Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Now THAT'S Big*

(*To borrow an expression one of my readers, Wendy, uses in her comments on my blog. Thanks , Wendy. I hope you don't mind.)

I went for another run/jog/brisk walk/huffing-puffing session today.

(Just a quick word about that. In my attempt to reintroduce some sort of exercise to my routine after moving to __________ in late April, I went for my first supposed run last Tuesday, one week ago today. Man, did I pay for not keeping up with some form of cardio after we moved. I was sorer than hell, and several days passed before I felt like myself again. Plus, I came down with some mysterious illness last Wednesday and Thursday, that kept me close to the sofa and the toilet. So today was a second session in my attempt to get fit again. Believe me, as you're about to find out, I need it.)

So there I am, on some of the more remote roads around where I live, all by myself, running on the perimeter of the pavement when there's no car, and moving to the gravel shoulder when there is. I'm wearing my usual workout gear--a pair of water-resistant, navy blue Nike shorts with a black stripe down the sides, and a water-resistant, black, sleeveless Nike top with navy blue stripes down the sides. In my ears I have my iPod earbuds firmly jammed as I listen to a disco playlist I used to complete my cardio when I lived in Victoria and worked out three times a week at Fitness World. It's just after 8:00 a.m., the air is already warm, but still comfortable, and the heavily-wooded areas around me, dotted with numerous housing developments and the odd large, older house on an acreage, are peaceful and beautiful in the brilliant morning sun. Although I'm struggling to keep up my pace--it will get better, I remind myself; this is only your second time out; be patient, you'll get back into it--I feel great. I can't think of a place I'd rather be at that time than out in nature on such a beautiful day, and I'm grateful I don't live in the city, restricted to run endless city blocks, one after the other (could this be one of the charms of Maple Ridge?).

For those of you who've already read a previous post here, entitled "Shirtless," you know that I have an issue with being shirtless in public. I had one when I was much younger, in my late teens and early twenties, because I was skinny, and pale, not at all athletic, and unhappy with the way my body looked. Not only that, but I had major self-esteem issues stemming from the way I was teased and taunted in school for being gay. As I wrote before, all I could think about then was covering up in the hopes that I'd be hidden and no one would pay attention to me.

Through most of my life, I've had an issue with going shirtless in public--even on a blisteringly hot day; even on a beach in Hawaii; even driving the car down the highway; even riding my bike in the park; even in my own back yard. I don't know if it's modesty that compels me to keep my shirt on, or the fact that I've always hated the way I look, and I know the only way you can get away with being shirtless in public is if you're confident in the way you look, or don't give a damn what other people think about your body.

Actually, I have to go way back here to give this some perspective.

Those who really know me, know I'm a perfectionist. I can't remember a time when I didn't want--no, need--to be perfect, in every way that I could. I needed perfect marks in school (even though I didn't always achieve them); I needed to be perfect in my job (even though results didn't always meet expectations, mine, my manager's, or the company's); and, now, I need to be perfect in my writing (which I seldom am, and which threatens, almost every day, to stop me from writing altogether).

I know where this comes from. It's taken me many, many years to realize that, because I continue to suffer from low self-esteem--much of it centered around being gay and the message society sends about that--I don't see my self-worth simply as a human being. I've long believed that my self-worth is a function of what I do, not who I am. The challenge I face trying to overcome this is one that I'll probably deal with for the rest of my life, even though I had this revelation many years ago, and you'd think I could have let it go by now.

I'm not sure when I first became aware that I have a cafe au lait birthmark in the centre of my back, to the left of my spine, slightly larger than a loonie, but the realization of this, probably in my teens, was devastating to me. It was devastating because I saw the birthmark as an imperfection on the skin of my back. As much as I told myself it wasn't huge, and it wasn't covered in hair--as many people's large birthmarks are--I kept it covered at all times, and my need to keep it covered often restricted the activities I engaged in. I had no intention of letting anyone else see it.

I remember one fellow I went to elementary school with in Dawson Creek many years ago, who had a large, dark brown, almost reddy birthmark in the middle of his right cheek that was covered in a thick layer of black hair. I admit I was freaked out by this imperfection in such a visible place, always keeping my distance from him, and that may have had something to do with why I detested my own birthmark so much, and why I went to my doctor on more than one occasion for advice on what options I had to get rid of it. My doctor didn't recommend permanently removing it, but he did suggest that, if it bothered me that much, I could purchase a cosmetic coverup and try to erase it with that, at least temporarily.

So I did. I bought the coverup, trying to find one that roughly matched my skin tone, and, not being able to reach it myself with the small brush, I asked my sister to work on covering it for me. It was traumatic enough removing my shirt for my sister, allowing her to see my damn birthmark so she could help me try to cover it, but that was preferable to going without my shirt in public and everyone see my scourge instead.

Alas, no matter how many layers of coverup my sister applied to the offensive birthmark, nothing would conceal it completely. In fact, at a point, the repeated layers of coverup made more of an unsightly mark on my back than the birthmark did itself. Chalk one up to experience. Coverup doesn't work on large birthmarks.

So there I was, in my early twenties, riding my bike on Kelowna's city streets, the scorching summer sun beating down on me, causing my shirt to stick to my back. After much consideration, I stopped riding my bike pulled off my shirt. I decided being physically comfortable was more important than any shame I might feel if someone saw my back and was put off by it. Birthmark be damned. (I'm happy to report the world didn't come to an end that day, just because I removed my shirt and exposed my birthmark for all to see. In fact, I recall the experience, after years of never, ever taking off my shirt out in public, being tremendously liberating. But the birthmark battle was far from over altogether.)

