Stories about great transformations usually begin with great intentions. This particular one starts with 25-year-old me wanting to become a prettier, fitter version of myself.
These stories also usually begin a long, long time ago, in a place far, far away, filled with knights, damsels-in-distress, and comical villains. This one began a decade ago, in a Bombay suburb in 2014 — there were no damsels, only housing societies in various states of distress. There was a villain — an ex-boyfriend who had brutally body-shamed me, leaving me with a burning desire to turn myself into a shiny knight.
But before we jump into the Disney-style makeover, let me clarify what my story isn’t: while it’s ordinary in one sense, it’s far from your run-of-the-mill glow-up story. It’s deeply entwined with the struggles of alcoholism, the complexities of queer identity, and the relentless pursuit of self-acceptance in a world that often feels unyielding. As I took on the Herculean task of reinventing my body, I found myself untangling a whole web of inner challenges that no gym session could ever tone.
I’ve never had an athletic bone in my body. At school, I dodged PE classes while disappointing my badminton state champion mom, who tried enrolling me in karate and badminton classes. I’d often feign illness, leading to refunded lessons and sympathetic looks.
Ask any gay person you know, and they’ve likely weathered their share of sports-related bullying at least once in their life. I wasn’t bullied because I was terrible at sports (people would never know), I was bullied because I always chose to stay away from it.
Now, when you’re a boy who’s not fond of playing sports, people like to bring it up as often as they can. Growing up, the reminders were constant — giggles in school, laughter at family gatherings, and sniggers in college, even without the requisite PE classes.
This reluctance to engage in sports was rooted in a deep discomfort. I associated sports with hypermasculinity, which made me anxious, because I didn’t identify with it. As a result, I disengaged with sport completely.
Those early experiences tend to stay with us, and many queer men end up either rejecting the concept of fitness altogether or throwing themselves at it so hard that the journey to what they see as the perfect body never really ends. I clearly fell in category number one.
And so, I found a different kind of escape: food. What happens when you riddle a person with myriad anxieties and issues but don’t get them to address it through actual, weep-when-you-understand-it-all therapy?
We eat our feelings. And I did full justice to it.
The danger comes when food becomes a coping mechanism, as it did for me. Moderation is something I’d always struggled with and I soon reached that place where I couldn’t differentiate between one bar of chocolate and ten. “Might as well as eat another,” I’d say to myself between bites, and just like that, I’d end up consuming a week’s worth of junk in one sitting.
Do that for two decades straight, and you reach a point when you get ridiculously body-shamed by someone you love. Which brings us back to that turning point in 2014.
In retrospect, I wasn’t even fat; moms called me “healthy,” acquaintances said “puppy-faced,” a few politely termed me “well-fed,” and some were blunter, calling me “chubby.” But was I dangerously overweight, risking my cardiovascular health? Not in the slightest.
However, heartbreak makes you feel terrible things, and nothing stings more than jibes made at your body’s expense. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that spite motivates people like nothing else. People will move mountains (or lose weight) at the slightest bruise on their ego. It’s me. I’m people. Sorry, most transformation stories are often formulaic, so we can’t begrudge them for having template plot lines.
Now, as is the norm with anyone who’s looking to lose weight as fast as they can, I turned to the internet for answers.
“How do I lose weight ASAP but also without dieting?” I remember typing exasperatedly in Google’s search bar, only to be bombarded with 48,30,00,000 results in 0.45 seconds. Page after page reiterated the same old yarn but with a different spiel: cardio, cardio, cardio; 10k steps a day; run, run, run; get out, smell the roses.
One more option lingered in the background: the gym.
I’d always had a love-hate relationship with the gym. I loved the idea of looking like I worked out, but I hated the thought of actually going to the gym. What if people laughed at me? What if I did something wrong? What if I was the only beginner there?
The fear was real, especially when I couldn’t tell the difference between a leg curl, a leg extension, and a leg raise.
It’s easy to forget that people go to the gym not because they already have the body they want, but because they’re there to work on something; yet, it is so natural to feel that we shouldn’t be there because we don’t fit in. You’ve probably heard people pass on a yoga class with a “I can’t do yoga, I’m not flexible enough,” ironically forgetting that you do yoga to become flexible — the same is true with the gym.
