There is a photo of Hugh Jackman that's been circling the internet for awhile. It’s a side-by-side shot comparing Jackman's physique in the first X-Men movie to his physique in a later instalment of the franchise. In the first shot the actor is reasonably muscular with a flat stomach. In the second Jackman looks like a cartoon character. He’s impossibly veiny with a torso shaped like a dehydrated letter V. There are similar physique comparison photos of The Rock pre and post Hollywood. Chris Evans in Fantastic Four compared to Chris Evans in Captain America. Even Paul Rudd—whose entire career is based on his portrayal of the unkempt everyman—has before and after shots. In Hollywood, actors undergoing dramatic body transformations has become common over the last decade, directly coinciding with the rise of superhero movies to the forefront of pop culture. Leading men are increasingly expected to look like comic book characters. It’s redefined our concept of the ideal body and who is and isn’t in shape.
The best example of this is Chris Pratt. Pratt’s body transformation for Guardians of the Galaxy dominated the film’s press junkets: dad bod to hot bod, chubby comedian to chiseled leading man, etc. The repeated narrative was that before he got his six-pack, the actor’s body was best used as a punchline. He was the out of shape, disheveled, sidekick. If it’s been awhile since you’ve seen photos (or gifs) of Parks and Recreation era Pratt, click on one of the links. Surprised? Despite what we’ve been sold over and over, he looks pretty normal. Pre-Starlord Pratt looks better shirtless than most guys I know. If that is the standard for the chubby guy what does it say for the rest of us? It’s enough to mess with your head.
Growing up I struggled with weight. Early puberty ballooned me up to 230 pounds and at age eleven I earned the hilariously cruel nickname of kid tits. The playful castigation left me with a pretty severe eating disorder by the time I had entered my teens. Weight became a fixation and I distinctly remember the day I stopped having lard cleavage was one of the happiest days of my adolescence. While I’ve spent a lot of time chatting with therapists about body image, there are trickle down effects of my eating disorder in everything from my low-key diet soda addiction to my uncanny ability to finish a chip bag regardless of the size of said chip bag. That background complicates my relationship to food/exercise and in lesser moments I still base my self worth on how I look naked.
Earlier this year during a misguided adventure in freelance writing, I fell down a YouTube hole of inspirational fitness videos. For hours I watched formerly chubby people talk about the joy of their new frames. Pseudo-scientists tout miracle pills and shakes. I even watched motivational movie monologues poorly dubbed over nu-metal soundtracks. The experience left me wondering what it would actually take to undergo a body transformation. While I had mostly resigned myself to the idea that abs were something that happened to other people, like good credit or falling in love, I wanted to know if I put in the work, like really put in the work, was a six-pack actually possible? And given my background was that something I should even attempt?
Those questions rattled around in my head for months as I half-assed forty minutes on an elliptical machine or drunkenly slammed late night tacos. I repeatedly found myself returning to the body transformation videos and had started scouting websites for diet and nutrition advice. When I broached the subject to friends they were respectfully hesitant. They worried that putting a time frame around weight loss and pushing old boundaries would inevitably put me in a bad spot. They suggested a more practical approach, but the truth was that I had been casually trying a practical approach most of my adult life. I already hit up the gym a couple of times a week. I regularly drank protein shakes. I had downloaded yoga videos promoted by former professional wrestlers and even tested out something called Insanity, a program that to the best of my understanding promotes weight loss through a combination of positive mental attitude and jumping up and down. I didn’t want another casual approach. I wanted abs.
After months of deliberation I finally decided that I was going to attempt a body transformation. I decided on the gimmick of abs in eighty days. I wanted to get noticeable results in a time period that seemed difficult but possible. Over the course of eleven and a half weeks I managed to get in the best shape of my life. I also managed to alienate the people closest to me, cause major damage in my relationship, and shit myself. Twice. The following is documentation of my eighty day attempt to get abs:
Week One: 210 pounds. 22.3 percent body fat.
To walkme through the body transformation I enlisted the help of fitness professional Geoff Girvitz. Girvitz is the owner of Bang Fitness, a gym that’s helped everyone from soccer moms to professional fighters achieve their physique goals. I’ve known Geoff casually for a long time. He’s patient, sage, and witty. Like Mr. Miyagi if Mr. Miyagi were written by Wes Anderson. If anyone could get me to my goal it was going to be him.
