I have a dented front, like a beat up Honda. Where many men’s pectorals rest adjacent (sometimes flat, sometimes as hardy, risen plateaus) I instead have a slope and a concave valley, like the very tip of the inside of a skull. With my shirt off, it seems as if I have no heart, or God as taken an ice cream scoop to my chest, or I was dealt a punch to the sternum by Atlas. Sometimes it’s the remnants of a woodpecker’s bird’s nest
I’ve taken to calling attention to it, even when my shirt is on. Explaining that this defect was in fact the result of the very dream stuff I’ve listed above. In fact, I like to tell myself that I enjoy saying these things, as if I don’t sometimes catching myself in the mirror, slowly stroking my caved in chest like the curled up corpse of a dead pet. It can be hard to admit self-deprecation obviously what it is: a defense of sorts.
I don’t love my body, but I’ve never really hated it either. I’ve had the enjoyment, despite the death’s head on my chest, to exist in it without seriously interrogating it beyond the usual anxieties born of pituitary changes. For a good while, I just never thought of my body as a thing to hate, as anything but what it was: a body, which, as a kid, not yet understanding the fecundity of social data and anxiety that spills and flows between and around us all, I knew my body as it physically felt. It was warm. It glowed. Sometimes I could feel my pulse in my fingertips.
I don’t really know when I started looking into the mirror and seeing the hole in my chest as a perverse embodiment of lack, but I do know that at some point I would run and swim and sit and laugh, clothed and shirtless without being beholden to how others might be seeing the way I was presenting myself (which, to be clear, is just about physicality and not other deeply embedded interpersonal anxieties that had more to do with popularity or status. I’d, maybe as soon as I was conscious enough to be around other kids and to care about being around other kids, wondered what they thought of me on like a soul like level, what they thought of my essence. Listen, nothing is out of target range when it comes to self conscious anxiety).
This is not to say I don’t feel a presence of body. I do, however, remember a point in time when my body was present and I existed without necessarily being seen. I didn’t have to imagine how other’s would react to my physicality when seeing me. It was a kind of freedom, but an innocent and inevitably doomed one.
The moments that brought me to the surface, like an errant octopus poking its orb like eyes up over the break of the ocean water for the first time to be met with flashes of a hard grey sky, were direct comments (almost always benign) that I had a divot in my chest. Or a peanut butter cup. Or a big opening. Or twisty ribs. Or lacked a heart or looked funny or had bow ribs. Once it was a weird holey thing. And again, none of these were immediately cruel, but it was enough for me, a much younger (and while equally anxious, less refined in my ability to deal) less socially developed me. I took to thinking that this different bend in my chest was bad or unsightly, or even wrong.
So often it happened by the water. Water, like anything efficiently malleable and massive, is a fine metaphor for nearly anything: Life, death, change (of moods, seasons [of life or nature], of sex) sex, rapture, emptiness, the void, every living thing and its connection. It seems fitting to me then that the beach or the pool or the lake or pond or river or wherever you first find yourself acceptably naked for the first time in public is a source of anxiety and arousal (two emotions that are far from mutually exclusive). It’s weird to learn to cover ourselves at all times, except for when we want to enter water, whether it be the purifying process of a shower, the amniotic bathtub, or in some place more public. And that we must carefully and discretely guard pieces of our skin from the sight of others lest we offend, are offended, get too worked up, work someone else up (there seem to be as many reasons as there are waves on the face of the sea). These public self-displays only really start to highlight how naked we are (beyond physicality) when those previously mentioned pituitary changes start to break through the levees and threaten to wash us away.
I can remember a very specific kind of stance us pre/teens of every sex used to take when near water. We’d wrap ourselves just so, clutch each elbow in the opposite hand and keep our arms close to our bellies to simultaneously obscure and highlight. Sometimes someone brave or foolish would verbally march their way across another person’s body and deploy a descriptive comment, laying out a landmark on this newly realized maps. For me, the one that really stuck was “What’s that hole in your chest?” as if I was supposed to have a ready explanation as to why my chest curved the way it did, like a physicist describing the current of a wave. I don’t think I retorted with anything but an uncomfortable look. Because it’s uncanny to realize that others see things that supposedly belong to us we never thought were there. Before it had been a chest. It was a warm smooth thing that attached my arms to and sometimes I washed with soap. It was warm, and I liked how it felt on my fingers. Now it was as if I was responsible for it, to explain why it existed at all.
