In Praise of Naked, Fat Guys (Sort Of, Not Really)

The man waddles over to hand dryer, punches the button, and runs a black comb through his grey hair while the hot air pours over his body. He is short and round. Were he wearing a pin-striped suit, he could pass as some sort of mafia don. But he isn’t wearing anything. And there he stands in the middle of the room, stark naked, methodically combing like a doctor ordered him to. He slowly rotates, greasing his wet hair down for two or three minutes like nothing is strange, nothing is wrong. It’s just a Tuesday.

Naked old guys are just par for the course when you walk into gyms, at least for men. Guys aged 50 and under tend to be more discreet and private, while those older have few inhibitions. Maybe it is because they had public showers in their gym classes when they were in high school. Or maybe as you get older you just stop caring so much. At the seminary I attended, there was one older professor who was notorious for sauntering around the locker room like this. It was not unusual for him to see you changing and obliviously walk over and follow up on a question you asked earlier that day in class, casually talking as if he was not currently in the buff. (Unfortunately, he also had a really poor sense of personal space and would hover in uncomfortably close while talking, even in this setting.)

Ironically, gyms are where many people go purely for the sake of vanity, to mold their bodies so that they look attractive and desirable, so that taking their clothes off isn’t embarrassing. But the squat, nude mobster using the hand-dryer (in ways I’m sure it was not intended to be used), represents what every 20, 30, and 40-something fears they will become. His body looked like a three-scoop ice cream cone that had been left out in the sun, or an overripe orange forgotten at the bottom of the fruit bowl. And yet, there he was, unashamed, spinning rotisserie-style for all to see with nothing but his comb.

Long before I became a father, I perpetually had a “dad bod.” Not really fat, not really fit. I look like maybe I played sports back in high school (I didn’t) but also like I ate a lot of Doritos (I did). My relationship with exercise has always been halting and inconsistent. In the battle between my vanity and my laziness, my laziness typically won. But, as the age odometer rolled over into the 30’s, I realized that I needed a different approach. After a surgery, my physical therapist asked me what my fitness goals were. I confessed I didn’t really know. Then he asked me, “Do you want to be able to get yourself off the toilet in your 80’s?” I had never thought about that. Yes. Yes, I would appreciate that. So I started lifting weights and running. Then I read this book which encouraged me to think about the many long-term emotional and mental benefits of regular exercise. My goal posts changed from “six-pack” to “get off the toilet and still be able to think.” It has been both liberating and motivating. But, if I’m honest, there is still enough vanity in me that jealously guards the hope that someday I’ll look like what everyone secretly hopes they’ll one day look like.

But then along comes the nude, pudgy grandpa, the complete contrast of modern sex appeal. And I immediately think two things: (1) Someday, I’ll probably look like that, and (2) when that happens, I hope I am as free from vanity as he is or I might go insane. (Okay, actually, three thoughts: (3) For the love of all that is holy and pure, just wear a towel!)

We all know we are supposed to believe that character and personality matter more than looks. Samuel, who is initially impressed with the bearing of Eliab is told by the Lord, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature…For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart,” (1 Sam 16:7). Nevertheless, we only partially believe it. What happens when you worship beauty? One author notes:

“Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.” – David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

It is a sad and ironic thought to consider how many who daily worship at the temple of beauty and body–staring at themselves as they do bicep curls, taking seductive selfies–are doing so because deep down they really feel fat and ugly. The only thing that keeps the monsters at bay is that next rep, that next PR, the next social-media fueled dopamine hit. And if those go away?

But, Wallace reminds us, they will go away. Time and age will show. We all one day will wind up undressing in a locker room and a 26-year-old will think (hopefully, quietly): “Gross.”

And maybe for that reason we should be grateful for the naked old fat guys who are oblivious to how uncomfortable they are making everyone else in the room. As gym rats walk in and out with washboard stomachs and envious waistlines, they have to shuffle past the flabby 75 year old who (God knows why) is weighing himself butt-naked. TV and the internet have taught us that bodies should look like chiseled muscles or voluptuous curves, all proportionate, all oozing lust and desire. But, most of the time bodies look like anything but proportionate. They look like stretch marks, liver spots, and love handles. And, if we can say “Someday, me” when the elderly citizen is huffing as they bend down to put their socks on, maybe we can be spared of those millions of deaths Wallace warns us of. Maybe we can pry the remaining vestiges of vanity out of us.

Being healthy is great and needed. Being sexy is temporary (if it even is that). Let’s be content with the first, and relativize the second.

And, for the love of Mike, at least wear a towel in the locker room.

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