These days, while I still think my birthmark is ugly and, if I had my choice, no one would ever see it, I think I have bigger problems preventing me from going shirtless in public--namely, my body is not as young as it used to be, and changes have taken place over time that are neither pretty nor reversible.

For example, no one told me when I was much younger that I'd sprout hair on places I couldn't have imagined. In addition to growing annoying hair in my nose and ears, I have thin patches of dark, curly hair on my shoulders, on either side of my spine, and on my lower back, to remind me I'm not getting better, I'm getting older. Chris has appeased me several times in the past by shaving the hair off my back with a straight razor, most notably, when we went to Hawaii, so I'd be more comfortable throwing my shirt off at Waikiki and jumping into the water before anyone saw me half naked. But, honestly, how many times can you ask a loved one, even your life partner, to help you indulge vanity? There are only so many hours in the day to use on the important things, right? (Yes, I've considered having my back waxed, but, as long as Chris doesn't throw up every time he sees the hair there, why bother. He's the one I really need to be worried about.)

And let's talk about the jelly that's formed in all those places where it shouldn't be. Yes, I'm still in relatively good shape from having worked out since my mid-thirties, but I have my problem areas just like most people do--namely, the saddle bags (a genetic gift from my father) and the belly. As hard as I've tried over the years, by watching everything I eat and pushing my cardio workouts even harder, the jelly gathered in these places just won't go away.

And, lately, not working out since the end of April, the jelly has accumulated a little more, as a result of eating comfort foods that have helped me feel better about our recent move, and a lack of cardio activity has done nothing to keep me trim. So, I'm not in the best shape of my life. Hence, the reason for taking a run today, and another reason for keeping on my shirt, despite the sun, the heat, and the sweat.

For some distance, I thought about how good it would feel to take my shirt off, to run bare-chested along the deserted roads of rural __________, to feel the soft air currents blow against my skin and provide relief. I thought about that twenty-something me, nearly thirty years ago, riding his bike on a hot day in Kelowna, screwing up the courage to remove his shirt, and how freeing it felt, whether or not someone saw the birthmark on my back and was repulsed by it. And I thought about all the additional strikes against me now--not just the birthmark, that will always be a part of me, but also the patches of back hair, the saddle bags, and the jelly belly.

When I was sure no one was around to see, I lifted up my shirt and watched my belly jiggle as I continued running down the side of the road. I hated what I saw. It's not how I ever envisioned myself, running into the reality of my aging body, and I was disappointed in myself for never achieving the body type I always wanted, despite years of cardio workouts and weight training. I never made it to that next level, lacking the stamina, the passion, the drive it takes to be a physical specimen, and a part of me will always regret that.

Then I thought about some of the other men I've seen run past our house recently, their shirts off in the hot weather, their bodies far from perfect, their jiggle out there for everyone to see. And a part of me switched at that point, from a place of thinking men with bodies like that should keep them covered, even when it's hot and they're working out hard, to a place of acceptance, of recognizing the beauty of a natural, aging body, of admiring their courage--no, their confidence--in being able to remove their shirts as they go about their business of running, not giving a crap what other people see as they pass by.

I thought to myself that if I could arrive at a place where I was able not only to accept an imperfect, real, natural, half-naked male body running in front of me, but to celebrate it, other people might feel the same way about me too. After all, despite the constant images of handsome, muscular, young men we see in the media (especially the gay media), their torsos perfectly formed with bulging biceps and pecs, their abs rippling and well-defined, they represent about one percent of all the people on earth. Pretty to look at, but just not practical.

Most of us fall somewhere in the average category, whether that's above average, average, or below average--not the best, but not the worst. And, in the end, there's nothing wrong with being average and celebrating the body you have--the one that gets you up in the morning, the one that allows you to spend time with your loved ones, that one that gets you through challenging days of work, the one that allows you to engage in the activities you love; and the work that lets you enjoy pleasure while having sex. We need to love our bodies, not hate them, and, to this end, I pulled the earbuds out of my ears, put them in my shorts pocket, and pulled my workout shirt over my head.

Instantly, I felt free, not just because this was the first time I've allowed myself to be publicly shirtless, without a Hawaiian beach around, in possibly a decade or more, but because, at least for the moment, I'd changed my mind about my body, about how it's changed over the years, and about how other people perceive it.

Was I nervous when vehicles drove past me, or when I turned up streets that were busier than others? Absolutely, but I'd overcome the biggest obstacle, the one that prevented me from taking off my shirt in the first place. And, now that I was naked from the waist up, the heat from the sun warming my skin, validating my decision, I focused on the task at hand--running/jogging/brisk walking, hoping I wouldn't injure myself, get hit by a vehicle, or lose my way back home.

Oh, what a feeling.


  1. Good for you, Rick! There's something in transition here, I think.

  2. I'm proud of you Rick, that's awesome! Onward & upward!!!

  3. My thanks to both of you for your interest in this post and your kind comments.
    I debated about whether to share this part of me because it's very personal, but also because I know there are far more important things going on in the world than Rick's poor body image.
    On the other hand, this was a big revelation for me. The double whammy of being gay and growing older, both of which don't go together well, has really crept up on me lately, and I know I have to come to terms with it.
    In the end, this was yet another step toward believing I'm all right just the way I am. I hope this came across in the piece.
    Again, my sincere thanks to both of you. I don't know what I'd do if you weren't there, encouraging me on.

  4. Well, hopefully you'd keep writing :)! Seriously though, yes your acceptance of self did come across. I know this was a big step for you and I'm glad you shared it with us.