Plus, don’t forget the gym can be a scary place for queer folks who may want to avoid perceptibly masculinist hell-holes them due to fear of judgement. Memories of you-suck-at-sports bullying only make this worse.
So, instead of confronting my debilitating gym anxiety, I opted for a simpler, less intimidating route: running.
I still remember my first run. Just a week after my terrible breakup, it was a quick 50-metre sprint that left me gasping as if on the verge of death. Every little nerve in me was screaming at me to stop, urging me to give up, begging me to just go home and cry myself to sleep.
I find it remarkable that I didn’t. In fact, I surprised myself and showed up the next day. And the next. And the next. Every day, my nerves screamed at me a little less, and I ran a little more, as 50-metre sprints turned into 5k runs. Even when it was hard and I didn’t think I could go on, I could, because all I had to do was put one foot in front of the other.
Every run was a burst of oxytocin and dopamine and serotonin and whatnot — yup, I started enjoying my runs: I ran when I was angry, I ran when I was sad, I ran when I was furious. I ran in the basement when it was too hot to run outside, and wore a raincoat when it was pouring cats and dogs.
It became an obsession, and it was more than just physical. As I ran, I had accidentally found myself a meditative outlet: a new way to deal with a lot of my feelings, surprisingly effective at burning off not just body fat but also emotional baggage. For five whole years, I ran, and there was no looking back.
“Wow, who needs a gym membership or a therapist?” I’d yell out to myself, and then I’d run another lap on the track.
Years later, I did eventually find my way to a therapist, who helped me understand that maybe, I had just been running away from all my problems. Her issue with my pervasive idea that “running is therapy” was that I was exaggerating the connection between my mileage and my mental health. “Why don’t you slow down a bit?” she asked me when I told her I was running six days a week, “Moderate those runs.”
But I didn’t — I side-eyed moderation, my old nemesis, and continued running like my rapidly declining weight depended on it. I also said goodbye to my therapist. Rookie mistake.
And then, the pandemic changed everything: without my daily release of expletives runs and my weekly in-person therapy sessions, all my issues swooped right back in, and so did all the body fat. I was right back where I started.
The pandemic sent many into a frenzy: some obsessed over dalgona coffee, others hoarded toilet paper, while some denied the virus’s existence.
For me? I spiralled back into an old vice of mine — heavy drinking.
The thing is, I never thought I had a drinking problem. Like the quintessential alcoholic, I didn’t crave a drink every day, or lash out when I couldn’t have one (or ten). My problems weren’t extreme, I would tell myself (and dozens of intervening friends).
But that’s the problem. That I never thought it was a problem. It was just a lot of drunken slurs, crazy nights, and wild shenanigans. For close to a decade, I had lived a hamster cycle of too many blackouts, too many mistakes, and too many bad decisions.
I’d woken up without my wallet, my phone, my bearings, and most importantly, my self-respect. I’d missed flights, bunked my birthday party, puked my guts out at a friend’s reception, blown up lucrative work gigs, heckled my nephew on his first birthday, and gave the same drunken speech thrice at my sister’s sangeet. And don’t even get me started on how I behaved on dates. Friends intervened, and I detoxed, but the cycle continued. I was living in the same loop — only bars changed, my behaviour didn’t.
Then came the coronavirus, exacerbating everything. Stripped of my running routine and questioning the purpose amidst global chaos (“Who am I going to see anyway? What is the point? Will we even survive this pandemic?”) I defaulted to old habits. Hours in bed, day drinking, and mindless eating became my norm. And just like that, I gained a little over 24 kilos in a little less than 24 months.
For three years, I survived on throwback photos, avoided video calls, and point-blank refused to be seen on friends’ Instagram stories. “What if people saw what I actually look like?” I would ask, uploading the same four photos from 2018 with different filters. Then I’d go chug my 12th beer for the night.
It’s a sad truth. I think the more you see yourself via pictures, the more you forget what you look like in real life. Photoshop creates an illusion, a version of you that doesn't exist. And then when you see an unaltered image of yourself, because it’s so distant from what you got used to seeing, you feel worse.
