The Boy Who Couldn’t Keep His Clothes On

So, my gym opened last weekend, as a result of the gradual Phase One reopening of New Orleans. I’ve really wanted to go workout (I’ve really missed it since the shutdown started) and yet at the same time–I wasn’t sure if I should.

Since I work in public health, I was torn. Should I do something that is clearly, as a public health worker, risky, not only for me but for others? Is it hypocritical of me, as a public health worker who is recommending that people social distance, etc., to go work out at the gym when I’m not completely 100% on board with the gradual reopening of the city? And if that does make me a hypocrite, shouldn’t I set a better example by not going–not, of course, that anyone would notice whether I go or not.

On the other hand, public health (and most of my training in it) is all about reducing risk, not eliminating it–there are very few ways of eliminating risk completely, and the vast majority of them are unworkable (like the only way you can ever be completely certain you are never exposed to HIV is to be abstinent; which is really not a viable option for the vast majority of people).

Or, was it better to go to the gym and set an example to everyone by social distancing from other people, always keeping my mask on, and cleaning everything before and after I  use it?

Maybe I’m a “Chad”, that privileged white gay man who doesn’t care about the safety of others and whose driving need to workout is more important than my own health, and that of others? (The great irony of going to the gym–which is for my health–putting my own health and that of others at risk does not escape me.)

So, I finally decided that I would, in fact, go and do everything that I could to set a good example to anyone else in the gym. I would wear a mask the entire time I’m there–except when I drink my water–and clean the equipment both before and after I use it. I could also assess, when I arrive, how many people were there and whether I felt comfortable remaining; I could also continue assessing the entire time I was there–if I ever felt uncomfortable or that someone wasn’t obeying the risk reduction protocols, I would leave. 

And so I returned to the gym. I’ve been three times now over the last eight days; it feels good to be stretching and working my body again, and it’s responding already (I am very aware that it’s entirely psychological). My body feels better than it has since before the shutdown. I’m sleeping better again. But the entire time I’ve been at the gym I’ve noticed things–little slips, like forgetting to  use my towel to handle the weights (or forgetting to use hand sanitizer before I pick one up) as I load a machine, for example, or touching a dumb bell without cleaning it first; this is why quarantines are so necessary, you know–because no matter how hard you try to stay safe, there are so many possible ways to mess up. So, on the one hand, I still kind of feel hypocritical and Chaddish; but on the other…it feels good to be working out again. As Constant Reader, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my body; I generally don’t see anything that looks okay. Instead, I immediately zero in on a perceived flaw. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I ever thought I was so hideous that dogs would growl at my approach and children cry. 

I just seem to, with everything, always hold myself to an impossibly high standard, so high I can never achieve it and therefore can get down on myself about it.

It’s a constant struggle, really, to see myself with any kind of positivity. The great irony is that I can always look at old pictures of myself, back in the days when I worked out regularly, and think, damn I looked great! Why did I think I was fat and needed to drop some more weight?

skinny boy

Take, for example, the above picture. I was thirty-three, had been working out like a fiend and eating a very restricted diet, and had gone from 215 pounds in August to the above, 155 pounds, by the following June. I was fitting into size 29 waist jeans and shorts.

And yet, when I saw this picture for the first time, my literal first thought was oh, nice, but maybe if I lose ten more pounds…

Ten more pounds?

From where exactly, psycho? And the diet I was following wasn’t a good one; but my weird relationship with food and eating–always problematic–worked in my favor this time. Essentially I ate mostly salads and turkey, and skinless chicken breasts, etc, and nothing that had more than 2 grams of fat per serving ever passed my lips, with one cheat day allowed per week. On the cheat day I’d allow myself a fast food burger and fries, or pizza. That was me, living large in the airline days.

And incidentally, according to those ridiculous BMI charts, at my height, I should only weigh five more pounds than I did in that picture to not be considered “overweight.” Is it really any wonder we have so many issues with body image and body dysmorphia in this country?

But like with everything, I’ve always been my own harshest critic, and my body has never been exempted from that harsh lens through which I view everything about myself; no matter whether it’s the way I look, the sound of my voice, my writing, my job performance, I’m always highly critical, and always have been. I think it  might partially come from an old defensive mentality, learned as a child–a combination of my parents and church constantly pushing humility, plus being mocked and made fun of by other kids eventually turned into if I am meaner about myself than nothing anyone else says can ever hurt me (which, now that I’ve typed it out and looked at it, is really a horrifying way to think, really); and I’ve spent most of my life trying to overcome those deeply rooted and ingrained ways of thinking. For one thing, the humility thing makes it very hard for me to talk about my books and my writing in a positive way, without self-deprecation–and face it, no matter how much we don’t want to believe this about publishing, a writer also has to be a salesperson, selling themselves as their product (which sounds kind of whore-ish when put that way, doesn’t it?)–and you can’t run around putting yourself and your writing down while expecting people to buy it, can you? “Yes, this car? Are you interested? Well, I’m not terribly fond of the color and sure, of course it runs well, but let’s face it, it’s no Porsche” said no car salesman, ever.

