When I was younger, I’d run past foggy mirrors before I made my way into the shower.
It wasn’t that I was afraid of what I’d see, it’s what I’d be reaffirmed with. That I was chubby, had what my sister said were “moobs” and a body that was far from what other boys in middle school seemed to have: a chiseled, if not scrawny, rib-bearing figure. That I was less of a man.
It was worse during the summer months when my family would drag me to a pool or three, or to the dreaded beach. Living in California, we’d trek to Santa Monica or Venice Beach and lay out our umbrellas, beach towels and lay out like beached whales. While my family would derobe, sister in her bikini, mother in her onesuit and dad in his swim trunks, I’d excuse myself to find a bathroom. It was not only to hide my body from the world, but to stall, passing time so that I wouldn’t need to peel my shirt off. When I’d finally return, midday, my family asking where I’d been and me telling them some story about how I got lost, it’d be time to leave.
Such insecurities followed me to college. My body wasn’t as soft as it was in my middle school years, and testosterone allowed my body to become more trim, my shoulders to grow out and make my chest less pudgy. Less ugly. It’s almost as if my body itself felt shamed, proceeding to burn off every fat cell as if scorched Earth. But it was there that I found myself still running into the shower, past the mirror, and turning around to quickly throw on a shirt when my roommate was around.
“While women have progressed under our patriarchy to find empowerment with who they are – and to love every square inch of themselves – men are behind.”
This phobia followed me in my first sexual encounter. It was with a bouncer I’d met online who came over my apartment. I was now a junior, and late to bloom. We’d had extreme chemistry and proceeded to makeout. He was on top of me and I felt his jeans become a little more stiff. When he started to kiss my neck he proceeded to unzip my pants and made his hands under my shirt. That’s when I panicked. He could take off my underwear, see me in my glory, but when it came to my shirt, that was another story. I stopped him there and asked if I could keep my shirt on, ruining the mood entirely.
I realized a few years ago how this was rooted in shame. Rarely are we as men allowed to be ashamed or experience body dysmorphia – at least, not in public. We are told to toughen up and told that men aren’t supposed to care about such things. Those are relegated “to the girls.” As men, we bear the burden of suffering in silence, hold our hands over our fatty nipples and suck in our stomachs so that no one else would see how jiggly we are. With this comes creative ways of getting around taking off our damned shirts.
Though I’m admitting this for the first time, I’m not alone. In an Instagram world where our “suggested posts” are filled with beautiful men and their Apollo-like torsos, where dating apps show off bodies on first swipe, where definitions of masculinity are based on brawn and muscle, it’s difficult not to feel bad about your own. This, especially true for men who’ve been conditioned not to care about these such issues. While women have progressed under our patriarchy to find empowerment with who they are – and to love every square inch of themselves – men have been left behind. We’re told that we need to have everything figured out, or not to have such insecurities as if it’s effeminate, therefore despicable. And if we didn’t like our bodies, we could change it or shut up.
As men, we bear the burden of suffering in silence, hold our hands over our fatty nipples and suck in our stomachs so that no one else would see how jiggly we are.
It’s taken years for me to unpack all of my trauma but I’m finally at a place where I can let go and be proud of who I am – bare chested and all. Through it all, I’ve understood that I’m good enough. I’m beautiful how I am. I’m as masculine as I want to be – with a shirt or without.
The other day, I walked to Central Park in New York City and while on a jog, stopped and decided to take off my shirt. It’d been the first time, well, ever. The weather had been extremely muggy to the point where you grab moisture in your hands.
Hesitating just a little, I pulled my tank from the bottom, took it past my furry belly button over my chest and past my ears. Funny thing is that when that happened, the world didn’t stop. No one gave me a second look (though there was a woman who checked me out, and I blushed), really, no one cared. It was liberating as it gave me a sudden thrill. Peeling back my shirt – and more so, my shame – made me realize just how far I’d come.
I took a shower when I returned to my Brooklyn apartment. While the water was running, I lept past the mirror into the tub. But this time, I was aware of my conditioning and forced my soaked body to walk out, gaze at the mirror and look at my reflection. There, staring in front of me was a beautiful man, his fur drenched, the curves of his body weathered with time. He smiled. It was the first time in years that he’d seen himself.