Social Values and the Male Body

The other day I was doing some research for a book I’m writing, and while the following isn’t about the book as such, my research uncovered some material that hit a raw nerve for me. Indeed it was so potent I stopped thinking about the book (bad) and started thinking about why the issue was such a sore point for me (not so bad). So after quite a bit of ruminating and only a little more research I penned the following (good, can we get back to the book now?).

I must preface this essay by stating this is my own perspective, and while some readers may disagree or have different perspectives, this remains—at least at this time—my own take on what appears a poorly explored and inadequately discussed topic.

Let me start by saying that sadly, my father never really did the “dad” thing.

We never shared father-son moments.

He was distant and perhaps a bit bewildered with having sons, which meant there weren’t terribly good connections established. When I was small, I was artistic, creative, observant and cheeky. He was a straight-laced disciplinarian (while being quite undisciplined and lazy himself), given to serious acts of selfishness, gruffness and openly foul language (which—of course—I picked up and got into trouble at school about on more than one occasion). I learnt much later that above the manipulative, domineering attitude he brought to bear on his offspring, he was also likely jealous.

That jealousy manifested itself in myriad ways. School accomplishments were denigrated or ignored. Growing taller wasn’t proudly measured with pen marks on a doorframe, it was met with exasperated eye rolls and criticism of needing to buy new clothes.

From an early age I was made to feel guilty for … well … existing.

As a pre-teen in the 1970s, I wasn’t really aware of the wider fashions of the time except the occasional TV ad (my TV consumption was kept to a minimum), and my fellow school students, who I only ever saw in school uniform. Being a private school with ethics, morals and operating habits firmly rooted in the Victorian era, the uniform was based on English prep-school designs of large shorts, a blazer, collared shirt with tie, knee-high socks, shiny black shoes and a little cap. Of course, starting school meant everything was sizes too big so one could ‘grow into it’ to make it last. The shorts and blazer were made of heavy woven wool and unlined, which meant they itched all the time on thighs and lower arms. They were also too hot for the Australian climate, but the nation’s slavish following of all things conservative English was deeply etched into the establishment psyche of the time, so no youngster was ever going to be in any position to point out such absurdities.

As I grew older and we moved house, I went to another type of school. This one had more relaxed requirements of school uniform, the ubiquitous public school short grey cotton shorts, poly-cotton collared shirt (no tie), socks worn whichever way and black shoes (Clark brand, of course). Clean, neat and tidy was the rule, and I accepted the cotton rather than wool with much relief. No more itchiness. At nine, I was already becoming aware of my body in ways I hadn’t considered before. Thanks to the more sleek cut of uniforms, I was also noticing the bodies of my fellow students. Little was I aware but the first stirrings of puberty were already twisting and curling their way through me. As the seventies closed and the eighties dawned, fashions changed, and boys were beginning to wear closer-fitting clothing. School uniforms were left to be outgrown, bodily shapes emphasised and the stuffiness of cultural imperialism gave way to a realisation there were more appropriate garments for the culture and climate of Australia.

Not for me, though.

That stuffy, almost Victorian-era too-big-as-new attitude extended to my casual clothing. A new pair of jeans weren’t skin-tight stretch blue denim like my fellow students wore on weekends and after school. My pants were biscuit-brown cotton woven so thick it was as stiff as a board (despite repeated washings with extra fabric softener), with a large brass zipper that curved and dug uncomfortably into the groin. The design was a form of bagginess last seen on the kidswear fashion catwalks in the early 1960s and wouldn’t become fashionable again until the mid-nineties grunge revolution (complete with outdated bell-bottom legs). I was made to look different, be different, and be uncomfortable but not be ungrateful and certainly not to criticise or even speak up. I had no say in what I wore. I simply had to accept what was brought home every six months or so and accept it with good grace. What I didn’t realise at the time was I was being dressed in clothing which—to me, subliminally—told me there was something wrong with my body that had to be hidden and covered up.

The eighties was for a young Sydney kid growing to teen years a decade of stretch jeans, short-shorts, Speedo briefs in the pool, a celebration of health and vitality in the great outdoors. Olivia Newton-John sang of getting physical; the Kenny Everett Video Show featured a team of dancers called “Hot Gossip” who writhed and gyrated in aerobics costumes to emphasise the human form; and Young Talent Time involved kids who danced and sang with innocent exuberance in celebration of joy in a sea of weekly smiles and trim, trendy outfits. Yet here I was, hidden away, clad in bulky, clunky gear, a decided contrast with all that. As an adolescent, I was told I was never going to be good enough. I was too skinny, too pale, too weak and too stupid (my father by this time had become all-out abusive), and my unfashionable clothing only served to emphasise all that. I was teased by fellow students who saw me on weekends, jeered and maligned, ostracised from social tribalism so vital to developing youngsters.

