A Dysmorphic's Guide to Exercise

This is mostly sculpted from digital clay. Seriously. I do not look like this.
Many of you that follow me on social media know by now my love of the medium. I share thoughts, recipes, altar snapshots, selfies, political feedback, news, selfies, current events, Pokemon GO challenges, selfies, and...in the last year...I've started to share a lot more about my healthy habits.

Via selfies.

It was all going fine until folks started telling me these dreaded words: "You inspire me."
Now, I realize exactly how high an appropriately sized horse should be, so don't worry. This is not going to be a post from a high horse. Shush those thoughts right now. This is about a journey that started long before Fire Lyte was a persona that Rioted around the pagan interwebs.

What specifically made me want to write about this was a question from one of you lovely folks on Facebook...and I apologize, because I simply cannot find the comment to credit the woman...that went a little something like

I might be indulging in hyperbole...a little bit. But that was, at the very least, how the question was perceived. And, many of you have been incredibly kind about the pictures I've shown as I've grown more and more comfortable sharing with you. However, I need to tell you all something.

I have body dysmorphia. 

I've kind of always had it. It plagued me throughout my childhood, rose to a peak in high school...and just kind of stayed there. For those that don't know, body dysmorphia is a kind of anxiety disorder in which people despair over their appearance in a persistent and intrusive manner. It could be over a single perceived flaw (for years it was my nose. I mean...years I spent hating my nose. I wish I could tell you the number of really bad poems I've written about how much I hate my nose.) or a few flaws or your body as a whole. You compare yourself to others, cannot take compliments, and can become so depressed you avoid social interaction. In extreme cases those that suffer can become suicidal. 

Or, as someone else put it, you can never see yourself as Cinderella, but, rather, you only see yourself as the ugly stepsister.

My parents have never seen my upper body.

I used to wear really baggy clothing. Thanks, in small part, to the fact that my mother was so sick of me growing so fast that she bought in sizes far too big for me insisting I'd grow into a size 2X, and in larger part because it covered everything. I didn't even like to wear shorts in public, and, if I did, I'd wear tube socks that practically went up to my knees and shorts so long that they basically met to tops of the socks. Yes, I wore these with sandals. Not even flip flops. Good ol fashioned leather Doc Marten dad sandals. 

Yup. My freshman year of high school was just as awkward as yours. Probably moreso.

However, and I don't remember when it started, I became averse to taking my shirt off in public at a young age. I'm not exactly sure at what age it started. I know that when I was very young I would strip down as soon as I caught sight of a body of water deep enough in which to fully submerge. I loved swimming. I still love swimming. However, I do know that throughout middle school, and definitely high school, on the rare instances that I did get in a pool, I was basically fully clothed. 

Yes, I even had swim shoes. 

It sounds funny now, doesn't it? That poor awkward teenager that didn't like his body. Cliche even. But it was much deeper than that. I felt judged even by those that I know would never judge me. My closest friends and family never understood why I wouldn't go to the swimming pool with them. Why, when my parents bought a hot tub for the family, I wouldn't get in. Why I still won't get in. Why I stopped wanting to take trips to go boating on the lake. I love swimming, after all, so why did I stop?

It all came to a head when I was 18 and my parents wanted one last American family vacation before I headed off to college and the next chapter of our lives began. My family can't do anything regular. Some folks go to Disney. (I've still never been, despite my undying love for all things House of Mouse.) My family chose to go to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. For a week. If you've never been, it's a really sad tourist trap. I'm not even really sure what the jewel of Gatlinburg would be. There's just streets filled with stores that sell cheap mementos and As Seen on TV garbage and weird museums that aren't actually museums. Like Ripley's Believe it or Not and such. 

The thing my parents most looked forward to was the day we went to Dollywood, a themed amusement park whose theme was Dolly Parton wanted another revenue stream because the royalties from I Will Always Love You just weren't cutting it. I thought we were going to ride roller coasters and eat garbage deep fried junk, but no. My parents informed me they had a water park, and it was a surprise, and they hoped I packed my swimsuit. I didn't own a swimsuit. Did they not remember I don't go swimming? We had to go buy a swimsuit, which was a wholly awful experience for me. 

