What Happened When I Took My Shirt Off
On the third day of Coachella while Real Estate played, I took off my shirt.
When I was 12, I was chubby. I didn’t care. Kids would sometimes poke fun at me, but it never bugged me; it was only something that I was acutely aware of when it occurred. Besides, being chubby didn’t get in the way of the most important things to 12-year-old-me: marathon sessions of NBA Jam and improving my laser tag accuracy on Saturday nights.
But when I started high school, it was like a mad scientist reached into my internal mixing board and dialed up my insecurity levels all the way from zero to I Hate Me. I was never obese — I wasn’t even close. However, I was chunky enough to repel the opposite sex, and that was enough for me.
I took a page out of the “Jessie Spano Guide To High School” and started to rotate caffeine pills into my diet, replacing meals with them. In the short term, it worked: 30 pounds flew off of me in a relatively quick time frame. I looked thin. Abs started to rise beneath my flesh, and (most importantly) girls wanted to make out with me!
With college came the return of that weight. But it returned to everybody, so I wasn’t alone in dealing with the struggles of my physicality. I was better off than I was years before, but I still didn’t feel right about myself. Kind of like a refurbished laptop.
College ended. Professional life began. I started taking care of my body and ate fewer meals that consisted of Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby ice cream chased with a Fufu Berry Jones Soda. I thinned out substantially, but my body dysmorphia still had me dodging mirrors that showed me from the neck down. What I couldn’t see never bugged me.
I became tolerant of my body, but not proud of it. Although my feelings about myself were closer to healthy, crippling depression would occasionally attack, bringing back all the feelings of antipathy I had for myself as a teenager.
Before I took off my shirt, I felt incredibly nervous. I felt like I needed some kind of permission — the kind of permission you need before you give a pretty girl a kiss at prom. So, I asked my friend Ana, even though she had zero governance over my body.
“Do you think I’d gross people out if I took off my shirt?”
“Uh, no,” she said, in a “duh” tone that someone would respond with if you asked them if they think Newt Gingrich is a good person, or if there’s any reason why you’d want to hang out in Murray Hill on a Saturday night.
With relatively little mental fanfare, I peeled the shirt off my damp hide. I probably blinded some people with the mother-of-pearl color of my skin, but after vocalizing my insecurities for ten minutes with Ana, my brain started to unravel something like this:
I had my shirt off in a public place and nobody made fun of me and the world didn’t fold into itself and I actually felt okay with this and oh my GOD oh my god oh my god, what does it mean?
I lay in the grass as currents of wind snuck up behind me and hugged my bare shoulders. I looked down at myself and for the first time in years, paid honest attention to my frame without contorting my face into a Double Windsor of disgust.
Maybe I’m not so gross. What if I never was? Can I get those years of my life back?
I own a big mirror large enough to see from my face to my torso. I walk by it through my railroad apartment on my way to the shower every day.
I put a sticker in the upper-right had corner of it — one I had peeled off of a black Ford Focus in Bushwick while I was meandering home at three in the morning a couple of weeks after I took my shirt off. The sticker barely hangs there.
Objects in mirror are closer than they appear, it reads.
We’ve all seen those words in rear-view mirrors since most of us were able to read, but they now take on an entirely new meaning in my life. Whenever I see something in the mirror that I don’t like these days, I just look at that sticker.
I don’t have abs of steel or thunderous biceps or a titanium jaw and I will never have any of these qualities. My body will always be roughly nineteen leagues away from Bradley Cooper, and sometimes it’ll bug me because I’m human. These truths are inescapable. It took me ages to own my body for what it is, but now that I do, life’s prism is markedly more vivid than ever before.
A | A | A
If you’ve been looking for a chance to say something then this very well could be it.
I wish to God I’d had a list like this when I was 23.
Answer phones better than anyone else has answered phones before. Relay messages so brilliant, they bring people to tears. Turn the coffee run into the choreography of Swan Lake. Become best friends with every intern and every underling and every taxi driver you encounter.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!”