It’s blisteringly cold and I’m shirtless, bent over in the corner of my grimy middle school locker room. The man’s hands slowly feel up and down my back, causing little mountainous goosebumps to simultaneously spring up all over my body in response to every icy touch. I decide to shut my eyes, preferring the abysmal darkness behind my closed lids to the cracked ground before me.
When the doctor finally finished my mandatory 8th grade scoliosis examination, I left the gym oblivious of what was to come. At the time I didn’t completely realize it, but nothing about me was straight. Not even my own spine.
Little Chris was about to embark upon a “Boy Meets Disability” coming-of-age journey capable of being adapted into a shoddy television sitcom.
The whole saga began with a green slip I received in the mail stating that I had severe scoliosis and needed to seek treatment. I was forced to face the bleak reality of my newfound disability two months later, when I discovered that my spine was in danger of eventually puncturing my lungs.
To prevent potential internal penetration, I obtained my very own illustrious back brace. OK everyone, I know It may sound glamorous at first, it could be a whole decorative Pinterest undertaking, but in reality it was painful and devastating.
Layers of plastic, metal bars, Velcro straps and padding now tightly squeezed my body 22 hours a day in order to fix what my doctor endearingly described as my “hunchback.” For a relatively overweight adolescent exploring the pubescent onset of homosexuality, I discovered that hunchbacks weren’t exactly conducive to confidence either.
Wearing a back brace is like strapping into an unattractive Victorian corset made of hard synthetic material. The contraption extends from my upper back all the way down to my protruding tailbone in a constricting embrace designed to mold my body into proper posture. It juts out of my overshirt like a bulbous camel hump. The exoskeleton incessantly chafes my armpits, and on particularly hot days, it doubles as a convection oven capable of baking my whole torso into a crippled casserole.
Throughout high school, the orthopedic device was a painful symbol of both my non-normative body and sexual identity. In gym class, I frequently opted to change behind the protective barriers of bathroom stalls to avoid the critical peepers of my peers. I bought oversized sweaters from Goodwill to hide my boxy body under the wooly sham of a stupid hipster trend. Hiding became an indispensable habit of mine.
Concealing my sexuality and physical disability was my initial public school survival strategy, and while I now outwardly perform confidence, vulgar humor and a sort of “hardness,” I continue to silently suffer from body anxiety today.
Now, I’m breaking that silence.
I am adversaries with the corporeal form I embody. I have always deemed compliments from friends to be “alternative facts” and have instead chosen to revel in the chaotic depths of my anxious mind. I don’t see myself the way others see me, and that causes me to project a distorted image of myself that I incessantly bag on.
I look at myself in the mirror and see the ripples of flab at every slight movement, I cringe at the many stretch marks that riddle the sides of my hips and wince at the multitude of riveted scars that line my spine. I critique myself when I wake up in the morning, sporadically throughout the day and again at night while putting on my back brace for bed.
This scrutinizing process of self-demonization is not exclusively feminine in nature, as it is often inaccurately represented to be. It is an inherent human condition, and in my case, has dictated my negative self-perception. The issue lies within our frequent compulsions of interpersonal comparison, not the actual variations of our physical bodies.
We are constantly conditioned to reach an idealized version of ourselves, and we spend so much time striving to become this imaginary figure that we forget to love the tangible self.
I am currently in an uphill battle to achieve self-acceptance, and every day has become a challenge to be healthier and happier. I fight daily urges of internal body shaming by promoting a sense of self-empowerment. I have been publicly unapologetic about who I am to a borderline annoying extent — ahem, my sincerest apologies for your newsfeeds last semester. My jokes about my plastic corset and my Michelin midsection are some of my most coveted coping mechanisms.
I’ve spent seven long years in my back brace, and sometimes I still find myself wanting to retreat into the nearest bathroom stall or to put on the biggest sweater I can find.
I refuse to let myself do that. I will not hide any longer.
I am a male who is insecure of his own body. It is lopsided and it is scarred. I squish when you hug me and slightly jiggle with every step.
But with time, I’m slowly learning that that’s okay.