Manboobs and me

I was asked to read an essay as part of the Marrow reading series’ event at the Pitchfork Book Fort in Union Park on Sunday, July 20. This is what I read that day.

I remember when I noticed my body was very different from most of the boys I knew. When I first came to understand I’d almost certainly never look like the sexy, long-haired guys playing guitar I ogled subconsciously while watching “Wayne’s World” on repeat with my brother. I definitely had a thing for ripped up jeans.

I was in fifth grade and it happened in the locker room of the tiny gym of my small-town grade school. I’d come to loathe that room and dread walking down the gray concrete stairs to that dark, smelly dungeon of a middle-school gym class locker room.

“What’s up with your boobs, man?” a still-prepubescent classmate asked.

I didn’t know what to say but I remember bringing it up to my mom later that day — how it hurt my feelings and how it made me want to never enter that disgusting dungeon again. How it made me feel, for the first time, that my body was wrong. That it needed fixing.

“It’s just baby fat, hon,” my mom told me, with that 100-percent-guaranteed tone only a mom can have. “You’ll grow out of it.”

The fact that I was a little chubber had really failed to register on my radar before then. I grew up in a happy home in my small family in rural Wisconsin. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I felt like I didn’t need them. I loved to read, think and play — building giant theatre complexes out of Legos before writing surprisingly sophisticated scripts for my tiny plastic people to perform. I was happy.

But as I was entering middle school, it was different. I came to realize that the “husky” tag on my Arizona Jean Co. jeans set me apart from my classmates — and it didn’t help that I wasn’t particularly gifted athletically or interested in any sports besides figure skating, gymnastics or beauty pageants.

Whenever I found myself near a swimming pool, I was that kid wearing a shirt in the water, fooling everyone with my one-man wet t-shirt contest. The thought of being ridiculed was too much and I never learned how to swim. Land would have to do.

When I told my dad about being bullied for what I soon learned were my “manboobs,” my dad’s comfort was simple: “Look at me,” he would say, “I was always the biggest kid in my school so you know what I did to the first twerp that made fun of me for it? I dunked his head right into a toilet. Fluuuuush. No one ever teased me again. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of you. Don’t you ever forget that.”

Though I wasn’t about to physically assault someone — I think he was seriously overestimating my upper body strength — I took the rest of his advice and tried my best to ignore the teasing. And as they say, it got better. Sort of. I retreated into a regrettable Korn-with-a-K-listening-to-nu-metal period of what would turn out to be my not-just-a-phase goth phase. I even played tennis for a couple of years. I lost some weight. When my braces came off and I got contacts at the start of high school, I thought my manboob days were behind me.

Of course, they weren’t.

At my first job, running trays of food to servers at a seafood restaurant at the age of 14, the expediter in the kitchen would yell out “Tits! Come and get it, Tits!” when my table’s food was up.

When my chest remained large, I sometimes wondered if there was a woman trapped in my man body. I’d stare at my penis for a half hour at a time and wonder if it was somehow possible that what I was looking at was actually some sort of lady-like part to match what I’d been told was my lady-like chest. (Sex-ed was not my school’s forte, but shoutout to MTV “Undressed” for clearing that all up.)

I’ve struggled with weight issues ever since, see-sawing between periods of disordered eating and obsessive exercising — when I was eating only half a Pop Tart for breakfast and three mozzarella sticks for lunch for almost an entire year of high school, weighing just 150 pounds — and other periods of complete inactivity, eating constantly and ballooning to almost 100 pounds more than that.

At one point, when I was dressed as Little Edie Beale from “Grey Gardens” for Halloween one year, one of my best friends, dressed as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, approached me at a party and grabbed and squeezed my chest flab.

“What are these MADE of?”

“My skin.”

Time can be funny. I remember feeling absolutely monstrous even at my skinniest, unhealthiest point. When I look back at photos from that time, it’s like I can almost see my skeleton showing through my way-too-thin layers of skin. Who knows, I might feel the same way looking at photos of myself today someday.

Speaking of today, I’m better, thankfully. I’m eating better — I’ve even come to like the taste of kale! — and I go to the gym at least three times a week. I don’t instantly associate rejection with my body the way I used to. I’d say, on a happiness scale of 1 to 10, I’m generally around an 8.

But sometimes the darkness creeps back in, as it tends to. Sometimes I still catch a glimpse of myself in the window of a building as I walk by and cringe at what I see. Some nights I dream of cutting away my extra fleshy parts and bleeding only pure, glittering joy at what was left. I still wake up other days and wish I could pull open my body at the waist to reveal a slightly smaller, otherwise identical version inside, like a matryoshka doll.

Of course, sometimes, the prompts are more external.

Last month, I was watching the Pride Parade as it marched and rolled down Halsted Street. Sandwiched between the entries from local politicians, corporations and bars was a float from a suburban liposuction clinic making their Pride debut. Riding the float were young children hoisting rainbow-hued flags reading “We’ll suck your fat!” And emblazoned on the side of the float was a sign exclaiming: “Say no to manboobs! We can get rid of them!”

I ended up writing a story about the float for my job and spoke with the clinic about their message. The story was later picked up by a number of blogs and news stations. She was shocked that anyone would be upset.

What their spokeswoman told me was that their message was one of love — that they are only trying to help people love themselves and help them look how they would like to look — and she reminded me that many companies would refuse to participate in a Pride Parade. She said she wanted “us” to know that they were “here for you guys.” I wanted to tell her to fuck off.

Of course, I’m not surprised that she was surprised anyone would be upset with their fat-shaming messages interrupting a day that is supposed to be about community and love. Some of the worst body-shaming I’ve ever witnessed has actually happened among members of my own so-called community. But this attack, coming from the outside, stung extra hard.

At one point during our conversation, the spokeswoman asked me what I would have suggested they write on their signs instead. I didn’t answer her question then but, after giving it some thought, I finally have an answer for her today.

What about: “Do what makes you happy!” Or “All bodies are beautiful, dammit!” Or maybe: “Listen to your body, do whatever the hell is right for it!”

I’ve come to understand, manboobs or no manboobs, our bodies are all we have. Let’s treat them like it while we still have them. And fuck anyone who says otherwise.

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