The family never went anywhere. Holidays were usually celebrated by other families by travelling interstate or overseas or to theme parks and the like. My family stayed home. It’s not as if going somewhere was beyond financial reach. My father simply decided he didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. I made do by reading, working on my art and writing in my bedroom. Any friends I had were off travelling. One summer day six months after I’d turned fourteen, my mother had a shouting match with my father about being kept in the house too much. As a result, it was declared we were going to the beach. It might sound amazing, but in all the years I had lived in a city with arguably some of the most awesome beaches in the world, I’d only ever visited the beach twice before, and that was as a guest of the family of friends. I knew guys at school who practically lived at the beach, their tans and sun-bleached hair testimony to their love of surf and sand. I had never even seen a real surfboard in the flesh. This time was going to be different. It was a good day for a swim, so off we went. I had a pair of swimmers for swimming in a pool, but didn’t own any beach gear.

A fourteen year old is little more than an unhinged walking chemistry laboratory with the bunsen burners turned up too high. Wrap all that up in clothing unsuited for any beach and the beginnings of Social Anxiety Disorder and you start having problems. The family found a spot, draped towels on hot beach sand and settled down. Only after being repeatedly shouted at in front of startled beachgoers did I disrobe, leaving lily-white me in a pair of Speedo briefs amidst a sea of tanned young men and their pretty women friends and colleagues. I was then paraded from one end of the beach to the other by my mother so she could admire all the healthy and fit young people as they exercised, swam, socialised and otherwise enjoyed themselves on the pale sand. As we walked, people literally stopped and stared at me, the gormless, white-as-a-sheet, nobbly-kneed dishrack-chested skinny kid. When we returned to the beach towels, my father stared at me and shook his head in disgust. That crushed me.

That day couldn’t end soon enough.

The following morning my father walked in on me flexing my biceps in the bathroom mirror. He laughed and laughed, and kept laughing through the morning before criticising me for being vain. All I had wanted was to see how far I needed to go to be anything like some of those men I saw on the beach. It was the last time I gazed into a mirror for anything other than making sure my hair was combed. To this day, I genuinely feel ashamed any time I approach a reflection for any purpose other than to make sure I’m not startlingly presented or maybe on fire.

I think it’s fair to say that day was when the last of my self-esteem curled up and died.

I stopped caring.

When I finished high school and moved out of home to attend university, I thought perhaps I could start to build a new me. The trouble was the damage had already been done. The end of the eighties ushered in a new era, when aerobics and cycling became an influence for casual male fashion. Young kids were tearing around in fluorescent colours, skin-tight shorts and muscle tops, while adults were sporting acid wash stretch jeans and bright colours inspired by beach fashion and a love of exuberant beach resort-themed fitness and health.

Not me. I wore grey. At a time when I could choose my own wardrobe, I wore grey. I even bought a pair of jeans for myself, but I never wore them.

I was living in a perpetual state of being ashamed of my physical form. I was still skinny. Well … wiry, actually. I didn’t want people to look at me. I wanted to be invisible. I studied, joined a few groups (including a drama group for the benefit of my theatrical studies as part of my Bachelor of Arts in English) and otherwise observed while trying to not be observed. I was lonely, but that was all right—I’d become convinced I didn’t deserve friendship, happiness or success. Yup, my old man really did a number on me all right. I was a habitual beta (actually more an omega), so he could remain an alpha. Yay (this conclusion has been reached after years of psychotherapy, by the way—until that happened, I had no idea where all this came from).

The drama group challenged me, but I found a way to deal with it. I could never go on stage, so I stayed off-stage and wrote. I directed, I designed. I provided the necessary support structure so the others could be seen. I remained unseen, and I was fine with that. While the girls and guys strutted around on stage in black or blue leggings and figure-hugging T-shirts, I stayed in the wings in my baggy grey slacks and oversized collared shirt and nobody bothered me.

After university and approaching my thirties, I suddenly became fat. I’d been driving a keyboard for a while as part of my work, and around that age the metabolism changes. Mine did. I developed a big tummy. My legs and arms stayed slender, but now there was a beer gut. A bit of a surprise, as I don’t drink beer. I didn’t care, though. I wasn’t physical. I didn’t do sport, spent no time with anyone except my work, and had no ego to bruise. By my mid-thirties, my doctor was yelling at me. I had the warning signs of developing type-2 diabetes. I was told to find a gym and use it to conduct regimented exercise. He also told me because of my Asperger’s, I had physical co-ordination issues, so I should add Pilates to the regular gym workout, and if I could find a way, attend dance lessons.

