Junior High Angst: Self Acceptance Lessons from a Speedo
Wherever you go, there you are. Damn, if that had to be the case!
Everyone has their share of baggage. My childhood set came with my parents' divorce at age seven, being raised by a single mom on a teacher's salary, sexual abuse by an uncle, peer rejection and ridicule as a teen, and loneliness and isolation living as an only child.
While I've been on the journey of self acceptance for most of my adult life, had I known the angst those early years would cause me later on, I swear I would have attempted an earlier start!
It's funny how my thoughts and beliefs are still influenced by memories and events 20, 30, even 40 years old now.
Let's take junior high - 7th grade in particular. Some pretty heavy things happened in my life at that time. My mom and I moved to an upper middle class, white, conservative, Republican town, and though most of the time it can suck being the new kid on the block, arriving at my new destination full of pre-teen insecurities took it to a whole new level.
Now in talking with my peers in recent years, I discovered that even the most outwardly "secure" kid had his or her own internal self esteem battles. BUT, kids being the nasty, vicious, back-stabbing, upward affiliating, demonic envoys they're sometimes prone to be (hold on now...did I REALLY say that out loud??), junior high was a dog eat dog world and it was either eat or be eaten.
And let me tell you, I entered the scene a bleeding mess...perfect for all those little predators waiting for their next meal. I carried a lot of shame and uncertainty from the previous year's sexual abuse. I was developing strong attractions to other boys. I didn't know a thing about ANY kind of sport. I had no dad to pal around with and no siblings to talk to. And hell if I had any cool clothes to speak of.
It was a year of non-stop taunting and teasing, with "gay" and "fag" the popular adjectives used to describe me.
And here's the deal. I know LOTS of men and women can match or even best my story so far as the horrors they endured. My experience might actually be quite tame in comparison. This isn't a contest and I'm definitely not interested in playing the victim card.
I'm just settin' the stage...
Many aspects of that hellish year were instrumental in shaping my psyche. And with or without God (Yes, I do believe in God. Like it or lump it.), it's a tough road undoing all that damage.
One area in particular was coming to terms with my sexuality, something I felt a need to suppress and control. In fact, I let that pre-emergent volcano smolder for 40 years. I done never let a man kiss me until after that movie came out. It's true! I was a 40 year old virgin! (In some circles I might still be considered one...)
And while my faith is important, the primary driver of that decision was NOT religious. It was all those twerps in 7th grade whose taunts and jeers lived on forever in the subterranean hallways of my mind.
Lots happened between then and now, but let's roll things forward a bit to three years ago. That's when I came out and identified myself as a gay man.
I thought for sure this would resolve every last straggling self esteem and insecurity issue I had. I finally decided to come home to my peeps and they would welcome me with open arms!!!
Hmmmmm...sort of, but not really.
There's this book called "Everything I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." Here's my version: "Everything I Learned in Junior High Will Come Back to Haunt Me AGAIN as a Gay Man Coming Out."
I should have taken notes the first time...
For whatever reason, the most vicious offenders in junior high were the girls. While the boys could be cruel in their own way, some of the girls had a real knack when it came to emasculating and humiliating me. That bitchy, conniving behavior was capable of castrating my confidence in a matter of seconds.
I swear that some of the gay men I've encountered over the last several years have been uncanny reincarnations of those hell cats. What happened?? I thought everyone was going to be nice!
I never realized the pressure I would feel to maintain a great physical appearance and wear all the right clothes until I moved closer to the gay neighborhoods in my city. Fortunately, my Mom's side of the family have all tended to look much younger than their actual age and, luckily, I inherited that gene. I also got into the habit of taking good care of my skin a long time ago (this face will never be kissed by Dial!).
But despite my youthful looks and trim, athletic body, I STILL carry inside me that harsh, critical voice that insists I check out my reflection in the store window as I'm walking by, just to make sure I look okay. Is the belly flopping out? Do the clothes look frumpy? How's the hair doing? I've never felt it quite to the degree that I have here, and I don't even live in flipping L.A.!!!
I reached the pinnacle of my insecurities when I decided to hit the gay beach scene. Oh Lord, talk about pressure.
First, my swimsuit reached down to my knees. Hell if I was going to reveal anything more, but it was pretty apparent that the popular style was skinny mini bikini.
And white. Oh was I ever WHITE, without any tan to speak of, glowing amidst all those bronze beauties. How could I blend in when I stuck out like a florescent light bulb?
One day I was lying on my towel, attempting to disappear inside my sunglasses, when a stray comment hit my ears: "Oh my God, he's wearing the same suit as last year."
While the catty comment wasn't directed at me, I caved to my insecurities (and my vanity) and decided it was time for an upgrade.
I like what Eckhart Tolle writes in his book, A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life's Purpose:
"In the West, it is the physical appearance of the body that contributes greatly to the sense of who you think you are: its strength or weakness, its perceived beauty or ugliness relative to others. For many people, their sense of self-worth is intimately bound up with their physical strength, good looks, fitness, and external appearance. Many feel a diminished sense of self-worth because they perceive their body as ugly or imperfect. In some cases, the mental image or concept of 'my body' is a complete distortion of reality."
For the better part of a year I've kept myself to a nice height/weight proportion. But while that's true, I covered my physique in clothes that were not complementary to it. I should've had a clue when my jeans were just a little too "relaxed" in the ass, but no one was more surprised than me when I fit into a waist size 31 (I'd been wearing 33's and 34's).
To wear anything that would accentuate the cut of my body felt too revealing, and for that I felt shame.
So what the heck...why not get a Speedo?
While the bikini Speedo wasn't my, er, speed (a little too thong-ish for my taste), I decided the box cut might be a little more palatable. I remember trying it on at the sporting goods store. I was afraid to walk out of the little changing room to show my friends. I felt utterly buck naked.
I'll take it!
Now to get that baby out for its first ride. Ooooo, was it ever snug...and I just slid those old, baggy, long-legged swim trunks right on over them. No way in hell was I going to debut these new threads without some outer security in place. I'll dip my toe in first and then see how it feels...
I was at the beach for nearly an hour, SWEATING with this double layer of swimming attire before I'd deal with it. In fact, I was just about ready to call it a day when I decided to ask some nice guys I'd met earlier what they thought.
They practically ripped the old suit off me when it looked like I wasn't going to do it myself. And, to my surprise, they actually liked it (the suit, that is...). They thought it looked great on me.
From that point forward, it was a matter of growing accustomed to all those eyeballs checking me out at the beach. The inner voice still voiced its criticisms, comparisons, and "not good enough's" (damn that voice!), but the whole experience served to bring me a step closer to greater acceptance of - inside and out - this shell I call my body.