I have a somewhat complicated relationship with my body.
On the one hand I love it dearly and am immensely grateful. I have been blessed with a body that is healthy, strong, flexible, coordinated, it learns quickly, and as a full time professional ballroom teacher and choreographer it plays an integral part in how I make my living. I take care of it, keep it limbered and stretched, I’m constantly trying to make proper use of the skills and advantages it offers me, and though my fashion tastes may lean towards the quirky I am known for dressing it well, if uniquely at times.
On the other hand, I don’t look at myself in mirrors unless I have clothes on, I avoid using shared change rooms unless I’m able to maintain an undershirt, I only go swimming when wearing a fully opaque swimming top, my home shower curtains are always opaque behind which I never linger, and I close my bedroom door to change my shirt even if the house is empty. In an odd twist I don’t care all that much if someone sees me without pants on, I don’t know that I would even be all that bothered being seen without underwear. It’s the shirt, or the prospective lack thereof, that does it. I don’t think others would hate what they saw but I’ve never felt they would like it either. I don’t hate what I see in the mirror but I feel no desire to look at it unless it’s dressed.
I fully admit some of it is certainly based in garden variety body image shyness. I have been in good to very good shape most of my life. I was always active as a kid, I trained in martial arts four nights a week throughout high school, and now full time dance work for the last twenty years. Despite all that I have never had the abs or body fat percentage epitomized in all our various media forms, thanks largely to my mesomorphic metabolism and love of all things pasta. Our society also has some pretty specific views about body hair, where it should be and where it should not. Characters displaying even a little hair on their neck, shoulders, or back are met with groans and shudders of revulsion. Being fully aware that the idealized images presented in movies, television, and advertising are impossible standards to measure ourselves by doesn’t instantly dissolve their power to imprint and influence. When you don’t see the things you are drawn and attracted to in those images reflected in your own body you start to disqualify yourself. For far too many people it doesn’t stop there but continues on into potentially devastating feelings of self-hatred.
For me it hasn’t gotten that far. Not being fully shirted is intensely uncomfortable but it isn’t paralytic. I have competed in skin-tight stretchy costumes for dance, though never with any mesh or gaps anywhere in the torso. As part of a play I created and toured internationally with a friend I did a little grooming and wore a tight fitting tank top on stage, though it took some doing to work my way up to it. I am able to change in shared change rooms if necessary I just lay my things out in front of me first so I can be as efficient at it as possible. I can push through my discomfort and be functional when I have to which I am grateful for, as I know there are many whose struggles with their bodies are far more painful and debilitating.
My self-disqualification never progressed into hatred of my body due in large part to there being a far more powerful source driving the disqualification. We all want to be seen, we all want people to see us as appealing and attractive but for pretty much my entire life I have avoided seeing and being seen in that personal kind of way. I have never felt attractive or ‘pretty’ but I haven’t ever really sought it or allowed for it. I feel I look good, when clothed, but my goal is always for a well put together and genuine representation of myself not for something others would be drawn to look at and I avoid and deflect any attempts at compliments. For me that kind of attention, either towards me or others, has only ever been a source of pain and discord, both internally and externally.
I have always taken the offering or receiving of access to someone’s body, in any way, very seriously. My parents were never prudish about the human body but I was instilled with a deeply rooted respect for others and myself which factored rather profoundly into the heady and heavy decisions I ended up making for myself upon figuring out I was gay at age eleven. Realizing it would not be well received by the world around me I decided to keep my sexuality, and everything that went with it, to myself. That meant all thoughts and attentions based in attraction had to be monitored and kept within. The vow I made, and kept, to never pretend to be anything or anyone I wasn’t meant doing my best to avoid potentially drawing any of those thoughts or attentions from any of the girls in my life. The idea of another boy ever developing any interest in me seemed so impossible given the tone of my surroundings it never actually occurred to me.
In elementary school change rooms were difficult for me. I was very deliberate about keeping my eyes on the floor or on my own gear. Not because I felt there was anything wrong with the thoughts or curiosities inside me but because the boys around me didn’t know about them. They were disrobing because they assumed the change room to be a safe space, just boys and no girls. Unbeknownst to them I was bringing a set of ‘girl’s eyes’ into that space, trespassing under false pretenses. If they had known they could have decided whether or not they were okay with it but since I wasn’t giving them that chance I felt I was betraying the safety of that space. I felt not only uncomfortable but also deceitful and thus my earliest experiences with changing around other people were conflicted and painful.
Before I got to high school those curiosities, and the impulses driving them, got the better of me and I actually nudged my closest friend at the time into a very brief period of mild experimentation. Nothing romantic. No kisses or embraces or orgasms. Just what could best be described as very tame and one-sided games of playing ‘doctor’. Due to the combination of brain addling teenage hormones and the somewhat overwhelming feeling that maybe I wasn’t going to have to keep everything quarantined away after all I didn’t notice that my friend’s very mild curiosity quickly ran its course. I kept pushing, eventually veering things closer to a romantic space. It didn’t spark any kind of fight, no shouting or name calling, he just never spoke to me again. And I haven’t touched another person sexually since.
I headed into high school doubling down on my efforts to live, interact, and function completely devoid of any outward sexuality. I suffered through the mandatory year of P.E. with my eyes even more firmly locked on the ground. There were now showers in the mix, which I wasn’t going anywhere near, and boys were occasionally stripping down completely which only made my renewed sense of trespassing feel all the more egregious.
For both good and ill my redoubled efforts to broadcast a ‘nothing to see here’ presence were inadvertently aided by the development of rather severe acne which stayed with me all through high school, requiring a year of Acutane medication during university to finally get rid of. Having a face like a ground beef pizza was by no means pleasant but it did provide an invisibility I welcomed and got quite used to. It also catalyzed and exacerbated my unenthusiastic relationship with mirrors.
The first man I fell in love with was a straight friend. The impossibility of that reinforced the notion that all those feelings and impulses, no matter how powerful, had no place but within the confines of my own mind. The second, and only other, man I fell in love admitted to being genuinely attracted to me, a mystifyingly alien concept to me, but he wasn’t in love with me. Whatever help that dose of physical approval might have offered was drowned out by the ‘no’ being said to the heart and soul. For me they are all attached and one in the same. Interest in the body alone might be flattering but without an accompanying interest in the rest it only acts as a source of conflict, confusion, and frustration. Thus again, no place but within shielded behind a casual toned barrier of ‘nothing to see here’.
So why have I laid all this out? I’m not looking for pity on account of my situation or to score points for its layers and complications. My main reason is to try and illustrate, in the face of a culture which is constantly trying to minimize and simplify our perceptions of things, that people’s relationships with their bodies can be very complicated. Someone’s desire to keep themselves covered may be on account of body image insecurities but it may also be about much more than that. Guys are assumed to be completely at ease taking their shirts off in public. Not only is shyness derided but a bared and properly smooth muscled chest is depicted as a crucial ingredient in attracting potential partners. And don’t get me started on the absolutely insane compendium of body image pressures women have been shackled with historically and currently.
I envy those who feel completely free and at ease with their bodies but I also respect it and no longer have any discomfort around those who feel comfortable with whatever degree of undress. If that comfort is part of their genuine nature I would never want to do anything to stifle that and for some that comfort is something they have fought long and hard for thus deserving every right to exercise and celebrate it. I still feel like a bit of an interloper because I won’t ever join them but I don’t regret taking people’s bodies, and what they choose to do or not do with them, seriously. Just because some are generous or casual with them doesn’t mean it isn’t still something of important value. Our bodies deserve respect as do our choices about what we do and do not do with them.