I spent my childhood being comfortable in my nudity – almost too comfortable, if you’d ask my prudish self now. There are photos of me butt-naked in paddling pools at six years old, with someone’s elbow just covering the money shot in what, 14 years later, I can now appreciate as an excellent example of photography.
The change happened when I was 12. We’d finished our dress rehearsal for our school production of Les Misérables, and our director was giving us notes. We were all sitting at the front of the stage, with our legs dangling over the semi-improvised orchestra pit, the way you do when you’re 12 and performing in your school’s production of Les Misérables, surrounded by your cool 17 year old friends. I was sitting next to my favourite – [REDACTED]. He was cool because he was 17 and I liked him because we were friends. Until one moment, he looked over at me and uttered the immortal words that would come to shape the way I’d view my body for the rest of my life.
“You have big chicken thighs!”
After that, I began to notice other comments from my cast members. How the other Gavroche was more convincing as a street urchin since he looked ‘hungrier’, the occasional wheezing from the poor 16 year old who had to lift me onto his shoulders during One Day More, etc. What followed were years of minor, quiet issues surrounding my body. These were issues that never affected my eating habits, never motivated me to complete a diet lasting more than two days, but were, nonetheless, always there.
They were there when I tried on my first pair of skinny jeans, they were there when I’d go to the beach with friends, and, of course, they were there when I went to my first gay bar – an experience that would also stay with me forever. I’m not sure what I expected to be honest. Certainly not the identical copies of the same stick-thin men. They extended a good foot above me, clad in tight jeans and smug expressions. I quickly gave up trying to infiltrate their inner circle. Instead I found myself on the ‘sub-bench’ and pretended to enjoy myself as best I could. I longed to look like them. To achieve the idyllic 0.5% body fat, to one day enter a club with the knowledge that everyone had waited for my arrival. To feel seen. And sexy.
I used to truly hate my naked body. I thought my thighs were too large, my shape too womanly, my face a rip-off of some Jackson Pollock piece. But over the years, as I’ve seen naked people, and been seen naked by others, I’ve learned not to love my body, per se, but to tolerate it.
I still struggle with being naked in front of strangers. I struggle to find a sufficiently scandalous outfit I’d feel comfortable wearing when Haute Mess comes a-knocking. I struggle to take cool, shirtless polaroid photos with my friends in impossibly luxurious Greek villas. I struggle to find jeans that don’t make me regret my 2am McDonalds from the night before. I know I will never find the courage to model for a life drawing class. I know I will never be approached in a bar and asked for anything other than directions to the nearest toilet. But maybe that’s okay. These are things I’m okay with.
I’m not in love with my body. We have a low-commitment, no-strings relationship. We get on well, we serve each other’s needs – but that’s it. There is nothing romantic about our entanglement. And there needn’t be. I am okay with my imperfections.
Everyone else, on the other hand, is not. Either they want me to print them on a white t-shirt and dance along to ‘Born This Way’ in a demonstration of celebration and self-love, or they want to convince me these imperfections don’t exist. Friends, family members, strangers in club toilets. I still find myself overwhelmed by a chorus of ‘Shut up, you’re gorgeous’, ‘a young Timothee Chalamet!’, every time I dare to venture that my skin might not be looking that great today.
But the thing is, chances are, unless I’m drunk, I don’t want to be told that I’m beautiful. I want to be told that I’m understood. I don’t want to be some stunning Adonis. I just want to be enough.
If I were terrible at maths, if I had a painfully terrible dress sense or an embarrassing lack of knowledge concerning current affairs (all true), it would be okay. People would accept these things. “That’s just me!”, I’d say, “and I wouldn’t change it for the world!” I’d be applauded, cheered, given an HBO show on the spot. But because we live in a society where beauty is seen as the thing we all ought to aspire to have, being indifferent to your appearance or, God forbid, thinking you’re plain, is considered the deepest betrayal of the self.
I don’t regret the years I spent cursing my thighs and subjecting my skin to no-doubt damaging facial scrubs. Because they lead me here. Here, a place where I can dispel my insecurities with two little words: