It was only when Merv Kaufman stopped caring that the self-consciousness and self-loathing finally vanished.
It was always too big—I’d known that since childhood. It was like excess baggage I had to haul around, a burden that, for a great many years, impacted hugely on my sense of self-esteem.
Was there some genetic connection? My father had been lean and lithe, narrow of hip and wide in the shoulder—broad where a guy should be brought, to paraphrase that song lyric.
I, on the other hand, was built like my mother—I favored her throughout my youth, and to such an extent that I began to wonder if my temperament and outlook, which closely mimicked hers, had actually shaped the body that, through puberty, had also begun to shape my outlook on life.
“I wish I had that swing in my backyard”—that came from a girl, a stranger, thank God, chortling aloud as she walked behind me on a street leading away from our high school. I didn’t pause or respond; I pretended I hadn’t heard her and kept moving. But I knew that the way I carried myself, the manner of my walking, had provoked her comment.
I had a big ass; there was no getting around it. And, at that time in my life, I was ill equipped to cope with it.
I joined a gym when I was about 16, working on my biceps, my deltoids, my calves and, yes, my glutes. I guess I got stronger; I think I made progress. But nothing really showed. And no amount of leg presses seemed to have any effect—no shrinkage appeared—on my backside.
Once, twisting my naked body to view my behind in the full-length mirror in my parents’ bedroom, I saw my ass fully—and was deeply disheartened. It was wide; it was fleshy; it was ungainly; it seemed to distort the rest of a relatively trim (but still undeveloped) body.
I became grossly self-conscious, always wearing slightly shapeless pants so that the fact of my full, fleshy buttocks might not be immediately apparent. At a high school dance, when the girl I was with pressed hard against me and reached back to squeeze one of my generous cheeks, I nearly bolted.
I felt burdened then and, years later, through the agonizing tedium of psychotherapy, wondered if identifying with my mother—since early childhood—had actually given me the physique that I so despised. There were no answers. Therapy helped in other areas of discord in my life; it did nothing to quiet the mental pain and mortification caused by my flabby behind.
Oh, that I could show off a penis of extraordinary heft to have made my bulging buttocks of little concern! But I couldn’t; I was average. Average was something I longed to be—in every aspect of my physical being—but wasn’t.
It’s not that anyone ever said anything—although in junior high I remember some numbskull kicking me in the rear and snarling, “You fat-ass coward!” at a time when I felt most vulnerable.
Boys were beginning to mature then, sprouting hair on the chest and fuzz in the groin, and some were displaying musculature that I longed to have but never would. I guess I felt more self-conscious then that any other time in my life—because I probably harbored the vain hope that, as puberty progressed I would lose the shape that I always associated with my mother and become something more acceptably masculine.
I never envied my dad; physically he was kind of ho-hum—no physical role model, truly. But I knew that no one ever looked at him, at poolside or at the beach, and snickered.
In shower rooms during my years of compulsory Army service, I remember getting in and out quickly. I didn’t speak or linger, just washed, rinsed and left, wrapping myself in whatever towel I had.
That was my only defense, my singular distraction.
I remember being in Italy, some decades later, at a time when autumn weather was expected but summer weather amazingly prevailed. My hotel had a vast swimming pool that sparkled in the September sunlight. How I longed to take a dip but, alas, had brought no swimwear—summer sports had no longer seemed possible at the time I was packing and paring down my travel wardrobe.
“Do not worry,” said hotel’s obliging concierge in crisp English. “Our man at the pool can help you.” I sought him out—I never knew his name.
He looked me over with a disdainful glance—clearly noting my most obvious attribute—and grimaced. From under the counter in his poolside shack he retrieved a battered carton that contained a pileup of European-style swimwear—men’s bikinis that, though alarmingly minimal, were boldly patterned and, even in their inert state, marginally obscene.
He shook his head and grumbled, then finally fished out an item he apparently decided would be appropriate. He said something in Italian, stretching the skimpy swimwear with both hands so I could see its ultimate size, then pointed me to a dressing room at the other end of his shack.
