Man Shman: “Men are allowed to freely expose their torsos, but I can’t just show mine to anyone.”
I honestly don’t know why, at age 6, I started liking to sleep naked. My parents would put me to bed and, after they left the room, I would quietly remove everything. When my father found out, he invented a very effective, if dramatic, solution: “Suppose the house burned down during the night and we all had to run out into the street. You wouldn’t want to be naked at a time like that, would you?”
I kid you not. He really did say that. (Also, he always made me sit in the middle of the bus because he had somehow estimated it would be the least dangerous position to be in if another vehicle crashed against it.)
Although my father didn’t manage to pass (all of) his fears on to me, at that age my fear of exposure was already strong. Nakedness I didn’t care about, but half-nakedness was horrifying. Even though I was born and raised under a merciless Caribbean sun, you would never have seen me without a shirt, no matter how hot the day was. I wouldn’t let it happen.
I was raised in parallel with a sister one year younger, and we often bathed and slept together. Our mother used to get angry when she changed our clothes because I would always hurry to cover myself with something while my little sister, the one who was supposed—or at least allowed—to guard her chest against all eyes, couldn’t care less. We also had an older brother who happily conformed to the hot-weather standards of barechestedness, and he kept insisting I let the subject drop. Every boy in my neighborhood played shirtless in the street. But I couldn’t. My 6-year-old self was mystified by what back then appeared to me as the female privilege of modesty.
Without noticing, I was slowly building up a sense of discomfort about my body that colored my childhood experiences. For all I liked Astro Boy, I found his shirtlessness deeply disturbing. Ditto for Tarzan. The 1980s He-Man was on the edge of acceptability. I empathized the most with Clark Kent, who had an understandable excuse to keep his shirt closed at any cost.
All through my stubbornness, my parents kept asking: What was the big deal? Why couldn’t I accept the occasional moment of exposure? Why had I fixed my daily routines so that I always put on my shirt before my underwear, and took off my underwear before my shirt, even when alone?
To me the big deal was, in part, the father I happened to have. I was born when he was 41, and by the time I had use of reason, his body was already in less than ideal shape. It worried me that I would grow up to resemble him. One of my most vivid memories from those times was, every time I watched him yell at my mother or at us (or every time my brother bullied me for any reason—there were many), I was thinking, If this is what it means to be a man, I don’t want it. I even experimented with female pronouns for myself—and that was quickly beat out of me.
I figured that letting people see your upper half was a way of signaling, I’m a male, and I behave like one. But I didn’t want to behave like the men I knew. Some part of my mind had the vague intuition that I would need to build a different identity for myself (yet I used to fantasize about dressing up as He-Man and relish the ambiguity of his half-exposure).
One important part of these worries was, of course, about nipples. To a small boy, nipples are one of the most strange and fascinating body parts. Their presence at the front of my body felt like carrying a neon sign that said, Check this. I don’t think I actually believed it caused that effect on people, but the assumption had already nested in my head, and fired back when I started noticing my classmates’ bodies and found my eyes drawn toward the pretty bull’s-eyes painted on their chests.
During puberty I made two shocking discoveries. One, my foreskin could now retract (I still wonder why my father didn’t bother telling me that would happen). Two, my nipples could give me celestial pleasure. That gave me another reason to cover my chest. I couldn’t walk around like all men did, pretending their second-favorite erogenous zones weren’t visible (and readily accessible). Letting the world see such a delicate, sensitive part of myself made me feel vulnerable. Only much later, in the company of the closest of friends, did I feel uninhibited enough not to care.
Meanwhile, school was no help. If being at an all-boy Catholic school is bad enough when you’re afraid anyone might notice you’re attracted to men, having a PE teacher who can’t conceive anyone would object to shirts versus skins is emotional torture. Fortunately, I only had to do it once, and I pretended to be cleaning my glasses during the entire game. For the most part, I stayed away from sports, focusing only on volleyball because it didn’t require the humiliation of letting my body be seen by everyone I liked and didn’t like.
It’s not that I was particularly unseemly; there were boys much fatter and much thinner who freely displayed their sweaty wares for public view. But as I grew up I noticed that some of them were becoming fitter, more pleasant to look at, so on top of my already uneasy relationship with my body fell the dreadful feeling of unattractiveness.
For years it didn’t occur to me that other people wouldn’t necessarily look at me with the same disgust I caused myself. At age 14, I was too preoccupied with how unmuscled, unworked, unhairy, unsexy I was. My father believed I would grow up to be broad-shouldered, but he wasn’t taking into account how short I was destined to be. In a couple more years, many of my friends were already growing glorious chest hair while I struggled to make peace with the ticket I’d got in the gene lottery. More than having little muscle, having little chest hair made me feel absolutely miserable. I can only guess, but women who grew up wishing for larger breasts might relate to those years of anguish. Whatever little hair I did grow, I dared not show through an open shirt; I had seen my father’s permanent V-shaped sunburn. However, I did risk some swimming trips with friends I trusted wouldn’t mind my less-than-appealing flesh. They all had their significant others to obsess about.
Around that time, my dentist—a woman—noticed my gums covered a bit too much of my teeth, and said it could be a sign of delayed puberty. I didn’t know what to answer. Girls remember the year of their first menstruation; boys can refer to… what? Beard and adult voice are gradual; I never noticed when they happened. I’d had my first pubic hairs at 9, erections at 10, ejaculations at 12, and only noticed my first pathetic chest hairs at 17. None of those I felt comfortable telling her about. I could only think, Oh, great. A late bloomer. What an inconvenient timing for nature to play romantic games with me.
My brother avidly joined a short-lived fad of sleeveless shirts at my hometown. I preferred to stay away from anything that would draw more attention to my chest. Even wearing a white T-shirt under a fully open shirt felt like shameless exhibitionism.
Since I moved in with two male friends, I’ve tried to force myself to adopt a more relaxed attitude toward shirtlessness at home (and my roommate’s complaint that I’m a hairy beast best kept in a cage is an unintended and very welcome compliment). Now I’m 30. Apart from a brief, frustrating month during college, I haven’t set foot on a gym. Now it’s my belly that causes me to be afraid to show my torso. I’m not really overweight, not by the most unbiased medical standards; it’s just that I still feel guilty for not having sculpted this body into something I could be prouder of.
It has been complicated to try to reconcile myself with the body I unfairly hated so much while it was still an unfinished work. I still don’t change clothes in front of my brother, but when alone I no longer mind transitional shirtlessness while getting dressed or undressed. The morning after I lost my virginity with a man I had just met the previous day, I bravely put on my pants first, with him watching.
And sometimes, when it’s an unbearably hot night, I’ve gone back to sleeping naked—or, if I’m feeling adventurous (and certain that the gas stove is off), half-naked.
—Photo Male Gringo/Flickr