As a teenager, I was often teased by my family because I avoided the water so much. My home in Georgia had a beautiful in-ground swimming pool, but even amid those sweltering Southern summers, I wouldn’t dare be found in that pool.
It’s not that I hated the water. Not that I despised swimming or didn’t know how. Throughout elementary school, I’d taken swim lessons at The Y and rapidly advanced from “guppy” to “shark.” I knew how to swim; I liked swimming.
But like Jerry Seinfeld’s staunch declaration to “choose not to run,” I chose not to swim. Somewhere around seventh grade, I told my family I hated swimming. But it was all a lie. The real reason was just too silly and shameful. And that reason?
I hated having to take off my shirt in front of other people.
As I entered those pubescent middle school years of misery, the mere thought of exposing my chest, especially among other males, terrified me. I loathed locker rooms. My pale, limp frame never measured up with those of the athletes, of which there was a vast majority in my grade.
Moreover, I lacked the masculine confidence that all the other guys innately seemed to possess—the confidence to walk shirtless or even naked among other men.
Biologically, I was a male just like any other male in the room, and yet I quite clearly wasn’t. I was always the insecure one with a confusing, clandestine sexuality, clinging tightly to his shirt, desperately wanting what everyone else in the locker room possessed. Confidence.
I learned to lust after the “most masculine” and confident of them all.
In recent years, I’ve been told by men and women alike that I have a nice body. In recent years, I’ve also joined a gym and committed to a physical regimen, completing a half-marathon and handling heavier and heavier weights as biceps and triceps and other sorts of -ceps have gradually formed.
Now fully exposed before my bathroom mirror, I stand proud of my progress. Would I like more muscles and shapeliness? Sure, don’t we all? But compared with that weak, wiry teen of yesteryear, I beam over my outward transformation. Alone with the whir of the shower head, I see the definite outline of a man in that steaming mirror.
Yet remove me from the seclusion of my own bathroom, those same old voices blare from a decade and a half ago. The mere thought of pools and beaches spurs my heart to race, my head to swell, and my doubts to flurry.
I’m not as attractive as the other guys. Not as cut or buff or hot.
I’m not as comfortable in my own skin. Not my naked skin, especially.
I’m not a man. Not fully. Not yet. Not like all of them. I’m not fooling anybody.
As I pass 30, I still feel like an underdeveloped boy-man sometimes. I often wonder when I’ll “grow up” or grow out of this—whatever this is.
Thankfully, my mid-twenties brought renewed perspective and growth. Whereas my teens left me largely isolated among my fellow male peers, my twenties introduced me to some truly solid brothers—many of whom blog alongside me. They’ve proved invaluable in my masculine healing process.
You can only live and breathe and believe “I’m not a man” so many times before these other men who have talked with me, prayed with me, hugged me, and otherwise affirmed me start turning the tides and whispers an altogether different direction and volume.
Eventually, you have to learn to stop listening to those old familiar voices and open yourself up to other ones—scary ones, yes, but altogether new revitalizing voices of truth and love and inclusion, not lies and self-hatred and seclusion.
I don’t pretend to have fully silenced those adolescent clamors. Over a decade removed from middle school, I still feel uneasy around summer waters or even while running down the road in a tanktop on a hot, humid day.
Deep inside, I still wonder whether I’m masculine enough.
But I’m learning only to acknowledge the voices, not embrace them. I’ve come to understand my underlying insecurities, and rather than run from them, I’m facing them head-on. Or chest-on.
I’m now 30, and I’m still afraid to take off my shirt. But I do it anyway.
The funny thing is that when I take off my shirt, the world doesn’t quake. When I take off my shirt at the beach, throngs of eyes don’t shift their collective gaze toward me. When I take off my shirt on hot, humid afternoons, cars don’t stop to honk while I’m running half-naked down the road.
I used to think I was alone. Alone in my sexual struggles, alone in my battles with body-image, and certainly alone in my sense of masculine inferiority.
But then I shared my story and started hearing the two greatest words in the English language: “me too.” Hearing those two momentous words has changed everything.
As soon as you grasp that you’re not alone in your fears and insecurities, the noose of shame loosens.
What’s more, you realize that you have something to offer others, including those of your own gender. A listening ear, a laugh, a coffee, or a beer. Heck, even a hug.
As men, we often bask in our triumphs while desperately keeping our messes hidden. It’s not as sexy to discuss the latter, but I hope we all adopt this precious art of vulnerability. That we learn to turn our shameful struggles into gloried victories and extend our hands to those still battling beneath us, bringing them alongside in the journey.
I’m still reconciling with almost two decades of shameful residue. But I now know I’m not alone, and neither are you, friend.
My residue is peelable, and I’m getting better at stripping it off, one agonizing liberating shirt at a time.