In my teens and early 20s, I battled an eating disorder. It’s time for a candid discussion about body-shaming in the LGBT community.
The rain was streaking down outside the windows of a church school somewhere in the hills outside Chattanooga, Tennessee. I was eight years old and my sign-language class just let out. Our instructor’s name was Giselle. She was in her twenties with hip-length chestnut brown hair and she wore a typical ’90s uniform: black denim OshKosh overalls with a white turtleneck underneath.
I can’t recall what our next appointment was for that day, but we were in a hurry to leave on time to make it to whatever the next activity was. I scuttled to the boys’ bathroom with my two younger brothers in tow. I finished first and headed to the sink; my brothers were still in the stalls. The cracked and stained mirror sat above a bay of old white porcelain sinks. I had turned on the faucet and was splashing cold water on my hands when to my astonishment, my mom burst into the bathroom.
“What is taking you all so long?” my mom was in one of her exasperated, red-faced huffs. She saw me standing there at the sink, tap still running. I wasn’t smiling.
“Awww, what’s that frown about?” my mom mocked me. She slid up behind me and enveloped me, wrapping me in something close to a choke-hold and sliding her fingers up my face, manipulating my frown into a forced smile. “Turn that frown upside down,” she taunted. She then dropped her voice to a sinister whisper. “Do you know how ugly you look right now?” she hissed.
Her words shot through me like a poisoned arrow. I felt myself dissociate and the overwhelming desire to leave my young body. Lifeless and frozen there in her grotesque squeeze, I felt a sensation that has haunted me innumerable times throughout my life: I am unlovable. I don’t want to be me anymore. I want out of this skin I’m in.
Having just crossed the threshold of puberty at 12 years old, water cascaded down my body, down my swim trunks and trailed down my legs as I rose out of the Olympic-sized pool. I swam competitively on the swim team at an all-boys school, one of the myriad of sports activities that my mom had us engage in over the years. She often sat by the side of the pool, gossiping with the other mothers as we swam.
As I reached for my towel, a snippet of her conversation caught my ear. “See how chunky Daniel is getting these days?” she laughed. “That boy loves his sweets, I swear. He’d be fatter than the barn if I didn’t have him swimming and doing all these sports.”
I am unlovable. I don’t want to be me anymore. I want out of this skin I’m in.
20-something years old, I had just entered the Harlem apartment of a Grindr hookup. “Hello?” I called. The hallway was empty, but his door was ajar. He was lying spread-eagle across the bed on a grey towel, his ass in the air. Slowly, he rose to meet my gaze. He fumbled for a pair of gym shorts lying near his nightstand.
“You don’t need to put those on! We haven’t even gotten started yet,” I laughed.
“Actually, I do,” he said. He looked me up and down with a searing, critical eye. “I think you should leave now.”
Without needing to hear him speak another word, I had already gotten the message. I am unlovable. I don’t want to be me anymore. I want out of this skin I’m in.
Aghast, I backed up, instinctively headed toward the front door of the apartment. I could barely breathe at all. But that wasn’t enough for him.
He lunged toward me and gave me a shove in the direction of the door. “I don’t f — k fat fags!” he hissed.
When a lifetime of abuse, body-shaming and bullying by others becomes internalized, we start to feel unworthy in the skin we live in. Like fallen angels, the true nature of our beauty is often visible to others, but not to us. We no longer trust that we exist in perfection as a beautiful creation, uniquely ourselves.
You may recognize us by an emptiness behind our eyes, an aversion of our gaze. We sit atop a well of tears, accumulated from a lifetime of being made to feel small, of being crushed underfoot, of being cast aside.
Somewhere along the line, we bought into the lie that somehow we do not measure up; that we are not every bit as pretty, as desirable, as worthy, as beautiful as some imaginary other.
In the LGBT community, looks become currency. Whether you live on Gay Billionare’s Row or Gay Skid Row is determined by the definition of your muscles, the curves of your six-pack, how much work you’ve had done to prolong the inevitable aging process, and whether you’re skinny enough to squeeze into the tiniest size of this year’s swimwear. These lies are so insidious, we may even buy into them without even realizing we are doing so.
As Robert Holden put it, “No amount of self-improvement can make up for any lack of self-acceptance.”
Now that we are, each and every one, forced to hide behind literal masks in our society— can the conversation shift? Can we re-frame our dialogue around the things that are truly important? Can we begin to reach out and support one another based on the content of our character, and not superficial physical qualities? A fresh, more affirming chapter waits to be written.
“There is no greater suffering than constantly measuring yourself and coming up short, except perhaps the realization that your suffering is hurting others. But where do we learn these things? Because, really, they are learned. We don’t come crying out of the womb because of our birth weight or because we have no money in this brand new world. We learn to measure and we learn to attach our self-worth to those measurements.”
― Vironika Tugaleva