balcony0003

The above photograph was taken in the early spring of 2002. We’d moved back to New Orleans in August 2001, after a year away; a year I generally block out of my memory and pretend never happened; I was incredibly miserable, couldn’t afford a gym membership, and so didn’t work out for over a year, while eating incessantly–directly related to being unhappy–and eating garbage. My weight ballooned, and when we moved back to New Orleans people were shocked to see me. I immediately started working out regularly again and changed back to much healthier eating patterns, and the weight began to drop off again, going from the 200 I weighed when we returned down to the 180 seen above. I was being interviewed for a gay porn magazine–I was writing porn in those days too–and the magazine wanted to interview me, not only about writing and editing porn, but about my mystery novel Murder in the Rue Dauphine, and they wanted to do a photo shoot to go with the piece rather than using book covers and author photos. I was a little taken aback when told to remove my undershirt and unbutton the flannel vest (it was a sleeveless flannel shirt–so yes, a vest, no matter what the sign on the sales rack at Structure read), and a little more nonplussed when asked to remove the vest entirely; it wasn’t so much that I was uncomfortable being photographed shirtless so much as I was worried how I would look in the pictures; plus the thought people would see the pictures and think that I was so arrogant as to demand to be photographed that way. I was sent digital copies of all the pictures, and wasn’t terribly thrilled with how I looked (SURPRISE) but when the piece ran with some of them, including the one above, the response was surprisingly positive, particularly when you consider every other picture in the magazine was of a naked porn star, without an ounce of body fat.

Because yes, porn stars and models are the standard we should use for the sake of  comparison.

Maybe someday I will stop holding myself to these ridiculous standards.

usafolded copy

The above photo was taken in 2003 or 2004; a good friend (who moved away before Katrina–glad he missed Katrina, but still sorry he’s no longer a New Orleanian) was also a terrific photographer, so I hired him to do some author photos for me. I had already started shifting away from writing and editing erotica under my own name, and I didn’t want to use my “serious” author photo for erotica writing, either as me or Todd Gregory; thinking something a little more daring was necessary. He was certainly game, and so I brought a bag of things I’d wear to the bar to give a try. I look at the above picture now and think, seriously? You were self-fucking-conscious about how you looked?

Yeah, I’d love to look that bad NOW.

When Katrina happened, one of the things that convinced me to stay in decimated New Orleans afterwards, when I came back to check on the house and get some more things out of it, was that my bank, gym, and grocery store were all open. And as I’ve said before, one of the things I clung to in the wake of Katrina was the things I could actually control; one of which being my body. When we moved back from DC and I lost all the weight again, I did it primarily by exercising and teaching aerobics–three good weight workouts a week built around teaching six high intensity step classes per week will shed weight from you very quickly, and I soon realized because I had a good base of muscle this time when I started, returning to working out regularly and teaching aerobics again kick-started my metabolism into a high fat-burning machine…and as such, I didn’t really need to be overly concerned about my diet–so I chose not to be. MISTAKE. I should have started eating healthier again, too. The result was those bad eating habits I’d returned to were even harder to change now, and since I was getting leaner without changing my eating…yeah. But since my body was something I had absolute control over, I focused on that to help me get through it all.

And yet, still felt unhappy with the way I looked.

This was a Mardi Gras costume I considered wearing–US Olympic Gay beach volleyball player–but when I saw these pictures…I decided against going out in public wearing this because I was afraid of being judged for not being in good enough shape.

And the only reason I was ever able to dress like that and go out on Fat Tuesday was I would tell myself the entire point of dressing in costume on Fat Tuesday was to look ridiculous.

Now, it’s not really about how I look. I injured my back in 2010, which kept me out of the gym for over a year or so (I could have the dates wrong here); and every time I’d go back, BLAM, I would hurt it again. That was why I eventually hired Wacky Russian; I needed someone to monitor my form and make sure I wasn’t going to injure my back again. Unfortunately, that became a crutch and I stopped going in to work out on my own; and my weight continued to spiral (around the time of the back injury was when I started teaching myself how to cook more and bake; when I started making cheesecakes and brownies, and discovered the joys of both heavy cream and butter) upwards. I started back to the gym last year, but Carnival interrupted my programs and I never went back again…so that’s why getting started up again this year was so good for me because this time I was enjoying it again.

And this time, I don’t honestly care about how my body looks, either to me or other people. I just want my muscles to remain strong and flexible; the exercise is good for my heart and cardiovascular system; and anything that can help get the cholesterol under control so I can stop taking medication for that and my blood pressure would be quite lovely. I’m pushing sixty, and I don’t think I’m ever going to be shirtless and sweaty in a sea of other shirtless, sweaty gay men dancing again any time soon–pandemic or no pandemic–but it feels good, you know? I like how I feel after working out, and I like how I feel in general.

I think having a healthier mindset this time around is also helping.

So, yeah. I’m that gay man.

One thought on “The Boy Who Couldn’t Keep His Clothes On

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