This is not a story about sex. No matter how much it initially appears to be that… I assure you, that’s not the case.
Last week, I met Eddie. Eddie is handsome and didn’t posit many questions before asking me over to his place. It wasn’t difficult to say yes to the invitation, as he was easy on the eyes. I drove there, a little giddy with excitement.
Before getting out of the car, I took one more look in the mirror and sighed, “Good enough,” I audibly said to myself. Opening the door of my car, I stepped into the street before ascending the stairs to his cute little bungalow. I felt butterflies in my stomach. Maybe this would be a good one…. I approached the door, knocked, and he opened it.
“Come on in,” he cooly said.
He invited me to sit on the couch. I did. We were sitting side by side turned towards each other, then he said, “You look cleaner than your photos.”
My brow furrowed. What does that mean? I thought to myself, then stated, “I hope that the real thing is ok with you.” He kind of nodded but didn’t really say anything. Cleaner? I kept thinking about the hidden meaning of cleaner but decided to move on. We engaged in some small talk, then casually, he took my hand and put it on his thigh.
Now I could go into detail what happened next, however, as I said, this isn’t a story about sex. Yes, sex happened. Yes, he was satisfied… twice. But it’s what happened after the double feature that is of note.
As we lay there, bodies strewn across the couch, his legs draped over mine, Eddie looked at me and said,
“You’ve been eating.”
I half-squinted. “What?”
“You’re fat,” Eddie continued.
My face didn’t know what to do at this point. I just stared at him and half-smiled. I gave him a smile? I leaned on the couch next to him, careful not to show any of the emotion I was feeling inside and just nodded. My heart raced and my stomach was abuzz with the same butterflies from before, but now they were trying to rip their way out of me. Instead of saying anything, I remained silent, which just allowed Eddie the space to continue. “You know, you have to eat right…” he went on. Sounding more like a teacher out of Peanuts from this point, I heard very little until, “because if you lose your jaw-line, there’s no going back, they have to cut that and sew it tight. Snip snip snip.” Again, more noise came from his mouth, and then he came back into tune when I heard, “And you have to exercise. Something you’re not doing.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had been running 4 or 5 times per week for the past two months. He massaged my stomach and then after what felt like an eternity, he concluded, “You have to get rid of that fat. So, you gonna work out and eat right for me, baby?”
I looked at him, heart pounding more intensely, “For you? Or for me?” I asked.
“Well, for me! Because whatever you’ve been doing isn’t working!”
He laughed. I didn’t.
I leaned forward as I sat on the edge of the couch facing away from him now, “Ok. Thanks for having me over. It was nice to meet you.” It wasn’t, but I was trying to be nice, even when he wasn’t.
Continuing to lay behind me, his tone changed, “Hey, I hope I didn’t hurt you.”
Getting out of there couldn’t happen fast enough. I stated under my breath as I pulled my clothes together, “All good. No worries.”
“I fucked up. I have a big mouth. I fucked up.” He kept saying it to himself as he lay there naked on the couch covering his face, and then something switched in me. The old me kicked in.
I sat next to him, gave him a kiss, and said, “No. You didn’t fuck up. It’s all good. Listen, I have never felt good about my body. Not now, not ever.” My eyes started to well up with tears, my emotions were betraying me. I was allowing myself to be vulnerable in front of him. “This is who I am, and if you have a problem with it, then you just say so and I’ll leave. Because it’s pretty clear that you have your priorities, and I have mine.”
“It’s just,” he started, “You looked so skinny in your pictures.” The photos he saw had all been taken within the last six months and most of them within the last three.
I was standing by the door, “Eddie. This is me. Take it or leave it.”
And then, he had the audacity to say, “We can still be friends. And have sex. And,” he paused as if something repulsive came to mind, “hang out in public.” Was this his attempt to make me feel good?
“Yeah, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Maybe. I can’t make any promises,” I said.
He kind of smiled, still half-covering his face, “Well, you have my number.”
“And you have mine.”
I exited his house and before I could even get to my car, my face was wet with tears.
I don’t remember the first time I looked in the mirror and saw someone I didn’t like; it happened young. I believe I was already in school because I recall it being directly related to my peers– not their comments or actions necessarily, but the way I felt while engaging in group activities. I was learning that I was different… and some of the other kids were, too; I wasn’t alone. But I felt like I had to minimize my difference as much as I could in order to not be like the other kids with similar differences, because to be like them, to be like me, that was bad. And so I started my journey into disconnecting from the person who looked back at me in the mirror and tried my hardest to be someone else.
It didn’t work. I was stuck with that mirror-self, and I was going to have to maintain an unhealthy distance from anyone who tried to get close, purely for self-preservation. It would be easier to go it alone than to have anyone see the real me. Or, that’s what I believed.
