By Robert Levithan
The other morning I was lying in tender afterglow with the (much younger, HIV-) man I am seeing. For a blissful moment everything in my world was in place: I felt healthy, cared for, safe, at ease' Idly, my companion ran his finger down my forearm. 'What I like most about your body,' he said, 'are the veins on your arms and legs. I notice details'' The statement was sexy, even warm, but unbeknownst to him, loaded.
In one sense, I've finally arrived: I have the body I always wanted: lean, muscular, masculine, defined'less useful than when I danced for Twyla in the '70s, but more sculpted. There is a catch: At least in part, it is the result of an anti-viral side affect, lipodystrophy (the medical condition in which body fat disappears or redistributes in odd ways). Currently, I am experiencing its advantages, no hump or hard belly, just the evidence of 'something is happening.'
I have been on a perpetual diet since I was a teenager. That means that I have been more or less hungry for 30 years. I have dieted out of desperation; I have dieted for professional reasons; I have dieted as a pastime of sorts. Mostly, I think I have dieted to banish the roly-poly baby I was, and the Pillsbury Doughboy child I thought I was, however long ago that might have been; then I dieted to avoid acne, then I dieted before a photo shoot for cheekbones and to fit into an Italian bikini; there were diets to maintain a 30-inch waist because a 32-inch waist would mean defeat. I lusted for perfection. The 'best little boy in the world' was thin. I even became that rarity, a (borderline) male anorexic. Dieting became a habit'a way of life.
Therefore, I had no trouble adjusting my eating habits for the difficult Crixivan regimen. I actually have a fondness for my medications, as they represent a return to health. The biggest challenge was dieting to gain weight after a bout with PCP. It was a brief time-out from vanity, a time when there was such a thing as too thin (yes, the Duchess of Windsor was wrong). My weight rose, my strength and vitality returned, and so did my obsessions. I returned to weight-lifting, ever more attached to pictures of perfection. At times, I've been acting out of latent anorexia and 'biggerexia''never thin enough and never big enough.
I first saw lipodystrophy in clients and friends. Bodies changed, faces collapsed. I didn't know where to look or what to say. There is nothing to say, at least until they bring it up and talk about their feelings: Anger, sadness, loss, acceptance. As one friend said: 'It's a small price to pay for health.' Once again, the good news and the bad news come in the same package'
Additional side effects are higher cholesterol and bone density loss. Small prices for so much gain. And, yet, my cocoon of safety is penetrated: What will the next side effect be? And, perhaps most troubling: Am I such a slave to vanity that I would consider risking my health to forestall side effects which only impact how I look?
Right now, nothing is really wrong, yet every compliment or admiring glance reminds me of my attachments and of my mortality. What I didn't say to my potential boyfriend that other morning: This body is brought to you by AIDS.