120 pounds down: A summer body five years in the making

If a certain pant size can be a goal, a state of mind can be one, too.

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Left, Ismael Pérez in March 2021 weighing 205 pounds. Right, Ismael Pérez at his heaviest 320 pounds in May 2016.

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“I used to weigh 320 pounds.”

That’s a statement I am proud to make. Especially this week when I stood on a scale and realized I am now below 200 pounds. No matter what part of the room I move my scale, it told me I am at a welcomed 199.6 pounds.

How did I do it? The easy answer would be, “I drink a lot of water.” The deeper and most honest truth is that I lost 120 pounds the same way I gained the weight in the first place — through a lifestyle change that was triggered by my mental health.

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My weight journey didn’t start at the gym or with a strict diet plan. It started in 2013, when I auditioned for my university’s church choir.

My classically trained voice caught the eyes and ears of a thankful choir director. I also caught the attention of a cute and devoted Catholic guy in the choir who held my hand every time we prayed. And Catholics pray a lot.

Yes, I was delusional falling for a God-loving man at a Catholic church, but it was fun.

There were the late-night hangouts that made me sigh for weeks and the cute text message screenshots that made my best friend gasp in excitement for me.

My life was like a song — Selena’s “Amor Prohibido” (Forbidden love). In the song, Selena says who cares what society thinks when we have each other. It’s beautiful. However, listening to it again, I realized the song — like my situation — doesn’t actually have a happy ending.

People began to stare, and he suddenly became booked with church events. I stopped going to church because it felt like I had a giant scarlet letter on me. A huge rainbow-colored “G.”

The staring was harsh and the message clear: I wasn’t welcome.

I rarely saw him over the next year, and when there were opportunities to see him, I didn’t want him to see me.

When I first met him, I was a good-standing double major student who was 2nd chair in the university’s prestigious top band. I performed in the orchestra, playing the french horn, and was even voted the “most valuable player” for the marching band.

After the heartbreak, I failed a music class three times and embarrassed myself when I performed a failing senior music recital in front of my peers and music professors.

My graduation was pushed back. I started losing my hair when I was 23. And by 2016, I had gained almost 100 pounds.

Those facts are hard to admit. But now they make me proud, too.

Just like losing the weight, fighting those demons that tore me down and turned me into the worst version of myself was no easy feat. How do you tell yourself you love yourself when you know this version of yourself is the worst you’ve ever been?

At the lowest point of my young life, a defeated me told myself, “I will survive.” I decided to turn my life into a song again (the Selena disco medley version), and this time one that had a happy ending.

When people ask, “How did you do it?” I say, “It just happened.”

The best way I can explain it is through bicycling. I never look straight ahead, my eyes are always locked three meters in front of me. And before I know it, I have traveled a good 4 miles. The same goes for these past five years I spent working on myself. I stayed focused on bettering myself, and it just happened.

It’s funny. I walked into that church eight years ago and definitely went on a spiritual journey.

Here I am now. A bald and beautiful man who knows that if a certain pant size can be a goal, a state of mind can be one, too.

Send letters toletters@suntimes.com.

Ismael Pérez is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

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