There was no mirror; I didn’t need one to know that what I was putting on was (1) entirely inappropriate for a man of my build, and (2) more revealing of what I considered my most obvious physical flaw than anything I’d ever worn—which, for years, had been baggy, bulky trunks whenever I went swimming.
But never mind. I wanted to swim in Italy; the weather was favorable—perhaps autumn would set in within a day or two and this would have been a missed opportunity—and since I knew no one at the hotel, it wouldn’t matter how I was viewed or regarded.
I remember stepping into the pool very quickly, even so, not wanting to expose myself to anyone who might give me more than a passing glance. I also remember the freedom I felt as I began to stroke. It was as though I was wearing nothing; I remember reaching down once, as I swam, to assure myself that I was properly covered.
I stayed in the pool for nearly an hour—not always swimming, of course, but certainly hunkered down. Even in Italy, on a pool deck peopled by those I’d never know or have to engage, I felt miserably self-conscious.
When I finally decided I’d had enough, I climbed out and quickly headed back to the changing room. As I moved, I felt some pressure—my bladder needed voiding (all that strong coffee at breakfast). Being careful not to slip or slide as I made my way into the adjacent lavatory, I was immediately confronted by a huge mirror—and I saw myself. I looked away fast; the image seemed almost grotesque.
My bikini, which rested well below the layer of fat that projected from my hips, made my ass seem even bigger than I’d thought it to be, and I didn’t dare turn to see how it looked from the rear. By then I thought I was mentally steeled against physical humiliation, but this swimsuit—a tiny piece of colored cloth for which I’d shelled out nearly $25 American—was the crowning insult. (See image, attached)
I literally ripped it off my body as I returned to the changing room. But being thrifty—not wanting to throw money down the drain—I did bring it with me to my hotel room. After it had dried, I folded it into my luggage and carried it home. I have it still—I keep it as a kind of symbol, of what I’m not exactly sure. It gets a laugh when I show it to middle-aged friends, many of whom say, “It’s a shame no one took your picture,” to which I usually reply, “Thank God, no one did.
When did this stop, this rear-end obsession? Or did it? Well, yes, I guess it did, finally. As I got older, the men I knew and dealt with began developing physical issues they obviously had trouble confronting: damaged knees. . . painful joints. . . bad backs . . . numbness in their extremities.
It seemed that nearly every man I came in contact with had an ailment or deformity that caused him either pain or despair. I was always the sympathetic ear. I had to be; I myself had carried a great burden of physical self-deprecation since childhood.
Was there a turning point, a time when I fully accepted the shape I was in, a time when I finally felt at peace in my own body? Yes, I guess there was. But it wasn’t due to the love of a wonderful woman—I already had that, someone who was either blind or indifferent to my particular deformity.
My moment of truth occurred a few years back when I joined my local “Y,” ostensibly to swim laps before heading off to work every day. I remember the incident: I had undressed and hung up my street clothes in an assigned locker. Then, with my (shapeless) swim trunks slung over my shoulder, and rubber sandals on my feet, I walked naked the length of the changing room and into the lavatory, past a dozen or so fellow gym rats in various stages of undress.
I didn’t try to hide myself or pass them in a rush; as a result there were no overt responses—no gasps or glares or mumbled catcalls. I walked as though I owned the establishment.
As I walked through those steamy, sweat-smelling spaces, I remember thinking that I really didn’t care how any of these men regarded me. For the first time, I think, exposing my nakedness caused me no pain, no compelling desire to cover up quickly. By then I was probably at least 20 pounds over my ideal weight, but I didn’t care. For the first time, amazingly, I felt comfortable in my own skin.
What made the difference? Maturity? Doubtful. Acceptance? Well, yes, probably. A psychologist, upon knowing me, might suggest that I had finally put my relationship with my mother—which had ended badly—into some kind of perspective and had been at least spiritually reconciled with my late father: to his influence, to his peculiarly distant way of relating to me, and to his own physical shape and presence.
Since then, though I don’t go out of my way to parade my body, I’ve been at peace. Boy, was it a long time coming!