Chasing a Better Mii: An Essay

How a work-at-home dad used a decade-old video game to lose 80 pounds
LOGAN CYRUS
Using a Wii remote and a lot of discipline, our writer watched his video game character shrink.

WE EACH SPENT about an hour on ourselves, crafting avatars to match our likenesses.

“No, your eyebrows are more pointed than that,” one of us would say.  

“And your face is … uh, rounder.”

This is what Nintendo wanted us to do. When the Wii console was released in 2006, it introduced a new concept to the gaming world: The Mii (pronounced “me”) was a tiny, customizable character that looked like you. Four friends and I took turns in a college apartment, offering input on each other’s avatars. My future wife’s Mii was named “Sara,” and she had the same freckles on her cheeks. “Andy” had dark-framed glasses and my hair, which was shinier and fuller then. I made the shape of my Mii’s face just round enough to satisfy the living room of critics, so-called friends who wanted to make sure I wasn’t cutting corners—or jawlines—on the Mii of me.

These characters populated some of the Wii system’s games. We’d see our entire social group as teammates or opposing players in a baseball matchup on Wii Sports. Cutesy, animated versions of my closest friends sweated during tight tennis matches or chased after rogue golf balls. 

And when the Wii Fit deluxe set hit shelves months later, it expanded the Mii function to represent not just faces, but entire bodies. This video game wasn’t about acquiring lots of coins or beating a final boss; this new journey led toward physical fitness. You were the narrative. And somehow, the concept sounded fun. Then, in 2008, Nintendo packaged the Wii Fit bundle with a device called a “Balance Board,” which you used to measure your weight, yoga technique, and, of course, your balance. A romantic, I purchased the game for Sara for Valentine’s Day that year, assuring her that I didn’t think she “needed to actually get more fit or anything.”

That day, a few of us took turns weighing ourselves on the Balance Board. Wii Fit’s scale placed us somewhere among the categories of

“Underweight,” “Normal,” “Overweight,” and “Obese.” My Mii was the only one whose body inflated dramatically during this process, as the machine measured, measured…

Then a bell rang on the screen. On the day after Valentine’s Day 2008, I was 238 pounds, far above the norm for my 5 feet, 9 inches. 

I was “Obese.”

“Andy” became a fat, 3-D reflection of me, not the idealized, endearing, vibrant sprite he once was. After that, I gradually stopped playing games that integrated our Miis. I grew a beard to cover my round chin. For the next seven years, the Mii of me remained inside the gaming machine, unchanged.

And so did I. 

***

As a freelance writer and fulltime father, Smith spends most of his days inside his house. He figured the only way he could work out was to use his Wii Fit. When nap time is over and the dogs are inside, though, things can get a bit complicated.

WHEN SARA—the real Sara—gave birth to our daughter in 2014, countless sobering thoughts flashed into my brain, like internal billboards with bold reminders.

It’s your job to make sure she doesn’t die, man. 

Hey, if she ends up not being a nice person, it’ll be at least 50 percent your fault. 

Other lines arrived from parents who were just slightly more experienced than we were, offering well-meaning platitudes or Louis C.K. quotes. But no thought frightened me as much as the realization that Elliot would grow up with an obese father who couldn’t chase her around the yard like my dad did. Friends and family protested that concern. No, really, I’d say, I’m obese. A mean video game told me that one time. 

The thought festered during Elliot’s first six months, and that anxiety only brought more inactivity and pizza. I had vivid nightmares of having cardiac arrest while reporting a story or hearing a grim diagnosis in a dimly lit doctor’s office. On one of the two days I used my gym membership in 2015, the scale offered those three familiar digits: 238. My Fitness Connection card was attached to a key chain alongside a bottle opener emblazoned with the Weezer logo. I estimate the opener was used 300 times more than the card. 

At the end of last summer, after spending nine months as a stay-at-home mom, Sara prepared to return to teaching seventh grade language arts, and I prepared to be a full-time parent. The new normal: I’d continue to work as a freelance arts journalist but also watch the baby during the daylight hours. If I needed to hit a gallery opening at 2 p.m., Elliot would go with me. An interview with a musician over lunch? She’d be right there in her Evenflo Trailtech Backpack Baby Carrier. I’d use Elliot’s naps, evenings, and for a couple of hours a week, baby day care to focus on work. It’s a schedule that requires discipline, something that seemed like it would be especially difficult for a guy who for years prided himself on knowing the best coffee shops and pizza slices in Charlotte. The new lifestyle forced me to get out of bed earlier—usually around 5 a.m.—and become more efficient. 

Living this way, the case for getting healthier reached its peak. 

I went on a diet for the first time in my life. My confinement to the house on most days made this easier. Eating out wasn’t even an option. But to do this right, I’d need some kind of physical activity, especially since I’d be making it to the gym even less now. 