When I first reached out to Geoff he let me know that under normal circumstances the project wasn’t something he’d take on. Like my friends he championed the long term approach, equipping clients with small fitness habits that over time lead to a larger, sustainable, lifestyle change. The quick fix I was after set up unreal expectations. He let me know it was more likely to result in a learning experience than a six-pack. Still, Girvitz agreed to put together a customized fitness routine and a broad stroke diet plan, with the caveat that I remain honest with him about the experience.
When I let Geoff know about my former body issues he shot back a series of questions. Why did I want to get abs in the first place? I muttered off some half rehearsed lines about dedication and the value in pushing outside of your comfort zone. What did I think people with abs had that I didn’t? I talked about wanting to feel more attractive and improving my sex life. Was I using abs as a proxy for actual confidence? Oh sure, probably, but aren’t we all using something as a proxy for actual confidence? Geoff shook his head and laughed. He asked me to get on the scale.
The scale at Bang Fitness is shiny and metallic, attached to a rudimentary computer that somehow looks like it is both from the past and the future all at once. When you step on the scale it makes a playful little ping. The computer then displays a series of graphs outlining your total weight, body fat percentage, and lean body mass. The graphs are printed out as a souvenir of the experience. My weigh-in on day one informed me that I was 210 pounds. My body fat was 22.3 percent. Geoff checked over the numbers, informing me abs weren’t likely unless I was able to cut my body fat by half. I started to think about what that might look like, but got distracted when the scale made another little ping.
The next day was the before shoot with photographer/director Nicole Bazuin. Bored with the typical look of fitness shots, Bazuin suggested we raise the bar by adding a theme. We decided on snack foods. Over the course of two hours I poured doritos over top my body. I pushed out my gut and bathed in orange soda. We adjusted for the most unflattering lighting and least forgiving angles. It was like a boudoir shoot where the whole goal was to make me look unfuckable. The photoshoot itself was a lot of fun. Until that point in every other picture I had ever taken I’d tried to look good. Finding terrible posture and specifically attempting to look like a sleazeball was liberating. Wrapping things up I was in a good mood. But when Nicole let me look over the test shots that all changed. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but the pictures looked grotesque. I tried to remind myself that grotesque pictures had been the point, but inwardly I worried that I had made a horrible mistake.
Week 3: 207 pounds. 20.5 Body Fat
It takes forty-five minutes to get from my apartment to Bang Fitness. Six days a week I wake up at 7:30 and schlep along with the morning commuters on an overcrowded bus, then a subway, then a streetcar. When I finally get to the gym I spend an hour and a half picking up heavy things and putting them down again. Sometimes I’ll push a sled or hold the plank position until I can’t remember what it feels like to not be holding the plank position. Everything I consume is plugged into an app on my phone so that the what/when/why of my food choices can later be scrutinized and improved upon. The enjoyment I take in eating has been replaced with a stark functionality.
Before starting the project I didn’t know how much of my social life revolved around food and alcohol. Outside of work most of my interactions with other humans are at a bar or restaurant. While the consumption aspect of these interactions is usually secondary, abstaining from certain things—alcohol isn’t allowed on the diet plan and it doesn’t leave room for a lot of carbs—is isolating in a way that I hadn’t expected. Nowhere is this more apparent than with my girlfriend. Because she’s also a writer, she was understanding about the constant need to create content if you want to work, but quickly became disillusioned with the project. My new habits limited where we could go on dates. They nixed the evening nightcap, the time when we’d usually discuss our days and unwind. They made cooking for each other more difficult.
One morning I was getting out of bed at my girlfriend’s apartment, throwing on sweats to make my way to the gym, when she put this out there: did I think the abs project would be easier if I were single? I couldn’t tell if she was asking a question or making a threat. She explained that she was already happy with how I looked. She said that I seemed stressed and tired. She wondered if what I was doing was healthy and asked if this was something that she should be worried about. In return I kissed her on the forehead. I needed to leave. I didn’t want to miss my appointment with the trainer.
