Bud scars and bodies in queer middle age 

Most people gain weight as they age, a fact with a particular heaviness in body-obsessed gay male culture

It’s 2024: “Wow, you really got thick since the last time I saw you.”

Just before, I’d been in a good mood, walking from my office to the subway, planning my meal in my head. Most nights, even when I get home late, I try to cook, both because I enjoy cooking, and because delivery seems to have doubled in cost (How is a Chipotle Burrito Bowl suddenly 40 bucks?) and because home-cooked food, I know, is better for my body. 

Here, in front of me, on the sunny sidewalk is a poet I know; he lives on the West Coast and I haven’t seen him in two or so years. 

Since I last saw him, I have put on weight. I’m 41 now, and all through my 30s, the gym five times a week, eating decently and walking up and down the stairs to the subway granted me the type of body I never imagined for myself. It felt odd and complicated if only because it was my already bad and deteriorating mental health that pushed me into the gym to begin with. 

Is he giving me a compliment? Does he like me like this? Thick? Is he being cruel?

Irish Catholic on my mom’s side, I grew up in a house swimming in fatphobia. To be thin was to be disciplined, and to be disciplined was to be holy. Comments on other peoples’ bodies, mostly “too large,” were constant. Fat people, my mother told me, were sedentary; the sound of that word alone an indictment. 

Like us, yeast cells age. It’s an odd thing for a single cell to do. For a decade now, I’ve studied how yeast divide; yeast grow by budding. Budding yeast, scientific name Saccharomyces cerevisiae, are among the most cultured organisms on earth, and not only in the research lab. They are used by industry. They make beer. Their conversion of sugar into ethanol, alcohol, makes wine. Even now, on my counter, I have four pizza doughs for dinner tonight (one for me, one for my bf, two for us to have tomorrow) proofing on my counter. The organism that makes them rise, the yeast I added yesterday to the flour, water, salt, oil. Budding yeast, scientific name Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

2022: “What happened to you?” A boy. Grindr. I assume he must have clicked through to my linked Instagram page and scrolled back a few years. To those years. Probably the ones most full of dread and grief. “I wanted to die,” I want to answer, “I almost had to go to the hospital, so I could barely eat.” I do not answer. 

Like us, yeast age, and their bodies remember. 

In my life, my body has been its smallest when my mental health has been at its worst. All through grad school, I played tennis and jogged, but I didn’t go to the gym. I was happy! What was the point? I wanted guys (and girls) to like me for more than some stupid idea of what my body should look like! My roommate, also gay, once called me “skinny fat,” in that I looked skinny pretty much everywhere but my belly. Why, I wondered even then, are gay men so comfortable saying such awful things about one another’s bodies? 


I started going to the gym with my friend Jesse when my mental health started getting overwhelmed as I neared the end of my PhD. Racing thoughts: Will I leave New York? Will I continue in academia? Will I stay with my boyfriend? Will I be poor forever? Will I pass my defence? Will my research ever get published? 

It was a time of such uncertainty that, somehow, the routine of picking up heavy things and putting them back down calmed me—not just because of the release of endorphins, but out of the sheer simplicity of the physical movements. My job, for those 45 minutes, was to pick things up, to talk to Jesse and my friend Claire, to put things back down, to blast Beyoncé through the gym’s speakers and to think about nothing. I could never think about nothing, but there, with them, I found that I could. 

2023: “Oh wow,” he says, seeing my naked body for the first time in three years, “you got so thick.” I know the types of guys he usually has sex with; I don’t think he means it as a compliment. 

Back at the end of grad school, as I lost weight, suddenly and against my will, a certain type of boy—dancers, models, circuit queens—wanted to touch me. I loved it, and I hated that I loved it. 

When I, years later, was dealing with a horrible breakup, I found myself unable to eat. I forced myself to anyway, but took no joy in it—not in cooking, not in eating. My stomach got even flatter, but I was too depressed to have sex. I hated my body, but loved how it looked. I hated myself for loving how it looked, knowing what caused it, my grief, and knowing, too, that it would not last. 

Yeast age, and their aging leaves a mark. Budding yeast grow by copying one cell into two, and the second cell grows from small to large on the side of the mother—this is how we gender her—before the daughter buds off, brand new. The mother cell, where her daughter left her side, is marked by a ring that scientists call a bud scar. The daughter has none. At every moment in a growing yeast culture, then, exactly half the cells are young, exactly one cell old. By the time a mother has birthed 20 or more daughters, she won’t birth any more. On a specialized microscope, you can see her there, covered in the marks of her children, overwhelmed by their growing around her, quiet, quiescent, not much longer for the world. 