John Berger, in his Docu-series, “Ways of Seeing” brings an excellent critical reading to the tradition of the female nude in painting. While this is no new knowledge, women are objectified more than men. Their body parts are chopped up and wrapped in gazes of various strength and intention. From a woman’s start, her body never really belongs to her and if it does, she is decried as vain, or conceited, or the worst thing, an aberrant sexual creature, a whore. Berger explains that the female nude reproduces this phenomenon. Think of the very few emotions women express in the nude. It is often a coy look, vacillating between innocent and empty, head turned as if to reject and invite. When Botticelli Painted Venus, the Goddess of love, even she seemed locked into a perfect limbo between nudity and modesty, never too cold so as to be unwelcoming (and a cold bitch) or to hot lest what we demanded of her was made too easily available and vulgar (an easy slut). Berger asserts that the socially acceptable woman is one who can constantly maintain this decorum of modesty, which requires her to constantly view herself as if someone else is viewing her, constantly monitor her body to make sure it presents itself in that middle space of (false) safety, constantly monitor her monitoring to keep from appearing self-absorbed. She must always keep up appearances and never be exhausted. The results of these mostly quiet and present demands are devastating. All I started with was an extra lumpy chest and it was too much for me in part because most of us men, far removed from the same psychic weight of self-consideration are the ones who watch and wait. Or at least, this is a part of the story.
One of the beautifully twisted results of modern equality is some perverse notion that, to free us all, everyone of every gender should be more objectified. In a turn so self destructive it might have been designed by Oedipus himself, the fitness industry, which has connections to the philosophy that a healthy body makes for a healthy life (and also benefits from the unrelenting brutality of our hungry cultural gaze), decided that women as bodily self moderators weren’t consumer enough, weren’t sweating the treadmills enough, and so men began escalating their physiques to cartoonish levels (though to be fair my chronology is pretty off here, but the point that women have always been objectified then taught to objectify themselves still stands). Understandably then, eating disorders in both men and women are at an all-time high (of course there’s probably more here to uncover, but that’s for another time).
What started for me as preteen moment of horror, a seed of self conscious embarrassment, like a teen soap version of Lady Macbeth’s stain, grew and grew until my skinniness itself was an extension of the void in my chest. I looked in the mirror, a horny, self-loathing teenager and only saw lack. I was not muscly enough and so not man enough or attractive enough or good enough. It was the usual nightmare each of us has faced in the harsh yellow lights of the locked bathroom, letting the male gaze of millions see through our own eyes until its pitiless stare has left nothing unturned, nothing private or loved.
And my impulse here is to make a nostalgic rallying cry where we might all, all of us of all sexes, return to that Edenic state of letting our bodies exist as physical things that need not be gazed at to constitute us as people. But this is misguided, and, more importantly, impossible. Like Pandora’s Box or toothpaste, what is loosed cannot be recaptured. This does not mean we’re doomed to forever salaciously drooling over chopped up bits of body parts that we’ve been trained to find arousing.
I think this is one of those places where the conventional, the cliché, the boring answer is the true one. Intimacy is a thing that transforms bodies in private.
I was alone with a woman I, at the time, loved deeply. Every time she scrunched her nose and looked in my eyes she made so many things in me glow. She was and still is beautiful. She did not think so. She’d shared with me how an earlier boyfriend had referred to her as that most damning word (fat) like a petulant child throwing a tantrum, just trying to hurt her. How her mother had grown up scrutinizing her diet and reprimanding her for anything sweet or fat or greasy or too heavy in calories or empty of nutrients etc. etc. It was many moments of petty viciousness that were absorbed in her body and redirected against it. It was devastating to see someone so alluring look on herself and shiver with disgust. Through long and torturous treatments by men and (some) women, her body had become abject. This, naturally, made our first forays into physical intimacy hard (I of course had my own hang ups and fears). And this one evening, in the earth tones of her bedroom, with a kind of luminescent glow to the room, I asked her if I could hug her while she undressed. Her eyes were soft and scared. She was scared. I was too. I didn’t know if I was forcing some demand on her that was unfair, or uncouth, but we both wanted to be with each other. And so, I hugged her and kissed her skin as she pulled of her shirt. And she had to stop. She asked me to help, and so she hugged me as I slowly undressed her. And I told her to hug me harder the more nervous she was. And she did, hug me. And we were both still scared, but she didn’t let go until we were both unclothed. And she let go so she could take her hand and gently rub the lack in my chest. And when she did, it was not to say she loved me despite this lack, but because she didn’t even recognize its existence as a lack. It was my chest and I wanted her to touch me, especially there, in that moment, more than ever. This missing spot became apart of me again, just as her body had started to become hers. And in those moments we were with each other as each other, with each other as we wanted the other to see themselves.
You see, the body is mutable. It is no one thing, but so often we’re left to experience it as insufficient or ugly or wrong. But it can change and I don’t mean a kind of vulgar physical change, but rather, all of use alchemists with our intents and attentions, can be infuse it with new moments, moments that, I believe, let us carry love in and on our skin. This is a hard thing to remember when looking in the mirror, and an even harder thing to find. But there is a kind of revolution of mutual understanding that happens in moments of deep and vulnerable intimacy, where we are reminded that our spirit is clay and it can be remade in the hands of someone close to us.
This doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes see my indent and wonder why God fucked with my ribs so much (after all, he just took one of Adam’s he didn’t remold his whole chest) but it does give me some sense that there is and always will be a possibility of transmutation of the body from pure object to a keeper of secrets: loving, silly, gentle, kind, warm, sexy, real, private moments all.
I think that maybe, like most things, we must remember to recall those moments we’ve been remade in, remade in the trust of a mutual intimacy, a thing that is, perhaps, always beyond objectification.