Week 5: 206 pounds. 21.0 Body Fat.
Week five I shit myself. It happened without warning. I was carrying my laundry home—going to the gym six days a week means you are constantly doing laundry—and all of the sudden it just fell out of me. No explosion. No sound. The lone nug slid out unencumbered and deposited itself into my pants. Waddling the half block back to my apartment I tried to piece together what part of the new diet had caused me to shit myself. Was it the kale? The additional protein? Stress? I also wondered if shitting your pants was part of the normal journey to abs. Maybe this was a trend I could market to the masses. Shitting yourself svelte. How to lose weight by losing control of your bowels.
While I tried to joke things off, the shame I felt shitting myself was compounded by the fact that my latest weigh in was bad. I had gone up in body fat. In the Youtube transformations gaining body fat was a result of a mistake: a few hard nights of partying, a work event you couldn’t get out of, or a fuck it mentality that resulted in consuming a whole pizza. But I hadn’t made any mistakes. Or not any that seemed obvious. There were no missed workouts, I was taking vitamins, and the closest I had gotten to a binge was a handful of miniature gingersnaps. I had been putting in all the effort I could. In return I had lost four pounds.
Week 7: 204 pounds. 19.4 Body Fat.
Throughout the experiment Geoff and I had weekly check ins. The two of us had developed a script. He’d look over the graphs from the scale while I made jokes about how I’d murder for a cider, how I missed bread more than certain dead relatives, or how split squats feel like your legs are trying to violently emancipate themselves from your body. The tone of the meetings had been friendly and jovial. But midway through the project things took a turn. I entered the office for our weekly meeting. Sweaty and winded from the upright rower I collapsed onto a chair and tried to crack a joke. Geoff was quiet. He closed the door behind him and launched into it.
We started with the good news. Divorced from the context of the challenge the progress I’d made was great. Geoff applauded the dietary changes I’d implemented and my consistency for working out. He said he admired my curiosity and the ability to push myself. Then we got into tougher stuff. If I was hoping to reach visible abs on time I was way behind schedule. Geoff pulled up the food app and pointed out the inconsistencies ( Do you feel like this experiment has the caloric wiggle room for cocoa-dusted protein enrichment beans?). He pointed out how miserable I’d seemed over the last few weeks and openly wondered if being that miserable was worth the results I’d been pulling in. He said it was OK to quit.
I explained, as best I could, that quitting wasn’t really an option. As a freelance writer bailing on a project I’d been undergoing for two months would be devastating financially. I told him that if I quit now the before photos would haunt my brain every time that I tried to work out. I ran through the laundry list of sacrifices I had already made for the stupid fucking abs experiment and told Geoff that all of that sacrifice had to be worth something.
Geoff reminded me that the circumstances I had put myself under weren't normal and echoed his earlier comments about how body transformations give us skewed perspectives of what it actually takes to get in shape. Then he asked me again: why did I want abs in the first place?
I didn't really have a good answer. If weight loss was supposed to make me happier it wasn't working. If it was supposed to improve my sex life it shouldn't distance me from my partner. Any confidence I had gained was instantly nullified with the shit in my pants. I didn't know what I hoped to achieve from this. I just knew that for whatever reason it was something I needed to follow through on.
After the meeting Geoff and I reset and strategized next steps. He didn’t know if abs were possible at this point, but if I doubled down I should be able to make a serious dent. That conversation is how I started weighing my food. It’s also how I started going to the gym twice a day.
Week 9: 199.5 pounds. 18.1 Body Fat.
In the morning I have my weight lifting routine at Bang. My evening is spent on a stair climber, steadily propelling myself upwards for hours at a time while going nowhere. I feel like Sisyphus. The stair climber is located in a corporate box gym in an aging shopping mall. To get to the gym from my house I pass by two donut shops and a McDonalds. The day I signed up the gym was giving away free pizza.
All of my food is now coming from a meal delivery service made specifically for athletes. On Wednesday and Sundays they deliver tiny plastic containers full of grass fed meats and thick green vegetables I can’t pronounce the name of. It all tastes about as good as you’d expect.