2022: “For what it’s worth,” my dear friend says, meaning well, “I think you look better like this.” We haven’t been talking about my body. She is genuine in her compliment, but my own mind receives it with a shock. I’m in my 40s and have a dad bod, with stubborn belly fat and significant softness between the strength of my muscles and the surface of my skin. Some people love that, and I love them for it. I’m working, day in and day out, on being that guy. It’s easier to be into other people’s dad bods than my own. I’ve always found people of varying sizes attractive, except when that person has been myself. 

In a world where many in queer communities know that “no fats, no fems” is ostensibly problematic, I see only an increased obsession with big arms and a cinched waist. At dance clubs, I see people who talk openly online about being on steroids, I see how their bodies have swollen with muscles since before 2020. I know gay men who speak openly, too, of their love of Ozempic. There are modern ways to hack our bodies. I believe our body is the one thing that belongs only to ourselves, and that we should and must have the agency to use it as we see fit. Ozempic, or steroids, or G, or K or Molly are not wrong choices when people are making them with the full knowledge of their health, pleasures and desires.

But I know, too, that no personal decision is made only in one’s mind and body; culture impacts what we want to look like. And culture is made by us, including those on Ozempic and those on steroids. We make the very body standards that then many of us —myself included—find oppressive, particularly as we age. 

Most of us do grow larger with age, with stubborn shifts in metabolism as one cause. Yeast gain bud scars; we get bellies. This is just another way that fatphobia and ageism permeate the queer community, especially amongst gay men. 

Body shaming, then, is a violence our younger selves do to who we become. One that I’ve done to myself, but that began even as I learned language and associated thinness with beauty and virtue. When I was a kid, an ideal body image was crafted on Abercrombie bags, and this image-obsessed culture hasn’t gone away. In addition to Calvin Klein, we now have to deal with Instagram. 

This is, for me, the hardest fatphobia to shake: the one we feel about our own bodies. This isn’t a feeling unique to larger people, to those of us who have gained weight.

2014: “Everyone here is old and gross,” a boy I am fucking says, disappointed in the crowd at the sauna. I am still turned on, enjoying the naked bodies around me. I know what he means. “Old” means aged out of beauty, which—to him—some men do at 40, and others much later. “Gross” means fat. I know, even in that moment, that this man is destined to hate himself, or to hate me, as we make that inevitable transition into one or both of those categories. 

I don’t want to eliminate carbs, or wine or cheese, because these things give me pleasure. I want to go to the gym for the way it makes my mind calm as opposed to what it does to my body—easier now, perhaps, because of what it doesn’t do to my 41-year-old body. For me, dealing with my fatphobia will be a lifelong project because of how steeped in it I’ve been, even before I knew that Fat Is a Feminist Issue

2021: “What happened to you?” the tailor asks, wondering whether my suit can even be taken out enough to fit my body then. 

Given that so many of us have complicated relationships both to weight gain and loss, it might simply be wise not to mention either at first sight or when clothes come off.

“A pandemic,” I reply, but that isn’t the truth. The truth is I’ve just gotten older. That suit fit the body I had at 35. It could not be taken out enough to fit who I’ve become at 40.

My thick body reminds me that I take pleasure in food—a pasta sauce, for example, zipping with tomatoe-y acidity against the umami-richness of a mountain of shaved Parmigiano.

I’m learning, too, to delight in the new things my body can do. This larger body can lift more weight. My older body is mostly free of aches and pains. While I can’t run six-minute miles anymore, there’s a particular joy I feel in still being able to run six miles, even if I get lapped by 20-somethings. I find pleasure in the movement, and that is more than enough. 

Here again, I feel my mother’s voice creeping in. At 41, I might be bigger, but at least I’m still not lazy, at least I’m still trying. I want to be rid of the association between fitness and a person’s worth—a notion so baked in that I was an adult before I recognized it. And trying for what? A recent New York Times article reminded me that working out after 40 may be much more about maintaining mobility at 80 than trying to regain abs. My love handles are made from the things I love: My body now reminds me that I would rather enjoy what I find pleasurable, including cocktails and carbs, than live like a stoic in the hope of being found attractive again by the most superficial of gay men. 

Perhaps this can frame my new goal, my own queer middle age: to not try to change my body, but to try to live better in it for the rest of my life. Written down, it sounds so simple. Living it will require not just looking in the mirror, but accepting the grief that led my body to shrink and the inverse abundance of my life now. This is not a hindrance, but an opportunity to rewire my own mind and what it finds remarkable and beautiful. I try, every day, to imagine my body not as a cage, a trap, but a partner, a vessel, a bud scar, a friend. 

Joseph Osmundson is a scientist, activist and writer originally from Arlington, a small town in rural Washington State. He has a PhD in molecular biophysics, and his writing has been published widely, including in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, Guernica, The Village Voice, The New York Review of Books and The Feminist Wire. He lives and works in New York City.

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