Cut to, I'm wearing a dark brown t-shirt and this terrible swimsuit, the longest and baggiest I could find, and I'm walking around this place looking at every body that the gods blessed with tanned, muscular perfection, and I'm wishing I were back at the hotel reading Harry Potter. And even though I've gotten in zero lazy rivers and avoided every "ride" by waiting with my family in line and then stepping to the other side once it came time to do the thing... There came a time when I couldn't avoid it any longer. We waited in the most god awful long line to go down the most god awful long water slide you've ever seen. We get to the top....and the attendant won't let me not go down. Then, when I've come to accept the fact that I'm going to have to go down this water slide, he won't let me go down with my shirt on, because it might smother me to death...on the water slide. 

I'm screaming. I'm crying. I am an 18 year old, 6' 6" teenage boy having a full blown fit at the top of a water slide, and all the while my family is just beside themselves with embarrassment. I'm holding up the line. Finally, I'm forced to disrobe in front of a line of people, clutch my shirt, and slide down. I managed to put the shirt back on in the slide. 

As you can clearly tell by the fact that you're reading this, I was smothered to death by my t-shirt, and am now a blogging ghost.

To this day my parents have never seen me without my shirt with their own eyes. I've still never gotten in that hot tub. I've still not gone on their boat. And we stopped doing family parties at any pools. 

"You have a nice chest."

As I've started to share my fitness journey on social media, comments come in from people complimenting certain parts of my physique they like. The most awkward and unsettling of these, for me, is when people say they like my chest. My chest is possibly where much of my dysmorphia stems from. 

I have a birth defect called "pectus excavatum", which is a fancy name for saying "my chest looks like someone punched me really hard as a baby and it dented in like a cartoon and it never undented itself". Most chests are flat or slightly convex, but mine caves in. It's one of the myriad reasons I didn't take my shirt off to go swimming. 

It's something you don't grow out of. I still have it. It still causes me severe anxiety, especially when I catch my reflection or see a picture taken of me from any angle other than straight on. The right side of my rib cage is a bit more dented than the left side, but it's the first thing I notice about myself when I get out of the shower. It's why I only wear certain styles of shirt. It's why I avoid super clingy fabrics in my t-shirts. It's why you will never catch me dead in a spandex shirt. (As much as I'd love to live out my superhero fantasies, if it doesn't have a quarter zip neckline, I'm not wearing it.)

It's why photos of me that you see are carefully curated...by me...to either be straight on, or from juuuuust the right angle that I'm still technically straight on but it gives the illusion of being from the side. Still, frumpy button downs or loud graphic t-shirts are my friends, and they have never let me down. 

So, it's weird when people tell me they like my chest. It's weird, because I have never liked my chest, and it's weird because they only like the chest they see on social media. The one that just finished a set of push ups, or the one you can really only see from the outer edges of a carefully cut workout shirt that hides the big dent nearer my sternum. And, it makes me do a double or triple take at my own body. A check to see what that commenter could possibly have seen. And I remind myself of something...


Social media isn't real.

If my life could come with a contrast filter, a smoothing tool, and a refining pen, I'd be cured of my deep seated anxiety tomorrow. But it doesn't. Until that day, however, there is social media, where I can curate an image of me with flawless skin and sparkling eyes and a jawline of death. But that guy isn't real. That guy is a front camera facing, flipped, smoothed, and digitally altered version of me. That's the guy that I'd like to pretend I am. 

We're now entering the advice portion of this weird and lengthy blog post. 

The one thing I wish I could share with people is that social media isn't real. We all know that magazines aren't real; television isn't real; movies aren't real. We know that hundreds of people make a very good living convincing you that every actor or actress in Hollywood was born without pores, but we still buy the lie. We buy the notion that if you drink enough water or eat enough acai berries or go vegan that you, too, can have have a porcelain face and an ass that defies gravity. But it's the unreality of social media that needs to be addressed, because somehow we have all decided to pretend that we don't all have photo editing suites in our back pocket and that everyone you envy online isn't using them to their very limit in order to make you believe they never, ever, ever have a fat day. 

And that's bullshit. 

I use the whitening tool on my eyes so I don't look tired and look much more  hydrated than I am. I pump up the blonde in my hair, both chemically and digitally. I enhance the contrast around my jaw, and flatten it up just the tiniest bit because my new anxiety hangup is this ever so slight curve near my chin that keeps my jaw from being straight. I change the lighting and focus and tweak here and there so that my post gym pump looks even more posty gymy pumpy. 