I was a big kid. When I went back-to-school shopping, I had to buy “husky” sizes. Some people were kind and said I simply had bigger bones than the rest, and for a while, I believed it. But then when I tried that theory out on my peers, they would disagree, even from a young age. “I’m not as fast as you because my bones are just bigger than yours,” I would say in my defense of never winning a race in gym class or at recess. “No. You’re just kind of fat,” another kid would say. There it was, that word. Fat: the word that I was led to believe was bad. To be fat meant to be less than. The first time it happened, I defended my husky, big bones and then over time, I began to realize that there was truth to what they were saying. And I started to apologize for it. “You’re just kind of fat.”
Oh. Yeah. You’re right. Sorry.
My existence became an apology at a young age. It was easier than defending myself. What did I have to defend? I didn’t know anymore and it became a simpler task to let them win. My identity was no longer mine. I let the outside world define me. I let others define me.
I was often picked last for any competitive sports activities, often ignored while playing at recess, and often left to my own devices because I wasn’t like the other boys, and I wasn’t a girl, so who does that kid play with?
At home, I would watch television as a form of escape and see super beautiful, fit people wearing revealing clothing, and I would think, when I’m older, that’s what it will be like. Then, the next day, or the next week, or the next year, I would ride the bus and look back where the ‘cool kids’ sat and try to participate in whatever conversation they were having, but I would be met with, “turn around you fat fuck.” Fat fuck. I remember being called that on numerous occasions: an alliteratively lovely turn of phrase, and equally painful. SORRY! I turned back to face the front of the bus. The first time I was called that, I probably cried. One of the other kids probably tried to say it was ok, but if they engaged, that meant they noticed my weakness, and so began the process of hiding my feelings. I didn’t want them to think they could make me feel bad, but inside I began to create a barrier around my heart. Was there a place in the world where I could feel safe and secure?
Then… puberty struck. Every day, I would again look in the mirror and see a monster, ready to pounce and devour me from the inside out– a feeling many (or all?) going through that phase of development feel at some point or another. That special time when our bodies are ever-changing and blossoming into ‘adulthood,’ many elongate and become gazelle-like. Awkward gazelles, sure, but gazelles nonetheless. They’re on the fast-track to gracefulness. And then there was me… I sure had the awkward-teenage role down, and since I was already tall for my age, I just added more weight. My face and neck were fuller and my body lacked the tone of the other boys I saw in the locker room where showers were now mandatory after gym class. As if disrobing then showering with your peers wasn’t mortifying enough, there was an old man who served as the supervisor to make sure you at least rinsed in the shower. And his constant eye on you was enough to make even the most secure teenager feel a little creeped out. Being the young gay adolescent I was, you might think that being amongst other naked boys was an exhilarating time for me, but alas, it filled me with such dread and terror. I was so scared of being noticed. Not only was it embarrassing to show the body that was reinforced to be bad time and time again, but the towels were approximately the size of a postage stamp, and served as more of a loincloth for me, while most of the other boys could wrap it around themselves and horseplay like the guys you see in the movies. I would shuffle carefully, trying not to slip and embarrass myself further, but never succeeding in my secret wish to be invisible. Or at least skinny. And they would all watch me as I tried to move surreptitiously to my locker. SORRY.
Soon thereafter, I finally found my people in the theater club. As someone who wanted so badly to recede into the background, the stage might seem like an unnatural place for me to find solace… and at first, I think I felt the same. However, the other students in the theater club were all mostly wild cards and there was no set way of being, so I was able to be more of me… whomever that person was. Plus, there was no mandatory shower after rehearsal, so it was a relief and I could relax, even if just a little. And then the magic happened.
For me, my world transformed when I was onstage. I was no longer the kid who was so insecure in his own body; I got to be someone else. Even if I didn’t look like the guys on TV, I was able to float away to a different time and space, however temporarily. I got to be the handsome father to all those damn kids in Germany who hired the singing nanny, and the young gardener who knew that there was magic in nature, and the tailor who just wanted a wife, and the con-artist traveling salesman whose heart finally became too big to swindle the townspeople out of any more money… just to name a few. While detaching from reality onstage, I was still confronted with the daunting task of negotiating my body backstage: finding a pair of pants in costume storage that would fit me, using communal dressing rooms and changing my clothes as swiftly as possible so that no one would see me, not to mention the advances of a predatory music director who could tell I was attention-starved and preyed on it, but that’s another story. It seemed like there were two sizes of men’s pants readily available in costume storage: one that would fit just one of my thighs and the other that would fit three of my entire body in them. Once again, “Sorry to be a bother, but can you alter these? They’re too big.” Or too small. Or too too too. Whatever it was… SORRY!
