Mark McCarley: waist not, want not

It took a total of 12 years, 300 pounds and 33 years of life for Mark McCarley of New Orleans to get asked on a date for the first time. And he laughed.

It wasn't until Mark's suitor made a second request that he realized it was serious. Towering over a small table in a New Orleans coffee shop, it can be universally accepted Mark's a handsome guy.

Amid the college professors and college dropouts passing by on bikes and cars, the well-dressed, 6'1” 33-year-old didn't stick out like a sore thumb in a quirky neighborhood.

It's more like he stood out among the crowd. A merciless New Orleans sun didn't add one wrinkle or sweat stain to Mark's shirt or tightly-pleated navy slacks.

A well-groomed goatee and sculpted cheekbones were paired with eyes that looked you directly.

Trim and lacking any visible signs of loose skin, you'd never know the driven IT manager of NO/AIDS Task Force, an HIV-related outreach group in New Orleans, dropped from 405 to 205 through diet and exercise.

After years of managing that weight Mark dropped again to 169 in the past two years. <!--more--> Sipping on a bottle water in a room meant for lattes and homemade quiche, Mark explains his weight gets distributed from head to toe, which gave him a more giant appearance in the past.

And being newly lean and newly single, he feels he neither sticks out or stands out. More like he's tuned out. "Socially I haven't been out [on the town] that much," Mark says.

"Apparently, there are a couple of people at work are interested in me, and frankly I couldn't tell you who they are, I couldn't tell you why they're interested in me, I can't tell." For all the numbers encompassing Mark's life -- 300 total pound loss, owner of three businesses, one great parent, one bad parent, 6'1", former 56-inch waist -- some things don't compute.

He takes pride in someone describing his weight loss as inspiring. He beams when friends applaud his Alabama-bred cooking skills or lavish "you're so nice" compliments unto him.

And yet he can't accept a compliment about his body. “Considering that I started this whole thing 12 years ago, and really hit it hard for the last year and a half, and knowing the person that I am, I thought I would have been able to resolve that body image already," Mark says.

"To be able to look at myself and say ‘you look good.' I can't do that. Yet. That's the only thing [about my weight loss] that I'm surprised about, that I can't bring myself to do that."

From there, the conversation skitters about for hours. We compare notes about bad boyfriends, sharing war stories of old wounds we've since conquered. Have a cathartic moment or two. The coffee shop's late-afternoon buzz gives way to late-night hum.

A clever jazz band plays, smoothing out the edgy neighborhood atmosphere. As with his business ventures, his current job, and his weight loss, Mark acts on his decisions with an almost brutal efficiency.

He began losing the final pounds during Thanksgiving, of all things.

And despite all the extraordinary feats Mark accomplishes, he still can't ask a guy out on a date. Earlier in the evening, I asked if he had met a challenge he didn't take head on.

Without pause or vanity, he replied "not yet." But he's faced with something more alien than people finding him attractive -- fear of taking action.

"When I look in the mirror I see 400 pounds and don't see myself attractive.

I find my personality attractive, and I'm afraid I would change if I'd outwardly admit that to myself that I'm attractive," Mark explains.

"I'm afraid I'll move from nice to arrogant." Eventually we part ways and promise to go on a run together sometime.

And in all the time we spoke, it never dawned on him that in claiming "I look good," that he's right. He might change. But that change would be for the better.

Russ Lane