told me to trade up and pop my shirt off. I tried to think quickly and claim my own skin condition, but all I could come up with was AIDS. No go.
All I wished for was to see a bag of those disgusting mesh pinnies that smelled like vacuum-sealed ham. Having pinnies on meant there would be no shirts and skins, which means there would be no jolly jiggle to my jumper, an alliterative opening for ridicule no bully could pass on. I can’t believe how weak I had become. It was only a few years ago in Kindergarten I had the swagger to pull my pants completely down to my ankles and pee bare-ass in a urinal without a care in the world. And now I was afraid just to take my shirt off.
Skinning up also pointed out that I was the last boy in school to switch to boxers. My shorts fell just below a glorious elastic white line. These may have been Fruit of the Loom, but any guy who’s ever been 12 before knows what they really are: tighty whities. When my peers asked me if I was wearing tighty whities, in my nervous lack of wit I could only muster,“No. These are…diapers.”
So if you’re keeping track, my two responses in trying to avoid embarrassment have been having the AIDS virus and wearing Pampers as a preteen. I was a disaster.
I know being overweight is a choice and it always allows for corrective action, but it’s tough to demand that out of a 12 year old. What is easy for a 12 year old to understand is when they’re being insulted. Kids took no issue calling me fat. And I had the defense mechanisms of a 48 year old divorced cat lady: “I’m perfectly aware I look like ‘if Doug Funny had type II diabetes,’ thank you very much.” Nailed it.
Being afraid to take your shirt off is a silly fear. But what isn’t minor to a boy who has a hard time seeing what he likes about himself, is when other kids make it harder. To my friends who are now parents: don’t let your child be that kid. It’s hard to grow out of. My parents never let me, and I quickly understood that being a nice person is a lot more rewarding. Kindness is reciprocated with love. And love unlocks our greatest potential.
I now look at these awkward days of boyhood insecurity as a rite of passage. Every kid faces school yard adversity. You learn to confront it. And you toughen up because of it.
Childish fears expire or you confront them. For me, being a fat kid turned in to being an offensive lineman. And high school football was one of the most influential things I’ve ever done. I gained great friends and memories. I became more disciplined. And I finally became interested in nutrition and exercise, which all would eventually help me lose the weight, but more importantly, the trepidation that came with it.
And now, remembering me as a Speedo-clad 9-year old at the swim club snack bar—standing like a sassy black woman as I decide between a hot dog or an ice cream sandwich minutes before a 100-meter backstroke—is all pretty funny again.
I still can’t dive though.