The abs project has become the defining feature in my life. My schedule is dictated by when I go to the gym and when I eat. My social life is on hold aside from a few late night visits with my girlfriend. Though between the regimentation of my plan and her new script deadlines, even those meetings have been infrequent. I feel lonely. I’m hungry all the time and irritable. The new plan, however, is working. For the first time in years I’ve dropped below the two hundred pound mark. My love handles are starting to shrink and I can see stretch marks forming on the areas where I carried the most weight. Geoff is really encouraging about the advancements. He says I’m finally starting to understand the real effort that goes into a six-pack.
One evening after a midnight workout at the box gym I’m alone in the locker room. I shower then stand naked in front of the mirror for a few minutes. It’s the first time since starting the project that I’ve really observed myself, After all that effort, and it has been a lot of effort, what’s looking back at me is a moderately in-shape man. It’s disappointing. I turn to my side and suck in my gut, looking for ribs the same way I used to when I would throw up after a meal. On the purple wall beside the mirror is a giant stencil that reads judgment free zone.
Week 10: 187 pounds. 17.2 Body Fat.
Week 10 I shit myself again. To game the last few days of the abs project Geoff set me up with a doctor who primarily works with bodybuilding competitors. Over the phone the doctor walked me through the finer points of a new diet plan. It consisted mostly of chicken breast, spinach, and fear. For energy I’d be taking a stack, a mixture of aspirin, ephedrine, and caffeine pills. My two-a-day workouts would continue and I’d weigh in daily to check my progress.
The second day of the new program, jazzed on a stack and a carefully blended shake of protein powder/leafy greens, I headed into the gym for squats. With a heavy bar on my back I went as low to the floor as I could manage. While the previous shit had secreted from my bowels like a whisper from a mouth, the new shit came like a wet scream. I could smell myself as I pushed upwards to finish the exercise. I sauntered to the locker room and showered.
The new diet plan capped things off at under 1300 calories a day. While I was eating a lot of food (250 grams of protein and under 30 grams of carbs for the last two weeks) the regimentation felt like a whole different kind of disordered eating. Initially the plan I had started with at Bang, along with the pace, felt difficult but doable. Pushing myself in the home stretch and getting fast results just seemed like a socially acceptable form of my sickness. The day I shit myself for the second time I also posted a gym photo on social media. My phone came alive with validation. People told me I looked amazing. That felt good.
Week 11: 181 pounds. 15 percent Body Fat.
By the last week of the project I had lost twenty nine pounds and cut my body fat by a third. I was still nowhere close to having abs. The final days before the photoshoot I was having trouble sleeping. In lieu of rest I started scrolling through my phone and eventually came across the youtube videos that had kicked off my fascination with body transformations. I tried to watch a few different clips before turning my phone off and lying in the dark. I thought about the inevitable comment section that would accompany this abs article. I worried about trolls making fun of how I looked and armchair commentators telling me I could have done better. I thought about how the team at Bang had helped me through the project and worried my lack of six-pack would reflect poorly on them. I didn’t have a positive thing to say about body image or getting in shape. The project started off hard and continued to be hard the entire time. In the end I failed at achieving my goals and I didn’t think it was worth it.
During the last meeting with Geoff he asked if I got what I wanted out of the project. I tried to put on a good face but the negativity poured through. I went on a rant cussing out media institutions for their false portrayals of body types and called Chris Pratt a motherfucker. Geoff laughed and offered some advice: People assume body transformations are a silver bullet to cure unhappiness, but they’re not. But even without abs, losing that much body fat is something that a lot of people only talk about doing. I had made a lot of improvements. I should celebrate that. As I exited the office Geoff patted me hard on the arm and gave me a protein cookie. He said I had earned it.
The next day was the after photo shoot. Nicole, our photographer, had pulled out all the stops to make sure I looked my best. To contrast the initial photo shoot theme of snacks, we brought in various veggies for me to pose with. Before the lighting assistant set up his gear he slammed a quarter pounder combo and an extra large Kit Kat. With the smell of fast food in the air I did push ups and tried to focus on Geoff’s advice. For better or worse in an hour the project would be over. Finally, after some time, the shoot was ready to get started. Standing in my underwear I flexed my muscles and the camera flashed. I looked at the test shots. Not bad. I felt OK.