My beloved father not only granted me this giant crag of a nose, but also gave me these permanent bags under my eyes. I've looked like a much older, much more exhausted man since I was 10. But, thanks to that lovely smoothing tool...ooooh buddy the other day someone on Facebook said I looked 16. 


And literally everyone does this. In some form or fashion, every fashion blogger, fitness enthusiast, or health food lover online is making their photos just a touch more digitally perfect. So, folks, if you're despairing because your post gym pump doesn't look like your Instagram idol's gym pump...increase the contrast and darken the black point and you're well on your way. 

Dat contrast filter though...

You have given zero fitness advice on a blog with a title about fitness.

Folks, let me tell you a few rules about "fitness" and "healthy lifestyles":

  1. The healthy eating and exercise regimen parts are mostly all common sense.
  2. You will never look like the photoshopped people you idolize, because they don't look like the photoshopped versions of themselves either.
  3. For the love of Cheezus please feel zero shame about asking for help. About anything. Diet. Running form. Why your shins feel like they're on fire if you've only been walking for 2 minutes. Ask. For. Help.
  4. Fitness videos are only good if you already know how to work out.
  5. The goal is to be happy and healthy, not a walking, talking Instagram filter. Happy and healthy can only be defined by you.
No, but seriously. These are all the lessons I've learned. That's it. 

As far as food... Eat good stuff. Get a good mix of protein, carbs, and veggies. Make sure you treat yourself. And make sure it tastes good. Make sure you're eating enough. And make sure you're talking with your doctor about literally all of these things. Is your goal to lose 20 pounds? Why? What does your doctor think about losing that much weight? Is your doctor someone that says the words BMI over and over and over again? (If so, find a new doctor.) Talk to your friends. Read blogs.  Figure out what happy and healthy are going to look like for you, and then don't make excuses for it. If your goal is to live a happy and healthy lifestyle, it's got to be a goal every day.

Ok... So I'm being very vague about diet, because 1) I'm not a dietician and 2) it really is a very personal thing. But the one and only tip I'll give is this: make the calories worth it.

An example: a few months ago some made up holiday called National Donut Day decided it was going to be a thing. When I went to the office break room, everyone was centered around an open box of Duncan Donuts. When I was asked if I wanted to celebrated National Donut Day, I declined. I was promptly chided for being a health nut, but that's not the case. See, for me I want the calories to be worth it. I will absolutely participate in National Donut Day...if that donut is a treat, not some $.50 glazed junk donut from the drive thru. Chicago has an amazing food scene, with some seriously killer donut places. If I'm going to have a donut and make the choice to work those calories off later...I'm going to eat a really fucking good donut.

Same with pizza. Same with everything. I'll eat it. I'll absolutely eat it. But I'm going to get the good stuff. I know that I'll pay for it at the gym later, but I also know that I'm a happier person and that I've had a good experience. I don't experience regret. I experience joy.

Now, about points 3 and 4, I put them in there specifically for me. I didn't grow up as an athlete. My PE credits were earned in high school, because I was part of marching band and they gave physical education dual credit for it. So even though I've been going to the gym most of my adult life, like many people, I never really saw the results other people did that also went to the gym as frequently as I did. Last fall I finally decided to see what it would be like to work with a personal trainer. I got a few sessions and was very specific with the folks at the gym. I wanted a personal trainer who was over 6' 3" and who had also built himself up from a thin/fleshy body type into a more muscular physique. I wanted someone who could know my struggle and help me work out properly.

Being very tall means that a lot of the exercises people do - especially those utilizing machines - don't work very well for me, as those machines aren't built to accommodate a 6' 6" frame.

The results were immediate. I sucked. I couldn't lift as much as I thought I could. My form was a mess. So many exercises I thought I could do, I absolutely couldn't do them correctly. But, the incredibly kind and super friggin awesome trainer guy started me from zero and I progressed farther and faster than I ever have in my adult life, because for the first time I was doing the thing correctly. I'd always been afraid of squats, and now I look forward to leg day. I had never done squats before. He showed me how to adapt new exercises to my body, and how to know when to stop. (That last part is key.)

But, Rioters, everyone's goal is different. I tell people all the time... Don't compare yourself to others. My husband is a good deal shorter than me, and when he shows me fitness models he'd like to emulate, I have to remind him that those guys are many years younger and many inches taller than he is. Going after a goal body you can physically never achieve is a really good way to set yourself up for failure. I figured out really quick that the men I idolized were a good 4-6 inches shorter than me with very different frames.

