Worms of the senses

roofI’ve been on the skinny side of things for as long as I can remember. Distant memories of grandmas telling me to have another serving because “you need it, kid” converge with today’s friends labeling me the skinny guy.

My physical appearance has always been troubling for me, to the point where it developed into an almost schizophrenic experience. On one side, bombarded by a media that tells the good citizen that skinny is king and size zero the way to go. On the other, told by dedicated men’s magazines to bulk up and remember the importance of large biceps. Rage after rage of dietary trends forbade those foods that were supposed to be healthy and non-fattening the day before. Different hosts, “experts” and gurus in interviews and TV shows seemed to lecture me, the confused consumer, on the importance of broad shoulders. Because all women need to be protected by a strong man, apparently…

Needless to say, my adolescent and adult dating life (dating, a hugely important aspect of growing up and, sadly, the source of confidence and “coolness”) was strongly influenced by my body issues. It also worked the other way around, as I began to attribute my lack of success in this area to my overall body shape.

This wasn’t something that only happened in my head, but was also reflected by plenty of people. Some of them too damn honest, others more gracefully open. Having heard the „I couldn’t have a boyfriend that’s skinnier than me“ line a couple of times (my all time favourite is still the lady that asked me whether I might have a tapeworm or other gastrointestinal parasite), I began to loathe all those stereotypes of masculinity, the large frames, the v-shapes, the bulky biceps… notions I considered having come straight from the Stone Age (fun fact: they did), as I tied rejection to them.

And trust me, the “easy way” out of this dilemma – simply gaining weight – did occur to me too, yet never worked out, no matter the calorie intake and punishing myself in various sportive ways. My struggles with not-gaining weight might seem ironic to some. It’s far from me to underestimate the social pressure put on women to conform to a certain size and shape; I am fully aware that, sadly, way more physical expectations are placed on women’s looks with men being in charge. Yet, these (self?)-made thoughts and issues found a way to get into – and stay – in my head, and take quite a prime seat in those faculties of my skull.

Over the years, studying social sciences and dabbling in philosophy and gender studies I began to understand certain concepts and mechanisms. For one, what is normal (Body weight! Body shape! How a guy is supposed to look like!) is always a human-made construction and not a natural given. What’s more, all those gender norms and ideas of masculinity prevalent in our societies were constructions as well, made painfully real and tangible by our actions and discourses.

As much as I would like to paint you a story of emancipation through enlightenment and the overcoming of head-parasites by mental insecticide, those essays, books and discussions I loved so much did a good job at showing me some of the scaffolding of social processes, without smashing them to bits and pieces or even impeding their works. In the end, emancipation is something you do, and not something you read.

So what came of it? Or rather, am I free now? Here are some rather pragmatic things I learned over the years. Engaging with my own issues made me very aware of how pressure and objectification works. It also made me super attentive towards other people’s looks and shapes. I try my best not to be judgmental or dish out what I had to endure, keeping in mind that not everybody is a model.  Scratch that: almost nobody is a model.

Pretty much everybody has issues of their own, why should those ugly vultures of shape and looks only prey on my own form? Sometimes, in my lighter moments, I wish we could all simply jump over these self-constructed boundaries and leave them behind in all our imperfection. Sadly, that’s not how society works… and just overcoming our physical forms seems not to be an option either. Not yet.

What else is there? Luckily, with growing age and self-confidence, my body poses less trouble than it did to my 16 year old self. As I learned from other areas of life, age and experience really pay their dues eventually.

Of course, I still have off days – sometimes you like the morning view in the mirror, sometimes you wish you’d have no mirrors (or eyes). I don’t expect complete peace about this anytime ever, yet I’ve learned neither to search for a scapegoat nor to torment myself as much. These aren’t grandiose lessons or the magical switch that turns everything shiny. I can’t offer this – in my experience, life itself seldom can – but maybe my story is helpful to some. As for me and my body, I know it is an ongoing battle. I’ll keep trying to care less about my shape and fill my head (and heart) with things more important.

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Mostly Germany-based, when David is not busy falling off his bike, he’s overthinking things. Which got him into a PhD track, figuring out fashions.

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