“Maybe I’ll just use Wii Fit,” I joked one evening, pointing my finger toward the attic, where the clunky Balance Board resided. By the time August 2015 came around, Sara and I didn’t have any better ideas. I canceled my gym membership and cleaned the dust off the Wii Fit disc.

*** 

ON DAY ONE of Wii Fit, a cartoon version of the Balance Board danced on the screen at 5:30 a.m. and asked about the weight of my clothes. Boy, I hated it. The clothing assessment created an accurate count for my body mass index (or BMI). The screen gave three options to describe my attire, the lowest being “Light,” which would deduct two pounds from the final tally. I chose “Heavy” for the first three weeks, pretending I was wearing Moon Boots and a parka to knock off an extra four pounds from the jump.

I decided to weigh myself each morning and then pick a few activities from the Wii Fit’s menu: Some feel like mini games, with squat exercises masked as ski jumping. Wii Fit uses a combination of the Wiimote and the Balance Board to assess each of these activities. The games are divided into categories: Yoga, Strength Training, Aerobics, and Balance Games.

When I first started, the Yoga and Strength Training activities seemed arbitrary. I’d move an arm or leg in some funny way to mirror the cartoon trainer on-screen, and he’d let me know when my posture or technique was off. What’s the point? I thought. But during the days that followed, those same body parts ached and burned. These were joints and muscles that hadn’t been properly used for decades.

The most useful activity on Wii Fit became the “free run” option, which provides daily cardio. Until I discovered this option, cardio had been the biggest mystery in my quest to work out at home with a baby. With “free run,” you stick the Wiimote in your pocket and run in place. In your living room.

Alternatively, you can hold the Wiimote and swing it in a manner in which you appear to cover much more ground on the game’s virtual trail. It took me a few days to stop cheating.

For five days a week, Wii Fit began to feel like an actual video game. Every day, I tried to beat my own score on a given activity, with each ranking my all-time top 10 efforts. I started monitoring activity charts for Andy the Mii. The percentage grades for each activity increased. Slowly, I chipped away at the 230s.

***

LATER THAT MONTH, I was about to dive into a hot dog bar at a Wednesday media event, when fellow freelancer Matt Crossman approached me. Three weeks into my new workout routine, I considered moving up Saturday’s Cheat Day to “right this second” for beer and free grub at BB&T Ballpark. (Cheat Day was the one day of the week I allowed myself to be loose with the diet.) As Matt and I exchanged pleasantries, my eyes shifted over to the labels at the hot dog station, surveying. Free. All-beef. Chili. Slaw. Buns. Free. And oh, the condiments.

“Hey, man, are you losing weight?” Matt said. His hand gripped my shoulder, rousing me from the toppings trance. “You look good.”

Yeah, like 7.2 pounds, I thought. But how could he tell? Is he a wizard? I made a mental note to bring Matt along next time I went to the county fair to guess a hog’s weight for prizes. 

“Uh, I’m trying,” I said, straightening my posture.

“Well, whatever you’re doing, keep it up.” This was the first in a series of what I’d call “make-or-cake moments,” in which my old life dangled in front of me and visions of that old Mii, with his cherub-like frame, hopped around in my head. I was only months removed from being a two-dog guy (with extra chips). 

Matt moved on to the hot dog display without me.

A similar moment, a few weeks later: Benny Pennello’s in NoDa, the pizza spot that offers slices as big as a woodland animal, began a promotion late last summer that challenged visitors to eat a 28-inch behemoth in less than two hours. 

During one of this magazine’s weekly editorial meetings, I pitched the idea of taking the Benny P’s Challenge and writing a story about it. Because, you know, journalism. The other editors were enthusiastic about the idea, and I initially thought I had schemed a grand and successful caper. We set up a day and time. We had a photographer ready to come with us. 

But the day before the pizza was supposed to go down, I backed out. I knew that if I took the challenge, it would lead to a relapse, the equivalent of a recovering cocaine addict jumping into a kiddie pool of Colombian Dancing Dust. 

I sent an email to senior editor Kristen Wile and executive editor Michael Graff. I still have it: “I know I was really hyped on this whole pizza thing. And I’ve been talking a lot about it. But after standing on the scale today, and realizing I’ve made some actual progress in becoming healthier, I don’t know if I can go through with this. I’m really sorry to disappoint; I just don’t think I can do it without sacrificing something that’s been a challenge for me to do. I hope you understand.”

I waited until Cheat Day to grab just one slice. 

***

I ENTERED the holidays on a high.

