When Walls are Paper Thin examines how the perception of ones body image can change as a result of the words spoken by others and explores the concept of body positivity as it relates to the author’s experience
It is no secret upon meeting me that I am someone who’s struggled with their weight. Just one look at my gangly limbs and gaunt face and you’d think “Man, this kid must not eat very much.” Since the first day of high school, I hit a sudden growth spurt where with each inch I gained in height I lost in body mass. By college, I was already over 6 foot and clocked in at the well-below average 135 pounds. So on the day I returned home from school to visit the doctor about a nasty bout of mono, my foundation shook as I heard the news: not only was I still growing at the age of 20 but this newest growth spurt would probably last until I turned 24. I cried in silence on the drive home as I pictured my face superimposed on some slenderman-like figure.
Like my wish-turned-curse growth spurt, I began to find other aspects of my life becoming delayed as well. It wasn’t until late 2016 when I decided to come out to the world as a gay man, revealing the secret I had shamefully harbored since I first watched Hercules in my aunt’s basement at the tender age of 7. Yet as liberating as that experience was for me, I now found myself at odds with the world and culture I had suddenly become a part of as an out, gay man. With muscled, meaty arms and chests that looked as though they’d been carved by angels, the bodies of the boys I began to talk to seemed as achievable to me as those of the celebrities I often compared myself to.
How could I, a 6’2” 142 pound giant, ever hope to relate to these Adonis-like men I suddenly found myself being compared to on Tinder? What could I have to offer that some muscle-shouldered Mikey could not? As I tried to explore the new avenues that began to open before me, I also found myself holding back, afraid to expose myself and my body to the eyes of those who judge it, just as I had been doing my entire life. This phantom-thinking followed me wherever I went, having no respect for borders as I flew to Wales to study abroad my senior year. Even then, as I attempted to rationalize another year of refusing to date, each reason I produce sounded thin and hollow.
But my fighting proved useless when I met a blond, English boy in a coffee shop one rainy afternoon. He was like something I had never experienced; he embraced his body for what it was, carrying his weight (both physically and metaphorically) with a cheery, positive regard. His eyes, so unlike my own, saw beauty in his reflection and it shone through the way he spoke of both himself and me. Suddenly, I found I no longer cringed when I looked in the mirror and my eyes, which had so often quickly glanced away, began to linger in the greenish tinge of my eyes and the softness of my jaw. They had grown softer in their search for beauty and found it in places I had never thought to look.
I was (and am) by no means cured. The damage that years of a negative self-dialogue can do cannot be undone in a single night by a single boy. So that night, in a small bedroom in a flat in Wales, I stood with my arms crossed, refusing to take off my shirt. “Turn the lights off,” I kept saying. “I don’t want you to see me.” But the lights stayed on, as he slowly peeled off his sweater and then his own shirt. “I’m not exactly a body builder myself,” he said, cheerfully gesturing to his torso. “It’s alright.” Then, in a moment of courage I had never experienced, I found myself standing shirtless, with my arms crossed, silently daring him to make a comment. But in my moment of complete vulnerability, he uttered only two words: You’re beautiful.
It was the first time I had ever heard it. He didn’t point out the way my skin stretched over the cage of bones like hide on a drum. The unnatural thinness of my pool-noodle arms did not catch his attention. I heard no suggestion to eat a couple hamburgers nor a well-intentioned comment about his concern for my health. In a moment where the walls I had worked so hard to put up had grown suddenly thin, they fell away to nothing with the utterance of two simple words.
As I reach the age where my dreaded curse will finally end, I take a moment to reflect on the life I could have led. I imagine the countless pool parties I could have enjoyed with my friends and the dates I could have gone on, if only I had believed then in the validity of those two words. It wasn’t until I stood there, ribs poking out through a sheet of pale skin, that I realized I could see myself through the eyes of another. “You’re beautiful” are the words I hear now each time I look into the mirror to watch the face that stares back. “You’re beautiful” are the words I repeat when a boy gives me reasons not to believe them or when I get stood up on a date. We all have the power to change our internal dialogue but only if we allow our eyes to see the beauty within ourselves. So for anyone experiencing problems like this, in being overweight or underweight or believing your beauty has left you, remember those words. You’re beautiful.