As I finished high school and went on to college, it was time for my coming-of-gay-age story. I was living away from my family and was able to explore my identity a bit more outside the confines of a small, rural town. Little did I understand, at least at first, that an ideal gay body existed and that body I did not have. Confronted with hairless, skinny, muscular bodies in the popular gay magazines and then eventually in gay bars, I was not the popular new girl on the block that I had hoped to be. SORRY! It felt more akin to the time I spent being picked last for sporting events, except this time, I was left standing there by myself and nobody picked me. So, I ordered another drink and blacked out again and somehow ended up home alone in my own bed. Growing up, I remember feeling like a burden for even existing in a room full of peers, and then as a coming-of-gay-age young man, I no longer felt a burden, I just felt invisible. I became more ashamed of my body, to the point that my weight fluctuated and the shame led me to try anything to be “the ideal.” I tried fad diets and starving myself; I tried to be anyone other than the person I was. That manifested in levels of performance that transcended reality. I donned dialects and edgy haircuts, I tried out forced self-confidence hoping that the right level of fake-it-‘til-you-make-it would take hold and I would have, well, made it. But at every corner, I was left with me… every single time. I even tried different approaches to meeting men for dating or sex and found that, often, once they saw me naked, it was the end of that relationship, however fleeting. I began to believe that I just wasn’t worthy of love.
Sure, the awkwardness I felt when it came to my body started young, but my hatred of it was cemented in those early years of living on my own in the world at large. Humans can be so cruel and shallow, and I felt plenty of doses of that cruelty to know that the mainstream gay culture was not where I belonged. But oh, did I try to be a part of it. The pull towards the popular group can be all-consuming, and I did my best to keep up with it: drinking and drugs, reckless behavior, bitchiness for the sake of feeling superior, racism and sexism (we called it irony at the time, SO not a cute look)– but never really fitting into the mold that was expected of me as a self-identifying gay man, I was left feeling like the eternal +1 or the comic relief or the tagalong. Even when I was with friends and we were having a good time, something would happen, I would accidentally bump into someone, and they would yell, “Acknowledge your mass!” Meaning no harm with the simple turn of phrase and just stating a fact, all I could hear was, “Fat fuck!” My self-hatred was deeply ingrained from those formative years, but I couldn’t show that it bothered me in the moment, or I thought that I couldn’t. But it sure did stick with me, and in a way, I was trying to fill my need to belong with my peers by performing again, but this time, I wasn’t on a stage, and this time it wasn’t working. There was no escape from the self-censoring voices in my head. I was operating without a script and I didn’t know the right words.
Fortunately, I emerged from that period with a better understanding of myself, simply through years of trial and error, but… I also still hated seeing my own reflection. I hated trying on clothes, and I still hated my body. Again I found myself attempting to fit molds of what I gay man should look like, working out incessantly, always feeling not good enough, even when my friends would say I was too skinny (which I think only happened once, maybe twice). But I didn’t feel like I was doing enough, ever, especially when the desire for the perfect body is still ingrained in our daily lives. I hear people around me stating how they need to “lose 2 more pounds,” or that they are “fat”… like it’s the worst thing in the world… when they are already toned, muscular, or look amazing in my eyes. Their self-criticisms simply show how fragile each of us really is, and how so many of us are in self-judgment so much of the time.
Social media confronts us with images of what it means to be beautiful, and while the scope of beauty is expanding and there are so many people doing amazing work to debunk the societal beauty standard, there is ‘an ideal’ that still exists and burns into my thoughts on a daily basis.
Recently, I was asked why I don’t talk about my body issues… after giving it some thought, I realized that there are a few reasons I steer clear of the topic: 1) I am still apologizing for my existence by remaining silent, 2) to open up that conversation would mean I have to allow myself a space to be vulnerable, and 3) I feel a great deal of shame when it comes to my body.
However, I am stuck with my body, no matter what it looks like, and that is sometimes a hard truth to swallow. I still feel the pull to be someone I’m not and to be better than I am, or to be skinnier than I am, or to be more muscular than I am. But… I’m not any of those things, at least not right now. I am, however, me. Loving myself is, hands down, the most difficult thing I have ever done. I’m not there, yet, but I am getting closer all the time. I’ve had to rethink my entire identity, moving away from the rigid definitions I was confronted with while coming of age. Moving away from self-identifying as a gay man, and closer to a queer identity, a life that is more encompassing than the often-myopic expectation of what the former presupposes to be. I have been on an emotional rollercoaster the past few months, at least in terms of the commentary provided by men who have come into my life. I have been made to feel like a king, like I am beautiful, like I am the most horrendous creature to have ever walked the earth, like I shouldn’t bother trying to have sex ever again– and it really has showcased to me the subjectivity of beauty.
Meeting Eddie couldn’t have come at a better time. I am swiftly approaching the beginning of a new decade, and I am learning so much more about myself as I live in the land where ‘typical beauty’ thrives. I have chosen an industry that relies on personal image as a means of getting work, and so the more time I spend distant from my body, more attached to the idea that I could be better than I am today (and therefore don’t deserve anything until tomorrow, or the next day), I will be doomed to constantly be chasing something greater than myself. And who really has time for that anymore? So…
Dear Eddie, Thank you. Thank you for calling me fat. Thank you for asking me if I was going to 'eat right and exercise' for you. You helped me realize a couple of things: 1) I am not broken, 2) you are not worthy of my time or my love and, 2) I deserve so much more. Is my happiness supposed to wait until I look the way you want me to? Respectfully... go fuck yourself. Nay