Dance? Me? One day in primary school I had infamously declared I really enjoyed dance (dance lessons were taught during days designated for Physical Education but when it was raining). I was laughed at and teased by some of the other boys who reckoned dance was just for “poofs”. Such bullying utterly destroyed any aspirations for dance as a possible extra-curricular activity. A shame, as it turned out I genuinely sported an excellent physique for a dancer. Dancing would have given me physical activity and an opportunity to meet people. Mind you, my father would have been appalled, so not doing dance satisfied all those other people after all. Selfish me thought I could perhaps aspire to find things and do things I liked. Nobody had told me everything I did had to satisfy everybody else first. Oh well. My doctor also warned my system was susceptible to circulatory issues and rapid onset of lactic acid build-up during exercise, so he strongly recommended I wear compression gear while working out.

Wait … me wear tights?

In primary school one year, the end-of-year concert involved a fairy-tale story which saw every student on stage wearing an assortment of exotic costumes. Every single boy and girl ended up in tights … except me. I was a narrator, and wore a suit. I even had to wear a moustache. Made to be different again, and my chance for tights had been blown. Now here I was in my mid-thirties, being instructed to wear a garment that I had never worn before, which also happened to go against every fibre of my being. Wear something close fitting? Something that let people see the shape of my body? Who the hell would think that was okay?

Some deep-seated issues were being confronted head-on.

The thing was my self-esteem wasn’t opposed to it. My self-esteem—for what it was worth and whenever I could find it—simply didn’t care. It had stopped caring long ago. I was even in two minds about caring about the ramifications if I didn’t follow my doctor’s advice. Diabetes? Meh. If I rolled over and vanished from the face of the Earth, nobody would care anyway. Even if I showed up at dance lessons, would everyone laughing at me prove too much of the wrong sort of distraction for the class and I’d be asked to leave? I had no idea. In overthinking it all, I was going nowhere. Then a chance discussion with a colleague while working on a contract assignment gave me the necessary impetus. She thought my attending gym, Pilates and dance classes was the perfect antidote to my depression, anxiety and non-existent self-esteem. She was a world of encouragement and support the likes of which I had never been the recipient of before. I was bewildered. Where had this generosity of spirit come from? Was she sure she wasn’t confusing me with someone else? It turned out she was genuine, and I had the fortune to come across the diametric opposite of someone like my father. A genuine, bona-fide cheer-squad. Holy hell.

Shame she was already married.

So, I took the plunge. I bought the gear, enlisted in classes, and started. Nobody gagged and guffawed as I walked into the gym. There was a complete and utter lack of anyone laughing and pointing as I entered the dance studio. All I had were first-day intrigued side glances at someone so badly out of shape they needed help. There was a shrug of acceptance and then the getting-on with their own thing. I wore the tights. Compression tights for gym and men’s running tights for dance (men’s dance tights were phenomenally expensive at the time, so I opted for the cheaper athletic pants). Both the gym and the dance studio sported floor-to-ceiling mirrors. I caught sight and didn’t recognise myself. Holy hell, I looked awful. Not because I was in tights, but because I really had let myself go, and my outfit showed that as never before. I didn’t need bathroom scales to tell me something was wrong. There it was, right in front of me, plain as day.

The compression gear genuinely helped. I didn’t get the cramps and acid burn I’d suffered any time I’d been physical in the past. I felt great in them. They were more comfortable than anything I’d worn before. There were other guys who wore them too. At the time they were becoming increasingly popular, whether it was for showing off physique or for medical reasons like I had. Young and old guys alike sported them, and for the first time since I was a wee lad, I actually relaxed about my body image. Decades of body-shaming seemed to slough off as I focussed on getting fit and healthy so my doctor wouldn’t yell at me so much. I even told myself my goal was to be in shape enough where I could walk down the street in my workout gear and not feel ashamed (were I to be a normal person with a normal level of self-esteem and no social anxiety disorder, that is).

Then work changed. The contract ended. In one fell swoop, I lost my cheer-squad-in-the-wilderness and with her, my incentive. Out the door went my three-times-a-week workout habit. The dance course concluded, and I noticed I wasn’t tripping over my own feet as often any more. The dance classes were a serious workout, and it was only because of work at the gym that I was able to dance. With no more gym, I had to hang up my dance shoes as well. I resumed the sedentary life. In time, the tummy returned, and I lost the fight against developing type-2 diabetes. My doctor started yelling at me again. My vaguely stirring embryonic self-esteem took another dive, and I no longer cared again.

Not all stories have a happy ending.

I wrote this essay not because I wanted to describe the ups and downs of my health. Rather, I wanted to describe the damage that can be inflicted when a male gets body-shamed (and body-shaming in general—I think females have it far worse than guys but guys still have a problem, hence this essay).