But seriously you guys...

If someone on social media or a magazine or a TV show or movie motivates you to want to alter your lifestyle...super. But make sure that you're doing it for the right reasons and in the right way.

I'd love to wake up tomorrow and look like Chris Evans in Captain America, but I don't have the body type or the studio funding my meals and paying for my personal trainer. And...at the age of 30...I've come to accept that.

However, you also need to accept that the idea of the 6 pack and the swollen chest and the boulder shoulders is only an ideal in the photoshopped world of digital perfection. If you have a belly or a hairy back or a soft pouch underneath your bellybutton or a chin that just won't ever be able to open a piece of mail... Don't despair. Embrace your body. Love your body. Realize that other people's goals don't have to be your goals. Hell, you don't even need to have any goals.

A "healthy lifestyle" is very likely the one thing on this earth that is going to be unique to the 7 something odd billion people on this planet. Every body is different, and everyone's situation is different, and everyone's goals are different, and everyone's insecurities are different.

And, remember... That person you compliment online may very well wish they had your body confidence.

A note about selfies (I swear this is the last thing)

I think it's perfectly and wonderfully okay for you to take all the selfies you want of your body and your progress and share them - or don't - with whomever you wish. 

I remember sharing pictures and being so proud of myself 10 months ago, and my body wasn't nearly in the shape it is now. 

And I know a year from now I'll look back on pics today and see the continued progress. 

But that's the thing... Celebrate every milestone. Celebrate your body. Celebrate its progress. Celebrate your temple as it is, and with any healthy changes you decide to make - if at all. Share it. The more bodies that are out there floating around, the more examples of bodies that aren't magazine cover perfection for the rest of us. And I will guarantee you that the folks who support you online will ADORE you and hold you up and compliment the fuck out of you. When you project confidence, that is the absolute sexiest thing of all. 

And...you know what...if using a smoothing tool and upping the contrast makes you more comfortable and makes you enjoy the process of sharing your life with the world...fuck anyone who tells you it's not ok. Seriously. Share. 

I have zero idea if this post made any sense, or if it was more problematic than it was helpful, but I hope you get something out of it. If nothing else, a peek behind the Rioter curtain.

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte


  1. This is actually more inspiring than some one who is trying to sell you some nonsense shred program or "lifestyle" (as so many put it) because you show the struggle and that progress can be accomplished. That a healthy body, a positive mindset and a love of yourself even in the hard times can be achieved. I have followed your journey for a bit and I think you are doing phenomenal. It even inspired me a little - went to my first ever Yoga class the other night, I really wanted to learn but was so self conscious; what if I can't do the moves? What if I look like an idiot? What if people judge me? I learned that sometimes you just have to do it. The class was fantastic (I'm making it my regular weekly thing), the instructor was lovely and everyone in the class was involved in doing their own thing so it made it really relaxing.

    Hurt like a bitch the next day though.

  2. I applaud you for your honesty. I'm back in the position of needing to lose some weight, but even without that, I don't do pictures of anything below the neck. Even on my wedding day, there are still no full body shots. I now have a daughter. A beautiful little girl who is perfectly imperfect in every way. I've tried to be better about taking pictures, but I can't. I have small panic attacks. The one time we did family photos and they got a couple shots of more than just my shoulders, I managed to mostly hide myself behind people. There is one photo (extended family too) that I couldn't hide. So I opted for that to be the photo we put up on the fridge, where I am hidden under a magnet. I'm usually covered, even in summer, to the point where only my hands, neck and face are exposed. This is huge, given that I live in Oklahoma. It isn't just the weight. I've spent most of my life as a thinner person, but I've spent more of my life being told by the people who are supposed to love me that I'm ugly. Even when it was phrased as a joke, it was there.
    I recognize my issues, but every time I try, I panic and cover back up and duck away from the camera. I do not, however, allow even mild teasing based on looks to go on in my home. I'm living, neurotic proof that even "well meaning teasing" can have a long lasting negative effect on a child.
    I look up to you, not because I think you've discovered a secret that I can tap into (even with filters, I panic), but because you press on despite the stress and insecurities. It helps to know someone else feels the way I do and it gives me hope that one day I can post a picture and I will be okay.
    Thank you.


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