I felt invisible in my own skin, and then I drank some more to feel less miserable about myself. How does anyone make all of it stop? (Don’t answer that question, it’s rhetoric.)
In retrospect, alcohol was the central bad habit that was inextricably linked with all of my other not-so-positive tendencies — scarfing platters of junk food, not bothering to exercise, bouts of anxiety, gaining weight, and constantly feeling low.
I quit drinking in February this year. It was just something I decided to do. When people ask me why I chose to go sober, I don’t really have an answer. Yes, you’d think this was supposed to be a cathartic voyage of self-work and making amends, but no, this isn’t one of those stories. I just wanted to look (and feel) nice.
Could I negate years of body dysmorphia with a well-timed transformation? Would it be possible to undo all the self-hate and self-doubt caused by my decade-old ex? I may not have had the answers to these questions, but I knew one thing with full certainty. I went sober with one motive: to lose those extra pounds.
If going cold turkey was the only feasible solution, then so be it, I told myself.
Once the symptoms of withdrawal were behind me, I remember waking up one morning feeling like nothing could stop me. Not hungover for the first time in years, I realised I needed something to do with all the anxious energy pounding through my veins.
So I did something that was rather uncharacteristic of me: I strangled my fears and started going to the gym, stopped compulsively eating mass quantities of trash, and did a bunch of other crazy things (like getting good sleep and drinking gallons of water).
That’s how we “addicts” tend to be: all-or-nothing. We go overboard with the good stuff, too. The only way I can make something — including health — part of my life is to go all in.
So four months sober, and still filled with unbridled optimism, I joined an online fitness boot camp. What followed next is a lot like one of those makeover montages you roll your eyes at in teen romcoms. The only difference? While movie stars have the fortune of getting their makeovers in under four minutes, I had to put in a little more work. And when I say a little, I mean a lot.
My coach, a strapping, six-foot man with more abs than I could count on my fingers, made fitness fun. He steered clear of crash diets, grounding his classes in hard, scientific facts. I’d spent most of my life thinking that the perfectly ripped poster-boy body was... a thing for posters. But this man proved me wrong, making muscle-building approachable and doable.
All those articles that tell you the only way to get ripped is to eat egg whites and lean meat, drink 20 litres of water, and work out twenty hours a day?
They’re all lying.
I worked out 6x a week, ran 5k every alternate day, and refused to eat anything processed or complex (a lot like my feelings). I drank so much water, I had to pee every hour. I’d do squats in my free time, pushups when bored, and lunges whenever I needed a break from all the sitting.
Devoid of a full-time job or a full-time boyfriend, I made the gym my best friend. And remember how I said how moderation had long been my enemy? I gingerly built a friendship with it.
As my coach would educate me over time, transformation follows an almost mechanical system: he made me count calories, carbs and proteins, steps and reps. Class after class, week after week, I took the smallest of baby steps. Every morning I’d push myself to do just the teeniest bit more than the previous day.
And he made sure I stuck to it every single day. Full body workouts and diets will only take you so far, he told me — perseverance is what gets you across the finish line. Yup, the fitness bros were all right: Consistency is key. Never give up, folks.
Long story short, I made working out my entire personality, having spent years laughing at men who made working out their entire personality. I cancelled on friends and on dates, and on one occasion, got out of babysitting my nephew by lying that I was down with severe stomach cramps — because I had a leg day at the gym. I became that person.
It was all worth it in the end (maybe not the babysitting bit) because, for the first time in forever, I could see changes in my body. Infinitesimally small changes, yes, but as the weeks rolled by, I felt my older self shed skin, a sliver of an inch at a time. It’s remarkable what I couldn’t think of achieving in my eleven-year-long arduous relationship with working out, a man sitting 1100 km away could do through a Google Meet screen.
Because here I was, 17 weeks later. I’d dropped 20 kgs, eight inches, three cloth sizes, at least a decade off my face, and most importantly, truckloads of self-doubt and self-hate. I finally had abs, actual you-can-see-all-six-of-them-when-I-flex-really-hard-and-no-it’s-not-photoshop abs.
When people ask me why I went through all of this — from sobriety to a gruelling boot camp — they expect me to have a cathartic answer.
Has my thirst to be extremely fit helped me stay sober? Definitely. Is this the happiest I’ve ever felt in my skin? I can’t think of any other time. Is my previously debilitating mental health finally at the zenith of its peak? 200%.
But at the end of the day, were all of these just by-products of my decade-long quest of wanting to feel ridiculously attractive? You’d hate to hear it, but yes. All I wanted to be was pretty.
Something shifts within you when that happens. You take a perverse pleasure in showing people your former fat person photo. They’ll marvel and ooh and ahh over it as if fat-you was an apparition or a rare sighting of Delhi’s infamous Monkey Man. They’ll tell friends that they should see it too, as if it’s some sort of magic trick. But there isn’t one — it’s just work.
If you’ve been paying attention, you can probably tell that I’ve always had a turbulent relationship with my body. For most of my adult life, I’ve despised the way I’ve looked, constantly feeling like I could do better.
A gay man with self-image issues? Groundbreaking.
Let me tell you a secret. There is only one thing that keeps many gay men in shape: fear. Yes, most creatine-chugging homosexuals — at least those of the stereotypical abdominal-obsessed physique that populates my Instagram explore feed — work out because they are afraid that they will be alone for the rest of their lives. A lot of us are terrified that if we aren’t “serving up abs on a platter” in one of the more muscle-bound climates of gay culture, we’ll be sorely shut out.
This is why getting fat is our worst nightmare. We’ve been conditioned to think that no one will want us if we don’t have guns and glutes. If our straight counterparts think they are lacking in that area, they can try to make up for it by becoming rich or powerful, things that some women find just as attractive as a washboard stomach dusted with natural body hair.
But things are a bit complicated on our side of the pool. Our overcompensating is mostly of the aesthetic kind.
Feeling stuck at a dead-end job? I say, go to the gym. Having a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day? No big deal, go to the gym. Stressed about socializing because you’re a classic introvert? You know the answer, GO TO THE GYM. Let me tell you something a lot of gay men won’t: there’s no social currency like a ‘wow-you-look-really-great-in-those-speedos’ body.
What makes this so unique is also another fun fact about the strange quirks of homosexuality. Many gay men, at least those around me, are attracted to, essentially, themselves. They often remake their bodies in the image of their ideal mates. Since society tells us we must absolutely desire muscle-bound athletes, that’s what some gays want, and that’s what they unhealthily obsess over looking like.
Clearly, I’m one of them.
This isn’t to say that you need to begrudge us gay men for our callous attitudes. Because this isn’t just about vanity: it reflects a deeper struggle with identity and acceptance.
Many of us, even those who now proudly flex their biceps, spent our formative years as misfits. Once we reach a point in life where we can truly be ourselves, we often compensate for past solitude by adopting behaviours akin to high school cliques. This includes being gym regulars, driven not just by a love for fitness, but by a deep-seated desire to avoid the exclusion we experienced in our youth. Just so we don’t have to live out our adolescent nightmares of feeling left out again, with people (read: other gay men) ridiculing you just for being different. Never again.
My weight loss was a side effect of the fact that I had finally found some purpose in my life. That’s it. Was it hard work? Yes, but truth be told, after years of having a terrible relationship with my body, I realised I’d had it all wrong.
When we talk about transformation stories in fairytales, we often forget that transformations only work because every story has a villain — a trigger that starts the hero’s journey — someone the protagonist desperately needs to prove wrong. Cinderella had her evil stepmother. Ariel had Ursula (and mankind). Each of the three Karate Kids had their corresponding bullies.
All my life, I thought the villain in my story was that terrible ex-boyfriend who started it all. But it… wasn’t.
It was me all along. I was the villain in my own story. All my life, I’d consistently gotten in my way and stopped myself from reaching (or even, seeing) my true potential. I’d doubted and mulled, cried and brooded, but had I ever taken any step to see if I could look inward and try solving the problems from within?
Nope. I know now that all I had to do was try and be kinder to my body, my mind, and myself. And funnily, that was the wave of the wand — the one magic trick — that I needed in my life all along.
I know I’m just getting started, and frankly, I’ve never been more excited. It’s funny how five months ago, this would have been it, but today, I know that it’s only the beginning.