By December, I was down to 210. I upgraded to Wii Fit Plus, a 2009 sequel to the game, which I found on eBay for $4.50. The Plus suggests food to me and takes more accurate tallies of the calories lost with each Fit activity. As Elliot bounced in a flamboyant, spring-loaded chair behind me and giggled at the cartoon version of her dad on the screen, I attempted the game’s more difficult exercises and stretches. My dogs took floor exercises as a cue to wrestle; I’d be stuck in a brutal pose when Elliot’s cries sounded in the next room. CrossFit bros don’t have to deal with this crap, I thought.

I gained five pounds over Christmas, but I got back on it and went from “Obese” to “Overweight” by the New Year. All my life, this was the time of year when I’d talk about resolutions and getting in shape—this year, I was already mid-transformation. 

In the summer of 2015, I wore extra-large shirts and 38-wide pants. By January 1, 2016, I was down a size in both. Friends started to notice. When I eventually worked my way under 200 pounds, I was already farther than I had anticipated.

The internal billboard was now adorned with a new message: Why not try to get down to the “Normal” sector?

***

Andy Smith was 238 pounds last summer. This summer he’s 158. 

THE REAL WORK of losing weight and being healthy is boring to describe. 

This is why once-schlubby actors freeze up when radio shock-jocks ask for the secrets to the new physiques they obtained for big roles. The honest answer is always stale, and to describe in detail how you’ve lost weight quickly becomes bragging. I avoid dollar cheeseburgers, and I stopped drinking beer almost completely—whenever friends ask me to go out for one now, I stop at one. Simply, I eat more green things. 

I started with a diet called “The 4-Hour Body,” from self-help guru and author Tim Ferriss. It involves eliminating processed foods, fruits, dairy, potatoes, white bread, white rice, and other carbs, and it seemed to work for me and Sara. I did it only for a month, but even when I stopped, the diet created a set of tendencies that continue. For the first time, I had some kind of structure and portion-control. And it reintroduced basic foods I hadn’t eaten since childhood. We joined the online community surrounding the diet and found recipes that make simple food special. I no longer poke fun at new-age meal plans (unless they don’t allow a Cheat Day). 

Instagramming plates of fruits and vegetables and unseasoned chicken would be like asking a teacher for more homework to show off for the rest of the class. Every social media post that showed my body already felt like an open call for praise, in a realm already rife enough with self-congratulation. I didn’t post much about this process. 

I’d love to caption pictures of myself with epic narratives of this journey, spinning tales of physical prowess and persistent moments of doubt overcome by marked courage. But the truth is, nearly every day since June 2015, I’ve stepped onto a Wii Fit Balance Board and flailed my arms around, drenched in sweat as my dogs napped on the couch. The fat’s slowly dissolved, not ravaged by hitting a tire with a sledgehammer or doing Sun Salutations at a brewery. (If I sound bitter toward other workouts, it’s only because I’m jealous of those who don’t have to pause everything they’re doing to change a dirty diaper.)

If I gave you a how-to guide after all this, you’d find it worthless. We work with what we’re given. Somehow, with a baby, two dogs, a full-time career as a freelance journalist, and a decade-old video game system, I’ve MacGyvered a better existence. 

***

LET’S SKIP AHEAD to April of this year. 

I am 163 pounds. That’s 75 pounds removed from my starting weight of 238. Shirts, medium; pants, 30. But on this particular day, I’m pacing the room and debating aloud whether I should shave a beard I’ve had for eight years. Elliot, now fully into toddler-hood, offers a toothy smile as encouragement. “How many chins do you think are left under there?” I ask my wife. 

She assures me that it’s most likely just one. I weigh the pros and cons over dinner and a trip to Target. (The lost pounds did not take my neuroticism with them.) We’re putting Elliot in her pajamas when I finally muster the will to walk into the next room and place a gently used electric razor on my chin.

Twenty minutes later, I emerge from the bathroom a stranger to my daughter as Sara holds her. Elliot cocks her head sideways, waiting to hear my voice. “Hi,” I say. “This is weird, isn’t it?”

I stare into a mirror, and even I have trouble recognizing me.

It isn’t until the next morning, when booting up Wii Fit, that my regret for shaving disappears. Eight years ago, when I started the beard, I never knew how to go back and add one to my Mii. So for eight years, “Andy” never actually looked much like the real Andy. But now here I am, bouncing and waiting for the day’s first workout.

“OK,” the voice says, as it always does. “Step on.”  

I climb the Balance Board and wait for today’s weight assessment.

“Measuring… measuring…” A bell sounds. “OK. All done.” 

162. All done. Until tomorrow.

Andy Smith covers the arts and serves as web editor for this magazine. His work also appears in Hi-Fructose Magazine, Back Issue, and others. Find him on Twitter at @andysmithlol, or e-mail him andysmith.work@gmail.com. He still eats pizza, just not as much.


This article appears in the July 2016 issue of Charlotte Magazine

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