My heart sank when a friend told me that I’d piled on the pounds and might want to make use of the spare XXL shirts he had collecting dust in his wardrobe. Half of me wanted to run to the nearest tub of Ben and Jerry’s and envelop myself in its sickly-sweet safety. The other half wanted to whip my kit off and show the whole wide world what my Mama gave me.
Before I had the chance to do the former, I came across a Tweet from a popular gay men’s publication. They were looking for so called “real” bodies to be featured alongside their usual mix of baby faced beauties and burly beefcakes.
What better way to embrace my fuller figure and raise a triumphant two fingered salute to the body shamers than by stripping down to my tighty whiteys and painting on a proud smile for all of WHSmiths to see. Or so I thought.
Another friend of mine had taken part in the feature a few months previously, and he spoke very highly of the whole experience. Like me, he’d been body shamed, and knew that he could either hang his head in shame and saunter on down to the nearest weight loss group, or just embrace how his body was at that very moment in time.
Encouraged by his enthusiasm, I didn’t stop to think that there might be any sort of negative repercussions from such a positive, empowering piece.
I’m not as daft as I look though. I knew that there would be the odd bitchy, belittling comment when the piece was shared on social media, but I felt confident that the pro’s would outweigh the con’s, so off I trotted to swinging London town for the big photoshoot.
I can’t fault the photographer and his assistant for their work that day. I was a bag of nerves when I arrived, and they were quick to put me at ease. A few clicks of the camera, and a few awkward poses later and it was time to go. I left feeling calm and quietly confident that I would soon be putting this whole-body shaming debacle behind me.
The accompanying interview was done via email a few days later. I was thrilled that this was the case, to be honest, as it meant that I had full control of exactly what I said. That might sound strange, but I wanted to make sure that my message was heard loud and clear. I was not going to let a few cruel words destroy my confidence. Yes, there was a little more of me to love at that very moment in time, but it was for now, not forever.
The publication that I posed for pumps out page after page, and post after post of smooth and slick, perfectly chiselled, perma-tanned hunks day in day out. I wanted to make sure that when their readers came across my pale and pasty, fabulously furry “Dad bod”, the accompanying piece was a positive, life affirming one. I’m no Dalai Lama or Dolly Parton, but I like to think that we can all spread a little positivity before we slip off this mortal coil, and this, as Martine McCutcheon once sang, was my moment!
I made sure that I spoke candidly, but confidently about my body. I admitted that it was not perfect, but I was quick to add that I was more than happy with it for now. I have been stick thin and I have been the size of a house; and so I’ve witnessed first hand just how fickle and fleeting both extremes are. I am quite happy sitting here somewhere in the middle; curves in all the right places and safe in the knowledge that I know how to lose them if I so wish.
The piece was well received by friends and family who saw it. I had conquered my fears, raised a finger to the body shamers, and perhaps, in some teeny, tiny way, I hoped that I might also have inspired others who felt that their bodies were not represented in the publications that they spend their precious time and money on.
Fast forward a few months, and I was sat scrolling through social media when out of nowhere, the proverbial rug was swept from underneath me. Once again, my heart sank, and I was left feeling physically sick. I’d been body shamed again; but this wasn’t just a private moment between a loose lipped friend and I ― this was on a global scale.
That might sound dramatic, but believe me, I am underplaying my upset here. To my utter shock and dismay, the publication that had presented itself to me as a platform to empower myself and others had dealt me a cruel and crushing blow. I could not believe what I was seeing as I found my bare body plastered across all of the publication’s social media accounts. The accompanying headline was not one of positivity or empowerment. It was one of shame and disgust. “50% of gay men are unhappy with their bodies,” it read, in big, bold letters. I was heartbroken.
I realize that I had signed over the rights for the images for them to use as and when they liked. But I never dreamt that they would use them in such a negative way. At no point in my interview had I said that I was unhappy with my body, and the inference that a body like mine is one that readers should be unhappy with was soul destroying.
What’s more, I was joined on the social media campaign by two other unsuspecting victims. The magazine’s recent readers’ survey had attracted national press just a few weeks prior to this whole kerfuffle. The results showed that readers who were said to be underweight, overweight or who were anything other than Caucasian felt underrepresented in the magazine. You might have thought that the editors would respond by adopting a more inclusive approach in future issues. Wrong. Instead, they hand picked “one of each” to feature alongside me in the campaign. I was clearly there as the face (or body) of overweight homosexuals, whilst the other two poor souls were “underweight reader,” and “anything other than Caucasian reader.” What jaw droppingly poor taste to use the three body types most underrepresented in the publication alongside the headline “50% of gay men are unhappy with their bodies.” Do they not see what connotations that has?
I contacted the editor of the magazine, and he couldn’t see what my problem was. He offered me a free subscription to his ratchet rag, “as a goodwill gesture,” but by this point, the idea of spending 12 months of the year reading a publication that had body shamed me on a global scale did not seem particularly appealing.
Furious and forlorn, I was left to reflect on a peculiar chain of events that was bookended by two pretty ugly bouts of body shaming.
Perhaps I am naïve, but I don’t think there was any malice from either individual. We are just so used to having these so called “perfect” pins ups rammed down our throat that we come to see “real” bodies as something that should be kept hidden – or in the case of this particular publication, rationed to one a month.
“Overweight,” “underweight,” and “anything other than Caucasian,” bodies are not well represented in the gay press, or in any sort of press for that matter. I was never going to change that by getting my bits out in WHSmith. But this whole debacle has awoken something in me, and it makes me so angry and sad that publications are peddling such incessant self-loathing rather than promoting diversity and self-love. The LGBTQI community is deliciously rich and varied, and this should be reflected in our publications. Mainstream media is just as problematic, but that’s a whole other beast. There are only a relatively small number of gay publications, so even the smallest of changes in tone and content can have a massive impact.
“Real” bodies should not be restricted to just one page a month, and we should not be labelling specific body types as ones which you should be unhappy to have. I am proud of my body. I am proud of the thick coat of fur that covers the majority of my big, fat belly. I am proud of the stretch marks and the scars and the nasty gash that the hernia operation left behind. I’m also proud that I plucked up the courage to whip of my clothes for the photographer that fateful day.
I thought that by doing so I would empower myself and others, and in some small way, show people that there is no such thing as a “real” or “normal” body. Each one is different, and that’s what makes us all so bloody brilliant.
The cruel way in which my image was reused was soul destroying at the time, but as I come to the end of this piece, I realize that I have still come away with the same empowering message that I had hoped to gain from the original piece.
Yes, I’m a hairy homosexual with a little more to love, but I will not be ashamed, and I will not be silenced, and neither should you.