From the ages of 10-15, I refused to swim without a shirt on. The first time I noticed my belly button and body were built differently than the other boys was after my mother developed film from our trip to Long Beach Island. I sat in the back of her hot minivan outside a CVS and eagerly flipped through the pictures. There, in the center of a stack, was a picture of me with cherry Italian ice all over my face. My smile is missing my two front teeth, and my belly is bulging and covered in sand. Sticking out from the middle was a belly button that protruded from my gut.
In a moment, all the comments about my “cute baby fat” from my relatives made sense. I tried to shove the picture into my pocket before my mom could notice, but I was too late. After snatching the photo out of my hands she proclaimed, “Aw, look at those cheeks!” From then on, I was cognizant that I had an out belly button and baby fat, and decided that I would only go into bodies of water wearing a t-shirt to shield my body from scrutiny.
And the first time I watched porn, I was excited and flustered seeing the rippling abs. The bulging pecs and the toned lower V’s on the men thrusting on screen was an intoxicating site for my virgin eyes. I was entranced not only because they satisfied my innate sexual desire, but also because they were the perfect archetypes of how I wanted to look. I don’t blame porn for making me doubt my body, but it sure hasn’t done me many favors.
I’d stand in the mirror shirtless and rub my stomach as if abs could grow just from willpower and friction heat generated from my palms. I remember only eating yogurt for a week. I still thought I was fat.
After shedding baby weight just from maturing and a combination of soccer and cross-country, I noticed that there was still something society deemed less attractive about my body. Boys would see me shirtless and comment on how slim I was, or how they found muscles so sexy, and suggest I go to the gym and eat more protein. A boy I’d gone on a few dates with eventually stopped contacting me, telling a mutual friend that he thought my face was cute, “but he could do better in the body department.”
What hurt most about that harsh dismissal was that it was solely about my body, and I’m stuck with it. I could go on crash diets, or completely change my lifestyle in order to project to the world my inner desire to be toned and beautiful. But the truth is, I’ve always been someone who would prefer to sit on a couch with a book than run to the gym. Exercise is healthy, but it’s never been something my body has naturally gravitated to. Some of the boys I grew up with were exactly like puppies; excitable and full of energy and needed to be walked four times a day just to exert all their energy. Meanwhile, I’ve always been the lazy family cat, sitting in a sun patch and sleeping 16 hours at a time.
Maybe this is about my worry that people will see my body the way I do. Yet I know this can not be true, because no one scrutinizes our bodies more than we do ourselves. I know there’s someone out there who’d rather eat a large pizza in one sitting with me than see me with a six-pack. There’s someone who won’t make me feel panicked when I take my shirt off and they see my belly button. But before this beautiful person comes into my life, I need to make sure that I love the way I look naked. And sure, I may not love my body today or tomorrow, but I have to keep reminding myself that I’m lucky it works at all, and how if I find it beautiful, maybe someday someone else will too.
—Follow Shawn Binder on Twitter: @ShawnBinder