I’ve noticed that particularly in English-speaking countries there seems to be a propensity of body-shaming any guy who wears close-fitting gear and who’s not already a buff Adonis. In recent years there seems to be a subtle push towards the eighties vibe of skin-tight (“skinny”) jeans, leggings, tights (especially compression/athletic tights) for guys, mixed with the sleek aspirational image of athletes. To seemingly counter that exuberance, men and boys are made to compromise by some quarters of the community. Hipsters wearing leggings or skinny jeans are sneered at, derided and even have their sexuality questioned. Guys wear shorts over compression tights (except sportsmen, such as football players here in Australia). A popular US brand of athletic and compression wear emphasises their range as being considered “under”garments. Yet in Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as on the sporting tracks of professional athletes and the Olympics themselves, it’s unusual to see males treating their sport gear that way. In socially-mature and liberal-minded France, guys don’t usually wear shorts over their compression gear. Their athletic wear is what they wear as “overwear”, and they’re not body-shamed into covering up.

Some might argue over-shorts are for the sake of “modesty”, but they’re not really. They’re so critics can feel better about themselves being confronted by men accepting themselves as they are. Would that fourteen-year-old me have worn compression tights had they been around at the time? Had I not been subject to so much body-shaming abuse, I dare say I would have. When I attended the gym to work out, my personal trainer said to me the gym was about watching out for yourself and not to be concerned about what others thought. Everyone was on their own journey, and some had far more to travel than others. He understood (and agreed with my doctor) why I attended in compression tights, and assured me if anyone had “issues” (nobody did), it wasn’t up to me to worry about what they saw. All they needed to do was stop staring and get on with their own workout. I’d like to think such an attitude could somehow continue into the street, where the message is “kindly stop minding my business, thank you”. If a guy wants to wear athletic gear, let him. If they’re an overweight, under-fit guy like me, what difference does it make? Stop staring, it’s rude, and what’s ruder is telling me what I can and can’t wear. Generations of women have suffered and continue to suffer under the same domineering regime to their collective detriment, and doing it to guys is similarly unjustified.

When a critic declares wearing such garments as being “scandalous”, “indecent” or even “perverted” all they do is reveal their own rather perverted perspective, where everything is sexualised, scandalised and demoralised. In the eighties, boys and men, young and old would flock to beaches, swimming pools, waterparks etc in their swim briefs, and nobody thought anything of it. In these modern times, almost everyone is covered up in T-shirts and board shorts, briefs relegated to competitive swimming and diving. Even briefs themselves have been extended into knee-lenth “jammers”, which somehow seem more acceptable, as if the upper thigh were some offence to the sensibilities. All I learnt from that lesson drummed into me when I was young was there was something wrong with me. For me, it was because of comparing myself to my peers. In the modern world as everyone is similarly clad, it’s the ‘norm’ and therefore potentially not as harmful, but why hide everything away? Is it because everything is seen through scandalous, indecent, perverted and sexualised eyes?

Can’t we see the world with better eyes than that?

If males were permitted to love themselves for who and how they are, to aspire to be that tanned sack-of-walnuts buffed ideal yet accept where they are on their journey in the meantime, then body-shaming could be relegated to the dustbin of history where it belongs. There’s also a better than decent chance such respect might also come to be brought to women and girls, since much of what is foisted on them comes from the deep-rooted insecurity of men. As the fourteen-year-old paraded on that beach, a part of me knew there was no hope for me amongst all those svelte men and their tanned pecs. I was the absolute omega on that beach. I was shamed into accepting that implicitly. I also saw where I needed to be. I was presented a goal. Had I the self-belief (and support of family), I may have worked to be like them, or at least worked to be a better version of myself. Instead, with no self-belief, with no support or even an encouraging word in my ear, I withdrew and became a fat, sick nothing.

I know for my part it’s unlikely there will ever be self-respect. One does not build a house on unstable foundations, then attempt to fix the foundations afterwards and expect a solid, dependable house. All I can hope to do is bolster and buttress my house as best I can lest it come crashing down altogether (been damn close a few times). I don’t hold myself to any ideals, because to this day I still battle with any sense of worthiness in reaching any ideal (and there is no cheer-squad, either).

At the same time, and more for the sake of others, I still feel the need to take a stand and declare that body-shaming is every much a part of anti-social bullying as driving a car into a crowd of innocent people. Body-shaming can kill. It can lead to eating disorders, drug abuse, and so much else. My own self-harm has drawn me close, but I’m still here. Maybe I’ve allowed my diabetes to be my noose instead. Maybe something else. Who knows?

It’s time to stop the bullying. Time to stop the mean-spirited anti-social behaviour of those who feel some moral superiority because they come to believe in their own perspective alone. Time to accept and respect, to see with eyes of maturity and peace and hope and understanding and empathy, because frankly I think the modern world has had a gutful of the alternative.

I know I have.

 

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