Imagine that it’s around 1990. Imagine that you are an overweight boy in 5th grade; husky is what it was called then and you’re taller than 99% of the people in your grade or the next. Now imagine that you have been made fun of for the last few years for being the “fat” kid. You were ridiculed, bullied and looked down on. It may be all horrible all the time or even every day but it’s hard all the same when it does happen
Now, imagine you are walking to a small room in your elementary school with a bunch of other boys for a scoliosis examination. In this room, all of you are expected to take your shirts off as a nurse examines your spine’s one by one. Now imagine you are the only boy in the room with breasts and since you are well into puberty you already have small amounts of chest hair. You do your best to cover them with your arms so the other boys hopefully don’t see as you begin sweating and fidgeting. This is the first time you have been without a shirt off in front of anyone at your school and normally those breasts are covered with a shirt and maybe a coat and are not as noticeable. Then, a boy named Derrick says, “look mikes got boobs like a girl.” Everyone who hasn’t already done so looks and begins laughing and the nurse does nothing to stop them. Back in the classroom with your shirt on you hear the whispers, see the looks as the rest of class learns your secret and you have nowhere to go. That girl you like points a finger and giggles and you feel your face get red as you slink down in your seat wishing you could just…disappear. Soon, the other classrooms in the 5th and now also 6th grade know about your secret as the rumors about your physical imperfections spread. Those words and that secret not only stick in your mind for years and years but get passed around from one social group to another for the rest of the year, the following year, they follow you into junior high and in some ways even in high school. Those words have a profound and lasting effect not just on how you view yourself but how you view other people.
There is nothing you can do, nothing you can do to make them go away and nothing to minimize the pain and embarrassment as one of your worst physical flaws becomes the sum of who you in the eyes of almost everyone. Not only was I “fat” but I had boobs, acne, wore glasses and had braces on my teeth; it was like having multiple targets on my back and only added to the insecurities. This was where my poor body image issues really began, that day in that little room in Grandville Michigan at South Elementary. Before this day I was a relatively happy kid and school life wasn’t terrible even though I was never one of “popular kids.” After that day though I was well aware of just how different, in their eyes, that my body was from theirs and the ideal image that they held and thought I should have. I was more aware of my “flaws”, aware of the bullying and more aware of the mocking that ensued. I was set in that group of kids where the social “rejects” go; the ones who are less than perfect for whatever reason in the eyes of public school elite.
This was my life for years.
What I am about to tell you I’ve never ever told anyone before. One day in the late part of 6th grade it was a warm spring day so I had to wear a t-shirt to school. Before I left for school, in the privacy of my bedroom and without my parents knowing I wrapped layers of duct tape around my chest in a sad and painful attempt at making them (my boobs) be less visible. It was hot, hard to breathe and at the end of the day it ripped off my skin and hair in places when I pulled the duct tape off. I did this all in an attempt to get a reprieve from some of the ridicule so I could feel normal for even just one day. As the years went on I wore baggy and oversized clothes, hunched over when I was standing or walking all in an attempt to lessen the noticeability of my “man-boobs” but in the end, it just made me look fatter than I was. Even when I played school sports like wrestling and football in Jr. High I changed in the stall because of how I looked and how others looked at me.
Even after I grew up, graduated and got more a little more self-confidence those breasts remained no matter how hard I tried and still were one of the first things noticed in addition to my weight unless they were covered well. When I went to the beach I didn’t take off my shirt, swam with a shirt on so that the girls and guys didn’t notice my male breasts even though I’m sure they still did. Eventually, I just stopped going to the beach, grew a dislike for swimming anywhere in public where my shirt might have to be removed and people could see me.
It wasn’t until one day in my late 20’s on a rarely warm October day when I was at a secluded beach on the Lake Michigan shoreline with a girl I liked who was an amazing friend where something clicked and I wasn’t worried about what she would think. Since that day I’ve slowly gotten more comfortable and braver and stand a little taller but still shy away from taking my shirt off at busy public beaches and still prefer more secluded spots. In my 30’s I began wearing compression shirts in order to hold down my breasts so I felt more comfortable, could wear more form fitting and less baggy clothes and even something as simple as t-shirts without feeling self-conscious.
This story is an all too familiar one for millions of people both men and women, boys and girls, all around the world. This is usually where our poor body image issues begin; when we are young. I shared my story because it’s often assumed that this is only a girl issue and an issue limited those who are younger but it’s not and lasts far beyond adolescence. It’s an issue that crosses ages, races, nationalities and sexes. We live in a world where our physical flaws become of a representation of who we are and what we are not in the eyes of others and ourselves. Because of those “flaws” we are shamed in public, shamed in magazines, shamed in movies, shamed at school, on social media and sadly even shamed by our own families sometimes. We have our own specialty stores that cater to the bigger folks the ones who don’t have perfect bodies and ripped abs; places like Lane Bryant, Torrent and Casual Male. Regular stores have special sections and departments for the “big and tall” or “plus size” which really only adds to the belief that we are not good enough, not normal and not equal to those who are smaller than us. We see the ads on tv for exercise videos that will help “fix” us and make us look better. Shows like The Biggest Loser make us think that we have to be a certain weight to have a positive body image, self-worth, and social value while under the guise of healthy living. They make us think that somehow we will never be truly happy unless we are smaller and fitter and I’m tired of that attitude and that burden.
Recently I was able to take part in a photoshoot hosted by Amy Broersma owner of Creative Edge Photography with other men and women who unburdened ourselves in front of the cameras. We let our supposed “flaws” be exposed in front of the lens to show the world and ourselves that we are in fact good enough and that we are fine just the way we are. That whatever imperfections we have are okay and that they don’t make us less. We are brave and strong, sexy and handsome; we are enough. We are proud of the bodies that we have. Some of these brave people were willing to let me share their pictures along with my own on this post, on my website and with the world. I am proud of them. I am proud of us and the others in the #ThisBody movement which thousands of men and women are being a part of all around the world.
My hope is that by me doing this along with the others in the photoshoot and in the #ThisBody movement is that we can show those kids, the boys and girls, those preteens and teens and the other adults who struggle with body image issues and bullying that there is nothing wrong with them. There is nothing wrong with us. My hope is that they might find strength in our bravery and boldness. My hope is that other parents teach and help their own young kids who might be overweight or underweight to value themselves and find their own self-worth and not have that be determined by other people or the media.
Whether you are big or skinny, tall or short, gay or straight and old or young. Be brave, be bold and be proud and more importantly; don’t change for anyone.
Stand up and be you!
Roy Calaveras Graves
–Special thanks to Amy Broersma who made us look and feel our best–
I’d love to hear YOUR story. If you are willing to share your experiences with being bullied and looked down for how your body looks please comment below. Tell us how you felt and how it made you stronger if it did. Your words may act as encouragement for others who might be struggling with their own body image issues. If you are feeling really brave post a picture on Instagram or Twitter using the hashtags #ThisBody or #BodyPostive. Let’s use the power of social media for something positive.