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Saturday, May 15, 2021

Comfortable in his Own Skin

Marcus Micheles works out in the rec center on Thursday, Dec 3.  Micheles hopes to one day work with students who face similar troubles he faced. // Photo by Christina Becker
Marcus Micheles works out in the rec center on Thursday, Dec 3. Micheles hopes to one day work with students who face similar troubles he faced. // Photo by Christina Becker

To avoid being bullied, senior Marcus Micheles hid underneath layers of sweatshirts. He checked the bathroom scale every day, but lied to his parents about what it said.

But standing at 6 foot 1 inch and weighing 105 pounds, his body betrayed his secret.

From eighth grade through high school, an eating disorder revealed Micheles’ internal struggle with self-image.

“I would turn sideways and people wouldn’t be able to see me,” Micheles said. “I became really, really conscious of my weight, how thin I was, if you could see my ribs on certain days.”

Micheles doesn’t want anyone else to experience the bullying he faced at Puyallup High School. Some of his classmates mocked, humiliated and pushed him around the halls because he was smaller and unable to defend himself, he said.

“People would walk up to me and say, ‘Hey Marcus, do you need me to buy you lunch today? It looks like you haven’t eaten in a month,’” he said.

At family reunions, Micheles was constantly greeted with the same line: “You’re so skinny!” before family even asked, “How are you doing?”

Even in the company of friends, he never felt normal. He always belonged to a sub-category because of his body type. It was “unusual and weird,” Micheles said.

It made him wonder, “Does my body figure come before who I am as a person?”

Finding community

Since coming to Western in 2012, Micheles has fully recovered. He found a second home in the Wade King Student Recreation Center where he lifts weights for two to three hours every day, surrounded by people who support him.

He gained 65 pounds during his freshman year at Western, and no longer grimaces at his reflection in the mirror.

Now, people often ask Micheles if he played football or basketball in high school. When he shares his story and pictures from high school, they’re speechless.

Some of his former classmates don’t even recognize him. Junior Annie McCall has known Micheles since middle school, but she thought she was meeting him for the first time at her cousin’s graduation party.

A month later, the connection clicked: it was the same Marcus she had known for years.

“He grew a good four feet, it felt like,” McCall said.

After this transformation, Micheles expected acceptance, or at least silence, from the same people in high school that bullied him for his small stature. But that wasn’t the case.

“They still mock me, but now they mock me because I’m a ‘meathead’ and I love to work out,” he said.

Since his recovery, Micheles has learned the value of surrounding himself with positive people — many of whom congregate in the “fishbowl” of the rec center, a weight room known for its open windows on all sides.

Micheles and his close friend, junior Alex Shane, have devised a daily routine to release some of the tension in the gym atmosphere.

Shane will sneak behind Micheles while he’s lifting with headphones on, and try to break his focus. Micheles does the same to Shane.

“I’ll give his muscle a little squeeze here and there, or I will pretend to do the lift right next to him so he will fail on the weight,” Shane said. “The gym is pretty serious so when Marcus and I are there we can just goof around.”

Micheles wasn’t always at ease in the gym.

He remembers the first time he walked into the rec center as a freshman, but more vividly he remembers “a lot of sweat and a lot of muscles.” He was reluctant to lift weights alongside people twice his size until he began conversing with them.

He met Ryan Lilla, a personal trainer at the rec center, during his sophomore year. After Micheles opened up to him about his past, Lilla helped him to “gain size” and develop his muscle structure, he said.

But Micheles had to realize his own motivation. He broke through his eating disorder with anger and frustration toward other people, and for a while that was enough to fuel him at the gym.

That motivation quickly faded, because it wasn’t for himself, he said.

“The only person that can help you is yourself, and once you learn to help yourself and be comfortable with who you are and the way you look, then you allow yourself to let change happen and other people assist you,” Micheles said.

Lilla and Micheles both hope to alleviate some of the intimidation their friends have expressed in working out alongside “big, scary people” in the fishbowl.

The “big, scary people” working out in the fishbowl are really just “big teddy bears,” Lilla said.

“If we all support each other in this community, we all win,” Micheles said. “If we can create that kind of community at the rec center, then our community and our culture will change drastically for the better.”

Giving hope

Micheles’ past experience with an eating disorder motivates him to continue graduate study in Western’s school counselor program with the goal of mentoring high school students in after-school programs.

“Otherwise, I would feel that everything I’ve gone through to this point has been a trial that I never saw the benefit of,” Micheles said. “I want to be able to use this to benefit the lives of others who need that kind of support system in the schools.”

He believes his experiences with an eating disorder will allow him to identify with the emotions and negative body image young adults face, he said.

“I know what it’s like to hate yourself. I know what it’s like to have a lot of people against you, a lot of people putting you down, a lot of people questioning whether or not you’ll ever be ‘normal,’” he said.

Micheles will begin volunteering as a counselor at Nooksack Elementary School next quarter in preparation for his graduate studies and long-term aspiration of mentoring high school students.

Currently, he is working with professor Art Sherwood to tailor his entrepreneurship minor to the development of after-school programs for high school students with negative body image. The programs might focus on nutrition or safe weight lifting in a closed-door gym setting, Micheles said.

“[I want to help] students who need someone to tell them they’re smart, or they’re beautiful or they have potential for their dreams.”

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